As Taste for Sushi Spreads, Dinner Theatre Goes Kabuki

QUAD CITIES, Iowa.  Sally and Jed Griffin like to think of themselves as cosmopolitan, even though they’ve spent most of their lives in the Midwest.  “We lived in New York for a few years when Jed was just out of business school, so our tastes go beyond NASCAR and barbecue,” Sally says with a tone that lets you know she considers these staples of the local cultural landscape a bit declasse.

“This here fish is kinda rare–could you throw it back on the grill for a few minutes?”

One sign of their worldly outlook is their taste for sushi, the Japanese cuisine that combines rice and seafood, usually uncooked, which is popular on the East and West coasts but not common in so-called “flyover” country.  “It helps keep you slim,” says Sally.  “You never see a fat Japanese person except sumo wrestlers, and I don’t know what their deal is.”

Sumo wrestler:  “I’m going to have the buffet–can you wrap it up to go?”

The Griffins also developed a taste for Broadway shows during their time in New York, and have been pleased to find the Quad Cities area’s many top-flite dinner theatres are responding to the increasing sophistication of their audiences with a new twist on an old format–kabuki versions of Broadway classics for their sushi-scarfing clientele.


“There’s really been a revolution in the type of shows our patrons want to see,” says Myles Ross, owner of Melody Makers Dinner Theatre here.  “Nobody wants to drive into Kansas City to hear ‘Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City’ any more,” he notes, referring to a number from “Oklahoma!”  So Ross decided to try a kabuki version of the long-running Rogers & Hammerstein hit, dubbed “Okrahoma!” to distinguish it from competing shows by summer stock companies in the region–and avoid hefty performance licensing fees.

Former high school Drama Club President, Ottumwa, Iowa

Kabuki, a form of traditional Japanese theatre known for a stylized dramatic technique and the elaborate make-up worn by its performers, has historically been a tough sell on the dinner-theatre circuit, according to Ross.  “Traditional kabuki involves a day-long performance, and people just don’t have time for that today,” he notes.  “Plus, I lose money because people sit there and expect unlimited free refills of coffee.”

So Ross came up with the idea of abbreviated versions of Broadway classics highlighting songs that have entered the American canon such as “Maria” by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim from “West Side Story.”  “I tell you, when Tony sings ‘Malia’ there’s not a dry eye in the house,” he claims.

Bonsai:  No leaf blower required.

And so the Griffins and couples like them can enjoy an evening of international food and music not far from the plains where “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” as Hammerstein put it in “Oh! What a Beautiful Morning,” another chestnut from “Oklahoma!” that has been scaled down for the shorter attention spans of dinner theatre goers.  “Instead of Curly singing ‘The breeze is so busy it don’t miss a tree’ and an ol’ weepin’ willer is laughin’ at me’, we changed it to ‘There’s a whole lot of sky when your trees are bonsai, in the fall all it takes, is one very small rake.”

Sake to me.

After a few glasses of sake (rice wine), Sally is sufficiently giddy to try her skill at an improptu haiku, the three-line Japanese poetic form, to express her feelings about her Eastern night out in the Midwest.

All around-cowboys.
Not for me.  My thoughts range far
Away from pork rinds.

Share this Post: