The Dinner Detective (4 stars)
The Dinner Detective, Executive Producers Kasey Learned and Allison Learned, Associate Producer Amy Schumacher, Host Ellen Kirk is an ongoing, all-year show at the Hotel Phillips.
In traditional dinner theatre, you eat a meal and watch an act on stage. A murder mystery dinner theatre goes even further. The small ballroom in the Hotel Phillips has no stage and the actors perform among the audience. The show is played for comedy, not drama, and the cast are improvisational comedians who engage with the audience, the most notable of whom are the two police officers and the evening’s host. Although murder mystery theatre is an established genre — Kansas City has three of them — The Dinner Detective takes the concept to an even higher level. Their gimmick is to have their actors blend with the audience. Actors sit with you at the circular tables in a room that seats 75, pretending that they are just guests. To preserve the mystery, the cast are not named in the program, and I won’t name any of them here. Imagine your surprise when you discover that the person you’ve been sitting next to all evening is part of the cast and possibly the murderer. Or perhaps you’ll be sharp enough to figure it out in advance!
It’s a delightful combination. I do enjoy traditional theatre, but one does get tired of sitting still in the dark, especially if the chairs are uncomfortable, and ignoring my friends. It’s a bit like being alone. With improvisational dinner theatre, you can chat with your friends and the others at your table all evening, through the show, and even stand up and visit other tables. Chatting with strangers actually is the show, as you grill them for clues and theories for whodunnit. The show takes place over nearly 3 hours in a ballroom of the elegant Hotel Phillips, whose lobby makes quite an impression when you stroll in. The show comes with an unexceptional dinner, limited to chicken, fish, and vegetarian options. The dessert however, a chocolate cake, was visually well presented and delicious, powerful but not too rich to enjoy to the final bite.
Before I say something negative, I want to underscore that any evening with your friends interacting with the audience and trying to solve a murder is great fun, and The Dinner Detective wholeheartedly deserves the 4-stars that I give it here. It’s a shame that it could have been so much more, though. Having actors hide in the crowd is a clever trick that gives The Dinner Detective an angle, and makes it stand out from other murder mystery shows, but it is only a good concept in theory. In practice, the show’s ‘asset’ was a structural failure with a domino affect that dragged the show down from what should have been a higher level.
Let’s count the ways. First, having your actors behave like ordinary people is… ordinary. They dress ordinary and they act ordinary. To be frank, I can get that at home. For example, in one part of the show, a cast member could have broken into a fun musical number, but it was ruined to keep the unnecessary pretense that the performer was “just one of the audience”.
Second, “show, don’t tell” is the hallmark of any production. Seeing the conflict played out creates tension and engages the audience. In the Dinner Detective, the only overt actors are the two policemen, who handed us clues on sheets of paper. I would have preferred to take clues from the dialogue of scenes being played out before us. Third, being the only two overt actors, the policemen were forced to work the entire room at once with raised voices, rather than giving each table individual attention. Fourth, if the other actors had been overt, they could have entertained each table they sat at, encouraged shy people to take part, and helped clueless groups get a clue, literally!
Fifth, I was one of the few who stood up and walked from table to table, trying to meet everyone and ask them questions. The hidden actors were so intent on staying “one of the audience” that they forgot to give me hints when I tried to connect them to elements of the plot. Asking someone a direct question, even if their character is being evasive, should lead to some kind of encouragement. This made the murder mystery too challenging.
The actors did an acceptable job, but fresh ideas were lacking in the script and improvisational comedy. The crowd work was amusing but not laugh-out-loud funny. The thing where you embarrass a beautiful woman in the audience by sending her an anonymous package (no connection to the story), and she opens it to discover a brassiere: it’s been done. The audience member sitting next to me called it before the box was opened. The call-and-response at one point between an actress and an audience member seemed taken from an old vaudeville act.
A second structural problem was the lack of theme. The Dinner Detective asks attendees to dress up, so that everyone looks themed for an elegant evening of murder. We could have been told, “Just like Agatha Christie novels, we’re pretending tonight that we’re seated in a 1920s British mansion, among the rich and famous.” Or we could have been told, “Welcome to the Academy Awards! We’re going to pretend to be in Hollywood for an evening, seated among movie celebrities!” These would have given us context to know what was going on. Instead we were simply seated, told to speak with each other, and try to guess which of us were cast members planted in the crowd. The Dinner Detective had no scenery, no staging, almost no props, and it was only later that we learned that the murder took place amongst Hollywood filmmakers. The actors (with one exception I should not name, but you know who you are) did not perform in a thematic style to the movies. They could have “hammed it up for the camera” with the brazenness, glamour, false modesty, and competitive nastiness that would have set a “movie actor” mood. They didn’t.
Another example of lack of context was the murder itself. The entire evening sits on the shoulders of the horror of this murder, but the murder occurs in the first few minutes to a victim the audience was not introduced to, so we didn’t care about her. To simulate a knife wound, an actor is normally given an undergarment from which a fake knife juts out. Instead, the victim had to hold her ‘knife’ in place with her hand, making the knife and wound hard to see. Her wound was at waist level, also making it hard to view from the height of the seated audience. These problems should be easy to spot and fix, which reveals insufficient local creative direction. The Dinner Detective has a centralized structure, the show being delegated to groups around the country, which is most likely the cause of this.
Anchorless, we in the audience had little to grab onto. A mystery theatre should intrigue us, make us want to hunt, and the show just did not. This surprised me because The Dinner Detective is better advertised and organized — even forbidding children under 15 to attend and taking place in a fancy hotel — than the more modest Mystery Train, which I reviewed last week. Unfortunately, a murder mystery is a game plus a theatre show, and in both dimensions, the Mystery Train is a better show than the better attended and more commercially successful Dinner Detective.
Speaking of the game, by which I mean the race to solve the mystery, here is a debatable point. We were able to connect most of clues, but not the final few. The mystery was too difficult, and only a handful of the 60 guests solved it. At the start of the show, our host announced a big prize for one winner. This is another idea that works better in theory than practice, because it heightens the sense of losing that those who don’t solve the murder feel. At my table of eight, four groups of two, the sense of competition dampened the social interaction, each couple keeping their clues and theories to themselves. Perhaps an entire table could win the award, creating a social lubricant, and giving an incentive for those with clues to bring along those feeling lost.
I encourage traditional theatre to not be so dense with nuance that it becomes confusing to the audience, inaccessible. (I’m talking to you, Tom Stoppard.) In the same way, I encourage the Dinner Detective to shed some of its artistic desire to be impossibly challenging. Go ahead and pander to the audience. Simplify and shorten your clues, and make the mystery solvable by half of your attendees. What’s the harm in making everyone feel like a winner? When you dumb something down a bit, you fear that the audience will say, “That wasn’t enjoyable because it wasn’t tough enough,” but what actually happens — human nature — is that those who immediately ‘get it’ feel proud of themselves, not bored, and those who would otherwise feel left out now feel part of the win. Go ahead and give our awards like ‘most creative’ and ‘most suspicious’ to audience members, with no prize needed: a printed certificate will do.
After the show, I was able to speak with Ellen Kirk, who played host for the evening.
Events INSIDER: How would you describe the show to someone who has never heard of improvisational dinner theatre?
Ellen Kirk: I would say that this is an interactive dinner mystery, where everyone is a suspect. The audience becomes as much a part of the show as the actors do, and we relish what the audience gives us… The gold that comes is always from the people in the room who came to have a great time… We want to give them the experience that they’ve created the show with us.
Events INSIDER: Your production is perfect for large groups. Have you got a wacky story about a bachelorette night or other notable party attending?
Ellen Kirk: We did just have a cool group two weeks ago, it was a young girl’s 25-year birthday party. They all came decked out in Great Gatbsy costumes, 1920s style, so they just looked like they were part of the hotel: elegant and decadent. That fed into the whodunnit quality, because everyone was looking towards them!
I am sorry to have been negative, but with a price of $72 including gratuity, The Dinner Detective has positioned itself at the top, and should live up to that promise. The Dinner Detective calls itself America’s largest dinner theatre, by which they mean most successful, with shows in 32 cities across the country… but I did notice that the Murder Mystery Company, which I reviewed this week, is franchised to 34 cities, with a larger attendance locally.
Despite my meddling and troublemaking comments, I had a good time and recommend heartily that you try The Dinner Detective. It’s a unique and delightful experience well suited to large groups of extroverts, for example celebrating someone’s birthday or engagement. They have three variants of their show to amuse return guests. I give The Dinner Detective a compelling 4 stars out of 5 and don’t doubt that they will work out their kinks, if their central office permits them to. I’ve reviewed two local competitors. The Dinner Detective far surpassed The Murder Mystery Company (2.5 stars), but weren’t quite as good as local competitor Mystery Train (5 stars).
See more at www.TheDinnerDetective.com.