You can combine dinner with a movie all in one spot at Cinebarre, but dinner with a theater performance? Until recently, the only place that was possible was at North Charleston's dinner theater events, which run just a few times a year. But now that's changed. The husband and wife team of Duvall Catering's Steve Wenger and Midtown Productions' Sheri Grace Wenger have opened up Midtown Cabaret, a dinner theater that will run a regular schedule of performances year-round.
For Sheri, the play has always been the thing. As a child, she wrote skits for herself and neighborhood children, and lobbied the parents with the biggest living rooms for performance space. She briefly studied psychology in college, but the stage's lure proved far too powerful. The acting bug runs in the family. Son Ryan Ahlert, now grown, is an actor, director, and co-owner of the Charleston Acting Studio with his mother.
Sheri met her husband Steve at the former Colony House Restaurant in 1989. He was managing the kitchen, while she was creating the show A...My Name is Alice. After 25 years and six theaters, Steve says, "We do very different things that complement each other well. Some of the principles of theater that I have learned from Sheri make me better at producing events."
Midtown Cabaret came about when they discovered that Duvall's neighboring space, a former lumber warehouse, had excellent acoustics. With a little elbow grease, it had tremendous potential as a performance hall. Suddenly it all clicked: Duvall and Midtown could offer guests an irresistible package — a freshly prepared, healthy three-course dinner combined with a high-profile show teeming with local talent.
It took six months to refurbish the space: the couple had to lay down carpet, wire the room for lighting and a soundbooth, and coat the walls in black paint. Sheri credits longtime friends Mike Kordek of Threshold Repertory and set designer Richard Hefner, whom she's known since her Footlight days, for their help getting Midtown Cabaret up and running.
The theater features a three-foot high stage and seats up to 180 showgoers. The dining seating is closest to the stage, and the pub seating is behind it at two long tables. No matter what style showgoers choose, there's a full view of the stage from any seat in the house.
This month, the Cabaret debuted with Stephen Schwartz's hit musical Pippin. A play within a play, Pippin fits a cabaret environment like a glove. Pippin's Leading Player is a seductive, confrontational ringmaster/emcee who regularly steals the show and shatters the fourth wall. Pippin, the hero, is a prince who seeks an extraordinary life and struggles to find it in any of his pursuits. To visually reference the clash of the dreams of youth with the realities of adulthood, many of Schwartz' characters are dressed anachronistically as clowns, acrobats, medieval court performers, peasants, and royalty. To match the show's old-Europe feel, Duvall offers three dinner options: a roasted pork shoulder with garlic jus and a spinach and tomato grit cake; seared local catch with pancetta and succotash; and a vegetable pot pie with melted leeks, artichoke hearts, and kalamata olives. Dinner starts with a Roman egg drop soup and grilled caesar salad, and dessert is an almond bread pudding topped with salted caramel sauce.
Sheri says future Cabaret productions they would like to tackle include Buddy (a Buddy Holly musical), Always...Patsy Cline, and her original show Rock n' Roll Heaven, which stars late musicians from the 1960s to the present — legends like Jim Morrison, Elvis, Freddie Mercury, and Michael Jackson.
Last year, Midtown received 11 Theater Charleston awards, including Best Musical, Best Actress in A Musical, and Best Director of a Musical. City Paper readers also nominated the company for two BOC Awards, Best Spoleto or Piccolo Musical and Best Non-Spoleto or Piccolo Play.
As Sheri reflects on her and Steve's careers, they mirror the fearlessness of Pippin's aerialists and acrobats. She says, "At this point, we're kind of known for pulling off crazy feats."