Back in December, it was announced that Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre (8204 Highway 100, Bellevue, TN) had sold to area businesswoman Norma Luther, following second-generation owners John and Janie Chaffin’s decision to retire and sell the family business. Founded in 1967 and looking forward to a revitalization, Chaffin’s first production since the changeover is Neil Simon’s mid-60s classic, “The Odd Couple”, on stage through Sunday, February 12. Martha Wilkinson, whose longtime association both on-stage and behind the scenes at Chaffin’s made her the perfect choice for the theatre company’s new Artistic Director, is at the helm of this transitional production as she takes on directorial duties for “The Odd Couple”. Considering it shares a similar timeline to The Barn’s creation and initial years of development–“The Odd Couple” having debuted on Broadway in 1965, in film in 1968 and as a TV series in 1970–it’s appropriate that it be the first show for this next phase for Chaffin’s as Wilkinson and company usher Chaffin’s into its bright new future while paying perfect homage to modern classic theatre pieces that have always been the backbone of a night at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre.
While I myself missed “The Odd Couple”‘s heyday by a few years, I grew up watching reruns of the Tony Randall/Jack Klugman TV series as well as subsequent incarnations including the mid-70s Saturday morning cartoon version, “The Oddball Couple”. Yes, there was an animated version in which unlikely pals Oscar and Felix were now a neatnick cat named Spiffy and a lackadaisical dog named Fleabag. Then there was an early 80s redo, “The New Odd Couple” in which Felix and Oscar were portrayed by African-American actors Ron Glass and Demond Wilson. The mid-80s saw yet another reinterpretation as “The Female Odd Couple” debuted on Broadway starring Sally Struthers and Rita Moreno. Of course there’s the current CBS sitcom starring Matthew Perry and Thomas Lennon, but let’s face it, it’s got about as much to do with the original as that other stalwart CBS series, “Two Broke Girls”, but I digress.
Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre has, as the name implies, always featured a full buffet dinner and show option since the get go. While there have always been an abundance to choices at the buffet line, one look at their Facebook page would indicate that the food was always the biggest complaint amongst patrons. I’m more than happy to report that thanks to operations manager Donnie Hall and his newly hired kitchen staff, it won’t be long now before the food receives as many rave reviews as the shows themselves. Not only is the buffet now revitalized with food-porn-worthy beautifully prepared, obviously fresh and invitingly presented options, but it tastes simply delicious. Fans of such favorites as four meat options, five if you count both the rare and well-done roast beef will delight in delectable dilemma of what to fit on your plate. Favorite veggie options like whole colonel corn are still presented alongs my personal new favorite, twice-baked potatoes. While I could go on and on about the improvements to the ‘dinner’ side of Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre, I”ll move on to the ‘theatre’ aspect.
A familiar face to The Barn’s patrons, having appeared in their productions of “Route 66”, “All Shook Up”, “Cliffhanger and my personal favorite, “A Gentleman and a Scoundrel”, to name but a few, Steven Kraski makes his triumphant return to The Barn’s stage as Oscar Madison after last year’s side-splitting turn as Frederick in Nashville Repertory Theatre’s “Noises Off”. Under the direction of Wilkinson, Kraski’s Oscar’s gruff exterior is in full effect, but there’s a surprisingly fleshed-out softer side to Oscar. This is perfectly played in scenes in which Oscar reacts to his kids and ex-wife via one-sided phone conversations and when he shows genuine compassion and a bit of bestie bromance heartfelt concern for troubled Felix Ungar.
In the role of Oscar’s better half, no not his unseen wife, but rather his roomy, Felix Ungar is Brett Cantrell. Like his co-star, Cantrell has also become a regular player at Chaffin’s with roles in shows like “Funny Valentine”, “Playing Doctor”, “Arsenic & Old Lace” and others. Also like his co-star, Cantrell ,ay be recognized for his work with Nashville Rep, having recently appeared as Schwartz in December’s annual mounting of “A Christmas Story”. Again, under the watchful eye of director Wilkinson, Cantrell turns in as quirky and nuanced a portrayal of Felix as I ever remember seeing. He’s not just a neat-freak, he’s truly troubled. Again, with my own remembrances of the work skipping the original stage play, I somehow was mostly oblivious to the inclusion of the show’s more serious subject matter including depression, thoughts of suicide and what we would now categorize as OCD.
Don’t get me wrong, the show itself finds a wonderful balance of humor, heart, the reality of failure and hope of friends starting anew, thanks to Simon’s unparalleled storytelling skills. Wilkinson presents a thoughtful look at two mismatched friends who suddenly find themselves single again. Coming to Wilkinson’s aide in perfectly showcasing this slice-of-1960s-life are set and costume designer Lydia Bushfield, prop mistress Joy Tilley-Perryman and sound designer Bradley Moore. Together, this team offers up every groovy aspect of the sights, sounds, fashions and home-life of our bachelor buddies. Everything, and I mean from the wall-to-wall carpet and the autumn-hewed furniture to the unnaturally blended fabrics of the suits and sportcoats to the incidental era-perfect earworms that serve as incidental music between scenes…everything lends to the illusion that the audience is privy to the private, but often hilarious goings on inside the bachelor apartment at 1049 Park Avenue.
Of course you can’t have an “Odd Couple” without a couple of odd supporting players. To that end, WIlkinson has assembled a truly sitcom worthy cast of characters. As has always been the case, within the confines of the play, Oscar frequently hosts poker night for his pals. Showing up ’round the table on stage at Chaffin’s are John Mauldin, Daniel Bissell, Shawn Whitsell and Everett Tarlton.
Mauldin takes on the role of Murray, a surprisingly soft-hearted NYC police officer. Mauldin’s Murray is frequently the literal and figurative peace-maker of the bunch. Similar in stature to “Mike and Molly” sitcom star, Billy Gardell, whose character was also a cop, Mauldin’s Murray proves to be a big softie during some of the show’s more serious moments, while simultaneously giving some of the best reaction faces of the bunch during the show’s biggest laughs.
Bissell’s Vinnie is perfectly, nebbishy hen-pecked. While the rest of the poker crew present themselves as men’s men, Bissell’s Vinnie seems to just wanna be one of the guys. Some of his funnier moments come when he’s complimenting Felix on the sandwiches. It’s a kind gesture, just not the kind of gesture you make at a poker game. I don’t know if he’s ever played Felix in a production of “The Odd Couple”, but he certainly could.
Whitsell approaches Roy, Oscar accountant, with a wonderfully funny and decidedly New York way of speaking. He’s well-spoken, yes, but there’s something in his delivery that gives you the sense that he grew up in one of the The Bronx. Concerned more with the heat in the apartment than the state of his friend’s oft-fragile lives, Whitsell’s Roy is constantly fanning himself and wiping his brow, a nice touch that keeps the audience’s eye coming back to him, even when he’s not the primary focus of the action.
Then there’s Tarlton as Speed, the group’s self-assured, self-proclaimed lothario. Gottta love that the character’s name is Speed, yet Tarlton plays him as a bit of a mouth-breathing meathead. Throughout the play, Tarlton, perhaps more than any of the other poker buddies, commits to the character, taking firm hold of some of the funniest manifestations of the stereotypical self-consumed dumb jocks I’ve ever seen. From the way he holds his mouth open, licks at the inside of his mouth as though he’s fishing around for a loose bit of tobacco from an unfiltered cigarette to the occasional blank stare that he seemingly wakes himself out of with a blink and a bit of a jerk of his head, I found myself wondering what an entire show built around Tarleton’s Speed might entail.
Rounding out the cast are Melissa Silengo and Corrine Bupp as Gwendolyn and Cecily, the Pigeon Sisters, two eligible and seemingly willing bachelorettes from the apartment above. Breathing a much-needed bit of femininity into the mix, dressed to sheer shagadelllic sixties perfection, Silengo and Bupp are the perfect distraction for Felix, Oscar and the boys. The interaction between Silengo, Bupp, Kraski and Cantrell is sheer delight in the sexiest sixties-est way imaginable. Appropriate tot he time period, running full-force right up to that sexually liberated love line, but modestly stopping just shy.
Of course, as noted previously, it’s the bromance of Felix and Oscar that’s featured here and feature it well they do. In all the incarnations of this show, and the handful of stage productions I’ve seen over the years, I can truly say that Kraski and Cantrell capture the spirit of Simon’s unlikely duo, honoring it’s mid-century genesis and thanks to Wilkinson and company’s influence, make it as relevant for today’s audience, or perhaps more so, than when it first appeared.
Similarly, Wilkinson and Donnie Hall, the company’s new Director of Operations, seamless meld everything that has been great about The Barn since its inception, with changes and improvements that are certain to insure continued success and grown for Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre for #Next50Years, which has become the company’s preferred hashtag and motto.
“The Odd Couple” continues it’s reinvigorating run at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre with performances through Sunday, February 12. Thursdays feature an afternoon performances with “Brown Bag” option of $19 for the show if you bring your own lunch, or $2750 for a provided box lunch. Evening performances are Thursday-Saturday (doors at 6 p.m with buffet served from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and showtime at 8). Dinner and show tickets are $60 for Adults, $40 for ages 13-18 and $30 for children 5-12. Show only tickets are $40 for adults and $30 for ages 5-12. To purchase tickets, call 615.646.9977 or 1.800.282.2276 and speak with Sharon. Inquiries may also be made via email at email@example.com.
Next up at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre is “Seeing Stars in Dixie”, a hilarious story of what happens when Hollywood descends upon the decidedly southern, but equally star-struck citizens of 1956 Natchez, Mississippi to film the Elizabeth Taylor/Montgomery Clift/Eva Marie Saint melodrama, “Raintree County”. Starring Lynda Cameron-Bayer, Scott Stewart, Joy Tilley Perryman, Joy Todd and Jenny Norris Light, the show officially runs February 16-March 19, but there’s a special preview performance on February 14 included with Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre’s Valentine’s Day event. Tickets are $150 per couple for a shared table, or $180 per couple for a more intimate table for two. Pricing includes an exclusive early performance of “Seeing Stars in Dixie”, hors d’oeuvres, full buffet dinner, a complimentary bottle of champagne, souvenir glasses, a rose for the ladies and drawings for door-prizes throughout the evening. Contact the box office at the phone and email above for tickets or more information. To keep up with all the new and exciting changes and everything happening at Nashville’s oldest continuing dinner theatre, Click Here to visit Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre’s all-new website at www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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