C.J. doesn’t know if she can keep the restaurant started by her great-grandfather afloat despite encouragement from her papa. All but $6 of every $100 she takes in goes out the door in expenses.
Her staff calls in sick, demands raises or are otherwise biding their time before Broadway beckons them. As for the customers, well, there’s just no pleasing them.
And on top of all that, the salt, the pepper, the dish, the spoon, the wine, the cheese, the pots, the pans all come to life in the middle of the night when no humans are around. C.J. just wants to throw up her hands and walk away.
And so it goes in John Burstein’s musical “The Night Kitchen,” being performed this week in Portland. It is a charming and zesty delight of a show that is witty and funny without seeming silly or overly sentimental.
In songs that range from romantic (“If I Had a Garden”) to comic (“More Than Frying”) to explanatory (“What You Keep”), Brustein engages the audience with the trials and tribulations faced by restaurant owners.
The Act One showstopper, “A Menu is a Contract,” puts an unusual legal twist on dining out. The final revelation that in the restaurant business “It’s All About the Food” is a satisfying epiphany that allows CJ to reignite her passion for cooking and the audience to reward her for it with well-earned applause.
“The Night Kitchen” began in 2015 as a musical revue called the “After Hours Kitchen Cabaret.” Much of that revue remains in the top half of the Second Act. Actors dressed as bacon, gluten and a peanut wonder how they came to be the foodas non grata on menus everywhere in “What’s the Deal?”, while a couple dressed as Salt and Pepper are “Making Whoopie.”
Lincolnville resident Brustein, best known for his work in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Slim Goodbody, not only wrote the show but also directed it and portrays Papa, the restaurant’s patriarch. He leads a fine cast of Portland-area and New York actors that give heart and soul to people, kitchen utensils and food stuffs.
Meghan O’Brien gives a multi-layered performance as the harried CJ. Ian Doran and Lauren Scheibly give depth to the mismatched but star-crossed Angelo, the dishwasher, and Jessica, the budding actress. Mark Bedell, as the arrogant customer who threatens to sue, is deliciously devilish in the role. The rest of the cast is equally wonderful.
The true stars of “The Night Kitchen” are costume designer Elaine Bielenberg and set designer John Beilenberg, a Belfast-based husband and wife team. The food and utensil costumes are unforgettable because they are so imaginative. The restaurant set with the open kitchen is warm, inviting and workable. Tom Sadowski’s lighting design ably complements both.
Brustein’s work began as a fundraiser for a midcoast Meals on Wheels program. All of the profits from the Portland run will be donated to Preble Street Food Programs, which serves 610,000 meals a year to people who are homeless or living in poverty.
Performances of “The Night Kitchen” may help feed some hungry people but Brustein has fleshed out his revue into a full-fledged musical comedy that feeds the heart and soul while celebrating the chefs, the servers, the dishwashers, the dishes and the spoons at every restaurant anywhere.
Brustein has not announced his future plans for “The Night Kitchen” but it is a top-notch show that is as well-written and performed as other small-cast musicals being performed by professional and community theater companies throughout the country. It deserves a life beyond Maine stages.
“The Night Kitchen” will be performed through Saturday at Portland Stage Company, 25 Forest Ave., Portland. For tickets, call 774-0465 or visit http://www.portlandstage.org/calendar/ to purchase general admission tickets at $35 each. All proceeds will be donated to the Preble Street food programs in Portland.