HOUSTON – Since 1977, The Great Caruso, a supper club, has literally regaled Houstonians. The entertainment took place while patrons were dining at what the Zagat Guide once called one of the city's ten most beautiful restaurants. Singing waiters belted out show tunes and area musicians riffed a little jazz, all while forks were tinkling the flatware and tongues were wagging the ear.
But no more. Or, actually, a lot more.
After twenty years, The Great Caruso is becoming a legitimate dinner theater. The debut show is Dan Goggin's zany musical comedy Nunsense, at 10 years the second-longest running play in Off-Broadway history. The "blasphemy" previews May 13 and 14 and begins an open-ended run May 15. Per person, dinner and a show cost $27.95 Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and $4.95 Fridays and Saturdays. The schedule is eat first, then be entertained.
To Spero Criezis, the owner of The Great Caruso, dinner theater is an idea whose time has returned in Houston. For years, he said, many of his customers would lament the passing of the Windmill and Dean Goss Dinner Theaters, dropping him hints. Criezis pointed out that as of now there is not one "legitimate" dinner theater in the fourth largest city in America, besides murder-mystery joints that never change the fare.
Criezis explained: "It was time for us to do something new. There was a confusion about The Great Caruso over the past few years. Our customer base had turned over, died off, if you will, since they were frequently seniors. Some people thought we were opera. Some people thought we were simply an Italian restaurant. Some people thought we were expensive. Some people thought we were just singing waiters. With dinner theater we have an opportunity to fill a Houston void." Criezis, 58, emphasized that The Great Caruso, which can seat about 200, was successful in its earlier two-decade incarnation. "But not as successful as we'd like to be," he admitted. If for some reason the dinner theater, with seniors and families and groups as the main target base, doesn't reap the profits he hopes, Criezis said he'd return The Great Caruso to what it originally was: a musical revue establishment.
For now, in what Criezis calls "the throes of rebirth," The Great Caruso has no artistic director; Criezis is making all the decisions. "I want us to do the better stuff, maybe that you'd see at Stages [Repertory Theatre] or the Alley [Theatre]. I want to be careful that we do commercial work." To this end, he pointed out that three cast members from Nunsense are Equity performers, Susan Shofner, Holli Golden, and Colleen O'Kit, as is the veteran director, Beth Sanford.
Criezis extended the acting area a bit for the dinner theater, to accommodate a small orchestra pit, and if all goes well he might enlarge the stage more dramatically in the future by removing a few tables/rows of seats up front.
"I grew up in New York: I've always had a problem going to the theater in the sense of eating dinner beforehand is too early and eating after is too late," Criezis said. "With us, you can park and take care of dinner and a show all at once in one place."
Primarily The Great Caruso will put on musical comedies. "But," Criezis was careful to observe, "everything is open to us." What Criezis won't do is recycle what he called has-beens, citing as examples Mickey Rooney barnstorming about, or Jamie Farr making silly.
The Great Caruso inaugurates its dinner theater with Nunsense on May 13 in an open-ended run. For tickets for dinner and the show, $27.95 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, and $34.95 on Fridays and Saturdays, call (713) 780-4900
--By Peter Szatmary