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Famous People Players provides a Fabulous Performance

Photo: Famous People Players
Famous People Players provides a Fabulous Performance
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About the Author

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins

Tyler Collins is a thespian and performer who has worked with theatre, film, and TV across Ontario. He comes from Campbellton, NB, and has lived in North Oakville over 20 years. He is a graduate of Journalism and Performing Arts from Sheridan College. Twitter: @MrTyCollins

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The Famous People Players are an unusual theatre company in the Greater Toronto Area. It’s not just unusual because they wonderfully execute the lost joys of a well-executed dinner theatre. And it’s not just because of its unusual location because of their dominant use of puppetry.

Something else makes the Famous People Players so unusually exciting. For most of the show you’ve come to see, you don’t even see the actors performing in it. That’s the true magic of blacklight theatre.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the players (or FPP) before. They’ve been a Toronto institution since 1974, calling their current Dine and Dream Theatre in Etobicoke home since 2009. For 45 years they’ve been presenting blacklight puppetry revues featuring the works of other famous people (hence the name.)

Photo: Famous People Players

Photo: Famous People Players

They made a splash when they first premiered in the late 70s and early 80s. They spent a decade opening for Liberace in Las Vegas, played the Belasco Theatre on Broadway and toured the globe.

Even with having lived in the GTA more than 20 years, I’d never attended one of their performances before.

What was the theatre like? How is a typical dinner and show organized? And after so many years, how do the revues stand the test of time?

Last week I ventured to see what the magic was all about. I attended a performance of their brand new show A Rockin’ Good Time to experience the Famous People Players for myself.

The Venue

Upon your arrival at the theatre, you enter from Evans Avenue into what looks like an industrial park. There’s a large illuminated sign on the road, and soon after there’s a large red marquee welcoming you.

Photo: Tyler Collins

Photo: Tyler Collins

You’re welcomed inside by a complimentary coat check before moving a podium to check-in for the night. They’ll ask for the name on your reservation, and while they are often necessary, walk-ins can occasionally be accommodated for the night.

Along the walls and the main hallway there’s a small museum about the company and its history. You’re encouraged to get up throughout your visit to explore the hall and learn about the Famous People Players.

The main dining room is reminiscent of a Venetian carnival tent. Warm yellows, reds, and purples decorate the room from patterns on the backsplash to giant drapes over the ceiling. Even the tablecloths match the jovial diamond patterns.

Instead of one dedicated server, you’re taken care of by a large serving team. This includes everything from the food, the bar, the theatre staff and any purchases you choose to make.

The room is comfortable, spacious, and the volume is managed to a reasonable level that it’s sociable without being annoying. There’s no dress code, either – the room is refined but the clientele is casual.

Another detail you might notice is many staff have one or more disabilities. Some are noticeable, others are not. I didn’t know this before my visit, but employing a majority of the staff like this is more than just part of the company’s mandate – it’s part of what inspired the creation of the company in the very beginning.

The service itself is outstanding – it’s friendlier and more attentive than you’d find in most standalone restaurants. But how’s the food?

The Dinner

Dinner is a pre-set menu that you choose when you buy your tickets in advance. Everyone starts with salad and various desserts are brought to the table after seeing the show. Entrées are pre-selected, typically between chicken supreme, salmon and a rotating vegetarian choice.

The exception to those choices, however, is Saturday nights, when the chicken is replaced with AAA sirloin for steak night. My companion and I went on one of these Saturday nights and both chose steak for dinner.

Photo: Tyler Collins

Photo: Tyler Collins

First were the salads; greens with a lemon dressing, including other vegetables like cucumbers and grapes. It was crisp and pleasantly tangy, though both our salads only had one or two grapes in them.

Dinner as a whole was consistent. Everything we ate was delicious, well-seasoned and served at appropriate temperatures. The only complaint is the menu itself is too safe. It’ll satisfy everyone no matter how picky, but there’s not much creativity in the recipes. Don’t let that discredit how well prepared it is – this is considerably better than a generic banquet hall.

Saturday Steak Night

Photo: Tyler Collins

Photo: Tyler Collins

The steak was a nice cut and correctly served medium. Serving staff came around with steak sauce and horseradish, and it was served with potatoes and vegetables. The beans and carrots were slightly undercooked, but the potatoes were good and the steak was much tastier and more tender than I expected.

Each course was served in tandem with the other tables like a choreographed show. Another fun surprise was learning some of the serving staff doubled as performers in the show later on.

Dessert were chocolate mouse and hazelnut tarts, served with complimentary coffee and tea after the show is done. You were welcome to linger as long as you liked for a pleasant end to the night.

But one other thing I noticed about the dining room: Everyone was having a pleasant time and was smiling. Nobody had their phone out at the table. I noticed this when I was the only one while taking photos. It’s a very rare delight in restaurants nowadays.

The Show

Once entrees are finished, the audience is invited to move into the Phil Collins theatre for the evening’s main event. Seating is general admission and you and your party can sit wherever you like, but there’s really no bad seats. The view is unobstructed from all rows and heights (though children directly behind an adult may need some help.)

A Rockin’ Good Time is a revue of rock hits from the last hundred years or so, shown in vignettes from a variety of characters. The 45-minute show takes a few minutes to get into, but once the spell takes over its wildly charming and wholly captivating.

Photo: Tyler Collins

Photo: Tyler Collins

Some of the puppets are truly astounding, and you can see why the magic has had such a lasting effect. The Elvis character, a three person showstopper, has brilliantly fluid hands, arms and face. A flexible ostrich character gets big laughs when expertly choreographed to match the bass in the song she’s dancing to.

The black light effect is somewhat lost when the actors come in front of the proscenium arch and close to the audience. The best seats for shorter people is the front, but the performers interact with the first two rows. My seat five rows back gave me the perfect perspective of the stage.

Another nice touch is a spoken introduction is given by one of the cast members about the history of Famous People Players. It’s a short, humorous history lesson that’s most enjoyable for first time guests unaware of its (pretty incredible) story.

Most of the special effects are more than just clever tricks and eye-popping gags. There’s some really incredible surprises from props, lights, and simple pizzazz. It’s all the more impressive given the theatre’s small size – but it’s also to describe without spoiling what happens.

The Overall Experience

Rightly so, the performance itself is the highlight of the evening. It would be worth going to see it on its own, even without pairing it with dinner before hand.

Together, the dinner and show are an unusually complimentary pairing. The entire experience is fun without being kitschy and exciting without being pretentious. It’s a really nice evening out.

Photo: Famous People Players

Photo: Famous People Players

So how does each component of the evening break down? Let’s look at the six major components of the evening.

Atmosphere: 9/10. The draped fabrics and warm carnival setting was whimsical without being tacky. The theatre was nice and the fabrics and colour pleasing. The only downside were the dining room chairs – a bit small and stiff.

Food: 7.5/10. Everything was tasty, but a bit ordinary. The vegetables were a bit underdone and only one grape on the salad was strange. The steak and desserts were great.

Service: 9/10. All servers were extremely attentive, friendly, and got us everything we needed. Front of house and the ushers were equally kind and helpful. Bonus points to the enthusiasm from the coat check guy!

Organization: 5/10. This was the only weak spot. There are a lot of pockets though the evening’s schedule where you just sit and wait calmly for 15+ minutes. Fine if you like your companions, but this could be streamlined.

Drinks: 10/10. These were delicious, a terrific value for their size. The alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks were equally tasty. Many of them (kid’s drinks especially) also come with a bonus surprise. For boozy drinks, the Liberace is delicious.

Show: 9/10. A thoroughly entertaining presentation. It is a bit too short, and the post-show speech was too long. But the effects and the rehearsed timing was impressively sharp and coherent. The blacklight is spectacular.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’d give the full experience of visiting the Famous People Players a 8.5/10. It’s a pleasant, easy-going night out that supports a really terrific business. The staff are excellent and the performance alone would be worth your ticket.

Photo: Tyler Collins

Photo: Tyler Collins

Speaking of which, the cost is a great value and it’s a lot of fun. A standard dinner and show for adults is $69.95. For a three course dinner and show, that’s outstanding value for your money. There’s also discounts for seniors, students, children and groups. If you’re looking for a full night out for special occasions, Famous People Players is a true winner.

While the current show only runs until May, there are multiple performances each week almost year round. (They usually take 1-2 weeks off in before premiering new shows.) It’s well worth a visit to Etobicoke to spend a night in the theatre.

The Famous People Players have created a captivating experience from start to finish. That’s part of the beauty that, for them, is transforming the unusual into the magnificent.

Famous People Players presents A Rockin’ Good Time

3 1/2 out of 4 Stars
Rated ages 6+. 4hr experience, 1hr show. Family Dance Spectacular.
Starring the Famous People Players ensemble.
Directed by Joanne Dupuy.

Now Playing at the Dine and Dream Theatre, 343 Evans Avenue, Etobicoke, ON. Runs until May 30th 2020. Tickets range $42-75. Tickets available online here or by calling 416-532-1137.

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