Paula Swilley has always wanted to produce dinner theater as a drama teacher at Northwestern Middle School in Zachary.
“When I was little, my mother took me to a real dinner theater in Baton Rouge. It wasn’t held in the back of some convention hall with bad lighting, but it had music, real actors who could dance and sing with real theater lighting and good food. It was real dinner theater,” Swilley said. “I’ve always wanted to re-create that, always wanted to produce my own dinner theater.”
Now, Swilley is getting her chance with a cast of advanced drama eighth-graders who are rehearsing for “Bugsy Malone Junior.”
“It’s a pint-size classic with tongue-in-cheek dialogue and a tribute to the 1920s gangster era loosely based on events from the ’20s,” Swilley said.
The “Bugsy” production revolves around characters such as Fat Sam, played by Chandler Ducote, who runs one of the most popular clubs in town and is in danger of being closed down by his “business rival” Dandy Dan, played by Caynan Byrd, Swilley explained.
“Enter baby-faced Bugsy Malone, played by Marshall Lawton. He’s a killer with the ladies and a definite asset to Fat Sam,” Swilley said. “Unfortunately, Bugsy has caught the eye of Sam’s girlfriend, Tallulah, played by Lauren Brown, but Bugsy has his sights set on showgirl Blousey Brown, played by Anastasia Gueltig.”
The middle school cast includes a talented chorus of performers in a play that was written for children.
“It’s a wonderful showcase for talented young performers with catchy songs and a score that was written by the composer of ‘The Muppet Movie,’ ” Swilley said. “It’s also a great way to explore Prohibition and the Roaring ’20s in the classroom.”
Swilley admits to taking on a lot by adding dinner theater to the production schedule.
“I know we’re taking on an elaborate thing here, but we want people to come and experience something different,” Swilley said. “It’s going to be fun, but I want people to really understand what it is we’re doing. I hope they support us and come to experience a night out that is unlike anything else going on in Zachary.”
Swilley explained that the front lobby of the Northwestern Middle School auditorium will be converted into a library, a facade for Fat Sam’s Grand Slam, a speakeasy from the ’20s.
Anyone who purchases a ticket for the dinner theater will be served a three-course Italian meal catered by Susan Weber, of Green Leaf Bistro to Go, while enjoying jazz music performed by the NMS jazz band, directed by Carla Murray.
The menu will include chicken Alfredo and roasted vegetables over penne pasta; green bean amandine; mixed greens with fresh vegetables, mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette; Italian, pull-apart bread with garlic Parmesan butter sauce; and tiramisu parfait for dessert.
The speakeasy, the floor level of the auditorium, will feature 16 tables that seat eight people per table. Participating students will serve guests one hour prior to showtime.
Attendees are encouraged to dress in 1920s-era clothing, gangster suits and flapper costumes, but costumes are optional.
The upper, or mezzanine, level will be reserved for those attending the show only.
As director, Swilley is joined by Trish Dry, who teaches talented drama; Cassi Doherty, musical director; and Jeremy Reynolds, technical director. Also joining the crew as choreographers are Molly Myers, of Molly Myers Dance Studio, Hannah Pate, Hallie Russell and Sarah Underwood. Janelle Young is overseeing the programs.
“Everyone has been working so hard. They are all so talented, the cast and the crew,” Swilley said.
Swilley has directed one production each year she has been at the middle school as well as numerous smaller productions and skits. Her credits have included lavish sets and numbers such as “Annie” and “The Little Mermaid.” Next year, Swilley’s 12th, will be her last, she said.
While the middle school cast works on perfecting its “New Yawk” wiseguy accents and brushing up on its gangster moll attitudes, Swilley will fret over the dinner theater aspect of the production.
“I just hope people will get into it, dress up and want to be part of the dinner theater experience,” Swilley said. “Everyone who comes can expect to go back in time as they dine at Fat Sam’s Grand Slam, the liveliest joint in town.”
Night performances of “Bugsy” are scheduled for Feb. 27 and Feb. 28. A matinee performance has been added to the Feb. 28 schedule.
If attending the dinner theater at night, attendees should be seated by 6 p.m. If attending the matinee dinner, the meal will be served at noon. Both dinners will be followed by the NMS production of “Bugsy Malone Junior.”
For those attending the show only, start time is at 7 p.m. both nights and 1 p.m. for the matinee.
Tickets for the dinner theater, which includes the show, are $25. For the show only, tickets are $10.
Profits from the show will assist students in funding an educational trip to New York City in April, Swilley said.
Tickets go on sale Feb. 19 and will be sold from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the school’s front office.