It is fair to say that not everyone wants a man dressed as a rabbit as an accompaniment to dinner.
An increasing number of people do, however. “We’re working to change the perception of the phrase ‘dinner show’ together,” says David Ley.
When we first met him in the lobby of the Shangri-la he was still dressed as the Ace of Spades, the feisty front and centre of the most successful show yet at The Act; a surreal, funky Alice, for which Ley is also creative director.
Cut to the relative calm of Tom & Serg in Al Quoz, a diner not unlike those in his native New York City, where Ley has shed the Ace to talk immersive shows.
“I can’t remember an instance of anybody actually walking out,” he says. “But we’ve run into people who would have. Those people put themselves on the defensive initially … Once we’ve gotten to them and loosed them up, though, they have a better time than other people who know what to expect.
“I have particular guy in mind. Stone faced scowl and crossed arms in the beginning, beaming wide smile at the end. A complete transition.”
The Act is certainly not for couples seeking a discreet romantic dinner. But if you want your senses as well as your taste buds to be exercised, David’s your man.
The venue was born out of The Box, a somewhat notorious club in NYC – and later London – that blended vaudeville with twists designed to wake up punters who thought they’d seen it all.
It was the brainchild of Simon Hammerstein, grandson of half of Rogers & Hammerstein. “The Box draws influences from music hall, cabaret, vaudeville, burlesque. It’s modern variety theatre – a nightlife experience centred around a crazy assortment of different acts, some of them nice to look at, some of them quite shocking.”
David was switched from his role as director of the original Box role to open The Act’s luxury theatre club in Dubai. And instead of the close-to-the-(ahem)-bone feel of some of the Box acts, Ley has had to produce a less shocking experience – but the flipside is that his shows can’t rely on simple sensationalism. They maybe have to work harder to make their mark.
“It’s a very different approach,” he says with commendable understatement, as he talks about “a bit of an experiment creating something mainstream and commercially viable.”
A thoroughly modern and at times baffling take on Alice In Wonderland hit the mark the hardest, running from August until March.
“The first motivation was to find a theme that was recognisable. The timing was good because we launched around the 150th anniversary of the novel being published.”
The result was a high-energy Alice, enigmatic in the style of the original and sometimes downright baffling – but always fun.
“In previous shows I’ve done more extensive scripting, giving pages of dialogue; this one was a bit more freeform with the outline of the story already intact.”
The Act has a core team of two singers and three dancers plus visiting speciality acts with occasional support from co-opted service staff.
“For previous generations the image is of performers struggling to be heard on stage while some pensioners are slurping their soup,” says David. “We’re changing perceptions.”
The dinner part of ‘dinner show’ is still important, though. “We definitely try to integrate the cuisine experience as much as possible. We want the two to compliment each other.
“When it’s time to eat we want you think you’re having the best possible experience at that moment. When the show is on we want you to feel you’ve been fed well to have the energy to really get into it.”
The Act followed Alice with Rouge, an immersive, rather more intimate show. More full-on dinner shows are promised though – “there’s a bit of pressure to top the previous one but that’s been the case with all of the shows that I have done.”
There’s a complete contrast in the dinner show shtick at Cavalli Club and its associated Cirque Le Soir, near neighbours to The Act at the upper end of Sheikh Zayed Road. Another New Yorker, Megan Norotsky, is creative manager and costume designer for White Label, which runs both.
“The two venues offer something completely different,” she says. “Cavalli is about luxury, so the dancers we use have to look a certain way. At Cirque we have a variety of performers, from midgets to giants, singers to sword swallowers …”
The pressure is on to keep the imagery fresh. “The Cirque performers are on stage four times a week, so with my creative team I’m producing new shows and concepts weekly for the venue.”
Cavalli Club is a less frenetic experience. Its Sunday show began a year ago and has become something of a staple for Dubai’s in-crowd, a demanding and often fickle audience which demands regular reinvention.
“The concept of dinner and a show is something people enjoy, different from the usual clubbing scene out here. It’s a very relaxed evening, which turns into a club after midnight and concepts such as theatre and performance are in demand.
“My inspiration comes from classic cabaret shows like Chicago, Burlesque, and Cabaret, with a mix of music from today.
“The show runs alongside our Midnight Brunch, so guests are invited to eat and drink as much as they want, then they can really sit back and allow us to entertain.
“We are lucky as we have a lot of space to really impress, and I try to mix it up every week. The costumes change weekly and the team and I work together to really stretch our imaginations.
Megan has a core cast, flanked by new talent occasionally to freshen things up. That includes sourcing some performers locally. “There are many talented artists in Dubai, and new people arrive regularly looking for work in the industry – the market is extremely competitive in terms of venues to work at. We have no trouble hiring new performers.”
Over on the Palm Jumeirah, MusicHall at the Zabeel Saray offers another take on the dinner show concept. Operating each Thursday and Friday, the venue feeds and entertains crowds in a style that is considerably more conventional. There won’t be too many acrobats or Wonderland shenanigans here; instead you get a combination of lavish setting, gourmet dining and musical acts which range in style from Latino and rock to jazz and regional formats.
The MusicHall idea actually began life in Beirut 13 years ago. “It was an instant success there,” says Tina Azar, events co-ordinator for MusicHall. “And when it came to Dubai three years ago, the same applied. People are always looking for a complete experience and this is what MusicHall works on providing.”
The MusicHall model does rely heavily on the instinct and experience of the artists’ booker. “Some artists stay in the line-up for few weeks, others for months. It is a kind of hit parade with no obvious scientific explanation for the reasons behind the success and longevity.”
Acts are sourced and staged by a team from Elefteriades Productions, a successful showbiz company with a roster of artists and bands that feed MusicHall’s line-up. “Changes are made when [artistic director] Michel Elefteriades feels the need,” says Tina. “He just knows what’s required when.”
But the clever part, the element that makes the dining audience leave happy and satisfied, is probably the obsessive attention to detail – hallmark of the best hotel experiences, of course.
As Tina puts it: “Running MusicHall requires very diverse expertise and skills such as hospitality management, fine dining, artist management, staging, sound design and lighting
“The smallest detail is planned; the venue, the service, the food, the entertainment are all cumulative assets that make the client go home with the feeling of having spent a great night out.” And having a great night out is what it’s all about.
WORDS David Dunn