What’s to love during an Orlando vacation? The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show has your ticket.

Tony Brent performs The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks.

 ORLANDO – So what is it that tourists want to do when they flock to Central Florida for the holidays? Decisions, decisions, Rich Miller said.

In addition to the theme parks, a really good dinner show is on the list, said the Philadelphia resident who is spending two weeks in the Orlando area with his girlfriend, Jennifer Schultz.

“I think we wanted to do this last year, but didn’t,” Miller said and he stood in line for The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show at WonderWorks. “There’s just so much to do down here. I think you have to do Disney first – that’s an unwritten law, I think, so we did that last year. We pack a lot in.”

Miller and Schultz have been coming to Orlando for years, and have taken in other dinner shows in this tourism Mecca – Capone’s, Sleuth’s Mystery Dinner Show, Medieval Times, and so on. The Magic Comedy Dinner Show has been on their to-do list as well.

“It’s supposed to be one of the best shows,” Miller said, adding that he’s been a magic lover for decades.

“I always have been – all guy-kids are magic fans,” he said.

“I’m kind of just looking for a good show,” Schultz added. “I hope it will be something different.” 

Rich Miller and Jennifer Schultz left behind Philadelphia to spent two weeks in the Orlando area, and the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show was on their list of must-see attractions.

On a cold, blustery night, a long line waited to get into the 6 o’clock dinner show, featuring the talents of Tony Brent. The row of tables inside the theater quickly filled up as an international crowd sat down for all-you-can-eat servings of salad, popcorn and pizza. Brent himself noted after the show that Florida residents tend to be vastly outnumbered by people from other parts of the country – and the world – in his audience this time of year.

“We get people from all over the world,” he said.

What brought them all to WonderWorks was a family-friendly show that combines fast magic tricks – how exactly does he take a dirty napkin and turn it into an egg? – with plenty of zippy one liners, including the opening when Brent asked the audience not to videotape any portion of the show, but added, “You’re welcome to draw a picture on your napkin.”

As Brent himself noted in the beginning, it’s a very “interactive show.”  He routinely selects members of the audience to get up on stage and help him do his thing – either a magic trick or some more comedy.  There’s plenty of improvising with each show, such as the moment when a man from the audience got on stage and told Brent he was from Indiana. When Brent asked how the weather up there and the man responded that it was cold, Brent added, “Really? Good thing you came to Florida,” to huge laughs.

The members of the audience selected to participate in the show, as it turned out, including Schultz, who had to yell out “I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” while holding a red sack. By the end of the performance, audience members young and old alike were lining up for Brent’s autograph. The high praise included kind words from Schultz, who told Brent “It was such a great show,” and Miller, who added, “Amazing stuff – amazing.”

It was another reminder of why Central Florida remains one of the top tourist destinations in the world – and why people who have already been to the Orlando area many times just keep coming back.

Shazam! Tony Brent brings Jennifer Schultz on stage as part of the show.

Who is the man who packs them into the WonderWorks show? Brent has been doing the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show since 2000, and got his start at age 12, when he discovered a passion for both magic tricks and one-liners.

“I had an ad in the local newspaper when I was 12, doing birthday parties,” he said. “I was industrious.”

The native of Holiday, Tenn., relocated to Orlando in 1999, originally to work for Walt Disney World, before gravitating to WonderWorks.

“I’ve been doing it full time for 16 years,”  he said. “And part time before that.”

So how do you effectively combine magic and comedy into one show?

“I just know what works for me,” Brent said. “I try to be similar to the movie ‘Shrek,’ that has something for everybody in it.”

The audience lined up for DVD copies of Tony Brent's show.

That includes double entendres that sometimes fly over the heads of the kids – but the adults laugh out loud.

“The kids don’t always get what I’m doing, but the parents get it,” said Brent, whose show includes skits about hippies, Sonny and Cher and ancient Egypt.

“I try to keep it very fast-paced,” he said. “Most guys drag the tricks out, but here since it’s a dinner show, you’ve got to keep their attention.”

How does he go about selecting people from the audience and figure out who will be an asset on stage?

“I certainly look for people who are smiling and seem to be enjoying the show,” Brent said. “My show is really light-hearted. It’s not a serious magic show. I look at it like a party with magic in it.”

He also makes a point of not trying to embarrass anyone he brings on stage, but to toss them right into the fun.

“I try to do it the way I would want to be treated,” he said.

He also likes to mix it up with the audience, which gives Brent plenty of opportunity to think up new jokes for each performance.

“Every show is different,” he said. “I keep it loose enough so I can improvise.”

The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show is performed nightly at 6 and 8 p.m. For reservations, call 407-351-8800.

“Snow” brings a macabre conceptual art show to Orlando, featuring puppets for grownups

The blue lighting in "Macabre Vignettes III: Snow" helps set the mood for winter in a forest.

ORLANDO – It could be just a coincidence – perhaps not – that when Halloween rolled around, temperatures remained summerlike across Central Florida.

“It was still warm out around Halloween,” said Tamara Marke-Lares.

Halloween is a significant date to her, because that’s when Tamara and her sister Leah Marke have been performing “Macabre Vignettes,” a conceptual arts show that melds together the unique talents both sisters have, including Tamara’s artwork and Leah’s dancing and choreography.

“This is the melding of puppetry and modern dance,” Tamara said, while Leah added, “For me, dance is what I do, but we’re really trying to use the dance to show her puppets.”

In the past few years, Macabre Vignettes has been performed in October, right around Halloween, to emphasis the eerie nature of the show. Set in a dark forest, there are black crows hovering above the dancers, a witch hiding in her lair with a brew steaming over a fire, and giant trolls that roam the woods. This year, though, the Marke sisters decided to alter the show a bit, by emphasizing something new and different: winter, and the cold blanketing the forest.

“In the past two years, it was done very close to Halloween,” Tamara said. “This year, it doesn’t feel creepy or eerie, but wintery – blue and snow.”

No surprise, then, that “Macabre Vignettes III” is titled “Snow,” and billed as a “Journey through a shimmering Winter World of unimaginable visisons.”

Tamara said it’s a nice coincidence that a strong cold spell, bringing temperatures down to the freezing level overnight, hit Central Florida just before the first performance on Friday. Just as the stark blue lights and snow falling from above set the perfect mood for the Snow performance at the Urban Rethink Studio, it was just as easy to glance out the window at Central Boulevard and spot pedestrians outside, all bundled up in winter jackets. That’s exactly what she was hoping for.

“I was really crossing my fingers, because it wasn’t cold out at all on Halloween,” Tamara said.

Leah said this is a winter show that doesn’t emphasize the holidays.

“It’s something to keep in mind, that this isn’t Christmas,” she said. “It’s fall and winter and snow.”

"Snow" mixes modern dance with marionettes and sculptural oddities.

This is the third year that the Marke Sisters and VOCI Dance have been performing Macabre Vignettes, which Leah said is the “umbrella name” for this evolving piece of work.

“It will always be that name,” she said. “It’s under a big umbrella that makes people feel all the elements connect.”

Tamara developed the concept, design, and artwork of the show, as well as the larger-than-life marionettes that haunt the dancers, and the costumes worn by the dancers.

Leah and Amanda Oost Bradberry did the choreography, with contributions from the dancers. The eclectic mix includes modern dance, art scultptures, ominous-looking puppets, music, and blue lights that definitely set the mood of winter – along with the snow that falls from above, letting the audience feel like they truly are in a winter wonderland.

“This is using dance as a medium to show and express,” Leah said of the hour-long show.

There are no chairs for the audience to sit on – they can stand anywhere they like inside the studio, and if they happen to get in the way of where the dancers are supposed to go, the performers gently brush them aside.  The audience gets even more involved when the witch crawls out of her hut bearing gifts — a tray filled with cupcakes which she hands out to the audience, with a cry of “Eat! Eat!”

But do they dare sample it after seeing the two rats on a skewer being roasted above her fire?

“For a lot of people, it’s seeing something like that for the first time,” Tamara said. “The crowd is definitely growing every year. They’re intrigued.”

While puppets have traditionally been thought of as entertainment for children, Tamara said this show takes them to a very different level. 

Puppets and sculptures play an important role in "Snow."

“It’s puppetry for grownups,” she said. “I think adults can walk through this. It’s mature puppetry, puppetry as art.”

In fact, the sisters said they’re hoping to tap into an emerging audience in Greater Orlando for intelligent and stimulating conceptual art.

“We’re hoping we’re part of a growth spurt,” Tamara said.

“Macabre Vignettes III: Snow” will be performed tonight at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., at Urban Rethinkm 625 E. Central Boulevard. Tickets are $20 at the door.

Parliament House celebrates Dickens — and celebrities — in a unique, hilarious version of “A Christmas Carol.”

ORLANDO – Imagine you’re a big star in the 1960s, winning a Tony award for playing Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly!” and cutting 10 gold albums, snagging an academy award nomination for best supporting actress for your role in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” taking home a Lifetime Achievement Award for your collective body of work on the Broadway stage.

Then along comes the 1970s, and public tastes begin to change. New faces are getting all the attention; you find yourself taking roles in “The Love Boat” on TV and in movie bombs like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Pretty soon you’re doing “Hollywood Squares” next to Big Bird – is there any more desperate sign of a career that’s tanking?

If you’re Carol Channing, you might just leap at the opportunity to take the lead role in “A Christmas Carol” if it brings you back to the stage, and does it in one of the world’s great tourism Mecca’s: Orlando. So when Channing learns that Ashton Kutcher had to drop out of the lead playing Scrooge, you zip down to Orlando in record time.

There’s just one problem. Standing on stage before a full house at the Footlight Theatre on Orange Blossom Trail, Channing gets a bit confused, and finally has to ask: “So this isn’t Epcot? And we’re not doing the Candlelight Processional?”

Not even close. Channing flew down to Orlando to perform in “Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol: A Dickens-inspired Celebrity Cavalcade Holiday Spectacle!” at none other than the Parliament House, the gay resort where drag shows, campy humor and muscular, half naked bartenders reign supreme. Channing’s career may never be the same.

Michael Wanzie's gift to the holidays is his new comedical production, "Wanzie's Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol."

Tis the season for holiday productions, and it’s amazing to see how durable Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge has been since it was first published in 1843. There are no fewer than 11 different versions of “A Christmas Carol” being produced across Central Florida theaters right now, and in a fine testament to Mr. Dickens, the productions are remarkably diverse.

Theatre Downtown offers a very faithful version of the tale featuring a large cast, while “Dickens by Candlelight: A Christmas Carol” at the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts reduces it to a cast of three, and the Southern Winds Theatre presents David A. McElroy playing every role in “A One-Man Christmas Carol” at the Starlight Video & Coffee shop in Winter Park. Two Lake County theaters – The Bay Street Players in Eustis and the Moonlight Players in Clermont – offer competing versions of the comedy “The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge.”

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” has got to be one of the most unique, because it reinvents the Dickens tale in a variety of ways: gay campy humor, burlesque show, drag performances, and, most entertainingly, as a hilarious send up of Hollywood and Broadway celebs. Conceived by the Parliament House’s resident theatrical genius, Michael Wanzie, this is “A Christmas Carol” performed by the biggest names in gay-friendly entertainment – Liza Minnelli, Cher, Lucille Ball, Barbra Streisand, etc. – and begs the question: if Wanzie really could line them all up for a star-studded performance of “A Christmas Carol,” could they play it straight and leave the ham for Christmas day supper?

The answer, not surprisingly, is: don’t count on it.

Wanzie, who is as funny an actor as he is a writer, happily grants himself a lead role in this show, playing himself as the narrator of “A Christmas Carol”; he also becomes a sort of referee to the lineup of spotlight-hogging stars. Stung by the disappointment of losing Kutcher as his lead, Wanzie nevertheless is happy to accept Channing as a substitute, although the two are soon clashing over stage direction and character development. But neither one seems quite prepared for just how zany this version of Scrooge is about to get when the casting includes Marlee Matlin as Bob Cratchit and Liza Minnelli as Tiny Tim.  Honestly now, how many earlier productions of “A Christmas Carol” have given you Bob Cratchit swearing in sign language or Tiny Tim lamenting all those failed marriages to gay men?

Part of this production’s charm is Wanzie’s increasingly angry reactions to his hammy performers, who glide off book every chance they get, and to the terrific ensemble work being done here. It’s amazing to think of how good the Footlight Theatre’s regular performers are, including Miss Sammy, who does some spot-on imitations of Cher, Lucille Ball, Streisand and Joan Crawford, lip syncing to some of their well known hits.

Carol Lee, also known as the official guest hostess of the Footlight Players Show, is a riot as Carol Channing, looking alternately thrilled to be on stage and befuddled at how increasingly bizarre this production gets – although, in the true spirit of “The show must go on,” Channing rolls with every bit of craziness tossed at her.

Gidget Galore grabs some big laughs as Liza, but it would be hard to top Doug Ba’aser, who is side-splittingly funny in the near silent role of Marlee Matlin. Just his expressions alone brought on so much laughter from the audience that it would be hard to imagine this show without him.

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” is a typical Wanzie grab-bag of successful elements – music, dancing, wild humor, impersonations, truly tasteless gags – all done at a speed that keeps you glued to that stage through every second of Scrooge’s …. er, Carol Channing’s …. deliriously wacky adventures. It’s sort of a “Best Of” or “Greatest Hits” soundtrack for the Parliament House’s ongoing entertainment efforts, ideal for those who say Bah! Humbug to taking the holidays too seriously.

“Wanzie’s Glittering Star-Studded A Christmas Carol” plays at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 20, the final performance. The Footlight Theatre is at 410 N. Orange Blossom Trail at the Parliament House. Tickets are $12 in advance (by logging on to www.wanzie.com) or $14 at the door, and $10 in advance or $12 at the door for the Dec. 20 industry night show.

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