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Show Palace musicals won't hinder old favorites

Now that owners of the Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson have announced a new format of year-round Broadway musicals, many faithful patrons are wondering where they'll go for the comedy nights, celebrity impersonators, big-band dances, supper club floor shows and big name entertainment that were the Palace's most popular attractions.

Try the Show Palace.

"Oh, yes, we're going to fit those in," co-owner Nick Sessa said this week.

Why not?

After suffering through a lot of disappointing shows and being taken completely aback at the success of others, Nick and Sal Sessa and their new partner, Jimmy Ferraro, feel they've finally identified what the audiences like and, perhaps more important, what they don't like.

The big names with the big price tags aren't the big sellers, that's for sure.

Florence Henderson of Brady Bunch fame, for example, drew only a few hundred people to three separate shows.

By contrast, the little-known C.J. Harding drew a packed house for her return engagement as Patsy Cline, the crowd went crazy for 24-year-old Brent Howell doing the young Elvis, and Nathan and Gina's Wedding always fills every seat, with many patrons coming for third and fourth visits.

"We're bringing all those shows back, definitely," Sessa said. "We'll fit them in between shows, Sunday nights, weeknights, whatever."

It will take a lot of work, but the owners have done successful one-hour turnarounds several times lately, putting on one show at 2 p.m., waving the patrons bye-bye at 4:45 p.m. and having everything clean, polished and set up for a new crowd and a different show at 5:15 p.m.

The partners are enlarging the stage and adding a pull-aside front curtain, which means they can hide the set for a musical and have a singer or comic on the stage's apron for a different show. Shows like Nathan and Gina are no problem because they are done on the floor and don't need a stage.

Several acts already have been booked in the lull between the closing of the current show, Fiddler on the Roof, on May 17, and the opening of the Palace's first in-house Broadway musical production, The Sound of Music, on July 10. A couple of shows are booked for the off nights during the shows in the musical series, with more in the works.

Comic Vic DiBitetto will be at the Palace on May 23, big band dances are set for May 24 and June 20, an interactive mystery theater is on for June 12, comic Don Sebastian and Dean Martin impersonator Chuck Morro are booked for June 27, and on Aug. 8, after Sound of Music closes, a trio of impersonators will do Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr.

One intriguing booking comes from the people who do Nathan and Gina, this one a re-creation of a Chicago speakeasy called The Tommy Gunn Show, set for a June 21 matinee.

Like its predecessor, Tommy Gunn is an audience-interactive show with outrageous (and probably politically incorrect) ethnic humor. The subject is the "retirement of Don Vito Russo," and it features the Tommy Girls and Mr. Johnny Silk Stockings, all hosted by Tommy Gunn himself.

It has been playing all over Tampa Bay for some time, but the June 21 show will be its first time in Pasco County.

Meanwhile, Ferraro, who will produce and direct all the musicals in-house, has held auditions for his inaugural show, The Sound of Music (July 10 through Aug. 2). The audition notice was posted on the Internet and drew almost 100 hopefuls from as far away as Miami and North Carolina. The 28-member cast will be the largest for any show ever done at the Palace, Ferraro said.

As for the Sessas, they're sorting out an inch-high stack of bulk ticket orders that have poured in from travel agents all over Florida ever since word spread that the Palace is doing the Best of Broadway series.