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Curtain set to open on new dinner stage

Like the good sports and gentlemen they are, Nick Sessa and Jimmy Ferraro vow they are not in competition.

Sessa is the co-owner of the 5-year-old, 450-seat Show Palace Dinner Theatre in Hudson. Ferraro, the Palace's former artistic director, just announced that he's opening in October Angel Cabaret, a 200-seat dinner theater in Southgate Shopping Center in New Port Richey.

"There's an Eckerd or a Walgreen's on every corner, and they both do fine," Ferraro said earlier this week. Besides, he said, "We'll be doing shows they don't do _ small comedies and musicals on the fringe."

Sessa graciously welcomed Ferraro to the area's theater scene. "I wish him well," Sessa said.

Even so, it's hard to deny that the theaters will be vying for both employees and patrons, similar to Ruth Eckerd Hall and Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

The Show Palace already has its crew in place, including the talented light and set designer Tom Hansen, several members of the Sessa family, and a practiced kitchen staff who cooks everything on site.

Ferraro has just finished putting his crew together: longtime Liberace impersonator Martin Preston will play piano for the musicals, Preston's sidekick, singer William Garon, will be musical director, and magician-singer George Cahill is technical director. General manager is Larry Bond, perhaps best known around here for doing the title role in Sweeney Todd at Richey Suncoast Theatre several years ago.

Ferraro is hiring a caterer to bring in the food, a combination table service and buffet. He's putting in one corner a small, quarter-circle stage 30 feet wide at its widest point, adding restrooms, and doing the whole place in what he describes as a "turn-of-the-century Victorian, Parisian cabaret" style. It's a lot of work to be done in three months.

"We're having tables for four and going for a charming and intimate feel," Ferraro said.

Dinner and show will be $32.50; if any seats are available at show time, they'll go for $19.95, without dinner, Ferraro said. Season tickets are $130 for all five shows. He's planning matinees on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, evening shows on Fridays and Saturdays and a twilight show (6 p.m.) on Sundays, similar (except for Sunday) to the Show Palace's schedule during the high season. Tickets go on sale in mid-August.

Ferraro has chosen the first five shows for his theater, and they are indeed quite different from those coming to the Show Palace. The Show Palace mostly goes for the big Broadway hits with huge casts and lavish sets. Ferraro's shows are small, with two to six in the cast. Three of the five shows share an opening date and have similar runs.

The Angel Cabaret's lineup includes the musical revues Nite Club Confidential (Oct. 19-Nov. 25) and Holly, Jolly Holiday Cabaret (Nov. 30-Dec. 15); the quirky musical Pump Boys and Dinettes (Jan. 11-Feb. 24); the comedy about an unintendedly extended visit by the demanding Bette Davis, Me and Jezebel (March 1-30); and the spoof of early Hollywood musicals, Dames at Sea (April 5-May 19).

During those times, the Show Palace will be doing Guys and Dolls, Here's Love (The Miracle of 35th Street Musical), Crazy for You, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Man of La Mancha.

Theater diehards will see all shows at both theaters, as well as what comes to the other venues in our area _ Richey Suncoast Theatre, Stage West Community Playhouse, Pasco-Hernando Community College, Center for the Arts at River Ridge, Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center and the big guys down south.

Most, however, have limited time, budget and interest, and will pick and choose. Since there's only a few bucks difference in price, they'll make those choices based upon the quality of the food and the show that is playing.

Some, of course, will go to the nearest theater because they hate to drive on U.S. 19.

Ferraro has a loyal following, built up from a quarter century performing in this area. The Show Palace has built a sizable clientele and draws tour groups and individuals from a 100-mile or more radius.

As for me, I'm just happy that my area is getting still more entertainment opportunities.