Last of a kind

After the closure of BDT, can Johnstown’s Candlelight Dinner Playhouse save a dying tradition?

Emery Hines in a 2022 production of Little Women at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown, one of the last theaters of its kind on the Front Range. Credit: RDG Photography

Driving northbound on I-25, the Flatirons fade in the rearview mirror, replaced by the expansive vistas of the rural Colorado plains. Turning off past RV parks and a livestock trailer sales dealership, you’ll soon arrive at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown, where the rustic charm of the countryside meets the glitz and glamor of Broadway.

Nestled just over the Boulder County line northeast of Longmont, Candlelight stands as one of the last playhouses of its kind on the Front Range. Once a thriving part of the state’s cultural fabric, dinner theater is now a rarity in the live entertainment industry. A staggering number of dinner theaters across the state have closed, including the recent shuttering of Boulder’s legendary BDT Stage in January.

“BDT was Broadway to us,” Candlelight Marketing and Sales Director Jalyn Webb told Boulder Weekly upon the local institution’s closure last month. “Their contribution to Northern Colorado’s arts landscape is staggering, and their legacy needs to be recognized. It makes me happy that they were able to have this final season and leave on their own terms rather than being defeated by COVID.”

With BDT gone for good, and Jesters Dinner Theatre co-owner Scott Moore estimating “another year-and-a-half to two years” for the Longmont playhouse, Candlelight will soon be left to fill the gap when it comes to local dinner theater outside the Denver metro. Reflecting on the mentorship of former BDT linchpin Michael Duran, Candlelight’s Executive Director Dave Clark says the mission to honor their legacy is personal.

“He helped me through some of the challenges that I was facing here,” says Clark, who comes from a construction background and had little theatrical experience when he first started Candlelight in 2008. “My wife and I developed a close friendship with the owners of BDT, Gene and Judy Bolles; we are lifelong friends. I have all the respect in the world for them and what that team has done to keep that place going for 47 years. BDT’s closing is a huge loss to the theater community.”

Crazy For You‘ runs through April 7 at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown. Credit: RDG Photography

‘People value experiences’

In the face of this uncertain market, Candlelight not only survives but thrives. As dinner theaters and their traditional counterparts across the country continue struggling to bring audiences back during the COVID era, Candlelight hopes to illuminate a path forward with its vibrant productions and commitment to an allegedly dying format.

“People value experiences,” says Candlelight Artistic Director Kate Vallee. “They don’t just want to be an audience member watching something from afar; they truly want to experience it in some tactile way. When we did The Little Mermaid, we decorated our lobby and made it an underworld experience. We also ask ourselves regularly how we stay relevant — the truth is, in the entertainment industry, it is ever-changing.”

Clark attributes Candelight’s unlikely success to a pretty simple formula: producing the sorts of shows people actually want to see. 

“I have a saying: ‘A great product sells great,’ and that’s what our goal is,” he says. “We’ve struggled like everyone else, but it’s always been my goal to make great productions and continue to improve the production value each year as we go on.”

Crucially, Clark’s vision of a viable future for dinner theater doesn’t end in Johnstown. The company plans to expand across the Front Range, including the construction of a 900-seat theater and concert venue in Thornton and an 800-seat proscenium theater in Fort Collins estimated to open in 2025.

“As we start to scale, we have a strategy in place,” Webb explains. “It’s not all happening at once; we have a strategic timeline so that we can deliver that Candlelight charm. They’re three very different spaces: It would not be a smart idea to try to replicate what we’re doing here in all our venues because then we would be cannibalizing ourselves. Each venue will encourage people across the Front Range to experience very different types of theater, but all under that Candlelight umbrella.”

‘An enigma in time’

Within this context, Candlelight’s ongoing production of Crazy For You speaks to the company’s tenacity and adaptability in a fast-changing entertainment landscape. The zany romantic comedy tells the story of young New York banker Bobby Child who, upon arriving in a small Nevada town to foreclose on a rundown theater, falls head over heels for Polly Baker, the theater owner’s spunky daughter. 

Through a whirlwind of mistaken identities and show-stopping musical numbers, Bobby embarks on a quest to win Polly’s heart and save the theater. Directed by Steve Wilson, with choreography by Shawna Hallinan and music direction by Richard Shore, the production is set to the timeless music of George and Ira Gershwin, featuring classics like “Embraceable You” and “I Got Rhythm.”

“Even though it’s set in the 1930s, the story is very much alive,” Wilson says. “It’s based on the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, but the book was updated by Ken Ludwig, so it doesn’t feel clunky or dated to me. Some folks may look at the rom-com piece of it and write the musical off as nostalgic, but to me, it feels vital to today’s audience.”

Bringing Crazy For You to life at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse involves navigating a complex labyrinth of technical feats, from mastering the Gershwin score to executing elaborate dance routines. Calling it “a huge show design-wise with lots of challenges,” Wilson sees the production as an example of what the playhouse — and the tradition it carries on — does best.

“Candlelight is one of the most successful theater organizations currently in the region, and part of that is because of the package you get when you come,” Wilson says. “You get to sit down, have dinner and then enjoy this fantastic show. It creates this great, warm feeling. It is an enigma geographically and an enigma in time.” 

ON STAGE: Crazy For You. Through April 7, Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, 4747 Marketplace Drive, Johnstown. $45-$83