Review: Golden Chain Theatre’s cheerfully bonkers ‘Drive-in Melodrama’ means never having to leave the parking lot


You can’t honk your horn at the villain. Gentlemen are encouraged to “keep it classy” and refrain from urinating in the bushes. Latecomers are not permitted — because you’d literally have to maneuver your car into the theater.


What does a theater company do when it’s 1) known for its summer melodramas; 2) worried that the pandemic would doom any indoor production to Zoom; and 3) willing to direct traffic?

You turn your big show into a “Drive-In Melodrama.”

Pictured above: You get a good view of “backstage” when you visit the restroom during intermission at the Golden Chain Theatre ‘Drive-In Melodrama.”  Photo: The Munro Review

That’s the happy solution arrived at by the folks at the Golden Chain Theatre. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 1, you will be able to partake in an “old-fashioned melodrama” — albeit one that includes a sheriff who orders her custom “Bad to the Bone” belt buckles from Etsy — that takes place outside on a raised stage in the theater parking lot.


That’s how I found myself at last weekend’s opening-night performance. Here’s a rundown:

My “seat” location: the front passenger seat of my Honda Civic. I picked a spot in the second of two rows reserved for smaller vehicles. (The pickup trucks and SUVs were behind me.) There I had an unobstructed view of the stage. And, unlike that time when I was in elementary school and a family sitting behind me at the movie theater sneaked an entire Kentucky Fried Chicken dinner into a screening of “The Apple Dumpling Gang” — I swear they were passing the little Styrofoam containers of mashed potatoes and gravy back and forth — I could eat anything while watching the show and not bother anyone else. (We ate takeout from Smokehouse 41 in Coarsegold. And that’s a definite shout-out.)

Additional perk: My dog, Tillie, got to attend, and for the first few minutes she watched the action so intently that I swear she was hooked on live theater.

The storyline: Lyric Gianni, who also plays the villain (remember, no honking) adapted an original script and music by Joanie Bushnell. When the dastardly traveling magician Cutworthy comes to town, he fixates on new romantic conquest: the virtuous Angela (Grace Mierkey). Angela’s heart is already taken by the hero, the handsome Andy (Alex Revee). Will Cutworthy stoop to deceit, treachery and perhaps even murder to get what he wants? Um, it’s a melodrama.

Shane Moreman / The Munro Review

The acting and singing: Like any community melodrama, there’s some unevenness in terms of performances. But the stronger cast members do a good job of anchoring the outing.

The strengths: Gianni makes a first-rate villain, drawing on the traditional tropes of the role (cape, cane, top hat, maniacal laugh) while adding a lavish finesse to the character. Gianni’s accent and vocal delivery are distinctive — and weird, and, frankly, kind of mesmerizing; it’s like Katharine Hepburn meeting half a gulp of helium. Other strong performers include Ruthann Van Buren as the empowered Imogene, Angelina Tawney as the bumbling farmhand Ned, and the comic tag team of Itsy (Gabrielle Paul) and Bitsy (Amanda VonRaeder).

The Munro Review

A view of the stage of the Golden Chain Theatre’s ‘Drive-In Melodrama’ at intermission.

The weaknesses: I don’t want to bruise the good intentions of director Jennifer Janine and this hard-working cast and production, but let’s be clear: Opening night was too long. The script has been packed with lots of modern references, which is fine. What gobbles the time is a meta storyline involving the “director” (Michael Van Buren) of the show becoming exasperated with the failings of his actors. This made it harder for me to keep in a goofy melodrama frame of mind; fundamentally, what we end up is severely conflicting comic styles. Add to this a second meta layer involving the accompanist (James Mierkey), who appears to be the puppet master here, such as when he pauses everything to answer the phone. Is it a play within a play within a play? Again, this silliness works in small increments, but in cumulative terms, it eats up time. The end result is a production with a 7:30 p.m. start time that didn’t get out until past 10 p.m. (And we got there at 7-ish to eat dinner beforehand.)  That’s a long stint to sit in the passenger seat of a Honda Civic.

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The goofy charm: Still, if you can look past the pacing, the cast’s enthusiasm and camaraderie do a lot to pep up the evening. And Gianni truly sparkles.

My takeaway: The Golden Chain has been celebrating 54 consecutive summers of melodrama. I salute the company for keeping that tradition going. Even if cheering the hero isn’t really your theatrical cup of tea, switching to a drive-in venue ramps up the novelty of the melodrama experience. Years from now, you’ll think back to the pandemic and remember the time you didn’t honk for the melodrama villain. But you could have.

Show info

‘Drive-in Melodrama,’ a Golden Chain Theatre production. 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Sundays through Aug. 1. Admission is $35 a car.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (3)

  • Jackie Ryle

    Loved this review. Really made me want to go. This sounds like such fun. Good for you all, Golden Chain Theater team!

  • Adele Graves

    Looks like fun! Love “Tillie the drama dog”

  • Tina Wyneken

    Hahaha—I saw “Apple Dumpling Gang” at a drive-in too, way back when. 🙂
    Thanks for the review!


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