At Frankie J’s on Broadway, dinner-theater audiences will find neither buffet lines nor aging icons singing “Some Enchanted Evening.” In chef and comedian Frank Janisch’s newest production, Frankie J Supperstar, the dinner is the theater: restaurant patrons get an up close look at the preparation of the meal they’re eating while Janisch delivers jokes and cooking tips and waitstaff in white robes twirl between the tables in a lighthearted parody of Jesus Christ Superstar.

A 1986 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Janish has run restaurants in Chicago (his hometown), Atlanta, and Miami, and was a regular guest on the Food Network’s Ready…Set…Cook! But in 1994, after an Atlanta colleague pointed out his comedic gifts, he enrolled in a seminar taught by ImprovOlympic’s Charna Halpern. One month later, needing a break from the restaurant grind, he returned to Chicago and joined the ImprovOlympic staff as a bartender. Within six months, he was the company’s CFO and director of operations, positions he held for six years.

In 2000, Janisch decided to get back into the food game–this time in a fashion that would put his love of theater front and center. On April 1, 2001, he bought a building in Uptown. Six months later he opened the MethaDome Theatre on the second floor with a fund-raiser for families of firemen killed on September 11. On April 1, 2002, he opened the restaurant–serving quirky, eclectic fare like Thai’d Up Salmon and Frankie J’s Fabulous Freaked Out Mushroom Delight–and last month he delivered the first performance of Frankie J Supperstar.

The show bears more than a passing resemblance to Taint!, the wickedly clever spoof of dinner theater and cooking shows Janisch mounted at the Annoyance Theatre in the late 90s. But at the Annoyance patrons sat on folding chairs at card tables, watching Janisch prepare meals on little more than a camp stove. His new establishment features a fully equipped exposed kitchen and seats 50 at cozy banquettes and bistro tables.

The show opens with servers crooning, as they cross the dining room in formation, “Frankie J / Supperstar / Are you the chef that they say you are?” After the opening serenade, a (fire resistant) canvas curtain is pulled back to reveal the kitchen and Janisch in full chef’s regalia, wielding knife and spatula. A video feed and monitors placed throughout the room let the audience watch the slicing and dicing up close. During the 90-minute show, Janisch brings volunteers from the audience into the kitchen to help with each of the four courses and keeps up a running off-the-cuff patter. During the meal, the waiters break into a variety of Jesus- and food-themed numbers: “Food, Glorious Food”; Joan Osborne’s “What if God Was One of Us?”; Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line.”

The restaurant doesn’t offer enough room for the full-scale revues showcased in Taint!, which featured a cast of 20. Nonetheless, the Annoyance influence hangs in the air like an odd smell, manifesting itself in random appearances by crude characters like door-to-door salesman Tony LaDouche (Bob Skupien), a holdover from Taint!, and a cadre of Mary Dragdelines (waiters in wigs and dresses) who strut around the dining room making jokes about “ball-samic” vinegar. “We’re putting everyone who does dinner theater on notice, as of now,” says Janisch. “No longer is it OK to have food catered in to feed your theatergoers. Create it in front of them–that’s Chicago!”

Frankie J Supperstar…the Cooking Show Musical runs Sunday evenings at 7 through the end of June at 4437 N. Broadway. Tickets are $42.50, which includes dinner (BYOB); seating begins at 6:30. The restaurant is also open for Sunday brunch and dinner every night except Tuesday. Call 773-769-2959 for reservations and more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.