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20 Oct 2013

A Delicious Evening: "Alton Brown Live" Is an Amusing, Off-Key Success

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Alton and his new toy: Mega Bake! Alton and his new toy: Mega Bake! CVI Crapcam

A TV chef trying to pull off a successful stage show? Frankly, it sounds like a terrible idea.

But then again, Alton Brown is not your average TV chef. The show for which he’s best known (outside of Iron Chef America, perhaps), Good Eats—which ran on the Food Network from 1999 to 2012—is unlike any other cooking show in that it combines science, potty humor, theatrics and silliness.

“Theatrics,” of course, is the key word there: Alton Brown is as much of an entertainer as he is a chef, and that’s why his “Alton Brown Live” show—aka the Edible Inevitable Tour—ultimately works. (This show was produced by the some of the same folks who created the successful “Mythbusters: Behind the Myths” tour; “Alton Brown Live” surpasses “Behind the Myths,” because Brown is a natural entertainer, whereas Jamie Hyneman, while a lovable cranky genius, is not.)

The show kicked off at Palm Desert’s McCallum Theatre on Friday, Oct. 18, and is slated to head to almost 50 cities between now and next March.

On one hand, getting to see the world premiere of a show is a treat: The audience gets to watch something that’s never been seen before by a full audience. On the other hand, first performances are always test cases, to an extent, so certain bits will be raw and unpolished. Fortunately for those of us in the McCallum audience, the only real seriously unpolished aspects of Friday show came regarding the music. (More on that later.)

The show kicked off before the 8 p.m. curtain with a Good Eats staple: the lovable, burping-and-farting sock puppets, which represent yeast. (Yeast, you see, gives off gas.) Brown explained at one point during the show that he originally wanted the puppets to appear live, but producers couldn’t get that sound just right, so the yeast puppets were exiled to humorous and increasingly elaborate hijinks on the video screen before the show, at intermission, and at the very end of the show.

“I wanted a preshow entirely built on farts,” Brown joked.

Brown noted that he built his road show “based on stuff that nobody would let me do on television,” including upping the fart-to-burp ratio with the yeast puppets—and singing an occasional song. This led into a song he said he’d written for his daughter: “Is Cooking Hard?” The ditty started with the premise that cooking is not all that hard if, as the chorus explained, “you can understand a few rules you could count on five hands.” The joke was that with each singing of the chorus, the number of rules and hands went up.

On that first song, it was just Alton and a guitar; for subsequent songs, he was joined by Good Eats regulars Jim Pace (who played many roles on the show, most notably Alton’s lawyer) on drums, and music composer Patrick Belden on guitar.

Those songs were, by far, the weakest part of the show. The songs themselves were charming enough—a tune about the dangers of airport shrimp cocktails, for example, was quite funny—but Alton is a much better jokester and chef than he is a singer. There were also serious glitches during two of the songs: His attempt at an angry hard-rock song/Spinal Tap parody, “Easy Bake,” suffered from sound issues and distortion, and his “TV Chef” song toward the end of the show included missed cues and a do-over. (Having the lyrics to the songs displayed on the screen above the stage was a big help—even if the display didn’t always match what Alton was singing.) These glitches will subside as the tour rolls on, but even though the songs are amusing and—in the case of “TV Chef”—provocative, they’ll never stand up to the parts of the show in which Alton is doing what he does best: discussing and demonstrating cooking.

His illustrated monologue on “10 Things I’m Pretty Sure I Am Sure About Food” was pure genius. (Rule No. 3 came from a notable Iron Chef America food debacle: “Trout doesn’t belong in ice cream.”) His ice-cream-making machine—which harnesses the power of a carbon-dioxide fire extinguisher—was brilliant. And the highlight of the show came when he unveiled Mega Bake: an Easy Bake oven gone insane, harnessing the power of 54 thousand-watt lights that leads to interior temperatures approaching 700 degrees Fahrenheit.

The ice-cream-maker didn’t work exactly as planned—there was too much carbon dioxide and too little chocolate milk—and the Mega Bake pizza-making turned into a food fight when the audience volunteer accidentally hit Brown in the face with some cheese, but it was all in good fun, as was the audience Q&A portion, which included almost as many Doctor Who questions as food questions. (Brown is a big fan of the British show.)

“Alton Brown Live” is a fantastic night of entertainment. Let’s just hope it doesn’t inspire other TV chefs to pursue similar endeavors.

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