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White-Trash Christmas 

Once he had sliders on the mind, there was no turning back

Too many cups of eggnog and fistfuls of open-fire-roasted chestnuts this week, and even the ho-ho-holiest of holiday revelers is likely to upchuck. To cut through all that Yuletide cheer, how about some bowel-wrenching fast food, scarfed down while watching some self-consciously cheesy dinner theater? That's the thinking behind this week's debut of I'm Dreaming of a White Castle, a newly penned musical comedy that aims to deliver a dose of dramatic respectability (or is that bald-faced mockery?) to the taste-impaired proletariat.

Set in the upstairs room at Lemmons -- the very venue where the show is being staged -- Dreaming tells the My Fair Lady-like tale of a waitress from Jefferson County who gets taken under the wing of a Ladue professor and taught to upgrade her palette from crap to quiche. (There are also touches of Fiddler on the Roof and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at work, but let's not get ourselves too bogged down with plot, here.) It's the brainchild of Kevin O'Brien, who, as creative director of St. Louis-based Upstage Productions, mounts original murder-mystery dinner theater from Kentucky to Minnesota. The show is born from his yen to create a cabaret chockablock with local references. "Usually when I write my shows, I'll put in jokes that I then have to take out, because once you get 50 miles outside St. Louis, people don't get that stuff," says O'Brien, who'll also take on the Henry Higgins-esque role at least through the first few performances. "They don't know what you mean when you talk about hoosiers; they think you mean Indiana. I started thinking about doing a show that was a comedy, and was all about the aesthetic experience of living in South St. Louis -- the hoorgeoisie, if you will."

Once the phrase "White Castle dinner theater" popped into O'Brien's head during the development phase, he knew there was no turning back. "I didn't want to make up some bogus burger-company name, and I couldn't think up a funnier title than the one I came up with that had White Castle in the name." A few phone calls to White Castle's regional office ensued, and, before long, the undersized-burger corporation was granting him use of its name and logo -- and, of course, its food. The price of admission includes a burger-soda-and-fries feast. White Castle bigwigs from the national HQ in Cleveland are even tearing themselves away from their holiday hearths and making their way here for opening night, says O'Brien.

Even the intermission entertainment goes the hoosier route. Normally the floor of Lemmons' second-story space is rigged for impromptu games of washers (you know, like horseshoes, except you throw little washers into little paper or plastic cups). The cups will be taken up for the show, then duct-taped back down again at halftime. "Lemmons has that just-a-little-seedy vibe I really wanted for this show," says O'Brien. "It's the perfect home for this show. In fact, everything has come together for this thing just as I wanted it." And they say Christmas wishes can't come true.

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