A year and a half ago, Lincolnville resident and actor/producer John Burstein was asked to help raise money to renovate the kitchen of Knox County Meals on Wheels. Committee members kicked around ideas, and Burstein – who is nationally known for his children’s character Slim Goodbody – volunteered to write and perform a sketch at a fundraising cocktail party.

Since they were raising money for a kitchen, it wasn’t much of a leap to set his skit in one. The skit was some 25 minutes long, with seven actors – including Burstein and his wife – and five songs that he wrote himself. It was set in an imaginary kitchen, where pots and pans, cutlery and wedges of cheese came to life.

“It was a lark,” Burstein said last week speaking from the auditorium at Portland Stage and squeezing in an interview between consultations with his lighting designer. “It was just a lark. But people loved it.”

The party raised about $14,000 and out of that sketch grew “The Night Kitchen,” a two-act musical that played in Camden for two performances last winter and opens in Portland on June 6. Over time, the show has grown and changed. It lost the character of President Trump demanding that tacos be banished. It lost a bit about a milk carton who is distributed to seniors every day by Meals on Wheels but makes an executive decision that the clients would prefer a nice glass of chardonnay. It gained more characters, more songs and a plot. It lost none of its exuberance or whimsy. (The similarity of the name to Maurice Sendak’s book, “In the Night Kitchen” was not intentional, Burstein said. At the same time, “I decided, on balance, a cultural touchtone isn’t a bad thing,” adding that both his show and the book have elements of the fantastic.)


“The Night Kitchen” incorporates burlesque, vaudeville, Keystone cops humor and likable, hummable tunes with smart, sometimes sly lyrics. Burstein cites Danny Kaye and Al Jolson as big influences. In one scene, the chef sings a poetic ode to a butternut squash. In another, a frying pan with aspirations to sauté and flambé tells her troubles to Dr. Pepper: “I am tired of being treated like an ordinary pan. There is so much more I could be trying. I was born for more than frying.”


Elizabeth Freeman, left, and CarlaRose Dubois rehearse a scene from the show. The restaurant setting was a natural for Burstein, whose father was an attorney for the New York State Restaurant Association and a friend of famed restaurateur Vincent Sardi.

Charmingly cheesy jokes are interspersed with more serious moments where the audience gets to see – and hear – the rhythm of a restaurant kitchen, its pleasures and its very real stresses, too. (Hear it, in syncopated songs like this: “Cut thin – mince, dice/Pound well – add spice/ Just so – precise/Chop once – chop twice/Strike match – stir rice/Chill well – on ice/Oh yeah – that’s nice.”)

The restaurant scenes at times ring so true that after watching a rehearsal last week, I was certain that Burstein a) had owned a restaurant, b) had worked in a restaurant (what aspiring New York actor hasn’t? Burstein, 67, moved to Maine from Manhattan two decades ago), or c) regularly dined out.

Wrong, mostly, on all counts.

“I’m not a foodie,” he said. “My wife is a wonderful cook. I don’t cook. I make scrambled eggs and omelettes and spaghetti and that’s about it.”

Moreover, he’s a decades-long vegetarian and a recent vegan. Vegetarians, he added, think about food much of the time because they have to. (He admitted to a two-week lapse, “The Bacon Episode,” some years ago when he was touring and eating breakfast at Waffle House restaurants most mornings.)

Burstein does have a few restaurants on his resume, but he wasn’t waiting tables or flipping burgers. He launched his career when he was about 14 with a paying gig playing guitar at The Spice of Life restaurant. He fancied himself – he laughs – the Donovan of Long Island.


Burstein gives a hug to actress CarlaRose Dubois as she feigns devastation after receiving a little constructive criticism during rehearsal of a scene at Portland Stage on Friday.

So to write “The Night Kitchen,” he mostly did what he always does, he said – a lot of research. Burstein read deeply, googled widely and hung out in local kitchens, scrutinizing the action and grilling the chefs and restaurateurs about their challenges. He says the chef character in the play is loosely based on Brian Hill of Francine Bistro in Camden. James Hatch, of Home Kitchen Cafe in Rockland, surprised Burstein by wanting to talk with him about his dishwashers: “They work harder than anybody else, and they get paid the least.” After that conversation, the show’s dishwasher character grew in scope and sympathy. When Annmarie Ahearn of Saltwater Farm in Rockport told him about having to keep burgers on a menu because customers demanded them though the chef was sick and tired of making them, that made it into the show, too.


Burstein didn’t get all the details right. He says after one performance, a chef came up to him to say how much he’d enjoyed the show, and proceeded to critique the actors’ knife skills. Or lack of them. They’d failed to make a claw shape with their hand while chopping vegetables, a position that keeps cooks from slicing their fingers.

There was something else that Burstein said gave him extra insight into restaurants, and it’s an analogy he makes explicit in “The Night Kitchen.”

“Running a restaurant is a lot like producing a show,” he said. “They produce every night, and they have their patrons, and they serve their fare, and they put out their playbill, which is the menu. And they have their director, the chef. And he’s also the producer. And like a director, these chefs are under enormous pressure.”

John Burstein reacts during rehearsals of “The Night Kitchen,” a musical he wrote and composed about a restaurant kitchen, using both real and imaginary characters. “As a kid and into my teens, we went to restaurants all the time.” Burstein says. “Maybe that’s part of where ‘The Night Kitchen’ came from?”



Burstein knows whereof he speaks. As Slim Goodbody for four decades, traveling the country to perform and making countless television appearances on “Captain Kangaroo” and in his own shows, Burstein has always written, acted, sung and produced his own material. The character wore a signature unitard painted with body parts – many adults still remember it from their childhood – and taught kids about healthy living through skits and music. For “The Night Kitchen,” he serves as writer, composer, lyricist, producer, director, promoter, chief bottle washer – and he acts in the show, too, playing an impresario character of sorts who bookends the plot. To transport the set from Camden to Portland, he rented a U-Haul and drove it down himself. (Portland Stage is not producing “The Night Kitchen”; Burstein has rented the theater for the show.)

Ask him how he does it all, and he’ll tell you he has a lot of energy and a lot of experience, and then quickly deflect. Burstein praised by name his many collaborators – the lighting designer; the orchestrator; the set and costume designers; the musicians and the actors, who are from Portland and New York City. To Burstein’s regret, the orchestra isn’t live. “What energy that would bring to the show!” he said. But it was simply too complicated and expensive to use live musicians. Instead, he hired seven Portland musicians and recorded them playing the show’s tunes. During performances, actors sing to that recording.

As with the Camden show, 100 percent of the proceeds from the Portland show will go to charity, Burstein said, in this case to Preble Street in Portland, which provides shelter and other resources for the homeless.

The show exudes goofy good cheer. “It’s really important at this time, and probably at any other time,” to make people laugh, he said. “But if I can marry that to a cause that helps benefit people beyond the moment of the play, that’s even better.”

Adam Ferguson rehearses a number at Portland Stage on Friday.

His hopes for “The Night Kitchen” are success in Portland and “a whole bunch of money” for Preble Street. After that, he’d like others to take the show on the road, using it, as he has, to raise money for nonprofits. But, “if you’re asking me about my dream?” he said. “I would love somebody to help me bring this into Boston or into New York City. We’ll take it to the next level.”

To help reach his fundraising goals, Burstein reached out to Fore Street’s Sam Hayward earlier this spring. He asked Hayward if he’d be willing to gather a group of chefs to watch a 20-minute preview of “The Night Kitchen.” The idea was, if they liked what they saw, they’d talk the show up among the food community, encouraging ticket sales. David Turin, chef/owner of David’s restaurants in Portland, South Portland and Kennebunkport, was among the handful who attended the private showing. Turin showed up as a favor to Hayward, but he wasn’t exactly eager.

“We were sitting right there in the comfy chairs in the bar (at Fore Street). It was about noontime. It was an extremely small audience. There was just 8 feet between the front of my chair and the performance. I thought it was going to be a little awkward,” Turin recalled, “but it wasn’t awkward in the slightest. (Burstein) is a tremendous performer. It really felt like, to me, he had a real intimate understanding of what it was like to be in the business, from the owner’s perspective or the chef’s or the bartender’s or server’s.

“I am a little embarrassed to say this – that there were a couple of parts that really evoked a tremendous amount of emotion from me, because the texture of it was so authentic to my own experience,” Turin continued. “I love the business. I’ve been in it for 35 years, but it has been a roller coaster. The scene where the chef is sitting at the bar, fretting over the pressures and where all the money is going? It sounds like me every night after work. For 35 years. This show really resonated.”

Correction: This story was updated at 12:57 p.m. on May 31 to correct the spelling of Brian Hill’s name.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.