“The Night Kitchen,” now at Portland Stage, will bring a smile to the faces of adults who grew up watching educational programs like CBS-TV’s “Captain Kangaroo.” From 1976 to 1980, writer and director John Burstein appeared on “Captain Kangaroo” twice a week as the hero of children’s health, Slim Goodbody. He isn’t donning his organ-adorned leotard for this show, but Burstein hasn’t lost his zest for education, or flair for entertainment.

His musical comedy is filled with catchy songs, memorable costumes and clever performances that deliver an eye-opening look at the restaurant business and the magic that brings the kitchen to life after-hours – while doing good at the same time. All proceeds from the run of the show will benefit Preble Street’s emergency food service programs.

Burstein stars as the ghostly former proprietor of “The Night Kitchen,” Papa, who died from a heart attack 16 months prior. Papa’s daughter CJ, played by Meghan O’Brien, has taken over the family business that her great-grandfather opened in 1933, but she is struggling to achieve her lofty aspirations for fame and fortune.

O’Brien and Ian Doran, as the restaurant’s immigrant dishwasher Angelo, offer a charming duet about restaurant economics on “What You Keep,” and Burstein reminds that “Fame is terrific, so is money, but they won’t fill your heart or tummy” with the song “Food Sonny.”

The first act offers behind-the-scenes insight into the restaurant business, drawing comparisons between running a restaurant and staging a theater production. Both put on performances – with menus serving as the program at restaurants – and both are at the mercy of patrons and critics.

Mark Bedell delivers an amusing performance on “A Menu is a Contract,” portraying an obnoxious lawyer who threatens to sue because the restaurant is out of his desired wine. Elizabeth Freeman is perfectly paired as his mortified date, who claims to only be allergic to nuts that aren’t chopped up.

Between educational insights, Burstein playfully pokes fun at society, joking that restaurants are where foodies come to pray in “Foodie Hymn.” In Act 2, a peanut, gluten and a piece of bacon question diet fads in “What’s the Deal?”

Burstein’s imagination shines in the vaudevillian-styled second act. With cane and top hat in hand, he melodically croons the zesty lyrics of the show’s theme before turning the stage over to blacklight-lit condiments and kitchen utensils that magically dance across the stage. It’s nonstop fun as the kitchen comes to life. A spoon (Doran) romances a dish (Lauren Scheibly) by the light of a silvery pizza pan on “Silvery Moon,” Salt (Lucinda Ziesing) and Pepper (Gordon Adams) spice things up with “Making Whoopie,” Don Fusilli (Bedell) and his pasta family claim to be “true Americans” on “Pasta Nostra,” and Colleen Katana delivers a show-stopping performance as a burlesque frying pan that dreams of flambéing in “More Than Frying.”

Between numbers, Freeman and CarlaRose Dubois tell pun-filled jokes, dressed as a bottle of wine and a piece of Swiss cheese.

The impressive 15-member cast also features Mary Randall (Sandy) and Gloria Bonnin (Tina) as kitchen staff members, Adam Fergeson (Bruce) as a waiter, Erica Ryan (Squares) as a plate of ravioli and Reggie Bonnin as the food therapist, Dr. Pepper.

“The Night Kitchen” is smart family entertainment that dishes out both educational lessons and saucy entertainment, with layered meaning. The production offers something for all ages, making it a thoroughly enjoyable way to support a worthy cause.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: ahboyle

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