The unmuffled noise of a gunshot shatters the leisurely ambience of a lavish dinner party. A distraught woman screams.

A murder has been committed.Now it's up to 60 or 70 people to figure out . . .


It's a sort of James Beard Meets Alfred Hitchcock scenario - or maybe Julia Child Meets Jessica Fletcher.

Two companies along the Wasatch Front - Chameleons, the Whodunit Company, based in Layton, and Hunt Entertainment, Salt Lake City - are producing evenings of suspense-filled fun and games for audiences of wannabe Sherlock Holmeses. It's dinner theater with patrons involved in sleuthing between courses.

Unlike the more casual at-home affairs that are also proliferating in the region, the two semiprofessional companies' productions are well-orchestrated events, deftly mixing crimes and clues with the prime rib and chocolate souffles.

- EXHIBIT A is Chameleons' recent "Slaughter on the Strip" at Sherwood Hills Resort, between Logan and Brigham City.

Think of all the wide-spot-in-the-road, out-in-the-boondocks Nevada lounge shows you've ever seen, and you probably have a fairly concise idea of the kind of characters in this campy sendup, written and directed by James Christian of Layton.

We joined nearly 100 other grown-ups playing "let's pretend" in the banquet room at Sherwood Hills - but the setting, according to the bright red cards on the tables, was supposed to be Big Earl Teeter's Pink Mink Hotel and Casino on the fabulous Strip.

Obnoxious emcee Jackie Hall, a sort of cross between Elvis and Liberace, was our host for what he called "this fabulous night of nights."

For starters, there was a short revue to introduce performers from the Pink Mink's complex of tacky showrooms: Broadway has-been Anita Lenhart, making her comeback (after six months in the Betty Ford Clinic) in the Emerald Ermine Room; comic Chip Connellyfrom the White Weasel Lounge; Lillian Barlow, not playing with a full deck but playing in the Fuchsia Fox Room; duo Ivan & Nicolai Kominsky, a pair of defective . . . er, defecting illusionists from Russia, now starring in the Lilac Leopard Room; and that cute little Nashville nightingale, Jetta Rae Parsons, who's spotlighted nightly in the casino's Crimson Coyote Lounge.

Like other patrons at the dinner, I kept listening for possible clues in the songs and routines these entertainers presented - and the way Jetta Rae murdered "What I Did for Love" with a country version of the great "A Chorus Line" hit, I was certain she would be a strong contender.

Also performing with this motley bunch was blind pianist Terry O'Donnell, representing the casino's Ruby Raccoon Dining Room.

Then, suddenly, there's the shocking news that the real superstar of the evening, the famous Miss Linda Lockwood, won't be performing that night. When she fails to show up for the revue, it's discovered that she's been brutally bludgeoned with a table lamp in her private suite at the Pink Mink Hotel.

"Probably drunk in her room or out having another affair with somebody," was the juicy gossip slipped into the conversation by our tablemate, chanteuse Anita Lenhart.

Virtually every one of the characters was suspect.

One of our favorites was Lillian Barlow, one-third of the wonderful Barlow Sisters. In a heart-wrenching portrayal (bringing to mind Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Strip"), poor Lillian roams from table to table in search of her two sisters, Violet and Daisy. In their heyday, they were famous for delivering "bouquets of songs." But now, sadly, there's just Lillian, who is unable to comprehend that her sisters have long since passed on.

One of the evening's funniest segments, though, is Lillian singing just her own part of what was once a McGuire Sisters-style act. Hearing only one-third of the notes from "Mr. Sandman" is an interesting musical experience.

But, before the evening is out, Lillian, too, becomes a murder victim - after she finds Linda Lockwood's purse, containing several pieces of incriminating evidence.

All of the remaining performers are suspects as the evening progresses. Motives, clues and rumors circulate through the crowd and, at one point, the diners are directed to various locations throughout the hotel to interrogate the various characters about their involvement in the crimes.

- EXHIBIT B is Lee Hunt's production of "Celebration Toast," in which a dinner honoring swinging bachelor Frank Cemico turns ugly when he is found dead the next morning.

The Hunt Entertainment production we saw didn't have quite the professional polish of the Chameleons' piece - but it was being presented in a new space for the first time. The long, L-shaped restaurant didn't have the proper environment or acoustics for this type of entertainment.

Hunt's shows began as casual gatherings in his neighborhood and have expanded from there, involving several local actors.

He tries to involve well-known local personalities in his productions as well. Hans Petersen of KALL Radio was the featured guest for the mid-April performance of "Celebration Toast."

This show was a little more complicated and harder to unravel than "Slaughter on the Strip" - partly because there were 11 suspects, and partly because some of the regular dinner guests arrived in outlandish costumes, causing many patrons to mistakenly think that they were part of the cast.

Hunt also loaded this show with several "red herring" clues, which threw some sleuthers off course and slowed down the final analysis of the crime. But he's doing some fine-tuning and revisions in his shows and has scheduled additional dates (see related story).

Both productions had some outstanding talent, including Alan Mangum as very proper English butler Albert Vestman, and William Bisson and Lenora Cambria as hosts John and Celeste Disk in "Celebration Toast," and Darla Davis as Anita Lenhart and Jerri Christian as Lillian Barlow in "Slaughter on the Strip."

With nearly a dozen scripts either completed or in the works, James Christian's Chameleons company has a busy calendar going for it, but the smaller Hunt Entertainment will likely be busy as well this summer.

This season, more than ever before, there's definitely murder on the menu, giving "dinner theater" a participatory twist.