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“How to Succeed…” in Claremont: Success as a Period Piece

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion's "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying" celebrates "The Brotherhood of Man" [photo: John LaLonde]

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” celebrates “The Brotherhood of Man” [photo: John LaLonde]

The progression of the classic 1961 musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” from Pulitzer-winning popular satire to dusty antique to fascinating period send-up of the “Mad Men” era has admittedly been fascinating to watch. Its dated attitude toward womanhood, its assumptions of businessmen’s sexual shenanigans, and its underlay of nepotism and testosterone kept it for a long time relegated to rather sad revivals by its aging original stars, as it moved further and further away from the social current of the day. Then, with time (it is, after all, over 50 years old now), its original charm seems reborn as it looks back on a singular era of American history.

And when looked at that way, its sheer silliness carries the day. Now in a good revival at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “How to Succeed…” has a kind of winsome, ridiculous charm. At least it does when – as in this production – you find the leading man up to the task of making unadulterated ambition look cute.

The story follows the adventures of one J. Pierrepont Finch, a window-washer who uses an advice book on success to climb the corporate ladder in record time. In the process he cheerfully manipulates as many of the inner circles of corporate power as he can muster, all the while thwarting the CEO’s inept and entitled nephew. His exploits are celebrated by a company secretary, Rosemary Pilkington, whose fondness for him threatens to derail his single-focused effort to move up.

Three essential elements are needed for this to work. The first, as has been said, Finch must be charming as well as ambitious. Dino Nicandros proves more than up to that task, managing a combination of silliness, slapstick and sincerity which creates exactly the right tone throughout.

Dino Nicandros as Finch and Steve Gunderson as his boss

Dino Nicandros as Finch and Steve Gunderson as his boss

Secondly, the supporting characters – a lot of them – must be clever and energized. No problem there. Jared Ryan Kaitz makes the boss’ nephew just as slimy and whiny as he should be. Sallie Griffin makes Rosemary gently stereotypical, and pleasingly normal in a crazy storyline. Steve Gunderson gives just the right amount of ridiculousness to the oblivious CEO. Krista Curry all but steals the show as the naive bombshell Hedy LaRue, and Jennifer Wilcove stuns in the last number, when the boss’ secretary lets her hair down.

Krista Curry as Hedy LaRue

Krista Curry as Hedy LaRue

Lastly, the whole cast has to be able to sing and dance, in choreography which makes the most of the wry lyrics. The entire ensemble – large by Candlelight Pavilion standards – manages this impressively well, and DJ Gray’s choreography is up to the task most of the time. Indeed, the choreography of “Coffee Break” is funny from start to end, though “A Secretary is Not a Toy” never seems to quite find its thematic core.

Director John LaLonde has a gift for creating continuity in this very episodic tale, aided by Chuck Ketter’s impressive, and impressively mobile set. One other major plus is the wigs, by Mary Warde and Michon Gruber-Gonzales, evoking the era of big hair without being so corny as to distract.

“How to Succeed in Business” spoofs all the elements of the era in which it was created. For a while, the memories of the inequality and boy’s club mentality of that time were near enough to set one’s teeth on edge, but now – with the passage of years (and, quite frankly, a woman as a legitimate candidate for the Presidency) – it has become less annoying than oddly nostalgic. Like the far more serious “Mad Men,” it evokes an era which both fascinates us and reminds us of how, in so many ways, we’ve grown up. Come take a look. You’ll get a lovely meal into the bargain.

What: “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying” When: Through May 28, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Thursday, May 26; 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or

You Can Feel It All Over: The Motown Sound in Claremont

Eric Bailey, Desmond Clark, Gary Lewis, and Lawrence Cummings as The Four Tops in "Sounds of Motown"

Eric Bailey, Desmond Clark, Gary Lewis, and Lawrence Cummings as The Four Tops in “Sounds of Motown”

I have a confession to make. When all those around me were screaming and swooning over The Beatles, my favorite group was The Supremes. Turns out I was not alone. Diana Ross and her pals were the single most popular American group of that era, and their sales worldwide were right up there with the Fab Four. Motown was the definition of American music in the mid-60s.

It was that sound – Barry Gordy’s brash combination of rhythm and blues with a bouncy rock and roll edge – combined with the flash and the choreography, and songs which had a kind of stick-to-your-ribs familiarity. I couldn’t get enough. If you’re like me, then you are going to enjoy “The Sounds of Motown” – a revue filled with familiar favorites now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont.

Unlike some tributes, this show doesn’t try to tell the life story of either Gordy or his company. Rather, it simply collects a group of talented performers to recreate (at least in general tone) the music and the group dynamics which made Motown Records what it was. Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder are all represented, as is, rather inexplicably in that she was not a Motown artist, Patty La Belle. By the end, folks are ready to get up and dance.

Rashonda Johnson in The Sounds of Motown

Rashonda Johnson in The Sounds of Motown

Some renditions ring truer than others, of course, and even among a very talented cast there are standout moments. Roshanda Johnson’s version of “Neither One of Us” leaves one wishing there was more Gladys Knight music in the show than there is, and her “Lady Marmalade,” however inexplicable in this revue, is terrific to listen to. Seven-year-old CJ Wright proves earnest and impressive covering parts associated with the youthful Michael Jackson. Gary Lewis manages a variety of styles well, Jessica Mason makes a nice Mary Wells, and Desmond Clark’s “Do You Love Me” and “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie)” are just plain fun.

7-year-old CJ Wright sings up a storm in The Sounds of  Motown

7-year-old CJ Wright sings up a storm in The Sounds of Motown

Indeed, all of the cast has impressive talent. Eric Bailey, Paul David Bryant, Allisonne Crawford, Lawrence Cummings (who did an impressive job, the night I visited, outsinging his backup even when his mic didn’t work), Jo Rhea Dalcour, Jazz Madison and Valentina Merchant each have moments where they shine personally, and the whole cast blends well together – a neat trick in itself. Director John LaLonde keeps the thing moving along at just the right pace to avoid those “we’ve all got to change costume now” lags. The cast is joined by a poundingly good live band, giving the whole enterprise a specific energy.

Now, there is always an issue when one is providing covers of songs whose original performances are permanently imprinted in people’s brains. There are occasions where a harmony isn’t quite as harmonious as one remembers, or a tonality doesn’t match the particular timbre of the original singer. The decision to rotate performers to the “up front” spot means those tonalities sometimes shift from song to song by a single artistic group, which can be disconcerting. Still, this ensemble works together to bring the essence of Motown alive enough that by the time they ask folks to feel free to get up and dance, it’s what you want to do.

As always at Candlelight Pavilion’s main productions, the show comes along with a fine dinner. And that is special too, of course, as this is the last dinner theater in the greater Los Angeles area. But I have to admit, the nostalgia is pretty sweet too.

What: “The Sound of Motown” When: Through September 8, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays., 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53-$68 general, $25 children 12 and under, including meal, show and sales tax Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

With “The Music Man,” Candlelight Pavilion knows the territory

The River City School Board stops to harmonize in the Candlelight Pavilion production of “The Music Man”

Few American musicals have a grip upon the American self-image like “The Music Man” does. Meredith Wilson’s nostalgic homage to his boyhood in small-town Iowa has left us with some of the most recognizable music in the genre: “76 Trombones,” “Good Night My Someone,” “Good Night Ladies” and many more. A hearty, well-thought-through production of this musical can be an extraordinarily satisfying, non-taxing way to spend an evening.

And that’s exactly what you’ll get at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre in Claremont, where a production of this lighthearted classic lives up to its reputation. The lead performances are good to great. The chorus is large enough to feel like a town. The pace hops along as it should, and one can definitely understand why theater’s most famous flim-flam man extraordinaire gets (as he puts it) his “foot caught in the door.”

The tale is just as classic as the musical itself, and is apparently based on something that actually happened in Wilson’s youth. A traveling salesman calling himself Prof. Harold Hill arrives in the small town of River City, Iowa to follow his current scam: selling band instruments and uniforms to townsfolk along with the promise to found a boy’s band.

As he starts on his usual chain of attack, he runs into an old accomplice named Marcellus, who, though he has gone legit, helps him learn the town. He also begins putting moves on Marian Paroo, the local librarian he assumes is as much a fallen woman as the gossips of town say she is. In the process, he inspires those around him to work together, to learn from each other, and to generally be more friendly toward their neighbors. By the time his true purpose is discovered, even he isn’t sure that’s the purpose anymore.

As Harold, Jason Webb (replacing the injured Allen Everman) handles that fine balance of slickness and earnest kindness with great grace. Coralee Hill’s Marian sings sweetly and also has that indefinable sense of hope and underlying charm necessary for the chemistry between the two to blossom. Although temporarily hobbled a bit by a damaged ankle (which makes her only an onlooker during the important dance sequence at the library), she manages the wisdom and passion necessary to make the part comparatively rounded.

Others worthy of note in the gifted and sizable company – the largest in Candlelight Pavilion history – include Brenda Liebeskind-Haines as Marian’s very Irish mother, and the combination of Jonathan Arana, John Blaylock, Robert Meyer and Robert Hoyt as the school board members Hill convinces to become barbershop quartet. This last group sings very, very well – a sure sign of overall production values. John Lynd has a ball as the blustering Mayor Shinn, and Jenny Wentworth makes great work of his pompous wife. The kids are good. The dancers are good. The whole enterprise proves to be a lot of fun.

Director/choreographer Ray Limon has just the right feel for this piece (though one is unsure why the Ladies’ Dance Society should make two Grecian urns look just about the same as one Grecian urn), and the dancing makes terrific use of the comparatively tiny stage. Indeed, it’s hard to remember how little room they actually have. Rather than reinventing the wheel, the theater has borrowed costumes and set pieces from Fullerton Civic Light Opera, and the result adds a real polish to the whole thing.

In a time when many musicals have moved toward tragedy, pathos, modern angst or ancient wrong, “The Music Man” takes us back to an age of innocence, when most people in the rural Midwest never ventured far from where they were born, and people in such parts had a sense of knowing who they were. We can look back on such with a jaundiced eye, or – when given a treat like this production – we can simply sit back, eat a lovely meal, and absorb the quintessential Americana of a town which states up front “There is nothing halfway about the Iowa way to treat you, if we treat you, which we may not do at all.”

What: “The Music Man” When: Through July 22, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, with brunch service at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: The Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: (meal inclusive) $48 – $68 general, $25 – $30 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

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