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The “Annie Get Your Gun” at Candlelight – A Mixed Experience

Buffalo Bill introduces the players in “Annie Get Your Gun” at Candlelight Pavilion

Note: This production has already closed, but somehow the review was never posted here. Thus, I post it now for the record.

If you are acquainted with Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” it is likely either through the 1950 film version with Betty Hutton (after Judy Garland was fired from the project) or various clips of songs from the show sung by their originator, Ethel Merman. If this is what you are looking for at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, it will take readjustment. Their production uses the script rewrites created for the Tony-winning revival in 1999. To some extent this is good news. To some extent, at least as presented, the jury is still out.

The revision restages “Annie…” as if it was in itself a show presented by Buffalo Bill, which is innovative, although it threatens to disrupt the flow of the tale itself. The ending has also been rewritten – a necessity for a modern audience, and some objectionable material ridiculing Native Americans has been removed. The costuming ignores most of the conventions of Annie Oakley’s actual period, but that becomes a part of the “it’s just a show” framework, and allows for a lot of lively dancing. The leads are solid (though one was obviously under the weather on opening weekend), and some of the supporting players are particularly fine. In all, it makes for a night of light entertainment, which may be a useful thing in a time like this.

The story grows from the tale of actual people. Famed sure-shot Annie Oakley was a star in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, among others. Sitting Bull, the famed Sioux chief, was also a part of the show for some of that time. She was originally discovered by another sure-shot, Frank Butler, whom she married. Although the Irving Berlin musical twists all these facts around to create a battle of the sexes, it sits on this foundation. In the Berlin version, Butler and Oakley become competitors, with Frank’s ego so bruised he leaves at one point for a rival show, and Annie struggling between proving her prowess and winning Frank’s love.

In the Candlelight production, Brent Schindele (who will be replaced by Johnny Fletcher as of March 23) plays Frank as the standard egotistical pretty boy unwilling to be show up by a girl. He sings with authority, but there is a certain lack of chemistry between him and Jamie Mills’ Annie. Mills gives a Annie an innate confidence and aura of backwoods practicality which works well. Her singing voice was gentled by illness opening weekend, but her understanding of how the songs need to affect the course of the storyline was on target.

Still, at least when shown for review, the best of the production were those backing up these leads. Randy Hilton makes his Buffalo Bill just bombastic enough, while Michael Lopez gives Sitting Bull a certain gravitas which keeps him from being awkwardly stereotypical. As the somewhat star-crossed lovers, Jacob Nancy also manages this balance as the half-Native young knife thrower whose love for his white assistant, played by Kylie Molnar, comes under scrutiny. These latter two have a great time as the exhuberant ingenues of the piece.

Another star is the choreography of Janet Renslow, who has reworked material by Graciela Daniele and Jeff Calhoun to fit the specifics of the Candlelight stage. Mitch Gill and Chuck Ketter have worked up a convertible set which allows for the many, many quick changes of scene, necessary for the direction of James W. Gruessing, Jr., who must deal with side bars usually staged in front of a scrim on a stage which really doesn’t have one.

In short, “Annie Get Your Gun” is a classic, reworked with intention and care. Its increasingly episodic nature – as characters slip in and out of storytelling to become the staff of the show telling the story – may sometimes interrupt the story’s flow or the humor of the piece. Still, there is charm there, and when all are healthy there are also those wonderfully belt-able songs which still ring in the ear: “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” or “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”. The change to the ending (the original of which even perplexed me as a child), and the respect for what Canadians accurately call First Nations People means adopting this reworking was a wise idea.

What: “Annie Get Your Gun” When: [see note at top of review] through April 14, doors open for the dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63-$78 general, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal-inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

“Jesus Christ Superstar”: Candlelight Pavilion hosts classic rock opera

Richard Bermudez as Judas and Kyle Short as Jesus in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” [photo: James Suter]

The first major splash made by the songwriting team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was a 1971 concept rock opera album titled “Jesus Christ Superstar.” For many of my generation, that was how we first encountered this work, allowing our imaginations to fill in what the characters looked like and the setting they would wander through. As it moved quickly to stage, and then to film, it developed a new, wider audience, and the show has rarely been off the boards since.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, “Jesus Christ Superstar” – for those who don’t already know – gives a comparatively modern spin to the tale of the last few weeks of Jesus’ life. Though ostensibly “humanizing” the story (i.e.: making it more about the man than a deity), it stays fairly faithful to the commonly held storyline, while embracing what is always a dramatist’s challenge: finding a motivation for Judas’ betrayal. And the music is literally classic Lloyd Webber: lush in spots, stridently rock-and-roll in others, somewhat thematically repetitive, with that unforgettable quality which has kept him a success for decades.

At Candlelight, co-directors Chuck Ketter and John LaLonde have assembled a fine cast. They look right, sing with skill and intention, and create the atmosphere necessary for the show to be a success. Also necessary for success are a few key players. Heading the list, Kyle Short makes an effective Jesus, balancing his dynamism against his exhaustion and fear. Emily Chelsea gives Mary Magdalene’s songs a slight country lilt, but it works.

Stanton Kane Morales as Pontius Pilate, develops a rather wistful tone, which works well. Camilo Castro, a true bass, gives Caiaphas the aura of villainy necessary for this show’s spin on events. A remarkable ensemble, including Orlando Montes as Peter, sings well, dances with enthusiasm and skill, and creates the atmospheres necessary – whether of fawning, devotion, delight, demand, or panic – to make the piece work.

A true standout in all of this is Richard Bermudez as the angsty Judas, angry and horrified, and in the end sure he’s been duped into his actions. Bermudez has the combination of vocal strength and articulation necessary for what becomes the binding storyline behind the obvious. One just wishes that the shadow of his final demise looked a bit more like a person, but that is nitpicking.

Pacing is everything in this show, and band director Alan Waddington never lets the thing slow down or pause. Putting a band on the small Candlelight stage means the large ensemble must be maneuvered with skill in front of and even above the musicians at times, which works remarkable well except when someone in a long robe has to climb a ladder in a hurry – a bit nerve wracking to watch. Still, the two directors have a gift for the visual, and some moments prove especially impressive, including the very last sequence, as Jesus is executed. Indeed, the final tableau as the lights go out is particularly powerful.

Kudos also to choreographer Dustin Ceithamer for creating dance and movement which look spontaneous even as they are not, and to costume coordinator Merrill Grady for giving the sense of that Renaissance view of the Middle East which so characterizes one’s mind’s-eye view of the time period.

In short, it is good to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, in part because – above and beyond the religious significance – the subject matter of political manipulation and the dangers of flying off the handle seems very current, and in part because it is good to revisit a work from the start of two songwriting careers which, both together and independently have helped define the stage and screen as it is known today. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion one also gets a tasty meal.

What: “Jesus Christ Superstar” When: through April 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 adults, $30 -$35 children, meals inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ex.100, or

“The Producers” at Candlelight – Big musical fits well in smaller package

Bobby Collins and Jamie Snyder as Leo and Max in "The Producers" [photo: John LaLonde]

Bobby Collins and Jamie Snyder as Leo and Max in “The Producers” [photo: John LaLonde]

One of the most celebrated Broadway musicals of the recent past is Mel Brooks’ adaptation of his film “The Producers.” Ridiculous, clever and continuously engaging, it still demands a strong cast and a strong directorial vision to be a success. What a delightful surprise, then, to discover all of this at a place where you can also get a decent meal: the area’s last remaining true dinner theater, The Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont.

The story is as silly as one expects from Mel Brooks. Max Bialystock, a failing Broadway producer, joins forces with a timid accountant named Leo Bloom to make money by fleecing investors in a show intentionally so bad it closes. As Max gathers the money from a fleet of aged women he sequentially seduces, the two begin their search for a truly awful musical they can contract for, and cast. They hire a famously awful director, with his crew of stereotypical assistants, and the plot thickens.

Director Brian Thomas Barnhart and choreographer Janet Renslow work with considerable success to recreate the Broadway original on Candlelight’s smaller stage. A sizable, talented cast lives up to these demands, led by Jamie Snyder’s appropriately over-the-top Max, and Bobby Collins’ humorously fragile Leo. Both have strong singing voices, as well, and the entire cast proves impressive in dance routine after routine (including the famous “tapping walkers”).

Playing the ultimate stereotypes – in typical Brooks comedic fashion – Laura Thatcher creates the well-endowed, somewhat dim Swedish actress-turned-secretary Ulla, and Danny Blaylock creates the crazed former Nazi, Franz. Add to these Stanton Kane Morales’ cross-dressing director and Emerson Boatwright having a ball as his fawning assistant. Andrew Wade supplies a number of smaller character bits, and manages the classic tenor required for the Ziegfeld take-off “Springtime for Hitler.”

The polish doesn’t end there. James Gruessing’s set is a star all in and of itself – one of the most complex and layered ones Candlelight has ever used. The lighting is great, and the costumes, from The Theatre Company, are just right throughout.

More importantly, one laughs and laughs often. The show is genuinely funny, frankly funnier than in the production at the Ahmanson, where Jason Alexander, rather than living into the part of Max with great glee, seemed apologetic for not being Nathan Lane. No apologies here. Everyone is playing their parts full-out and the results are absolutely delightful.

One warning: Mel Brooks loves making fun of lust, and as such there are a number of moderately off-color references and actions which may make this a show that is inappropriate for kids. On the other hand, the show comes accompanied by good food and fabulous desserts, all of which contribute to a generally joyous experience.

So, go see “The Producers.” Having seen many of the productions in Candlelight Pavilion’s 30-year history, I’d rate this among the top ten. It really is worth one’s while to go and enjoy.

What: “The Producers” When: Through April 4, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for matinee brunches Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73, dinner inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or

“The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” – Solid rendition, dated content

The do-gooders rally to ruin The Chicken Ranch (aka The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) at Candlelight Pavilion

The do-gooders rally to ruin The Chicken Ranch (aka The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) at Candlelight Pavilion

It’s not the first place you think of to host the silly, but somewhat risque 1970s musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” but the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre in Claremont has made reputation recently for redefining the material such an institution will provide. Hot on the heels of “The Full Monty” and “Sweeney Todd,” their stage now hosts a ladies of a house of ill repute, a chorus of randy football players, and a live country band.

Actually, that batch of live musicians is the most innovative choice. With the exception of concert-like or tribute programs, Candlelight Pavilion usually uses the pre-recorded material now available for musicals on small stages. The in-house band, headed by musical director Douglas Austin, gives an immediacy to everything which proves surprisingly satisfying.

The production itself, directed and choreographed by John Vaughan, has style and pizzazz, and just enough titillation to bring that “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” factor one expects from a musical about such a topic. The performers are earnest to excellent. Still, one of the things which jumps out at the audience the most is how far we have come in our sensibilities since the 1970s. The thing isn’t played like a period piece, but it is one.

Lisa Layne does a solid job with the practical, but caring madam, Miss Mona. She has the voice for country music, and her performance does much to hold the show together. Steven Biggs’ friendly country sheriff makes a nice balance to Layne, offering tinges of middle-aged romance in the midst of the rest. Rashonda Johnson delivers another show-stopping performance as the house’s maid.

Indeed, all of the cast are enthusiastic and the energy is consistently strong. The singer/dancers who form the ensemble of “girls” and their paying customers dance well. The only slight disappointment comes from the comparatively quiet rendition of “The Aggie Song” – normally one of the most testosterone-laden shout-outs in modern musicals. Jeremy Magouirk makes fun work of the righteous investigator who threatens the house’s existence, and David Aldrete has fun with a stereotypical Texas politician or two.

Still, despite a script offers a view of women, and of prostitution, which is increasingly old fashioned. When the sheriff argues the economic plus to having this industry near town, it just isn’t as funny as it was when I first saw it in 1979, and not because it isn’t well presented.

So, the Candlelight Pavilion production of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” is not for children. It’ just graphic enough – at least in implication – to leave younger kids with some awkward questions at the table. It is, however, quite well done, filled with entertaining dance numbers and considerable humor. Placed in its own time period, it becomes a humorous counter-argument to the women’s movement. Placed in our own, it jars a bit with how far many feel we’ve come in the past 35-40 years.

What: “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” When: Through February 2, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: meal inclusive, $53-$68 adults, $25 children under 12 Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or

Something Fairly Wonderful: “The King and I” at Candlelight Pavilion

"The Small House of Uncle Thomas" from Candlelight Pavilion's "The King and I"

“The Small House of Uncle Thomas” from Candlelight Pavilion’s “The King and I”

The airwaves have recently been full of offerings celebrating aspects of the American musical theater. More than once, it has been pointed out that many, if not most of the musicals since the end of World War II have had a lot to do with clashing cultures, or with those outside the cultural norm. Certainly, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s “The King and I” falls into that category, basing a lushly told story on the edgy balance between east and west.

Now, at Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, a new production of this much-loved classic has a lot to recommend it. The songs prove cheerful and remarkably timeless. The dancing – absolutely requisite to the plot line at one point – proves up to the demands. The children are cute and the adult performers handle their very individual characters with aplomb.

Of course, the story is now imprinted on a theater-lover’s DNA: In the 1860s, a British widow becomes tutor to the children of the King of Siam, enriching both their lives and futures. The actual king (Rama IV) actually did bring in a British woman to work with him in creating an aura of western civilization strong enough for him, and the son who followed him, to fend off western imperial attempts at co-opting his country. It worked. Of course, Rama was neither as backward or as “other” as this musical makes out, but the point about westernization and the innate wisdom of a non-western king is still made.

Clynell Jackson III as The King

Clynell Jackson III as The King

Clynell Jackson III makes a stridingly commanding king, even managing to keep up the patter songs like “A Puzzlement” when dealing with a recorded orchestra – a singularly difficult task. His chemistry with Jenny Moon Shaw’s Mrs. Anna kind of comes and goes, but there is enough present for “Shall We Dance” and the show’s powerful ending to work.

Shaw sings well, and exudes warmth. Indeed, the only detriment to her performance appears to be costume-related, as it takes her some time to walk naturally in a hoop skirt without gripping it in a very un-1860s kind of way. Again, however, her energy and her voice carry the piece as it should.

Shaw and Jackson, about to dance

Shaw and Jackson, about to dance

Also worthy of significant notice is Angela Briones’ Tuptim, whose bell-like singing sets the tone of innocence for the much-abused Burmese princess. Richard Bermudez makes a muscular and commanding Lun Tha – Tuptim’s clandestine lover. Stella Kim handles one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most touchingly grown-up love songs, “Something Wonderful,” and carries an innate nobility which underscores her role as first wife.

The kids are cute and willing. The staging of their entrance has been handled well by director Neil Dale, matching children to “mothers” who can guarantee placement. Jason Luke Hill makes a very likable Prince Chulalongkorn – innocent yet assured of his standing. Likewise, Wyatt Larrabee makes attractive work of Anna’s own son. The rest of the children alternate between two casts, but the ones I saw did a fine job.

Perhaps the acid test of any “King and I” is the dance/story-telling rendition of “The Small House of Uncle Thomas.” Simeon Den’s choreography offers just enough traditional Thai movement to make it work, and his uncredited “Eliza” does a particularly nice job.

Perhaps most importantly, the thing looks right. Neil Dale has created the difference in movement which helps define differing cultures, and keeps it consistent. Chuck Ketter’s lush-looking set allows for quick changes and Dale’s direction keeps the pace hopping. The result is colorful, tuneful, and brisk. Indeed, the only thing in the show which might benefit from a bit of a slower tempo is the very end, where everything seems to happen on top of itself a bit.

For some folk it may be difficult to get beyond Yul Brenner and what he brought to the show from its very first days, through to the film and tour after tour during his lifetime. Still, sometimes something older can only become new again when one moves past a single performance to look at the show itself. This one is worth it, from a musical and a message standpoint. Give it a try. Help support Southern California’s last dinner theater. Take the kids, too. It’s a great chance to have a nice meal, see other kids onstage, and a history lesson (well, sort of) to boot.

What: “The King and I” When: Through August 4, doors open at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: meal and show – $53-$68 adults/ $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

No really. I really AM back this time…

It was about a month ago that I trumpeted my recovery from illness, and calmly assured all I knew that I was back on track. Yeah, about that.

I did try. I saw about five shows in quick succession, trying to catch up. I even managed to get one written up. But I had more to struggle with than I told myself. That pause button went back on, whether I wished it to or not.

Some of what I was dealing with was resurfacing grief, added to by another loss. Some was a slower-than-expected recovery from pneumonia – an exhaustion I just could not kick. And then there were some interesting body-chemistry things, which led to sleeplessness and the like. I don’t have to bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say I wasn’t as well as I thought I was. And every time I tried to write about theater, or write poetry, or otherwise exercise that particular part of my brain it just shut down.

I know that this sounds like I am whining: oh, poor pitiful me. Believe me, I hear that too. I am not, under normal circumstances, a person who a) fusses about her health, or b) leaves obligations unfulfilled. As you may imagine, this has been very frustrating. I saw interesting theater and would have loved to share. At this point, I’d like to at least reflect on what I saw now, even if it’s too late for reviews.

At The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, Dan Dietz and Phillip Owen’s oddly fascinating musical “American Misfits” examined the true story of the U.S.’s first serial killer – a man named Harpe whose vendetta against the revolution turned into a pathology, dragging with it his brother and a pair of crazed sisters encountered along the way.

The cast of "American Misfits" at Boston Court

The cast of “American Misfits” at Boston Court

What was most fascinating about the authors’ and director Michael Michetti’s vision was the lighthearted approach to this macabre material. This involved, among other things, emphasizing rockabilly music as an element of the setting, choreographer Lee Martino’s contained, yet wild dance numbers, and (of course) Heather Ho’s “puppets.” These represented Harpe’s many, many victims. They were made of burlap with Velcro closings which allowed them to be eviscerated in a colorful but distinctly representational way, thus letting the story not to be overwhelmed by the essentially icky nature of the tale being told.

It also allowed the humor necessary for the larger examination of the American ethos, which was the real point of the piece.

Cast members – all of whom were remarkable – included Banks Boutte as the rockabilly singer/narrator, Daniel Mk Cohen as Little Harpe, Al Meijer as his slow, bigger brother, Karen Jean Olds and Maya Erskine as the crazed sisters, Eden Riegel as the woman who almost – almost – makes Little Harpe give up killing, and P.J. Ochlan and Larry Cedar as everyone else, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. It was particularly satisfying to see Cedar again, whose work I have watched my entire career. (Indeed, the first time I wrote a review which encountered resistance from others, it was of a show he was in at the Mark Taper Forum which I loved but many did not, back in the early 1980s.)

Then, an equally musical but far more standard fare was the truly charming “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s series there. Under the leadership of Glenn Casale, this piece was far less chauvinistic than some versions. Dennis Castellano’s choreography kept just enough of the film choreography, but wasn’t afraid to depart from it either. It was energetic, charming, tightly paced, appropriately visceral, and well worth watching.

Dancing with abandon in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" at La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Dancing with abandon in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Highlights included Kevin Earley’s obtuse elder brother Adam, and Beth Malone as the practical romantic who marries him, but everyone was having a ball, including the audience. It’s always good to see something which has been considered kind of a dinosaur resurrected so effectively.

Out at Southern California’s last remaining dinner theater, The Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, they brought back “The Full Monty,” which had been such a hit for them in 2009. What they had discovered then still seemed to hold true: women were entertained by the rather titillating concept, but men were fascinating to discover a show which spoke to their own insecurities.

Cast of The Full Monty at Candlelight Pavilion

Cast of The Full Monty at Candlelight Pavilion

Louis Pardo had a few diction problems, but was still strong as Jerry, the unemployed steel worker desperate to make enough money to keep partial custody of his kid. As his friend, and the least likely male stripper in the group Jerry gathers to perform for a single night, Sheldon Robert Morley managed to portray all the emotional aches and body image insecurities men such as these pretend not to have. It was touching, it was funny, and it was well done.

Last, but anything-but-least, Phylicia Rashad’s vibrant production of August Wilson’s classic “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper Forum was a wonder and a delight. With its luscious mix of hope, grit, laughter and the ethereal it created a space redolent with the joy of being alive.

A moment of jubilee in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at the Mark Taper Forum

A moment of jubilee in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper Forum

From Lillias White’s practical cook, to Keith David’s stalwart boarding house operator, through the rest of a stunning cast all the way to young Skye Barrett and Nathaniel James Potvin as youngsters on the verge of adventure, the cast proved deep and brilliant and fun. Wilson’s epic series of plays teaches everyone so much, and each time they are produced more can be learned. What a satisfying evening.

Which makes it all the more frustrating to not have the “stuff” to share them with you in a timely fashion. Well, I really am better now. I hope to move forward in better health, more “together,” and more aware of my own limitations. I’m back on the horse, and ready to ride. This time I’ll try not to fall out of the saddle.

A Sweet “Sweet Charity” – Candlelight Pavilion handles tough show with grace

The taxi dancers look for a "Big Spender" in Sweet Charity at the Candlelight Pavilion

The taxi dancers look for a “Big Spender” in Sweet Charity at the Candlelight Pavilion

The musical “Sweet Charity” falls into the unusual category of Broadway shows which have music far more famous than their productions. Co-opted for everything from advertisements to concerts and variety shows, songs like “Hey, Big Spender” and “If They Could See Me Now” have had enormous staying power, even as the plot they came from gets lost.

Perhaps this is because the show was crafted by director/choreographer Bob Fosse as a showcase for his extraordinarily talented wife, and muse, Gwen Verdon. Perhaps it comes from the fact the tale is adapted from a rather bleak Fellini film. In any case, the tale of plucky taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine, whose optimism powers her through one romantic disaster after another, deserves another airing. Now it gets one, at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont.

To make “Sweet Charity” work, you have to honor the original. Large portions of the show are devoted to dance, and Fosse-esque dance at that. This means your dancers must be quality, something Candlelight pulls off. Choreographer Janet Renslow has a genuine feel for what the numbers have to look like, and those signature – and necessary – moves translate well onto this solid cast.

Tracy Pedretti is the ever-optimistic Charity

Tracy Pedretti is the ever-optimistic Charity

Tracy Pedretti makes a terrific Charity. She has just the right balance of naivete and bravado, and dances up a storm. As her two far more cynical buddies, Tiffany Reid and Eli Menendez create tough, but humorous contrast to Charity’s constant upbeat view. Along the way, they handle my personal favorite moment of the show “There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This” with great intensity.

As Oscar, the most likely, and yet also most likely to be scared off, of Charity’s love interests, Bobby Collins finds the charm in the character’s nerdiness. Other standouts include Kayla Ann Bullock, delightfully stereotypical as a famous movie star’s woman, Michael Worldly as a jazz-hippy-new age preacher, and John LaLonde as the movie star. Deborah Fauerbach provides some stunning moments as a featured dancer, as well.

Neil Dale’s tight direction keeps the story from becoming depressing, and integrates beautifully with the long dance sequences. Set designer Kerry Jones even manages to get a ferris wheel into the small Candlelight space.

In short, though this musical is not for the kiddies, it has a sort of “pull up your socks and move on” charm which, when combined with solid dancing and singing, propel it to a wry charm. You like Charity, and are kept from wallowing in the darker underpinnings of her life by her sunny nature. This is what this show has to offer: that sense that attitude can keep a disaster in perspective, even in an outwardly unfriendly world. We could all use a lesson or two in that area.

What: “Sweet Charity” When: Through May 5, opens for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays – Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays and for brunch 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, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or

A Tuneful Mash-Up: the new-old “Sound of Music” in Claremont

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion's "Sound of Music"

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Sound of Music”

The new, and extremely well performed production of “The Sound of Music” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont provided another fascination I had not expected. The script sent from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Company is a mash-up of stage and screen versions which first appeared for the Broadway revival in 1998. Trying to honor both is a tricky business, and ends up making some attitude shifts a bit abrupt. It aims to appease the movie buffs yet leaves some of the characterizations from the starker stage original. Thanks to a good cast, the results are generally good, but a bit startling nonetheless.

Understand that the 1959 stage musical – the last written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as Oscar Hammerstein died not long after it opened – is vastly different from the famed 1965 film in specifics, though not in general story line. For example, several songs, including the sardonic “How Can Love Survive,” “No Way to Stop It” and “Ordinary Couple” were removed for the film, and replaced with songs Rodgers wrote alone: “I Have Confidence,” and “Something Good.”

Though included in the stage version, “The Lonely Goatherd” and “My Favorite Things” were shifted to different scenes in the film, as was much of the chant-based religious music sung by the nuns. The Baroness out for Von Trapp’s hand is far more conniving in the stage version, with the scent of a collaborator on her as thoroughly as that on a decidedly less lovable Max. Anyone who sees the show in its original onstage version after falling in love with the film is bound to find the shift rather startling, and perhaps even disappointing.

At the Candlelight, they have handled this reimagining as well as one could hope. The Baroness is still a stinker, and “How Can Love Survive” underscores that, though it is the only one of the “dropped” songs to survive. “I Have Confidence” heralds Maria’s arrival at the Von Trapp household, and “Favorite Things” appears at the same spot – Maria’s bedroom during a storm – as in the film. “Something Good” replaces “Ordinary Couple” as the second act love song, and “Lonely Goatherd” has a brand new spot as the kids’ performance at the music festival. In the end, though a fine production, it leaves bits of character and story kind of hanging out there, while trying to be the best of both worlds.

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Fortunately, a really fine batch of performers keeps too much from getting lost in the interweaving of story lines. Sarah Elizabeth Combs has an innate sweetness, a lovely voice, and enough gumption to make a charming Maria. John LaLonde makes a commanding figure as Captain von Trapp, though one wishes he had the chance to build up his singing of “Edelwiess” enough to make his emotional catch make sense.

Kim Blake gets better and better as the Mother Superior. Jod Orrison, Valerie Jasso and Kate Lee cluck and hover appropriately as the other rather critical nuns. Dimyana Pelev, despite a mildly unfortunate wig, makes a neatly calculating Baroness Elsa, while Frank Minano has fun with the sponging Max. Zack Crocker makes a charmingly youthful Rolf, and Courtney Cheatham matches him neatly as the adolescent Leisl.

The other children, Katie Ochoa, Matthew Funke, Haven Watts, Wyatt Larrabee, Brooklyn Vizcarra and Alison Bradbard the night I saw it (most are double-cast) are almost surprisingly good for a company this size. They sing and dance well, virtually all of the time, and work together as a unit to excellent effect. This sense of polish extends to the small but well utilized ensemble which supports these major players.

Director Douglas Austin has worked particularly hard to create the sense of ensemble, particularly between the main adults and the children. The results are self-evident, as the show flows as smoothly as this new script will let it. Chuck Ketter’s scenic design manages to make that tiny stage look mansion-like, which is no small feat. The lighting design of Steve Giltner works as well as possible, given a technical glitch or two.

In short, the results of this production are more charming than not, once you get over the differences from what you expect. It’s perfect family fare, and comes complete with a fine dinner (including kid-friendly fare) so another generation can fall in love with the girl who unites a family through music and evades the Nazis through love. That it bears only vague resemblance to the actual story of the actual Von Trapp Family Singers long ago became inconsequential.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through March 24, Thursday through Saturday dinners at 6 p.m., Sunday dinners at 5 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday brunch at 11 a.m. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 adults, $25 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext 1 or

You Say Tribute, I Say… (“I Left My Heart” at the Candlelight Pavilion)

The cast of "I Left My Heart" belts out a classic tune at the Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of “I Left My Heart” belts out a classic tune at the Candlelight Pavilion

Going to see a musical tribute show takes discernment: are you going because you want to relive a treasured moment, see an artist you wish you could have heard “in real life,” or are you simply enamored of the music the artist sang? This gets even more complex if the singer wrote none of his own material, so that much of what he is famous for is work actually created by someone else.

Which brings me to “I Left My Heart,” a salute to Tony Bennett now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Unlike tribute bands, which recreate long-past concerts, or musical biographies which trace the story behind the music, revues like “I Left My Heart” concentrate on the songs that artist is connected to.

The problem with doing this with Tony Bennett is compiling music from his repertoire which resonates as his. He may be famous for a few songs, like “Rags to Riches” or, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but most of the other music he recorded has, over time, been more thoroughly connected to someone else. “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and “Top Hat” are signature tunes of Fred Astaire. “Love Story” or “The Days of Wine and Roses” are much more connected to Andy Williams. “Make Someone Happy” is signature Jimmy Durante. And on it goes.

Still, they are all likable tunes, and at the Candlelight Pavilion a fabulous jazz quintet backs up three singers who take great joy in singing the songs, while not trying at all to “be” Tony Bennett singing them.

Musical Director Martin Green has amassed five amazing musicians in Alan Waddington, Gino Munoz, Robert Slack, Brandon Shaw and Chris Wills. It’s just possible that they provide the main reason to come see the show. As the purveyors of song, Damon Kirsche has that late 50s jazz crooner style down, Caleb Shaw provides an earnest clarity, and, though his vocals are the most shakey, Richard Bermudez provides a youthful feel to his moments in the sun.

The staging, basic but continually engaging, is organized by director John LaLonde as a concert, plane and simple. You could be watching this in Vegas or at any nostalgic nightclub. And that’s exactly what the tribute wants to be: a celebration of the music which defines the span of Bennett’s career. They are not being Bennett, they are simply honoring him.

In any case, the results are – for the most part – toe-tapping and easy to like. At Candlelight Pavilion the show comes with an attractive, if not wildly gourmet, dinner, and a remarkable dinner-time classical guitarist. It makes for a complete evening, right down to the decadent desserts at intermission.

And, essentially, that’s what “I Left My Heart” is: a delicious auditory dessert of fine old songs done with enthusiasm, backed by talented jazz musicians. It’s not great art, and I’m not sure it is really much of a direct homage to Tony Bennett, but it makes for a pleasant, relaxing time.

What: “I Left My Heart” When: Through February 3, Thursday through Saturday evening open for dinner at 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday open for matinee brunch at 11 a.m. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 for adults, $25 – $30 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254. ext. 1 or

Sweet Nostalgia: Candlelight Pavilion’s “Anything Goes” offers vintage charm

James McGrath as Billy Crocker, and Stacy Huntington as Reno Sweeney in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” at The Candlelight Pavilion (photo: Isaac James Creative)

The American musical has evolved over time. No long do you find, except as a send-up of a former age, the kind of fluffy shows common in the 20s and 30s, when George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter created so much of the Great American Songbook. Attempts to look back at that era often become self-conscious or satiric. It’s nice when someone just returns for a loving look.

This is the case at the Candlelight Pavilion, where Porter’s classic “Anything Goes” gets a charming rendition, played in time period – for laughs, rather than to be laughed at. The singing is good. The dancing is appropriate. The characters, though broadly drawn, are tuned just right. The net result is a lighthearted, nostalgic evening of sheer entertainment.

The story is one typical of the era. Mistaken identity and sensual attraction rule the day. A wealthy and rather lascivious banker crosses the Atlantic on a great liner, along with a famed evangelist turned nightclub singer and her chorines, a minor gangster pretending to be a missionary, his moll, and a young American with her British fiancé, her mother, and the old beau who stowed away to break them up. Various parings and re-pairings ensue.

R.C. Sands and Chelsea Baldree provide the comic relief

Stacy Huntington makes energetic and believable work of Reno Sweeney, the songstress, giving those classic songs a fresh spin. The other standouts include R.C. Sands, genuinely funny as the marginally famous gangster, and Nick Tubbs, who makes the Brit truly likable, rather than just silly-pompous. For once you can actually understand why Reno falls for him in the end. Also good is Chelsea Baldree as the gangster’s gal with a heart of gold, and James McGrath, who gets to sing a lot of the best duets as the stowaway young stock broker.

Rachel Davis makes a lovely ingenue, and sings most sweetly. John Lynd gives the banker the necessary combination of myopia and lustful thinking. Toni Lynd makes the intrusive mother a cross between a pushy stage mother and an upper crust church lady. The chorus sings and dances, tap included, with great style (and perhaps a little recorded enhancement), giving energy to the “Heaven Hop” and “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” – the show’s two showstoppers.

John Vaughan, as always has done a lot with a small space, giving the impression of large chorus numbers with a minimal cast. Timing is key here, as the script borders on farce, and Vaughan keeps things sharp, allowing the piece to flow quickly and charmingly across the evening. The set, a standard one, is used well, and most of the costumes fit well both the people in them and the time period.

In short, this “Anything Goes” honors well that vibrant and silly genre so surprisingly well suited to Candlelight Pavilion’s intimate setting. The meal is pretty good too, right down the intermission desserts. In this time of political and social jangling, sometimes it’s nice to look back to when “entertainment” meant parking your brain for an hour or two, and humming along to great tunes.

What: “Anything Goes” When: Through November 18, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 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 under 12 (appetizers, desserts, beverages and gratuity extra) Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or

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