Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.
Tag Archives: Chuck Ketter
March 20, 2019Posted by on
The musical “No, No Nanette,” though originally a product of the 1920s, became a hit first on Broadway and then in stages large and small around the nation beginning in the 1970s. As such it sparked a revival of the “classic” old school musical filled with frothy songs, tap dancing, and a remarkably simplistic romantic plot. Still, it’s fun to see the one which started it all, at least in modern terms. Now one can, at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont.
The plot is typical: Jimmy Smith, a good-hearted, wealthy businessman goes behind his skinflint wife’s back to platonically assist three women from around the country who inspired his sympathy. Now they are coming to see him and he asks his lawyer and friend Billy, whose spendthrift wife spends all he makes, to square the three women away so they will no longer intrude upon his life. In the midst of this, Billy’s ward Nanette, despite having decided she loves Billy’s nephew Tom, decides she wants to sow a wild oat or two before marrying him. Through secrets and happenstance, all these folk end up heading for the same Atlantic City cottage at the same time. Hilarity, and a lot of song and dance, ensue.
Erin Dubreuil makes a sweet Nanette, singing and dancing with skill and style. Tracy Ray Reynolds gives Billy’s wife Sue a flamboyant glee. Colette Peters radiates sensibility but still cuts a mean rug as Jimmy’s more cautious mate. Frank Minano has a lovely time as the over-generous, innocently enthusiastic Jimmy, making him a lovely accompaniment to the equally pure adventuring of Dubreuil’s Nanette. The other characters, and the versatile chorus, give the show its fluffy feel. It’s all light-hearted fun.
Still, the real standout of this production is Mary Murphy-Nelson as the grumpy, and extremely funny maid, Pauline. As she threatens to quit, dances with and scolds her vacuum cleaner, and otherwise offers commentary on the world at large and the silliness of the proceedings around her in particular, Murphy-Nelson’s comic timing remains the best thing in this show.
Director John Lalonde knows how to create order out of all this silliness. Choreographer John Vaughan has the tappers tapping and the waltzers waltzing with Busby Berkeley-esque period style. The set by Chuck Ketter adapts well. One can argue that it is tough to cut a three-act show into the required two a Candlelight production must have, but even this is done with a kind of confidence which takes the audience along for the ride.
In short, “No, No Nanette” is light, frothy fun. Songs like “Tea for Two” have re-entered the American songbook because of it, and even the most titilating moments are nothing which could offend anyone of any age. At Candlelight, of course, this comes with a good meal and (should one wish) a luscious dessert.
What: “No, No Nanette When: through April 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and a special Thursday performance April 11, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinee at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $63 – $78 adult, $30 – $35 children 12 and under Info: http://www.candlelightpavilion.com or (909) 626-1254 ext.1
January 21, 2019Posted by on
Going to see “Titanic” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont was something I approached with trepidation. Thought the music was written by Maury Yeston, whose work I have always liked, and the book by Peter Stone, and its storyline was based completely on actual people, which I approve of, I was haunted a bit by the first version I saw. I need not to have worried.
The first time I saw the Tony-winning musical it was somewhat anticlimactic. For one thing, the epic movie of the same name had been recently released, but for another the national tour of the original Broadway production itself, which was born at the Ahmanson production I saw, seemed a weird combination of occasionally brilliant theatricality and staging moments which were either overblown or simply ridiculous. Indeed, it was hard to connect with the musical itself because the visuals were so uneven.
Turns out (and the irony is not lost on me) that in the case of a musical about what was then the largest vehicle in the world, smaller is better. Crammed onto the comparatively little Candlelight stage, all the overblown theatricality gives way to story, and the characters shine over the comparatively subtle optics. Add the impressive quality of the performers in this new production, who sing so well that no huge chorus is needed to back them up, and the intimacy, musicality, and pathos shine far more brightly than anything I could have anticipated.
This is, in large part thanks to director/set designer Chuck Ketter’s vision.
The story is not new to much of anyone, but author Stone has concentrated on just a few people, often the less well-known among those who boarded the maiden voyage of this supposedly unsinkable ship. Yes, designer Thomas Andrews is there, along with the pompous and demanding ship-owner Bruce Ismay and the about-to-retire Captain E.J. Smith, but the rest are a combination of first, second, and third-class passengers and crew, most of them comparatively new to the general public. The songs tie in closely with the storyline rather than being stand-alone, and the small live orchestra gives a chance for emotional nuance which the theater’s usual pre-recorded instrumentals would not.
Ketter’s set design allows for quick changes of place which keep the pace electric as relationships define, personalities emerge, and the ship steams on toward its disastrous destiny. The entire production is tight, intense, and riveting in a way that old original simply wasn’t.
The talented company of 20, who cover a musical originally written for more than 40, are a true ensemble, rising out of the crowd to create well-fleshed-out characters and then moving back again with a seamless flow. Standouts in a company full of them include Gavin Juckette as the ship’s overwhelmed radio man, Catie Marron as a 3rd class passenger dreaming of new beginnings and new love, and Sarah Meals as the ambitious 2nd class passenger constantly stealing into 1st class.
As well as these, kudos go to Gregg Hammer as one of the ship’s stokers. Jamie Snyder and Samantha Wynn Greenstone as Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s whose characters come into their own in the show’s second half, as Ida famously refuses a lifeboat if it means leaving her husband. Marc Montminy makes a wistful Captain Smith, and Greg Nicholas a despicably self-centered Ismay.
Musical director Andrew Orbison helps with the ensemble spirit as he guides performers and orchestra alike through the lush score. Dylan Pass handles the incidental choreography, and (and this is often a sticking point for me) Michon Gruber-Gonzales has done wonders with the wigs which firmly set this piece in time and place.
In short, this “Titanic” is definitely worth a look. At Candlelight it comes with a meal which tends away from standard “rubber chicken” in the dinner theaters of old, and the desserts are definitely worth the wait until intermission. Still, it isn’t the food which made this a fine production to see. They kept the best and redid the rest. It’s what a revival should do.
What: Titanic, the Musical. When: through February 23, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There will be one special Thursday evening performance with doors open at 6 p.m. on February 21. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. How Much: $63 – $78 general, $30 – $35 children under 12, inclusive of meal Info: 909-626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
September 28, 2018Posted by on
When one hears the names Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, one is inclined to think first of the groundbreaking 1960s film based on their exploits, or about the fact the two were briefly considered heroes in the financially downtrodden midwest of the Great Depression until those same exploits became too deadly. In 2009 the La Jolla Playhouse premiered a musical. which later traveled to Broadway, based on the legendary criminal couple, focused on their apparently quite real love story – the illicit nature of which was as tantalizing to the 1930s public as their bank robberies.
Now open at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “Bonnie and Clyde” proves both captivating and intense, with an engaging pacing and energy. Featuring a fine cast, an score of eclectic styles, an on-stage band, and tight, knowledgeable direction, the show has a bit of something for almost anyone who is fascinated by the combination of brutality and passion these two and those closest to them represented.
The story borders on legend by now, and must of course be truncated some to fit into a couple hours on the stage. Clyde, a long-time petty crook from an impoverished family, falls for Bonnie, a struggling waitress separated from the husband she married at 16, and they fall in love. As Clyde’s ambitions and crimes increase he sucks in both Bonnie and his brother Buck to create a gang which gradually moves from petty thefts and store robberies to bank robberies and murder. Their story becomes fodder for tabloid newspapers, but they become increasingly hunted by law enforcement until their predictable, untimely end in an ambush.
Beau Brians gives the necessary edginess and sings with intensity as Clyde. Callandra Olivia creates in Bonnie a mixture of a young woman wrestling with the dichotomy of personal love and desire, and the dawning acknowledgement of the dangerous path her dreams have let her take. Nic Olsen, as Clyde’s brother and sometime partner in crime, is played for a kind of innocence which counterbalances Clyde’s amorality. Katie McGhie, gives Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche the kind of backbone missing from the film, and a moral core which pounds against the gang’s actions even as she is drawn into them. All of these performers sing extraordinarily well. Indeed, a duet between Olivia and McGhie, “You Love Who You Love,” is one of the high points of the entire production.
Other standouts among a large and versatile cast include Jennifer Lawson and Lisa Dyson as Bonnie and Clyde’s mothers, respectively, David Sasik as the young deputy in at the finish who had known Bonnie in her waitressing days, and Michael Lanning – a member of the original company – as an intense country preacher. Also worthy of particular note are Serena Thompson and Joey Caraway as the young Bonnie and Clyde, bringing gravitas to their youthful dreams.
Director Victor Hernandez was a member of this show’s Broadway cast, and the familiarity and love he has for this production shines through in every aspect. Chuck Ketter’s remarkable set makes terrific use of the Candlelight’s small stage, making scene changes virtually instantaneous and helping propel the intensity of the piece. Music director Ryan O’Connell leads the on-stage band and keeps the tone and pacing of the entire production – one almost entirely sung – on target.
As happens with most people who become legends, the history of this “Bonnie and Clyde” plays fast-and-loose on occasion with the documentable facts, but it does seem to instill what appears to have been the romantic aspect of their story with somewhat greater accuracy than some accounts. Certainly, it is worth taking a look, and at Candlelight Pavilion it comes with a good meal as well.
What: “Bonnie and Clyde”. When: through October 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays How Much: $63 – $78 adults, $$30 – $35 children under 12, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or www.candlelightpavilion.com
April 15, 2018Posted by on
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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
November 9, 2017Posted by on
The stage musical version of “9 to 5,” the iconic feminist movie from 1980, had its birth at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, then a Broadway run in 2008. With music by Dolly Parton, who had originally written the title song for the film, it brought back the feisty trio of Violet, Judy and Doralee, whose kidnapping of their vindictive, sexist boss and subsequent running of the office in his name not only turns their company’s productivity around but empowers each of the women in ways they need most.
Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the show stands up well for the most part. There is, of course, Parton’s songs – many of them significantly memorable – to provide the most important underpinning to the enterprise. The cast proves energetic and consistently engaged, and by and large the end result proves satisfying. The only challenge, really, in this as in any production is finding the edgy vitality so necessary to the three central women who power the piece.
Most certainly, the trappings are there and work very well. Director John Vaughn’s pacing and choreography let an able ensemble set a vibrant tone for the increasingly happy workplace. Chuck Ketter’s set design allows the admittedly episodic tale to flow easily from one scene to the next. The supporting players, especially Orlando Montes’ touching portrayal of Violet’s potential love interest, and Rachel McLaughlan, as Roz, the secretary comically obsessed with the boss the others abhor, round out the storyline and the feel of the piece in important ways. Ernie Marchain manages to make Mr. Hart – the boss – just as slimy and condescending as one would hope, another necessity.
As the three who provide the show’s focus, Juliet Schulein makes a terrific Violet – commanding and fragile by turns, with an innate toughness that underscores everything in the show. Colette Peters gives the timid Judy a sort of wide-eyed openness which makes her character work. As Doralee, the country-bred secretary victimized by the boss’ false rumors, Krista Curry manages the accent and style well, though her singing edges on the shrill side enough to keep the character from seeming as in control as she needs to be.
Even when it premiered, “9 to 5” was a somewhat antiquated style of musical. Still, it’s fun and lighthearted, with a sense of moral victory which seems particularly apt at a time when so many bosses are being appropriately thrown under the bus for slimy behavior. Once again, and to their own surprise, Candlelight Pavilion has a show speaking to modern sensibilities in a far more timely way than they anticipated when creating their season.
So go take a look. As always at Candlelight, the show comes with a lovely meal, and an ambiance which can prove an antidote to the many tensions of our current state of affairs.
What: “9 to 5” When: through November 25, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, and one Thursday performance November 16; 5 p.m. on Sundays; and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 adults, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal included Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
June 27, 2017Posted by on
You’d have to come from another planet, or be under the age of 5, to not know anything about “The Wizard of Oz.” For those of us who were not born in the earliest parts of the last century, it is the film we think of. In the pre-Internet age, the film’s annual appearance on television was a major family moment. At the dawn of the digitizing age, the film was even used to ridicule colorization (“If they had their way, they’d colorize the first ten minutes of ‘The Wizard of Oz'”). In my personal sphere, a dear friend’s mother is one of the last surviving cast members of the film, having played a munchkin as a child.
Few really stop to remember that “The Wizard of Oz” was originally a book – the first in a long series by L. Frank Baum (and, eventually, others). In its third life, the story has become a stage musical, using the material from the film, including a song left out of the original and the very 30s introductions once added to others. This musical has arrived at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont as a chance for kids on vacation, and their families, to beat the heat, eat a lovely meal, and be transported over the rainbow.
And, for the most part, that’s what they will get. The production, though there are a few creaky bits, makes the most of the small Candlelight stage, thanks in part to Chuck Ketter’s many, many backdrops and set pieces, and to the expansive performances – especially one – under the direction of John LaLonde.
The trick with any stage production of a musical film is to not try to compete with the movie. Here that’s hard, as so many have the thing virtually memorized. Still, Jaidyn Young, who shares the part with Sydney Dawn, makes an earnest and innocent Dorothy, singing the signature “Over the Rainbow” and holding her own as a dancer. Jesse Ashton Rhodus gives Scarecrow an appropriately loose-limbed quality, and a quietly positive air. Andrew Lopez, though handed the most unfortunate costume, becomes a very earnest and heartfelt Tin Man. Still, the best of this group is Austin Rea’s take on the Cowardly Lion, which eschews Burt Lahr’s Borscht Belt humor and Brooklyn accent for a deeply earnest innocence which plays beautifully and more originally with the rest of the group.
Also worthy of note are Jim Skousen’s apologetic wizard, Candace Elder’s concerned Aunt Em, and Michael J.Isennock in the dual roles of the Mayor of Munchkin City and Nikko, the captain of the flying monkeys. Sami Nye’s cheerful Glinda balances Courtney Bruce as the Wicked Witch of the West. As the show’s villain, Bruce has a great time, and handles the quick comings and goings with comparative ease, but sometimes gets so wound up by her own villainy she becomes difficult to understand.
There are a few technical issues as well, most particularly in the generally charming approach of Glinda’s bubble (oil that contraption – it shouldn’t squeak), and the decision to use blinking lights in the essential witch-with-a-firey-broom sequence (which don’t turn off when needed). Also, one wonders if it might be possible for the twister to be less static, though the way of presenting those things caught in it is clever.
Still, the choreography by Kim Eberhardt makes even the restored, if somewhat odd, “The Jitterbug” interesting. The magic of the Wizard and the disappearance of the Witch both prove quite effective, and the consistent use of a very competent children’s ensemble along with the usual chorus gives the thing a vitality and charm which proves the most important thing in the piece.
In the end, this “Wizard of Oz” has many more pluses than flaws. And, although you may find yourself repeating an awful lot of the words along with the actors – at least in your head – take the time to look around at the children in the audience. They are having as good a time as the kid in the balcony who waved at Glinda’s bubble every time it went by, on opening night. Note that there is a specific children’s menu for this show, complete with theme-based drinks.
What: “The Wizard of Oz” When: through July 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
April 12, 2017Posted by on
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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
September 10, 2016Posted by on
In 1983 a new Broadway musical splashed upon the scene. Based on a play which had inspired an equally delightful French comic film, “La Cage Aux Folles” offered up a combination of traditionally melodic show tunes thanks to Jerry Herman (of “Hello Dolly” fame), and a script by Harvey Fierstein which – like his “Torch Song Trilogy” the year before – pushed the envelope of what a production on Broadway could be about. It won Tonys for both Herman and Fierstein, as well as for direction, best actor and Best Musical. In the process it offered up, as Herman put it, a good “old fashioned entertainment” that made the story of love and expectation in the setting of a drag club more charming and accessible to a wide audience.
Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “La Cage…” speaks to a new age with the same combination of charm, humor and acceptance. How fascinating it is to see how little the show has aged in the 34 years since its premiere. Indeed, much of what was said then still needs saying today, even in the guise of sweet entertainment.
The tale is clever and funny. The practical Georges runs and emcees a famed nightclub in St Tropez called La Cage Aux Folles. His highly dramatic longtime partner, Albin, morphs into the celebrated ZsaZsa, star of the club’s show, backed by a cast of impressive drag queen singer-dancers. Together Georges and Albin have raised Georges’ son – the result of a startling one-night-stand – and now that son, Jean-Michel, has returned home to tell the couple that he is engaged to be married. The only problem: the girl he loves is the daughter of an extreme right-wing politician bent on a return to “traditional morality.” Worse, this potential father-in-law and his wife want to come meet Jean-Michel’s family, inspiring the young man to request the presence of his completely absentee biological mother, and to try to push Albin out of the scene. When his mother never shows, Albin steps in, and the comedy increases.
If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because the musical, and the play and film that inspired it, in turn inspired the 1996 Robin Williams film “The Birdcage”.
At Candlelight, director-choreographer Roger Castellano has collected a solid cast, allowing the appeal of the show to shine as it should. John LaLonde takes command as the elegant Georges, even funnier in his attempts to appear stereotypically “manly” at times. Adam Trent makes Jean-Michel likable, allowing the potentially terrible hurt he inflicts upon Albin to feel more a matter of desperation than rejection. As Jacob, Albin’s “maid” and personal assistant, Bryan Martinez proves a howl, being as overt as his employers are trying to be subtle. The balance works tremendously well. Likewise, Orlando Montes’ solid stage manager offers yet another view of the club’s unique world.
Steven Biggs comes off just as intolerable as one would expect a character leading the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party” would be, balanced well by Lisa Dyson as his initially mousy wife finding a voice for herself in the rarified air of La Cage’s world. Daniel Reyes and Rachel McLaughlan make lovely work of the cafe owners who have known Georges and Albin as neighbors for years. Emma Nosal creates in Anne, Jean-Michel’s love interest, an attractive contradiction: loving her parents, but increasingly leaning toward the world Jean-Michel sees. Karla Franko gives restauranteur Jacqueline a flair which blends well with Albin’s ZsaZsa.
Still, much of the show rests firmly on the shoulders of Chuck Ketter’s Albin. It’s trickier than one might think, playing both a gay man, albeit a proudly effeminate one, and becoming a convincingly female character when called upon. In this, Ketter shines, though his singing voice sometimes lacks the power of LaLonde’s. Still, when it counts – the iconic, angry “I Am What I Am” which closes the first act – he shines, making the song the anthem it should be. And all of this is backed by eight chorus boys in convincing drag, who sing and dance with conviction.
The end result proves most satisfying. In “La Cage Aux Folles” the laughter is silliness and friendly recognition, the hurts are universal, and the denouement a victory for love in general. The songs, as Herman said upon receiving the Tony, are “simple, hummable show tunes” and just as fun as that sounds. The moment of righteousness which is “I Am What I Am” will move a stone to tears. In short, if you’ve never seen “La Cage…” this is a good opportunity to catch up, and to do so with the added benefit of a lovely dinner beforehand. Go take a look.
What: “La Cage Aux Folles” When: through October 8, doors open 6 p.m. for dinner Fridays and Saturdays, as well as Thursday September 29 and October 6; doors open 11 a.m. for lunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: adults $58 – $73, children $30-$35 meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com