Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Chuck Ketter

“9 to 5” Hustles into Candlelight Pavilion

Krista Curry as Doralee and Ernie Marchain as the predatory boss in Candlelight Pavilion’s “9 to 5”

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

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Wiz of Oz at Candlelight: gentle but pleasing

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “The Wizard of Oz” head off to see the wizard


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

“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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“La Cage Aux Folles” Offers Laughs and Lessons at Candlelight Pavilion

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion's production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical "La Cage Aux Folles" kick up their heels.

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion’s production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical “La Cage Aux Folles” kick up their heels.

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.

Chuck Ketter's Albin invites you to "see life from a different angle" in La Cage Aux Folles

Chuck Ketter’s Albin invites you to “see life from a different angle” in La Cage Aux Folles

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

“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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Polished Classic: “Oklahoma” arrives at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion's "Oklahoma" in a celebrative moment [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “Oklahoma” in a celebrative moment [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]

In March of 1943, deep in the midst of World War II, a musical arrived on Broadway which would redefine the genre. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” not only integrated all its songs into the storyline, it used dance as a vehicle for expanding the tale itself. This original production, which starred a cast of comparative unknowns – most notably Howard Da Silva and Celeste Holm – and featured choreography by the innovatively balletic Agnes De Mille, revolutionized everything about the way the American musical would be seen from that point on.

Which is good to remember when a chance to see this great classic appears on the scene. This thing is not to be dismissed as silly, syrupy or just an antique. Now in a solid production at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, one is reminded of its complexity: it has some darker overtones, and a consistent flavor only accented – rather than interrupted – by songs and dance. There’s humor, a certain amount of pathos, and a chance to see something that changed an art form.

The story, taken from Lynn Riggs’ play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” uses the tale of the romance of Curly the cowboy and Laurie the farm owner to watch the period of Oklahoma’s transition from cow country to settled farmland, and from territory to much-anticipated statehood. In the midst of this there is tension, a certain amount of frontier justice, folksy cooperation, and a quiet undercurrent of danger. And, of course, there’s a romance to center the whole thing upon.

Gregg Hammer makes a likable Curly, and sings with confidence some of the show’s most iconic songs. Michaelia Leigh gives Laurie that combination of youthful nervousness, even petulance, and genuine feeling, and also sings well. Michael Skrzek creates a truly goofy Will Parker, the knuckle-headed cowboy with his heart set on the rather amoral Ado Annie. Monica Ricketts has just the right timbre and carefree attitude to make Ado Annie his comic counterpart.

Jonathan Arana has a lovely time with the slippery, but generally good-hearted traveling peddler Ali Hakim. Still, the finest performance of the night is Jeffrey Ricca’s Judd Fry. Ricca makes him far more real than sometimes, and more subtly menacing, letting loose the dark side of the west in a very convincing way. Also worthy of note are the solidly practical Dynell Leigh as Aunt Eller, and Sam Nisbett as Ado Annie’s frustrated father.

The choreography, listed as recreated from the original by Dustin Ceithamer is actually more of a combination of his spin on the original and the original itself. This was made a bit more tricky on opening night by an injury to one of the ensemble dancers in a final rehearsal – something the cast handled with extraordinary aplomb. Dylan Pass and Stephanie Urko make nice work of Dream Curley and Dream Laurie during that most pivotal sequence.

Director Chuck Ketter has a feel for this material that shows throughout. The pacing is tight and the interrelationships easy to follow. His set design is a big help in this, as a few major pieces and occasional drapes allow things to move from scene to scene with little interruption.

And then, of course, there is that classic music. Some of these songs have become part of America’s DNA, and it is important to get them right. Music Director Douglas Austin, with this show, celebrates his 100th musical direction gig at the Candlelight Pavilion, and there’s a reason he keeps being asked back. He has a feel for the room, and for how to fill it when the music demands solid emotion.

So, go take in “Oklahoma.” If you’ve never had the chance to see it live, to have Curley walk past you celebrating “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” you’ve really missed out. And here it comes with a good dinner.

What: “Oklahoma” When: Through April 9, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58 – $73 general, $30 – #35 children under 12 Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion: Not Quite Enough

Laura Dickinson is "Evita", as John LaLonde's Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

Laura Dickinson is “Evita”, as John LaLonde’s Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

One looks back at the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, both what they did together and since their split, and it is difficult to find any single piece more significant than their musical “Evita.” The music, though typically repetitive, has far more verve than much of Lloyd Webber’s later work, and the sharp-edged lyrics Rice created for this odd but fascinating story have an intensity which matches the score.

For this reason, I am always on the lookout for a production of “Evita.” It can still have a lot to say. Yet, there are certain things which simply must be present, especially two truly dynamic performers, one to play Eva Peron herself, and one to play the narrator, revolutionary Che Guevara. It can be high tech or low, large cast or smaller, but if these two parts aren’t cast with people of strong voice and stronger personality, it doesn’t work.

Which brings me to the new production of “Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Years ago, when the musical was new, I saw the first truly low-tech version of the show at Candlelight, and was impressed by how well the show held up without all the fancy machinery or the huge cast. I wish I could say that this new production was as successful.

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]


Despite a solid production, and a good to very good ensemble to back up the central figures, there is still a problem. Richard Bermudez makes fine work of Che: angry, sarcastic and powerful by turns. John LaLonde takes what has to be one of the most underrated parts in modern musical canon, Juan Peron, and makes him a real personality. But sadly these strong personalities only emphasize the comparative lack of zing in Laura Dickinson’s Evita.

She does all the moves, and – though sometimes her rock-style high notes become too shrill – handles the difficult music with a reasonable style, but the energy which creates this actual, larger-than-life character is absent. This is not the woman thousands of descamisados would have muscled into (albeit surrogate) power, who would have charmed all the charmable of Argentina. The fire is missing.

Which is admittedly a pity, because Chuck Ketter’s direction of the show moves it from its big-stage roots to the small and intimate Candlelight space without losing its most essential bits. Roger Castellano’s choreography almost has to be derivative of the original, but is generally well done. Admittedly (and this was also true the first time) one misses the projections which enhanced one or two moments, but doing “Evita” low-tech is also a great way to prove the show’s actual power is not based on gimmicks. And by and large this is still true. Except when it isn’t.

Indeed, there are a few lost moments, not all of which can be laid at Dickinson’s feet. The staging of Alexandra Specter’s brief moment in the sun as Peron’s dismissed mistress leaves her without the anchor of a door. Lucas Coleman’s turn as Magaldi, the tango singer who takes Eva to Buenos Aires, lacks fluidity or the kind of oily sexiness which makes him interestingly small-time.

Also, and very disappointingly for a show in which one can be swept up by orchestral moments alone, the score (always a recording at Candlelight) makes significant use of electronics rather than actual strings, robbing the music of its richness.

So, should one see this “Evita”? It has things to recommend it, and it comes with a fine meal. Is it what it could have been, at this venue? Not really. Having seen what this theater is capable of in relation to this important work, it should be better than it is.

What: “Evita” When: Through June 28, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunchtime Saturday and Sunday matinees 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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

No Mere Trojan Rabbit: Monty Python Captures Candlelight Pavilion

Adam Trent, Raymond Ingram and Chelsea Emma Franko in "Spamalot" [photo: John LaLonde]

Adam Trent, Raymond Ingram and Chelsea Emma Franko in “Spamalot” [photo: John LaLonde]

There is a reason that the clowns are the finest athletes in the circus: you have to be very, very good at something to do it “badly” and not get seriously hurt. By the same token, anyone creating a satirical version of an art form must be excellent at that art form in order for the humor to work. Otherwise, it just looks awkward and amateurish rather than snarky and funny.

Which is why it is delightful to be able to say that the new production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot” at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont has the absolutely necessary combination of crisp production, talented performers and unified wit needed to pull this thing off. One bad performance, or unintentional awkward transition, and much of what makes this show so very funny would be lost.

“Spamalot” is, of course, Python member Eric Idle’s reworking of the absolutely classic satiric film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” which made fun of every possible aspect of the genre of medieval romantic stories and movies. Set to music by Idle and John Du Prez, it sets tongue firmly in cheek, and gets sillier and sillier as the evening progresses. That is, it does if the show lives up to its potential. Here it does.

The tale starts out as a silly version of King Arthur and the search for the Holy Grail. It takes any number of side trips, reworks Arthurian characters with abandon, and makes almost no sense, but then it isn’t intended to.

Raymond Ingram's King Arthur joins in dancing "The Knights of the Round Table" [photo: John LaLonde]

Raymond Ingram’s King Arthur joins in dancing “The Knights of the Round Table” [photo: John LaLonde]


In a comparatively small cast called upon, in most cases, to play a number of parts throughout the evening, there are several standout performances. Chelsea Emma Franko sings beautifully and carries the integral part of The Lady of the Lake with style and wit. Just such a performance is necessary to keep this thing moving. Raymond Ingram makes a solid King Arthur, and Adam Trent has a ball as his servant (complete with traditional coconuts).

Emerson Boatwright is the perfect, geeky historian, and a delightful Prince Herbert. Matt Dallal gives Sir Robin the properly milquetoast attitude. Jotape Lockwood’s dim Sir Lancelot, Bryan Vickery’s solid Sir Galahad, and Robert Hoyt in several parts but particularly Galahad’s mother all work well together. Indeed, the ensemble quality of this makes it all work, as the rest of the ensemble who back up these major players helps to prove.

The only major thing which could use fixing is the occasional bit of diction, especially when, as Lockwood must at one point, one must speak in an accent. The lines in this show are its best feature, so understanding what you hear is a must.

Director Chuck Ketter has just the right touch regarding both the pacing and the ridiculousness. Janet Renslow’s recreation of Casey Nicholaw’s original choreography, adapted for the smaller Candlelight stage, keeps the whole thing lively and showcases the multiple talents of the cast.

As was true of the original film, there are somewhat scatological jokes of one kind and another. One might want to rethink bringing small children, or the kind of adults who would be disquieted by Monty Python’s sometimes colorful humor. Still, I admit to taking my own kids, when younger, to see the film. My son even had a shirt with the French taunts on it which he was sad to grow out of.

Candlelight’s “Spamalot” is just plain fun. That it comes with a pretty nice dinner is just an added plus. Go and have fun. That’s what this show is all about, after all.

What: “Monty Python’s Spamalot” When: Through October 19, open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68, meal inclusive/ $25 for children 12 and under

Horror on a Neat, Small Scale: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in Claremont

The cast of "Sweeney Todd" at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The cast of “Sweeney Todd” at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is considered by many to be Stephen Sondheim’s most sophisticated work, especially from a musical standpoint. It also broke new territory in several other directions. Based on a 1973 play, it celebrated, in weird but ultimately human ways, the story of an evil barber told and retold by Londoners for over 200 years. It was a matter of answering several logical questions earlier melodramatic versions had not: Why would a potentially good person become a soulless serial killer? Why would anyone else help him in this? What turned righteous revenge turn into a pathology of murder? Ultimately, for those who created the thing, the question was whether this grim, bloody and horror-filled musical could attract an audience somewhat desensitized by Hollywood horror flicks?

The answer was a resounding yes. In the new production now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the gore is a bit muted, and the sense of monolithic industrial architecture dwarfing the individual is only moderately accessible, but the central performers still create a sense of evil which can engross an audience. Indeed, putting such a large and powerful musical on such a comparatively small stage, as director Chuck Ketter manages to do, is in itself quite a feat.

John LaLonde and Debbie Prutsman as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

John LaLonde and Debbie Prutsman as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]


The ever-so-versatile John LaLonde is Sweeney, moving from bitter to hate-filled to psychopathic in stages of voice and body language, all done a lot closer to the observant audience than most productions. Debbie Prutsman creates an appropriately, oddly charming, amoral Mrs. Lovett, far too delighted to be doing good business to have any qualms about the source of supply for her meat pie filling. The songs LaLonde and Prutsman share, and the way they work together, provide delightful comic punctuation to this grotesque story.

This is assisted by a large and able ensemble cast. Standouts include Caleb Shaw’s Anthony, the upbeat and yearning young sailor, Jenny Moon Shaw’s crazed beggar woman with a story to tell, and Adam Trent’s earnestly dim Tobias, Lovett’s willing assistant – at least for a while. Sam Nisbett proves coldly menacing, and Robert Hoyt officiously insufferable as the judge and beadle against whom Sweeney’s most intense hatred is rightly focused. Katie Roche sings beautifully as Anthony’s love interest, Joanna.

A very well-voiced chorus of ten fills out the scene and offers some of the most potent music, Lance Smith and Vil Towers add to the tale with brief appearances as a snake-oil salesman and the operator of a madhouse, respectively. Janet Renslow’s choreography (that tricky process of making a large group move as one without seeming to be dancing) helps create a sense of crowd, and John Patrick’s set does what it can to enlarge the usually small Candlelight stage by taking it out into the audience area, which helps with this theater’s inability to go tall.

The first time I saw Sweeney Todd, at its first L.A. appearance in 1980, I was very glad my then-editor had insisted on writing the review. As I said to my companion, “How do I tell the audience I write for that this is one of the most remarkable pieces of popular theater I’ve ever seen, but given the content none of those who usually read my stuff would want to see it?” Stunning, bloody, cruel and elementally musical, its complex score could not help but ring in one’s head. Its images could overwhelm.

If you had told me then that the next live performance I would see would be at a dinner theater, I’d have laughed. Indeed, when we went to eat after that original version, our first words to our server were, “Do you have anything that doesn’t bleed?” Of course Candlelight Pavilion’s general manager, Michael Bollinger, claims to have that pegged: “It works because feed my audience before, not after, they see the show.” Also, the blood flows much more subtly here than it did then, so the gross-out level is somewhat reduced.

And, in truth, I’m glad that Candlelight has taken the risk. Though their “Sweeney Todd” is perhaps a bit less messy or grand than its earlier counterpart, its intensity and the quality of the performances keep it vital and fascinating. And the culinary end of the company is having fun with the food – turning their usual beef dish into a meat pie, for example, and putting crafted fruit “eyeballs” in their cocktails. Still, this would all just be kind of ridiculous if the show wasn’t worth watching. It is.

What: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” When: Through October 13, doors opening for dinner at 6 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53-$68, $25 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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 wwwcandelightpavilion.com

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