Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: dinner theater

Solid “Guys and Dolls” at Candlelight Pavilion (plus a good dinner!)

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" in Candlelight Pavilion's "Guys and Dolls" [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Guys and Dolls” [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Essentially, there are three elements which are necessary for the musical “Guys and Dolls” to work. First, it must be done completely straight. The peculiar formality of Damon Runyon characters’ slang must be respected as ordinary speech. The seriousness of every characters position must be taken at face value, no matter how silly it seems to the watcher. Second, the leads must be able to sing – really sing – including the minor characters. Third, everything from costumes to setting must be just a little bit larger than life.

Add to that appropriate, often fun choreography and singers who really can act, and you have a formula for happy result. All of this is present at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, where even when the casting is a bit more original than sometimes, the results are fit nicely together into the silly-serious package that makes the show.

The tale, concocted from several Runyon stories, follows a couple of connected paths: Nathan Detroit, operator of a famed floating crap game, must find a venue for his event – difficult because “the heat is on.” Speaking of heat, his fiancé of many years, Adelaide, is pushing for a wedding. To finance his search for a site, Nathan bets visiting high roller Sky Masterson that he cannot convince Sarah, the leader of the local Salvation Army-style mission, to go to pre-Castro Havana with him for an evening. As Sky worms his way into Sarah’s world, Nathan ducks the cops and his girl, and all of New York’s underpinnings sing and dance up a storm.

Victor Hernandez is a far scruffier Nathan than sometimes appears, but that plays well to his equally scruffy occupation and current circumstances. His fuddling indecisiveness around Adelaide, played with authority by Stacy Huntington, seems more organic as is his fear of marriage. Allen Everman gives Sky a slickness which evolves into genuine concern with small but interesting “tells”. Ashley Grether’s Sarah has a kind of frenetic strength which provides just the right counterpoint. Indeed, Her “If I Were a Bell” becomes a highlight of the piece.

Backing these leads are both a fine ensemble of dancers, and some secondary players worthy of special note. Robert Hoyt gives the ever-apologetic Nicely-Nicely Johnson real presence. Emerson Boatwright becomes a truly comic visual joke as Big Jule, and plays it to the hilt. Jim Marbury supplies just the right combination of authority and practical frustration as Lieutenant Brannigan, the cop who never quite catches a break.

Greg Hinrichsen’s mash-up of New York makes a facile setting for the story, and Laurie Muniz’s choreography captures the feel the show must have – a kind of gentlemanly machismo for the gamblers, and classic burlesque for Adelaide and her girls. Andrew Orbison has the singers on target with even the complex things they must coordinate without a conductor – not a small feat. Still, the unifying force for tone, tempo of performance and structure is the sure hand of director John LaLonde. He has brought together all the elements, and keeps the whole thing cohesive, intentionally silly, and invariably upbeat.

So, go have fun. Damon Runyon was once a household word – quoted even in Abbot and Costello films. Today, it’s tough to find his stories, except in “Guys and Dolls”, making the show, in its way, a form of literary treasure. At Candlelight you also get a lovely meal, making the total evening relaxing and generally satisfying. What a nice way to welcome in the new year.

What: “Guys and Dolls” When: Through February 27, open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m Sundays, and opened for matinee lunch 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, meal-inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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“West Side Story” Shows Polish at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of "West Side Story" leap with hope, honoring the original choreography in Claremont  [photos: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The cast of “West Side Story” leap with hope, honoring the original choreography in Claremont [photos: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Of all the composers who have approached the Broadway musical, a very, very few compete on the same level as Leonard Bernstein, even just musically. In many ways his best, “West Side Story,” with its modernized Romeo and Juliet, lyrics by a then-young Stephen Sondheim, direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, ushered in a new form of the entire genre. Beautiful but raw, its tale of prejudice, abusive law enforcement, angry youth and cultural disconnects resonates across the years like few other pieces have.

A good “West Side Story” can capture all that raw energy in ways which entertain, touch and impassion. To be good, it must have solid dancers, singers able to handle the complex rhythms and soaring notes of the Bernstein score, and youth. This, with a few notable exceptions, is a young person’s story. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, virtually all of the necessary elements are there. The result is a most satisfying evening of beautiful music, touching story and amazing energy.

The tale is literally classic. Two rival gangs vie for control of a beaten down New York City neighborhood. One group, composed of down-and-out whites, many the children of European immigrants, calls itself the Jets. The other, the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks, is seen as having moved in on Jet territory, while for the Sharks this is simply the neighborhood into which they have landed. Contact – often violent – is common, and except for neutral zones like the school gym where dances take place, the two groups carefully maintain a separation. That is until Jet founder Tony meets Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks. As battle lines form, their love becomes more hidden, more real, and more potentially tragic.

If looking for a reason why the Candlelight Pavilion production works so well, one need look no further than Ayme Olivo’s absolutely charming Maria. Gifted with a lovely, well-trained voice, she epitomizes the innocence and romance of her character, growing with her as the plot deepens. As her brother, Bernardo, Juan Caballer vibrates with pride and intensity, Michael Gonzalez makes a manlier-than-sometimes Chino, while Celeste Lanuza’s Anita carries herself with an air of very feminine command, dances with expertise, and makes “America” the highlight it can be. Maria Tony Dance

Although Jarred Barnard is so pacific as Tony that it seems unlikely he’d have ever been in a gang, Chaz Feuerstine makes Jet leader Riff a true believer. Joined by the rest of the Jets, most especially Josh Switzer’s barely contained Action and Lacey Beegun’s convincingly tough tomboy Anybodys, they prove a formidable counterbalance to the tense Sharks. Also a standout is Jamie Snyder as the drugstore owner, Doc, for whom Tony works – a man torn by the violence around him and the loss of young potential.

Director Hector Guerrero makes the piece work, keeping the pace quick with the help of Mitch Gill’s amazing puzzle-box set design. Guerrero has, in large part, recreated the original Jerome Robbins choreography as well, only in small – something elemental to the personality of the show. Douglas Austin’s work as musical director deserves special kudos, as his cast sings the excruciatingly difficult pre-rumble quintet, without a visible conductor, as if it was a piece of cake. Indeed, one is left without much to criticize music-wise except for the inexplicable cutting of the overture, which along with Bernstein’s overture to “Candide”, stands among the most outstanding pieces of orchestral Broadway music ever written. It also serves to lay the ground for the intensity to follow.

Still, this colorful and tuneful musical makes for a delightful if touching evening. If you’ve never seen a live performance of this work, you’re in for a treat. If it’s an old friend to you, as it is to me (as it was the first show I ever worked on, way back in high school), go and reacquaint yourself with an old friend. If it has nothing new to teach, it still has a ring of universality which travels across time.

What: “West Side Story” When: Through November 22, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58 – $73 adult, $30 – $35 child, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Celebration Reigns with “In the Heights” at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of "In the Heights" celebrates life at Candlelight Pavilion [photo:  Demetrios Katsantonis]

The cast of “In the Heights” celebrates life at Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

When the musical “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes, hit Broadway in 2008, the excitement it created came from two angles. First, it celebrated the sense of neighborhood and the stresses of change in the largely Latino barrios of New York itself. But on a larger scale, it used contemporary hip-hop and Latino musical forms to celebrate the elemental life force of similar barrio neighborhoods from the Bronx to Huntington Park, and the threats posed to their close-knit fabric by the forces of gentrification. As such it contained a universality which, when combined with the high energy music born from salsa and marenge, became identifiable across cultures and geographic location.

Now this lively, heart-filled musical has opened in a finely polished production at Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. With sharp, live percussion, a talented, focused and ensemble cast, and a message everyone can connect to, the show is a sure-fire hit.

Chris Marcos as Graffiti Pete, Revel Day as Benny, Ruben Bravo as Sonny, and Ruben J. Carbajal as Usnavi [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Chris Marcos as Graffiti Pete, Revel Day as Benny, Ruben Bravo as Sonny, and Ruben J. Carbajal as Usnavi [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The story looks at one block in a low-rent section of New York City. There, Usnavi works the corner bodega left him by his father, and along with his young cousin Sonny provides basic services, and a community center for the rest of the neighborhood. That community includes the Rosarios, owners of a car service and proud parents of Nina, the daughter whose departure for Stanford has become a symbol of “getting out.” Nina’s return brings its own issues, particularly in relation to her interest in Benny, a Rosario employee her parents think of as beneath her.

Also part of the community are Daniella, owner of the hair salon she’s soon to close and move thanks to rent hikes, and her two employees, Carla and especially Vanessa – the girl Usnavi is trying to get up the nerve to ask out. These, a young artistic tagger known as Graffiti Pete, an ambitious seller of fruit-flavored ices known as the Piragua Guy, and a joyously various ensemble of singer-dancers round out the extended family of neighbors. At the heart of all of it is the aging Cuban woman who acts as everyone’s grandmother, Abuela Claudia.

A hot summer, a city-wide blackout, rising personal and communal tensions, and news someone from the Bodega has a winning lottery ticket all combine to create a very recognizable drama, filled with humor, pathos, and all that lively music.

Ruben J. Carbajal proves articulate and deeply committed as Usnavi, providing the glue which holds the show together. Ruben Bravo and Chris Marcos as Sonny and Graffiti Pete vibrate with the energy of youth – kids with hip-hop roots and big hearts. Anyssa Navarro brings to the torn and somewhat desperate Nina a sense of the weight which comes with carrying the dreams of an entire neighborhood on your shoulders, while Revel Day provides a subtle sense of the outsider looking in as Benny.

Dominique Paton shimmers as the troubled but ambitious Vanessa, Orlando Montes as Nina’s introvertedly angry father, and Jackie Lorenzo Cox as her disappointed, practical mother provide a balance of truly adult forces in the mostly youthful tale. Candida Celaya cements all these characters and more together with a subtle power as the fragile Abuela. Indeed, everyone in the cast is right on point, providing one of the most evenly fine ensembles Candlelight Pavilion has had in many years.

But the excellence doesn’t stop there. Director Benjamin Perez uses the small stage as if it was a full city street, and takes the audience there with him. Marissa Herrera’s energetic and organic choreography becomes a physical celebration all its own. Anna Louizos Designs’ adaptation of the original Broadway set continues this polish, as do Karen Fix Curry’s costumes and even Mary Warde’s extremely convincing wigs.

The best of this production comes from the melding of all the theatrical elements into a seamless whole. The story is captivating, the music, though not wildly hummable afterward, proves apt for the story and as organic as the dance. The tech is solid, enhancing the whole. The deep love for the genuine, rounded people being portrayed and their individual and communal struggles is evident throughout. This is a story centered on a strong sense of character – all the characters – and their sense of place.

The secondary joy of any Candlelight Pavilion performance is that it comes with dinner. Make this your night on the town. “In the Heights” will offer up surprises for those who like their musicals more standard, but the surprises will be pleasant ones.

What: “In the Heights” When: Through September 13, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday September 10, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for brunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 general, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

So Silly: “Joseph…” at Candlelight Pavilion makes all the right moves

The cast of

The cast of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” [photo: Adam Trent]

On the list of works by the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, if “Evita” is the most complex, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the most lighthearted fun. Originally written to be sung by the chorus of a girls school, it has an unabashedly teenaged silliness at its core which, when translated into a Broadway-style musical, evokes an innocent charm that proves both funny and uplifting.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, a fresh and energetic production offers up a prime example of both the silliness and the professionalism which makes all that fun translate to the audience. Blessed with a fine dancing chorus and unrelentingly energetic choreography, sharp pacing and a cast which sings with gusto and accuracy, this production provides charmingly innocent family entertainment.

The story is literally Biblical – the tale of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery. In Egypt, after ending up in prison, his ability to read dreams leads him to the right hand of the pharaoh. There he saves Egypt from famine, and eventually saves his family as well. As set by Webber and Rice, the story is rich in silliness and catchy tunes, and can be a visual treat especially if the dancing is up to par.

At Candlelight, much if the show’s success lies at the feet of director and choreographer Alison Hooper, whose meshing of song and dance and story keep the show hopping. She has assembled one of the finest of Candlelight’s recent dancing choruses, and their work powers everything else. 

Joseph with his eponymous coat

Joseph with his eponymous coat

As the narrator, Alyssa Grant offers up a consistent, if rather low-key charm, providing the calm between major production numbers. Caleb Shaw’s Joseph radiates the character’s open, innocent nature, and sings with both power and nuance. Standouts among Joseph’s many brothers are Robert Johnson’s country stylings in “One More Angel in Heaven,” and James Joseph, who brings down the house with the “Benjamin Calypso”. The entire cast prove themselves impressive quick-change artists as they move from Biblical, to country, to 50s rock, to stereotypical French, to Caribbean, to disco with an impressive seamlessness.

Colleen Bresnahan, who has both adapted and enhanced the standard set, and Jenny Wentworth’s evocative costuming are stars themselves. Indeed, setting has often been an issue with productions of “Joseph,” with some staying rather too subtle and others going so over the top that the needed innocence of the piece gets lost in the glitter and sensuality. Here the balance is just right.

Of course, one of the perks of going to Candlelight Pavilion is the dinner which comes with the performance. So, from the perspective of family entertainment, this has it all: good food, and an engaging and lively show whose music will stick with you. What’s not to like?

What: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” When: through August 9, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adult, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Silly, Lighthearted Nostalgia: “Bye Bye Birdie” in Claremont

Maggie Anderson's Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in "Bye Bye Birdie" [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

Maggie Anderson’s Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in “Bye Bye Birdie” [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

For those of us who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there are certain cultural earmarks. We all remember Ed Sullivan and the fact that every set we knew was tuned to him on Sunday nights. We all remember (whether or not we were devoted fans) Elvis, back when he was cool and comparatively un-spangle-y. And we remember when a black-and-white Dick Van Dyke was tripping over an ottoman every week.

Out of that time, and in that time, came the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” for which Van Dyke won the Tony which propelled him onto television. Vaguely based on the hysteria caused when Elvis was drafted, it managed to make fun of its own time in a lighthearted and tuneful way which has now turned it into a cute and lighthearted period piece. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, its view of working women may remind one more of “Mad Men” than anything relatable today, but that is offset by the general cheer and silliness.

Kim McAfee is the 15-year-old, midwestern small-town fan whose name is chosen for a spectacular event: Conrad Birdie, the heartthrob rocker, will sing to her on The Ed Sullivan Show and then give her his last kiss before reporting to the army. All of this is the machination of Birdie’s manager, Albert Peterson, who has written the song and is trying to make enough money to marry his longtime assistant. The assistant, Rosie Alvarez, is in a duel for Albert’s attentions with his domineering and comically manipulative mother and business partner, Mae. And, of course, neither Kim’s newly acquired boyfriend Hugo, nor her father, are particularly happy to see her kissing a sex symbol on television.

Maggie Anderson sings and dances well, and gives a genuine quality to Kim, which makes a nice antidote to the far-too-old Ann Margaret of the film version. David Aldrete stomps and pouts as the stereotypical father, and has a great moment in the show’s two best songs: Hymn for a Sunday Evening (which apparently embarrassed Ed Sullivan no end), and the oft-repeated “Kids”. Candace Elder oozes understanding as Kim’s mother.

Beth Mendoza has a terrific time as the overblown Mae, right down to the Brooklyn accent. Kevin McDonald really looks the part of the young Elvis-style crooner, black leather jacket and all, as Birdie. Yet, perhaps the most central figures to making the whole show work are Allen Everman’s earnest and intense Albert, and Amber-Sky Skipps’ Rosie. Backed by a strong dancing ensemble, given great numbers to perform by choreographer Hector Guerrero and tight, interesting characterization by director John LaLonde, these two power the storyline.

Skipps has, perhaps, the roughest time, simply because her character was created for one of the greatest dancers ever on Broadway, Chita Rivera. The great dance sequence with a band of shriners is rough, and sometimes lacks the crispness of the other numbers, but her characterization is strong and wins out in the end.

In truth, “Bye Bye Birdie” is fun, but mostly lightweight nostalgia. Its cheerful lyrics, like the charmingly ironic “How Lovely to be a Woman” sung by a teenager, or the show’s most famous number, “Put On a Happy Face,” will leave one bright and bubbly. The show is good for kids, as the most “immoral” moment is Birdie’s hip-swivels, an homage to the part of Elvis that Sullivan wouldn’t show on television. And the food is good – particularly so, this time. So, go take a look. It’s a nice, simple way to celebrate the advent of summer.

What: “Bye Bye Birdie” When: Through July 13, doors open for dinner 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: meal inclusive, $53-$68 adults, $25 children Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Silliness and a Slice of Life: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” finishes a run in Claremont

The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is ready to spell [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is ready to spell [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]


There are musicals, and there are musicals. Some are extravaganzas, while others are more like a chamber musical: light on fancy technical elements, mass choreography or large choruses, relying more on charm and audience identification than spectacle. Included in this class would be “The Fantasticks” or “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” or “Baby”, all of which first gained fame in small off-Broadway theaters. One of the more recent entries into this field is William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Now finishing a run at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the charm of “Spelling Bee” comes from everyone’s identity with the awkwardness of adolescence, and of the specific pressures on and protection mechanisms of bright children. Beside that, it offers a certain amount of audience participation, and even a chance to expand one’s vocabulary.

As always Candlelight Pavilion has massed a solid cast, who create the extremely individual characters with wit and charm. It is time for the annual spelling bee. The winner will go to the national finals. To this important event come last year’s winner, joined by an eclectic collection of goofy and not-so-goofy smart kids. The bee is run by a somewhat obsessive former contestant, and a distinctly damaged junior high vice principal, aided by a tough guy doing community service consoling the students as they lose.

The cast also includes people pre-screened from the audience, adding a sense of connection only enforced by the vocabulary quiz in the program.

Director DJ Gray has a long history with the show, having been involved with its casual-looking choreography since its off-Broadway run. She is proud of having enhanced the dance element as she’s gone along, and for the most part that works to keep the show from being static. Certainly, she understands these geeky and yearning young characters better than most, having been surrounded by them so long. As a result there is a naturalness about the show, which proves most appealing.

Highlights of the cast include Jonathan Arana as the profoundly awkward William Barfee, overweight and allergic, with a most unique way of remembering how to spell, and Kailey O’Donnell as the girl balancing family pressure and family uniqueness as she tries to figure out who she is. Sarah Miramontes creates the most touching portrait, as the girl saving a seat for the father who won’t show, and Andrew Wade creates a certain obtuse charm as the son of a hippie-esque family with few expectations for him.

Angela Briones, as a quiet, multi-lingual girl, and Koray Tarhan as the confident scout and previous year’s winner each have moments of real connection. Jillian Lawson and Jeremy Jay Magouirk give the adults the obsessive weirdness which keeps the show flowing, while Ishmon Brown balances street toughness and a mild compassion as the young man doing community service.

The whole thing has just the feel it should – that of a certain amount of improvisation. One will not gain fabulous new insights into the human condition, but will leave touched and gratified by the experience. It is also, for all its comedy, a window worth looking through, to the pressures and home issues of ordinary kids.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” provides a gentle way to ease into summer. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion that comes along with a fine meal, in a formal air-conditioned space. With one more week to go, it’s worth catching.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through June 1, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, and for lunch matinees 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: inclusive of meal and show, $53 – $68 general, $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254 ex. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com.

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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Fiddler on the Roof” balances well at Candlelight Pavilion

Randy Hilton is Tevye in The Candlelight Pavilion "Fiddler on the Roof"

It has happened more than once. A Broadway show becomes a genuine hit, original in concept and musically compelling. Then it becomes an icon. Then it begins to look tired. Everyone has memorized the thing, the freshness vanishes and gradually it all becomes a giant cliche. Only with the passage of time, and silence, can one go back to looking at it as the stimulating show which first brought it to fame.

This would be a fine description of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which went from Tony-winning original to impressive film, to a seemingly never ending national tour touted locally as being a cultural imperative, to “Sunrise, Sunset” as the Muzak on department store elevators. Then silence, and distance, and now, locally, The Candlelight Pavilion’s revival. There, more than once, one heard surprise: “Wow, this show’s music is really beautiful,” and other comments confirming it as a classic.

And this production really is, for the most part, good enough to warrant such revelation. The cast is strong, the voices solid, and the feel of the thing very genuine. If you like the people onstage, you get connected. Certainly, it proves a great way to introduce children to both the charm of musical theater and evocative storytelling.

Randy Hilton leads the cast as Tevye, the dairyman, philosopher, dreamer and realist. He brings a physicality to the man’s pride, his patient sense of humor, and his tendency to lead with his heart before his head. He sings with conviction and warmth, and in all ways leads this cast in a show which has him onstage virtually all of the time.

Jenny Wentworth plays Golde, his wife. She has the attitude and energy down, though her singing is a bit edgy – something which stands out on the more melodic numbers. Blair Hollingsworth, Joanna Holliman and Kristina Brown make attractive work of Tevye’s elder daughters, with Holliman giving a particularly lovely version of my favorite song from the show, “Far From the Home I Love.” Scott Robinson does a lovely job as the geeky tailor, Edward Chamberlain comes off as a modified, gentle radical as the student Perchik. Jarred Barnard, as the Russian Christian interested in one of Tevye’s daughters, comes off as gentle and intellectual. It all works.

Director Chuck Ketter has a real feel for this piece, and gives it the sense of unity and place which are absolute essentials in making this work. Everyone must have a sense of character, to the smallest child. Considering the small stage and consequently small supporting cast, choreographer John Vaughan makes very attractive work of the more famous dance moments, from “Tradition,” to the bottle dance at the wedding, to the impressive kicks of celebratory Russians. Overall, movement throughout has an authentic feel.

If there is a down side to this production, and in this theater it is unavoidable, it is that the orchestral accompaniment is recorded. Unlike many Broadway musicals, the songs of “Fiddler on the Roof” are often conversational. They are quite literally talking set to music. To be forced to follow a prerecorded, standardized pacing dilutes the chance for personal expression, for playing off the other, or for responding to the mood created by a particular night’s audience in ways which stand out more forcefully because of this particular musical style.

Still, taken all in all, this comparatively small theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” offers a chance to rediscover the charm of what truly is a classic American musical. And yes, despite the past hype, it really is a great introduction to the cultural history preserved so well by our immigrant Yiddish-speaking storytellers. Oh, yes.

What: “Fiddler on the Roof” When: Through February 26, meals begin at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: The Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $48 – $68, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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