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Corny but Polished: “42nd Street” at Candlelight Pavilion

"Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway" at Candlelight Pavilion's "42nd Street" [photo:  Demetrios Katsantonis]

“Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway” at Candlelight Pavilion’s “42nd Street” [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Sometimes one goes to the theater for something profound. Sometimes one goes for something which will leave behind an underlying message to be chewed over a bit for its power or its emotional impact. Sometimes one goes to the theater for distraction, and for fun, with nothing more profound required than songs, dances and general earnest silliness. When this last is your goal, what better show than “42nd Street”? And what better venue than Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, where you get to add a charming dinner to the mix.

There are three things necessary for a production of “42nd Street” to succeed. First, corny though it is, it must be played straight. Second, just about everyone in the cast has to be able to tap dance, and well. Third, the leads must radiate an innate innocence. All of these can be found in Candlelight’s production. The tale, silly as it is – and borrowed from the 1933 movie of the same name – uses the music of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who wrote songs for a string of Warner Brothers hits in the early era of sound. The classic story of “small town girl makes good on the Great White Way” blends all of the elements which made those early talkies historic.

Peggy Sawyer, newly in New York from Allentown, Pennsylvania, manages to snag a part in a Broadway show which, at the height of the Depression, is a lifesaver for many of the “kids” in the cast. In this she is aided by Billy Lawlor, the show-within-a-show’s youthful tenor, though she runs up against the pompous, aging Dorothy Brock, who is not only the star of that show but has brought along the sugar daddy who will fund the production. When Dorothy breaks an ankle, exacting director Julian Marsh must search immediately for a replacement or the entire show will fold. Will Peggy be up to the leap which will make her “go on a showgirl, but come off a star”?

Director/choreographer DJ Gray has a strong command of this particular genre of musical, and has gathered a fine cast of dancers to provide the backdrop to the storyline. Indeed, top quality tap sets the stage for the rest of the production’s finest aspects. Emma Nossal gives Peggy the sweet combination of determination and innocence so necessary to the atmosphere of the show, and sings and dances up a storm. John LaLonde’s commanding presence and deeply resonant voice make him a perfect Julian Marsh. Michael Milligan gives Pretty Lady’s (the show within a show) youthful tenor the combination of ego and zing necessary to make him an engaging foil.

Sarah Meals does well as the pompous, aging star of the show, while John Nisbet has a lot of fun as the kiddy car king able to finance the entire production. Shannon Gerrity leads the chorus in support of Peggy’s chances, while Cynthia Caldwell and Josh Tangermann, as Pretty Lady’s writing team, become more actively engaged in the performance of the thing than usual. Among a large (by Candlelight standards) and highly gifted chorus, Chad Takeda proves a standout as the slinky thief in an otherwise period tap ballet to the show’s title tune, rather as if Bob Fosse’s choreographic concepts had invaded that sphere.

Gray has a strong sense of the purpose of this kind of show, and that is evident throughout. The costumes and wigs are right. The pacing and timbre of the piece keep it light and mildly silly. The skills of the performers are solid and highly entertaining to watch. The singing, under the musical direction of Douglas Austin, proves so organic it makes one forget the fact the orchestra was recorded ahead of time. In short “42nd Street,” as done by this company, is all one can hope for with a show of this type. That it comes with a lovely meal means one can guarantee a lighthearted, upbeat evening. In times like these, opting for the occasional bit of fluffy froth isn’t necessarily out of place.

What: “42nd Street” When: Through March 25, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with doors opening for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturday 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 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

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

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