Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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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
Silliness and a Slice of Life: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” finishes a run in Claremont
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