Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

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Candlelight Pavilion’s “Peter Pan”: Tweaking the Nose of Tradition, Done Well

Gavin Juckette (l.) as Peter, and Randy Ingram (r.) as Captain Hook battle for the Lost Boys and the Darling children in Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater’s “Peter Pan”

Children who grew up when I did are divided into two camps: those who think the best “Peter Pan” is the Disney animated version, and those – like me – who know that the Mary Martin version is the “real” one. Of course, both are based on J.M Barrie’s original 1904 script for a British “panto”. The musical Martin brought to television after its triumph on Broadway used much of the original script, adding the music of Morris (Moose) Charlap with additions by Jule Styne, and the lyrics of Carolyn Leigh plus Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Since then, all productions of this musical version, whether Sandy Duncan’s and, later, Cathy Rigby’s Broadway hits, or more local productions, have honored the panto format: that is, the tradition of having one character (in this case, Peter) played by a cross-dressing performer. In other words, in live theater Peter has always been played by a woman, the most convincingly boyish being former Olympic gymnast Rigby.

Now the folks at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater have decided to defy tradition, go literal, and have Peter be played by a male. Add to this the challenge, well met, of having people fly on a stage notably lacking the “flies” – the large space above a stage where rigging and set pieces can hang out of view – and one could not help but be curious. Besides, who doesn’t have moments of wanting to sing “I Won’t Grow Up”?

For the show to work, four characters (or three actors) have to be top-notch, and play their often deeply silly parts absolutely straight. Gavin Juckette makes an earnestly boyish Peter, with the serious sense of fun which makes the piece work, even if in defiance of tradition. Randy Ingram, in a practice which does keep to tradition, in the dual parts of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook gives each character individuality, but in both a delightfully overblown sense of self-importance.

In the somewhat treacherous role of “Indian Princess” Tiger Lily – always a cartoon, as it would be if made up by a prepubescent British boy – Amaris Griggs dances well, proves commanding, and by dealing with Peter as an equal squashes some of one’s disquiet over the role’s stereotypical underpinnings. Valerie Rose Lohman balances the budding-woman and little-girl-fantasy aspects of Wendy, with Andrew Bar as John and Asher Broberg as Michael doing a lovely job as the Darling children.

Add to all of this a delightful collection of lost boys, rather inept pirates (especially Thomas Stanley as Smee – always a personal favorite), and forest animals in an ensemble who bring Neverland to life, and you have a genuinely lovely time.

John LaLonde’s direction keeps the pace moving and the relationships between these fantasy characters engaging. He knows how to use the Candlelight space, using needed entrances and exits through the audience to scoop everyone into the spirit of the thing. Kirklyn Robinson’s choreography uses the comparatively small Candlelight stage particularly well, keeping the atmosphere and energy of the piece. Douglas Austin, as musical director, has given the ensemble a lovely blend.

Kudos also to Chuck Ketter for yet another set fitting a great deal into a small space. The lighting design by Aspen Rogers and Jonathan Daroca, including the character of Tinkerbell, make the piece work as it does.

If you have somehow never seen “Peter Pan,” this is a good one, even if a bit nontraditional. If you wish to introduce a new generation to the magic “Peter” has brought to the young for over 100 years, I’d go see this version, which comes with a lovely meal (including a kids menu). One warning: tickets are scarce. Get on a waiting list if you need to.

What: “Peter Pan” When: through August 17, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch matinees 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63 – $78 adult, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or www.thecpdt.com

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No Kidding: Candlelight’s “Titanic” Better than B’way Version

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Passengers and crew of “Titanic” assemble to board for the ill-fated journey in the Tony-winning musical now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

Going to see “Titanic” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont was something I approached with trepidation. Thought the music was written by Maury Yeston, whose work I have always liked, and the book by Peter Stone, and its storyline was based completely on actual people, which I approve of, I was haunted a bit by the first version I saw. I need not to have worried.

The first time I saw the Tony-winning musical it was somewhat anticlimactic. For one thing, the epic movie of the same name had been recently released, but for another the national tour of the original Broadway production itself, which was born at the Ahmanson production I saw, seemed a weird combination of occasionally brilliant theatricality and staging moments which were either overblown or simply ridiculous. Indeed, it was hard to connect with the musical itself because the visuals were so uneven.

Turns out (and the irony is not lost on me) that in the case of a musical about what was then the largest vehicle in the world, smaller is better. Crammed onto the comparatively little Candlelight stage, all the overblown theatricality gives way to story, and the characters shine over the comparatively subtle optics. Add the impressive quality of the performers in this new production, who sing so well that no huge chorus is needed to back them up, and the intimacy, musicality, and pathos shine far more brightly than anything I could have anticipated.

This is, in large part thanks to director/set designer Chuck Ketter’s vision.

The story is not new to much of anyone, but author Stone has concentrated on just a few people, often the less well-known among those who boarded the maiden voyage of this supposedly unsinkable ship. Yes, designer Thomas Andrews is there, along with the pompous and demanding ship-owner Bruce Ismay and the about-to-retire Captain E.J. Smith, but the rest are a combination of first, second, and third-class passengers and crew, most of them comparatively new to the general public. The songs tie in closely with the storyline rather than being stand-alone, and the small live orchestra gives a chance for emotional nuance which the theater’s usual pre-recorded instrumentals would not.

Ketter’s set design allows for quick changes of place which keep the pace electric as relationships define, personalities emerge, and the ship steams on toward its disastrous destiny. The entire production is tight, intense, and riveting in a way that old original simply wasn’t.

The talented company of 20, who cover a musical originally written for more than 40, are a true ensemble, rising out of the crowd to create well-fleshed-out characters and then moving back again with a seamless flow. Standouts in a company full of them include Gavin Juckette as the ship’s overwhelmed radio man, Catie Marron as a 3rd class passenger dreaming of new beginnings and new love, and Sarah Meals as the ambitious 2nd class passenger constantly stealing into 1st class.

As well as these, kudos go to Gregg Hammer as one of the ship’s stokers. Jamie Snyder and Samantha Wynn Greenstone as Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s whose characters come into their own in the show’s second half, as Ida famously refuses a lifeboat if it means leaving her husband. Marc Montminy makes a wistful Captain Smith, and Greg Nicholas a despicably self-centered Ismay.

Musical director Andrew Orbison helps with the ensemble spirit as he guides performers and orchestra alike through the lush score. Dylan Pass handles the incidental choreography, and (and this is often a sticking point for me) Michon Gruber-Gonzales has done wonders with the wigs which firmly set this piece in time and place.

In short, this “Titanic” is definitely worth a look. At Candlelight it comes with a meal which tends away from standard “rubber chicken” in the dinner theaters of old, and the desserts are definitely worth the wait until intermission. Still, it isn’t the food which made this a fine production to see. They kept the best and redid the rest. It’s what a revival should do.

What: Titanic, the Musical. When: through February 23, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There will be one special Thursday evening performance with doors open at 6 p.m. on February 21. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. How Much: $63 – $78 general, $30 – $35 children under 12, inclusive of meal ┬áInfo: 909-626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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