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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

“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

“The Producers” at Candlelight – Big musical fits well in smaller package

Bobby Collins and Jamie Snyder as Leo and Max in "The Producers" [photo: John LaLonde]

Bobby Collins and Jamie Snyder as Leo and Max in “The Producers” [photo: John LaLonde]

One of the most celebrated Broadway musicals of the recent past is Mel Brooks’ adaptation of his film “The Producers.” Ridiculous, clever and continuously engaging, it still demands a strong cast and a strong directorial vision to be a success. What a delightful surprise, then, to discover all of this at a place where you can also get a decent meal: the area’s last remaining true dinner theater, The Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont.

The story is as silly as one expects from Mel Brooks. Max Bialystock, a failing Broadway producer, joins forces with a timid accountant named Leo Bloom to make money by fleecing investors in a show intentionally so bad it closes. As Max gathers the money from a fleet of aged women he sequentially seduces, the two begin their search for a truly awful musical they can contract for, and cast. They hire a famously awful director, with his crew of stereotypical assistants, and the plot thickens.

Director Brian Thomas Barnhart and choreographer Janet Renslow work with considerable success to recreate the Broadway original on Candlelight’s smaller stage. A sizable, talented cast lives up to these demands, led by Jamie Snyder’s appropriately over-the-top Max, and Bobby Collins’ humorously fragile Leo. Both have strong singing voices, as well, and the entire cast proves impressive in dance routine after routine (including the famous “tapping walkers”).

Playing the ultimate stereotypes – in typical Brooks comedic fashion – Laura Thatcher creates the well-endowed, somewhat dim Swedish actress-turned-secretary Ulla, and Danny Blaylock creates the crazed former Nazi, Franz. Add to these Stanton Kane Morales’ cross-dressing director and Emerson Boatwright having a ball as his fawning assistant. Andrew Wade supplies a number of smaller character bits, and manages the classic tenor required for the Ziegfeld take-off “Springtime for Hitler.”

The polish doesn’t end there. James Gruessing’s set is a star all in and of itself – one of the most complex and layered ones Candlelight has ever used. The lighting is great, and the costumes, from The Theatre Company, are just right throughout.

More importantly, one laughs and laughs often. The show is genuinely funny, frankly funnier than in the production at the Ahmanson, where Jason Alexander, rather than living into the part of Max with great glee, seemed apologetic for not being Nathan Lane. No apologies here. Everyone is playing their parts full-out and the results are absolutely delightful.

One warning: Mel Brooks loves making fun of lust, and as such there are a number of moderately off-color references and actions which may make this a show that is inappropriate for kids. On the other hand, the show comes accompanied by good food and fabulous desserts, all of which contribute to a generally joyous experience.

So, go see “The Producers.” Having seen many of the productions in Candlelight Pavilion’s 30-year history, I’d rate this among the top ten. It really is worth one’s while to go and enjoy.

What: “The Producers” When: Through April 4, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for matinee brunches Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73, dinner inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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