Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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By design or by accident several local theater companies have offered up seasons including classic shows which address very, very current issues. One such is the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater where, and not for the first time in this last calendar year, they are producing something powerfully relevant while also being impressively entertaining.
Indeed, their recently opened production of Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ musical “Ragtime,” based on E.L.Doctorow’s award-winning novel, finds the setting of Candlelight Pavilion an advantage. Originally over-produced, this less overblown presentation allows what works in the show to shine through. And in times like these, the messages it has to offer prove particularly important.
The story of both novel and musical centers around three distinct groups of people, the African-American musical scene of Harlem centered around ragtime musician Colehouse Walker, the upscale white suburbanites defined by Mother, and the eastern European refugees focused on an Ashkenazi Jew from Latvia. As their stories bump into each other, and into the famous names of their New York, the layers of hardship and privilege, of racial stereotyping and artistic creativity, of injustice and promise intertwine in ways which prove both tragic and enriching. It is a disturbing mirror for anyone watching today, as many of its concerns are still uncomfortably present.
What makes “Ragtime” work is the richness of the music, and the genuineness of the characters most central to the tale. At Candlelight, the company’s largest-ever cast includes several remarkable performances which make this all happen. Standouts include strong, intensely focused and deeply heartfelt performance of Trance Thompson as Colehouse, balanced by the sincerity of Jessica Mason as Sarah, the mother of his child. Christianna Rowader gives a balance of empathy and frustration to Mother – a woman coming into her own at a time when society had already defined her place. In this she is aided by young Andrew Bar, articulate and interesting as Mother’s Little Boy.
As Tateh, Allen Everman evokes a quiet desperation while Orlando Montes and Cheyene Omani play with the characters of two of the era’s most colorful personas: magician Harry Houdini and scandalous Evelyn Nesbit. All of these are backed by a strikingly good ensemble who supply major figures of the time, and create the world in which these people move, and sing the show’s powerful songs. Most notable is RaShonda Johnson, whose dirge for the dead Sarah becomes one of the evening’s standout moments.
But, although the ending is frankly overly hopeful, “Ragtime” is worth seeing at this time in history because of what it shows us in our past: racial injustice and the historic grounding for Black distrust of institutions, marginalization and squalor as experienced by those who immigrated to this country during that time (and who we now know laid the groundwork for much of its success), and the myopia of traditional power structures intent on turning back the clock to a “safer” place. It is a warning, and it is a rich hope for a world where we can, indeed, look back on these stories as from a time which we have finally outgrown.
What: “Ragtime” When: through February 24, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $63-$78 adults, $30-$35 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
I have a confession to make. When all those around me were screaming and swooning over The Beatles, my favorite group was The Supremes. Turns out I was not alone. Diana Ross and her pals were the single most popular American group of that era, and their sales worldwide were right up there with the Fab Four. Motown was the definition of American music in the mid-60s.
It was that sound – Barry Gordy’s brash combination of rhythm and blues with a bouncy rock and roll edge – combined with the flash and the choreography, and songs which had a kind of stick-to-your-ribs familiarity. I couldn’t get enough. If you’re like me, then you are going to enjoy “The Sounds of Motown” – a revue filled with familiar favorites now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont.
Unlike some tributes, this show doesn’t try to tell the life story of either Gordy or his company. Rather, it simply collects a group of talented performers to recreate (at least in general tone) the music and the group dynamics which made Motown Records what it was. Martha and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder are all represented, as is, rather inexplicably in that she was not a Motown artist, Patty La Belle. By the end, folks are ready to get up and dance.
Some renditions ring truer than others, of course, and even among a very talented cast there are standout moments. Roshanda Johnson’s version of “Neither One of Us” leaves one wishing there was more Gladys Knight music in the show than there is, and her “Lady Marmalade,” however inexplicable in this revue, is terrific to listen to. Seven-year-old CJ Wright proves earnest and impressive covering parts associated with the youthful Michael Jackson. Gary Lewis manages a variety of styles well, Jessica Mason makes a nice Mary Wells, and Desmond Clark’s “Do You Love Me” and “Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie)” are just plain fun.
Indeed, all of the cast has impressive talent. Eric Bailey, Paul David Bryant, Allisonne Crawford, Lawrence Cummings (who did an impressive job, the night I visited, outsinging his backup even when his mic didn’t work), Jo Rhea Dalcour, Jazz Madison and Valentina Merchant each have moments where they shine personally, and the whole cast blends well together – a neat trick in itself. Director John LaLonde keeps the thing moving along at just the right pace to avoid those “we’ve all got to change costume now” lags. The cast is joined by a poundingly good live band, giving the whole enterprise a specific energy.
Now, there is always an issue when one is providing covers of songs whose original performances are permanently imprinted in people’s brains. There are occasions where a harmony isn’t quite as harmonious as one remembers, or a tonality doesn’t match the particular timbre of the original singer. The decision to rotate performers to the “up front” spot means those tonalities sometimes shift from song to song by a single artistic group, which can be disconcerting. Still, this ensemble works together to bring the essence of Motown alive enough that by the time they ask folks to feel free to get up and dance, it’s what you want to do.
As always at Candlelight Pavilion’s main productions, the show comes along with a fine dinner. And that is special too, of course, as this is the last dinner theater in the greater Los Angeles area. But I have to admit, the nostalgia is pretty sweet too.
What: “The Sound of Motown” When: Through September 8, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays., 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53-$68 general, $25 children 12 and under, including meal, show and sales tax Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com