Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: John LaLonde

Wiz of Oz at Candlelight: gentle but pleasing

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “The Wizard of Oz” head off to see the wizard


You’d have to come from another planet, or be under the age of 5, to not know anything about “The Wizard of Oz.” For those of us who were not born in the earliest parts of the last century, it is the film we think of. In the pre-Internet age, the film’s annual appearance on television was a major family moment. At the dawn of the digitizing age, the film was even used to ridicule colorization (“If they had their way, they’d colorize the first ten minutes of ‘The Wizard of Oz'”). In my personal sphere, a dear friend’s mother is one of the last surviving cast members of the film, having played a munchkin as a child.

Few really stop to remember that “The Wizard of Oz” was originally a book – the first in a long series by L. Frank Baum (and, eventually, others). In its third life, the story has become a stage musical, using the material from the film, including a song left out of the original and the very 30s introductions once added to others. This musical has arrived at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont as a chance for kids on vacation, and their families, to beat the heat, eat a lovely meal, and be transported over the rainbow.

And, for the most part, that’s what they will get. The production, though there are a few creaky bits, makes the most of the small Candlelight stage, thanks in part to Chuck Ketter’s many, many backdrops and set pieces, and to the expansive performances – especially one – under the direction of John LaLonde.

The trick with any stage production of a musical film is to not try to compete with the movie. Here that’s hard, as so many have the thing virtually memorized. Still, Jaidyn Young, who shares the part with Sydney Dawn, makes an earnest and innocent Dorothy, singing the signature “Over the Rainbow” and holding her own as a dancer. Jesse Ashton Rhodus gives Scarecrow an appropriately loose-limbed quality, and a quietly positive air. Andrew Lopez, though handed the most unfortunate costume, becomes a very earnest and heartfelt Tin Man. Still, the best of this group is Austin Rea’s take on the Cowardly Lion, which eschews Burt Lahr’s Borscht Belt humor and Brooklyn accent for a deeply earnest innocence which plays beautifully and more originally with the rest of the group.

Also worthy of note are Jim Skousen’s apologetic wizard, Candace Elder’s concerned Aunt Em, and Michael J.Isennock in the dual roles of the Mayor of Munchkin City and Nikko, the captain of the flying monkeys. Sami Nye’s cheerful Glinda balances Courtney Bruce as the Wicked Witch of the West. As the show’s villain, Bruce has a great time, and handles the quick comings and goings with comparative ease, but sometimes gets so wound up by her own villainy she becomes difficult to understand.

There are a few technical issues as well, most particularly in the generally charming approach of Glinda’s bubble (oil that contraption – it shouldn’t squeak), and the decision to use blinking lights in the essential witch-with-a-firey-broom sequence (which don’t turn off when needed). Also, one wonders if it might be possible for the twister to be less static, though the way of presenting those things caught in it is clever.

Still, the choreography by Kim Eberhardt makes even the restored, if somewhat odd, “The Jitterbug” interesting. The magic of the Wizard and the disappearance of the Witch both prove quite effective, and the consistent use of a very competent children’s ensemble along with the usual chorus gives the thing a vitality and charm which proves the most important thing in the piece.

In the end, this “Wizard of Oz” has many more pluses than flaws. And, although you may find yourself repeating an awful lot of the words along with the actors – at least in your head – take the time to look around at the children in the audience. They are having as good a time as the kid in the balcony who waved at Glinda’s bubble every time it went by, on opening night. Note that there is a specific children’s menu for this show, complete with theme-based drinks.

What: “The Wizard of Oz” When: through July 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Jesus Christ Superstar”: Candlelight Pavilion hosts classic rock opera

Richard Bermudez as Judas and Kyle Short as Jesus in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” [photo: James Suter]


The first major splash made by the songwriting team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was a 1971 concept rock opera album titled “Jesus Christ Superstar.” For many of my generation, that was how we first encountered this work, allowing our imaginations to fill in what the characters looked like and the setting they would wander through. As it moved quickly to stage, and then to film, it developed a new, wider audience, and the show has rarely been off the boards since.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, “Jesus Christ Superstar” – for those who don’t already know – gives a comparatively modern spin to the tale of the last few weeks of Jesus’ life. Though ostensibly “humanizing” the story (i.e.: making it more about the man than a deity), it stays fairly faithful to the commonly held storyline, while embracing what is always a dramatist’s challenge: finding a motivation for Judas’ betrayal. And the music is literally classic Lloyd Webber: lush in spots, stridently rock-and-roll in others, somewhat thematically repetitive, with that unforgettable quality which has kept him a success for decades.

At Candlelight, co-directors Chuck Ketter and John LaLonde have assembled a fine cast. They look right, sing with skill and intention, and create the atmosphere necessary for the show to be a success. Also necessary for success are a few key players. Heading the list, Kyle Short makes an effective Jesus, balancing his dynamism against his exhaustion and fear. Emily Chelsea gives Mary Magdalene’s songs a slight country lilt, but it works.

Stanton Kane Morales as Pontius Pilate, develops a rather wistful tone, which works well. Camilo Castro, a true bass, gives Caiaphas the aura of villainy necessary for this show’s spin on events. A remarkable ensemble, including Orlando Montes as Peter, sings well, dances with enthusiasm and skill, and creates the atmospheres necessary – whether of fawning, devotion, delight, demand, or panic – to make the piece work.

A true standout in all of this is Richard Bermudez as the angsty Judas, angry and horrified, and in the end sure he’s been duped into his actions. Bermudez has the combination of vocal strength and articulation necessary for what becomes the binding storyline behind the obvious. One just wishes that the shadow of his final demise looked a bit more like a person, but that is nitpicking.

Pacing is everything in this show, and band director Alan Waddington never lets the thing slow down or pause. Putting a band on the small Candlelight stage means the large ensemble must be maneuvered with skill in front of and even above the musicians at times, which works remarkable well except when someone in a long robe has to climb a ladder in a hurry – a bit nerve wracking to watch. Still, the two directors have a gift for the visual, and some moments prove especially impressive, including the very last sequence, as Jesus is executed. Indeed, the final tableau as the lights go out is particularly powerful.

Kudos also to choreographer Dustin Ceithamer for creating dance and movement which look spontaneous even as they are not, and to costume coordinator Merrill Grady for giving the sense of that Renaissance view of the Middle East which so characterizes one’s mind’s-eye view of the time period.

In short, it is good to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, in part because – above and beyond the religious significance – the subject matter of political manipulation and the dangers of flying off the handle seems very current, and in part because it is good to revisit a work from the start of two songwriting careers which, both together and independently have helped define the stage and screen as it is known today. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion one also gets a tasty meal.

What: “Jesus Christ Superstar” When: through April 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 adults, $30 -$35 children, meals inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ex.100, or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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

“La Cage Aux Folles” Offers Laughs and Lessons at Candlelight Pavilion

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion's production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical "La Cage Aux Folles" kick up their heels.

Members of the chorus of Candlelight Pavilion’s production of the Tony-winning, ground-breaking musical “La Cage Aux Folles” kick up their heels.

In 1983 a new Broadway musical splashed upon the scene. Based on a play which had inspired an equally delightful French comic film, “La Cage Aux Folles” offered up a combination of traditionally melodic show tunes thanks to Jerry Herman (of “Hello Dolly” fame), and a script by Harvey Fierstein which – like his “Torch Song Trilogy” the year before – pushed the envelope of what a production on Broadway could be about. It won Tonys for both Herman and Fierstein, as well as for direction, best actor and Best Musical. In the process it offered up, as Herman put it, a good “old fashioned entertainment” that made the story of love and expectation in the setting of a drag club more charming and accessible to a wide audience.

Now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, “La Cage…” speaks to a new age with the same combination of charm, humor and acceptance. How fascinating it is to see how little the show has aged in the 34 years since its premiere. Indeed, much of what was said then still needs saying today, even in the guise of sweet entertainment.

The tale is clever and funny. The practical Georges runs and emcees a famed nightclub in St Tropez called La Cage Aux Folles. His highly dramatic longtime partner, Albin, morphs into the celebrated ZsaZsa, star of the club’s show, backed by a cast of impressive drag queen singer-dancers. Together Georges and Albin have raised Georges’ son – the result of a startling one-night-stand – and now that son, Jean-Michel, has returned home to tell the couple that he is engaged to be married. The only problem: the girl he loves is the daughter of an extreme right-wing politician bent on a return to “traditional morality.” Worse, this potential father-in-law and his wife want to come meet Jean-Michel’s family, inspiring the young man to request the presence of his completely absentee biological mother, and to try to push Albin out of the scene. When his mother never shows, Albin steps in, and the comedy increases.

If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because the musical, and the play and film that inspired it, in turn inspired the 1996 Robin Williams film “The Birdcage”.

At Candlelight, director-choreographer Roger Castellano has collected a solid cast, allowing the appeal of the show to shine as it should. John LaLonde takes command as the elegant Georges, even funnier in his attempts to appear stereotypically “manly” at times. Adam Trent makes Jean-Michel likable, allowing the potentially terrible hurt he inflicts upon Albin to feel more a matter of desperation than rejection. As Jacob, Albin’s “maid” and personal assistant, Bryan Martinez proves a howl, being as overt as his employers are trying to be subtle. The balance works tremendously well. Likewise, Orlando Montes’ solid stage manager offers yet another view of the club’s unique world.

Steven Biggs comes off just as intolerable as one would expect a character leading the “Tradition, Family and Morality Party” would be, balanced well by Lisa Dyson as his initially mousy wife finding a voice for herself in the rarified air of La Cage’s world. Daniel Reyes and Rachel McLaughlan make lovely work of the cafe owners who have known Georges and Albin as neighbors for years. Emma Nosal creates in Anne, Jean-Michel’s love interest, an attractive contradiction: loving her parents, but increasingly leaning toward the world Jean-Michel sees. Karla Franko gives restauranteur Jacqueline a flair which blends well with Albin’s ZsaZsa.

Chuck Ketter's Albin invites you to "see life from a different angle" in La Cage Aux Folles

Chuck Ketter’s Albin invites you to “see life from a different angle” in La Cage Aux Folles

Still, much of the show rests firmly on the shoulders of Chuck Ketter’s Albin. It’s trickier than one might think, playing both a gay man, albeit a proudly effeminate one, and becoming a convincingly female character when called upon. In this, Ketter shines, though his singing voice sometimes lacks the power of LaLonde’s. Still, when it counts – the iconic, angry “I Am What I Am” which closes the first act – he shines, making the song the anthem it should be. And all of this is backed by eight chorus boys in convincing drag, who sing and dance with conviction.

The end result proves most satisfying. In “La Cage Aux Folles” the laughter is silliness and friendly recognition, the hurts are universal, and the denouement a victory for love in general. The songs, as Herman said upon receiving the Tony, are “simple, hummable show tunes” and just as fun as that sounds. The moment of righteousness which is “I Am What I Am” will move a stone to tears. In short, if you’ve never seen “La Cage…” this is a good opportunity to catch up, and to do so with the added benefit of a lovely dinner beforehand. Go take a look.

What: “La Cage Aux Folles” When: through October 8, doors open 6 p.m. for dinner Fridays and Saturdays, as well as Thursday September 29 and October 6; doors open 11 a.m. for lunch Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: adults $58 – $73, children $30-$35 meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Nostalgic “Footloose” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion's "Footloose" celebrates victory

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “Footloose” celebrates victory

In 1984, the film “Footloose” bounced into movie theaters, bringing with it a fistful of major pop hit songs and the ultimate bit of righteous teenage fluff as a big-city boy leads a youth rebellion against a small town law forbidding dancing. Corny and almost universally panned by critics, it ended up with a staying power nobody could have imagined. Then in 1998, the whole thing was turned into a Broadway musical, written by the same folk who wrote the film, with most of the classic songs intact and a few added tunes.

Now that stage “Footloose” has burst upon Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Thanks to intelligent direction by John LaLonde, Andrew Russell’s attractive spin on the displaced dancing teen Ren, evocative choreography by Alison Hooper and comedic clarity by Spenser Micetich, it is a lighthearted hit.

Of course, the first selling point to any version of “Footloose” has to be all those memorable songs. From “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” through “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out for a Hero” and, of course, “Footloose,” the works by such celebrated as Kenny Loggins, Sammy Hagar and more will take any listener of a certain age back in time. Seeing them in context again proves an added plus.

Russell’s Ren centers the production from start to finish, as he has just enough of Kevin Bacon about him to keep that rebel vibe heartwarming rather than obnoxious. As his love interest, the preacher’s daughter Ariel, Emily Martin manages both vulnerability and an essential toughness which keep the character interesting. Jason Webb, in the rather two-dimensional role of Ariel’s absolutist father, gives the part as much humanity as the script will allow, while Jennifer Webb’s turn as Ariel’s mother creates an underscore of deep sadness which helps with humanizing the entire family.

Spenser Micetich's Willard explains what "Mama Says" in a break-out moment

Spenser Micetich’s Willard explains what “Mama Says” in a break-out moment

Keely Milliken makes solid work of Ren’s fatalistic but supportive mother. Chassey Bennett, Taylor Barbara and Emily Chelsea have a ball as Ariel’s understanding if concerned friends. Indeed, the entire rest of the ensemble who play smaller adult parts, the teens Ren leads in rebellion, or both, dance and sing with enthusiasm and skill, and create a wealth of individuals to surround the central story. Still, perhaps the most eminently likable performance has to be Micetich’s rube-like Willard, whose earnest interest in Ren’s project, and especially his silly homage to his admittedly crazy mother, “Mama Says” prove consistently endearing.

Hooper’s choreography proves reminiscent of the film, but finds its own space on the comparatively small Candlelight stage. One does admit missing Bacon’s gleeful “Let’s dance!”, but all the other essential elements are there. LaLonde has a real feel for musical pacing, keeping the movement and energy flowing so well in what is admittedly a very episodic tale that the chunkiness of the script isn’t an issue. The costuming – including the iconic red tux jacket – evoke the film, the hair is right, and the musical director Rod Bagheri is to be congratulated particularly for the evenness of the larger numbers.

In short, “Footloose” was never very deep, but it was always fun. This stage version captures that – the teenage fight against inexplicable rigidity, the gentle romance of small town life, and the yearning for freedom every adolescent must wrestle with. And it has all those 80s hits. It is certainly worth a look. All that, and you get a pretty classy meal to go along with it.

Next on the Candlelight docket is a musical which, though wildly different from the innocent “Footloose,” also deserves notice. “La Cage Aux Folles” – a musical based on the French film of the same name, which was remade as the American film “The Bird Cage,” will offer great humor, skilled chorus numbers, and a few delightful (or perhaps infamous) surprises. Check for that one too.

What: “Footloose” When: Through August 27, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: adults $58-73, children 12 and under $30-$35, 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

Solid “Guys and Dolls” at Candlelight Pavilion (plus a good dinner!)

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" in Candlelight Pavilion's "Guys and Dolls" [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Guys and Dolls” [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Essentially, there are three elements which are necessary for the musical “Guys and Dolls” to work. First, it must be done completely straight. The peculiar formality of Damon Runyon characters’ slang must be respected as ordinary speech. The seriousness of every characters position must be taken at face value, no matter how silly it seems to the watcher. Second, the leads must be able to sing – really sing – including the minor characters. Third, everything from costumes to setting must be just a little bit larger than life.

Add to that appropriate, often fun choreography and singers who really can act, and you have a formula for happy result. All of this is present at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, where even when the casting is a bit more original than sometimes, the results are fit nicely together into the silly-serious package that makes the show.

The tale, concocted from several Runyon stories, follows a couple of connected paths: Nathan Detroit, operator of a famed floating crap game, must find a venue for his event – difficult because “the heat is on.” Speaking of heat, his fiancé of many years, Adelaide, is pushing for a wedding. To finance his search for a site, Nathan bets visiting high roller Sky Masterson that he cannot convince Sarah, the leader of the local Salvation Army-style mission, to go to pre-Castro Havana with him for an evening. As Sky worms his way into Sarah’s world, Nathan ducks the cops and his girl, and all of New York’s underpinnings sing and dance up a storm.

Victor Hernandez is a far scruffier Nathan than sometimes appears, but that plays well to his equally scruffy occupation and current circumstances. His fuddling indecisiveness around Adelaide, played with authority by Stacy Huntington, seems more organic as is his fear of marriage. Allen Everman gives Sky a slickness which evolves into genuine concern with small but interesting “tells”. Ashley Grether’s Sarah has a kind of frenetic strength which provides just the right counterpoint. Indeed, Her “If I Were a Bell” becomes a highlight of the piece.

Backing these leads are both a fine ensemble of dancers, and some secondary players worthy of special note. Robert Hoyt gives the ever-apologetic Nicely-Nicely Johnson real presence. Emerson Boatwright becomes a truly comic visual joke as Big Jule, and plays it to the hilt. Jim Marbury supplies just the right combination of authority and practical frustration as Lieutenant Brannigan, the cop who never quite catches a break.

Greg Hinrichsen’s mash-up of New York makes a facile setting for the story, and Laurie Muniz’s choreography captures the feel the show must have – a kind of gentlemanly machismo for the gamblers, and classic burlesque for Adelaide and her girls. Andrew Orbison has the singers on target with even the complex things they must coordinate without a conductor – not a small feat. Still, the unifying force for tone, tempo of performance and structure is the sure hand of director John LaLonde. He has brought together all the elements, and keeps the whole thing cohesive, intentionally silly, and invariably upbeat.

So, go have fun. Damon Runyon was once a household word – quoted even in Abbot and Costello films. Today, it’s tough to find his stories, except in “Guys and Dolls”, making the show, in its way, a form of literary treasure. At Candlelight you also get a lovely meal, making the total evening relaxing and generally satisfying. What a nice way to welcome in the new year.

What: “Guys and Dolls” When: Through February 27, open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m Sundays, and opened for matinee lunch 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, meal-inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion: Not Quite Enough

Laura Dickinson is "Evita", as John LaLonde's Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

Laura Dickinson is “Evita”, as John LaLonde’s Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

One looks back at the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, both what they did together and since their split, and it is difficult to find any single piece more significant than their musical “Evita.” The music, though typically repetitive, has far more verve than much of Lloyd Webber’s later work, and the sharp-edged lyrics Rice created for this odd but fascinating story have an intensity which matches the score.

For this reason, I am always on the lookout for a production of “Evita.” It can still have a lot to say. Yet, there are certain things which simply must be present, especially two truly dynamic performers, one to play Eva Peron herself, and one to play the narrator, revolutionary Che Guevara. It can be high tech or low, large cast or smaller, but if these two parts aren’t cast with people of strong voice and stronger personality, it doesn’t work.

Which brings me to the new production of “Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Years ago, when the musical was new, I saw the first truly low-tech version of the show at Candlelight, and was impressed by how well the show held up without all the fancy machinery or the huge cast. I wish I could say that this new production was as successful.

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]


Despite a solid production, and a good to very good ensemble to back up the central figures, there is still a problem. Richard Bermudez makes fine work of Che: angry, sarcastic and powerful by turns. John LaLonde takes what has to be one of the most underrated parts in modern musical canon, Juan Peron, and makes him a real personality. But sadly these strong personalities only emphasize the comparative lack of zing in Laura Dickinson’s Evita.

She does all the moves, and – though sometimes her rock-style high notes become too shrill – handles the difficult music with a reasonable style, but the energy which creates this actual, larger-than-life character is absent. This is not the woman thousands of descamisados would have muscled into (albeit surrogate) power, who would have charmed all the charmable of Argentina. The fire is missing.

Which is admittedly a pity, because Chuck Ketter’s direction of the show moves it from its big-stage roots to the small and intimate Candlelight space without losing its most essential bits. Roger Castellano’s choreography almost has to be derivative of the original, but is generally well done. Admittedly (and this was also true the first time) one misses the projections which enhanced one or two moments, but doing “Evita” low-tech is also a great way to prove the show’s actual power is not based on gimmicks. And by and large this is still true. Except when it isn’t.

Indeed, there are a few lost moments, not all of which can be laid at Dickinson’s feet. The staging of Alexandra Specter’s brief moment in the sun as Peron’s dismissed mistress leaves her without the anchor of a door. Lucas Coleman’s turn as Magaldi, the tango singer who takes Eva to Buenos Aires, lacks fluidity or the kind of oily sexiness which makes him interestingly small-time.

Also, and very disappointingly for a show in which one can be swept up by orchestral moments alone, the score (always a recording at Candlelight) makes significant use of electronics rather than actual strings, robbing the music of its richness.

So, should one see this “Evita”? It has things to recommend it, and it comes with a fine meal. Is it what it could have been, at this venue? Not really. Having seen what this theater is capable of in relation to this important work, it should be better than it is.

What: “Evita” When: Through June 28, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunchtime Saturday and Sunday matinees 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

Rockin’ the House: The Buddy Holly Story hits Candlelight Pavilion

Buddy Holly and the Crickets perform in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont

Buddy Holly and the Crickets perform in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont

by Frances Baum Nicholson

There are a lot of reasons to go to the theater. One is simply for entertainment. If that is your goal, and particularly if you love musical nostalgia, you’ll have fun with Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson’s “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Though this musical does tell a rather simplified version of the small segment of Buddy Holly’s life between the first contract he signed with Decca in 1956 and his death in the airplane crash which also took the lives of The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens in 1959, it is mostly a concert of the music he recorded within that time.

With that in mind, it becomes important that the leading man both look and sound like Holly, and – if possible – be able to play a decent electric guitar. Jared Mancuso manages all of this. Indeed, at least in the looks and the sound category the result is almost spooky. As his back-up band The Crickets, Julian Johnson, as Joe, is a virtual gymnast with a string bass, Lonn Hayes gives considerable character to drummer Jerry, and Cullen Law’s Cricket offers a mean second guitar.

Virtually all of the rest of the performers become the “ensemble,” stepping out to play important folk in his life, then becoming back-up singers, enthusiastic fans and whatever else is needed. Of these, Jade Rosenberg is sweet as Buddy’s young wife Maria Elena, John Nisbet has fun with Hi-Pockets, the DJ who first gets him on the air, David Laffey has some strong moments as the man who managed them to stardom, and Jennifer Strattan makes fun work of that managers insistent wife.

Also worth a nod within that ensemble are Robert Hoyt as a fairly convincing Big Bopper, and Orlando Montes, who – though he looks decades older than the 17-year-old Valens was when he died – sings a mean “La Bamba.” Indeed, more than half of the second act of “The Buddy Holly Story” is devoted to Holly’s final concert, with Valens and The Big Bopper, before they all stepped on that fateful plane. That is probably the best of this entire show, with so many great hits, the entire rest of the ensemble singing backup, and a solid sense of the era and the vitality of early rock-and-roll.

Bravo to director John LaLonde, for keeping the pacing constant, and for understanding what the focus of it all had to be. This is not a show for the intellect, but for the heart and the tapping foot.

Even knowing that the show ends with the singular finality of Holly’s story, everyone leaves the performance space bouncing and singing. And sometimes that’s what going to a show is all about. There is no real attempt to hide that this is a tribute rather than a biography, and that’s just fine. At Candlelight Pavilion, the entertainment comes wrapped in a tasty meal and some singularly impressive desserts at intermission. So, leave your burdens at the door, go in, eat, talk, drink, and if the spirit so moves, dance in the aisles.

Sometimes, it really is just about being entertained. Here, you will be.

What: Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story When: Through February 22, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in January plus Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in February, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. Saturday and Sundays for matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults, $20 children under 12, inclusive of meal Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Silly, Lighthearted Nostalgia: “Bye Bye Birdie” in Claremont

Maggie Anderson's Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in "Bye Bye Birdie" [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

Maggie Anderson’s Kim waits for a kiss from Kevin McDonald as singer Conrad Birdie in “Bye Bye Birdie” [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

For those of us who grew up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there are certain cultural earmarks. We all remember Ed Sullivan and the fact that every set we knew was tuned to him on Sunday nights. We all remember (whether or not we were devoted fans) Elvis, back when he was cool and comparatively un-spangle-y. And we remember when a black-and-white Dick Van Dyke was tripping over an ottoman every week.

Out of that time, and in that time, came the Broadway musical “Bye Bye Birdie,” for which Van Dyke won the Tony which propelled him onto television. Vaguely based on the hysteria caused when Elvis was drafted, it managed to make fun of its own time in a lighthearted and tuneful way which has now turned it into a cute and lighthearted period piece. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, its view of working women may remind one more of “Mad Men” than anything relatable today, but that is offset by the general cheer and silliness.

Kim McAfee is the 15-year-old, midwestern small-town fan whose name is chosen for a spectacular event: Conrad Birdie, the heartthrob rocker, will sing to her on The Ed Sullivan Show and then give her his last kiss before reporting to the army. All of this is the machination of Birdie’s manager, Albert Peterson, who has written the song and is trying to make enough money to marry his longtime assistant. The assistant, Rosie Alvarez, is in a duel for Albert’s attentions with his domineering and comically manipulative mother and business partner, Mae. And, of course, neither Kim’s newly acquired boyfriend Hugo, nor her father, are particularly happy to see her kissing a sex symbol on television.

Maggie Anderson sings and dances well, and gives a genuine quality to Kim, which makes a nice antidote to the far-too-old Ann Margaret of the film version. David Aldrete stomps and pouts as the stereotypical father, and has a great moment in the show’s two best songs: Hymn for a Sunday Evening (which apparently embarrassed Ed Sullivan no end), and the oft-repeated “Kids”. Candace Elder oozes understanding as Kim’s mother.

Beth Mendoza has a terrific time as the overblown Mae, right down to the Brooklyn accent. Kevin McDonald really looks the part of the young Elvis-style crooner, black leather jacket and all, as Birdie. Yet, perhaps the most central figures to making the whole show work are Allen Everman’s earnest and intense Albert, and Amber-Sky Skipps’ Rosie. Backed by a strong dancing ensemble, given great numbers to perform by choreographer Hector Guerrero and tight, interesting characterization by director John LaLonde, these two power the storyline.

Skipps has, perhaps, the roughest time, simply because her character was created for one of the greatest dancers ever on Broadway, Chita Rivera. The great dance sequence with a band of shriners is rough, and sometimes lacks the crispness of the other numbers, but her characterization is strong and wins out in the end.

In truth, “Bye Bye Birdie” is fun, but mostly lightweight nostalgia. Its cheerful lyrics, like the charmingly ironic “How Lovely to be a Woman” sung by a teenager, or the show’s most famous number, “Put On a Happy Face,” will leave one bright and bubbly. The show is good for kids, as the most “immoral” moment is Birdie’s hip-swivels, an homage to the part of Elvis that Sullivan wouldn’t show on television. And the food is good – particularly so, this time. So, go take a look. It’s a nice, simple way to celebrate the advent of summer.

What: “Bye Bye Birdie” When: Through July 13, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: meal inclusive, $53-$68 adults, $25 children Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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