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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

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

Horror on a Neat, Small Scale: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in Claremont

The cast of "Sweeney Todd" at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The cast of “Sweeney Todd” at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is considered by many to be Stephen Sondheim’s most sophisticated work, especially from a musical standpoint. It also broke new territory in several other directions. Based on a 1973 play, it celebrated, in weird but ultimately human ways, the story of an evil barber told and retold by Londoners for over 200 years. It was a matter of answering several logical questions earlier melodramatic versions had not: Why would a potentially good person become a soulless serial killer? Why would anyone else help him in this? What turned righteous revenge turn into a pathology of murder? Ultimately, for those who created the thing, the question was whether this grim, bloody and horror-filled musical could attract an audience somewhat desensitized by Hollywood horror flicks?

The answer was a resounding yes. In the new production now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the gore is a bit muted, and the sense of monolithic industrial architecture dwarfing the individual is only moderately accessible, but the central performers still create a sense of evil which can engross an audience. Indeed, putting such a large and powerful musical on such a comparatively small stage, as director Chuck Ketter manages to do, is in itself quite a feat.

John LaLonde and Debbie Prutsman as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

John LaLonde and Debbie Prutsman as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The ever-so-versatile John LaLonde is Sweeney, moving from bitter to hate-filled to psychopathic in stages of voice and body language, all done a lot closer to the observant audience than most productions. Debbie Prutsman creates an appropriately, oddly charming, amoral Mrs. Lovett, far too delighted to be doing good business to have any qualms about the source of supply for her meat pie filling. The songs LaLonde and Prutsman share, and the way they work together, provide delightful comic punctuation to this grotesque story.

This is assisted by a large and able ensemble cast. Standouts include Caleb Shaw’s Anthony, the upbeat and yearning young sailor, Jenny Moon Shaw’s crazed beggar woman with a story to tell, and Adam Trent’s earnestly dim Tobias, Lovett’s willing assistant – at least for a while. Sam Nisbett proves coldly menacing, and Robert Hoyt officiously insufferable as the judge and beadle against whom Sweeney’s most intense hatred is rightly focused. Katie Roche sings beautifully as Anthony’s love interest, Joanna.

A very well-voiced chorus of ten fills out the scene and offers some of the most potent music, Lance Smith and Vil Towers add to the tale with brief appearances as a snake-oil salesman and the operator of a madhouse, respectively. Janet Renslow’s choreography (that tricky process of making a large group move as one without seeming to be dancing) helps create a sense of crowd, and John Patrick’s set does what it can to enlarge the usually small Candlelight stage by taking it out into the audience area, which helps with this theater’s inability to go tall.

The first time I saw Sweeney Todd, at its first L.A. appearance in 1980, I was very glad my then-editor had insisted on writing the review. As I said to my companion, “How do I tell the audience I write for that this is one of the most remarkable pieces of popular theater I’ve ever seen, but given the content none of those who usually read my stuff would want to see it?” Stunning, bloody, cruel and elementally musical, its complex score could not help but ring in one’s head. Its images could overwhelm.

If you had told me then that the next live performance I would see would be at a dinner theater, I’d have laughed. Indeed, when we went to eat after that original version, our first words to our server were, “Do you have anything that doesn’t bleed?” Of course Candlelight Pavilion’s general manager, Michael Bollinger, claims to have that pegged: “It works because feed my audience before, not after, they see the show.” Also, the blood flows much more subtly here than it did then, so the gross-out level is somewhat reduced.

And, in truth, I’m glad that Candlelight has taken the risk. Though their “Sweeney Todd” is perhaps a bit less messy or grand than its earlier counterpart, its intensity and the quality of the performances keep it vital and fascinating. And the culinary end of the company is having fun with the food – turning their usual beef dish into a meat pie, for example, and putting crafted fruit “eyeballs” in their cocktails. Still, this would all just be kind of ridiculous if the show wasn’t worth watching. It is.

What: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” When: Through October 13, doors opening for dinner at 6 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53-$68, $25 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

You Can Feel It All Over: The Motown Sound in Claremont

Eric Bailey, Desmond Clark, Gary Lewis, and Lawrence Cummings as The Four Tops in "Sounds of Motown"

Eric Bailey, Desmond Clark, Gary Lewis, and Lawrence Cummings as The Four Tops in “Sounds of Motown”

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.

Rashonda Johnson in The Sounds of Motown

Rashonda Johnson in The Sounds of Motown

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.

7-year-old CJ Wright sings up a storm in The Sounds of  Motown

7-year-old CJ Wright sings up a storm in The Sounds of Motown

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

A Tuneful Mash-Up: the new-old “Sound of Music” in Claremont

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion's "Sound of Music"

Sarah Elizabeth Combs as Maria, teaches the von Trapp children to sing in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Sound of Music”

The new, and extremely well performed production of “The Sound of Music” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont provided another fascination I had not expected. The script sent from the Rodgers and Hammerstein Company is a mash-up of stage and screen versions which first appeared for the Broadway revival in 1998. Trying to honor both is a tricky business, and ends up making some attitude shifts a bit abrupt. It aims to appease the movie buffs yet leaves some of the characterizations from the starker stage original. Thanks to a good cast, the results are generally good, but a bit startling nonetheless.

Understand that the 1959 stage musical – the last written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as Oscar Hammerstein died not long after it opened – is vastly different from the famed 1965 film in specifics, though not in general story line. For example, several songs, including the sardonic “How Can Love Survive,” “No Way to Stop It” and “Ordinary Couple” were removed for the film, and replaced with songs Rodgers wrote alone: “I Have Confidence,” and “Something Good.”

Though included in the stage version, “The Lonely Goatherd” and “My Favorite Things” were shifted to different scenes in the film, as was much of the chant-based religious music sung by the nuns. The Baroness out for Von Trapp’s hand is far more conniving in the stage version, with the scent of a collaborator on her as thoroughly as that on a decidedly less lovable Max. Anyone who sees the show in its original onstage version after falling in love with the film is bound to find the shift rather startling, and perhaps even disappointing.

At the Candlelight, they have handled this reimagining as well as one could hope. The Baroness is still a stinker, and “How Can Love Survive” underscores that, though it is the only one of the “dropped” songs to survive. “I Have Confidence” heralds Maria’s arrival at the Von Trapp household, and “Favorite Things” appears at the same spot – Maria’s bedroom during a storm – as in the film. “Something Good” replaces “Ordinary Couple” as the second act love song, and “Lonely Goatherd” has a brand new spot as the kids’ performance at the music festival. In the end, though a fine production, it leaves bits of character and story kind of hanging out there, while trying to be the best of both worlds.

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Dimyana Pelev as the wealthy Baroness, and John LaLonde as Capt. von Trapp

Fortunately, a really fine batch of performers keeps too much from getting lost in the interweaving of story lines. Sarah Elizabeth Combs has an innate sweetness, a lovely voice, and enough gumption to make a charming Maria. John LaLonde makes a commanding figure as Captain von Trapp, though one wishes he had the chance to build up his singing of “Edelwiess” enough to make his emotional catch make sense.

Kim Blake gets better and better as the Mother Superior. Jod Orrison, Valerie Jasso and Kate Lee cluck and hover appropriately as the other rather critical nuns. Dimyana Pelev, despite a mildly unfortunate wig, makes a neatly calculating Baroness Elsa, while Frank Minano has fun with the sponging Max. Zack Crocker makes a charmingly youthful Rolf, and Courtney Cheatham matches him neatly as the adolescent Leisl.

The other children, Katie Ochoa, Matthew Funke, Haven Watts, Wyatt Larrabee, Brooklyn Vizcarra and Alison Bradbard the night I saw it (most are double-cast) are almost surprisingly good for a company this size. They sing and dance well, virtually all of the time, and work together as a unit to excellent effect. This sense of polish extends to the small but well utilized ensemble which supports these major players.

Director Douglas Austin has worked particularly hard to create the sense of ensemble, particularly between the main adults and the children. The results are self-evident, as the show flows as smoothly as this new script will let it. Chuck Ketter’s scenic design manages to make that tiny stage look mansion-like, which is no small feat. The lighting design of Steve Giltner works as well as possible, given a technical glitch or two.

In short, the results of this production are more charming than not, once you get over the differences from what you expect. It’s perfect family fare, and comes complete with a fine dinner (including kid-friendly fare) so another generation can fall in love with the girl who unites a family through music and evades the Nazis through love. That it bears only vague resemblance to the actual story of the actual Von Trapp Family Singers long ago became inconsequential.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through March 24, Thursday through Saturday dinners at 6 p.m., Sunday dinners at 5 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday brunch at 11 a.m. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 adults, $25 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext 1 or

You Say Tribute, I Say… (“I Left My Heart” at the Candlelight Pavilion)

The cast of "I Left My Heart" belts out a classic tune at the Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of “I Left My Heart” belts out a classic tune at the Candlelight Pavilion

Going to see a musical tribute show takes discernment: are you going because you want to relive a treasured moment, see an artist you wish you could have heard “in real life,” or are you simply enamored of the music the artist sang? This gets even more complex if the singer wrote none of his own material, so that much of what he is famous for is work actually created by someone else.

Which brings me to “I Left My Heart,” a salute to Tony Bennett now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Unlike tribute bands, which recreate long-past concerts, or musical biographies which trace the story behind the music, revues like “I Left My Heart” concentrate on the songs that artist is connected to.

The problem with doing this with Tony Bennett is compiling music from his repertoire which resonates as his. He may be famous for a few songs, like “Rags to Riches” or, of course, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but most of the other music he recorded has, over time, been more thoroughly connected to someone else. “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and “Top Hat” are signature tunes of Fred Astaire. “Love Story” or “The Days of Wine and Roses” are much more connected to Andy Williams. “Make Someone Happy” is signature Jimmy Durante. And on it goes.

Still, they are all likable tunes, and at the Candlelight Pavilion a fabulous jazz quintet backs up three singers who take great joy in singing the songs, while not trying at all to “be” Tony Bennett singing them.

Musical Director Martin Green has amassed five amazing musicians in Alan Waddington, Gino Munoz, Robert Slack, Brandon Shaw and Chris Wills. It’s just possible that they provide the main reason to come see the show. As the purveyors of song, Damon Kirsche has that late 50s jazz crooner style down, Caleb Shaw provides an earnest clarity, and, though his vocals are the most shakey, Richard Bermudez provides a youthful feel to his moments in the sun.

The staging, basic but continually engaging, is organized by director John LaLonde as a concert, plane and simple. You could be watching this in Vegas or at any nostalgic nightclub. And that’s exactly what the tribute wants to be: a celebration of the music which defines the span of Bennett’s career. They are not being Bennett, they are simply honoring him.

In any case, the results are – for the most part – toe-tapping and easy to like. At Candlelight Pavilion the show comes with an attractive, if not wildly gourmet, dinner, and a remarkable dinner-time classical guitarist. It makes for a complete evening, right down to the decadent desserts at intermission.

And, essentially, that’s what “I Left My Heart” is: a delicious auditory dessert of fine old songs done with enthusiasm, backed by talented jazz musicians. It’s not great art, and I’m not sure it is really much of a direct homage to Tony Bennett, but it makes for a pleasant, relaxing time.

What: “I Left My Heart” When: Through February 3, Thursday through Saturday evening open for dinner at 6 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday open for matinee brunch at 11 a.m. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 for adults, $25 – $30 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254. ext. 1 or

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