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Polished Classic: “Oklahoma” arrives at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion's "Oklahoma" in a celebrative moment [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]

The cast of Candlelight Pavilion’s “Oklahoma” in a celebrative moment [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]

In March of 1943, deep in the midst of World War II, a musical arrived on Broadway which would redefine the genre. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” not only integrated all its songs into the storyline, it used dance as a vehicle for expanding the tale itself. This original production, which starred a cast of comparative unknowns – most notably Howard Da Silva and Celeste Holm – and featured choreography by the innovatively balletic Agnes De Mille, revolutionized everything about the way the American musical would be seen from that point on.

Which is good to remember when a chance to see this great classic appears on the scene. This thing is not to be dismissed as silly, syrupy or just an antique. Now in a solid production at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, one is reminded of its complexity: it has some darker overtones, and a consistent flavor only accented – rather than interrupted – by songs and dance. There’s humor, a certain amount of pathos, and a chance to see something that changed an art form.

The story, taken from Lynn Riggs’ play “Green Grow the Lilacs,” uses the tale of the romance of Curly the cowboy and Laurie the farm owner to watch the period of Oklahoma’s transition from cow country to settled farmland, and from territory to much-anticipated statehood. In the midst of this there is tension, a certain amount of frontier justice, folksy cooperation, and a quiet undercurrent of danger. And, of course, there’s a romance to center the whole thing upon.

Gregg Hammer makes a likable Curly, and sings with confidence some of the show’s most iconic songs. Michaelia Leigh gives Laurie that combination of youthful nervousness, even petulance, and genuine feeling, and also sings well. Michael Skrzek creates a truly goofy Will Parker, the knuckle-headed cowboy with his heart set on the rather amoral Ado Annie. Monica Ricketts has just the right timbre and carefree attitude to make Ado Annie his comic counterpart.

Jonathan Arana has a lovely time with the slippery, but generally good-hearted traveling peddler Ali Hakim. Still, the finest performance of the night is Jeffrey Ricca’s Judd Fry. Ricca makes him far more real than sometimes, and more subtly menacing, letting loose the dark side of the west in a very convincing way. Also worthy of note are the solidly practical Dynell Leigh as Aunt Eller, and Sam Nisbett as Ado Annie’s frustrated father.

The choreography, listed as recreated from the original by Dustin Ceithamer is actually more of a combination of his spin on the original and the original itself. This was made a bit more tricky on opening night by an injury to one of the ensemble dancers in a final rehearsal – something the cast handled with extraordinary aplomb. Dylan Pass and Stephanie Urko make nice work of Dream Curley and Dream Laurie during that most pivotal sequence.

Director Chuck Ketter has a feel for this material that shows throughout. The pacing is tight and the interrelationships easy to follow. His set design is a big help in this, as a few major pieces and occasional drapes allow things to move from scene to scene with little interruption.

And then, of course, there is that classic music. Some of these songs have become part of America’s DNA, and it is important to get them right. Music Director Douglas Austin, with this show, celebrates his 100th musical direction gig at the Candlelight Pavilion, and there’s a reason he keeps being asked back. He has a feel for the room, and for how to fill it when the music demands solid emotion.

So, go take in “Oklahoma.” If you’ve never had the chance to see it live, to have Curley walk past you celebrating “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” you’ve really missed out. And here it comes with a good dinner.

What: “Oklahoma” When: Through April 9, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58 – $73 general, $30 – #35 children under 12 Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

Silliness and a Slice of Life: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” finishes a run in Claremont

The cast of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is ready to spell [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The cast of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” is ready to spell [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

There are musicals, and there are musicals. Some are extravaganzas, while others are more like a chamber musical: light on fancy technical elements, mass choreography or large choruses, relying more on charm and audience identification than spectacle. Included in this class would be “The Fantasticks” or “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” or “Baby”, all of which first gained fame in small off-Broadway theaters. One of the more recent entries into this field is William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin’s “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Now finishing a run at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the charm of “Spelling Bee” comes from everyone’s identity with the awkwardness of adolescence, and of the specific pressures on and protection mechanisms of bright children. Beside that, it offers a certain amount of audience participation, and even a chance to expand one’s vocabulary.

As always Candlelight Pavilion has massed a solid cast, who create the extremely individual characters with wit and charm. It is time for the annual spelling bee. The winner will go to the national finals. To this important event come last year’s winner, joined by an eclectic collection of goofy and not-so-goofy smart kids. The bee is run by a somewhat obsessive former contestant, and a distinctly damaged junior high vice principal, aided by a tough guy doing community service consoling the students as they lose.

The cast also includes people pre-screened from the audience, adding a sense of connection only enforced by the vocabulary quiz in the program.

Director DJ Gray has a long history with the show, having been involved with its casual-looking choreography since its off-Broadway run. She is proud of having enhanced the dance element as she’s gone along, and for the most part that works to keep the show from being static. Certainly, she understands these geeky and yearning young characters better than most, having been surrounded by them so long. As a result there is a naturalness about the show, which proves most appealing.

Highlights of the cast include Jonathan Arana as the profoundly awkward William Barfee, overweight and allergic, with a most unique way of remembering how to spell, and Kailey O’Donnell as the girl balancing family pressure and family uniqueness as she tries to figure out who she is. Sarah Miramontes creates the most touching portrait, as the girl saving a seat for the father who won’t show, and Andrew Wade creates a certain obtuse charm as the son of a hippie-esque family with few expectations for him.

Angela Briones, as a quiet, multi-lingual girl, and Koray Tarhan as the confident scout and previous year’s winner each have moments of real connection. Jillian Lawson and Jeremy Jay Magouirk give the adults the obsessive weirdness which keeps the show flowing, while Ishmon Brown balances street toughness and a mild compassion as the young man doing community service.

The whole thing has just the feel it should – that of a certain amount of improvisation. One will not gain fabulous new insights into the human condition, but will leave touched and gratified by the experience. It is also, for all its comedy, a window worth looking through, to the pressures and home issues of ordinary kids.

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” provides a gentle way to ease into summer. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion that comes along with a fine meal, in a formal air-conditioned space. With one more week to go, it’s worth catching.

What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through June 1, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, and for lunch matinees 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: inclusive of meal and show, $53 – $68 general, $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254 ex. 1 or

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