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Sharp “Sister Act”: Upbeat Treat at Candlelight Pavilion

The nuns of "Sister Act" show off their new sense of spectacle in the production at Candelight Pavilion [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The nuns of “Sister Act” show off their new sense of spectacle in the production at Candelight Pavilion [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

As the election tensions mount, it’s time for a feel-good moment. Such is available at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, with their sparkling production of “Sister Act – The Musical”. Tuneful and fast-paced, it offers up a lot of heart, some terrific performances, and an elemental joy which provide just the antidote to the divisiveness of our time.

Born at the Pasadena Playhouse, this Broadway musical riffs off of the 1992 movie of the same name, and – like the movie – depends largely on the central character to make the entire concept work. In the Candlelight production, this is not a problem. Indeed, with only minor exceptions, the entire cast proves particularly strong, allowing all the charm of the piece to shine through.

The story centers on Deloris Van Cartier, an aspiring singer and girlfriend of a married gangster. When she happens upon her boyfriend and his henchmen murdering a suspected stool pigeon, she runs to the nearest police station. There Eddie, a high school acquaintance who is now a cop, arranges for her to hide in a nearby convent. After considerable resistance to convent life, Deloris begins working with the terrible convent choir, improving their “act” so much that the once nearly empty church becomes so popular it attracts attention from the Pope himself. And, of course, thereby hangs a problem: publicity for someone who is supposed to be hiding.

Daebreon Poiema proves a huge ball of energy as Deloris, singing and dancing up a storm and setting the pace and tone for the entire production. As her main foil, the traditionalist Mother Superior of the order where Deloris hides, Debbie Prutsman finds the balance between severity and care the character needs, sings her wistful, important songs with conviction and style, and makes the counterbalance between these two strong characters work.

Also worthy of note are Pete Cole, quite intimidating as Deloris’ murderous boyfriend, Michaelia Leigh as Sister Mary Robert, the shy postulant who comes bursting out of her shell, and Sister Brittany Tangermann as the enthusiastic and friendly Sister Mary Patrick. Indeed, all the supporting cast of nuns create a solidly entertaining ensemble as they jazz up mass.

As the henchmen looking for Deloris, Robert Hoyt, Christopher Mosley, and Marcos Alexander have several moments of comic silliness. As Eddie, the cop whose earnest concern for Deloris begins to rub off on her, Fabio Antonio dances well and gives his character the mild nerdiness which contrasts well with Deloris’ view of “cool”, though he needs to work on his vocals. Jamie Snyder gives the Monsignor threatening to close the nuns’ home church a gentleness which makes him more empathetic than sometimes.

Director/choreographer John Vaughan keeps the pacing clean, and provides just the right kind of dance moves to contrast the two parts of Deloris’ life – what works in full habit, and what works on the nightclub stage. As a result of his cohesive vision, the show has a strong feeling of polish from start to finish.

“Sister Act” may not be the deepest show one could see, but it has a message of hope and understanding which seems much needed in the current public atmosphere. At Candlelight – the last real dinner theater in the Los Angeles area, and a very going concern – one also gets a good meal, in a relaxing atmosphere. And with a production as good as this one, this all becomes a great retreat, and a fine entrance into the mellow nature of fall.

What: “Sister Act – the Musical” When: through November 19, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Thursday November 10 and 17; 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: $58 – $73 general, $30 – $35 children under 12, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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