Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Rodgers and Hammerstein

“South Pacific” Proves Powerful, Relevent in Claremont

Katie Moya is Nellie Forbush, singing the comic “Honeybun” in Candlelight Pavilion’s “South Pacific” [photo: Demetrius Katsantonis]


In 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened the Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific” on Broadway. Based on James Michener’s equally Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the silliness, boredom, and racial conflicts of “behind the action” stations in the Pacific during World War II, it featured some of the duo’s most memorable songs. At the time its relevance was both obvious and challenging, only 4 years after the end of the war. Fascinatingly, sadly, the new production at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater cannot help but remind us that it still has something rather pointed to say to a modern audience.

The tale centers on a US naval supply station and hospital located on a tiny Polynesian island in what most of its temporary occupants would consider the middle of nowhere. The more permanent inhabitants, both the French planters who came as colonists and the Polynesian native population, live in an comparatively relaxed coexistence the Americans have significantly disrupted one way and another. For many of the Americans, this is their first contact with foreign cultures, and the fallout can prove jolting.

This is especially true for Nellie Forbush, a nurse at the hospital in the process of falling in love with Emile de Becque, one of the successful planters. Her Little Rock roots soon clash with de Becque’s background in a number of ways. For Lt. Joseph Cable, a young Marine about to start a fearsomely dangerous assignment as an “Island spotter,” the struggle comes as he falls heavily for a Polynesian girl his upbringing tells him he cannot marry. For Luther Billis, an opportunistic Seabee, the goal is far more mercenary, and much more lighthearted, as he tries every trick in the book to get passage to the neighboring island upon which planters and natives alike have put their young women.

At Candlelight Pavilion the balance of lighthearted silliness and wrenching comings of age are balanced just as they should be, graced by strong performances by the leads and clever choreography which keeps the show rolling along. Katie Moya is Nellie, singing with confidence the iconic songs, and giving a strong sense of the cultural and ethical dilemmas which complicate her romantic life. Michael Scott Harris has the pipes to handle de Becque – a part originally written for an opera star – and the solid presence to make his status as a commanding planter convincing.

Marc Montminy makes Luther Billis just enough of a big galoot to make him lovable even as he connives with impressive lack of cultural understanding to gather souvenirs. Shane Litchfield manages to create a sense of youth, seriousness and self-awareness as Lt. Cable, and Candida Celaya gives just enough gravitas to Bloody Mary to make her distress later in the show make sense even as she provides delightful silliness near the start. She also handles the great “Bali Ha’i” fairly well – a song in a register too low for many singers.

The ensemble who provide the rest of the island’s inhabitants, from nurses and seabees, to natives and naval commanders back up these leading figures with energy and style. The choreography by Janet Renslow makes good use of the comparatively small chorus to provide various atmospheric moments, and Chuck Ketter’s direction keeps things moving on the excellent set he also designed.

Still, what becomes most potent at this time in our nation’s history is the show’s unsweetened look at the prejudices of the past. Indeed, as Lt. Cable sang with sorrow “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate,” the night I saw the show, people were marching with torches in Charlottesville. It may be 58 years old, but “South Pacific” remains a mirror we really need to gaze into.

What: “South Pacific” When: through September 9, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday March 23, 5 p.m. Sundays, for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 general, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“The Sound of Music” at the Ahmanson Shines Like New

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’'s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Kerstin Anderson plays Maria, here surrounded by the Von Trapp children, in the brand new production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’’s “The Sound of Music,” starting its national tour at the Ahmanson. [Photo: Matthew Murphy]

Like most people of my generation, “The Sound of Music” has been a constant since childhood. I was taken to see the film during its first Hollywood run, complete with the Bill Baird puppets in the theater’s show window. Though generally not one to like a film of a Broadway show over the original, I admit to having been underwhelmed by the between 18 and 20 renditions of the original, stage version of the show I have seen since I hit adulthood. In my experience, that Broadway musical (including the “live” television production a couple of years ago) tends to lack the energy, romance and pathos which charged the later film.

Then came the new production just born at the Ahmanson, prior to an extensive national tour. The clearest metaphor I can come up with is that moment when an art curator cleans centuries of dirt and varnish off of a finely crafted painting: suddenly the thing looks bright and new. So does this venerable piece. And what a delight this metamorphosis is to watch.

The tale was adapted from the autobiography of Maria Von Trapp. As we all know, a young postulant named Maria is assigned from her abbey to become governess to the children of a distinguished and wealthy World War I naval officer. The Captain, his seven children, the wealthy and manipulative baroness interested in the Captain, the apolitical concert promoter, even the warmhearted housekeeper and nascent Nazis are all in place. The Rodgers and Hammerstein songs have become almost cliche they are so universally known, and the story’s underscore of love’s battle with self-focus and rising evil becomes remarkably fresh in this new rendition.

Of the many things this production does right, the absolute key is casting. Rather than going for big names who either don’t connect with each other or can’t get under the characters’ skins, this one goes for people who become organic to the story and create the elemental interconnection which makes the piece work so well.

Young Kerstin Anderson is Maria: radiating a genuine and unabashed innocence and enthusiasm which proves absolutely infectious. Ben Davis changes Captain Von Trapp from the usual frosty man in need of a dose of humanity into a deeply human but deeply hurt widower who has retreated into a world he can control. Thus, the life which bounds from him when he opens up makes the show shimmer.

Also importantly, the overtly privileged Baroness Schraeder and the charming but untrustworthy Max Detweiler, in the hands of Teri Hansen and Merwin Foard, bring back into focus the smarmy bits of the story: two people willing to adjust to invasion and domination as long as their own personal worlds remain afloat. Ashley Brown brings down the house as the Reverend Mother – finding humor and pathos in her unwieldy charge, and the need to referee among her larger flock. Darren Mathias and Donna Garner create rounded characters from the Captain’s servants, and Carey Rebecca Brown – as both the annoyed Sister Berthe and a surprised party guest – creates memorable moments in characters onstage for only short moments.

As for the children, they manage a genuine quality while singing and dancing like old pros. Most especially, Paige Silvester’s Liesl proves a breath of fresh air, as she makes the girl really look and act like a 16-year-old, rather than someone pretending to be that young. By contrast – and it is the only questionable casting in the piece – Dan Tracy’s Rolf may sing that he is 17, but he looks about 25, which gives a bit of a creepy undertone to his sequences with the young Liesl.

Still, to stop at casting would be to miss the totality which lies at the feet of director Jack O’Brien. It is he who has created the sense of ensemble and the flow of the piece. Indeed, his use of Douglas W. Schmidt’s fascinatingly mobile, modular set keeps the story moving in such a fluid way one is surprised time has flown so quickly. Costume designer Jane Greenwood seats her artistry clearly in both the period and the Austrian countryside, right down to the lederhosen (though Rolf’s don’t seem to fit quite right). Danny Mefford’s choreography manages the feel of the traditional without once becoming a copy of what one is used to.

In short, this “The Sound of Music” has tensions and realities left out of the filmed version. The Nazis are genuinely scary, and genuinely seductive to some of the characters. The threat to the Von Trapps, and even the tensions between the German military and the Gestapo lie just under the surface as the tale plays out. The songs have more of a point, and the innocent warmheartedness of Maria becomes both a healer and its own kind of threat to those who care only for themselves. And the singing is absolutely gorgeous.

So, go see “The Sound of Music,” as it will be unlike any other you have encountered, even for those of us who think we’ve seen it all. And then there are those for whom it is new. One of the evening’s most charming moments came as Maria is about to leave the Von Trapp family, and a patron in the row behind me, who had obviously never seen the thing before, began chanting under her breath, “Oh, don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t go.” Admittedly, this is a classic American musical of the kind they don’t make anymore. But Oscar Hammerstein was in his own way the first to put social commentary into what had been up until then mostly musical entertainment. To see that highlighted again – for the first time in a long time – is a joy indeed.

What: “The Sound of Music” When: Through October 31, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Sundays with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, October 29 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $150 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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