Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Roger Castellano

“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

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“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

Sometimes a musical is better than its script: “South Street” at the Pasadena Playhouse

Andy Scott Harris and Maria Eberline as brother and sister, newly arrived at "South Street," the new musical at Pasadena Playhouse.


Staple American musicals, if one must define the genre, fall into four categories. The type typified by classic Rodgers and Hammerstein works have memorable tunes, intelligent lyrics and a strongly literary story line. A newer form has edged its way toward the operatic or the balletic, being almost entirely sung or danced or both, telling richly visual tales at a variety of depths. A third, a salute to an individual or group, becomes a glorified tribute concert.

Yet, by far the oldest version of this theatrical genre uses a sweet, simple tale and a lot of contemporary-style popular music as escape. From the early 1900s to “South Street,” the world premiere offering at the Pasadena Playhouse, these shows are essentially feel-good enterprises using rather simplistic romances as a foundation for lots of song, lots of dance, and a neat, tidy happy ending. A fine, facile set, tightly paced direction, lively choreography knitted to the storyline, and an enthusiastic ensemble gives this new show much to recommend it. If only its plot wasn’t quite so derivative, or its lyrics (to comparatively unmemorable tunes) so often so vapid. Yet, to be honest, that is not the first thing one remembers.

In “South Street,” composer/lyricist Richad Addrisi’s songs aid Craig Carlisle to tell the story of one of those “heart of gold” bar owners who redeems those who work for him. At the strip-pole club he owns n the tough South Street of 1980 Philadelphia, Sammy manages to salvage a brother and sister combo, support a fledgling rock singer by giving him a job playing piano for the strippers, and gives gainful employment to his neighborhood’s struggling youth. Flash forward to 1997, with the brother a lawyer and the sister having inherited Sammy’s Place, now a trendy bar in a trendy neighborhood. How did she get there? Will she be able to keep the place? And what of that young musician who left to go on the road?

The cast is a strong one, from the bar’s casual patrons and early pole dancers to the most central of characters. Maria Eberline gives her all as Cloe, a girl who drags her brother out of some small-town mire to land at Sammy’s doorstep. She embodies the tough girl with a heart of gold as she struggles to become somebody and then honor her mentor’s legacy. Brent Schindele looks more like a male model than a rock star, but handles the subtle time transitions and the wistful choices of his character with a gentle grace.

Also worthy of note are Ezra Buzzington’s devotedly geeky barfly, Valerie Perri’s smart but aging show girl, and Harrison White’s genial bartender. Tom Shelton makes briefer, but important impact as the gentle, congenial Sammy. In the midst of all these strong performers, the show-stoppers are the duo of Andy Scott Harris as the young Norton (the brother who will become a lawyer), and the gangling Matthew Patrick Davis as the man he becomes, both of whom manage to make the character a rather fascinating individual far removed from the other, more stereotypical folk who populate this piece.

The team of director Roger Castellano, who gives the show a vibrancy and polish far outstripping the material, and choreographer Dana Sloimando, whose movement and dance fills the stage with a friendly, joyous energy, almost make one forget the stereotypical overtones of the tale itself. Andy Walmsley’s fascinatingly animated set, and Kate Bergh’s distinctly period costume designs evoke place and time without spelling everything out too much. It’s really fun to look at.

In short, though the musical itself is kind of small, this production of “South Street” proves so professional and so tightly performed that one can almost forget the fact. One will not come out humming the tunes, but one may very easily come out smiling at the sum total of the enterprise. In tough times, that is a very good reason to be going to the theater.

What: “South Street” When: Through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 – $69 regular, $100 premium Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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