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No Kidding: Candlelight’s “Titanic” Better than B’way Version

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Passengers and crew of “Titanic” assemble to board for the ill-fated journey in the Tony-winning musical now at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

Going to see “Titanic” at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont was something I approached with trepidation. Thought the music was written by Maury Yeston, whose work I have always liked, and the book by Peter Stone, and its storyline was based completely on actual people, which I approve of, I was haunted a bit by the first version I saw. I need not to have worried.

The first time I saw the Tony-winning musical it was somewhat anticlimactic. For one thing, the epic movie of the same name had been recently released, but for another the national tour of the original Broadway production itself, which was born at the Ahmanson production I saw, seemed a weird combination of occasionally brilliant theatricality and staging moments which were either overblown or simply ridiculous. Indeed, it was hard to connect with the musical itself because the visuals were so uneven.

Turns out (and the irony is not lost on me) that in the case of a musical about what was then the largest vehicle in the world, smaller is better. Crammed onto the comparatively little Candlelight stage, all the overblown theatricality gives way to story, and the characters shine over the comparatively subtle optics. Add the impressive quality of the performers in this new production, who sing so well that no huge chorus is needed to back them up, and the intimacy, musicality, and pathos shine far more brightly than anything I could have anticipated.

This is, in large part thanks to director/set designer Chuck Ketter’s vision.

The story is not new to much of anyone, but author Stone has concentrated on just a few people, often the less well-known among those who boarded the maiden voyage of this supposedly unsinkable ship. Yes, designer Thomas Andrews is there, along with the pompous and demanding ship-owner Bruce Ismay and the about-to-retire Captain E.J. Smith, but the rest are a combination of first, second, and third-class passengers and crew, most of them comparatively new to the general public. The songs tie in closely with the storyline rather than being stand-alone, and the small live orchestra gives a chance for emotional nuance which the theater’s usual pre-recorded instrumentals would not.

Ketter’s set design allows for quick changes of place which keep the pace electric as relationships define, personalities emerge, and the ship steams on toward its disastrous destiny. The entire production is tight, intense, and riveting in a way that old original simply wasn’t.

The talented company of 20, who cover a musical originally written for more than 40, are a true ensemble, rising out of the crowd to create well-fleshed-out characters and then moving back again with a seamless flow. Standouts in a company full of them include Gavin Juckette as the ship’s overwhelmed radio man, Catie Marron as a 3rd class passenger dreaming of new beginnings and new love, and Sarah Meals as the ambitious 2nd class passenger constantly stealing into 1st class.

As well as these, kudos go to Gregg Hammer as one of the ship’s stokers. Jamie Snyder and Samantha Wynn Greenstone as Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s whose characters come into their own in the show’s second half, as Ida famously refuses a lifeboat if it means leaving her husband. Marc Montminy makes a wistful Captain Smith, and Greg Nicholas a despicably self-centered Ismay.

Musical director Andrew Orbison helps with the ensemble spirit as he guides performers and orchestra alike through the lush score. Dylan Pass handles the incidental choreography, and (and this is often a sticking point for me) Michon Gruber-Gonzales has done wonders with the wigs which firmly set this piece in time and place.

In short, this “Titanic” is definitely worth a look. At Candlelight it comes with a meal which tends away from standard “rubber chicken” in the dinner theaters of old, and the desserts are definitely worth the wait until intermission. Still, it isn’t the food which made this a fine production to see. They kept the best and redid the rest. It’s what a revival should do.

What: Titanic, the Musical. When: through February 23, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. There will be one special Thursday evening performance with doors open at 6 p.m. on February 21. Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. How Much: $63 – $78 general, $30 – $35 children under 12, inclusive of meal ┬áInfo: 909-626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Corny but Polished: “42nd Street” at Candlelight Pavilion

"Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway" at Candlelight Pavilion's "42nd Street" [photo:  Demetrios Katsantonis]

“Listen to the Lullaby of Old Broadway” at Candlelight Pavilion’s “42nd Street” [photo: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Sometimes one goes to the theater for something profound. Sometimes one goes for something which will leave behind an underlying message to be chewed over a bit for its power or its emotional impact. Sometimes one goes to the theater for distraction, and for fun, with nothing more profound required than songs, dances and general earnest silliness. When this last is your goal, what better show than “42nd Street”? And what better venue than Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, where you get to add a charming dinner to the mix.

There are three things necessary for a production of “42nd Street” to succeed. First, corny though it is, it must be played straight. Second, just about everyone in the cast has to be able to tap dance, and well. Third, the leads must radiate an innate innocence. All of these can be found in Candlelight’s production. The tale, silly as it is – and borrowed from the 1933 movie of the same name – uses the music of Harry Warren and Al Dubin, who wrote songs for a string of Warner Brothers hits in the early era of sound. The classic story of “small town girl makes good on the Great White Way” blends all of the elements which made those early talkies historic.

Peggy Sawyer, newly in New York from Allentown, Pennsylvania, manages to snag a part in a Broadway show which, at the height of the Depression, is a lifesaver for many of the “kids” in the cast. In this she is aided by Billy Lawlor, the show-within-a-show’s youthful tenor, though she runs up against the pompous, aging Dorothy Brock, who is not only the star of that show but has brought along the sugar daddy who will fund the production. When Dorothy breaks an ankle, exacting director Julian Marsh must search immediately for a replacement or the entire show will fold. Will Peggy be up to the leap which will make her “go on a showgirl, but come off a star”?

Director/choreographer DJ Gray has a strong command of this particular genre of musical, and has gathered a fine cast of dancers to provide the backdrop to the storyline. Indeed, top quality tap sets the stage for the rest of the production’s finest aspects. Emma Nossal gives Peggy the sweet combination of determination and innocence so necessary to the atmosphere of the show, and sings and dances up a storm. John LaLonde’s commanding presence and deeply resonant voice make him a perfect Julian Marsh. Michael Milligan gives Pretty Lady’s (the show within a show) youthful tenor the combination of ego and zing necessary to make him an engaging foil.

Sarah Meals does well as the pompous, aging star of the show, while John Nisbet has a lot of fun as the kiddy car king able to finance the entire production. Shannon Gerrity leads the chorus in support of Peggy’s chances, while Cynthia Caldwell and Josh Tangermann, as Pretty Lady’s writing team, become more actively engaged in the performance of the thing than usual. Among a large (by Candlelight standards) and highly gifted chorus, Chad Takeda proves a standout as the slinky thief in an otherwise period tap ballet to the show’s title tune, rather as if Bob Fosse’s choreographic concepts had invaded that sphere.

Gray has a strong sense of the purpose of this kind of show, and that is evident throughout. The costumes and wigs are right. The pacing and timbre of the piece keep it light and mildly silly. The skills of the performers are solid and highly entertaining to watch. The singing, under the musical direction of Douglas Austin, proves so organic it makes one forget the fact the orchestra was recorded ahead of time. In short “42nd Street,” as done by this company, is all one can hope for with a show of this type. That it comes with a lovely meal means one can guarantee a lighthearted, upbeat evening. In times like these, opting for the occasional bit of fluffy froth isn’t necessarily out of place.

What: “42nd Street” When: Through March 25, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with doors opening for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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