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Taking Up the Challenge: “Seven Brides” on Candlelight Pavilion’s small stage

Stacy Huntington as new bride Milly starts cleaning up the boys in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" at Candlelight Pavilion

Stacy Huntington as new bride Milly starts cleaning up the boys in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at Candlelight Pavilion

An interesting trend in American musical theater in the past few decades has been the creation of stage versions of classic movie musicals, rather than the other way around. Though making movies of Broadway shows had its own set of issues: expanding beyond a stage’s confines, reduction of the suspension of disbelief, or even the need to rework the thing to feel cohesive without an intermission, shrinking a movie has more. This is especially true of a film best known for its choreography.

Which is why any stage production of “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” such as the one at Claremont’s Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, comes with an automatic challenge. The film, which generally has rather two-dimensional characters, has remained a favorite because of its dance sequences. Yet, those wildly energetic sequences could be filmed in sections – they didn’t have to be danced straight through. On stage, they must be. And, on stage, the balance between song and story and character and dance must be more even.

At Candlelight, they do manage to fit the tale to the size of their stage – a task all by itself. And, by and large, the dancing is good enough to keep the flow going. Some of the performers prove adept at giving significant humanity to the otherwise rather simplistic material. Still, it could use a few improvements.

The story is silly, but amusing. Adam Pontipee, a lumberman living with his six brothers in the wilds of the Northwest, comes to town for an infrequent visit to buy not only household supplies but a wife. When he meets Milly, a girl with no family, she agrees to marry him. The surpise for her at the end of her long journey is the number and condition of his younger siblings. Pretty soon she has the other Pontipee men anxious for brides of their own which, when they visit town, they capture and bring back to the hills just as winter hits.

Much of this is told in song and dance – particularly the hoedown dance-off prior to the girls’ abduction for which this show is so particularly well known.

Director/Choreographer Janet Renslow has a feel for the style which must be translated from the film. Her performers have a robust quality overall – a western hardiness. It must be admitted that some of her dancing ensemble struggle on occasion with the intense demands of these very physical sequences, but their enthusiasm continues to shine. And, for the most part, the central characters add to that with an earnest sincerity which keeps the show moving, and connected with the audience.

Stacy Huntington makes a charming Milly – tough but still romantic, practical and loving. All six of the brothers (Josh Taylor, Tyler Logan, Michael Milligan, Donald Pettit, Chaz Feuerstine and Ariel Neydavoud) have a kind of gangling charm, most particularly Neydavoud as the youngest, Gideon. The girls they scoop up (Sharon Jewell, Jessie Parmelee, Susanna Vaughan, Sierra Taylor, Rachel Burkert and Andrea Aron) also have that innate innocence which makes the show work, and dance very well – their major requirement.

Indeed, only Sam Zeller, as Adam, proves shaky. Part of this is not his fault, as he was cast into a part outside his vocal range at a theater with a prerecorded orchestral part allowing for no transposition. Some songs which should be belted out can barely be sung at all. They’re just too low. And, perhaps frustrated by this, he seems to perform in a kind of isolation. With the other characters connecting as well as they do, this begins to stand out and make his character seem more “acted” than the rest.

Still, for charm and warm-hearted enthusiasm, this “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” works a lot more than it doesn’t. The memorable songs and nostalgia factor work well, and when combined with a good meal, this all makes for a lighthearted evening. Stay tuned for their annual original Christmas show, coming up next.

What: “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” When: Through November 24, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $53 – $68 meal inclusive, $25 children 12 and under Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

No really. I really AM back this time…

It was about a month ago that I trumpeted my recovery from illness, and calmly assured all I knew that I was back on track. Yeah, about that.

I did try. I saw about five shows in quick succession, trying to catch up. I even managed to get one written up. But I had more to struggle with than I told myself. That pause button went back on, whether I wished it to or not.

Some of what I was dealing with was resurfacing grief, added to by another loss. Some was a slower-than-expected recovery from pneumonia – an exhaustion I just could not kick. And then there were some interesting body-chemistry things, which led to sleeplessness and the like. I don’t have to bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say I wasn’t as well as I thought I was. And every time I tried to write about theater, or write poetry, or otherwise exercise that particular part of my brain it just shut down.

I know that this sounds like I am whining: oh, poor pitiful me. Believe me, I hear that too. I am not, under normal circumstances, a person who a) fusses about her health, or b) leaves obligations unfulfilled. As you may imagine, this has been very frustrating. I saw interesting theater and would have loved to share. At this point, I’d like to at least reflect on what I saw now, even if it’s too late for reviews.

At The Theatre at Boston Court in Pasadena, Dan Dietz and Phillip Owen’s oddly fascinating musical “American Misfits” examined the true story of the U.S.’s first serial killer – a man named Harpe whose vendetta against the revolution turned into a pathology, dragging with it his brother and a pair of crazed sisters encountered along the way.

The cast of "American Misfits" at Boston Court

The cast of “American Misfits” at Boston Court

What was most fascinating about the authors’ and director Michael Michetti’s vision was the lighthearted approach to this macabre material. This involved, among other things, emphasizing rockabilly music as an element of the setting, choreographer Lee Martino’s contained, yet wild dance numbers, and (of course) Heather Ho’s “puppets.” These represented Harpe’s many, many victims. They were made of burlap with Velcro closings which allowed them to be eviscerated in a colorful but distinctly representational way, thus letting the story not to be overwhelmed by the essentially icky nature of the tale being told.

It also allowed the humor necessary for the larger examination of the American ethos, which was the real point of the piece.

Cast members – all of whom were remarkable – included Banks Boutte as the rockabilly singer/narrator, Daniel Mk Cohen as Little Harpe, Al Meijer as his slow, bigger brother, Karen Jean Olds and Maya Erskine as the crazed sisters, Eden Riegel as the woman who almost – almost – makes Little Harpe give up killing, and P.J. Ochlan and Larry Cedar as everyone else, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. It was particularly satisfying to see Cedar again, whose work I have watched my entire career. (Indeed, the first time I wrote a review which encountered resistance from others, it was of a show he was in at the Mark Taper Forum which I loved but many did not, back in the early 1980s.)

Then, an equally musical but far more standard fare was the truly charming “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of McCoy Rigby Entertainment’s series there. Under the leadership of Glenn Casale, this piece was far less chauvinistic than some versions. Dennis Castellano’s choreography kept just enough of the film choreography, but wasn’t afraid to depart from it either. It was energetic, charming, tightly paced, appropriately visceral, and well worth watching.

Dancing with abandon in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" at La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Dancing with abandon in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” at La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Highlights included Kevin Earley’s obtuse elder brother Adam, and Beth Malone as the practical romantic who marries him, but everyone was having a ball, including the audience. It’s always good to see something which has been considered kind of a dinosaur resurrected so effectively.

Out at Southern California’s last remaining dinner theater, The Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont, they brought back “The Full Monty,” which had been such a hit for them in 2009. What they had discovered then still seemed to hold true: women were entertained by the rather titillating concept, but men were fascinating to discover a show which spoke to their own insecurities.

Cast of The Full Monty at Candlelight Pavilion

Cast of The Full Monty at Candlelight Pavilion

Louis Pardo had a few diction problems, but was still strong as Jerry, the unemployed steel worker desperate to make enough money to keep partial custody of his kid. As his friend, and the least likely male stripper in the group Jerry gathers to perform for a single night, Sheldon Robert Morley managed to portray all the emotional aches and body image insecurities men such as these pretend not to have. It was touching, it was funny, and it was well done.

Last, but anything-but-least, Phylicia Rashad’s vibrant production of August Wilson’s classic “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper Forum was a wonder and a delight. With its luscious mix of hope, grit, laughter and the ethereal it created a space redolent with the joy of being alive.

A moment of jubilee in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" at the Mark Taper Forum

A moment of jubilee in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” at the Mark Taper Forum

From Lillias White’s practical cook, to Keith David’s stalwart boarding house operator, through the rest of a stunning cast all the way to young Skye Barrett and Nathaniel James Potvin as youngsters on the verge of adventure, the cast proved deep and brilliant and fun. Wilson’s epic series of plays teaches everyone so much, and each time they are produced more can be learned. What a satisfying evening.

Which makes it all the more frustrating to not have the “stuff” to share them with you in a timely fashion. Well, I really am better now. I hope to move forward in better health, more “together,” and more aware of my own limitations. I’m back on the horse, and ready to ride. This time I’ll try not to fall out of the saddle.

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