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Solid “Guys and Dolls” at Candlelight Pavilion (plus a good dinner!)

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" in Candlelight Pavilion's "Guys and Dolls" [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Robert Hoyt as Nicely-Nicely Johnson leads a rollicking “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Guys and Dolls” [photo: Demetrius Kastantonis]

Essentially, there are three elements which are necessary for the musical “Guys and Dolls” to work. First, it must be done completely straight. The peculiar formality of Damon Runyon characters’ slang must be respected as ordinary speech. The seriousness of every characters position must be taken at face value, no matter how silly it seems to the watcher. Second, the leads must be able to sing – really sing – including the minor characters. Third, everything from costumes to setting must be just a little bit larger than life.

Add to that appropriate, often fun choreography and singers who really can act, and you have a formula for happy result. All of this is present at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, where even when the casting is a bit more original than sometimes, the results are fit nicely together into the silly-serious package that makes the show.

The tale, concocted from several Runyon stories, follows a couple of connected paths: Nathan Detroit, operator of a famed floating crap game, must find a venue for his event – difficult because “the heat is on.” Speaking of heat, his fiancĂ© of many years, Adelaide, is pushing for a wedding. To finance his search for a site, Nathan bets visiting high roller Sky Masterson that he cannot convince Sarah, the leader of the local Salvation Army-style mission, to go to pre-Castro Havana with him for an evening. As Sky worms his way into Sarah’s world, Nathan ducks the cops and his girl, and all of New York’s underpinnings sing and dance up a storm.

Victor Hernandez is a far scruffier Nathan than sometimes appears, but that plays well to his equally scruffy occupation and current circumstances. His fuddling indecisiveness around Adelaide, played with authority by Stacy Huntington, seems more organic as is his fear of marriage. Allen Everman gives Sky a slickness which evolves into genuine concern with small but interesting “tells”. Ashley Grether’s Sarah has a kind of frenetic strength which provides just the right counterpoint. Indeed, Her “If I Were a Bell” becomes a highlight of the piece.

Backing these leads are both a fine ensemble of dancers, and some secondary players worthy of special note. Robert Hoyt gives the ever-apologetic Nicely-Nicely Johnson real presence. Emerson Boatwright becomes a truly comic visual joke as Big Jule, and plays it to the hilt. Jim Marbury supplies just the right combination of authority and practical frustration as Lieutenant Brannigan, the cop who never quite catches a break.

Greg Hinrichsen’s mash-up of New York makes a facile setting for the story, and Laurie Muniz’s choreography captures the feel the show must have – a kind of gentlemanly machismo for the gamblers, and classic burlesque for Adelaide and her girls. Andrew Orbison has the singers on target with even the complex things they must coordinate without a conductor – not a small feat. Still, the unifying force for tone, tempo of performance and structure is the sure hand of director John LaLonde. He has brought together all the elements, and keeps the whole thing cohesive, intentionally silly, and invariably upbeat.

So, go have fun. Damon Runyon was once a household word – quoted even in Abbot and Costello films. Today, it’s tough to find his stories, except in “Guys and Dolls”, making the show, in its way, a form of literary treasure. At Candlelight you also get a lovely meal, making the total evening relaxing and generally satisfying. What a nice way to welcome in the new year.

What: “Guys and Dolls” When: Through February 27, open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m Sundays, and opened for matinee lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults, $30-$35 children, meal-inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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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 http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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