Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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The first major splash made by the songwriting team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was a 1971 concept rock opera album titled “Jesus Christ Superstar.” For many of my generation, that was how we first encountered this work, allowing our imaginations to fill in what the characters looked like and the setting they would wander through. As it moved quickly to stage, and then to film, it developed a new, wider audience, and the show has rarely been off the boards since.
Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, “Jesus Christ Superstar” – for those who don’t already know – gives a comparatively modern spin to the tale of the last few weeks of Jesus’ life. Though ostensibly “humanizing” the story (i.e.: making it more about the man than a deity), it stays fairly faithful to the commonly held storyline, while embracing what is always a dramatist’s challenge: finding a motivation for Judas’ betrayal. And the music is literally classic Lloyd Webber: lush in spots, stridently rock-and-roll in others, somewhat thematically repetitive, with that unforgettable quality which has kept him a success for decades.
At Candlelight, co-directors Chuck Ketter and John LaLonde have assembled a fine cast. They look right, sing with skill and intention, and create the atmosphere necessary for the show to be a success. Also necessary for success are a few key players. Heading the list, Kyle Short makes an effective Jesus, balancing his dynamism against his exhaustion and fear. Emily Chelsea gives Mary Magdalene’s songs a slight country lilt, but it works.
Stanton Kane Morales as Pontius Pilate, develops a rather wistful tone, which works well. Camilo Castro, a true bass, gives Caiaphas the aura of villainy necessary for this show’s spin on events. A remarkable ensemble, including Orlando Montes as Peter, sings well, dances with enthusiasm and skill, and creates the atmospheres necessary – whether of fawning, devotion, delight, demand, or panic – to make the piece work.
A true standout in all of this is Richard Bermudez as the angsty Judas, angry and horrified, and in the end sure he’s been duped into his actions. Bermudez has the combination of vocal strength and articulation necessary for what becomes the binding storyline behind the obvious. One just wishes that the shadow of his final demise looked a bit more like a person, but that is nitpicking.
Pacing is everything in this show, and band director Alan Waddington never lets the thing slow down or pause. Putting a band on the small Candlelight stage means the large ensemble must be maneuvered with skill in front of and even above the musicians at times, which works remarkable well except when someone in a long robe has to climb a ladder in a hurry – a bit nerve wracking to watch. Still, the two directors have a gift for the visual, and some moments prove especially impressive, including the very last sequence, as Jesus is executed. Indeed, the final tableau as the lights go out is particularly powerful.
Kudos also to choreographer Dustin Ceithamer for creating dance and movement which look spontaneous even as they are not, and to costume coordinator Merrill Grady for giving the sense of that Renaissance view of the Middle East which so characterizes one’s mind’s-eye view of the time period.
In short, it is good to see “Jesus Christ Superstar” again, in part because – above and beyond the religious significance – the subject matter of political manipulation and the dangers of flying off the handle seems very current, and in part because it is good to revisit a work from the start of two songwriting careers which, both together and independently have helped define the stage and screen as it is known today. And, of course, at Candlelight Pavilion one also gets a tasty meal.
What: “Jesus Christ Superstar” When: through April 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 adults, $30 -$35 children, meals inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254 ex.100, or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
Note: this production is currently sold out, though it may be possible that shows may be added to the schedule.
Local productions of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” are strangely hard to come by, considering both its charm and its general popularity. Now two disparate companies have joined forces to bring a solidly entertaining rendition to the edges of the Inland Empire, as the Inland Valley Repertory Theatre (IVRT) has come to the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont to make this potentially large musical shine on a comparatively small stage. The results are endearing, for the most part. The show is well cast and the magic works.
Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past 25 years, you know some of Disney’s version of this ancient story. Belle, the beautiful, bookish daughter of an off-beat inventor, is pursued by Gaston, the village muscle-man, but yearns for a more romantic, expansive life. When her father is captured by a fearsome beast, she trades herself for his safety, and gradually comes to know the charms of both the beast and the magical castle he lives in. Still, Gaston will not be denied.
Lindsey Joan makes a charming Belle, with just the right carriage and vocal timbre to evoke the character everyone knows without being a carbon copy of the animated version. Matt Merchant has the mixture of size and grace needed to be the Beast, and sings with a conviction which makes his sorrowful “If I Can’t Love Her” one of the truly memorable moments in the production. Michael Moon, as Gaston, has the appropriately booming voice, selfish demeanor, and physique, to make him just as obnoxiously commanding as he’s supposed to be. Frank Minano manages to keep Belle’s father just kookie enough to seem a bit odd, but still warmly paternal.
In a show like this, the quality is often underscored by the supporting cast, and here this is very much the case. Bryan Overmyer seems to truly enjoy his time as the moderately lascivious Lumiere, Stanton Kane Morales gives warmth to the pompously precise Cogsworth, Nicholas Alexander somehow manages to make himself seem smaller than he is as Gaston’s minion Lefou, and Josh Tangermann proves as creepy as expected as the sinister Monsieur D’Arque. Angela Baumgardner makes a satisfyingly motherly Mrs. Potts, while Andrew Bar gives real presence to her son, Chip, which is remarkable when you consider that he spends most of the show as the face in a teacup.
Jenny Hoffman, Emma Nossal and Bailey Day Sonner prove most tuneful as the “Silly Girls” man-mad over Gaston, and Lizzie Porcari swishes about with style as Babette. Perhaps most impressively, Holly Jamison gives Madame La Grande Bouche the truly operatic voice she is supposed to have. All these fine performances are backed up by a solid and versatile ensemble.
Director John LaLonde has a real feel for material like this, managing to keep what could be a cloyingly saccharine story earnest and touching. Janet Renslow’s choreography manages the small stage well, though the often-celebrated, elaborately-patterned stein-clicking sequence during the hearty “Gaston” falls rather flat.
Still, that’s really the only hitch in a solid production. Completely kid-friendly, “Beauty and the Beast” offers a terrific chance to expose young people to the power and charm of live theater. At Candlelight, thanks to IVRT’s arrangement with the theater, one also gets a quality meal to go with the quality production (with reduced prices for the younger audience members). The combination can make for a satisfying adventure.
What: “Beauty and the Beast” When: Through February 5. Doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and Thursday, February 2. Doors open for lunch 11 a.m., Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children under 14, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
I’m always fascinated by how shows on local stages go in waves. All of a sudden, within maybe a two-year span, the same play or musical will sprout in several different productions. The down-side is that often this can mean the piece – originally fun to see – gets beaten to death by sheer repetition. To some extent, this has been true of the small, clever musical “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.
It is that very fact which made the production of “Spelling Bee” running at Sierra Madre Playhouse all the more surprising. Even after seeing so many other renditions, this one proved especially captivating: totally on target in both character and energy (not to mention talent) from beginning to end.
The tale developed from an improv, and has that kind of quirky charm. Victors of local contests gather for the county bee which will vault the winner into the national finals. The pressure is intense, and the combination of nerdiness, neediness, and adolescent angst means all the contestants have scenarios running through their heads throughout the day. The hostess, herself a former winner, relives her glory days as a bonafide victor, while the edgy middle school vice-principal reads the competition words and a street tough doing community service provides “comfort” (meaning a juice box and a hug) to those who fail.
The ensemble cast works together seamlessly, as the story progresses with side-notes of internal fantasy throughout the competition. In the process, each “child” character has a specific and well-defined if often quirky charm. Joey Acuna, Jr. creates a delightfully hormonal Chip – the previous year’s champion wrestling with both a need to repeat and an intensifying interest in girls. Robert Michael Parkinson as Leaf, a deeply innocent child of hippie parents who gradually realizes he’s smart, often captures the heart.
Joy Regullano’s Marcy embodies all the internalized pressures of having to be perfect, while Hannah Leventhal’s intense Logainne wrestles with her own excitement, her two dads’ expectations, and a certain underlying moral force. Yet among the competitors the standouts – both in characters as designed, and as played – have to be Stanton Kane Morales’ weirdly earnest Barfee, and Cristina Gerla’s profoundly fragile Olive, who more than in any other version of this I’ve seen, find a genuine connection born of their own isolation.
Richard Van Slyke gives a nicely anxious vibe to the vice-principal. Gina D’Acciaro embodies all the odd twists of a middle-aged woman looking back to her childhood victory as the best moment in her life. Jaq Galliano does more with Mitch, the street tough, than the norm, as he wrestles with a genuine sympathy for these kids who haven’t seen real pain yet as well as his character’s completely inadequate role in providing them comfort.
Director/choreographer Robert Marra has melded all these find individuals into a well-paced, active and engaging whole. His choreography uses the small SMP stage to its full extent, especially in Marcy’s defining song. The audience volunteers who are always a part of “Spelling Bee” are also incorporated far more naturally into the show than usual, yet another sign of the solid sense of ensemble established onstage. A. Jeffrey Schoenberg creates just the right costumes, Jeff Cason does wonders with the lighting (as the set itself he has designed is the usual “Spelling Bee” minimalism), and Joe Lawrence’s musical direction keeps the show tuneful and fluid.
In short, this is – bar none – the best version of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” I have seen. It is charming, heart-felt, active and engaging. One must warn that it does have a few references to adult themes (particularly in the case of Chip’s rising adolescence), but offers a lot of laughter, much of it laughter of recognition. It also only has one weekend left, so hurry out and see this treat of a show. You will be glad you did.
What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through August 21, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $35 general, $32 seniors, $25 youth, $20 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
I admit, I’m sometimes astonished at the wide, wide scope of the modern American musical. “Rent” and “Miss Saigon” are classic romantic melodramas based on Puccini’s “La Boheme,” and “Madama Butterfly” respectively, “Sweeney Todd” conjures tales of horror from the Victorian age, while “The Drowsy Chaperone” can make glorious fun of the silliest musicals of the 1920s. And then there are those which thrive on a kind of youthful joy, like “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Now in a charming, funny rendition of this musical is onstage at the Covina Center for the Performing Arts. Gifted with a fine cast, operating on a rather bare-bones set, the show utilizes the entire theater well, keeps up an energetic pace throughout, and proves to be a real crowd pleaser.
The story is pretty much in the title. It is time for the annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – the county competition which will send a single student to the national finals. A group of moderately to enormously misfit 10-year-olds have come to compete. The competition is operated and rules enforced by a local realtor who won the thing herself, when a child. The questions are asked by a rather edgy school vice-principal. The musical introduces to all of these characters lives and aspirations, and the quirky things strong competitors do to help them with rote memory of so many words.
Sarah Rae Jackson is Rona Perretti, the realtor awash in nostalgia for her moment of victory. Spencer D. Blair has a great time as the uptight vice principal who must ask questions, not only of the cast but of audience members brought onstage to engage in the initial part of the bee. Michelle Mahoney also delights in the tough girl assisting in the event as a condition of her parole.
Still, what one remembers most are the “kids” – high school and college-aged actors being those 10 and 11-year-olds, who start out as geeky stereotypes but end up as very real people with often painful histories. Aaron Lyons gives last year’s winner the combination of ego, earnestness and immaturity, and plays more than one kid’s parent as well. Molly Billman becomes the ultimate liberal geek, lisp and all, yet vibrates with the almost-panic of a kid pushed to achieve.
Richie Ferris has a great time as the gleeful but unique Leaf Coneybear – from a hippy-esque family who considers him the dull one. Stanton Kane Morales develops the male version of the ultimate geek, writing words on the floor with his foot, and dealing with nasal issues. Kendra Harris brings the “gee whiz” quality into focus as the friendly girl somewhat baffled by the drama in those around her. Katharine McDonough contributes genuine pathos, yet youthful enthusiasm and optimism, as the victim of neglect and at least verbal abuse who has found refuge in her dictionary.
Jill Gerber finds that delicate balance between humor and ridicule, and between humor and over-done pathos, as the show’s director. It is brisk and brimming with enthusiasm from start to finish. Kim Eberhardt’s choreography is clever, and makes excellent use of her able cast. Mark Gamez has found just the right costume for each extremely individual character. Indeed, there is quite a bit of polish here, even if the “set” is mostly a bunch of black curtains, a table, and a set of risers. That’s not what you’re watching anyway.
In short, the show is fun. You will laugh out loud, at times, and feel earnest empathy at others. Certainly, you’ll leave the show with a smile on your face. When done at this level, it’s almost impossible not to. It may not be deep, and the music may be more in service of the story than memorable on its own, but sometimes a musical is mostly about fun. In that case, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” as done at Covina Center for the Performing Arts, is just the ticket.
What: “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” When: Through October 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28 and $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 ext 1 or http://www.covinacenter.com