Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Tag Archives: Stephen Sondheim

“West Side Story” Shows Polish at Candlelight Pavilion

The cast of "West Side Story" leap with hope, honoring the original choreography in Claremont  [photos: Demetrios Katsantonis]

The cast of “West Side Story” leap with hope, honoring the original choreography in Claremont [photos: Demetrios Katsantonis]

Of all the composers who have approached the Broadway musical, a very, very few compete on the same level as Leonard Bernstein, even just musically. In many ways his best, “West Side Story,” with its modernized Romeo and Juliet, lyrics by a then-young Stephen Sondheim, direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins, ushered in a new form of the entire genre. Beautiful but raw, its tale of prejudice, abusive law enforcement, angry youth and cultural disconnects resonates across the years like few other pieces have.

A good “West Side Story” can capture all that raw energy in ways which entertain, touch and impassion. To be good, it must have solid dancers, singers able to handle the complex rhythms and soaring notes of the Bernstein score, and youth. This, with a few notable exceptions, is a young person’s story. Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, virtually all of the necessary elements are there. The result is a most satisfying evening of beautiful music, touching story and amazing energy.

The tale is literally classic. Two rival gangs vie for control of a beaten down New York City neighborhood. One group, composed of down-and-out whites, many the children of European immigrants, calls itself the Jets. The other, the Puerto Rican gang known as the Sharks, is seen as having moved in on Jet territory, while for the Sharks this is simply the neighborhood into which they have landed. Contact – often violent – is common, and except for neutral zones like the school gym where dances take place, the two groups carefully maintain a separation. That is until Jet founder Tony meets Maria, the sister of the leader of the Sharks. As battle lines form, their love becomes more hidden, more real, and more potentially tragic.

If looking for a reason why the Candlelight Pavilion production works so well, one need look no further than Ayme Olivo’s absolutely charming Maria. Gifted with a lovely, well-trained voice, she epitomizes the innocence and romance of her character, growing with her as the plot deepens. As her brother, Bernardo, Juan Caballer vibrates with pride and intensity, Michael Gonzalez makes a manlier-than-sometimes Chino, while Celeste Lanuza’s Anita carries herself with an air of very feminine command, dances with expertise, and makes “America” the highlight it can be. Maria Tony Dance

Although Jarred Barnard is so pacific as Tony that it seems unlikely he’d have ever been in a gang, Chaz Feuerstine makes Jet leader Riff a true believer. Joined by the rest of the Jets, most especially Josh Switzer’s barely contained Action and Lacey Beegun’s convincingly tough tomboy Anybodys, they prove a formidable counterbalance to the tense Sharks. Also a standout is Jamie Snyder as the drugstore owner, Doc, for whom Tony works – a man torn by the violence around him and the loss of young potential.

Director Hector Guerrero makes the piece work, keeping the pace quick with the help of Mitch Gill’s amazing puzzle-box set design. Guerrero has, in large part, recreated the original Jerome Robbins choreography as well, only in small – something elemental to the personality of the show. Douglas Austin’s work as musical director deserves special kudos, as his cast sings the excruciatingly difficult pre-rumble quintet, without a visible conductor, as if it was a piece of cake. Indeed, one is left without much to criticize music-wise except for the inexplicable cutting of the overture, which along with Bernstein’s overture to “Candide”, stands among the most outstanding pieces of orchestral Broadway music ever written. It also serves to lay the ground for the intensity to follow.

Still, this colorful and tuneful musical makes for a delightful if touching evening. If you’ve never seen a live performance of this work, you’re in for a treat. If it’s an old friend to you, as it is to me (as it was the first show I ever worked on, way back in high school), go and reacquaint yourself with an old friend. If it has nothing new to teach, it still has a ring of universality which travels across time.

What: “West Side Story” When: Through November 22, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and for lunch matinees at 11 a.m. Saturays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58 – $73 adult, $30 – $35 child, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

“Putting it Together” – Sondheim sings at Sierra Madre

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse's "Putting it Together." [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The cast of Sierra Madre Playhouse’s “Putting it Together.” [photo: John Dlugolecki Photography]

The iconic American musical composer of the last 50 years, Stephen Sondheim, has also been the subject of five different “anthology” musicals – that is, compilations of songs written for other uses strung together to celebrate the song writer, often in the guise of a story-like theme. One of these offers a chance to hear many songs which might otherwise sit on a shelf: 1993’s “Putting It Together.” Ostensibly about couples arguing at a party, it serves as a chance to hear music written for television as well as for less-than-successful Broadway shows, all scattered between signature songs from Sondheim’s greatest works: “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music” and the like.

Now Sierra Madre Playhouse is offering up “Putting It Together” in its small space, made even smaller by the set it shares in repertory with the children’s musical “Einstein is a Dummy.” In this particularly intimate space, details matter. Here, performers range from good to excellent, the timing is solid, and everyone puts their all into the production. The humor shows, as does the pathos and the signature irony and bitterness, all to the accompaniment of an impressive grand piano.

Ostensibly, one couple – a successful man of means and his long-time society wife – are hosting a party to which a young climber and his pretty young girlfriend arrive. An ambitious caterer looks on and weighs in on occasion while the couples form, explode, re-form and redefine. In reality, the plot notwithstanding, it’s a festival of known and lesser-known Sondheim, and that is a treat all its own.

The five-person cast throws their all into the work. Several have done the show before elsewhere, and that added familiarity with what is often very difficult music cannot but help. Kurt Andrew Hansen gives the philandering party-giver an air of ownership as he sings everything from the predatory “Hello Little Girl” to the romantic “Do I Hear a Waltz”. Kristin Towers-Rowles, as his wife, vibrates with attitude, and pulls off two of Sondheim’s most often sung – pieces, “Getting Married Today” and “The Ladies Who Lunch,” while making them very much her own. For songs so thoroughly attached to their initial performances, this is particularly impressive.

LIkewise, Chris Kerrigan brings a pathos to “Marry Me a Little” and a kind of panic to “Unworthy of Your Love” which are very much his own. As his date, Rachel Hirshee has fun being the pretty young thing, and has a lovely time with the more air-headed songs, like “More” and “Lovely.” Mike Irizarry, as the caterer and observer, sings with the most character definition, but is comparatively quiet-voiced next to the other four. Still, his mildly crazed “Buddy’s Blues” stands up well.

Director-choreographer Cate Caplin keeps the piece going, and provides the kind of movement which keeps the show from becoming just a concert. Jake Anthony’s musical direction paces things as they should and blends tones on the many duets in powerful ways. The thing looks polished and is often a lot of fun. There are a few issues with balance, but those do not keep the overall feel from being very attractive, particularly for such a small stage.

Still, truth be told, it is the music that wins the day. Sondheim is, for some, an acquired taste, but once one has acquired it the strong, sometimes dark, often insightful lyrics offer a specific spin on the human condition it is worth being reminded of. By the end you may find ourself (as I did, admittedly, for one or two pieces) going back to find out where they came from and why they are not heard more often.

“Putting It Together” plays evenings, while on weekdays and Sundays the matinees are productions of the children’s musical. It’s a nice balance, as Sondheim’s often very adult subject matter will provide limited enjoyment for kids.

What: “Putting It Together” When: Through March 28, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sunday March 22, and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays March 21 and 18 Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $28 general, $25 seniors, $18 students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or

Horror on a Neat, Small Scale: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in Claremont

The cast of "Sweeney Todd" at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The cast of “Sweeney Todd” at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is considered by many to be Stephen Sondheim’s most sophisticated work, especially from a musical standpoint. It also broke new territory in several other directions. Based on a 1973 play, it celebrated, in weird but ultimately human ways, the story of an evil barber told and retold by Londoners for over 200 years. It was a matter of answering several logical questions earlier melodramatic versions had not: Why would a potentially good person become a soulless serial killer? Why would anyone else help him in this? What turned righteous revenge turn into a pathology of murder? Ultimately, for those who created the thing, the question was whether this grim, bloody and horror-filled musical could attract an audience somewhat desensitized by Hollywood horror flicks?

The answer was a resounding yes. In the new production now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, the gore is a bit muted, and the sense of monolithic industrial architecture dwarfing the individual is only moderately accessible, but the central performers still create a sense of evil which can engross an audience. Indeed, putting such a large and powerful musical on such a comparatively small stage, as director Chuck Ketter manages to do, is in itself quite a feat.

John LaLonde and Debbie Prutsman as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

John LaLonde and Debbie Prutsman as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Kirklyn Robinson]

The ever-so-versatile John LaLonde is Sweeney, moving from bitter to hate-filled to psychopathic in stages of voice and body language, all done a lot closer to the observant audience than most productions. Debbie Prutsman creates an appropriately, oddly charming, amoral Mrs. Lovett, far too delighted to be doing good business to have any qualms about the source of supply for her meat pie filling. The songs LaLonde and Prutsman share, and the way they work together, provide delightful comic punctuation to this grotesque story.

This is assisted by a large and able ensemble cast. Standouts include Caleb Shaw’s Anthony, the upbeat and yearning young sailor, Jenny Moon Shaw’s crazed beggar woman with a story to tell, and Adam Trent’s earnestly dim Tobias, Lovett’s willing assistant – at least for a while. Sam Nisbett proves coldly menacing, and Robert Hoyt officiously insufferable as the judge and beadle against whom Sweeney’s most intense hatred is rightly focused. Katie Roche sings beautifully as Anthony’s love interest, Joanna.

A very well-voiced chorus of ten fills out the scene and offers some of the most potent music, Lance Smith and Vil Towers add to the tale with brief appearances as a snake-oil salesman and the operator of a madhouse, respectively. Janet Renslow’s choreography (that tricky process of making a large group move as one without seeming to be dancing) helps create a sense of crowd, and John Patrick’s set does what it can to enlarge the usually small Candlelight stage by taking it out into the audience area, which helps with this theater’s inability to go tall.

The first time I saw Sweeney Todd, at its first L.A. appearance in 1980, I was very glad my then-editor had insisted on writing the review. As I said to my companion, “How do I tell the audience I write for that this is one of the most remarkable pieces of popular theater I’ve ever seen, but given the content none of those who usually read my stuff would want to see it?” Stunning, bloody, cruel and elementally musical, its complex score could not help but ring in one’s head. Its images could overwhelm.

If you had told me then that the next live performance I would see would be at a dinner theater, I’d have laughed. Indeed, when we went to eat after that original version, our first words to our server were, “Do you have anything that doesn’t bleed?” Of course Candlelight Pavilion’s general manager, Michael Bollinger, claims to have that pegged: “It works because feed my audience before, not after, they see the show.” Also, the blood flows much more subtly here than it did then, so the gross-out level is somewhat reduced.

And, in truth, I’m glad that Candlelight has taken the risk. Though their “Sweeney Todd” is perhaps a bit less messy or grand than its earlier counterpart, its intensity and the quality of the performances keep it vital and fascinating. And the culinary end of the company is having fun with the food – turning their usual beef dish into a meat pie, for example, and putting crafted fruit “eyeballs” in their cocktails. Still, this would all just be kind of ridiculous if the show wasn’t worth watching. It is.

What: “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” When: Through October 13, doors opening for dinner at 6 p.m. Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and for brunch 11 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd in Claremont How Much: $53-$68, $25 for children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or

Here They Come, Those Beautiful “Follies” – A Sondheim classic at the Ahmanson

Those beautiful girls: the cast of “Follies” (photo by Craig Schwartz

Near the top of anyone’s list of the musicals which changed the art form forever is Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.” With a story line wrapped in the murk of mid-life crises, rosy nostalgia, and personal upheaval, it spoke to theater-goers of the late 20th century as an echo of the times. It speaks still, its universality playing out the disquiets of our unsettling era as well. Add to that songs so strong concert versions of the show have developed an audience of their own, and the yen to see it fully, spectacularly produced again was overwhelming.

Thus, the Kennedy Center production of “Follies,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Everything is there: the compelling music, the emotionally charged book, the chance to experience show-stopper after show-stopper. This is what serious musicals in the modern era can be, but rarely are. Directed by Eric Schaeffer with an almost magical attention to detail, it allows for marvelous individual performances in the midst of a sense of ensemble, and stunning (or, in some cases stunningly poignant) visuals.

The story is set in a disintegrating theater, once home to Weismann’s Follies. Before the place is torn down, the man who produced all those shows has invited members of his many years of those shows – all those “Beautiful Girls” – to return for a reunion. Followed by the ghosts of the people they once were, a bevy of women (and a few men) relive their performances and struggle through the differences between their dreams and their lives.

Central to the piece are the duo of couples whose worlds intertwined when the two men were poor, hopeful, and hanging out backstage to meet and date their future wives. Those wives, chorus girls, dreamed of high romance, and worked to be the women the men dreamed of. A lifetime later, one sees how their futures have unraveled.

Jan Maxwell and Victoria Clark in “Follies”

Victoria Clark plays Sally, the Arizona housewife who dashes to New York to meet, once again, the man she has come to believe she should have married. Clark balances the elements of pathos and obsessiveness in Sally without making her either too pitiful or too crazy. That, and she does justice to one of the show’s (and Sondheim’s) greatest torch songs, “Losing My Mind.” Jan Maxwell plays Phyllis, wife of a famed diplomat searching desperately for meaning in her outwardly glamorous but inwardly stultifying life. Maxwell’s Phyllis gradually unpacks a ferocious depth: her spectacularly dark and angry “Could I Leave You?” sends waves of emotion vibrating to the rafters.

Joining them, Danny Burstein makes Sally’s husband Buddy just enough of a shmo to emphasize the stagnation of her life. Then, in the dream sequence at the end, he brings down the house, singing and dancing up a storm with the “God-Why-Don’t-You-Love-Me Blues.” Ron Raines gives the pompous Ben, Phyllis’ husband, just the right balance of aloof command and buried wistfulness. His steadiness is, in itself, an irritant until what’s underneath shines through.

Jayne Houdyshell stops the show in “Follies”

Add to this remarkable single moments: Carol Neblett and Leah Horowitz as the oldest Follies Girl singing an operatic duet with the ghost of herself in her youth, Jayne Houdyshell’s delightfully unexpected “Broadway Baby,” the entire batch of women doing their best attempt at an old tap routine literally backed by their own, younger shadows. Indeed, the entire ensemble, young and old, puts everything into this production, keeping the pace moving and the general tone just light enough to make moments of drama have real punch.

Director Eric Schaeffer has created the large picture within the frame, turning what could be – and sometimes is – a series of mildly connected socko solos into a very cohesive and structured whole. Choreographer Warren Carlyle not only evokes the follies style with a seeming ease, but manages to balance the skills of some of the older performers in ways which keep the pace from slowing at important moments.

Derek McLane’s set design has transformed the Ahmanson into just the right crumbling space, and – again – his dream sequence set captures the essence of that era of theater when people went for beautiful girls on wildly colorful sets. Gregg Barnes’ costumes not only bring back the showgirl look when needed, they subtly define each character’s story in a subtle, structured way.

In short, this thing is luscious and lavish and absolutely a must-see. It is one show which must be done by masters, and this time it is getting the treatment it deserves. Bleak though its tone, it is a musical with something worth hearing interesting characters say, or sing. And if, at the end, problems aren’t solved, they are at least defined, and defined with music which has entered the American songbook, helping to give voice to a generation’s dis-ease. Indeed, subsequent generations have found what was originally said in (can it be) 1971 still rings with the same power, as change continues to outpace our dreams.

What: “Follies” When: Through June 9, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $150 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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