Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Tim Rice

“Jesus Christ Superstar”: Candlelight Pavilion hosts classic rock opera

Richard Bermudez as Judas and Kyle Short as Jesus in Candlelight Pavilion’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” [photo: James Suter]


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

So Silly: “Joseph…” at Candlelight Pavilion makes all the right moves

The cast of

The cast of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” [photo: Adam Trent]

On the list of works by the team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, if “Evita” is the most complex, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is the most lighthearted fun. Originally written to be sung by the chorus of a girls school, it has an unabashedly teenaged silliness at its core which, when translated into a Broadway-style musical, evokes an innocent charm that proves both funny and uplifting.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont, a fresh and energetic production offers up a prime example of both the silliness and the professionalism which makes all that fun translate to the audience. Blessed with a fine dancing chorus and unrelentingly energetic choreography, sharp pacing and a cast which sings with gusto and accuracy, this production provides charmingly innocent family entertainment.

The story is literally Biblical – the tale of Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, whose jealous brothers sell him into slavery. In Egypt, after ending up in prison, his ability to read dreams leads him to the right hand of the pharaoh. There he saves Egypt from famine, and eventually saves his family as well. As set by Webber and Rice, the story is rich in silliness and catchy tunes, and can be a visual treat especially if the dancing is up to par.

At Candlelight, much if the show’s success lies at the feet of director and choreographer Alison Hooper, whose meshing of song and dance and story keep the show hopping. She has assembled one of the finest of Candlelight’s recent dancing choruses, and their work powers everything else. 

Joseph with his eponymous coat

Joseph with his eponymous coat

As the narrator, Alyssa Grant offers up a consistent, if rather low-key charm, providing the calm between major production numbers. Caleb Shaw’s Joseph radiates the character’s open, innocent nature, and sings with both power and nuance. Standouts among Joseph’s many brothers are Robert Johnson’s country stylings in “One More Angel in Heaven,” and James Joseph, who brings down the house with the “Benjamin Calypso”. The entire cast prove themselves impressive quick-change artists as they move from Biblical, to country, to 50s rock, to stereotypical French, to Caribbean, to disco with an impressive seamlessness.

Colleen Bresnahan, who has both adapted and enhanced the standard set, and Jenny Wentworth’s evocative costuming are stars themselves. Indeed, setting has often been an issue with productions of “Joseph,” with some staying rather too subtle and others going so over the top that the needed innocence of the piece gets lost in the glitter and sensuality. Here the balance is just right.

Of course, one of the perks of going to Candlelight Pavilion is the dinner which comes with the performance. So, from the perspective of family entertainment, this has it all: good food, and an engaging and lively show whose music will stick with you. What’s not to like?

What: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” When: through August 9, doors open for dinner 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch matinees Saturday and Sunday Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adult, $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

“Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion: Not Quite Enough

Laura Dickinson is "Evita", as John LaLonde's Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

Laura Dickinson is “Evita”, as John LaLonde’s Juan Peron looks on, at the Candlelight Pavilion [photo: Adam Trent]

One looks back at the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, both what they did together and since their split, and it is difficult to find any single piece more significant than their musical “Evita.” The music, though typically repetitive, has far more verve than much of Lloyd Webber’s later work, and the sharp-edged lyrics Rice created for this odd but fascinating story have an intensity which matches the score.

For this reason, I am always on the lookout for a production of “Evita.” It can still have a lot to say. Yet, there are certain things which simply must be present, especially two truly dynamic performers, one to play Eva Peron herself, and one to play the narrator, revolutionary Che Guevara. It can be high tech or low, large cast or smaller, but if these two parts aren’t cast with people of strong voice and stronger personality, it doesn’t work.

Which brings me to the new production of “Evita” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. Years ago, when the musical was new, I saw the first truly low-tech version of the show at Candlelight, and was impressed by how well the show held up without all the fancy machinery or the huge cast. I wish I could say that this new production was as successful.

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]

Richard Bermudez makes an intense Che [photo: Adam Trent]


Despite a solid production, and a good to very good ensemble to back up the central figures, there is still a problem. Richard Bermudez makes fine work of Che: angry, sarcastic and powerful by turns. John LaLonde takes what has to be one of the most underrated parts in modern musical canon, Juan Peron, and makes him a real personality. But sadly these strong personalities only emphasize the comparative lack of zing in Laura Dickinson’s Evita.

She does all the moves, and – though sometimes her rock-style high notes become too shrill – handles the difficult music with a reasonable style, but the energy which creates this actual, larger-than-life character is absent. This is not the woman thousands of descamisados would have muscled into (albeit surrogate) power, who would have charmed all the charmable of Argentina. The fire is missing.

Which is admittedly a pity, because Chuck Ketter’s direction of the show moves it from its big-stage roots to the small and intimate Candlelight space without losing its most essential bits. Roger Castellano’s choreography almost has to be derivative of the original, but is generally well done. Admittedly (and this was also true the first time) one misses the projections which enhanced one or two moments, but doing “Evita” low-tech is also a great way to prove the show’s actual power is not based on gimmicks. And by and large this is still true. Except when it isn’t.

Indeed, there are a few lost moments, not all of which can be laid at Dickinson’s feet. The staging of Alexandra Specter’s brief moment in the sun as Peron’s dismissed mistress leaves her without the anchor of a door. Lucas Coleman’s turn as Magaldi, the tango singer who takes Eva to Buenos Aires, lacks fluidity or the kind of oily sexiness which makes him interestingly small-time.

Also, and very disappointingly for a show in which one can be swept up by orchestral moments alone, the score (always a recording at Candlelight) makes significant use of electronics rather than actual strings, robbing the music of its richness.

So, should one see this “Evita”? It has things to recommend it, and it comes with a fine meal. Is it what it could have been, at this venue? Not really. Having seen what this theater is capable of in relation to this important work, it should be better than it is.

What: “Evita” When: Through June 28, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. on Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunchtime Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $58-$73 adults/ $30-$35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

From Opera to Melodrama: Elton John’s Aida makes for pale romance

Adam Lubicz and Amber Thompson work at igniting sparks in Elton John's "Aida" at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater

This appears to be the season for resurrecting modern musicals which have productions far more impressive than their substance. This leaves a critic with a difficult charge, at least if the production itself is done well.

Take as an example the version of Elton John’s “Aida” at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont. The production shows polish and style. The musical being produced, however, is still Elton John’s “Aida” – one of those shows where you go out humming the set and discussing the costumes, rather than connecting with the storyline, the characters or the songs.

The story of “Aida” first gained fame as an opera by Guiseppi Verdi. It’s towering arias and lush incidental music gained it an immediate following, and it is still seen as a pinnacle performance for great singers around the globe. The thing is, in opera you don’t much care of the plot is silly, or wildly melodramatic, or historically profoundly inaccurate. All that really matters in the end is the music, and generations have found Verdi’s music glorious.

The story follows the romance between Radames, a successful commander of the pharaoh’s army, and a captive Ethiopian slave, Aida, who turns out to be the daughter of the Ethiopian king. Radames is already engaged to Pharoah’s daughter, Amneris, who becomes suspicious of Aida and Radames. Amid war with Aida’s home country, during which her father is captured, and the wrath of Pharaoh, the love affair is as doomed as Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, in the end they are buried alive together.

Elton John and Tim Rice use the same plot, though a simplified version, and essentially the same characters. They do emphasize the racial divide, as Egyptians are portrayed as white, while the Ethiopians they are out to conquer (now called Nubians) are – as they historically were – black. Still, there is little opportunity to become engaged with characters who remain undeveloped as individuals, mostly because the script doesn’t give personality much time.

Sometimes a performance can rise above the essential superficiality. Interestingly, at Candlelight Pavilion, Lindsay Martin’s Amneris does just that, finding the princess’ internal struggle between love and honor, and becoming the most sympathetic of the participants. Amber Thompson provides the richest and most interesting voice, singing with passion and intensity enough to embody her own struggle between nation and heart.

Adam Lubicz strides about with passion as Radames, but the emotional connection between him and Thompson’s Aida remains somewhat unconvincing. John LaLonde would be twirling his mustaches if he had them as Radames’ manipulative father, Zoser. Wesley Mosteller seems likable as Radames’ Nubian slave, whose main job is to give Aida’s position perspective. Monica Quinn Gonzalez, as another of the slaves, becomes important as her character sacrifices herself for Aida while the Nubians work to save their king.

Director /choreographer Paul David Bryant has given this show a continuity and energy which bring the story along. The entire cast has a sense of ensemble, and works as a unit to make the show as dramatic as possible. If I would change one thing, it would be the several moments where Radames takes off his heavy coat, making him instantly smaller and a far less romantic figure.

The sets and props, provided by Riverside Community College, are fascinatingly simple and evocative. The costumes from the Maine State Musical Theater seem rather eclectic – sometimes confusingly so, combining light-weight clothing evocative of Egyptian traditions with heavy robes, tunics and boots more suited to The Lord of the Rings.

In short, if you are fond of Elton John, or wish to see this musical – which admittedly won a Tony for its score, but in a year when most musicals were dance concerts performed to canned recordings of pop tunes – this will be an excellent way to do so. Still, it remains a show which provides spectacle without the essential empathy which makes an interesting musical into an emotional powerhouse.

What: Elton John’s “Aida” When: Through June 3, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 5 p.m. Sundays, with doors open for lunch and a matinee at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $48 – $68, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

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