It wouldn’t be December in Claremont without Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre’s annual original Christmas musical, and this year’s, Because It’s Christmas, makes for an evening or afternoon of delightful, tuneful holiday entertainment for children, parents, grandparents, and everyone in-between.

_MG_3909 The year is 1926 and on this 23rd of December the owner and staff of St. Louis, Missouri’s Nutty Pine Inn are about to celebrate Christmas one last time before the inn shuts its doors, the victim of a new highway which lets travelers zoom past the formerly popular lodge, scarcely aware of Nutty Pines’ existence somewhere off in the distance.

IMG_9423 A flashback has widowed owner Nettie Nuttie Newcomb (Ann Thomas) recalling her younger self (Katie Roche) and handsome hubby Jim (Josh Taylor) being given the deed to Nutty Pines by her parents Ned and Junice Nutty (Mark Isaak and Janice Lee), who’ve decided to segue from managing the inn to running the local orphanage, located not too far away.

Back in the 1926 present, Nettie welcomes adopted daughter Linda (Stella Kim) home for the holidays and Nettie’s best friend and coworker Gladys Duncan (Jennifer Lawson) is delighted to find her soldier son Daniel (Taras Wybaczynksy Jr.) paying Mom a Christmas visit as well, and though Linda and Daniel have grown up side by side in a brotherly-sisterly way, it’s clear at a glance that the two are made for each other.

Since this is going to be the inn’s last Christmas before posting a “Gone Out Of Business” sign on its doors, Nettie, Gladys, and Nutty Pines’ German handyman Mr. Gunderson (Robert Hoyt) have decided to go out in high style by inviting none other than Santa Claus himself to entertain the inn’s last assemblage of guests.

_MG_5263 These include child star Cindy Nichols, the “Smile Brite Toothpaste Girl” (Brooklyn Vizcarra), and her starstuck adult sister Doris (Kirklyn Robinson), who seems far more interested in Cindy’s signing on for another year with Smile Brite than her younger sis is. Hiding out at the inn is young orphan Patrick (Wyatt Larrabee), who’d rather be with his favorite orphanage worker Linda and her adoptive clan than the latest family the orphanage has sent him to spend his Christmas with.

Santa’s failure to show up on schedule soon requires Mr. Gunderson to put on his Santa suit, leading to considerable confusion when Kris Kringle expresses a desire for pretzels and beer rather than the traditional cookies and milk, and considerable disappointment when too much German ale has him falling asleep during Cindy’s song-and-dance tryout for Santa.

_MG_4686 Along the way, romance begins to bloom between Linda and Daniel, while Cindy discovers from Patrick that having fun is an important part of being a kid that the Smile-Brite Girl has been missing out on.

And then, the other shoe drops when it’s learned that not only will Nutty Pines Inn have to close…

No, I won’t reveal the bombshell news that brings the curtain down on Act One, nor will I give away who finally arrives to help save the day (and give children in the Candlelight audience the chance to join Jolly Old St. Nick onstage midway through Act Two).

Suffice it to say that cowriters John LaLonde and Debbie Prutsman (Candelight’s recent Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett) find a way to tie up every plot thread with a bright red Christmas bow by the time cast members assemble to take their bows—and who would want it any other way?

_MG_4479 Under LaLonde’s bright and breezy direction, Because It’s Christmas proves considerably more satisfying to audiences of all ages than last year’s more forgettable A Christmas To Remember. Scripters LaLonde and Prutsman use the 1920s setting (and 1890s flashbacks) for picturesque value only, avoiding the kind of era-specific references that are only funny if you remember the era, which no one under 95 is likely to do. Also, despite remaining resolutely G-rated, Because It’s Christmas has much more of an adult sensibility than last year’s, with numerous laugh-lines designed specifically to tickle adult funny bones. Also, it’s a good deal easier to identify with real(ish) people facing real(ish) problems than to feel a connection with Mrs. Santa’s “Queen For A Day” makeover or Santa’s head elf’s last day of North Pole service. Finally, a little romance never hurt any show, and Because It’s Christmas has just the right amount.

ropd It would be a Candlelight annual Christmas musical (and this is Number 28!) without abundant song and dance, and Because It’s Christmas has plenty of both, with one Christmas song after another performed to perfection by an all-around terrific cast under Douglas Austin’s expert musical direction. (The “Pure Imagination” sequence is a particular winner.)

900_10202850595654527_1085713550_n _MG_3878 Kim and Wybaczynksy’s Linda and Daniel and Roche and Taylor’s Young Nettie and Jim make for an appealing, golden-throated pair of young lovers.

_MG_4416 Robinson displays ample pizzazz and a great big Broadway voice as Doris, while Larrabee and Vizcarra prove that talent can come in smaller, pre-teen packages. Among more seasoned cast members, Thomas’s warm Nettie, Lawson’s feisty Gladys, and Hoyt’s great big teddy bear of a Mr. Gunderson provide solid support. And (spoiler ahead) Santa and Mrs. Claus (appearing as themselves) turn out to be fine thespians and expert vocalists as well, quite coincidentally the same characteristics they share with Isaak and Lee’s Ned and Junice Nutty.


Choreographer Alison Hooper gives her dance ensemble quite a workout as well, with polka, waltz, chorus-line kicks, and even some breakdancing thrown in for good measure, all of the above performed with Broadway pizzazz by inn guests Jonathan Arana, Chelsea Baldree, Jason Cho, Stephanie Hull, Frankie Marrone, Roche, Beda Spindola, and Taylor.

Scenic designer Dwight Richard Odle has created a sumptuous, Technicolor Nutty Pine Inn made even more gorgeous by Steve Giltner’s vivid holiday lighting (provided by SteveGDesign), with Jenny Wentworth’s marvelous blend of period and fantasy costumes one of her best designs, complemented by Michelle Bierman’s wigs.

Logan Grosjean is stage manager and Orlando Montes technical director. Michael Ryan’s expertise on the acoustic guitar provided a melodic musical backdrop to executive chef Juan Alvarado and sous chef Maria Sandoval’s scrumptious cuisine at the performance reviewed. Kudos as always to Candlelight Pavilion owner/producer Ben D. Bollinger, general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger, acting producer Mindy Teuber, and artistic director John LaLonde.


Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre deserves major kudos for not only giving their audiences an annual holiday treat but giving them a brand new show every year. (December 2014 will bring It’s Christmas Every Day.) 2013’s Because It’s Christmas turns out to be a particularly memorable holiday offering.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
December 8, 2013

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