Candlelight Dinner Playhouse: The Music Marches On

On June 6, 2008, the brand new dinner theatre in Johnstown, Colorado, the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, opened the doors on its inaugural season with a production of The Music Man.

Every aspect of the evening received rave reviews from Stacy Nick of The Coloradoan, from the building (“From the minute they walked in the door, audiences were awestruck by the grand hallway, the tiered seating (guaranteeing all a good view of the stage) and the beautiful (and plentiful) bathrooms) to the actors (only Jordan Leigh as Harold Hill and Gina Schuh-Turner were called out, but Leigh was a “wonderful cad” and Schuh-Turner “was her usual phenomenal voice”) to the food (“Dinner theatre fare is notoriously dicey…but you’re there for the show; the meal is just (lumpy) gravy. Until now. …make sure everyone at your table gets something different and share.”)

Now the Candlelight is embarking on its tenth season by paying homage to its first with another production of The Music Man (Sep 7 – Nov 15, 2017). This will be followed by Disney’s The Beauty and the Beast (Nov 16, 2017 – Feb 14, 2018), Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (Feb 23-Apr 15, 2018), Man of La Mancha  (Apr 26 – Jun 17, 2018), and Newsies: The Musical (Jun 28-Aug 26, 2018).

Candlelight Dinner Playhouse Season 10

Pat Payne, production manager for the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse, was kind enough to take me on a backstage tour as the Candlelight gears up for its new season (while at the same time continuing with their final production of the ninth season, Cinderella: The Slipper and the Rose).

I wanted to know everything about what went in to creating a musical production, and Pat shared his wealth of knowledge and experience.

One of the things Pat pointed out to me, as we walked around backstage, were all the souvenirs from each of the past productions of the Candlelight. For each production, some particular piece of scenery is chosen as a keepsake, autographed by members of the cast, and then hung on the walls – wherever space can be found after nine years of productions.

The soundboard from the piano used in the first production of The Music Man, autographed by all the cast

We started the tour in the ginormous stage-building wing of the building. The Candlelight builds all its own sets, under the aegis of technical director Dave MacEachen (called Dave Mac to distinguish him from “Dave the owner”).

Starting work on building the stage and set pieces

Dave Mac and his son had just started building the set the day before my tour (on August 9, 2017).

A set designer had been hired months previously. I asked how long it took to design a set.

“He probably designed it in about a month. It’s been a lot of back and forth. We work in a really collaborative environment. He comes up with his design ideas  after meeting with the director and getting the director’s concept and idea for the show, and then brings it to us – the staff here (Dave Mac, myself and Shauna Johnson who’s are technical manager) and then we look it over and say, “Well, this makes sense but why don’t you look at this thing, or “our past experience tells us this is something we’re not adept at doing very well, so let’s look at a different alternative. And then we’ll take another round at it and then the designs will start getting finalized to be sent to Dave Mac for the build.”

All the set pieces are on rollers as needed so they can be moved on and off stage, and there are tracks in the floor of the stage so the gigantic scenery pieces can be moved in and out.

Set design

The production team strives to give every designer they hire the tools to be successful.

“We have a packet that all of our designers get that gives them the specs on the space, whether it be lighting inventory if it’s a lighting designer, or measurements if it’s the set designer, and so on.”

I asked how far afield the Candlelight went in search of set designers.

“We’ve done out-of-state designers. We mostly try to stay local if we can. The designer for Music Man is down in Denver. It depends on the build and who it is and what we’re looking for. The designer for Beauty and the Beast [coming in November]  used to be a professor at the University of Wyoming, and he just took a job at the University of Indianapolis. He’s going to be designing Beauty and the Beast for us from Indianapolis.”

I haven’t seen a stage production of Man of La Mancha, but I’ve seen the movie with Peter O’Toole. I wanted to know about the set for that, so I said, “And for Man of La Mancha?” bringing my hand down in a drawbridge/extendable flight of stairs kind of way. Pat knew what I meant immediately.

“We don’t know that it’s going to have the stairs, but I’m willing to bet it probably will. It takes place in a dungeon and you’ve got to create it somehow. Whether it means it’s going to come in from the ceiling or something…we aren’t sure yet, we haven’t started that process. We’re talking this week about setting up the audition dates for that.”

A view into the wings. On the far right you can see the sign used in the Will Rogers Follies - autographed by the cast

Casting

I knew Man of La Mancha wasn’t scheduled until April 26 of 2018. That’s nine months away. I asked how long it takes to cast a show, and Pat told me that they’ve already cast not only The Music Man, but Beauty and the Beast and Kiss Me Kate as well.

“We have a cadre of actors that we do work with often. We have a history with them. We always cast the best talent there is. So oftentimes its them. Sometimes it’s not. I think we have 6 or 7 new people for Music Man. We had a bunch of new folks for Slipper and the Rose. Beauty and the Beast and Kiss Me Kate have a handful of new people as well.”

Auditions are held in-house. They try to do it on stage but if the schedule doesn’t permit that they have several conference rooms where the auditions can be held. Prospective actors read/sing in front of the director, the choreographer, Dave the owner, and Pat.

Wardrobe

After speaking with Dave Mac for a few minutes and looking at the sketches for the set pieces, Pat took me up the stairs to their Wardrobe room. (The door to that room can be seen in the upper left hand of the image entitled “Starting work on building the set.)

I had wondered if the Candlelight rented costumes from a costumier, but this answered that question.

Wardrobe storage for years worth of costumes

“We have quite a collection of costumes as well as props. We keep everything inventoried. From time to time we get requests from other theatres, high schools, whatever, looking for stuff, and we try to help them out if we can. We go down to Denver, to Wyoming, all over the place.

The car that’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [from the musical of the same name] was just out at a high school in Loveland recently. It’s off-site – we have an off-site storage unit that holds the car. It also holds the hair-cutting machine that is part of that show.”

Pat told me that as far as costumes were concerned, a show could be “build” – meaning they’d build the costumes themselves, “pull” – meaning they’d pull costumes from their collection, or “partial rental” – meaning they’d rent them, typically from the costume designer hired for that particular show, or a combination of all three.

The Candelight’s costume designer will be building all new costumes for the upcoming Beauty and the Beast.  Pat expects that the Candlelight will keep all these costumes in their inventory and rent them out to other theatres in the region who will doubtless be performing productions of the show in future.

Choosing a Season

I asked Pat what went into choosing a season.

“We look at shows and discuss them. Dave [the owner] is the decision maker but he takes input from myself and other members of the staff. We try to find shows that fit with our mission and what it is that we do – we want to provide great experiences that our good for the entire family. We celebrate the musical theatre – mostly the American musical theatre – good entertainment at a great value is what we’re about.”

“Would you ever do Les Miserables on this stage?” I asked.

“We would kill to do Les Miserables. It’s certainly one on our list. It’s a matter of getting the rights – getting the rights is always the challenge. The royalty companies restrict the title. If a show is on tour it blocks it out. If it’s rumored to be headed to Broadway….if another theatre is doing the production in the area, it’s blocked out.”

I asked about acquiring performance rights.

“This show [Slipper and the Rose] came from a small company in London called the National Operatic and Dramatic Association. Every show is represented by a different company – it just depends on the show. Music Man for example is Musical Theatre International.”

“So you contact them…”

“We contact them, tell them we’re interested in doing the show, give them the dates of the show we want, and they let us know what the availability is and what the price is.

About eight weeks before rehearsals start, they send us the materials to distribute to the cast. After the show’s done, we mail them back.

“So if you mark it up…”

“You have to erase it.”

I asked this question because we were standing by the Orchestra Pit, and I took a look at some of the music which had been marked up – in pencil – by the musicians.

The orchestra and two pieces of music

The Orchestra

The Candlelight uses anywhere between 7 and 9 musicians depending on the show.

I asked about the conductor.

“In this particular show [Cinderella: Slipper and the Rose], the Piano 1 part is also the conductor. We have two pianos. Victor is our Keyboard 1. He also conducts the orchestra. For Music Man he will be playing keyboards, conducting and music directing the production.”

“How difficult is it to conduct and play at the same time?”

“It certainly its own set of challenges, and requires its own skill set. You’ve got to be able to know what’s important. You [the conductor and musicians/actors] quickly figure out…if you watch him during the show, you’ll see him play and sometime he’ll nod to give cut-offs. That’s something that’s small that the actors can see.

There’s other moments where he needs to use his hands to give everybody a bigger visual cue because they need it. And that’s stuff they figure out in their rehearsals.

The band rehearses three times before doing it with the actors for the first time. Then, when the actors come in for what we call the sitzprobe, it’s usually done where the cast is simply seated on stage. The band plays, the cast sings, and it’s so you can figure out what those cut-offs are.

And then, as you get through your technical rehearsals, your dress rehearsals and your opening, the band and the cast is figuring out what makes the show work best for them. Does Victor need to give a nod, does he need to do a big hand-movement, whatever it might be that gives the cast the tools to be successful as well as his orchestra, because everybody has to be in step.”

“What happens if an actor “goes up” on a line?”

“That’s one of the advantages of having a live orchestra. The conductor can catch that and keep everyone doing whatever it is they need to do until we can “get back on the road.  The communication from your cast member on stage to your conductor, or in our case piano player/conductor is so vital, and that’s why the conductor has to be watching his book, doing his job, as well as keeping an eye on what’s happening on stage, so they can keep things moving.”

Rehearsal

Rehearsals for Music Man are scheduled to start August 8.

There will be three weeks of rehearsal, plus a “tech” week, where the lighting cues and sound cues are finalized and programmed into the lighting and sound boards. Then, during the production, the lighting director and the sound director, each seated in their own domain (the sound director on the floor, the lighting director from a control booth at the back of the house) simply need to follow along with the script and, when the appropriate cue comes, press an appropriate button on the electronic board for the lights to come up or the actor’s  microphones to turn on.

The soundboard with the "book" so the board runner can follow along

Directing

In addition to being the production manager, Pat has directed some of Candlelight’s productions. His latest directorial effort was 42nd Street (the production just before Slipper and the Rose).

I asked, “As a director, do you watch a movie the musical is based on?”

“It all depends on the show. If I’m doing a show like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, I’m going to watch the movie because the audience is going to come in expecting to see something a little bit akin to what they remember seeing it in the movie theatre. So I think you watch it to find out how you honor it.

In 42nd Street, the movie is from 1933 so not many people know it, but we did actually go back to the movie and in some of the scenic elements we had “nods” to it, if you will. Also, we recreated some of the Gower Champion-choreographed dances from the original Broadway production in 1980.

And that’s how I do it – but every director works differently. Some directors – just like actors – some actors never watch the movie of their piece, others want to watch the movie.”

…and Acting

“As an actor, if you’ve seen someone else in the role, is it hard for you to distance yourself and make your own creation?”

“I don’t think it is for an actor, because an actor’s job is to create, so they’re good at figuring out what it is that makes it special for them. They also have to connect to it, because no matter what character an actor plays, they need to bring themselves. They need to connect themselves to the character, so I think it’s important that an actor finds their own way into the character and so that will automatically distance you from another performer doing that same role. In my opinion.”

Actors Up Close and Personal

At the Candlelight, member of the audience are escorted to their seats by actors in the show. Once seated, their servers – those in charge of drinks, others in charge of food, come out and take their orders. These people are part of the acting company as well.

The audience members may not always realize this, depending on how their server is initially dressed, so they sometimes get a shock when their polite and attentive server shows up on stage as a martinet theatre director, or some other role! Then he or she returns to their table during intermission with dessert!

This practice isn’t unique to the Candlelight, of course.

What the Candlelight does do differently is theme their menu offerings to each show. For example, for The Slipper and the Rose, Kitchen Manager Jeanie Bert penned an introduction to the menu: “Join us for a journey to the far-off, fairy-tale land, Euphrania. Please enjoy our selections based on the late Medieval to early Renaissance time period, including exotic spices introduced through the spice trade, with a modern, magical twist.”

The entrees included Steak and Ale Pie, the desserts – Rose Marzipan Trifle.

Back Stage

Pat then took me back stage and showed me the dressing rooms.  The actors are multi-talented. They put on their own makeup before the show and put on and change their own costumes as required, unless it’s a particularly difficult costume change in which case the stage manager will help out.

I asked Pat how Cinderella’s costume change comes about – she’s on stage dressed in rags and suddenly, at the wave of the Fairy Godmother’s magic wand she twirls about and suddenly she’s in a ball gown!  That was the one question Pat refused to answer.

Well – I knew the answer – it’s theatre magic!

The Patron Experience

For Cinderella: The Slipper and the Rose, parents can purchase light-up magic wands for their kids. After the show, audience members – not only the kids! – can go on stage and take selfies with the Fairy Godmother and Magic, her dog.

I asked if these were suggestions made by the rights company when sending out materials for the show.

“That was our brainchild. We’re all about the patron experience. It’s a really great way to get the kids engaged in what we’re doing. It’s the same with the photos. Everyone loves Magic and wants to meet him – he’s almost becomes the star. We’ll be doing something similar with Beauty and the Beast.”

A glimpse of the stage for The Slipper and the Rose

The Candlelight Dinner Playhouse has delighted audiences for nine years, and their tenth season promises to uphold that legacy.

Season tickets for Season Ten are now available. But don’t miss out on Cinderella: The Slipper and the Rose, which continues its run until August 27, 2017.

For reviews of Candlelight Dinner Theatre productions, check out:

Candlelight Dinner Theatre Production Reviews

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