Last night, I heard Christian Villanueva’s voice–his pure, cool, silvery tenor burnishing to mellow gold in the lower register–before I saw him. I had thrown on a sad muumuu and flip-flops and waddled– because in 103 degree heat drenched in Miami-ish humidity, what else can a poor girl do?– over to Plate38, a neighborhood hang on East Colorado in Pasadena, to meet a few peeps and drink lots of anything cold. We snagged a table for four where the joint’s newly remodeled interior meets the open patio. Not exactly the Amalfi coast, but I may have felt a slight desert breeze wafting in over the neon Walgreens sign across the street as the sun went low in the west.
We ordered raw oysters (first reason to love Plate38: raw oysters!) and our first round of purple! (second reason to love Plate38!) Prickly Peet margaritas, which are a lurid, gorgeous, Prickly Pear cactus “tuna” (fruit) fuchsia shock-wave of wildness. Icy and nearly psychedelic on the way down, especially when gulped in intense heat.
A brick wall and tables filled with diners wolfing down cones of hot garlic fries blocked our view of the tiny sing-pit. I can’t call it a stage, because there isn’t one. The singers had set up their gear in a recessed brick-wall alcove across from the crowded bar where regulars were watching the game on a big flat screen.
Then Chris began to sing, sharing most of his two-hour, Broadway-ish set in duet with the sleek and crystal-clear voiced Cristina Ballestero. He just turned 21, and starred as the romantic lead, Link, in the recent, sold-out summer production of “HAIRSPRAY–The Musical”, produced by Musical Theatre Orange County. Villanueva and Ballestero also sang together in a previous production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”– a Disney-perfect vocal match.
Their harmonies brought just enough Mouseketeer earnesty to inspirational animation anthems, “I Can Go the Distance” (from “Hercules”) and “A Whole New World” (from “Aladdin”). During the latter, I wandered to the bar to get an eyeful of the talent. Coincidentally, remarkably, or magically, or ???, Villanueva has the face of Disney’s Aladdin — the million-watt white smile, the high cheekbones, the dreamy eyes, the goofy raven hair. I suppressed a “Menudo”-era squeal, and returned to my table with dignity.
Perhaps sensing that seniors in the crowd were restless– this is Pasadena, after all–Villanueva belted out a virile version of “Cry Me A River” that put the go-go grannies back in their place. Am I dreaming, or did someone sigh “Frankie!”?
Only a few summers ago, Chris Villanueva was busting an asphalt-baked sweat under a giant, heavy foam “Pluto” head as one of the live characters at Disneyland. Now, Pluto is not even recognized as a planet anymore (so wrong!)– but Christian Villanueva is without a doubt a rising star.
As I wandered out into the steamy night, Cristina Ballestero closed the set with a killer version of the quintessential summer song: “Hopelessly Devoted”, from “Grease.” We’ve all been there: there’s just no gettin’ over you.
One last reason to love Plate38: the stylin’ bronze purse-hooks under the bar. So a lady can sling her designer saddlebag up off the floor properly while knocking back a few righteous Patrons. This casual eatery features live music every Thursday; call 626-793-7100 to find out when Christian Villanueva will return.