CVIndependent

Tue11242020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

Ron Celona looked weary as patrons entered the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City for the Saturday, March 14, matinee performance of The City of Conversation.

This was supposed to be a bustling, packed weekend of theater in the Coachella Valley. At least four theaters were opening new productions, while two more companies continued successful shows.

But as of that Saturday afternoon, The City of Conversation was the only show still open. Before we entered the theater—not even one-third full—Celona confided that after the Sunday show, CVRep, too, would be going dark.

Barring a miracle, we were watching the last play to be performed in the Coachella Valley by our fantastic theater companies in quite some time.

The production of The City of Conversation was a fantastic. Thanks to a great cast, led by Martha Hackett as old-school liberal activist/socialite Hester Ferris, the play showed how political differences can rip a family apart. It was compelling and riveting—so much so that it managed to make at least some theater-goers temporarily forget the unprecedented weirdness going on outside.

That is, until one of the characters made a joke about an expired toilet-paper coupon.

Celona’s angst over whether or not to let the show go on encapsulates the dilemma our valley’s producers faced heading into the weekend: On one hand, out of an abundance of caution, they could do societal good by closing the theater doors and having people staying home. On the other, they could take precautions and let the amazing, expensive work they’d rehearsed, built sets for and toiled over for weeks and months be seen and enjoyed by people who badly needed a distraction from the outside world.

As of Thursday, March 12, when the Independent started reaching out to local theater professionals, all six shows were slated to go on as scheduled—with the aforementioned precautions.

“We are offering hand sanitizer to people who have bought tickets,” said Chuck Yates, whose Coyote StageWorks was set to open The Velocity of Autumn the next night in the company’s new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. “For those who haven’t bought tickets yet, we don’t know if they will come.

“It’s a huge financial impact. Theater is never easy, and this is particularly hard. … There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do. All of the small theaters here, like us—nobody is in a financial situation to handle this, so we are opening The Velocity of Autumn. … It’s got heart; it’s funny; it’s beautifully written. It’s perfect for our community.”

The play—about an 80-year-old artist who’s barricaded herself in her Brooklyn brownstone with Molotov cocktails (!) to keep her family from removing her—would have been a lovely distraction for people who needed it. But these are unprecedented times.

Yates called back later in the day on Thursday to let us know he’d changed his mind.

“Of course I’m disappointed,” he said. “But we will try to figure out alternative dates. Right now, we’re biding time, waiting to see what the news brings. Maybe we can do it in a few weeks or months, or maybe next season.”

Robbie Wayne, the producing artistic director at the LGBT-themed Desert Rose Playhouse, told us on Thursday he intended to continue the run of Beautiful Thing, which had opened to rave reviews the weekend before.

“You’re not given a class on how to do this. Nobody knows how to handle this, so we are learning as we go,” he said. “I’m trying to be as informed as possible about this—everyone’s trying to figure it out. We haven’t had a large number of refund requests, but we are trying to figure out how to do this—it’s a dilemma. We don’t want it to be about the money, but that has to be taken into consideration for the venue. As of right now, we are removing snacks; we offer hand sanitizers; we are scrubbing the place down; and we are telling people stay home if you don’t feel well. But we also want to keep some normalcy in our lives.

“We want to be responsible for helping to curb this outbreak … It’s a hard place to be in. I have the TV on all the time. I go with whatever my gut tells me at the end of the day, because 24 hours can change everything. It is minute by minute now, because there is so much to consider.”

Wayne’s words were spot-on: The next day, he made the decision to suspend the weekend’s shows.

“We have staff members and patrons with compromised immune systems, so I went with my conscience. There are no winners in a situation like this, unfortunately,” Wayne said.

Over at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, the same dilemma played out: After announcing on Wednesday that the “curtain will go up!” on the weekend’s opening of—yes, really—How to Survive an Apocalypse, the next day, executive director Shawn Abramowitz and artistic director Jerome Elliott announced the show would not go on, at least for opening weekend.

“We are so proud of our team for their magnificent work on this play,” they said. “This was a hard decision, but we feel it is the right call during this unsettled and confusing time.

That meant that as of Friday night, three of the six shows were still open: Palm Canyon Theatre’s The Pajama Game, and the opening night for Desert Theatreworks’ The Producers went on as scheduled, along with CVRep’s The City of Conversation.

“We have scrubbed the theater down,” Celona said on Thursday, March 12. “We have a cleaning crew coming in after every performance. We have purchased professional wall-mounted sanitizing dispensers for the lobby and the theater area. Our theater is 208 seats, so we are less than the 250-seat gatherings that are being cancelled, and we are about 50 to 60 percent of capacity. The bottom line is, when our accountants say we have to close, we close, and when the county of Riverside says we have to close, we close.”

The morning after those Friday-night shows, both Palm Canyon Theatre and Desert Theatreworks announced they would go dark. CVRep followed two days later.

“I hope if someone has a ticket to a live theater event, and the show is closed due to the virus, that they would consider donating the money to the theater instead of asking for a refund,” Coyote StageWorks’ Yates said. “This is the kind of thing that kills arts organizations.”

Published in Theater and Dance

Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing was first performed in London back in 1993, when revealing one’s homosexuality was much scarier, but the play’s themes of forbidden love and the struggle for self-acceptance seem just as germane today—and Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production of the play is thought-provoking and effective.

The story centers around 16-year-old Jamie and his neighbor Ste, also 16, who reside in a row of flats in Thamesmead, a working-class area of South London. Jamie lives with his brassy bartender mother, Sandra, and her current boyfriend, Tony, an artist several years her junior. Ste’s family is quite dysfunctional—his brother is a drug addict, and his angry, alcoholic father is physically abusive. Jamie’s other neighbor is the quirky Leah, who has been expelled from school and now spends her days endlessly listening to Mama Cass records. Ste often stays the night at Jamie’s flat to avoid his father’s beatings, sleeping “top-to-tail” in Jamie’s small bed. On one such occasion, the two teens share a tentative kiss—which unleashes a flood of intense, conflicting emotions for both of them.

Will Jamie and Ste face their fears, embrace their sexual identities and dare to embark on a relationship? Has Sandra finally found her “Mr. Right” in Tony? Does Leah step out of her Mama Cass-obsessed fog and enroll in a new school?

Director Robbie Wayne has assembled a fine cast, and coaxes strong performances from all. Noah Arce is excellent as the shy, awkward Jamie. He is struggling with typical teen issues like school bullying and an often-tense relationship with his mother, in addition to his growing romantic feelings for Ste. His performance is touching and effective.

As the studlier Ste, Robert Garcia is terrific. He, too, is dealing with a lot of angst. Constantly on alert for another pummeling from his father, he’s also grappling with questions about his sexuality. Is what he feels for Jamie just friendship, or could it be something more?

Christine Tringali Nunes brings grit and humor to the role of Sandra. She’s a hard-working single mother loves who loves her son and tries to understand him; their relationship is complicated and volatile. Her love life is unsettled as well: Though her current beau, Tony, is eager to please, he doesn’t quite seem to fit the bill for Sandra.

As Tony, Brent Anderson holds his own. A nice guy and creative type who really does care for Sandra, he’s been thrust into the midst of a lot of family and neighborhood drama.

Rounding out the cast is Ceisley Jefferson as Leah, who tries to numb the pain of adolescent loneliness and exclusion from school with unspecified drugs and the constant blare of Cass Elliot. Leah is sassy and fun. In addition to strong acting chops, Jefferson possesses an excellent singing voice.

Maintaining a believable working-class English accent throughout a two-hour production is not easy, and for the most part, this cast nails it, though there were a few spots here and there during which the accent (or a lack of volume) made lines hard to understand.

The technical facets of Beautiful Thing are quite good—particularly the set. Desert Rose’s new, expanded stage works quite well—and Mama Cass’ greatest hits sprinkled through the play really move it along.

As the valley’s only fully LGBTQ theater, Desert Rose Playhouse is known for choosing gay-themed, edgy material—and Beautiful Thing does not disappoint. No matter what one’s sexual orientation, we can all relate to the anxiety of adolescence, and the magic of young love.

Beautiful Thing is raw, real and intimate—and isn’t that what live theater is all about?

Beautiful Thing is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Yee haw, little dogies! If’n you’re hankering for a Western-flavored good time, slap on yer best bib and tucker, and mosey on down to the Desert Rose Playhouse! Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch are a-waitin’ on you, buckaroos!

The sold-out house of patrons for the opening weekend of this world premiere sashayed into the theater in high-falutin’ denim, Stetsons and boots. The mood is immediately set by the piped-in sounds of great country Western music from stars like Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.

Interestingly, the stage and house at DRP have been completely reimagined for this production. The now-sprawling stage area features different levels that include a saloon, a set of stairs and even a hoosegow. (That’s “jail” to you whippersnappers.) A dividing curtain, which can be drawn across the stage at an angle, creates a backdrop that hosts small scenes. The reason for this is explained by playwright Andy Halliday in the printed program: The play was not originally envisioned like this; it was “cut down” for the DRP production, which changed the timing. Each scene transitions into the next without pause—which is actually how Shakespearean plays were originally enacted. This speeds up the play, and the flow allows the entire show to be filled with mini-scenes that keep the action moving nicely.

So here’s the premise: What if the Old West was … all gay? Why not? In this imaginary town of Snake Pit Gulch, the writer has mixed the classic stereotypes of the Drunken Sherriff, the Sneaky Villain, the Fresh and Innocent Farm Boys, the Young Troublemaker, and so on—and then thrown in a visiting Femme Fatale. It’s a recipe for pure melodrama. But gay, as one may expect from the valley’s only LGBTQ playhouse.

And it’s a musical—with lyrics by CJ Critt and music by Frank Schiro. The musical director is hardworking Jaci Davis—in an outrageous mustache and bowler hat—who not only serves as the accompanist for all the songs, but even doubles as the bartender in one scene! Alas, the mic-ed sound of the keyboard sometimes overpowers the singers.

It doesn’t take long for the audience to realize that only a couple of the members of the enthusiastic seven-man cast are trained singers. Well … can you imagine doing the casting for this play? With a title like this one, the crucial emphasis was obviously on musculature rather than vocal skills. So the singing voices are mostly not … operatic, let’s say.

Kai Brothers plays Sam Cantrell, a naïve farm boy. Brothers is an actor who knows how to use his bright eyes to his advantage, and seems at home in this role. His big brother, Evan Cantrell, is played by Clay Sales, a professional dancer and bodybuilder (those quads!) with a degree in computer science—go figure—whose flawless skin and shaven head drew much approval from the audience. The boys head off to Snake Pit Gulch, where they meet such characters as the sheriff called Wheezy, played by Tom Warrick. Warrick plays Wheezy as an alcoholic who vows to quit drinking. The goal is to solve the mystery of a vanished deed to a gold mine—and the next time we see him, he is suffering a ghastly case of alcohol withdrawals. Warrick is a rare breed—an actor whose innate confidence allows him to play silly comedy, and who is fearless about appearing ridiculous. That’s a gift.

“Topeka” is the nickname of another of the town’s characters, played by Rob Rota. He is very believable as a flirt and a troublemaker who claims to have been raised by wolves and who rationalizes his promiscuity on the basis that he has never experienced true love. He gets to do a song with lots of double entendres. Michael Pacas devours the role of Big Jack Slade, the mandatory villain, although he modifies the usual nastiness of such roles and instead plays him as more of a slick, crooked businessman—in superbly toned shape. Mark Fearnow plays Scully Jones, a character who keeps popping up unexpectedly, along with a couple of other roles. Fearnow quickly establishes himself as a professional singer; his versatility and powerful, beautifully managed voice are refreshing.

But it’s Anthony Nannini who dominates the show. He plays Daisy LaFleur, a Pinkerton detective who goes undercover—in drag, of course. Wearing the most fantastic huge-skirted gowns and thigh-high boots, he switches hair colors from a ratty red to a prettily coiffed blonde, and handles his costumes smoothly. With his signature athleticism, Nannini bounces and leaps amazingly around the stage, and survives countless pratfalls on cue.

The play is directed and choreographed by Robbie Wayne, and much is made of the Gay Rodeo Association lending items and props to this play—including, on opening night, an actual horse! The legendary Phil Murphy again lends his considerable skills to the lighting design, cleverly creating smooth transitions between scenes. Matt Torres is the costume designer, deftly handling a multitude of enormous challenges—mostly decisions about the amount of skin shown.

The story is at times a bit confusing, but that doesn’t slow anybody down. There are misunderstandings and switches in the relationships—but it’s not about the plot, because that’s not what you came for. You came to laugh and see them thar muscles, right? You won’t be disappointed.

As one of the characters exclaims: Holy corn pone!

Those Musclebound Cowboys From Snake Pit Gulch is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season in high style with a return of Christmas With the Crawfords, created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. Artistic director Robbie Wayne is hoping to repeat the successful run the production enjoyed last season—and if the opening night audience’s reaction is any indication, his hopes are definitely being met.

Most of last year’s cast has returned to reprise their roles in this fun holiday romp, ably directed by Kam Sisco, who also plays Joan Crawford.

One of the most impressive elements of this show is Matthew McLean’s spectacular set. It’s Hollywood glam, holiday-style—and the sophisticated blend of white, silver and blue is simply stunning. It made me want to grab a glass of champagne and join the party myself. Desert Rose has always built outstanding sets, but this one is particularly superb.

The story revolves around a live radio broadcast on Christmas Eve, in 1944, at the Brentwood home of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford. (The play is based on an actual Christmas Eve broadcast that took place in 1949.) Having been labeled “box office poison” by MGM, Joan is desperately trying to revive her film career. Insulted that she must take a screen test to land the lead in the Warner Bros. film Mildred Pierce, Crawford has enlisted her friend Hedda Hopper (Timm McBride) to set up the radio interview. Later that evening, Jack Warner himself is scheduled to arrive to talk business.

Children Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Christine Tringali Nunes) are crucial parts of the perfect family portrait Crawford is attempting to portray. Dressed matching red plaid outfits, the two have clearly been drilled on what to do and say. As the evening wears on, however, Christina’s disdain for her “Mommy Dearest” becomes apparent. Baby Jane Hudson (also played by Timm McBride) is now working as Crawford’s servant, and the animosity between the two women has not waned a bit.

As the broadcast gets under way, surprise guests begin showing up at the door. Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda (Ed Lefkowitz), Mae West and Ethel Merman (Stan Jenson), Gloria Swanson (Timothy McIntosh), Judy Garland (Anthony Nannini) and even the Andrews Sisters (a mix of the aforementioned) arrive, having gotten lost trying to find neighbor Gary Cooper’s home. Cooper is throwing a large holiday bash—to which Joan has not been invited. The snub, and the competition for attention, only fuel Joan’s anger and insecurity.

The performances here are uniformly stellar. There’s no question that everyone onstage is having a ball, which certainly ramps up the fun for the audience. Sisco’s Crawford is perfect. His long legs enhance the effect of the splendid gowns he wears throughout the show, and the over-the top wig, huge red lips and ever-present evil sneer are perfect. Sisco truly embodies the desperation and bitterness of the fading Hollywood star Crawford was at that time.

It is hard to believe that McBride plays both Baby Jane Hudson and Hedda Hopper; the transformation into both characters is complete. When he makes his entrance as Baby Jane—dressed all in pink and white, and sporting blonde pigtails—it is impossible not to laugh. His bit on the phone with the local grocery store ordering booze for the evening’s festivities is terrific, as is his version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” His performance as PR maven Hedda Hopper is equally strong—all business, in an appropriate tweed suit.

McIntosh’s Gloria Swanson is fabulous. Garbed in black chiffon, he nails Swanson’s facial expressions and far-off stare. One of the marks of a true professional actor is what they do onstage when another actor has the spotlight. Staying in character when one is in the background is crucial—and not always easy. McIntosh is Gloria Swanson every second he’s onstage … except, of course, when he is one of the Andrews Sisters. He, Jenson and Nannini bring the trio back to life early in the show, with a rousing number about Hanukkah in Santa Monica.

Jenson, who also plays both Mae West and Ethel Merman, is a hoot. The juxtaposition of his blonde Mae West wig and pink feathered gown with his beard stubble and low growl is quite funny. He has great comic timing and is a joy to watch.

Lefkowitz also successfully juggles two roles: Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda. Though his Miranda is decked out in loud colors, huge earrings and a fruit-bedecked turban, he worries that his dress is too plain: “I feel like a stripped weasel!”

Martin (Christina) and Nunes (Christopher) are splendid. As the only female in the show, Nunes was tapped to play Crawford’s son, and nails his wide-eyed innocence. As Christina, Martin really makes us feel the girl’s growing resentment toward her controlling mother.

Every actor in Christmas With the Crawfords is amazing, but if there is a standout in the cast, it has to be Nannini as Judy Garland. You simply cannot take your eyes off him. Dressed in a black-sequined tux jacket, fishnets, dance pants and heels, with Nannini perfectly capturing her gestures and facials expressions, it’s not to believe he isn’t actually Judy. He nearly steals the show with his lip-quivering version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

If Bruce Weber and Matt Torres do not win Desert Theatre League awards for best costuming for this show, there is no justice in the world. The hair and make-up are fabulous as well.

The only minor flaw in this production came at the end: The timing and intensity of the dramatic yet campy finale seemed a tad muted. I would like to see a bigger bang at the end, and perhaps a faster blackout. I am betting that will happen as the run continues.

Congrats to Desert Rose Playhouse for knocking it out of the park once again: Christmas With the Crawfords is pure fun.

Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the run time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Americans have always turned to entertainment to get them through tough times like recessions, wars and political upheaval. Live theater, movies and music soothe our souls and offer a respite from a sometimes-harsh reality.

Given what’s happening in our country (and the world) presently, pleasant diversions seem more important than ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has just the ticket: Its production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie Die! is raucous, raunchy and hilarious.

The play was first produced in Los Angeles in 1999, with a film version released in 2003. Set in 1960s Hollywood, the play tells the story of aging, washed-up singer Angela Arden (Loren Freeman), who—although her voice is shot—is planning a comeback.

Her marriage to movie mogul Sol Sussman (Dr. David Brendel) is a sham. He’s battling major digestive issues, perhaps brought on by owing money to the mob. Of course, Angela has a lover on the side: unemployed TV actor/tennis instructor Tony Parker (Rob Rota), who is famous for his physical endowment. Daughter Edith (Melanie Blue) can’t stand her mother, but has an incestuous attachment to daddy. Gay son Lance (Matt E. Allen) has just been cast as Ado Annie in his college’s production of Oklahoma!—but he has come home after being expelled for burning down the gym in an anti-war protest. Lorraine Williamson is the booze-swilling, Bible-spouting maid, Bootsie Carp, who has a thing for Sol.

Without giving too much away, the plot twists involve murder, seduction, mistaken identity, LSD trips and giant suppositories. The play moves along at a fast clip, and the laughs are nonstop. The story is campy and definitely over-the-top—and this production excels, because the performances are uniformly stellar. There is no weak link. That, as any director knows, starts with wise casting, and Robbie Wayne has put together an amazing ensemble here.

Freeman is clearly the star of the show. In a flaming red wig, heavy makeup and gorgeous gowns, his Angela sashays across the stage with total command. Hearkening back to the movie divas of yesteryear, his portrayal has just a touch of Joan Crawford, but his low, gravelly voice is more reminiscent of an aging Lucille Ball. His comic timing is impeccable, and he tosses off insults with great aplomb. He describes daughter Edith’s micro-miniskirt as “two inches shy of giving away the whole candy store,” and calls Bootsie “a floor-scrubbing old hag.” Freeman is a fine actor and could offer classes in the art of being a drag queen.

Sol is the least-flamboyant character in the play, yet Brendel holds his own with the rest of the cast. His disgust with his cheating wife and his flirtations with his Lolita-like daughter are quite memorable, as is the suppository scene. (No further details will be given.)

As the spoiled, daddy-obsessed Edith, Blue is fabulous. I’ve seen Blue in multiple productions, and she never disappoints—she is a superb comic actress. The audience roots for her, whether she’s inappropriately sitting in her father’s lap or platting her mother’s murder.

Allen’s portrayal of the effeminate Lance is spot-on. In a fringed vest, no shirt and short shorts, he perfectly embodies the mommy-loving, daddy-hating, shy yet lustful college student. The implication is that he’s a bit off mentally due to drugs Angela took while he was in utero … which makes us love him all the more. When all hell breaks loose, Allen’s histrionic scenes with Blue are priceless.

Rota knocks it out of the park as promiscuous tennis coach Tony Parker. Strutting around the stage in skin-tight pants that leave nothing to the imagination, he seems to lust after anything that moves. He has an extremely expressive face and great charisma.

Williamson’s Bootsie is terrific. After 25 years as the Sussmans’ maid, she’s seen it all. With a secret crush on Sol and a determination to see Richard Nixon in the White House, she turns to the Bible (and a flask of bourbon hidden in her uniform) for answers. Williamson’s wry, understated line delivery is perfect.

Wayne deserves congratulations for guiding these pros to top-notch performances. Special mention should also go to Bruce Weber for an outstanding set, and Bruce Weber, Ruth Braun and Brandon Cincotta for costumes and hair design, which are crucial in this show. The mood music is just right, while Phil Murphy, Duke Core and Robbie Wayne for handle the extensive sound and lighting cues (including a massive thunderstorm) with great skill.

Desert Rose Playhouse has earned a strong reputation for fun, campy and risqué, yet professional theatrical productions. Die, Mommie Die! is no exception. It will take you on a wild, entertaining ride—and give you a welcome break from the real world for a couple of hours.

Die, Mommie Die! is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the run time is about two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Loren Freeman is one of the best actors in our valley—and now he’s making his directorial debut with the Desert Rose Playhouse’s summer production of Ruthless! The Musical.

So here’s what is wrong with the show: Absolutely nothing! This is a not-to-be-missed romp, with a high energy level that will leave you wrung out from laughing, music that will delight you, and extreme hilarity.

I asked Freeman how he felt about directing his first show. “It’s a great excuse to boss everybody around,” he confided, “if you’re that kind of person.” Well, that is beyond modesty, because everyone in the cast clearly wears the stamp of his famous style. He has a matchless gift for over-the-top work, and has uniformly inspired these actors with his special comedic flair.

It is a show about obsessive showbiz ambition; can there be any juicier topic? The original Los Angeles production of Ruthless! ran for an extraordinary eight months back in 1993, and guess who starred in it? You got it: Loren Freeman himself. Voila!

The open set that greets the audience, designed by Bruce Weber, is a living room done in mid-century modernism classic, with crisp whites, cool blues and minty greens—a classic home of the ’50s. The lady of the house—in pearls, apron and a baby-blue polka dot shirtdress—is bizarrely Stepford Wife-like. This is Christine Tringali Nunes, perfectly playing the role of Judy Denmark with a brainwashed or maybe tranquilizer-addled sweetness—but this actress cleverly slips us a hint of other moods to come.

Her darling daughter, Tina, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Schmelling, wears identical polka dots, a crinoline and tap shoes; she introduces herself in a number that reveals a confident soprano voice, fine dance skills and the palest sky-blue eyes ever. Her heart-shaped face can instantly transmogrify from child-like sweetness into that of a devilish brat or a sullen rebellious youth; it’s a fabulous face that bears watching in the future.

The kid has talent—and she’s ambitious! Although still in school, Tina aspires to greatness. And that’s where Sylvia St. Croix—extravagantly and fabulously played by the theater’s artistic director, Robbie Wayne, in drag—comes in. Her amazing wardrobe, also courtesy of Bruce Weber, echoes Hedda and Louella and those overdressed Hollywood ladies of the ’50s. You can’t take your eyes off her. She is the self-appointed agent/guardian/manager of little Tina, swaggering around under gigantic hats, huge diamonds worn in the daytime, and wild colors in animal patterns. Her lipstick alone is terrifying.

Oh! This show is a musical, and the multitalented Steven Smith once again provides flawless music direction … plus he accompanies each performance as a one-person orchestra on keyboard. The songs are very funny, and the sound is beautifully balanced thanks to Adrian Niculescu and Miguel Gomez. There is no choreographer listed; evidently, the dance steps are the self-invented brainchild of the actors and/or Loren Freeman.

This show being a musical explains the presence of musician/vocalist Dana Adkins in the cast. A longtime Valley fave, she plays Miss Thorn, Tina’s teacher—everyone’s worst nightmare of a schoolmarm, with the nose-perched reading glasses, pencils poked into her beehive hairdo, ghastly sensible shoes, lips pursed in perennial disapproval, and the pointiest eyebrows imaginable. Her vocal range takes her from a hilarious falsetto to low growls—dangerous voice use for anyone except an experienced singer like Adkins, who manages it breezily.

Jaci Davis plays the theater critic (ahem!) Lita Encore with jaw-dropping gusto. She serves up a fascinating silver-haired character who sports one of the most powerful singing voices anywhere, demonstrating a masterful vibrato and an edgy style that appears effortless. Her energy is incandescent, and she simmers with a stunning stage presence.

One of the greatest challenges (and most fun) in acting is playing multiple roles in a production, and this play gives Leanna Rogers an opportunity to showcase her impressive chops with two wildly different characters. First, Louise is a peculiar schoolgirl aspiring to grab the lead in Pippi Longstocking, and then Rogers switches to play Eve, a jealousy-consumed secretary/assistant to a successful Broadway star. She changes everything from posture to hair, makeup and vocal choices between the characters, and yet manages to bring a tinge of brief sadness to both roles.

But there are laughs everywhere in this production. Our audience applauded frequently and enthusiastically, and roared at the punchlines. (Actually, a couple of people nearly lost it, so be warned.) The second-act set takes us to a Manhattan apartment, featuring the glitziest of multihued drapes, the purplest possible shade of settee cushions, and the fanciest telephone that ever rang.

This show involves several different styles of comedy, meaning the range for each of these actors can be fully explored. It is rare to find material that provides this kind of opportunity, and these six talented thespians are no doubt grateful for the chance to show us what they can do with the music of Marvin Laird and a book by Joel Paley. Yet the evenness of the production has to be credited to Freeman’s eagle eyes and his sense of timing.

Enormous kudos to whoever did the casting for this play; the selection of these players is flawless. The lighting is designed by the incomparable Phil Murphy, and it can’t get better than that, thanks also to lighting tech Duke Core. The temperature in the Desert Rose Playhouse is very comfortable (not like certain movie theaters determined to freeze us out with running noses). What a joy to see a live show in the summertime—and you are absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this one. It has some really great moments and truly unforgettable lines.

This is a directorial debut that was evidently long overdue. Not only has Freeman pulled hilarious and layered performances out of his actors, but the stage blocking is beautifully balanced; the tension continues to mount through surprising plot twists right to the outrageous endings; and the overall atmosphere of silliness and send-up never stops tickling the audience. The only way this show could possibly be improved would be to see Loren Freeman himself back up on the stage along with his fabulous cast!

Ruthless! The Musical is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 14, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Admit it: You think it’s funny when a man puts on a dress.

Well, you’ve got company—and Desert Rose Playhouse is smart enough to know that. Hence, Pageant, the company’s final show of the 2018-2019 season. It’s guys in drag competing to win the title of “Miss Glamouresse”—and the hilarity builds right up to the final scene, which contains more belly laughs than any show in recent years. It only runs until May 12, so we strongly suggest that you run, not walk, to see this show—whether you’re in high heels or not. The packed house at our presentation—containing way more ladies than we’ve ever seen in a DRP audience—would agree.

The open stage that greets you—designed by Bruce Weber—is pink, pink, pink. This is the signature color of the “Glamouresse” brand, and your eyes will water from 50 shades of pink during the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission!). Pale pink ostrich feathers, Elsa Schiaparelli shocking-pink costumes, Pepto-Bismol pink—it’s everywhere. Brace yourself. Phil Murphy has even used pink lighting on the filmy curtains.

Robbie Wayne, the show’s director and Desert Rose’s producing artistic director, leaps onto the stage to welcome you—and joyously admits that this show has no “message.” It was just chosen because of its laughs. How wonderful!

So, bring on the girls. This pageant presents six semifinal competitors from various regions of the USA, such as Miss West Coast, Miss Industrial Northeast and Miss Bible Belt. Can you imagine such titles? Well, why am I surprised? In my home town there was a contest for Miss Potash, for heaven’s sake …

The competition’s emcee is Frankie Cavalier, played by Michael Pacas, who strides onto the stage wearing what might be the most frightening toupee in all of show biz. He fabulously combines the smarm of so many professional emcees with flawless timing and relentless cheeriness in the face of imminent disaster. Just keeping the names and titles straight must be exhausting, but Pacas’ energy never flags. He introduces the girls, who appear in all shapes and sizes, proudly wearing their title banners. Our judges, chosen from the audience, sit alertly up front. Consulting your program will only confuse you, as the actors’ headshots bear zero resemblance to the female flamboyance that you see on the stage.

Miss Great Plains, for example, is played by Larry Martin. Miss Industrial Northeast is created by Noah Arce. Timm McBride plays Miss Texas. Miss Bible Belt is Ben Reece. Miss Deep South is played by Miss Rusty Waters, and Miss West Coast is played by Jersey Shore, aka Brian Keith Scott.

Three shades of blonde, two shades of brunette, one auburn—and there they are.

Through the competitions, we get to know them personally. The emcee rattles off their qualifications and qualities (Miss West Coast, for example, is “Karma,” a double Gemini with a past including self-improvement techniques and tie-dying) throughout the various contests, such as evening gown, spokesmodel, fitness, talent cavalcade, philosophy, and—brace yourself—swimsuit.

You can instantly see the opportunities for merriment. My favorite part was the talent competition, during which these hugely talented actors toiled with their extremely creative director to create a jaw-dropping segment. Wait until you see what stuff they strut … and there are some extraordinary moments, such as Miss Bible Belt, wearing a flaming-red choir robe over a gold sequined gown, wailing a song called “I’m Bankin’ on Jesus,” or Miss Industrial Northeast on roller skates playing an accordion. Seriously!

There is no program credit given for costumes, but they are many and varied, and all are fantastic. Perhaps they came from the actors’ own closets. Some quick changes are required—another opportunity for laughs. There is no choreography credit, either, though there is dance aplenty, with some cute routines. One change suggestion: From most of the seats, when an actor lies down on the stage, he becomes invisible. It makes the neck-craning audience—except those in the front row—feel as if they are missing something, possibly important. The only real criticism is that the music, directed by Jaci Davis, was too loud, and drowned out the actors at times.

The competitors themselves select a “Girlfriend” award, like Miss Congeniality in most beauty pageants. A running gag throughout is their “spokesmodel” competition, in which the girls are forced to shamelessly shill for “Glamouresse,” which turns out to be a big-business brand in the field of beauty products, by creating a commercial. And the surprise guest who arrives at the end—well, let’s not ruin it for you.

The comedy here varies from slapstick to intellectual to tricky, so there is literally something for everyone in this play. Although I have had to stop slapping language warnings on reviews since four-letter words in theater have become so ubiquitous, we must compliment this show on not taking the cheap shots—there isn’t one objectionable word in the script. Amazing! It CAN be done. There are a couple of (terribly funny) adult-humor sexual references, but you could basically take anyone to see this show.

With drag queens, it’s all about nuance. It’s not just popping on a wig and makeup and a dress. To really be a standout requires infinite subtlety and much careful study. Drag is an art form dear to my heart, because when I was starting my performing career, I was invited to be in several shows at a drag club (they introduced me as “a real girl”)—and I learned a LOT from the queens of drag. This show reveals incredibly varied, individualized and thoughtful performances by all these entertainers, and it is a play I would love to see again.

So, who wins the crown? That rollicking finale alone is worth the price of admission.

Pageant is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 12, with a special show at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The View UpStairs, the latest production at Desert Rose Playhouse, proves once again that the theater is in good hands with new producing artistic director Robbie Wayne.

Given our current political climate, where bigotry and hatred of those who are “different” seems more blatant and accepted than it’s been in years, this musical—the book, music and lyrics are by Max Vernon—is something we all need to see. The story centers around a 1973 arson attack at a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that killed 32 people. Up until the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, it was the worst mass murder of gay Americans in our country’s history.

As the show opens, we’re transported back to the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the horrific crime. Set designer Bruce Weber has outdone himself here: The place is fabulously gaudy, tacky and filled with bling—topped off with a large nude portrait of a reclining Burt Reynolds behind the bar. Some audience members actually sit at tables onstage, making attendees feel like we’re part of the action. The lounge is a place where gay men could be themselves, sing, dance and escape from a society not yet ready to accept them.

The story soon fast-forwards to the present day. After several unsuccessful years in New York, aspiring fashion designer Wes (Van Angelo) has returned to New Orleans and purchased the rundown building which formerly housed the UpStairs Lounge, hoping to turn it into a boutique. One evening, Wes is transported back in time, and the characters who once frequented the lounge are all around him. At first weirded out by it all, Wes eventually goes with the flow, and quickly develops a strong attraction to the tall, handsome hustler Patrick (Matt E. Allen).

Underscoring all the action is piano man Buddy (Ben Reece), an Elton John wannabe who’s still in the closet about his homosexuality. Club owner and bartender Henri (Ceisley Jefferson) keeps an eye on things, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Patrons include the homeless Dale (Jacob Samples); Puerto Rican drag performer Freddy (Anthony Nannini), and his mother, Inez (Siobhan Velarde); and the aging, flamboyant Willie (DarRand Hall). Rounding out the group is Rita Mae (Ruth Braun), who leads prayer services for the Metropolitan Community Church at the bar, trying to establish allies in the community by soliciting donations for crippled children.

Director/choreographer Robbie Wayne has put together an excellent ensemble cast; there is not one weak link. Even in brief appearances as a cop in both the past and present day, Miguel Arballo is memorable.

Reece makes Buddy’s regret over his failed music career, conflict about his sexuality and continued lust for Patrick (after a brief fling) palpable. Jefferson is terrific as proprietor Henri, exhibiting a great combination of sass and soul.

As drag queen Freddy/Aurora, Nannini oozes charisma. His drag number, “Completely Overdone,” is fantastic, and the warmth between him and his doting mother (the fabulous Velarde) is genuine. Inez has totally accepted her son’s life choices—“I think gay men are more fun, anyway,” she says—and has one of the better songs, “Learn to Play Along.” Hall’s “old queen” Willie is a hoot; we cannot take our eyes off him as he minces around the stage, squeezing the drama out of every line.

Samples’ Dale is heartbreaking. Crushed and embarrassed by his poverty, he touches us all when singing “Better Than Silence.” It reminds each of us of times when we, too, have felt invisible. Equally effective is Braun as preacher Rita Mae.

In the pivotal roles of Wes and Patrick, Wayne has struck gold with Van Angelo and Matt E. Allen. Their onstage chemistry is strong, and both have excellent singing voices. The musical highlight of the night was Allen’s ballad revealing his parents’ efforts to “cure” him of his homosexuality. It was riveting, raw and authentic.

Kudos to Robbie Wayne and Ruth Braun for spot-on costumes, and musical director Jaci Davis for overseeing the pre-recorded accompaniment for the singers, which works quite well.

The only noticeable flaws on opening night were occasional projection issues and a missed note here and there—both problems likely to be remedied as the run continues.

Two things struck me as the cast took their bows on opening night. First, each character in this play seems so real—their joys, sorrows, longing for recognition and acceptance resonate with all of us. Second, sadly, is the possible deterioration of LGBT rights today. Let’s hope that this kind of theatrical experience helps people realize that deep inside, we truly are all the same.

The View UpStairs is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ah, yes, Christmas With the Crawfords … could the title sound any more Norman Rockwell-idyllic? But the very fact that Desert Rose Playhouse has chosen this play as its annual Christmas show should immediately arouse deep suspicion, because this theater has become known for twisting one’s head.

This offering, from producer and artistic director Robbie Wayne, was created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. It’s directed by Kam Sisco, Desert Rose’s managing director—and it is a romp. It turns out “The Crawfords” means the cobbled-together family of Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, so we are catapulted back to the early days of the movies. The play gives actors multiple opportunities for outrageous costumes and imitations of famous entertainers—all them happily in drag, flashing around in festively colored feathers, jewels, capes and some unusual accessories.

The more you know about those days of film and the fashions of the time, the more you’ll get out of the show. Oh … did I mention it’s a musical? All those familiar seasonal songs are trotted out for the cast members to belt out solos and combos and even harmonies with gusto. The costumes are wayyyyyyy over the top, with Joan Crawford sporting the most astonishing shoulder pads you’ll ever see—not to mention her red platform high heels, for which even a word like “awesome” fails. Toni Molano’s wigs give the actors opportunities for lots of delightful variety, and add extra fashion statements to the comedy. Phil Murphy’s lighting, as always, creates the proper pace and the mood changes. Kudos to the music director Jaci Davis, choreographer Daryl J. Roth and everyone who added their various and considerable talents.

The play opens in the living room Chez Crawford. Not only does Kam Sisco direct the show; he’s onstage for nearly all of it, playing Joan Crawford—a dual job he pulls off with impressive aplomb. He gives us a Crawford with layers of interpretation, from the frustrated and fearful actress whose career is skidding toward its end (fired by MGM Studio!), to the bizarre and sometimes even abusive mother we learned about in the tell-all book Mommie Dearest, to a suggestion of maybe a little alcohol abuse. She’s certainly feeling some pressure, as she is anxiously awaiting an interview with Jack Warner of Warner Bros., which she hopes will revive her flagging career, as she is now reduced to playing an extra, sneaking in at rival RKO Studio.

Since it’s Christmas Eve, gossip-queen journalist Hedda Hopper (played with relish by Jacob Samples) has decided to broadcast live on the radio from the Crawford home. The children, Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Ruth Braun), are expected to be charming and well-behaved under Crawford’s harsh rule. Joan’s sister Jane Hudson, also played by Samples, has shown up like a bad penny to help fry everyone’s minds—yet she vanishes just in time to reappear as Hopper before you can even say “quick change.”

But the neighbors next door are hosting a high-profile party, and many of Hollywood’s brightest stars wander into the Crawford domicile by mistake. Judy Garland, played by Anthony Nannini, drops in and stays, giving us a skillful interpretation of the singer in a mellower mood than usual—with terrific fishnet-clad gams and that man’s-suit-jacket look which became one of her most memorable outfits. Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell played by Ed Lefkowitz, shows up with Samba-dancing feet and a hilarious accent. He also shows up as slacks-clad and lock-jawed Katharine Hepburn, and can you possibly imagine two more different ladies? It’s a great stretch for any actor to tackle.

Sex-symbol Mae West briefly slithers in, played by Stan Jenson—and he, too, pulls off an impressive transformation, because we next see him as the dynamic and powerful Broadway/film star Ethel Merman. We would have loved to have seen more use made of Jensen’s amazing bass-toned voice. Tim McIntosh very nearly steals the show as the weird and intensely self-obsessed Gloria Swanson, whom you’ll remember from her dramatic and unforgettable Sunset Boulevard, spouting those immortal lines you will recognize. Then there are the three singing sisters you’ll know, LaVerne, Patty and Maxene, lost en route to perform at a USO show in their cute little faux uniforms and with their hairdos tucked into snoods … courtesy of Jenson, McIntosh and a very flirty-eyed Nannini.

Chaos ensues. But the music never stops, despite being punctuated by some delicious cattiness and misbehaving. The comedy styles juggle between parody, irony, drag humor and some good-old hamming. There’s even a salute to Hanukkah, with a dreidel song bearing the unforgettable title “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” It kind of turns into a revue with all of these performances … plus the fact that there is precious little plot in this script. (“Surviving the day” seems to be at the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list, giving the wacko proceedings a very subtle undercurrent of desperation.)

This show is shorter than usual for Desert Rose—just about 70 minutes, with no intermission, and it moves along quickly. The producer has now added Thursday shows to the lineup, at 7 p.m. It’s a great idea to spread the Christmas cheer with the choice of an early show. I guess we should also give Christmas With the Crawfords a language warning, but few plays these days can escape having one, so I’m not going to bother with it any more unless the vocabulary is particularly vile—and here, it is not.

Enjoy this fun play—and, hey, Merry Christmas!

Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Life is all about change, and there have been some major changes at the Desert Rose Playhouse this season—all of which bode well for the theater’s future.

After years of putting on excellent, edgy productions, founder and artistic director Jim Strait and his partner, producer Paul Taylor, have retired and handed over the reins to Robbie Wayne (producing artistic director) and Kam Sisco (managing director).

In addition, a collaboration with Streetbar has allowed Desert Rose to open a small bar in the lobby which was previously unused and hidden by a curtain. Now patrons can sit at small tables and enjoy a cocktail or a soda before the show and at intermission.

Wayne has wisely chosen Nathan Sanders’ Southern Gothic tale The Sugar Witch as this season’s opening production. With Halloween just weeks away, the spooky tone of the play—featuring ghosts, witches, murder and eerie music—seems just right.

The story is set in the fictitious swampland town of Sugar Bean, Fla. A curse has been placed on the Bean family, stemming from a deadly flood in 1928. (The incident has overtones similar to some recent natural disasters.) Residing in the modern-day ramshackle Bean home are Sisser (Leanna Rodgers), her younger brother Moses (Jacob Samples) and Annabelle (Kimberly Cole), the last of the sugar witches, a surrogate mother to the Bean siblings.

Sisser has eaten herself into morbid obesity and is now confined to a wheelchair. She is also clearly mentally ill. When one of her beloved pet palmetto bugs dies, she demands that her brother bury it in the front yard with great ceremony.

Nice-guy Moses is a car mechanic who tries to keep things under control in the midst of his sister’s craziness and Annabelle’s talk of curses. Moses is being pursued romantically by local girl Ruth Ann Meeks (April Mejia), who pesters him at his auto shop, trying desperately to get his attention. Another customer, funeral-home manager Hank Hartley (Kelly Peak), has also set his sights on Moses, though in a much subtler way.

As the play opens, Ruth Ann has braved the nearby swamp to arrive at the Bean house and is looking for Moses, who is not there. She tangles verbally with Sisser, who is sitting on the front porch in her wheelchair, eating sweets. Convinced that Sisser is lying about Moses not being around, Ruth Ann barges into the house in search of him. It is a big mistake. To give away more of the plot would spoil the chilling effect for the theater-goer.

The performances here are all top-notch. Wayne has cast The Sugar Witch quite well, which is half the battle for a director.

Last seen in Desert Rose’s Women Behind Bars, Cole is riveting as Annabelle. Her affection for Sisser and Moses is clear, as is her loyalty to “her people” and her respect for the powers she apparently possesses as the last of the sugar witches. Her attempts to lift the curse her grandmother placed on the Beans are heartfelt. Her performance combines the perfect mix of creepiness, wit and humor. When showing off a mummified creature she keeps in a glass box to the visiting Hank, she laments, “People just ain’t interested in flyin’ cats the way they used to be.”

Samples is affable and sympathetic as Moses. He’s the younger brother we’d all like to have. His devotion to Sisser, his frustration over being stuck in a small swamp town, and his attraction to Hank all ring true.

Rodgers is terrific as the bloated and dangerously demented Sisser. Though she is clearly engulfed in a fat suit, after a while, we accept that the excess is flesh is all really hers. Sometimes quietly staring off into the distance, sometimes emitting blood-curdling screams, Rodgers leaves no doubt that Sisser is deeply disturbed.

As the spoiled, pushy Ruth Ann, April Mejia is quite good. She has a great stage presence and imbues her character with such impertinence that it almost feels as if she brings her violent come-uppance on herself.

Kelly Peak’s Hank is extraordinarily likable. When his lust for Moses gets him roped into the insanity of the Bean family curse, the audience is rooting for him to somehow come out of it unscathed.

In the small role of Ruth Ann’s brother, Tim McIntosh is quite effective.

There were a few minor line flubs (not unexpected on opening night), but the actors quickly recovered. Robbie Wayne coaxes strong performances from each cast member. Toby Griffin’s set, Phil Murphy’s lighting and Wayne’s sound are all perfect.

The Sugar Witch is spooky, dramatic, scary, sometimes funny … and fabulous. Wayne has hit it out of the park with his debut production as the new artistic director at Desert Rose Playhouse. Bravo! I can’t wait for the next one …

The Sugar Witch is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is just less than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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