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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

Believe it or not, I have 10 years of experience with female incarceration! Yes, me!

OK … it was as a weekly volunteer at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. But still …

For most of us, there is something fascinating about the behind-locked-doors aspect of prisons, as many movies and TV shows have found. Think Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Orange Is the New Black, etc. But theater about women’s prisons? There’s not much.

So it was interesting that Desert Rose Playhouse producer Paul Taylor would choose Women Behind Bars as the company’s season closer. It is advertised as a satire of the B movies of the 1950s. They are now sometimes considered “exploitation” films, but here, it is the simple story of the innocent Mary Eleanor, who has been duped into taking the fall for a crime and who lands in the Greenwich Village House of Detention in 1952.

If you are the kind of person who likes getting offended, and who enjoys being all bent out of shape when faced with four-letter words, bizarre sexual situations and some very strange people, then run, do not walk, to see this play. You’ll have the most wonderful time. For those who do have a sense of humor and will relish the exquisite timing, over-the-top melodrama and hilarious stereotypes, you will also have a wonderful time. The equal-opportunity offenses include racial epithets, abuse of all kinds, extreme cussing and vicious power struggles. So enjoy! (The program puts it more pleasantly: “Recommended for mature audiences due to language, adult situations and sexual content.”)

Playwright Tom Eyen has crafted this 90-minute (no intermission!) work as a fast-paced trip through the 1950s, ending on the New Year’s Eve that brings in 1960. The play has earned great success, running “somewhere” since 1974, continuously, including New York and Los Angeles.

The tiny stage and the enormous cast, under the directorial expertise of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, serve as a textbook example of clever stage blocking. They combine to convey the sense of claustrophobic communal living. The credits run on the back wall, just like a black-and-white movie (the ’50s, get it?), as the show opens. The scenery, by Toby Griffin, is all basic gray gray gray—a plain rocking chair and blocky benches. Costume designer Jennifer Stowe made the girls’ prison dresses all grey. However, the ladies accessorize with high heels of all kinds—and jewelry! Also, Toni Molano’s wigs provide individualization so each character stands out. Needless to say, Phil Murphy’s lighting as always creates flawless mood and scene changes. Stage manager Ben Cole wrangles the mob efficiently--and working the props in this play is no small feat, either, as you will come to appreciate, with some peculiar additions from the barnyard and the nursery.

You meet the cellmates right at the start of the show, when they are ordered to line up and identify themselves, their booking number and their crime. Here is the entire 11-member cast, alphabetically by surname:

Francesca Amari plays Ada, a complex character long departed from reality. Her basic sweetness peeks through her winged alternate life, in a multi-layered portrayal that you will not forget.

Miguel Arballo plays multiple roles, from a psychiatrist to a dream lover (nude scene alert!) to a dumb husband. His portrayals are always solid.

Melanie Blue is Guadalupe, a Puerto Rican, played with a convincing accent and attitude. She beautifully imbues her character with passion, vanity and tragedy.

Ruth Braun plays Louise, the servile matron’s assistant who grows up to surprise us with a huge turnaround arc that takes her from cringing slave to triumph.

Kimberly Cole is Jo-Jo, the only black inmate, a sweet-faced girl who unflinchingly faces her attackers, and bums cigarettes with aplomb, creating a very special and sympathetic character.

Loren Freeman owns the juicy role of the dreaded matron, Pauline. He uses his extraordinary voice and lithe physique (including lots of unusual arm work) to dominate the stage just as his cruel character dominates the convicts. A heavy, in every sense.

Deborah Harmon is Blanche, an aging Southern beauty stuck in Streetcar mode in her flight from reality, but the actress shows that Blanche’s mannered flutterings occasionally slip to reveal a bit of a dangerous and weird underside.

Adina Lawson devours the role of Granny, who has already lived in the big house for 42 years. This tiny, Bible-spouting creature mixes scripture with gutter language, creating shock and awe. She, too, deals us an unexpected surprise.

Phylicia Mason plays Mary Eleanor, a sweet flower tossed into prison who changes enormously as a result of incarceration and exposure to her cellmates. She carries the play’s theme: Locking people up creates a whole new problem.

Kam Sisco is Cheri, a wannabe Marilyn Monroe type with amazing legs, a whispery voice and a perennial pout, all useful in her career as a Hollywood-bound hooker.

Yo Younger glitters as a hard-edged, hard-voiced chain smoker with a cynical view of life. But her tight-lipped, eye-rolling character eventually reveals a soft spot.

There is a huge amount of screaming in this play, and one worries for the throats of the cast during their six-week run. This show is among the most high-energy productions ever, with constant movement, surprises and plot twists, so it will consume your attention and provide plenty of outrageous laughs. The characters are fully realized, and the plot shakeups just keep coming. The casting is just perfect, and the mix of personalities is classic.

If this show is a hit, it’ll run all summer, which has happened before at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The company’s next season opens in October, with many changes taking place—as Paul Taylor and Jim Strait ease into retirement through the next year, with Robbie Wayne taking over the company. They’ve presented the Coachella Valley with some wonderful theater.

Women Behind Bars is a play you will remember—and hopefully it’s as close as you’ll ever get to landing in the hoosegow.

Women Behind Bars is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 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 desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday out of the way, our thoughts turn to the Christmas season—and one of the special seasonal events in our valley is always Desert Rose Playhouse’s ever-innovative holiday production. This year, the choice is Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel.

Set in New York (and heaven, do you mind), it visits Manhattan in 1948—a wild postwar world of swinging nightclubs, famous restaurants, jazz and a night life that goes on until dawn. The underbelly of the town contains a second world of mobsters and molls, gambling and gunplay, cheesy shows and characters … and that’s where we find ourselves, with everyone speaking thick Manhattan-ese.

Understand that everything in this light-hearted comedy is over the top—you will find no subtle gritty-realism method acting here. It’s all for fun and for the effect, and producer Paul Taylor has assembled a cast that fully comprehends this.

The show stars the extraordinary Loren Freeman as Irish O’Flanagan, a carrot-topped nightclub singer whose miserly, selfish and mean-spirited ways earn her some flashback visits to the past, plus a glimpse of her destined future, courtesy of a guardian angel. (I know, I know—you’re already seeing the parallels with Scrooge.) The angel, Albert, is played by Robbie Wayne, who has been named a “DRP artistic associate” for his ever-growing and varied list of jobs with the group, including creating the choreography for this “musical pastiche.” As Albert, he’s a slick, pinstripe-suited and smart-mouthed former performer in trouble with God for a batch of heavenly infractions who is facing expulsion to Hades. He bargains to get back into God’s Good Books by agreeing to go down to Earth and trying to convert Irish into a being who is also worthy of admission to heaven. Which, as you’ve guessed, she currently is not.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the lead actor in this show. Everything turns on Irish O’Flanagan’s magnetism and believability, as she is in almost every scene. Loren Freeman, with his astonishing aquamarine eyes, resonant foghorn bass voice and shapely legs, brings an arsenal of skills and talents more than equal to this task. (In fact, this entire show features many great gams, both male and female—if the Desert Theatre League ever creates a category for Best Legs, this show is the, umm, hands-down winner.) A consummate professional, Freeman actually takes a pass on opportunities to react when another actor is speaking, knowing that if he does, it would draw the audience’s eye away to him … yet when he does react, it’s flawless. His New York accent is perfect, and in that whisky-baritone voice, he relishes rolling his mouth around the script’s 1940s street-slang—like “a clop on the chops,” “doll,” “jawboning” and “stooge.” Even as Irish blusters and struts, we see the vulnerability beneath the surface, and when she sings, it can break your heart. It’s a case of absolutely perfect casting.

DRP seems close to forming its own repertory company with the return to the boards of such favorite actors as Terry Huber, Cat Lyn Day, Michael Pacas, Melanie Blue and Kam Sisco. Also included are some welcome new faces: Ruth Braun, James Owens and Karen Schmitt. A growing company is a healthy company, and they all get to fill the stage and show off their versatility by playing a delicious variety of multiple roles. Parker Tenney plays The Voice of God, which might surprise you.

There were a couple of understandable first-night fumbles and misfortunes, and in some places, the timing was a little bit off, but knowing Jim Strait, this will be fixed by the time you see the show. And some of the accents need work—they’re a little muddy. There were a couple of bewildering moments, possibly because of some anachronisms in the costumes and the music, but for “heaven’s” sake, who cares?

Among my favorite moments were Huber’s touching solo; some of the terrific quick changes; Sisco’s hilarious portrait of a drunken former Vaudeville star from back when drunks were still funny; extra touches like the antlers; some lovely harmonies; several moments of exquisite timing; and the expression “a case of the dismals,” which will promptly be absorbed into everyone’s current vocab. The first-night audience must have agreed, because they broke into spontaneous applause during and between the scenes. The 95-minute play is performed without an intermission, just in case your kidneys might want to know in advance.

The production is designed and directed by DRP’s founding artistic director, Jim Strait. He and Paul Taylor unabashedly adore Christmas, wearing outrageous Yuletide garb to welcome the playgoers. How refreshing is this? It makes you want to rush home and get out your Christmas decorations.

Playwright Charles Busch—whose name you will remember from other DRP productions including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/Coma—frankly admits A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as inspirations for Times Square Angel, along with the gangster movies of the ’40s, with those tough-talking chorus girls and thugs found in places like this show’s gaudy Club Intime.

Musical director Joel Baker has pre-recorded the accompaniment music, which mixes styles such as doo-wop, blues, gospel and, of course, some good old Christmas songs everyone knows. (You DO know “Mele Kalikimaka” in Hawaiian, right? Because they sing it here.)

Regarding the aforementioned repertory, returning costume director Mark Demry (who delights us with two-tone spectator shoes, perky hats and nostalgic fur stoles) and hair stylist Toni Molano (the wigs are hugely important in this show … though some are a bit weird) are again joined by the incomparable Phil Murphy as lighting director, whose contribution makes this his 49th show for DRP. Steve Fisher is the stage manager once again. How pleasant for this company to be able to rely on the same tried-and-true talents for every production!

This play is fun. It will make you feel good. It will infuse you with Christmas spirit. You will want to immediately rush home and dust off the Christmas tree lights—and maybe it will even inspire you to give Christmas gifts of theater tickets or even season subscriptions, thereby giving ideal presents to everyone!

Times Square Angel is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 17, at 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