CVIndependent

Fri08182017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

Desperate for an escape from the current chaos swirling around us? I have just the ticket: See Clark Gable Slept Here at Desert Rose Playhouse. This terrific play will transport you into another world … filled with lurid sex, glamour, murder—and lots of laughs.

Michael McKeever’s dark comedy opens with the corpse of a naked man (David Boyd) face-down on the floor in a posh suite at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood. Estelle, the maid (the fabulous Melanie Blue) is in a state of hysteria, while hotel manager Gage Holland (Winston Gieseke) and Hollywood agent Jarrod “Hilly” Hilliard (Michael Pacas) are trying to discern what actually happened, and what to do about it.

It’s a delicate situation, since the dead man on the floor is apparently a hooker, and the hotel room had been rented to Jarrod’s biggest client, action star Patrick Zane—who is supposedly straight, married and up for a Golden Globe Award that night. The timing could not possibly be worse.

Enter Morgan Wright (the incomparable Yo Younger), a Hollywood “fixer” who has been dragged away from her prime seat at the awards ceremony (and the welcome attention of a flirtatious Jon Hamm) to take care of this PR disaster.

Hilarity—along with a great deal of colorful language—ensues. With no intermission, the 90-minute show moves along at a brisk pace.

The cast is uniformly superb. Blue’s Estelle is a hoot. She describes stumbling upon the body in Spanish, yet her over-the-top gestures make it easy to understand everything she’s saying. She keeps the audience laughing throughout the evening, when she delivers a comic yet pious prayer over the dead man, or sneaks swigs of whiskey while pretending to dust. Her physicality reminds me of a young Carol Burnett.

Winston Gieseke strikes just the right notes as Gage, who is trying hard to maintain the dignity of his position as manager of the hotel. Concerned about the scandal of finding a dead male prostitute in his establishment, he sniffs that “the Chateau Marmont has a rich and illustrious history.” Jarrod shoots back: “which I’m sure is filled with dead prostitutes.”

Michael Pacas’ Jarrod is spot on. He completely captures the shallow, self-important aura of a Hollywood agent: “This is not about a dead hooker—this is about ME!” Later on, he points out: “This is Hollywood; no one wants reality!”

As the hooker (whose real name is Travis), David Boyd convincingly portrays the weariness and angst of a young man feeling old before his time due to his profession, but there were a couple of occasions when he could have used a bit more vocal projection.

But the clear star of this show is Yo Younger as Morgan. From the moment she enters—hair upswept and resplendent in a fire-engine red gown and huge drop-diamond earrings—the stage is hers. Clearly irritated by having to clean up this mess rather than sip champagne and play footsie with Jon Hamm at the Golden Globes, Younger snaps at everyone in her path, dropping the f-bomb frequently. When Jarrod begins to chime in with an unwelcome comment, she fixes him with a steely glare: “Don’t you say it, or I’ll punch you in the throat!”

As the lurid details of the evening are revealed, Morgan must repeatedly check in by phone with her team of “fixers.” Younger’s delivery of a line inquiring about dwarfs on record is priceless. She glides effortlessly from anger to sarcasm, to flirtation and back again. I have reviewed Younger many times, and she’s always good—but this may be one of the best performances she’s ever given in the valley.

Director Jim Strait deserves a great deal of credit here, beginning with the casting. Each actor plays off the other beautifully. He keeps the action moving and the laughs coming. Bravo!

Mention must be made of the gorgeous set. It is lush, opulent and perfect. As usual, the costumes, lighting and sound are excellent.

Run, don’t walk, to see Desert Rose’s production of Clark Gable Slept Here. You will laugh yourself silly as you enjoy an evening of escape from reality. And God knows, we could all use a little of that.

Clark Gable Slept Here is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 28, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Coyote StageWorks’ The Lady With All the Answers, a play by David Rambo, offers an inside look at the life of advice columnist Ann Landers.

Landers was part of American popular culture for decades, offering words of wisdom on everything from marital troubles to the proper method for hanging toilet paper. What many may not know is that the woman most of us know as Ann Landers was not the first Ann Landers.

Back in 1955, Landers (born Esther Pauline Friedman, or “Eppie”) was a comfortable wife and mother to one daughter. She began reading the original Ann Landers advice column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Not overly impressed, Landers called the paper, asking if she could help the columnist answer some of her mail. It turns out the original answer lady, a nurse named Ruth Crowley, had just died, and the paper was looking for a replacement. Eppie got the gig—which led to fame, fortune and the nickname “The Answer Lady.”

The multi-talented Gloria Loring stars as Landers, and she is terrific. Impeccably dressed and coiffed in a bouffant wig, Loring comes across as classy and elegant, yet down to earth, just as Landers herself was. She roams about her lovely Chicago apartment (the set is superb), alternately sharing letters from previous readers, answering new ones, and reminiscing about her life and career.

We learn that while shopping for bridal veils for a double-wedding with her twin sister Pauline (who later became Dear Abby), Landers fell for the salesman and later married him after breaking off her engagement. And many folks may not be aware of just how politically active Eppie was: An avid Democrat, she went to Washington, D.C., as a young wife and got to know Hubert Humphrey, Justice William O. Douglas and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When she later quoted them all in her columns, her editor worried the paper would be sued for fraud—until Landers assured him that these men were indeed her friends. Landers was vehemently against the Vietnam War, and frequently told Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. needed to get out of the conflict. He would look at her sadly and reply, “I know, Eppie, I know.” She visited hundreds of hospitals in Vietmam, and spent hours calling soldiers’ families with words of comfort and reassurance.

Though Ann Landers counseled the masses through marital discord—likely saving many marriages—she could not save her own. When, after 30-plus years of wedded bliss, her husband confessed to a three-year affair with a much-younger woman, Landers simply announced: “This marriage is over.” Her struggle to appropriately share this news with her readers in a column drives The Lady With All the Answers.

Loring is known as an actress on Days of Our Lives, as a singer on her No. 1 hit “Friends and Lovers” with Carl Anderson, as the author of several books including Coincidence Is God’s Way of Remaining Anonymous, and for her philanthropy in the field of biomedical research after her son was diagnosed with diabetes. Here, Loring effortlessly conveys Landers’ warmth and humor. Her interactions with the audience are quite entertaining, particularly her surveys on how to hang toilet paper and a discussion on teenage sexual experimentation.

Loring has a great stage presence and perfect diction. Carrying a one-person show is not easy, but she knocks it out of the park. She is particularly effective in moments of silence, letting the previous moment sink in before moving on to the next revelation. We feel her pain when discussing her divorce, yet she’s always dignified and in control.

Much credit also goes to director Don Amendolia, who elicits a spot-on performance from Loring and keeps the play moving along while maintaining a sense of intimacy.

If you’re someone who must have huge productions like Les Miserables, then The Lady With All the Answers may not be your cup of tea. But for those who love quiet, intimate, thought-provoking theater, it’s just the ticket.

The play allows us to really get to know Ms. Landers, a woman always spoke her mind. Now, one bit of advice from me: Go see Coyote Stageworks’ The Lady With All the Answers at the Annenberg Theater. It’s darn good.

Coyote StageWorks’ The Lady With All the Answers is performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 15; 2 p.m., Sunday, April 16; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 19; 2 p.m., Thursday, April 20; 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 21; 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 22; and 2 p.m., Sunday, April 23, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs 105 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.annenbergtheater.org.

Given the hatred and divisiveness our country’s socio-political climate has stirred up, Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production, Southern Baptist Sissies, seems timelier than ever.

Del Shores’ play, which won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding L.A. Theatre Production during its original run in 2000, skillfully illustrates the painful conflict faced by homosexuals of faith who long to remain part of a church community that rejects the very essence of who they are.

The play tells the stories of four young men coming of age in Dallas. Each boy is trying to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality while also remaining an active member of the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church.

Mark (Joseph Tanner Paul), who also serves as the narrator, is sarcastic and bitter over the church’s narrow-mindedness about gays and its rigid rules for life—“So in God’s eyes, eating shrimp is just as bad as sucking cock.” Mark is a pivotal role, and Paul nails it. He’s a strong presence onstage—funny, acerbic and angry, yet often incredibly vulnerable.

Mark is strongly attracted to T.J. (the charismatic, well-built Cody Frank), who is in major denial about his own preference for men: “I am living a normal life with a woman—the way God intended, and I am happy!” T.J. spouts Bible verses and feigns interest in women, while brushing off a youthful sexual encounter with Mark as insignificant. Frank makes T.J.’s inner turmoil quite believable.

The sensitive, guilt-ridden Andrew (German Pavon) is the first of the quartet to accept Jesus as his personal savior. He prays fervently by day and secretly explores gay nightclubs by night. Andrew’s nightly fantasies are not of sweaty sex, but of caresses and a gentle male voice assuring him that he will always be taken care of. Pavon’s acting is quite effective; he makes the audience want to wrap him in a giant hug.

By far the boldest of the four boys is Benny (the amazing, androgynous Ben Heustess), who wholeheartedly embraces his gayness, dressing in drag and lip-syncing to Shania Twain songs with great glee. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part. Heustess is riveting—you cannot take your eyes off him. He excels not only as a female impersonator, but also at revealing the character’s deep inner pain.

Calvary’s preacher (the perfectly cast Larry Dyekman) holds forth with typical fire and brimstone, adamant that obedience to God is always the answer.

Local favorite Joey English is effective and holds her own as the mothers of each of the four young men. She has some of the show’s best lines. When discussing her trailer-park neighbor with the preacher, she quips, “She’s Catholic, you know—just one step off from them Jee-hovah’s Witnesses.”

Throughout the play, we are treated to brief scenes at a gay-themed bar called the Rose Room. There, we watch the growing friendship between the alcoholic Odette (Linda Cooke) and the equally booze-loving Peanut (Hal O’Connell). Both have many regrets in life, and there are some serious moments—but most of their interaction is a hoot. Odette repeatedly refers to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and admits that “when you give head like me, word gets out.” Cooke and O’Connell have fabulous chemistry and provide some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Rounding out the superb cast is Douglas Wilson as both church organist Brother Chaffey and lounge-pianist Houston.

Steve Fisher’s direction deserves special mention. He brings out the best in his cast. There are some profoundly emotional moments in this production, and each actor hits just the right notes without going over the top. It’s worth noting here that there are simulated sex acts and some nudity in this play—not an unusual occurrence in Desert Rose productions. The set, lights, sound, hair and makeup (particularly Benny’s drag get-ups) are all spot on.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Southern Baptist Sissies is not just a play about homosexuality and religion. It’s about the universal fear of letting others see who we really are. At one point, Mark recalls that while his mother taught him to love her, his father, Jesus and Elvis, “I guess she forgot to teach me to love myself.” What a different world this would be if we all learned that lesson early on.

But perhaps Benny sums it up best late in the play when he muses: “Maybe the world is just the way it should be. … Maybe we are ALL right … the gays, the Baptists, the Muslims, all of us.” What a different world, indeed.

Southern Baptist Sissies is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Contains nudity and adult situations. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

If you’re not a Muslim, imagine being a Muslim living in America today.

Would you be brave enough to wear traditional garb? Would you discuss your heritage openly? Or would fear cause you to change your name and hide who you are? These are some of the questions CV Rep’s fantastic production Disgraced addresses.

Though Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in 2012, it could not possibly be any more timely than it is now. The fear, anger and bigotry our current political climate has stirred up make this play with a Muslim protagonist painfully relevant.

The tight, 80-minute production centers around Pakistani-American lawyer Amir Kapoor (Arash Mokhtar), and his American-born artist wife, Emily (Elizabeth Saydah). Amir has abandoned his Muslim upbringing: He has changed his name from Abdullah and calls himself an apostate. He passes himself off as Indian in order to get ahead in the world of corporate mergers.

Emily, meanwhile, is drawn to the exotic nature of Islamic art, and embraces Islam far more than her husband does. As the play opens, Emily is completing a portrait of her husband. She hopes the piece will be reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, a Moorish slave. The comparison, she explains, came to her after a waiter was rude to Amir at a restaurant. Emily laments the man’s inability to see her husband for who he really is, while Amir himself shrugs off the incident as just part of the racism he deals with every day.

Soon, Amir’s nephew (Kamran Abbassian) arrives. He has also turned his back on his heritage, having changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen. Abe is seeking Amir’s help in defending a local imam who is facing charges of terrorist activity. Amir is not keen on the idea, fearing professional reprisals for getting involved in the case. When Abe tries to guilt his uncle into helping the fellow Muslim, Amir insists that he no longer practices the religion. But eventually, Amir relents and meets with the imam, though his firm is not officially defending the man. The meeting is mentioned in a newspaper article, which Amir worries could damage his professional future.

Soon, Emily gets a visit from Isaac (Joel Polis), a Jewish art gallery owner who is married to one of Amir’s colleagues, an African-American woman named Jory (Maya Lynne Robinson). He is impressed with Emily’s work, and is considering putting some of her pieces in an upcoming show.

Things come to a head three months later, during a dinner party at the Kapoor home, attended by Jory and Isaac. Amir is in a foul mood. His involvement in the Imam case has caused his law partners to question his heritage, and they are now accusing him of misrepresenting himself. The dinner conversation soon gets heated, as Amir ponders his Muslim heritage.

This production succeeds on every level. The cast is superb. I agree with an audience member who, during the post-show Q&A, called it one of the best examples of an ensemble cast he’d ever seen. However, each actor also stands out.

Mokhtar’s Amir is flawless. (Frustrated at the inability to find the right person after seeing 20 different actors, director Joanne Gordon finally struck gold and cast him via Skype.) Mokhtar’s striking good looks and charm initially hide the animosity and conflict boiling just beneath the surface. We feel for him as he struggles with questions of loyalty and cultural identity, as well as the possibilities of losing both his wife and his career.

Saydah, as Emily, is both stunning and a dynamite actress. The strong chemistry she has with Mokhtar makes us root for them as a couple. We want to see her achieve her dreams of stardom in the art world, and to live happily ever after with Amir.

Polis’ Isaac hits all the right notes as a typical New York art dealer. His intense, climactic scene with Amir hits the audience in the gut, as it should.

Abbassian holds his own as the young, earnest Abe.

Perhaps my favorite member of the cast is Maya Lynne Robinson as Jory. A strong, charismatic dramatic actress, she also provides most of the evening’s comic relief. When Isaac turns to her during a heavy political discussion and says “Honey, it’s racial profiling,” she snaps back: “I know what it is!”

I applaud artistic director Ron Celona’s choice to hold a Q&A immediately after every performance. It allows the audience to share some of the intense emotions the play stirs up, and to get to know the players a bit. Perhaps the most enlightening moment during the opening-night Q&A was the revelation that director Joanne Gordon grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. She vividly recalls that in those days, it was literally against the law for a white person to touch a black person. Perhaps that’s why she handles this play with such skill.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is exquisite, while the lighting and sound are also spot-on.

Disgraced brings up important questions. Who are we, really? Is cultural bias in our DNA? The time to find these answers is now.

Disgraced is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 2, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, March 14. Tickets are $48, and the running time is 80 minutes, with no intermission, followed by a Q&A. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Angst over the current political climate seems to be leading many people to seek escape in a variety of ways—and live theater is a popular choice. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Expressions is a well-executed play, and it may take your mind off the details of what’s going on in the White House for a while, make no mistake: It’s no light-hearted diversion.

Its themes—post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), alcoholism and family dysfunction—are quite serious, indeed. Written and directed by DETC’s executive director, Shawn Abramowitz, Expressions is a stark and unflinching look at all of those issues.

As the play opens, we meet cousins Paul (Cameron Keys) and Joseph (Nick Wass) as they prepare for a family party to celebrate their graduation from high school. Each young man is contemplating what his next step in life should be. While Paul is thinking about attending community college and a film career, Joseph has decided to join the Army, largely due to his admiration of his Uncle Steven, a Vietnam vet. Steven’s stories of adventure and heroism have convinced young Joseph that a life in the military is the way to go. However, Paul has experienced a much different side of Steven over the years: His father’s alcoholism and emotional neglect have left their scars. Paul is hurt and bitter, and does not view his dad as the war hero Joseph does.

Joseph’s parents, Emily (Kelley Moody) and Karl (Fergus Loughnane), arrive home with supplies for the party. Karl is also a Vietnam veteran, and has a bad case of PTSD. He is emotionally withdrawn, and loud noises send him into a panic. The last thing he would want is for his son to become a soldier and face the horrors of war. He and Emily know their son has applied to several colleges, and feel confident he will be safely ensconced in university life come fall.

When Uncle Steven (James E. Anderson III) shows up, he heads straight for the bar. The tension between the adult brothers is thick: Despite the damage the war did to his soul, Karl has managed to keep his professional and family life together, at least on the surface. Steven, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in a bottle. His wife walked out shortly after he returned from the war, and he has virtually no relationship with Paul.

Steven applauds his nephew’s choice to join the Army, telling him: “America needs you. You’d make a great solder!” He even tags along when Joseph secretly enlists. When the secret comes out during the family celebration, all hell breaks loose. There are several twists and turns in the plot, which I won’t give away here.

The acting is strong across the board. Wass and Keys have great chemistry as the young cousins, and both ably convey the combination of uncertainty and bravado typical of 18-year-old boys.

Moody (also the morning weather anchor at CBS Local 2 News) is compelling as the wife struggling to deal with her husband’s illness (“I love you, but you’ve got to get your shit together!”) and terrified of losing her only son. She has many nice moments onstage with Loughnane, who is terrific, as always. He’s one of the valley’s strongest actors, and seemingly never gives a bad performance. The audience feels his love for his wife, his fears for his son’s safety, and his anger and frustration over what he sees as his brother’s failures.

As the troubled Steven, Anderson is fabulous. The climactic scene in which Steven comes clean to young Joseph about what really happened in Vietnam should be required viewing for every acting student. There is not a single false note.

Kudos to Abramowitz for his directing skills here. He elicits strong, emotional performances from each cast member, and no one ever goes over the top.

Abramowitz wrote Expressions partly as an homage to his own father, a Vietnam vet who lost three fingers in combat. His dad spent 35 years battling with Veterans Affairs to get the treatment he needed. Both father and son agree something that needs to change.

No, this is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good play—but it is definitely worth seeing. It will move you, make you squirm, make you think and possibly even make you cry. Isn’t that what good theater is supposed to do?

Expressions, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Ave., in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory artistic director Ron Celona has put on some fabulous productions since the theater opened its doors in 2008—but he has truly outdone himself with his current offering, Baby—The Musical.

The show, with book by Sybille Pearson, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., ran on Broadway in 1983-1984. It tells the story of three different couples and how they each react to the news of impending parenthood. College students Lizzie (Melody Hollis) and Danny (Caleb Horst) have just moved in together, and seem much more at ease with the prospect of having a baby than with the commitment of marriage. Thirty-somethings Pam (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and Nick (Perry Ojeda), coaches at the same college, are facing the heartbreak of apparent infertility. The oldest couple, 43-year-old Arlene (Janna Cardia), a stay-at-home mom of three grown daughters, and 48-year-old university staff member Alan (Tom Andrew), are stunned by a surprise pregnancy. The audience goes along for the ride as each couple faces the trials, tribulations and joys involved in bringing a new life into this world.

One of the most impressive things about CV Rep’s Baby is director Celona’s success in fitting 10 actors and five musicians on his intimate stage without them looking like a can of sardines. Everyone moves on and off the stage smoothly, and it never appears crowded. That is no easy feat.

The excellent band features some of the valley’s best musicians—Daniel Gutierrez on the keyboard, Dave Hitchings on percussion, Doug MacDonald on guitar, Bill Saitta on bass and Scott Storr (also the musical director) on piano. A musical play is always a richer experience with live music rather than recorded backgrounds.

The cast is superb across the board; there is not one weak link. The excellent ensemble—Jaci Davis, Jeff Stewart, Giulia Ethel Tomasi and Joseph H. Dahman—serves as a sort of Greek chorus, moving the story along. Each of them also shines in minor roles, particularly Tomasi as a fertility specialist having trouble with her contact lenses, and Stewart as a snooty real estate agent.

The leads all exhibit impressive voices and strong acting chops. As empty-nesters Alan and Arlene, Andrew and Cardia ably convey the conflict over whether they really want to become mired in the formula-and-diaper routine again later in their lives. It felt as if the audience was collectively holding their breath as the two danced around the subject of terminating the pregnancy.

The sexual chemistry between Hanrahan-Ball and Ojeda, as Pam and Nick, is palpable. We share the pain they feel about not being able to conceive. While the singing is uniformly superb, Ojeda’s soaring voice stands out.

Hollis and Horst are perfect as college sweethearts Lizzie and Danny. Just starting out in life, they are trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the new life they’re creating. Hollis can really sing.

Baby has a difficult score, with many songs written in minor keys, but the cast handles them well. Some of the more memorable numbers include the rousing “Fatherhood Blues” featuring all the men, Danny’s romantic “I Chose Right,” “I Want It All” featuring the three female leads, and Lizzie’s hilarious “The Ladies Singin’ Their Song,” her lament about strange women patting her growing belly and sharing their own childbirth experiences.

Ron Celona’s direction is spot-on here, as are the costumes, set, lighting and sound.

It’s wonderful—and not all that common—to have absolutely nothing negative to say about a show. I had that experience watching CV Rep’s production of Baby. It’s not just about childbirth. It’s about life, love and the complexity of human relationships. This show will touch your heart … even if you have no kids—or don’t even like them.

Baby—The Musical is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Tickets are $48, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966 or go to www.cvrep.org.

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and I was hopeful as I settled into my seat at the Desert Rose Playhouse on opening night of The Santaland Diaries.

I wanted to like it—and indeed, I did. However, I wish I’d liked it a little bit more.

David Sedaris first presented his essay about working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s on National Public Radio in 1992. The piece was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello in 1996, and the one-man show debuted at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in November that year.

The play, which runs not quite 90 minutes with no intermission, details Sedaris’ trials and tribulations as he first interviews for—and then lands—a position at Santaland as an assistant to the big man in red. 

The elf selection process has 30-something out-of-work actor David (played by Chris Clonts) on edge: “If you can’t even find work as an elf, that’s when you KNOW you’re a failure.” Luckily, he makes it through, and chooses “Crumpet” as his elf name.

Crumpet lets us in on the daily grind of elf training, and introduces us to some of his colorful co-workers—including the Santa who never breaks character, insisting that he really does live at the North Pole. We also learn that the really bitter elves include people like former ad executives who were hit by the recession and “never saw a velvet costume in their futures.”

Life as an elf is rarely glamorous. Duties include wiping up the vomit of nervous children and trying to explain to the little ones why Mr. Claus sometimes accidentally spits on them while promising to bring shiny new toys on Christmas morning.

Then there is the sea of humanity lined up for a chance to spend a few moments with Santa: “I could not tell where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began.” Crumpet laments that dealing with difficult parents is also part of an elf’s job description—including some parents who demand a Santa of a particular race. Then there was the time a mother asked for help getting her misbehaving son under control. All she wants is for Crumpet to echo her warning that if the boy does not shape up, Santa will bring him coal for Christmas. Alas, the elf goes a bit overboard, terrifying the child by telling him Santa will actually come to his house and steal everything.

Alone on the stage for the entire play, Chris Clonts does an admirable job as David/Crumpet. One-person shows are not easy; for starters, there are no other actors onstage to save you if you forget your lines. Clonts fell victim to this early on during the opening-night performance, and stage manager Steve Fisher had to prompt him from the sound booth. First-night jitters aside, Clonts has some very nice moments, including a fabulous Billie Holiday-esque version of “Away in a Manger.”

Charisma, confidence and good pacing are vital when a single actor must carry an entire show, and I’d like to see Clonts ratchet up the latter two items just a bit. There were times when he seemed somewhat tentative—again, that may just be a case of opening-night jitters. Though the brief blackouts between vignettes, accompanied by upbeat holiday music, were effective, a couple of them felt too long.

The festive set, designed by director Jim Strait, is superb. Santa’s “throne” is dead center. Large Christmas packages wrapped in shiny red and green abound; a reindeer and columns adorned with tinsel add the perfect finishing touches. The adorably tacky elf costume created by Robbie Wayne is terrific as well. Kudos go to Phil Murphy for his lighting, and Steve Fisher for both stage direction and sound.

Strait elicits a good performance from Clonts, but I think there’s some untapped potential there. A faster pace, a slightly stronger entrance and maybe even some ad-libbing or bantering with the audience here and there would enhance the evening.

Get yourself in the holiday spirit by going to see Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Santaland Diaries. It’s fun, entertaining and sometimes touching, even if the opening-night show left me wanting just a little but more.

The Santaland Diaries is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, go to www.desertroseplayhouse.org or call 760-202-3000.

How far should spousal loyalty go when your mate’s creative expression causes you emotional pain? When does a risqué hobby become deviancy—and who decides what’s deviant, anyway?

These are the questions examined in Dezart Performs’ production of Casa Valentina. Harvey Fierstein’s provocative play earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best New Play, in 2014. The time in Casa Valentina is 1962—a more innocent yet much less tolerant era. A group of professional heterosexual men gather at a bungalow in the Catskills to relax and blow off steam. They eat, drink, dance and laugh—all while dressed as women.

This haven for transvestites really existed, at a resort called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th-century cross-dresser. The story was revealed when antiques dealer Robert Swopes stumbled across a box of pictures at a Manhattan flea market. Each photo captured these men in all their feminine glory: Bewigged and clad in dresses, heels and pearls, group members were shown doing mundane things like sipping coffee and playing cards. Intrigued, Swopes purchased the photos and put them together in a book called Café Susanna in 2005.

In the play, the establishment (here called “Casa Valentina”) is run by George (aka Valentina), played by Scott Smith, and his long-suffering wife, Rita (Tammy Hubler). As the show opens, they are preparing for yet another weekend of hosting men who relax by taking on their female personas for a few days. The couple is anticipating the arrival of a new guest, Jonathan (Cameron Shingler), also known as Miranda.

The strong bond between Rita and George is apparent. They banter back and forth while she lovingly pins on his wig cap as he begins his transformation into Valentina. It’s clear that Rita long ago accepted her husband’s predilection, and adores him in spite of it. “There’s no secret to being popular with men … just never say no,” she says. Smith is excellent as Valentina. You can feel both his devotion to Rita and his compulsion to express his feminine side.

Soon we meet Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Norman), resplendent in an over-sized housecoat and hot pink turban. A plus-sized cross-dresser, Bessie relishes every moment as a woman. Norman is a hoot as he tosses off some of the best lines in the show. When someone brings up the inadequacies of the male form, Bessie quips, “I once had a male form; I filled it out and mailed it back!”

A pivotal character in the play is the judge (the exceptional Bruce Cronander), who strides in with a shotgun. His professional position and penchant for firearms are irrelevant when he slips off his robe to reveal a floral satin dress and coos, “Hello, Amy, I’ve missed you!”

When Theodore/Terry (the fabulous Garnett Smith) must jump up shortly after perching on a chair, he complains, “Just when I got my skirt to lay right on the first try.”

Cameron Shingler ably captures the awkwardness and insecurity young Jonathan feels as the newcomer to the group. Getting settled in his room, he clutches a flowered frock, seemingly not knowing what to do with it. The other “girls” soon rally around him, giving him a proper makeover, complete with phony breasts and hips, cosmetics and jewelry. Their enthusiastic efforts to transform him into Miranda are touching.

The cast is excellent across the board, but San Diego resident Dale Morris as Isadore/Charlotte deserves special mention. Looking stunning in his gold lame blouse, designer suite and heels, he clearly revels in the freedom to express his inner diva. But he also knows the risk involved in theses activities, and chafes at society’s disapproval. As he admonishes one of the group’s younger members, “I’ve gone to jail so you don’t have to!”

Kevin Coubal (Michael/Gloria) is the most traditionally attractive woman of the group, by far. Statuesque in his heels, he flips his long auburn curls constantly and really works it. He is the standout when the girls perform a cute lip-synced version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with the jukebox.

Louise Ross appears briefly toward the end of the play as Eleanor, the judge’s daughter. The always-dependable Ross ably conveys the pain, anger and resentment as she deals with her cross-dressing family member.

Things turn serious when Charlotte announces that the “sorority” has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and needs to appoint officers. Some members aren’t thrilled about that, preferring to just keep things as they are. Their weekend escapades are harmless, they say, and the fewer people who know about them, the better. But Charlotte argues that secrecy is the enemy. Then things really get crazy when Charlotte asks each member to sign a document barring homosexuals from joining the group. In 1962, it seems, cross-dressers believed that putting on a dress was OK, but actually having sex with a man was true deviancy. The guests at Casa Valentina are divided on the issue. Since the gay community often accepted “the girls” when no on else would, they feel the need to return that loyalty. The booze-fueled tension finally explodes in an act of violence.

The costumes, makeup, wigs and lighting are all right on the money. There was only one problem with Dezart’s Casa Valentina on opening night, but it was distracting: There were many occasions when some of the actors could not be heard. In a theater the size of the Pearl McManus, one would not think that body microphones should be necessary. The hum of the building’s air conditioning unit was a factor, but it really comes down to projecting: Actors of this caliber know how to project, and did so during much of the show. But at several dramatic moments, the actors were inaudible. It was particularly annoying when much of the audience could not hear the last two or three lines of the play, delivered by the otherwise-superb Tammy Huber.

This an important play and a terrific production. Michael Shaw’s direction is spot-on. I only hope he corrects the sound issue so valley audiences can enjoy Casa Valentina in its entirety.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater (inside the historic Palm Springs Woman’s Club), 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in downtown Palm Springs. Tickets run $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Dezart Performs has developed a reputation for presenting bold and avant-garde theatrical productions—so it means something when artistic director Michael Shaw says that the 2016-2017 season is Dezart’s boldest yet.

Shaw says he has a fondness socially relevant yet “wacky” plays. Casa Valentina, Dezart’s season-opener, certainly fits that bill.

Written by Harvey Fierstein, Casa Valentina received four 2014 Tony Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Play. Set in the Catskills in 1962, the play offers a peek into the lives of heterosexual men who enjoy dressing up and behaving like women. During the week, they pursue respectable careers as ad execs, lawyers and sales reps—but when the weekend rolls around, they cut loose and take on their female personas. Casa Valentina is owned and operated by George—whose alter ego is Valentina—as well as George’s wife, Rita.

The play is based on a real-life haven for heterosexual transvestites that was originally called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th century cross-dresser and spy. The story of the place, later named Casa Susanna, came to light when antiques dealer Robert Swope bought a box of 100 photographs at a Manhattan flea market; the pictures all depict men dressed as women watering the lawn, playing bridge, etc. In 2005, Swope published the pictures in a book, Café Susanna.

Shaw says the play intrigues him, because he learned a lot from it—especially about transvestites.

“It’s a community that I am totally naïve about,” Shaw says. “I think there’s a perception that transvestites usually relate as gay. That’s not the truth.”

Shaw says authentic, realistic hair, makeup and costumes are crucial to the play. He cites a quote from the character of Bessie, talking to newbie Jonathon/Miranda: “… Our goal is to assimilate. The more you look as if you just stepped away from a bridge table, the higher we grade you. Passing undetected is our zenith.”

There’s no dress or makeup in the play that’s over the top. Wig and costume fittings were done early in the rehearsal process, and the actors have been working in high heels and skirts since the rehearsals began. The male cast members got lessons in how to apply makeup with a softer touch—the way real women do.

Dezart Performs received a huge assist from the Pasadena Playhouse, which produced Casa Valentina earlier this year: The renowned company is lending Dezart all of the costumes and jewelry used in the play.

Shaw says that due to the show’s rich dialogue and well-written characters, Casa Valentina is one of the strongest season openers Dezart has ever produced.

“It teaches us that it’s very important to learn about those around you,” he says. “The transvestite group saw themselves as normal while viewing the gay community as deviants. They saw what they were doing as simply creative expression; they were fulfilling a desire to show their feminine sides. The crux of the play is the conflict between two factions of the transvestite society—one sympathetic to the gay community, and one most definitely not.

“One of (character) Charlotte’s lines is quite telling: ‘Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as every-day as cigarette-smoking.’”

Casa Valentina also marks another first for Dezart: The nine cast members make up the largest cast the company has ever had. Shaw also says the cast is one of the best.

The second he saw San Diego resident Dale Morris, Shaw says, he knew Morris would be perfect as Charlotte; Shaw even applauded after Morris’ audition, he said.

Morris says that being cast in the play is a blessing—although he added that playing an unlikable character can be challenging. A theater veteran, Morris lists performing in His Girl Friday at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as two of his career highlights.

Though Morris claims there has been no competition among the male cast members as to who is the best-looking “woman” onstage, he admits he wanted to look pretty when he first got the gig.

For what it’s worth, he apparently pulled it off: Shaw says that when Morris first walked across the stage in high heels, he was impressed with the actor’s calves, and notes that Morris is “stunning” in his gold lame blouse.

Shaw says there are two good reasons Palm Springs theater-goers should see Dezart’s production of Casa Valentina. One is the superb cast. The other?

“If you think you’ve seen cross dressing before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” he said.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Nov. 4, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org. Below: Actors in Casa Valentina pose for a photo in a rehearsal scene that includes Garnett Smith, Kevin Coubal, Dale Morris, Scott Smith, Jeffrey Norman and Tammy Hubler. Photo courtesy of Clark Dugger.

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has built an excellent reputation as a place to see thought-provoking theater since it was founded in 2008.

But this summer, as CV Rep takes its annual seasonal break from plays, founder and artistic director Ron Celona decided to try something new: a summer jazz series, in association with world-class bassist Bill Saitta.

It all began when Saitta was hired as part of the band for CV Rep’s production of A Class Act early this year. (Ron first met Saitta through a common friend, Yve Evans, herself an amazing local jazz musician.) One day during rehearsals, as the story goes, Saitta suggested a summer jazz series.

Celona had already incorporated cabaret shows into the theater’s summer offerings, but CV Rep was looking for a way to increase revenues to cover rent for recently acquired additional space.

Thus, the Summer Jazz Series was born.

The two men hammered out the details during several brainstorming lunches. The concept was inspired by Fitz’s Jazz Café at the McCallum Theatre, which is curated by local musician and longtime radio personality Jimi “Fitz” Fitzgerald. This prompted Celona to tell Saitta: “I want you to be my Fitz!”

Celona said his appreciation of jazz—one of his favorite singers is Dinah Washington—began as a child. His father played the tenor saxophone, but gave it up to get a “regular” job to support his family. Celona himself—a talented singer, actor, dancer and director—studied piano briefly as a child.

“It didn’t stick,” he said.

Saitta began playing piano at the age of 7 and added the Fender bass at age 14. He studied bass and guitar with Carol Kaye and earned a degree in instrumental performance from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the season, Saitta is featured every Tuesday night at Backstreet Bistro in Palm Desert, jamming with great talents like Yve Evans, Doug MacDonald and Deanna Bogart. He’s also the staff bassist for the Jazz in the Pines Festival in Idyllwild every August.

Saitta will be featured on bass throughout the jazz series, with Tim Pleasant on drums. Saitta compared the process of collaboration between singers and musicians to the collaboration within an a capella group.

“Everybody’s pitching in and contributing to the harmonic sound,” Saitta said. “The conversation should reach out into the audience, yet I’m always striving for intimacy.”

Celona said he has “absolutely” achieved the goals he set for himself when he founded CV Rep back in 2008. He predicts that by this coming October, the theater’s season-ticket subscriber base will reach 1,400. CV Rep is also the only Equity theater in the valley.

Next season’s CV Rep lineup will feature guest directors, larger casts and extended runs—each show will be performed for a full four weeks.

As for rumors that CV Rep is moving to a new location, Celona would only confirm that the theater will definitely be in its current location, inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, during the upcoming season. (Watch for a mid-summer news release regarding the theater’s future.)

What makes CV Rep different from other live theaters in the valley?

“I try to choose plays that will challenge the audience—educational, thought-provoking fare that is not being offered elsewhere locally,” Celona said. His goal is to tap the passions of audience members, and perhaps have them look at the play’s subject matter from a different angle. 

Both Celona and Saitta hope the Summer Jazz Series will be a rousing success. If it is, Celona said he’ll bring in similar artists throughout the season in between plays.

The lineup:

  • The Sherry Williams Quartet: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, June 23-25.
  • Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton: 7 p.m., Thursday, July 21.
  • Josh Nelson: 7 p.m., Friday, July 22.
  • Carl Saunders and his quartet: 7 p.m., Saturday, July 23.
  • Jennifer Leitham Trio: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 25-27.

CV Rep’s Summer Jazz Series takes place at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for each show plus a post-show reception sponsored by Gelson’s Market. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

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