CVIndependent

Wed06032020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

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.

Coyote StageWorks is starting its 11th season with a terrific production of Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Founding artistic director Chuck Yates and his production team are thrilled to have found a new home at the Palm Springs Cultural Center (formerly the Camelot Theatres). The venue is a great fit, providing a cozier, more-intimate experience for the audience, as well as a lovely upstairs bar and lounge for after-show relaxation.

Yates’ choice of A Doll’s House, Part 2, as the season opener was a wise move. The story is set 15 years after Norwegian wife Nora Helmer walks out of her stifling marriage in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House. She has now returned, perhaps partly to soothe old emotional wounds, but she’s also on a personal mission: Now a successful writer of books urging other women to liberate themselves, Nora (Robin McAlpine) needs the help of Torvald (Don Amendolia), the husband she left behind. It turns out a judge has discovered she is still married to Torvald and is blackmailing her. Unless Torvald files the divorce papers (which he promised to do when Nora first left), she could lose her both her fortune and her professional reputation.

Also in the mix are the nanny and housekeeper, Anne Marie (Barbara Gruen), and Nora’s now-adult daughter, Emmy (Lizzie Schmelling).

The performances are first-rate across the board. McAlpine is excellent in the pivotal role of Nora. Full of confidence and bravado now that she has found creative and financial success as an author, Nora is a totally different person than she was when she departed 15 years earlier. McAlpine makes Nora’s sense of accomplishment and her twinges of guilt over putting herself first—at a time when most women did not do so—feel quite real.

As Torvald, Amendolia is fabulous. The wound from Nora’s leaving him is so deep that he can’t even look at her upon her return. His anger and pain are raw: “I loved you and you threw it way!” he bellows.

Schmelling’s performance as Emmy is riveting. Quietly seething with fury at the woman who abandoned her as a young child, Emmy has built up a wall around her heart—and has no intention of letting her mother in. After learning of her daughter’s engagement, Nora warns her of the perils of marriage. Emmy counters, “I WANT to be held and possessed.”

Equally as good is Gruen as nanny/housekeeper Anne Marie. Much of the burden of keeping the family together and sane after Nora walked out fell on her. Listening to Nora rattle on about her glamorous life, filled with lovers and book deals, becomes too much for Anne Marie: “You should say thank you for raising your kids!”

Kudos to Yates for great casting, and for masterfully guiding his ensemble through the story.

Thomas Valach’s set is perfect. After moving into their new home, Yates and company took out two front rows of seats, and knocked out a back wall in one of the movie theaters to accommodate dressing rooms. It makes for a wonderful, intimate theater experience.

Frank Cazares’ costumes are spot on, and the lighting and modern music scattered throughout the show are a nice touch. The juxtaposition of period costumes with modern-day props and language works well here, as when Anne Marie enters in a long dress, apron and snood … while wielding a Dustbuster. The smattering of profanity is also effective. When, during a tense argument with his estranged wife, Torvald blurts out, “Fuck you, Nora!” it seems at first jarring, but then wholly appropriate.

As with all theatrical productions, the story affects each viewer differently. One older man told me he did not like the Nora character; she reminded him of Meryl Streep’s character in Kramer vs. Kramer, a woman who coldly abandoned her family and then had the gall to return. As a woman who was once married to a controlling, overbearing man who was threatened by my longing for liberation and creative fulfillment, I had a contradictory viewpoint: The deep frustration and soul pain of being with a partner who refuses to allow you to become the person you were meant to be is excruciating. I suspect many women will see themselves in Nora. Though things have changed a great deal since 1879, females in our society still struggle daily for equality and respect.

I totally understood Nora’s desire to flee a stifling marriage, but the issue of the children is more complicated. Does personal fulfillment always come first, even if you hurt others deeply in the process? How long and how hard should one “work at” a troubled marriage?

These are the big questions audience members will be wrestling with long after they see A Doll’s House, Part 2. Isn’t that what good theater is all about?

Congrats, Coyote StageWorks and Chuck Yates on your new home and a superb season-opening production. Bravo!

A Doll’s House, Part 2, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at various times Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $50; tickets to the Valentine’s Day show with a champagne reception afterward are $75. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-318-0024, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory has chosen a re-imagined version of Jerome Kass’ Ballroom as its second production this season.

Originally based on Kass’ Emmy Award-winning teleplay Queen of the Stardust Ballroom starring Maureen Stapleton, the show morphed into the 1978 Broadway musical Ballroom, which was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning the Tony for Best Choreography.

This is the most ambitious production the Small Professional Theatre with Equity status has ever pulled off: CVRep’s version includes all the musical numbers from the Broadway production, plus several restored songs—and three brand-new numbers, written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and Billy Goldenberg, who also wrote the music and lyrics for the original. This production boasts a cast of 24, an onstage eight-piece orchestra and impressive sets by Jimmy Cuomo. There are some lovely moments, along with strong singing, and often-entertaining dancing.

Unfortunately, despite the grandness of the production, and all of the great bells and whistles, the pacing of this production of Ballroom slow, and the audience is left feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

Set in the 1970s, the story centers around Bea Asher (Melodie Wolford), a lonely Bronx widow who doesn’t know what to do with herself since the death of her husband the year before. Friends convince her to tag along to a night at the local dance hall, the Stardust Ballroom. It’s a place where other middle-aged folks meet to socialize, kick up their heels—and hopefully find romance.

Bea hits the jackpot when she meets Al Rossi (Bill Nolte), a local mailman … who happens to be married. Their budding romance is not received well by Bea’s meddling sister, Helen (Marcia Rodd), or her daughter, Diane (Aviva Pressman). They would prefer that Bea continue mourning, though it’s been a year since her husband’s death. The men in the family, son David (Sean Timothy Brown) and brother-in-law Jack (Bill Lewis), are far more accepting of Bea’s newfound happiness.

There are some interesting characters who frequent the Stardust Ballroom, including Bea’s buddy Angie (Teri Ralston), Harry “The Noodle” (Doug Graham), recent heart-attack-survivor Shirley (Corinne Levy), and current Queen of the Ballroom, Pauline (Leslie Tinnaro).

The Stardust Orchestra is terrific. Featuring Bill Saitta (bass), Dominique Torres (drums), Kurt Kelley (keyboards), Dave Thomason (reeds), Stewart Undem (trombone), Stan Watkins (trumpet), Cindy Brogan (vioIin) and musical director Scott Storr on piano, the band executes the score beautifully, and provides wonderful musical interludes during what seem like endless scene changes.

The constant rearranging of the set is one of the biggest problems with this production. Part of that is due to the way the show is written, of course. However—given the huge stage CVRep has to work with—one wonders if Bea’s apartment couldn’t have been stationary, with the shift in focus between there and the ballroom indicated with lighting changes, rather than dragging furniture on and off repeatedly.

The ensemble does well, with a nice feeling of camaraderie onstage. Though one would not expect a Bronx dance hall to be filled with hoofers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I was hoping to see more than the few flashes of great dancing this production offers.

The best part of this show is the sweet love story between Bea and Al, and the strength of the lead actors. Wolford captures our hearts as Bea. We root for her as she tentatively steps into her new life, and with the support of Al’s love, blossoms. She’s also a dynamic singer—even if she missed opportunities to really wow the audience during her big number, “Fifty Percent,” and the reprise of “I Wish You a Waltz.” Both renditions were lovely, but could have concluded with a bit more drama and “oomph.”

Nolte is marvelous as Al. A big, lovable teddy bear, his sometimes-awkward attempts to win Bea’s heart are touching. He shows off his superb vocal pipes on “Suddenly There’s You,” one of the more memorable musical numbers.

Both Rodd, as Bea’s sister Helen, and Ralston, as Bea’s friend Angie, are marvelous. When Bea shows off her new haircut and wardrobe, Rodd’s reaction is swift and priceless: “You look ridiculous!” Pressman and Brown, as Bea’s children, are quite good.

Local favorite Doug Graham nearly steals the show as the odd but highly skilled dancer Harry “The Noodle.” He commands the stage every time he appears; too bad we don’t get to see more of him.

The revamped Ballroom score is pleasant, but not particularly memorable. One notable exception is “When a Guy Really Knows How to Dance,” a group number featuring several of the dance-hall gals.

Director Ron Celona and choreographer Jose De La Cuesta do a nice job of keeping the large cast moving around the stage smoothly—a monumental task. Celona also pulls some strong acting out of his leads. But the production is long (about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission), and the many set changes and the lack of show-stopping musical numbers make it seem even longer.

Pretty music, fun sets, strong lead actors and enjoyable dancing make CVRep’s Ballroom a lovely, if flawed, evening of theater. It’s neither momentous, nor deeply moving, but it’s lovely.

Ballroom is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53 to $63. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Any professional critic worth his or her salt strives to be fair, tactful, entertaining and, most of all, honest. To regularly gush or fawn over productions would cause us to lose our credibility. But every now and then, a play comes along that leaves us no choice but to gush.

Such is the case with Dezart Performs’ current production of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband.

The story is riveting, and the acting is some of the best I have seen on a local stage in the past 20 years. Though centered around the 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide, the play is about so much more than that. It hits a whole lot of hot-button issues—commitment-phobic mates, overbearing mothers, age-inappropriate dating, dashed career dreams and navigating the legal system as common-law partners.

The play opens on a dinner party at the home of Daniel (Michael Shaw), a successful architect, and his partner, Mitch (David Youse), an equally successful author. Their guests are Mitch’s agent, Barry (Chuck Yates), and his new boy toy, Trip (Hanz Enyeart). The after-dinner small talk gets heated when Trip innocently asks why Daniel and Mitch aren’t married. They’ve been together for seven years and seem very happy, and gay marriage is legal now, so, Trip wonders … why not get hitched?

It is an issue the couple painfully wrestles with often. Daniel desperately wants to get married, while Mitch is adamantly against it. He loves Daniel deeply but does not respect the institution of marriage. He finds it old-fashioned and unnecessary—a concept foisted on mankind by religious zealots that has morphed into a money-making scheme. When pressed, Mitch fires back, “When did it become important for the gay community to be like everyone else?”

Meanwhile, Daniel is dreading the upcoming week-long visit by his mother, Lydia (Deborah Harmon). Widowed, wealthy and pushy, Lydia’s life is shallow and empty. She claims to love both Daniel and Mitch, “her boys,” and would also like to see them married—but underneath her smile is a controlling woman who can’t resist a veiled barb or two. Upon arrival, she invites the lesbians across the street to dinner, and insists that her son whip up a chicken dish he’s made in the past, because “everyone knows lesbians love chicken!” The tension between Daniel and Lydia is based largely on Daniel’s belief that his narcissistic mother is responsible for his late father’s failure to become a famous artist.

Without giving too much away, a sudden tragedy turns everything upside down, and brings up the old debate over whether blood is thicker than water.

Once again, Dezart’s artistic director, Michael Shaw, has made a brilliant choice with this play. Casting is always crucial, especially in a small ensemble piece like this, and here, it was spot on. Director Darin Anthony elicits amazing performances from each of his actors.

Shaw’s portrayal of Daniel is fabulous. He is sweet, funny and likable. The raw pain and desperation he feels over Mitch’s refusal to wed is palpable. What he’s on called to do as an actor is quite challenging, but Shaw pulls it off beautifully.

I have never seen Deborah Harmon be anything but terrific onstage, but she outdoes herself here as Lydia. Her breezy entrance, while dressed in pearls and perfectly coiffed, is memorable. Early on, she is hilarious, but her switch to a devious, cut-throat matriarch is quite effective.

Chuck Yates is equally as good as Barry. While his dating life is problematic—his attraction to decades-younger guys has not worked out well—he is the steadying presence in the story. Actors in less-flamboyant roles can sometimes get lost on the stage. Yates does not. Even when silently observing the action, he commands our attention.

As Trip, Hanz Enyeart is tremendous. Young, ditzy and flamboyant, the character of Trip is written to be a bit over the top, and Enyeart delivers, big-time. Yet later on, his poignant moments are authentic as well.

If I had to single out one performance, it would be that of David Youse as Mitch. We see immediately why Daniel loves him. He’s tall, rugged and affable. Both his passion for and commitment to Daniel are believable, as is his stubborn resistance to tying the knot. In the dramatic scenes toward the end of the play, Youse is simply stunning. Often one of the toughest things for actors to do onstage is just be still—to listen, absorb and just BE. Everyone in this cast nails that challenge, but Youse is outstanding.

Everyone on the production team did a bang-up job here. Special mention needs to be made of Thomas L. Valach’s set, which is simply perfection.

Love IS love—and Daniel’s Husband is magnificent.

Dezart Performs’ production of Daniel’s Husband is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 19, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

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.

Great theater should do more than just entertain us. Ideally, it challenges us, uplifts us—or stuns and outrages us, and perhaps forces us to re-examine some of our core beliefs. Dezart Performs’ production of Robert Askins’ Broadway hit Hand to God does all that—and more.

The story is set in a church basement in suburban Cypress, Texas. Just-widowed Margery (Yo Younger) has assembled a small group of volunteers to put on a Christian puppet show. In attendance are her troubled teenage son, Jason (Eddie Vona); his secret crush, Jessica (Brenna Williams); and local bad-boy Timothy (Danny Gomez).

Jason’s anger and grief over the loss of his father are raw. He blames Margery for not being able to provide the emotional support his dad apparently needed. Instead, the man turned to food for comfort—and ate his way into a fatal heart attack. Margery is also adrift; the loss of her husband—with the emotional and financial support he provided—has left her anxious. Compounding Margery’s stress are not-so-subtle sexual advances from both teenage Timothy and the church’s pastor, Greg (Roy Abramsohn).

Things start spinning out of control when Jason’s sock puppet, named Tyrone, begins describing Jason’s attraction to the mild-mannered Jessica in a lewd manner. Mortified by Jessica’s embarrassment, Jason attempts to muzzle Tyrone—to no avail. Seemingly possessed by the devil, Tyrone becomes increasingly obscene and violent. No one is spared: Every character gets a taste of the puppet’s vitriol, even Jason himself. It’s as if every bitter, hateful thing Jason ever wanted to say, but was afraid to, is now coming out of Tyrone’s mouth.

Jason’s ongoing battle with Tyrone is intense, often ugly, and almost always hilarious. At one point, Jessica shows up with a female sock puppet, which she offers up for therapy. Of course, chaos ensues.

Once again, director Michael Shaw has assembled a stellar cast. Each actor delivers a dynamite performance, but special mention must be made of Eddie Vona. He deftly conveys the angst of a boy mourning his father, who’s also conflicted about religion and his burgeoning sexuality. Vona’s puppeteering skill with Tyrone is outstanding, especially in the rapid-fire exchanges Jason and Tyrone have with each other. The audience becomes absolutely convinced that Tyrone is an autonomous being, not just a sock with felt hair being manipulated by someone else.

The always-superb Yo Younger does not disappoint. Prim and proper early in the play, and outwardly displaying the appropriate religious devotion, we see the sadness in her eyes—the fear and loneliness of widowhood, the regret over her rocky relationship with her son, and the worry about where life will take her next. When it all explodes, we are momentarily stunned … but then it suddenly all makes sense. No one can stay that buttoned-up forever; something’s got to give. Younger gives Mrs. Robinson a run for her money in a true tour de force performance.

As sneering, bad-boy Timothy, Danny Gomez is fabulous. Tall and well-built, he’s a physically imposing presence onstage. Think of a foul-mouthed, more brazenly sexual Vinnie Barbarino.

Roy Abramsohn is perfect as Pastor Greg. He exudes a fantastic combination of smarmy piety and barely concealed lust, with great comic timing. When the pastor suggests an exorcism to get rid of Tyrone, Jason asks, “Isn’t there supposed to be a young priest and an old priest?” Greg replies: “We’re not Catholic!”

Brenna Williams is quite good as the innocent Jessica. She, too, has some memorable comic moments. Early on, she chides Timothy: “You are so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia!” Her facial expressions during a lengthy puppet sex scene are priceless.

The colorful, whimsical set is excellent, as are the sound, lighting and costumes.

Congratulations once again to Shaw for choosing yet another provocative, entertaining play that pushes the envelope. Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is hilarious, but not for the faint of heart. It touches on subjects some may find uncomfortable—good versus evil, demonic possession and rough sex. But then again, isn’t touching on uncomfortable subjects what good theater is all about?

Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov, 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40, and the running time is just less than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

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.

There’s a new entry in the Coachella Valley theater scene: Meet the Encore Theatre District.

Encore began in February 2017, when artistic director Tiffanie Patscheck and her son, Jeremiah Rhoads, took the first steps toward making their dream—presenting financially accessible theater with a message—into reality. The nonprofit company’s first production was a staged reading of Lydia, in September 2017. Written by Octavio Solis, it explores the experience of a Mexican-American family living on the Texas-Mexico border and trying to live their own version of the American dream. Patscheck says the play perfectly fit the company’s mission statement, which is “integrating diversity through the performing arts and inspiring the surrounding community.”

Encore just closed its second, 2018-2019 season with Falling, the story of a family struggling to raise their autistic son. The company partnered up with the Coachella Valley Autism Society of America, and Patscheck says the partnership helped the company set the proper tone for Falling—which earned rave reviews.

Social relevance is a key element in the plays Encore chooses to do, Patscheck says. She and her son have so far shared the directing duties. Encore is always looking for interesting plays—as well as a musical they could sink their teeth into, provided the company finds the proper sponsor.

“We don’t want to do what everyone else is doing,” Patscheck says.

Because of Encore’s community focus and the ample amount of talent in the Coachella Valley, Encore only casts local actors.

“There’s no need to look elsewhere!” she says.

Encore has been presenting its shows at the Black Box at Palm Springs High School, but Patscheck says she hopes the company can find a permanent home in the future. Like most local theater companies, Encore relies heavily on donations to stay up and running, and to keep ticket prices low ($20 in advance, and $25 at the door).

Patscheck, who began performing when she was 5 years old, says audiences for Encore’s productions have been enthusiastic, but small, and she’d love to see more public support.

Encore’s 2019-2020 season is slated to include an all-female series of one acts; an “avant-garde, minimalist” version of Alice in Wonderland; and 14, a piece regarding 14 immigrants who died in Yuma, Ariz. Patscheck said Encore is planning individual auditions for each show rather than season auditions.

“We embrace odd, funny, sometimes uncomfortable productions in a minimalistic way,” Patscheck says. “Our directors and actors create the illusion for the audience, and we hope to continue to bring the whole community into our silly little world.”

To find out more about Encore Theatre Company, visit www.facebook.com/encoretheatredistrict.

Dezart Performs Artistic Director Michael Shaw is ending the company’s 11th season on a perfect note with Audrey Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin.

Set in rural Alabama, this charming story follows the burgeoning romance between new neighbors Lizzy Nash (Kay Capasso) and Jack Key (Joel Bryant). Lizzy has taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher to mourn the loss of her husband in a roofing accident.

Jack, a physics teacher at the same school, has just moved in next door. He purchased the house not knowing that the previous owner died in the front bedroom, mere months after the man’s wife passed away. After Lizzy reveals this fact, Jack—a widower himself—becomes convinced the house is haunted, and takes to sleeping out on his back porch for safety. Featured prominently on that porch is a Maytag clothes dryer that Jack stubbornly refuses to move inside. Lizzy chooses to dry her laundry the old-fashioned way, on a clothes line, and finds the appliance an irritating eye-sore.

The neighbors discover a bag of old love letters the elderly tenant had written to his wife during their decades-long marriage, and they read them throughout the play. The tenderness of the letters helps Jack and Lizzy deal with the grief of losing their own spouses, and to slowly discover their feelings for each other.

In a two-hour play with only two characters, casting is crucial. If the performers don’t have strong acting chops and onstage chemistry, the audience is in for a long night. Thankfully here, director Deborah Harmon made excellent choices: Both Kay Capasso and Joel Bryant are superb.

Capasso’s Lizzy is conflicted, sexually frustrated, warm, likable and hilarious. The term “motormouth” does not adequately describe her penchant for chatter: The woman simply doesn’t shut up. Jacks sums it up perfectly, “You say it all out loud, huh?” When explaining why she can’t fall in love with a Catholic, Lizzy quips: “It’s just not done!” Her special meditation to “keep the dark thoughts out” is priceless. Capasso exquisitely captures all of Lizzy’s nuances. Her acting is flawless, and her Southern accent is spot-on. She has several long monologues in this production—hundreds and hundreds of lines to memorize—and I did not notice a single flub. Quite impressive.

As Jack, Joel Bryant is equally terrific. I’ve seen Bryant in several other valley productions, and he’s set the acting bar quite high for himself. He does not disappoint here: Attractive, well-built and charismatic, he commands the stage. Funny, friendly and kind, his Jack is the guy men want to be, and women want to be with. His attraction to Lizzy is apparent right away, but he realizes she is fragile and that he must tread carefully. Bryant’s comic timing is marvelous, and he handles the serious moments equally well. Not every actor could pull off the scene in which Jack breaks down when recalling his wife’s death. Bryant nails it.

It’s such a joy to see truly gifted actors ply their trade onstage. That is what you’ll see in this production of Maytag Virgin. I would encourage any acting student to check it out for that reason alone.

The production values are equally as good. Thomas Valach’s set could not be better. Every detail—from Lizzy’s collection of wind chimes to Jack’s statue of the Virgin Mary—seems just right. The costumes, lighting and song selection during the swift set changes are all fabulous.

Special mention should be made of the director: Deborah Harmon chose her actors well and then guided them expertly through the script. Even outstanding thespians need someone who knows what he or she is doing at the helm of the ship.

As a theater reviewer, it’s easy to second-guess yourself when you can’t find even a minor flaw in the production of a play: “Isn’t there something wrong here that I can write about?” But the truth is, there isn’t.

Maytag Virgin is a magical time at the theater. Go see it.

Dezart Performs’ production of Maytag Virgin is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 14, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35, and the running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

There is only one word to express the feeling one gets when entering Coachella Valley Repertory’s new digs: awe.

Artistic director Ron Celona and his board of directors have completely transformed the old IMAX theater in Cathedral City into a live playhouse worthy of Broadway. From the impressive “Wall of Donors” and the expansive refreshment bar with gracious bartenders, to the luxurious VIP Lounge (called the Producer’s Room)—complete with its own flat-screen TV, piano and automated sliding glass door—everything screams “class.” The lobby of the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City also features a rendering of the Cathedral City Downtown Arts and Entertainment District. With CVRep as a hub, if all goes according to plan, it will feature an outdoor amphitheater, an alternative transportation trail and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ new gaming/retail and entertainment center. As for the playhouse, the $3 million price tag was covered by private donors, a loan from the city and a grant from the Cathedral City Downtown Foundation.

Then there is the theater itself: Celona has more than doubled his seating capacity (208 versus 86 in his previous location) and installed a massive 2,700-square-foot stage.

It’s all the realization of a dream Celona said kicked into high gear when he left his position directing plays at the Joslyn Center 12 years ago. He took a year off and traveled the country, picking the brains of other successful theater companies. Celona’s goal was always to produce “theater of substance,” he said, adding that Coachella Valley audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years. As a result, the timing was just right for CVRep to take the step up to the current location.

The company’s production of Chess—with the book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson—was a wise choice to christen the new facility.

The musical tells the story of a world chess championship between brash American Freddie Trumper (Garrett Marshall) and dour Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (David Sattler); the characters are loosely based on Viktor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer. Freddie’s assistant is the beautiful Florence (Gabriela Carrillo), who tries her best to keep him in line. Anatoly’s second, Molokov (Michael Dotson), is actually a KGB agent. The first game of the match does not go well, and a meeting is called to smooth things over. Florence and Anatoly eventually realize they have feelings for each other; this budding romance and Freddie’s erratic behavior cause Florence to leave her post.

The Russian wins the chess championship—and defects to the West. While defending his title year a later in Bangkok, with Florence by his side, Anatoly faces even more complications: His wife, Svetlana (Ashley Hunt), has showed up to watch the match. Meanwhile, Freddie’s agent, Walter (Glenn Rosenblum), suggests to Florence that her father, whom she has not seen since they fled Hungary decades earlier, may still be alive. I won’t give away more, but the plot is chock-full of betrayal, heartbreak and political intrigue.

The cast is stellar across the board. Garrett Marshall’s Freddie is spot-on—cocky, immature and full of swagger. As the somber Anatoly, David Sattler is excellent. He has a soaring singing voice and strong acting chops; both his romantic and patriotic conflicts ring true.

Michael Dotson is terrific as Molokov. Cold, calculating and sly as a fox, he embodies our vision of a Russian spy. The Russian accents used by both Dotson and Sattler are quite believable. As Freddie’s money-hungry agent, Walter, Glenn Rosenblum is a perfect fit, as is Jeremy Whatley as the arbiter, who enforces the rules of chess throughout the show, and keeps the matches moving along. Ashley Hunt is quite strong as Anatoly’s betrayed wife, with musical pipes that shake the rafters.

The ensemble (Sydney Clemenson, Brianna Maloney, Cassidy McCarron, Roman Skryabin, Daniel Sugimoto and Michael Rawls) adds the right touch to the proceedings. Each actor is featured in small speaking roles, and their group numbers are top-notch.

But the highlight in this superb cast is Gabriela Carrillo as Florence. Lovely and charismatic, she has us rooting for her immediately. We feel her frustration in trying to control Freddie, and then later, we relate to her true love for Anatoly. Her singing voice is flawless, and she has some of the best numbers in the show, including “Heaven Help My Heart” and her duet with Svetlana, “I Know Him So Well.”

“Chess” has a bit of a rock-opera feel, and some of the music is a bit dissonant. If you’re a big fan of Oklahoma! and hoping for tunes to hum on the way home, you may be a bit disappointed.

The orchestra, led by musical director Scott Storr on piano, is fabulous. The choreography, lighting, sound and costumes are all outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Jimmy Cuomo’s exquisite set.

But the biggest kudos of all have to go to director Ron Celona for assembling such an amazing cast and coaxing stellar performances from each actor. Chess is an impressive production that’s well worth seeing.

It’s amazing to see the dream that Celona has made come true. Thanks to him for providing the Coachella Valley with thought-provoking, quality theater—now in a gorgeous Broadway-style venue.

Chess is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

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