David A. Lee
David Engel and Loretta Swit in Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. Credit: David A. Lee

So, off you go to the theater to see Loretta Swit. The question in your subconscious, or even in the forefront of your mind, has to be: Am I going to spend the evening with Maj. Houlihan?

Hey, she played the iconic role for an incredible 11 years. You know her. You have watched her for hours of your life. You have suffered with her, howled at her outrageous comedy and grown with her. You know Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan better than certain members of your own family. Even though it’s been decades since M*A*S*H originally aired, there are DVDs and endless reruns on TV, so she is always with you.

The endlessly creative Coyote StageWorks has brought her to the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum for Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. So here you sit, breathlessly waiting, this giant unspoken question in your head.

Here’s the answer: Loretta Swit delivers! No, you will not spend the evening with Hot Lips. Swit proves herself to be the ultimate actress, transforming herself completely into Lily Harrison for this play, and making you forget all about that military nurse.

There’s nothing that fills the seats of a theater like the appearance of a celebrity, and Loretta Swit’s name, plus the proven reliability of Coyote to deliver stellar shows, brought out a bustling audience for opening night. If you want to exhaust yourself, read through the dizzying credits in the program, where everyone associated with the production lists their phenomenal career successes, educations, awards and honors. Whew.

Produced by the always-amazing Chuck Yates, Coyote’s founding artistic director, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks will captivate you with its terrific music, the tension between the two actors, the witty dialogue and its quirky creativity. The director, Larry Raben, is a co-founder of Coyote who has masterminded many of their shows. Direction for this show had to be a challenge, as one setting with two characters doesn’t give one a lot of variety to work with. However, Raben has managed to mine opportunities everywhere. We won’t go into detail for fear of ruining the surprises for you, but we promise you’ll be really delighted.

Co-starring with Swit is the superb David Engel as Michael Minetti, the dance instructor. Also a co-founder of Coyote, he smoothly and skillfully glides through his multifaceted role with apparent ease. Lily has hired Michael to teach her to dance with private lessons at her home, but despite his breeziness and jokes, the two lock horns immediately—and the relationship nearly craters at the start. The dialogue turns snarky. She fires him. That’s obviously not the end of the play; the complexity of their relationship is aggravated by old baggage, scars and some outright lies. Add politics, pain and some prejudice, and watch what happens. The two strut and stumble and grope their way through the choreography of their strange friendship … which is contrasted with the dance styles that they explore weekly, from Viennese waltz to cha-cha to tango and beyond. Engel is beautifully cast here.

Playwright Richard Alfieri has created an unforgettable script. A Floridian himself, he sets the action in a St. Pete’s Beach high-rise condo, and then creates two characters whose worlds would otherwise be unlikely to intersect. This play has been translated into 14 languages, and has been performed in 24 countries. It opened at the Belasco on Broadway; in Los Angeles, it starred Uta Hagen; his self-penned screenplay starred Gena Rowlands. Now Loretta Swit plans to tour in it! Nothing succeeds like success.

Let’s talk about Loretta Swit and her transformation into this role. Lily is an older character, but, of course, so is Swit, now 79. So how did she transmogrify into Lily from the role we all know so well? She gives us a master class in acting. First, vocal quality: Her voice is different because of her breathing, which changes everything. Lily speaks in short puffs, fragmenting her sentences into strings of phrases. Anyone over retirement age will tell you that your lungs can indeed change as your years progress, and Swit shrewdly uses this. Next, although she is still slim and youthful in appearance, we see that her very energy is changed, depleted, giving her posture the impression of advancing years. Her gestures, too, are different—here, she is more fluttery and feminine, a far cry from her severe portrayal of Houlihan. Physical changes include different hair (a rather heavy look, with bangs hiding or shadowing half of her face), and signs of aging such as dry skin, which she dismisses with self-deprecating humor. We view a lot more of her profile than of her full face, but Swit certainly knows her way around a punch line, no matter in which direction she is gazing.

Yates has chosen his staff with care, and the results are pleasingly wonderful, due to stage manager Diane David, scenic designer Josh Clabaugh, and Moira Wilkie’s scenic elements and lighting design (whose set earned instant applause at the first curtain), as well as the costumes of Bonnie Nipar. They all share in the compliment of a standing ovation at the show’s end.

Any problems? Not really, because the few little first-night stumbles will be ironed out by the time you see this play. Swit’s tight black cocktail dress revealed the outline of the microphone battery’s fanny pack, giving her a lumpy side view; perhaps it could be covered with a light jacket (or as they say in warm climes, “a little sweater”)? Other than these barely-worth-mentioning points, Six Dance Lessons is a show with which everyone can identify, and it is marvelous. There are laughs aplenty, counterpointed with some painful shocks and surprises. You will be charmed, moved and touched by the final scene.

At the Annenberg, you’ll always be treated to comfortable seats and most excellent sound quality—basics not present in every venue. Add this to the fabulous experience of the play itself, and you’ll treasure the experience of seeing Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.

And there won’t be an Army major in sight.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

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Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Valerie-Jean Hume’s career has included working as a stage/film/commercial/TV/voiceover actress, radio personality/host, voice and speech teacher, musician, lounge singer, cruise-ship hostess, theater...