Local theater lives! Desert Rose Playhouse lives!
The valley’s LGBTQ theater has risen like a phoenix from the ashes of COVID-19—changed, yes, but aren’t we all?
Desert Rose now has a Palm Springs address—611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 16, to be exact (and they’re hoping for a donation from some wonderful person so they can erect a proper sign). Their relocation has landed them at the former site of Zelda’s nightclub. (Prior to that, it was a nightclub called Heaven, where in days of yore, I did a one-woman show, but that’s a story for another time.)
The new home has a lovely vibe, with a glam silver curtain lit like a rainbow fronting the stage. That alone marks a big difference from the previous Rancho Mirage location, where an open stage was the only choice. A high ceiling is another change, which offers creative lighting opportunities. An actual staircase descends from their “Champagne Bar,” and a full bar stretches across one end. (You can tell men designed and decorated the place, because there are no handbag hooks in the ladies’ room.)
The interesting new chairs were actually imported from a church in Orange County. They look well-broken-in and super-comfy, and it turns out they’re true antiques—appraised at a fortune, yet purchased for a song by the shrewd producers. But I got to sit in solitary splendor on an enormous leather couch in the back, easily the best seat in the house—I recommend reserving one! On both sides of the house are plenty of high round tables where friends can enjoy drinks during the show.
Before the play, producers Robbie Wayne and Matthew McLean, in whose hands Desert Rose lies, told the fascinating story of moving the theater—in the midst of the pandemic’s darkest days—into the neglected, 7,000-square-foot space. You can read the tale in the show’s program, and it is a spellbinding one filled with every possible emotion: The coming together of a community, the generous support of patrons and volunteers, a ton of hard work, and a little bit of luck. They especially praised the Palm Springs Fire Department, who worked with them to make sure they made code! And they confided that up until a couple of hours before curtain on opening night (last Wednesday), they didn’t even know if their first show would be able to open! No stress there …
But open, it did, with perfect timing, getting us ready for the Fourth of July. The show actually closes with the Sunday, July 4, matinee, so you’ll need to see this show—the first full live theatrical performance in the Coachella Valley since the COVID-19 closures, at least that we know about—this week.
That first production is The Miss Firecracker Contest. Written by Beth Henley, it takes place somewhere in the South, and the actors have all adopted a rather thick, generic accent to cover that. The six-person play is written with two acts; the decade is never specified.
Phylicia Mason leads the cast as Carnelle, a young lady who has ruined her reputation by dating … well, every guy around. She has earned the nickname “Miss Hot Tamale,” yet she schemes to redeem herself by winning the Miss Firecracker Contest, for which we see her earnestly and exhaustingly rehearsing her self-styled talent act when the curtain rises. The first-act set is the living room of her late aunt’s house where she has been staying; it is vaguely rural, Southern, and old-fashioned. A staircase right at the front door leads up to the second-floor bedrooms and bath. Two-story sets—another big change for this theater!
A knock at the door introduces us to Popeye, played by Rebecca Ann Rodriguez in her Desert Rose debut—she is a student at UC Irvine, though no stranger to the desert and its world of theater. Here, she plays Carnelle’s seamstress and aspiring friend, a shy and bespectacled wannabe.
Enter Delmont, played by Robbie Wayne. Clearly a glutton for punishment, Wayne is not only the theater’s producer and artistic director; he is ALSO the play’s director, and now here he is, playing the male lead in this play. As Carnelle’s uncle, he plans to sell the house, now that he is freed from a mental institution; his sister had sent him there and refused to have him released until now. His character is fully realized here, and his default position is outrage—which means he satisfyingly bellows most of his lines.
Yo Younger appears next, as Delmont’s sister and Carnelle’s visiting Aunt Elain. A true Southern belle, she is beautiful, slender, vain and self-obsessed, with a steely spine. It is through her that we get to view that notorious Southern gentility, masking a powerful undercurrent of self-pity, a passion for identifying fault with friends and family, and a full-blown addiction to meddling in the lives of others. Just watching her and Robbie Wayne work would be sufficient reason to attend this play.
Not until Act Two do we meet Mac Sam, played by John Corr, a seemingly cavalier young buck—until we recognize that his horrifying chronic cough is indicative of some serious and possibly even terminal condition. And yet, he smokes. We have all met his prototype, alas.
We also meet Tessy, played by Christine Michele, who is also making her debut with Desert Rose—and she plays Tessy way over the top.
Given this is Desert Rose’s first show in the brand-new space, it’s understandable that there are a few kinks that need to be ironed out. First and foremost, the stage was too low for cast members to be sitting on the floor; it makes them disappear completely for anyone sitting behind the second row. Second: The high ceilings swallow sound; this presents a challenge that was not present in the former Desert Rose space. The sound problems were heightened by some members of the cast slurring their words, dropping the volume at the end of the line, or even speaking with their backs turned to the audience.
For leading this restoration of both their fabulous new space and desert theater as a whole, we truly salute and honor Desert Rose Playhouse on this most patriotic of weeks. Their bravery and stick-to-it-iveness are exemplary and inspirational. We all suffered during the pandemic, but what they went through at Desert Rose Playhouse would make for a heroic movie … or maybe a play!
Happy Fourth of July!
The Miss Firecracker Contest will be performed at 7 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 4, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Suite 16. Tickets are $34-$37; high-top tables (for four) or VIP couches (for two or three) are $175. For tickets or more information, visit desertroseplayhouse.org.