Nunzio Sisto, Daniel Bateman, Lizzie Schmelling and Sonia Reavis in the Palm Springs Cultural Center’s production of Why Can't the Trains Run on Time?

We are so very fortunate to be living in the Coachella Valley. Take, for example, the musical Why Can’t the Trains Run on Time? It opened off-Broadway in 2009, and now, 13 years later, our valley is the host of its West Coast premiere!

We saw the show during its opening performance on Monday, Nov. 14, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. It’s a musical, but don’t expect to see another Oklahoma! or Carousel. Oh, no: This show contains no rhyming verses, nor does it contain any repetitive rhythms. You will not leave the theater humming or whistling the melodies.

“What?” you may ask. This “new” style means that the songs cut right through to the point of the words, despite their being magnificently accompanied by Chip Prince on piano, located at the back of the theater (even though sounded like it was onstage).

There are no printed programs, so let me introduce the players to you: Sonia Reavis is the bright blonde; the other female is a long-haired brunette, a young Lizzie Schmelling. The younger man is Daniel Bateman, and the slightly older man with the whiskers is Nunzio Sisto, the author and composer of the work. It is an impressive task to produce a work for the theater (trust me; I know), and Sisto worked with Michael C. Green and the rest of the folks at the Cultural Center to accomplish the task.

The audience—nearly a full house on opening night—faces a nearly bare stage upon entry; there are just a few chairs, which are reconfigured during the show to create different scenarios. The background, high up on the back wall, is a giant photo of a space, seemingly underground, with a litter-strewn floor. On one of the chairs we see two bottles of water; they become an important part of the plot. The actors themselves move the furniture between scenes.

The plot and the characters develop together. We find out each character is a survivor of a failed relationship; this becomes a crucial point.

The actors use the theater itself to make entrances, coming down the long center aisle to climb onto the stage. They wear headset mics, with which they had a bit of trouble; this will probably be corrected by the time you see the show. The sound—just a little loud where we were sitting—is clear, but some of the actors dropped the last words of lines fairly consistently, which can lead some audience members to be confused.

The plot eventually becomes clear: These four people have been stranded in a subway station, with little prospect of rescue. They all know each other, and we gradually learn that they have a history. The resolution doesn’t come until the last few seconds of the play—and it will come as a surprise.

The second act brings some unusual blocking, with everyone wondering about themselves and how they are supposed to behave in a relationship with someone else. Songs like “Where Do I Fit In?” and “I Wish I’d Never Met You” convince us that life, at best, is messy. People reveal secrets about themselves and their relationships.

From a technical point of view, the actors appeared more involved with honoring the blocking they had learned than using the lighting to their advantage. As a result, some of the main lines were delivered in the dark instead of in the light. This will no doubt be cleared up in time; it’s just a question of getting used to this stage. Every one of the actors was solidly into the memorization of the difficult lyrics and melodies.

The singers are confident and strong, and the play presses forward steadily. The action goes from intimate connection to staged presentation without apology.

Why Don’t the Trains Run on Time? offers a fascinating look at a new form of musical theater—and it makes us wonder where it will go from here.

Why Can’t the Trains Run on Time? will be performed at 7 p.m., Monday, Nov. 21, Dec. 12, and Dec. 19, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. A pre-show reception starts at 6 p.m. The show is about two hours long, with one intermission. Tickets are $35. For tickets or more information, visit psculturalcenter.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...

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