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A great theater experience allows us to see our human selves reflected back—in a way that moves, informs and enables us to relate to the realities of the lives of others.

When I was 17, my father threw me out because I had stayed out all night. Shortly thereafter, I got pregnant out of wedlock and contemplated suicide. I remember despondently standing in front of a bathroom mirror, ready to slit my wrists, and suddenly saying out loud to my reflection, “If it’s that bad, it can only get better.”

And it did.

Those feelings were overwhelmingly brought back when I attended the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre production of Push, written by George Cameron Grant, and directed by Cathedral City resident Jeanette Knight. The play was this season’s Youth Outreach Production. I first experienced this CV Rep program last year, when the focus was on female bullying.

The theater buses in students from throughout the area to see a one-act play about issues to which they can personally relate. After the production, the audience discusses the play’s themes with the actors and the director, to explore their own reactions and experiences. It’s more than a learning experience: For some students, it’s the first time they have attended dramatic theater and realized its ability to impact an audience.

Push revolves around a young man who comes out as gay to his parents and faces immediate rejection by his stern father. After the boy is thrown out, he subsequently suffers another rejection—by the boy he has fallen in love with—and commits suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming subway train. The play follows the anguish suffered by his sister, who runs away from home and is discovered at the same train station, contemplating ending her own life. As she struggles with her own feelings, she questions whether her brother made a choice, or whether he was “pushed” by others to feel he had no other options.

The performers in Push were almost all students, some of whom have never acted before. Their ability to inhabit the roles and then discuss with the audience the impact of those roles as it relates to their own lives and experiences was not only educational, but also very moving.

Ron Celona, the founding artistic director of CV Rep, participated in the after-play discussion. He noted that the 1,400-plus students who had seen Push were not so focused in the after-play discussions on the bullying and rejection of the boy’s sexuality; instead, their focus was on the suicide, an issue they and their friends had already encountered, either personally or through troubled acquaintances.

Jeanette Knight, originally from Michigan, has been in the desert since 1997.

“My mother dragged me to dance classes, and I now thank her every day for it,” she says. “I stayed with dance, and that’s how I got into acting.”

Knight began doing musical theater, and “I fell in love with the whole theater crowd.” She completed a degree in theater at UNLV, but says, “I’ve learned so much more from doing it outside of college.”

Knight’s local experience includes working at McCallum Theater as the education program manager, running the Beaumont Actors Studio, teaching acting and improvisation at the Idyllwild Arts Academy, and teaching classes in improv at CV Rep. “I’ve learned so much about acting by teaching it,” she says.

When Ron Celona approached Knight about directing Push, she jumped at the chance. “I really like doing this kind of theater,” she says. “We can’t sweep these issues under the carpet. The kids who come to see these shows are our future.”

There are two local efforts devoted to assisting young people who feel unsafe or who are aware of someone else who feels threatened or hopeless: Sprigeo is an anonymous reporting and investigation service to deal with bullying, harassment or intimidation in or out of school, with which the Palm Springs Unified School District is affiliated. SafeHouse of the Desert helps teens in crisis; those who feel threatened can go to any Sunline bus stop or McDonald’s and get free transportation to SafeHouse.

My parents finally allowed me to return home, but only if I gave my child up for adoption. In those days, there was no real way a teenage unwed mother could make it, so I lived with the hope that my son had indeed been able to live a better life than I could have given him. My first-born son and I were happily reunited after over 40 years. He is a gay man.

At the end of Push, when the sister decides her life is worth living, and her father apologizes for having rejected his son and contributing to his death, I was overcome with tears. All I could think was: I am so thankful that something inside of me knew it would get better, and that my son was adopted into a family where he was loved and accepted.

CV Rep is truly making a difference. In Jeanette Knight’s words: “It’s rewarding to have a hand in art not just for art’s sake, but to be a part of theater that can help make the world a better place.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The Coachella Valley and High Desert are blessed with a variety of unique and ambitious local theater companies.

But you would not necessarily know that’s the case in August: Not one of the Coachella Valley companies had a single regular show scheduled during the month. However, perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned over at Desert Rose Playhouse: The company just extended its run of Party by three weeks thanks to brisk ticket sales, so instead of ending on July 31, the comedy will now run through Aug. 21.

In other words … there is indeed a theater audience around during the summer. Well, at least there is if a show involves nudity.

Anyway, here’s what local theater-lovers can look forward to from the valley’s most prominent theater companies during the upcoming season.

Coachella Valley Repertory Company

cvrep.org

CV Rep made headlines in July when it was announced that the theater company, which currently resides in the Atrium shopping center in Rancho Mirage, had agreed to purchase the Desert Cinemas theater in Cathedral City.

Wow!

But for now, CV Rep has a season to put on, and every season, founding artistic director Ron Celona chooses a theme. So what can theater-goers expect this coming season? A lot of “Love, Marriage and Life Changing Events.”

The valley’s only Equity Small Professional Theatre will launch its sixth season at the Atrium with Annapurna, by Sharr White, running Oct. 26-Nov. 20. Talk about a life-changing event: “Twenty years after leaving her husband, Emma tracks him to a trailer park in the middle of nowhere for a final reckoning.” From Jan. 18-Feb. 12, things will get a little lighter with Baby. Nominated for seven Tony Awards, “Baby is about three couples on a university campus dealing with the painful, rewarding and agonizingly funny consequences of the universal experience of pregnancy and upcoming parenthood.” The 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama went to Amir Kapoor’s Disgraced, about a Pakistani-American lawyer who is distancing himself from his roots. Meanwhile, his wife, Emily, is a white artist influenced by Islamic imagery. Hmm. The play runs March 7-April 2. The season concludes April 25-May 21 with A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, a story about a romance being rekindled 30 years after it began.

Coyote StageWorks

www.coyotestageworks.org

The last couple of seasons have been turbulent for founding artistic director Chuck Yates’ renowned company. After losing its home at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2014-2015, the company returned to the theater for the 2015-2016 season for Art and Agnes, both of which received rave reviews.

As for the upcoming season … well, Coyote StageWorks is the only company in town that has yet to spill any of the figurative beans. When I reached out to Yates via email for information as deadline approached, he politely responded: “I am still securing rights to our new season. It will celebrate Legendary Ladies, who have made their marks in the world. All of the shows are comedic, but legally I can’t announce titles until everything is sewn up.”

Yates would also like you to know that between now and Labor Day, any gifts the Equity professional theater company receives, up to $30,000 total, will be generously matched by Emmy Award-winning television producer and writer David Lee, best known forFrasier and Cheers. So … give!

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company

www.facebook.com/DETCStage

Now entering its sixth season, the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company—which shares the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club with Dezart Performs—in recent years has kept things in the family by producing a lot of company members’ own works, and the 2016-2017 season will be no exception.

DETC’s third annual season-opening gala will take place Nov. 18. Boys Night Out, conceived and directed by Jerome Elliott, features popular local singers such as Charles Herrera and Doug Graham. The season will kick off in earnest with Expressions, a new drama by DETC’s Shawn Abramowitz, focusing PTSD and its effect on both veterans and their families; it runs Feb. 3-12. From March 17-26, the company will produce artistic director Tony Padilla’s Lovesport, a fast-paced comedy: “When middle-aged couple Josh and Marty invite home the younger Gary and Ben for after-party drinks, the wine flows, the weed blows, and relationships are changed.” A third, yet-to-be-announced play will be performed April 21-30.

Desert Rose Playhouse

www.desertroseplayhouse.org

It’s been a turbulent year for the valley’s LGBT-focused theater company. In January, founders Jim Strait and Paul Taylor pulled off the seemingly impossible: The company mounted an amazing production of the elaborate Angels in America, Part One, in the playhouse’s barely-bigger-than-a-black-box home in Rancho Mirage.

Problem is, few people wanted to go watch such heavy fare: The show tanked financially. That, combined with a drop in donations, jeopardized Desert Rose’s 2016-2017 season.

However, the company has been saved by a boost in donations over the summer—and by a Party: Desert Rose’s nudity-laden summer comedy has been a wild success, so much so that the company just extended its run by three weeks, through Aug. 21.

Artistic director Jim Strait got a late start on the 2016-2017 season due to the financial uncertainty, but here’s what he’d confirmed as of our press deadline: The season will kick off with Poz, by Michael Aman, running Sept. 30-Oct. 23: “A delightfully unlikelycomedyset in 2003, (Poz is) the story ofEdison, a young actor/waiter with leukemia, and Robert, an older HIV+ man.” The company’s annual holiday show has not yet been nailed down, but it’ll run Nov. 18-Dec. 18. From Jan. 20-Feb. 12, Desert Rose’s annual “Gay Heritage Production” will be Charles Busch’s campy and hilarious Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, along with its companion piece, Coma, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. That will be followed up by Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, running March 17-April 9. The final show of the season, scheduled for April 28-May 21, can’t quite yet be announced.

Desert Theatreworks

www.dtworks.org

The theater company that calls the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert home has already kicked off its packed-with-shows fourth season: Artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez does things a little differently, running his company’s “season” from May through April. So what’s in store for the rest of the season? The Realistic Joneses is a comedy about two small-town neighboring couples who share more than the same last name; that’s slated for Sept. 16-24. Agatha Christie’s A Murder Is Announced will be performed Nov. 4-11, followed by Christmas My Way: A Sinatra Holiday Bash Dec. 9-18. Desert Theatreworks will kick off 2017 with a dose of Neil Simon: 45 Seconds From Broadway is on the boards Jan. 27-Feb. 5. Musical The Drowsy Chaperone will take the stage March 9-19, and the season will conclude with the musical Next to Normal April 21-30.

Dezart Performs

www.dezartperforms.org

Dezart Performs shifted its focus for the company’s eighth season in 2015-2016: Gone was the annual Play Reading Series. That means that for the company’s upcoming season, for the first time, artistic director Michael Shaw will not be producing any world-premiere shows.

However, the 2016-2017 season lineup is a doozy nonetheless. Coming off of Dezart’s most successful season ever, Shaw and company will kick off at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club with Harvey Fierstein’s dramedy Casa Valentina, running Nov. 4-13. The stars of this show: Straight men who happen to enjoy dressing up as women. That will be followed on Jan. 13-22 by Clybourne Park, the 2012 Tony Award winner for Best Play and a 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner, which “takes a razor-sharp jab at race and real estate in a fictional Chicago neighborhood. The two explosive outrageous acts are set 50 years apart.” Dezart Performs’ popular one-night-only live-radio-show fundraiser, On the Air!, will return to the Camelot Theatres on March 9. Dezart Performs’ ninth season will conclude March 31-April 9 with Chapatti, an “unlikely love story” between two animal-lovers by Irish playwright Christian O’Reilly.

Palm Canyon Theatre

www.palmcanyontheatre.org

The granddaddy of local theater companies usually offers an ambitious mix of one-week productions and longer-running fare, and that will again be the way things are done during the 2016-2017 season. It all starts with farce Noises Off, running Sept. 15-18. There’s trouble, right here in River City, when the classic The Music Man hits the stage Sept. 30-Oct. 9. Changing things up is Jekyll and Hyde, on the slate from Oct. 21-31. Palm Springs Pride always brings the fabulous Bella da Ball’s Broadway in Drag! pageant; this year, mark your calendars for Nov. 4. Del Shores is huge in the Coachella Valley this year; get in the mood for Southern Baptist Sissies happening later at Desert Rose with Sordid Lives, running at Palm Canyon Nov. 11-20. Based on the famous movie, Meet Me in St. Louis runs Dec. 2-18, followed by Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat Jan. 20-Feb. 5. Head to Argentina—figuratively, of course—for Evita Feb. 17-March 5; that will be followed You Can’t Take It With You, running March 16-19. Sweet Charity brings Neil Simon’s words to the stage March 31-April 16; Ira Levin’s Deathtrap follows April 27-30. Get down with Rock of Ages May 12-21, before Palm Canyon concludes the season with its summer show, In the Heights, running July 7-16.

Theatre 29

www.theatre29.org

Community-theater company Theatre 29 flies under the radar—even though the company often turns out excellent productions up in the High Desert, which anyone can see for a low, low price: General admission tickets are usually just $15. The company produces “seasons” based on the calendar year, and has thus far only announced shows for the remainder of 2016. The Summer Youth Theatre gets the spotlight in Aladdin Jr., running Aug. 5-7. The musical The Secret Garden will take the stage Aug. 26-Sept. 24; that will be followed by Theatre 29’s annual “Halloween Haunt,” Resurgence, taking place Oct. 14-31. Perhaps this show will win a major award: A Christmas Story will be performed for your enjoyment Nov. 18-Dec. 17.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Previews

Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s 87 seats were filled, per usual, with eager supporters who had braved a windstorm and the craziness of a full moon to be present for the opening night of 4000 Miles. Since this is the final presentation of CV Rep’s 2015-16 season—which had the theme of “identity: lost and found” and has certainly been the company’s best ever—we were all filled with anticipation.

The play by Amy Herzog debuted in 2011, and CV Rep’s founding artistic director, Ron Celona, informed us that it won an Obie Award in 2012 and was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It deals with the attempts that of all of us make to try to bridge the generational gap—and considering some of today’s music, perhaps a larger generational gap has never existed. Speaking of music, classic Dave Brubeck sounds separate the scenes of this play. What a treat for the ears—that alto sax never fails to amaze.

The in-between-scene music is just one of the excellent details put in place by Celona, who assembled a tightly knit group to tackle all the technical aspects of the show. Jimmy Cuomo’s set, on this open stage, greets us with an eclectic, slightly run-down and old-fashioned Manhattan apartment. Aalsa Lee’s up-to-date costuming is exactly right. The sound, created by Randy Hansen, and the lighting, designed by Moira Wilke Whitaker, are flawless, and the fabulous Linda Shaeps has designed the excellent makeup and hair styles. Props were created by Doug Morris, and the techs are Karen Goodwin for sound, and Louise Ross for lighting (and stage managing). How can anything go wrong with a team like this?

The play opens at 3 a.m. at that pitch-dark Big Apple apartment, where Leo and his cross-country bike have arrived to crash at Grandma Vera’s. Awakened, she fumbles her way to the door without teeth (Was that acting? Was it REAL?) to admit her reed-thin grandson “for the night.” You guessed it: Three weeks later, he’s still there. 

Grandma Vera Joseph is played by Ivy Jones, who is convincing as an octogenarian who gropes for forgotten names and words, misplaces her hearing aid and frailly flits from the present tense to her sizable past. Leo Joseph-Connell is acted by Zachary Hallett, completely believable as he juggles his growing pains with the recent horror of losing his best friend and dealing with the confusing women in his life. These two dominate the play, and we watch Leo and Vera as they struggle to understand each other. They battle memories versus reality, truth versus lies, perception versus knowledge.

Two actresses make cameo appearances. Leo’s future ex-girlfriend Rebecca (“Bec”) is played by redheaded Megan Rippey; she’s filled with conflicts and doubts, torn in all directions at once … yet she invokes our sympathy. One night, Leo meets and brings home Amanda, a raven-haired tart played by Christine de Chavez, who very nearly steals the show. She’s a splash of color, a wind-chime of laughter and a whirl of excitement in an otherwise angst-filled journey.

Leo’s complicated family life crisscrosses through the dialogue, and we are slowly fed the details of the relationships, leaving us a bit stunned. Adoptions and divorces are mixed in, furthering the complexities. Politics dangle from some branches of the family tree. Feelings abound. Therapy is involved. Ooof!

The play is about co-existing with our families and the rest of the world. It’s about communication that spans the years and which can separate people. It’s about finding common ground between people instead of differences. There’s some gossip. There’s loneliness. There are huge contradictions within people—for example, Grandma Vera still uses a rotary-dial telephone, but she also owns a computer. 

Though Leo lives in St. Paul, Minn., he has made the journey by bike from the West Coast to New York—hence the play’s title. Yes, it was dangerous. In one brilliant and breathtaking monologue, he tells us about his trip. You might never forget what he said. I will certainly never forget learning that people making such a trip are supposed to dip the rear wheel of their bicycle in the Pacific upon departure, and when they arrive at the Atlantic coastline, they are to dip the front wheel in the waters. How lovely!

The writing is extraordinary. Each character’s speech patterns and verbal expressions are completely unique. Herzog has truly “found the voice” of each character—and she has been willing to step aside and let THEM speak. 

As the director, Celona has identified the big picture in this production, and the big picture is … small. It’s all about attention to detail, which is rich. (They use a real refrigerator!) Also, the actors speak in normal voices, not using projection. This can only be accomplished in an intimate theater like this one. It gives the show a realistic quality, as if we are sharing a nanny-cam moment of watching them. This show is a superb example of the method style of acting: Each actor presents us with a studied performance, in which every tiny gesture and breath and reaction has been thought out. It seems so natural and spontaneous that it looks like it is just happening. Nothing is harder than making something look effortless.

Congratulations to CV Rep on this astonishing season, and bravo to the cast of 4000 Miles. We already can’t wait for the next play.

4000 Miles is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 8, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48, and the play runs 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Any of us born after World War II have heard such a variety of stories about the conflict. They range from the terrifying first-person tales of Holocaust survivors to the darkly inspirational diary of Anne Frank. However, the astonishing I Am My Own Wife, now playing at the Coachella Valley Repertory Company, tells the tale of a completely different aspect of WWII: a German transvestite who actually SURVIVED the Nazis and East German postwar Communism! How could it be?

This extraordinary play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2004. Here, this one-man show stars New York-based actor Vince Gatton and is directed by Ron Celona. This is not fiction—it’s a true story, about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, written by Doug Wright.

The two-act play takes us through author Wright’s years of investigating Charlotte, with whom he becomes somewhat obsessed. Through the stories, we are taken on a journey in which we meet an amazing 35 characters—all played by this one actor! It is a dramatic tour de force. Celona confesses that after he saw the play in New York, he paced the streets for hours, unable to stop thinking about it. We felt the same after the play. The packed house at CV Rep gave this work a standing ovation at the performance we saw, so the other members of the audience evidently felt the same, too.

The more German language, or even Yiddish, that you know, and the more Deutschland accents you’ve been exposed to, the easier time you’ll have with this experience. There are quite a few untranslated words. You won’t be lost, but you will need full focus to follow it; this two-hour play covers a lot of ground. Frankly, it was the first time I’ve ever felt lucky for knowing the German language at all, since studying it was an absolute nightmare.

The gorgeous, richly decorated stage features warm-toned wooden shelves displaying a treasure trove of objects, from serious collectors’ items to kitsch. Two huge doors upstage center are topped by a screen which flashes the chapter titles as the play progresses. Serious kudos to Jimmy Cuomo for the design, and to Moira Wilke for the clever lighting, which creates multiple settings and mood changes.

Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde on March 18, 1928, and her realization that she is female, even though she was born a biological male, is a gradual one. She eventually adopts the name Charlotte, and creates her last name, von (meaning “from”) Mahlsdorf, using the name of the town where she was born. Kind of like John Denver, whose real last name was also a multisyllabic German one.

Charlotte wears a skirt and a string of pearls, but her style is a solid peasant look, all in black with clunky shoes and a black headscarf. She wears no makeup or cosmetics of any kind, which allows us to see the actor’s skin change with real emotion, always a rare and jaw-dropping experience. Vince Gatton’s uber-talent is that of a chameleon: He actually physically transforms with each character he plays, so that we are in absolutely no doubt about which one is speaking. He changes his posture, his gestures, his accents and his voice—for, yes, all 35 characters. Believe me.

The astonishing story reveals that Charlotte’s own father is a Nazi. With everything that happens, we are increasingly impressed that this person not just survived, but thrived, in this era. She became a “collector” of phonographs and clocks—even though she was lined up to be shot at one point. Even though gays were sent off to prison and concentration camps from 1933 on—including her best friend, Alfred—Charlotte lives. How?

The show’s program includes a helpful chronology of Lothar/Charlotte’s life. Despite the horror and stress and setbacks she goes through, there are several solid laughs in this show. We get to know her largely through the visits of the writer who is attempting to turn Charlotte’s life into this very play, so it’s sort of a play-within-a-play, a trick that Shakespeare loved to use. But considering Charlotte’s dealings with the storm trooper Nazis, the German police, the black market and the post-war Russian repression of subject matter, there’s no need to embroider the facts to create dramatic impact. Ron Celona’s exquisite direction, however, slides in a subtle worm of doubt: Is Charlotte telling the truth? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Any actor or student of theater must see this performance. It is epic. There are moments which are beyond description, such as hearing Charlotte name off the kinds of items in her collection, or the bit with a mob of journalists who question her—while Gatton plays each one. This is beyond brilliant—it’s a feat of memory and acting techniques that will leave any of us gasping. Occasionally, we might think we will actually glimpse the actor underneath it all … but then the chameleon changes again, and slips away from us.

Just when you think the play is over, you’ll discover that Celona has placed a surprise in the lobby which puts the cherry on the sundae of this experience. Don’t miss it as you exit.

The Coachella Valley’s theatrical season this year has thus far been a rich one. So how can we emphasize what a totally different experience this play will be for you? This standout show’s premise sounds a little weird, admittedly, but the actual experience is unforgettable. Don’t miss it.

When I was little, my older sister once was explaining to me what a chameleon does, in preparation for her acquiring one. She described the color changes of its skin after being placed on different colored backgrounds—turning red if it is placed on red, green on green, and so on. Always the precocious brat, I inquired, “What if you put it on plaid?”

Vince Gatton, the chameleon actor, shows us plaid.

I Am My Own Wife is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 27, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A Class Act was nominated for five Tony Awards, and it won an Obie for Best Music and Lyrics. It’s now being presented locally by the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre—and founding artistic Ron Celona readily admits that it’s the most ambitious (and expensive) effort in CV Rep’s history.

Celona does keep raising the bar, doesn’t he? This time, he’s using an eight-member cast and a live four-piece band. Celona’s Little-Theater-That-Did is an inspiration for any start-up. This show, with music and lyrics by Edward Kleban (remember that name!) and book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price, takes us straight to Broadway musicals—an awesome topic for a regional theater. Here in Rancho Mirage, Ron Celona directs the show (of course), while Scott Storr is the musical director, and the choreography is by Mark Esposito.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: CVEP presents two nights of preview shows for audiences before the official opening. (Applause for that idea—there is nothing weirder than the first time in front of a real audience.) But for this review to make the deadline for our February print edition, the Coachella Valley Independent had to attend the very first preview of A Class Act. Obviously, a preview must be judged a little more gently than the “real” shows.

That said, the first preview’s packed house would agree: This show is ready.

The show opens with Kleban’s memorial service. (He died in 1987 at the age of 48 from smoking … a cautionary tale.) The rest of the show uses flashbacks to reveal his life, while his original music and lyrics weave through the story. You’ll enjoy such songs as his “Light on My Feet,” “Paris Through the Window,” “Follow Your Star,” “Broadway Boogie Woogie” and “The Next Best Thing to Love.” We watch him slave over his doomed show Gallery, and see his relationships ebb and flow. At the end of Act 2, we eventually return to the memorial service of this strange and talented man.

The plot, in a nutshell, focuses on Edward Kleban’s real-life creative struggle in the theater. That self-created struggle occurs simply because he is violently opposed to collaborating with anyone else, and wants desperately to be both lyricist and composer of his own Broadway musicals. The irony, of course, comes from the fact that he is best—really, ONLY—known, for his forced collaboration as lyricist, with the brilliant Marvin Hamlisch as composer, of A Chorus Line. In one flashback, we actually get to be present at the birth of such achingly magnificent songs as “At the Ballet,” “What I Did for Love” and “One.” These unforgettable pieces contrast with the rest of the music in this play, which was created solely by Kleban. It’s not bad music, but it’s just not up to the standard of the A Chorus Line work he did when he collaborated with someone else. Which he only did once. Go figure.

Kleban is played by Jeffrey Landman. He convincingly switches between Kleban’s varied neuroses, the vanity of the unsuccessful artist, and the stubborn belief in his own greatness. We see him go from attention-craving sniveling to genuine fear to lighthearted but sneaky charm. He’s complex character, well-played.

Craig Cady takes on two roles: Bobby, a fellow student, and Michael. The contrast between his two characters is fascinating, because he truly comes alive when he slaps on a moustache to play Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line, and he can use his lean dancer’s body to express every nuance of emotion.

Julie Garnye plays Sophie. As the curvaceous and luscious female lead and love interest (Yes! Kleban is straight!), Garnye has a quiet strength that serves her well, but it’s her powerful singing voice that you’ll remember.

Pretty Rachael M. Johnson is blonde Lucy, Kleban’s sweet friend and supporter. She’s a well-trained dancer and singer in the Broadway mode, and her trim, energetic moves are a pleasure to watch.

Craig McEldowney is Charley. He’s solid, gifted and reliable, and who wouldn’t like him?

Sal Mistretta plays Lehman Engel, the older-and-wiser teacher of the BMI songwriting class where his students meet. He brings a gravitas to the show with his thoughtful performance. Ironically, it is Kleban, not Engel, who gets to teach us “Lehman’s Rules” of showbiz.

Striking Christina Morrell is Felicia, ambitious and determined to live her dreams. She reminds us of when girls first began to succeed at working in all-male areas, and we like her for it.

Kristin Towers-Rowles plays Mona, a sexy redheaded singer/dancer out to conquer Kleban. She slithers and stalks seductively, but shows talent aplenty in her interpretation of this role.

I worried that stuffing this cast and all of the musicians into CV Rep’s space might prove to be what is called A Challenge. After all, CV Rep at the Atrium is basically a storefront. However, Jimmy Cuomo’s set—using dreamy rear-wall projections to transport us to locations such as Paris and Toronto, along with sliding panels that open to expand the area—give us a sense of greater space. This stage feels like the widest one CV Rep has created. Celona’s clean and clever direction uses every inch of the area; even in scenes using the entire cast, there is no feeling of crowding. The musicians—Jeff Barish on flute, sax and clarinet, Dave Hitchings on drums, Bill Saitta both bowing and plucking on bass, and Scott Storr on piano—find their home tucked in at stage left.

We must also mention Louise Ross as stage manager; Aalsa Lee, the costume designer; Eddie Cancel, who designed the lighting and technical effects; Randy Hansen as sound designer; Doug Morris as associate designer and prop master; and Karen Goodwin as sound tech. All did a terrific job in bringing this show to life. Because what this show tells us is this: In the theater, it’s ALL about the work.

Being preview-gentle: The only change I’d love to see in this show is for the first act to be as full of emotion as the second act. That will no doubt happen naturally during the play’s run. After all, it’s all about the work.

A Class Act is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, located in The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48; opening night (Friday, Jan. 22) is $58. The running time is 2 1/2 hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has added yet another feather to its impressive artistic cap with its first world premiere, Happy Hour, by George Eastman. The play tells the story of Harry Townsend, a wise-cracking, 80-something widower, and his son, Alan, as both come to grips with the reality that Harry can no longer live on his own.

When Alan (John Hawkinson) comes to Vermont for the weekend to visit Harry (Gavin MacLeod), Alan’s goal is to convince his father to move into an assisted-living community. Since his wife’s death, Harry’s physical health and mental health have been slowly declining. He tends to put the coffee filters in the freezer and the coffee pot in the oven … and his falls after tripping over the rug are becoming more and more frequent. Alan’s twin sister, Sara, lives close by and takes good care of their father—but her husband has landed a job in New York, and the couple is planning to relocate. Sara cannot bring herself to break the news to Harry, so Alan decides to take on the task.

Father and son have always had an amicable, if not particularly close, relationship. They have never really had a fight, but they don’t seem to have really gotten to know each other, either. They never had the father-son talk about “the birds and the bees” … Alan got that information from his sister. Harry attempts to make up for that with a bit too much information about his sex life with Alan’s mother. While recalling a tryst they once had in a pottery store, Harry quips, “Risk always hardens a boner, my son.” Turns out the green carpeting on the boat dock (about which Alan was teased by his friends as a youngster) was installed to make romance for his parents more comfortable.

Alan’s busy real estate career in California has cost him his marriage and kept him from visiting his father very often, which Harry resents. Following an argument, Harry storms out and vanishes for several hours. When a worried Alan shouts, “You’ve been gone since breakfast!” Harry shoots back: “You’ve been gone since December!” The play’s title refers to the shots of Scotch consumed during each father-son debate.

It’s a classic case of a senior citizen desperately fighting against the ravages of age and the inevitable loss of independence. Harry absolutely refuses to consider leaving the home he shared with his wife for decades. His solution is for Alan to move to Vermont with his girlfriend, and to replace Sara as his caretaker. That, his son says, is just not feasible. The elder Townsend “feels violated” at the suggestion he move into a senior community. He still feels his wife’s presence in the house, and tells his son, “This is all I have, and you want to take it away from me.”

Harry is played to perfection by Gavin MacLeod, best known for his Golden Globe-nominated work as Captain Stubing on The Love Boat and as acerbic newswriter Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. MacLeod, 84 himself, is just right for the part. At times, I wondered how much of the slow shuffling with the cane and difficulty getting up from a chair was Gavin, and how much was the character.

A mutual friend of MacLeod and playwright George Eastman sent MacLeod the script for Happy Hour five years ago. He kept hoping to bring it to the stage, and eventually brought it to CV Rep’s artistic director, Ron Celona, after seeing the quality of work at the theater. (The theater held a couple successful staged readings of the play before mounting this full production.)

MacLeod says he considers the play to be a gift. I’d say his performance is truly the gift. When he’s onstage, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him. His Harry is funny, bawdy, sometimes gruff, sometimes angry and occasionally heartbreaking. You want to go up onstage and throw your arms around him and tell him it’s all going to be OK. There’s not one false note in MacLeod’s performance.

L.A.-based actor John Hawkinson holds his own as Alan. In the opening scene, he seemed a tiny bit stiff, but once he got rolling, it was smooth sailing. He captures the conflict of a son who needs to live his own life, but also wants the best for his father. The audience is with Hawkinson all the way as he walks on eggshells, trying to treat his dad with respect and love while forcing him to face the realities of his age. The rapport between the two actors is excellent.

As always, director Ron Celona does an excellent job. Kudos also go to set designer Jimmy Cuomo, costume designer Aalsa Lee, stage manager Louise Ross and the entire production crew.

Go see CV Rep’s production of Happy Hour; it officially opens tonight. (I arranged to review the second preview performance, with CV Rep’s blessing, due to schedule conflicts.) It’s nearly impossible not to be moved by this play, especially if you—like many of us—are dealing with aging parents. I went with my significant other, who recently spent two weeks in Indiana packing up the family home (and 50 years of memories) following the death of his father. My own 87-year-old dad is looking into assisted-living facilities, having realized he just can’t do it on his own any longer.

Happy Hour will make you laugh … and cry … and think. If your parents are still living, it might just inspire you to give them a call.

Happy Hour is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 22. (There is not a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Oct. 31.) Coachella Valley Repertory is located at 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48; opening-night tickets are $58. Running time is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

My mother always used to say, “If you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all.”

I don’t remember being bullied when I was in school. I do remember there were cliques, and it was pretty clear who belonged to which group, and how the groups were ranked socially. There were the popular girls who were most likely to date the jocks. The artsy kids hung out with other actors, musicians and writers. We had the natural politicians who led the clubs, ran the social events and held school office. We had outlaws who smoked and drank and cut classes and wore leather jackets or long, dangling earrings.

There were some students who were overweight or too smart or socially inept. They got called derogatory names. There were girls who were tagged as “easy” (although some of my friends who were outwardly prissy got pregnant before those they disparaged). And of course, there were always some who got chosen last for the team.

I was mousy, mouthy and smart. My authoritarian father kept me from going to parties, so I hung with a crowd that was in the middle of the pack. However, there were times when I felt like a total outsider—insecure and undesirable.

It was a simpler time. Things have changed. There are still social castes and group identification—but technology has allowed name-calling to be taken to new levels, and girls are specifically targeting others, using media as their weapon. Today, it’s not just about something said in a snippy tone behind someone’s back; it’s about being instantly able to characterize someone negatively to the whole world, and putting someone on the defensive without any justification.

We’ve heard the stories of “mean girls” taking on and then discarding friendships and alliances based on the whims of any moment. We’ve read about the young people who feel compelled to end their lives because of the shame and stigmatization they suffer at the hands of others. Yet how many of us have talked to young people personally who are willing to tell us about their own experiences and the impact bullying behavior has had?

This brings me to a recent local production of The Secret Life of Girls, a play by Linda Daugherty which was performed locally for students and the public by Coachella Valley Repertory.

CV Rep is a theater company whose founding artistic director, Ron Celona, is a 17-year resident of Rancho Mirage. The company does at least one program each year aimed directly at young audiences. Why this play?

“People don’t realize the impact of bullying on young people,” Celona explains. “CV Rep focuses on presenting work that provokes rather than just entertaining. There are programs in schools, but they’re not being done through theater, which can involve the audience in a more emotional and purposeful way.”

The Secret Life of Girls, written in 2007, is based on interviews with girls, both bullied and bullies, about the damage of “cyberbullying.” The author has encouraged those performing the play to update the technology—from instant messaging and email, used when it was written, to the now-ubiquitous texting, Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat.

The play opens with Abby (played by Cecilia Orosco, a Palm Springs High School senior) saying to the audience, "I'm going to tell you a secret—and I don't want you to tell. The secret is about me—about my life—how it will never be the same again."

Director Nicole Dominguez, a Los Angeles resident, does a youth-oriented production somewhere every year. “Ron wanted a female to direct, and I’ve learned you can’t get young people to share their experiences and feelings unless you go first.”

Had she ever been bullied? “I had red hair, freckles and a mouth full of braces. I was like a walking target. It’s important to me that the kids take something with them that gives them some confidence, and I believe if you treat young people as if they were grown-ups, they tend to rise to the occasion.”

Dominguez also believes in the importance of involving students directly in theater productions. “Young people are the future of theater. Even if they don’t pursue it as a career, it teaches them the confidence to speak in public, and it’s about learning how to be a human working in a group environment to produce something of value.”

One of the eye-opening realizations in the play is the constantly shifting alliances among the girls, along with the pettiness and bullying that accompanies those shifts. I came to realize that some who are bullies may end up being bullied when alliances change, and that adults are often completely unaware of what’s going on.

Maybe cyberbullying happens because of the availability of social media as a way to compete for attention and notoriety, or maybe it’s about girls jockeying for social position. (Boys have bullying issues of their own, particularly involving physicality or sexuality as measures of power and success.)

For Celona, presenting this play is consistent with CV Rep’s mission of presenting challenging subjects via local theater. “We want to give audiences information and provoke discussing topics with others afterward.”

We did just that after the performance I attended. All of the young actors gathered onstage to answer questions posed by the audience. It was clear that some audience members were unaware of the depth of the problem, and many wanted to know what they could do that would make a difference.

What has been the impact of presenting a play on this difficult subject to young audiences? Celona recalled one performance to a particularly unruly group. They were noisy during the performance, and surly or deriding in challenging the actors during the discussion afterward. Katie Nolan, a senior at Rancho Mirage High School (who played the character of Chandler), finally had enough. She looked straight at the rowdy audience and said, “You’re bullying us right now!” There was silence, followed by productive discussion.

That’s the message of the play writ large. Speak up. Have confidence in yourself. As director Dominguez says, “You send something out there, and it’s there forever. Life should be about improving each other if we can.”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Ron Celona says films like Uniquely Nasty, which document the persecution of LGBT Americans, are important—because you never know what the future may bring.

“Anything is possible when it comes to the presidential election and that turn of events,” says Celona, the artistic director of Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre. “In individual states, they’re still trying to overturn (laws protecting LGBT rights). There are still discriminatory things happening.”

This why Celona worked so hard to bring the film Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays to town, for two showings at CV Rep on Wednesday, Sept. 9. The 30-minute documentary, narrated and reported by Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff, tells three stories that show how the U.S. government persecuted and discriminated against LGBT Americans in the 20th century.

The screenings at CV Rep will be followed by panel discussions featuring locals George Zander, of Equality California; and Andy Linsky, a member of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation board. They’ll be joined by Isikoff and Charles Francis, the president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. 

It’s the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., that catalyzed the making of the film, says Lisa Linsky, an attorney with McDermott Will and Emery, in New York City; she’ll be the moderator of Wednesday’s panel discussions. (Side note: She’s also a friend of Celona’s from high school; their recent re-connection, long story short, led to these Palm Springs screenings.) Linsky’s firm has been doing pro-bono work for the Mattachine Society—an “archive activism” organization focusing on LGBT history—for three years, obtaining historical government documents to tell forgotten and/or under-publicized stories about the U.S. government’s discriminatory treatment of LGBT citizens going back to the 1940s. Some of this research was used for an amicus brief that was submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court as the nine justices considered the recent gay-marriage issue. As we all know, the court ruled 5-4 in June that marriage equality was the law of the land.

Back before that historic decision, in January, Linsky took part in a program that showed off some of her firm’s findings for the Mattachine Society. Isikoff was in the audience.

“He expressed fascination, and said he wanted to do a documentary about the work,” Linsky says. “Two weeks later, the documentary was green-lit by Yahoo.”

The documentary was posted on Yahoo News in June, shortly before the 5-4 decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges case was announced. Linsky says the documentary has received well more than a million views thus far.

One story told in Uniquely Nasty focuses on Wyoming U.S. Sen. Lester Hunt. In 1953, Democratic senator’s son was arrested and accused of soliciting sex from an uncover male police officer. Republicans, including notorious red-scare Sen. Joseph McCarthy, threatened to publicize the arrest if Hunt didn’t decline to run for re-election and resign his seat. At first, Hunt refused the demands of his opposing senators—but he later became so distraught over the matter than he took his own life, on June 19, 1954.

Linsky says the goal of the documentary is to educate young people, and hold government accountable for its past wrongdoings.

“Our overarching objective is to inform people about this work (by the Mattachine Society), the nature of the work, and why it’s significant,” she says.

While the country seems to be definitively moving in a direction toward widespread LGBT acceptance, that does not mean there won’t be setbacks, especially when it comes to the actions of local, state and federal governments, Celona says—and that’s why it’s important to learn about the history told in Uniquely Nasty.

“How do we deal with what the future will bring?” he asked.

Screenings of Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays, followed by panel discussions, take place at Wednesday, Sept. 9, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. A public screening takes place at 6 p.m., with a by-invitation screening at 8 p.m. Admission is free, but seats are limited and will fill up. To RSVP, call 760-296-2966, or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Watch the film at Yahoo News, or scroll down to the Media section below.

Published in Previews and Features

CV Rep Writers’ Drop-In Group

Andy Harmon facilitates this group for all writers who are interested in becoming better storytellers, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, June 13 and 27. $15 at the class. At the Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. 760-296-2966; www.cvrep.org.

Doris and Me!—From CV Rep’s Cabaret Series

Back by popular demand, this tribute to Doris Day features Scott Dreier singing from the Doris Day songbook, at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, June 19 and 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, June 21. $25. At the Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. 760-296-2966; www.cvrep.org.

A Funny Little Thing Called Love—From Desert Theatreworks

This Jones Hope Wooten comedy, featuring four tales, is all about that four letter word: L-O-V-E; at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, from Friday, June 19, through Saturday, June 27. $26 regular; $24 seniors; $16 students with ID. At the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. 760-980-1455; www.dtworks.org.

McCallum Theatre Institute’s 2015 Summer Session Festival

During the SHUFFLE Concert, a genre-bending chamber-music celebration, the audience chooses what pieces will be performed, at 3 p.m., Monday, June 15. $10 to $15. Argentine twin brothers Martin and Facundo Lombard are joined by five tango musicians for a concert experience based on Astor Piazzolla’s spirited Nuevo Tango in Lombard Plays Piazzolla, at 3 p.m., Wednesday, June 17. $10 to $15. David Gonzalez conjures up jazz-infused narratives in Mytholo-Jazz, at 3 p.m., Friday, June 19. $10 to $15. Three-performance pass $20 to $35. At the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood—From Theatre 29

This musical ends differently every night, depending on what the audience decides. A rowdy ensemble of actors mounts a staging of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, and everyone is a suspect in the murder of young Edwin Drood; at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, June 27; there are also 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sunday, June 7 and 21. $12 regular; $10 seniors and military; $8 children and students. At 73637 Sullivan Road, Twentynine Palms. 760-361-4151; theatre29.org.

Nicky as Carol—From Desert Rose Playhouse

Carol Channing impersonator Nicky Ciampoli performs a tribute show at 8 p.m., Saturday, June 6; and 2 p.m., Sunday, June 7. $25. At 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. 760-202-3000; www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Sundays in Summer Series

Tish Oney performs in Divas and Masters of Jazz at 2 p.m., Sunday, June 7. Keisha D sings Keep Calm, It’s Just Love at 2 p.m., Sunday, June 14. We’re Still Here is a cabaret revue featuring Noni Lambertson, Marge Harris, Pat McCann, Patti Gallagher and Jean Sorf, at 2 p.m., June 21. Jeanne Page reworks the Great American Songbook in Reboot Live at 2 p.m., Sunday, June 28. Each show is $11; cash only at the box office. At the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. 760-325-2731.

Published in Theater and Dance

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