CVIndependent

Tue12102019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

If your holiday schedule is not yet completely packed, take note: Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is bringing back its popular Twisted Broadway fundraiser.

What makes these revues of show tunes twisted? According to the press release, Twister Broadway “will feature a lineup of talented Broadway artists performing songs that were originally written for the opposite gender, as well as songs they always wanted to sing, but couldn’t, because they would be miscast.”

“We did it two years ago,” said Ron Celona, CVRep’s founding artistic director. “We wanted to see how people would react to it, and people had so much fun. It was a great, different way of raising money compared to the thousands of other fundraisers out there for different nonprofit organizations. So we decided to do it again this year, and in our new venue. For the first time, it will be under our own roof.

“And this time, we’re doing two shows: One at 4 p.m., and one at 7:30 p.m. In between the two shows, there will be receptions that come with each ticket.”

The funds raised will not only help CVRep continue to put on professional Equity theatrical productions; it’ll help CVRep as it expands its education programs via the CVRep Conservatory.

“We built a school,” Celona said, proudly. “Adjacent to our new theater was a Mexican restaurant. We own the whole property, so we spent the last year and a half gutting the restaurant, and building a two-room schoolhouse, basically, with a soundproof wall in between the two classrooms. We opened our first semester in the new school (a couple of months ago), and we had 80 students for that first semester, which I think is pretty damn good. Also, we’re going to have a holiday semester, and then we’ll open our winter/spring semester. My goal is to double the attendance in those winter/spring classes.”

CVRep is offering a wide range of courses, beginning with “Broadway Babies” for ages 4-7; acting for ages 8-10 and 11-14; “Stage Combat/Sword-Fighting” for daring high school students; and adult classes including “The Art of Auditioning With Monologues,” “Voice and Movement for the Actor” and improv classes.

“We get a lot of middle-aged to senior citizens in these adult classes,” Celona said. “Also included in our educational programming is our outreach program. We have teaching artists who are out teaching in the schools. Right now, they’re at Cathedral City High School. So, we go there instead of them coming to us.

“Lastly, another project we have is a comedy and improv festival that will be happening at the end of May 2020. People will apply to be a part of that from all over the country.”

Back to Twisted Broadway: Celona said he borrowed the idea from Broadway itself.

“The concept, which has been done in New York for years, (comes from a revue) called Broadway Backwards, and that is an annual fundraiser for the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fund. I got the title, Twisted Broadway, from a show done by a company in Australia that uses the same concept. I thought that was a much more fun title.

“But, ultimately, some of these concepts by other companies are just gender-bending. I thought that could become boring, so I’ve expanded the concept, and I’m including parodies of favorite show tunes, and that’s a lot of fun. There will be some group numbers that will be parodies, and then I have an individual artist, Robert Yacko, who’s going to be doing two parodies: on Sondheim, and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then, in the arena of gender-bending, (we’ll have) a moment that comes from a wonderful show called Side Show. There are two sisters … conjoined twins who are attached at the hip, and the whole musical is about them. We’re going to have a man and a woman attached, so it’s just twisting it and making it different and, hopefully, funny. The most important part here is that all of the songs are comical.”

Celona said Julie Garnyé, who had been listed as appearing in the show, had to pull out of the production due to a conflict. “I’ve replaced her with Alyssa Simmons, who’s currently doing Frozen at Disney,” Celona said. “(She joins) Jeffrey Landman, who is doing Frozen as well. They’ll be playing the twins in Side Show. Since they already know each other, that will help the chemistry.”

Other performers slated to appear include Randy Brenner, Erica Hanrahan, Loren Freeman, Sal Mistretta, Perry Ojeda and Kristen Towers Rowles.

Twisted Broadway, a fundraiser for the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, will take place at 4 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 12, at the CVRep Playhouse, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Cathedral City. Tickets are $150 to $300, and include receptions between the two shows. For tickets or more information, 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Best Band to Help You Learn Spanish

Ocho Ojos

In all honesty, the only Spanish words I—a decidedly white guy—know are lyrics to Ocho Ojos songs.

Following a last-minute booking at Coachella in 2017, and an album and EP release in 2018, the duo transformed into a quartet, with the band’s sound evolving into something that could be described as “psychedelic cumbia.”

This has been a standout year for Ocho Ojos: The band was again on the Coachella schedule—when the poster was released, not as a last-minute addition. This prompted a frenzy for Ocho Ojos, as the group could seemingly be seen performing anywhere in the valley, and even in Los Angeles. The shows could range from 30 minutes to three hours, thanks to the band members’ ability to perform many popular Spanish tunes in addition their own catalog—all while keeping the crowd singing along and dancing the night away.

When Sunday nights at Coachella came, the boys proceeded to close out the Sonora Stage in front of a packed tent. The energy was electric, and it was something only a band that truly represents the Coachella Valley could pull off.

Don’t believe me? Then take it from Rolling Stone: “Ocho Ojos managed to make their performance feel like a grand family function of pure baile with all your primos and extended relatives in attendance.” The performances were listed by the publication’s writers as one of the 16 best things they saw.

—Matt King


Best Weird Place to See a Band

Gadi’s Bar and Grill

In a building at 56193 Twentynine Palms Highway that has been home to various restaurants since the 1960s, Gadi’s Bar and Grill (www.gadisbarandgrill.com)has now been around since 2014, when Gadi Okevi bought what was then a Yucca Valley rib joint.

One side has a tiny bar with dining booths … but a short walk down a hallway will take you to an adjoining second barroom with a sound stage. Here’s where things get weird: Looming above the generic tables, chairs and tile floor is some wacked-out wavy woodwork that worms its way over the room. It was apparently created in the ’60s, and the wood-lined walls and ceiling don’t match anything else.

Why the funky ceiling was built remains a mystery. Was it was done as a creative way to hide vents? Or to amplify acoustics? Who knows. Whatever the case may be, soundman Jason Maxfield always makes the room sound amazing.

Gadi’s hosts an eclectic mix of live shows, from smaller local bands to occasional bigger acts, in genres including country, metal, old school punk or rock—Gadi doesn’t seem to have met a genre he doesn’t like. And thanks to Jason Maxfield, it all sounds amazing—whether or not that crazy ceiling is a help or a hinderance.

—Beth Allen


Best Ramen

Ramen Musashi

We’ve often posited in these pages that the Coachella Valley is about five years behind the big cities regarding the arrival of food and drink trends—and such is the case when it comes to ramen.

This time last year, if I wanted reliably good ramen in the Coachella Valley, I had nowhere to go, at least that I knew of. However, today, I have at least one regularly available option: Hooray for Ramen Musashi, located at 44491 Town Center Way, in Palm Desert.

This little restaurant was opened earlier this year by the good folks who also operate Musashi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar, which has been around since 1996. In other words, Ramen Musashi is run by restaurateurs who know what they’re doing—and this is proven by every bowl of original Musashi tonkatsu that comes out of the kitchen.

Here’s what I wrote about the Musashi tonkotsu a few months back: “The ramen was revelatory. All of the ingredients were perfect. The pork was tender and delicious; the egg was a creamy delight. The garlic chips and onion did not overwhelm, and the noodles were just right. But for me, ramen is all about the broth—and this tonkotsu broth was stellar. It was packed with umami, seasoned masterfully and soooooo delicious.”

Damn. My mouth’s watering just thinking about it.

—Jimmy Boegle


Best Local Album

Captain Ghost, Into the Grave

If you’re looking for an album to listen to while driving very fast, look no further than Into the Grave.

Captain Ghost exploded onto the music scene this year—and very quickly made a name for itself, with lyrics of love and politics being screamed out in a desperate cry over firework-style guitar riffs and tight, crunchy bass and drum lines.

If you get a chance to see Captain Ghost live, take note: It is fun to see people’s reactions to the group, as mustachioed leader Brad Burton towers over his bandmates, almost Joey Ramone-esque, and his sweet stage banter offers a direct contrast to his emphatic cries.

After the band began performing, it began to win more and more hearts with each show—while anticipation grew for the release of Captain Ghost’s debut album, which is a hard-hitting 35 minutes of rock. Tracks like “Raise the Flag,” “Behold the Press” and “Last Day” are sure to make any music fan a Captain Ghost fanatic.

—Matt King


Best Evidence of Our Flourishing Theater Scene

CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City

I’ve been fortunate enough to occasionally attend theatrical productions in the Coachella Valley for seven years now, and I’m shocked—in a good way—at how much the theater scene has absolutely flourished during that timeframe.

Dezart Performs is wowing audiences with top-notch performances in its home at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club—a home the company is quickly outgrowing. Dezart’s fellow Woman’s Club tenant, Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is continuously mounting edgy productions of brand-new shows; Desert Theatreworks has helped revitalize the Indio Performing Arts Center with a steady slate of varied productions; and the LGBT-focused Desert Rose Playhouse continues to raise the figurative bar with seemingly every play. (Its summer production of Ruthless! was one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen, period.)

However, this all pales in comparison to what Coachella Valley Repertory has pulled off: Raising millions of dollars to turn the old IMAX theater in Cathedral City into a Broadway-caliber, state-of-the-art playhouse.

It is, in a word, stunning. Founder Ron Celona—along with his staff, board and volunteers—have changed the game for Coachella Valley theater with the CVRep Playhouse. It’s proof that while the Coachella Valley as a whole may still be a “small town,” our theater scene is worthy of a big city.

—Jimmy Boegle


Best Comic Book Shop by Day, and Music Venue by Night

Interstellar Comic Books and Collectibles

Music nerds and comic nerds can unite under one roof at Interstellar Comics.

In the heart of Palm Springs, on Tahquitz Canyon Drive just off Indian Canyon Drive, sits this colorful comic-book shop. Whether you’re in search of a vintage find, or are excited about a new issue, you can find both on the shelves at Interstellar. You can even come in to play various card games, such as Magic the Gathering, with your friends.

But on occasion, when the sun sets over the strip, you can hear local bands reverberating within the walls of the shop. Interstellar has been host to a few shows over the year, once every couple months or so—and I couldn’t think of a better place to perform or watch a show. During these shows, local artists also sell their art inside the multifaceted space. In other words: If you catch a show at Interstellar, you are celebrating all that the local art scene has to offer, in one place, at the same time.

—Matt King


Best Tucked-Away Pastry Palace

Carousel Bakery

Carousel Bakery is an unassuming little gem, tucked away in a hidden corner of the airport-adjacent El Cielo Center (440 S. El Cielo Road), known mostly for its Spectrum storefront.

Inside, friendly and hard-working owners Elizabeth and Alberto create all their baked masterpieces from scratch, with no pre-made anything. Yep: They actually cut up and cooked a real pumpkin to make that fresh pie in the case. The result is the best possible combination of professionally baked goods and homemade appeal.

Along with a surprising variety of traditional bakery fare (pies, cakes, cookies, muffins, croissants, bagels, etc.), Carousel produces some delicious Latin specialties. Think sweet empanadas in an array of flavors ranging from apple to the more-exotic guava with cheese. And don’t miss their one-day-only offerings of Pan de Muerto for Day of the Dead, and Rosca de Reyes for Epiphany.

Carousel serves tasty sandwiches that are enough of a reason to visit, but the real jewels here are the pastries. So the next time you’ve had to wait 45 minutes to return equipment at the Spectrum store, take the edge off with a baked treasure from Carousel.

—Jeffrey Clarkson


Best Place to Feel Childlike Wonderment and Joy

Bob’s Crystal Cave at the Sky Village Swap Meet

A tiny enclave in the middle of Yucca Valley’s seven-acre Saturday-and-Sunday swap meet (7028 Theatre Road), Bob’s Crystal Cave is an anomaly amidst junk and vintage vendors, stained-glass art and desert cactus gardens.

What is it, exactly? Well, it’s a Flintstones-esque building created from chicken wire and spray foam—and its puffy porthole-pocked exterior unveils a walk of wonderment. A short wander through the spray-foam-packed hall reveals locked doors (what lurks behind them?) and small windows here and there. You can peek into a whimsical miniature world of tiny trees; and mosaics of glass, mirror and precious stone. Water flows throughout into pools of lazily swimming goldfish.

Sadly, creator Bob Carr died in January of this year. But his legacy lives on through his serene creation, one that can make even the biggest curmudgeon crack a smile. Bob’s Crystal Cave is so cool that it’s written about in “the definitive guide to the world’s hidden wonders,” Atlas Obscura.

—Beth Allen


Best Place to Learn About and Look at the Cosmos

Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater

The Joshua Tree Astronomy Arts Theater is an open-air theater located next to the Joshua Tree Lake RV and Campground, at 2601 Sunfair Road.

What is it? Well, it’s a fenced-in area with a large stage and screen—including plenty of nice, sloped outdoor-chair seating, with plenty of room to set up your own chairs or blankets. It’s a big, dark place—perfect for stargazing.

Along the left side of the “theater” are various telescopes manned by gregarious members of the Southern California Desert Video Astronomers (www.scdva.org), who are happy to tour the constellations with anyone who wanders over. People of all ages can come to relax and learn tales of the cosmos. The group hosts regular events with cool themes like Friday the 13th’s “Spooky Superstitions: Lucky Stars and Moons of Doom,” or an amazing night of meteor showers at their peak. The JTAAT has also hosted movies (about aliens!) and the live tunes of local musician Clive Wright, who plays guitar along with “singing plants.”

When you go, BYOB—food, beers, buds—or, in other words, pack a picnic! Don’t forget to bring a flashlight so you can find your way to the porta-potties in the parking lot.

—Beth Allen


Best Combination of Silky and Fried

The California Avocado Fries at Grill a Burger

The other day, I was driving down the road, when all of a sudden, a thought popped into my mind: “Damn, I could go for some avocado fries at Grill-a-Burger right now.”

Now, let me place this random thought in proper context: I had not been to Grill-a-Burger in about a year and a half. I haven’t had avocado fries of any sort since then. So, what in tarnation led me to have this thought at this time? Was it the result of some unknown stimuli? A signal from the mothership?

I have no freaking idea. All I know is that ever since, I have not been able to get Grill-a-Burger’s avocado fries off my mind. These deliciously filling wedges have it all: Sweet. Savory. Smoothness. A Panko-breadcrumb crunch. Yum.

If you like avocado to the slightest degree, you must try these. Get thee to 73091 Country Club Drive, in Palm Desert, pronto.

—Jimmy Boegle


Best Pie

Buttermilk Pie at Billy Reed’s

As our press deadline for this issue approached, the heartbreaking news broke that Robbie Lemley, the co-owner of Billy Reed’s (at 1800 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs), had passed away at the age of 86.

After the news broke, local social-media pages were flooded with remembrances and tributes, both to Lemley himself and the iconic restaurant he helped create. I didn’t know Lemley personally (although I am sure he greeted me a time or three during my visits to Billy Reed’s). However, I adore his work: Billy Reed’s is truly one of a kind.

Billy Reed’s is the place where I celebrated my most recent birthday. It’s the place I recently took some close friends who just moved here for their first “official meal” as Palm Springs residents. And it’s the place that introduced me to what has become one of my favorite desserts: buttermilk pie.

A piece of this pie looks simple, but its flavor is surprisingly complex. I don’t know exactly what the bakers at Billy Reed’s put in their version, but buttermilk pie, I’ve come to learn, typically includes a blend of buttermilk, eggs, butter, flour, lemon, vanilla and a whole lot of sugar. The resulting custard pie is pure decadence.

Thank you, Mr. Lemley, for the special place you helped make. And thank you for broadening my dessert horizons just a little, too.

—Jimmy Boegle

Published in Staff Picks

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has begun its first full season in the company’s wonderful new playhouse in Cathedral City—and, rather appropriately, this season’s theme is “New Beginnings.”

The opening show is Dinner With Friends, by playwright Donald Margulies. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama back in 2000, along with a batch of other awards. Now … if you’re looking for a play full of action, this is not for you. If you’re looking for a catharsis-provoking tragedy that will have you wringing out your Kleenex, forget it. If you want an uproarious thigh-slapper of a comedy, move on. However … if you have ever wanted to be a fly on some wall where you could watch the interactions between people and see the changing of their relationships, this quiet play might interest you.

Dinner With Friends has a cast of four—all efficient actors who maintain a low-key approach to their work. The role of Beth is played by Corryn Cummins, a slender actress with a plump resume which includes work onstage, in film and on TV. Redheaded Beth, when we meet her, is finishing up dinner and vainly attempting to appear interested in the blathering of a married couple, Gabe and Karen, who are endlessly rattling on about their trip to Italy—specifically, about the food they encountered. It turns out that their profession is, in fact, writing about food, so it is of keen interest to them … though not so much to their friends.

The role of Gabe is brought to life by Scott Golden, a veteran of TV series and commercials as well as theater. Dark-haired Gabe is married, stable and solid, a family man keenly interested in all food and drink—a topic that occupies part of his brain in almost every scene, regardless of what else is going on.

His stolid brunette wife, Karen, is portrayed by Jennifer Sorenson, an actress and a dramatist in her own right. She brings a wide range of experience to the role of Karen, a woman with the casual air of a multitasker accustomed to juggling kids, husband, kitchen, friends and career—without raising an eyebrow.

Christopher Wallinger, who can be seen on everything from HBO to FX as well as the stage, plays Tom, Beth’s husband—although he is not present in the first scene. An attorney, he travels a lot, and when we meet him, Wallinger subtly shows us a Tom who is a slightly spoiled and entitled golden boy, despite his rather casual attire.

Director Darin Anthony captures the laid-back quality of the writing and inserts it into the actors’ movements and speech—in every scene. The audience will sense a restrained and drifting quality in the ambiance of the play, which prevents us from anticipating what will happen next. Many plays charge full speed ahead to their goal, but here, as in life, there are no big important signs flashing or foreshadowing every event that occurs. Hmmm.

A heads-up that you could miss if you don’t carefully read the program: The second act is a flashback to 12 years before to the first act.

As always, CVRep’s resident set designer comes through beautifully with scene changes that amaze: Jimmy Cuomo’s designs for each scene are moved in the dark or semi-dark, which is a bit of a disappointment, because it is such fun to watch his terrific sets morph from one to another. Moira Wilkie Whitaker’s lighting designs come through beautifully as well in each of the play’s seven scenes. Kudos to the entire CVRep crew members, who, as usual, have thoughtfully and professionally shared their skills.

I won’t give away the rather thin plot—but this play is all about relationships, and what happens to other people who are not directly involved when a sudden, enormous change occurs in someone else’s relationship(s). It has happened to all of us: A friend or relative goes through a transformation of some sort, and you react to it. This raises questions, such as: What do we really truly want for our friends? How is being married different from being single, beyond the obvious? Have we assigned labels or roles to our family and acquaintances that suddenly don’t apply when a person changes? Are true family members our blood relations, or the people we choose to be close to us? What are the necessary and/or sufficient ingredients that affect or alter the course of a relationship? Why do people grow in different directions after being together for years? Can you ever truly reinvent yourself?

Heavy stuff. We see the characters wrestle with denial, with differing views of reality, with the bonds of marriage and of friendship. We see them talk at the same time instead of listening to each other. We see them test their relationships, with varying results. We see people surrounded by other people—yet experiencing a deep loneliness. We see people unable to communicate their wants and needs—and the craters in relationships this can create. We see people blame others for their own choices. We see them wonder if they ever actually knew each other.

You get to be the fly on the wall watching all this.

Dinner With Friends is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 24, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $48 to $58. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

We’ve reached the end of the season at most of the valley’s theater companies—sob! But what a year it’s been, and what a great way to end it: with Good People, at Coachella Valley Repertory.

Have you seen the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City? This is the second production here, and right away, you have to love the steeply raked levels of seating so that no head, no matter how tall, can blot out your view of the stage. Huzzah! And they serve coffee at the snack bar! Can it get better than this?

Well, actually yes. I hate to give this away, but nothing could dampen the surprise that awaits you when you see the scenery: The amazing Jimmy Cuomo, CVRep’s resident set designer, nearly steals the show. Wait until you see what he does with this high-tech new stage! The open set that greets the audience is a grotty and depressing back alley in South Boston’s lower end, with one lonely plain chair on the stage. Some jaw-dropping theater magic is in store for you thanks to Cuomo. It gave us goose bumps.

The playwright of Good People is David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. When this play opened on Broadway, it garnered all kinds of awards, including two Tony nominations. If his name seems familiar, it’s because he penned Rabbit Hole (which was given a riveting production by Dezart Performs in January 2018), and you might remember him as author and lyricist for Shrek the Musical. You are in good hands here.

The show’s guest director, Michael Matthews, has brilliantly aimed this script directly at your brain pan. Its gritty reality is played out, giving the audience a being-there feeling that never wavers. The dialogue is cleverly “telescoped” so that Matthews’ actors appear truly spontaneous, and it gives the show a spirit of breathless anticipation. There isn’t a great deal of movement onstage, but it is accomplished logically (except twice when an actor moved on someone else’s line … distracting, but not important.)

Remember the seedy back alley we mentioned? Our protagonist, Margaret, magnificently and utterly believably portrayed by Reamy Hall, is marched out the back of the dollar store where she toils, by manager Stevie, perfectly underplayed by Erik Odom, for a talking-to about her work performance. It does not go well. In the next scene, in a cramped kitchen with two friends—the cynical Dottie, unforgettably played by Barbara Gruen, and the fiery gossip Jean, delightfully played by Candi Milo—Margie bemoans her lot. We learn about the women’s relationships with their families, the neighbors and each other. We learn about their values like “Southie Pride,” the local spirit in so many places—here with a special defiance attached to it. We see some flashes of the infamous Irish temper. We learn about their lives in “the projects,” and attempts to escape—with various results.

How much does it matter where you come from? So many desert residents cheerfully admit to “re-inventing” themselves upon arrival here, without a trace of embarrassment about it. But back in Southie, it apparently matters a great deal. Those who do well are jeered at as being “lace-curtain Irish.” Those who never make it away from their ghetto will forever play desperate mind games of “What if?” How much does our environment really shape us?

But we also discover that, in looking back, two people can selectively remember the same incident very differently. Michael Matthys gives us a deliciously multi-layered performance as Mikey Dillon, who, through hard work and some luck, makes it out of the neighborhood. Now an upscale and successful doctor, he is married to his privileged, elegant and sophisticated wife, an African-American woman named Kate, played by the smoothly stunning Nadege August. When they find themselves confronted with Mike’s past by Margie, their attitudes about it show how memory can be affected by time. Kate, with her combination of high-society finishing-school grace—plus her phenomenal figure in a skin-tight knit, and her wicked eagerness to sneak into the wild side—is one of the most complex characters on any stage, and August shrewdly plays every card in her hand to create this fascinating role.

The play’s theme slowly emerges: the eternal conflict between truth and rationalization. How far can your moral compass wobble before you are no longer a good person? Can blaming someone else justify your actions? Are your choices the right ones? How far will you bend your morality to change someone else’s life? Whom do you “owe,” and how much? Whew …

Study the biographies of the actors (and staff!) in the hefty program. The full bios detail where you may have glimpsed these terrific performers elsewhere, in movies or on TV. These experienced pros know how to sweep you into their world. They will drag you through a bumpy mix of thoughts and emotions … and they’ll bring you to your feet at the end of the show.

This theater’s matchless brain trust, led by artistic director Ron Celona, has assembled a formidable staff. Kudos to lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, production stage manager Marcedes L. Clanton, sound designer Rebecca Kessin, sound engineer/audio technician Karlene Roller, costume designer Chandler Smith, hair/makeup artist Lynda Shaeps, and prop master Doug Morris. Flawless work!

Good People is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 19, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. (There is no show Tuesday, May 7.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Theater and Dance