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Ah, yes, Christmas With the Crawfords … could the title sound any more Norman Rockwell-idyllic? But the very fact that Desert Rose Playhouse has chosen this play as its annual Christmas show should immediately arouse deep suspicion, because this theater has become known for twisting one’s head.

This offering, from producer and artistic director Robbie Wayne, was created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. It’s directed by Kam Sisco, Desert Rose’s managing director—and it is a romp. It turns out “The Crawfords” means the cobbled-together family of Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, so we are catapulted back to the early days of the movies. The play gives actors multiple opportunities for outrageous costumes and imitations of famous entertainers—all them happily in drag, flashing around in festively colored feathers, jewels, capes and some unusual accessories.

The more you know about those days of film and the fashions of the time, the more you’ll get out of the show. Oh … did I mention it’s a musical? All those familiar seasonal songs are trotted out for the cast members to belt out solos and combos and even harmonies with gusto. The costumes are wayyyyyyy over the top, with Joan Crawford sporting the most astonishing shoulder pads you’ll ever see—not to mention her red platform high heels, for which even a word like “awesome” fails. Toni Molano’s wigs give the actors opportunities for lots of delightful variety, and add extra fashion statements to the comedy. Phil Murphy’s lighting, as always, creates the proper pace and the mood changes. Kudos to the music director Jaci Davis, choreographer Daryl J. Roth and everyone who added their various and considerable talents.

The play opens in the living room Chez Crawford. Not only does Kam Sisco direct the show; he’s onstage for nearly all of it, playing Joan Crawford—a dual job he pulls off with impressive aplomb. He gives us a Crawford with layers of interpretation, from the frustrated and fearful actress whose career is skidding toward its end (fired by MGM Studio!), to the bizarre and sometimes even abusive mother we learned about in the tell-all book Mommie Dearest, to a suggestion of maybe a little alcohol abuse. She’s certainly feeling some pressure, as she is anxiously awaiting an interview with Jack Warner of Warner Bros., which she hopes will revive her flagging career, as she is now reduced to playing an extra, sneaking in at rival RKO Studio.

Since it’s Christmas Eve, gossip-queen journalist Hedda Hopper (played with relish by Jacob Samples) has decided to broadcast live on the radio from the Crawford home. The children, Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Ruth Braun), are expected to be charming and well-behaved under Crawford’s harsh rule. Joan’s sister Jane Hudson, also played by Samples, has shown up like a bad penny to help fry everyone’s minds—yet she vanishes just in time to reappear as Hopper before you can even say “quick change.”

But the neighbors next door are hosting a high-profile party, and many of Hollywood’s brightest stars wander into the Crawford domicile by mistake. Judy Garland, played by Anthony Nannini, drops in and stays, giving us a skillful interpretation of the singer in a mellower mood than usual—with terrific fishnet-clad gams and that man’s-suit-jacket look which became one of her most memorable outfits. Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell played by Ed Lefkowitz, shows up with Samba-dancing feet and a hilarious accent. He also shows up as slacks-clad and lock-jawed Katharine Hepburn, and can you possibly imagine two more different ladies? It’s a great stretch for any actor to tackle.

Sex-symbol Mae West briefly slithers in, played by Stan Jenson—and he, too, pulls off an impressive transformation, because we next see him as the dynamic and powerful Broadway/film star Ethel Merman. We would have loved to have seen more use made of Jensen’s amazing bass-toned voice. Tim McIntosh very nearly steals the show as the weird and intensely self-obsessed Gloria Swanson, whom you’ll remember from her dramatic and unforgettable Sunset Boulevard, spouting those immortal lines you will recognize. Then there are the three singing sisters you’ll know, LaVerne, Patty and Maxene, lost en route to perform at a USO show in their cute little faux uniforms and with their hairdos tucked into snoods … courtesy of Jenson, McIntosh and a very flirty-eyed Nannini.

Chaos ensues. But the music never stops, despite being punctuated by some delicious cattiness and misbehaving. The comedy styles juggle between parody, irony, drag humor and some good-old hamming. There’s even a salute to Hanukkah, with a dreidel song bearing the unforgettable title “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” It kind of turns into a revue with all of these performances … plus the fact that there is precious little plot in this script. (“Surviving the day” seems to be at the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list, giving the wacko proceedings a very subtle undercurrent of desperation.)

This show is shorter than usual for Desert Rose—just about 70 minutes, with no intermission, and it moves along quickly. The producer has now added Thursday shows to the lineup, at 7 p.m. It’s a great idea to spread the Christmas cheer with the choice of an early show. I guess we should also give Christmas With the Crawfords a language warning, but few plays these days can escape having one, so I’m not going to bother with it any more unless the vocabulary is particularly vile—and here, it is not.

Enjoy this fun play—and, hey, Merry Christmas!

Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The words “world premiere,” when attached to the production of a play, present something of a conundrum.

On one hand, world premieres are exciting: Audiences get to see a brand-new work of art come alive before their very eyes. World premieres are also important: All new plays have to start off somewhere, and the companies brave enough to put them on deserve every theater-lover’s support.

On the other hand … world premieres tend to be unpolished at best, and complete messes at worst. After all, even the best plays are tweaked, reworked and rewritten many times before they become truly great.

Well, Poster Boys, enjoying its world premiere thanks to the LGBT-themed Desert Rose Playhouse, is far from a complete mess. The play by Dan Clancy has a great deal of potential, and Desert Rose’s production—aside from a few minor flubs—is done well.

Poster Boys tells the story of Ned Harris and Will Bennett, a gay Los Angeles “power couple.” It’s early 2009; Ned (Jason Hull) is a plastic surgeon, and Will (Craig Michaels) is an artist who works on advertising campaigns. We first meet this loving pair in their living room; another couple—Jeffrey (Ed Lefkowitz) and Telly (Ron Coronado)—is supposed to be stopping by. Ned and Will, generous donors to a variety of gay and progressive causes, presume Jeffrey and Telly want them to open their checkbook yet again.

Once Jeffrey and Telly arrive, we learn they’re seeking not a check, but a potential “poster couple” to represent the legal case being mounted against Proposition 8, the November 2008 ballot measure that took away the right for same-sex couples to marry in California. Because of the great reputation that Ned and Will have in the community, Jeffrey and Telly think they’re ideal candidates to become a poster couple. Ned and Will are convinced to take a meeting with one of the lead lawyers in the case, a lesbian named Cassandra (Candice Edsell), who we later learn has an undying love of the word “fuck.”

The possibility of being presented to the world as a model couple on behalf of an undeniably important cause both intrigues and concerns Ned and Will; they have a frank discussion about the matter after Jeffrey and Telly leave, during which their potential wedding vows come up. The couple seems happy and stable—far from perfect, yes, but loving and solid.

The next scene takes us to Will’s art studio, where’s he’s working on a painting for an ad campaign. His assistant has arranged for a young male model, Morgan (Alex Enriquez), to come by for a session. The interplay between Morgan and Will does not lead to sex—but it’s decidedly sexual.

Hmm. Maybe Ned and Will’s monogamous relationship isn’t so solid after all.

While the legal battle against Proposition 8 is a big part of the plot of Poster Boys, it isn’t what poster boys is about. Really, the play is about the challenges of modern long-term gay-male relationships, especially when the possibility of marriage is introduced into the equation. The merits of open relationships versus monogamous (or supposedly monogamous) relationships are discussed at length. And does marriage fit if a committed couple decides they are open (i.e., can have sex with other people)?

All of these important questions are tackled nicely by playwright Clancy, even though parts of the script could use work. Some of the dialogue is stilted, and there are a couple of plot holes. (In her initial meeting with Ned and Will, Cassandra never brings up monogamy. Isn’t that one of the first topics that would come up?) However, Clancy succeeds at creating central characters about whom we care, and the 85-minute production moves at a nice pace.

Some performances suffered through opening-night unevenness, but Jason Hull, as Ned, is splendid. His performance should get some Desert Theatre League award consideration; he is fantastic from start to finish, as Ned grows from a meek sort into a man who decides he needs to take control of his life. Candice Edsell also deserves special mention for bringing energy and a bit of comic relief to the show as the lovable “dyke” lawyer with a deadly handshake.

As usual, director Jim Strait and his husband, producer Paul Taylor, do a fantastic job of making sure all of the production’s details are top-notch. The two-part set—Will’s tiny studio is placed on the stage, while the furniture that becomes every other setting is on the floor level—works wonderfully, while the sound and lighting are flawless. OK, there is one flaw worth noting: There needs to be a curtain, or something, that fully blocks the backstage goings-on from the view of the audience. We were sitting on the left side facing the stage, and we were distracted by the sight of people moving around off stage, visible through a gap upstage left, multiple times.

Quibbles aside, this production of Poster Boys, while the script is still very much a work in progress, is enjoyable, provocative and important. Don’t let the words “world premiere” stop you from seeing this engaging show.

Poster Boys is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 20, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, at 69260 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25 to $28; the show runs 85 minutes without an intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance