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Q: What is a “tuna?”

A: Well, snort, obviously, a fish.

Q: And what else?

A: HUH?

OK, here it is, confidentially from me to you: A tuna, my darlings, is a kind of prickly pear cactus found in the desert! And there really was once a town called Tuna … in the Texas desert. It doesn’t exist anymore—well, except it’s still “real” in the theater world.

And this brings us to Coyote Stageworks’ production of Greater Tuna at the museum’s Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, directed by the steady and inspired hand of Larry Raben. Written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, this production of the first play in the four-part Tuna series is one of the most unforgettable shows you will ever see. Why? Because here, the cast of about 20 characters is played by only two men!

It’s an acting tour de force. I have seen this same play done elsewhere with a cast of 20 actual actors, each playing just one part, so this production goes beyond genius. You want to see quick changes? Stars Chuck Yates and Alan Denny transform themselves in split seconds to move from one role to another—and not just by slapping on a different outfit or wig, but by totally changing. More about this later.

The Josh Clabaugh set that greets us is moodily lit by Danny Durand. A prototypical Western setting of three barn-tall plank flats with angled roofs is sparsely decorated by a Lone Star, a pair of Longhorn horns, a dusty old Texaco sign, two tables with chairs … and, under the spotlight at center stage, a huge free-standing console radio so old-fashioned it will date you if you recognize it. It is 1978, and we are in the “third smallest town in Texas”: Greater Tuna.

The stage-right flat contains a midsection which revolves to create the background for radio station OKKK to start the show. Everything is broadcast live, and we open with two local yokels smart-talking their way through the morning news, giving the audience instant belly laughs. Thurston Wheelis and Arlis Struvie (not made-up radio names, clearly) give us rapid-fire patter and signature banter before announcing a weather forecast from a roving reporter.

Now here is where it gets interesting: Both of our actors are already busy playing the announcers. Who is going to be the weather person? Well … with timing that would make a magician turn emerald with envy, throughout the play, an actor vanishes and then re-appears as another character with no resemblance to the one he was just playing. And just as quickly, he returns to update the prior role, or even goes on to a different one! This happens over and over; each actor plays 10 different parts, and he plays many of them multiple times! Yes! They play bratty kids. They are in drag as the ladies of the town. They play a cliché-spouting preacher, a sullen youth just emerged from reform school, a sheriff, a grandma, the town drunk … practically everyone in Tuna!

We find out about the relationships, the secrets, the ambitions, the shame, the problems, the vanities of these characters—and they will capture your heart even as you laugh. The costuming deserves mention, as some were hoarded from Coyote Stageworks’ first-ever Tuna show back in 2009, with Alan Denny and Chuck Yates then playing these roles and creating the costumes. Wardrobe master Frank Cazares and Jim Lapidus have updated and augmented them. And the wigs! Cazares has created some of the most outrageous and hilarious looks ever.

However, it is all about the acting. Wigs and costumes certainly help change an actor physically, no question, and they have simplified their labors by miming the props. But both Yates and Denny take this show to a higher level by transforming themselves for each role in ways that chameleons only dream of. Each voice was unique. They grew tall or shrank; they gestured differently; their postures and spines were different; they changed their very face shapes—they seemed to even change their skin textures. They breathed in different ways. This is beyond acting—it is becoming someone else, inhabiting roles so completely that the audience could be forgiven for thinking that they were watching a huge cast of actors. I’ve played multiple roles in a show, and it is an enormous challenge—but it was nothing like seeing the accomplishments of these two amazing thespians. This is what actors yearn to do all their lives—and here it is, performed perfectly. There is considerable physicality involved (wait until you see the high school cheerleader—yikes) as well as an intellectual process of creating the characters plus the emotions of playing them, but in this show, you will see the actual spirit of each character on display. That’s how deeply mined this script has been by Denny and Yates.

You could tell by the frequent spontaneous applause and the waves of laughter that the audience totally enjoyed the show, but there were also moments of breathless anticipation when we all cared very much about what was happening. There’s not much of a storyline, but we learn about small-town life and the sometimes horribly misguided attempts to better or control their tiny world. The radio blithely plays Tammy Wynette or Patty Page or Hank Snow, set against the heart-wrenching struggles of Petey Fisk from the Humane Society or that innocent-looking but murderous grandmother. Contrasts.

This is a show not to be missed, and it so deserves the standing ovation it earns. Every actor should see it as a master class in classical technique. Non-actors should see it because it’s such great fun and an extraordinary experience. And it’s not just laughing at hillbilly silliness; it twangs your heartstrings like a good country tune.

And you, personally, can feel superior, knowing what a tuna really is.

Greater Tuna, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

In the program notes for Dirty Blonde, Coyote StageWorks Founding Artistic Director Chuck Yates mentions he has wanted to present this play, which focuses on Mae West, since the theater’s inception 9 years ago. Since 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” he chose the perfect time to do so: Whether or not you’re a Mae West fan, it’s impossible to deny that she was an icon of womanhood, in her own way.

Written by and starring Claudia Shear, Dirty Blonde ran Off-Broadway in 2000, and on Broadway in 2000 and 2001. (Interestingly, it’s one of just a few plays in Broadway history to have its entire cast nominated for Tony Awards.) The show explores the phenomenon of West through the eyes of two devoted fans—aspiring actress and office-temp Jo, and public-library film archivist Charlie. They meet while visiting West’s grave, and develop a warm friendship based on a mutual love of the bawdy sex symbol.

Both Charlie and Jo are lonely and seem to be missing something in their lives, so finding in each other a fellow Mae West groupie seems like coming home. Jo idolizes West as an example of female strength, confidence and sexual liberation; after all, West spoke her mind and didn’t care a whit what anyone else thought. Mild-mannered Charlie, who actually got to meet and spend some time with West in her later years, is simply in awe of the star, describing her as “blonde and tough and ready for sex.” He basks in her flirtatiousness, and some of her sexual confidence even seems to rub off on him: When in her presence, he becomes the man he’s always wanted to be.

The scenes between Charlie and Jo are interspersed with vignettes from West’s career, from her early days in Vaudeville to her decline into parody while she was in her 80s. The audience is reminded of what a trailblazer she really was. Her battles with censors were legendary; she defied orders to tone down her hip swiveling in dance numbers, and even spent 10 days in jail for public lewdness during the run of her self-penned play Sex on Broadway.

Director James Gruessing has assembled a stellar cast; each member plays multiple roles with great skill. As Mae West and Jo, Bets Malone is simply superb. She perfectly captures both the sweet insecurity of Jo and the bold outrageousness of West. Though prettier than West herself, Malone nails it when it comes to West’s toughness—including the “don’t mess with me, but jump into bed when I snap my fingers” message to men. Of course, she has some of the play’s best lines: “I’ve seen more men than you’ve had hot lunches.” When an assistant is dismissed by West’s suggestion that he run down to the corner, he challenges her by asking, “What’s down on the corner?” Her answer: “YOU!” A strong actress, Malone also exhibits great pipes during the musical numbers.

Also an outstanding actor, Steve Gunderson plays Charlie with subtlety and tenderness. His growing affection for Jo is touching and believable, as is his conflict over whether he’s simply attracted to Mae West … or does he actually harbor a desire to be her? The onstage chemistry between Gunderson and Malone—crucial to this play—is quite strong.

Rounding out the cast is the fabulous Larry Raben, who portrays multiple characters, including West’s little-known husband, Frank Wallace. An actor knows that jumping back and forth between characters (and costumes) throughout a production is not easy, but Raben handles it with ease. He has great comic timing (as does the entire cast), and owns the stage whenever he appears.

Josh Clabaugh’s lovely set and Moira Wilkie’s lighting design are spot on. Special mention must be made of Bonnie Nipar’s lush costumes: The bright colors, sequins, glitter and boas are perfect for West’s larger-than-life persona. The hair and makeup are quite well-done in this production as well.

The musical numbers (the original score is by Bob Stillman) are a delight, especially “Dirty Blonde” and “Oh My, How We Pose.”

Kudos once again to Yates for choosing to mount this production now. It is so relevant to the current national conversation (long overdue) about what kind of sexual banter is and is not appropriate, and the movement for women to finally have both equal power in the workplace and complete control over what happens to their bodies.

I have a feeling Mae West would have quite a bit to say on the matter. Thank you, Mae, for your courage, your bluntness and your refusal to be anything other than what you were. And thank you, Chuck Yates and Coyote StageWorks, for giving valley audiences such a compelling and enjoyable evening of theater.

Dirty Blonde, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 3; 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 4; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 7; 2 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 8; 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 10; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs one hour and 40 minutes, with no Intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

So, off you go to the theater to see Loretta Swit. The question in your subconscious, or even in the forefront of your mind, has to be: Am I going to spend the evening with Maj. Houlihan?

Hey, she played the iconic role for an incredible 11 years. You know her. You have watched her for hours of your life. You have suffered with her, howled at her outrageous comedy and grown with her. You know Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan better than certain members of your own family. Even though it’s been decades since M*A*S*H originally aired, there are DVDs and endless reruns on TV, so she is always with you.

The endlessly creative Coyote StageWorks has brought her to the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum for Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. So here you sit, breathlessly waiting, this giant unspoken question in your head.

Here’s the answer: Loretta Swit delivers! No, you will not spend the evening with Hot Lips. Swit proves herself to be the ultimate actress, transforming herself completely into Lily Harrison for this play, and making you forget all about that military nurse.

There’s nothing that fills the seats of a theater like the appearance of a celebrity, and Loretta Swit’s name, plus the proven reliability of Coyote to deliver stellar shows, brought out a bustling audience for opening night. If you want to exhaust yourself, read through the dizzying credits in the program, where everyone associated with the production lists their phenomenal career successes, educations, awards and honors. Whew.

Produced by the always-amazing Chuck Yates, Coyote’s founding artistic director, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks will captivate you with its terrific music, the tension between the two actors, the witty dialogue and its quirky creativity. The director, Larry Raben, is a co-founder of Coyote who has masterminded many of their shows. Direction for this show had to be a challenge, as one setting with two characters doesn’t give one a lot of variety to work with. However, Raben has managed to mine opportunities everywhere. We won’t go into detail for fear of ruining the surprises for you, but we promise you’ll be really delighted.

Co-starring with Swit is the superb David Engel as Michael Minetti, the dance instructor. Also a co-founder of Coyote, he smoothly and skillfully glides through his multifaceted role with apparent ease. Lily has hired Michael to teach her to dance with private lessons at her home, but despite his breeziness and jokes, the two lock horns immediately—and the relationship nearly craters at the start. The dialogue turns snarky. She fires him. That’s obviously not the end of the play; the complexity of their relationship is aggravated by old baggage, scars and some outright lies. Add politics, pain and some prejudice, and watch what happens. The two strut and stumble and grope their way through the choreography of their strange friendship … which is contrasted with the dance styles that they explore weekly, from Viennese waltz to cha-cha to tango and beyond. Engel is beautifully cast here.

Playwright Richard Alfieri has created an unforgettable script. A Floridian himself, he sets the action in a St. Pete’s Beach high-rise condo, and then creates two characters whose worlds would otherwise be unlikely to intersect. This play has been translated into 14 languages, and has been performed in 24 countries. It opened at the Belasco on Broadway; in Los Angeles, it starred Uta Hagen; his self-penned screenplay starred Gena Rowlands. Now Loretta Swit plans to tour in it! Nothing succeeds like success.

Let’s talk about Loretta Swit and her transformation into this role. Lily is an older character, but, of course, so is Swit, now 79. So how did she transmogrify into Lily from the role we all know so well? She gives us a master class in acting. First, vocal quality: Her voice is different because of her breathing, which changes everything. Lily speaks in short puffs, fragmenting her sentences into strings of phrases. Anyone over retirement age will tell you that your lungs can indeed change as your years progress, and Swit shrewdly uses this. Next, although she is still slim and youthful in appearance, we see that her very energy is changed, depleted, giving her posture the impression of advancing years. Her gestures, too, are different—here, she is more fluttery and feminine, a far cry from her severe portrayal of Houlihan. Physical changes include different hair (a rather heavy look, with bangs hiding or shadowing half of her face), and signs of aging such as dry skin, which she dismisses with self-deprecating humor. We view a lot more of her profile than of her full face, but Swit certainly knows her way around a punch line, no matter in which direction she is gazing.

Yates has chosen his staff with care, and the results are pleasingly wonderful, due to stage manager Diane David, scenic designer Josh Clabaugh, and Moira Wilkie’s scenic elements and lighting design (whose set earned instant applause at the first curtain), as well as the costumes of Bonnie Nipar. They all share in the compliment of a standing ovation at the show’s end.

Any problems? Not really, because the few little first-night stumbles will be ironed out by the time you see this play. Swit’s tight black cocktail dress revealed the outline of the microphone battery’s fanny pack, giving her a lumpy side view; perhaps it could be covered with a light jacket (or as they say in warm climes, “a little sweater”)? Other than these barely-worth-mentioning points, Six Dance Lessons is a show with which everyone can identify, and it is marvelous. There are laughs aplenty, counterpointed with some painful shocks and surprises. You will be charmed, moved and touched by the final scene.

At the Annenberg, you’ll always be treated to comfortable seats and most excellent sound quality—basics not present in every venue. Add this to the fabulous experience of the play itself, and you’ll treasure the experience of seeing Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.

And there won’t be an Army major in sight.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coyote StageWorks, now back home at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, earned a richly deserved standing ovation from the opening-night audience at ART. This one-act comedy runs about 1 1/2 hours, and earns the highest marks in every aspect of the production: set, lighting, costumes, direction, sound and acting. It’s so great in every department that it leaves your mind free to explore its unusual and beautiful theme: friendship.

Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?

Before the play even begins, we can ponder the eternal question of life vs. art, because we know the three characters in the play, all best friends, are also friends off the stage. Chuck Yates, the founding artistic director of Coyote StageWorks, is joined by fellow actors Larry Raben and David Engel, both founding members and original board members of CSW. This gives their onstage friendship just a little extra frankness and intimacy: There are some things that are beyond acting.

Read their résumés in the program. It shows experience beyond talent—and they’ve done it all: Broadway, films, TV, screenwriting, directing, acting, singing and dancing, regional theater. Whew!

The script of ART comes from Yasmina Reza, creator of seven plays and six novels. She’s based in France, and her original French language has been translated by Christopher Hampton. They both deserve credit for the success of the writing, which is witty, snappily paced and hugely satisfying.

Though the play is set in modern-day Paris, director Don Amendolia has chosen to completely Americanize it. There’s not so much as a Gallic shrug or a French lilt to his interpretation, and never a Gauloise in sight. But the theme of friendship is universal, so it plays perfectly anywhere in the world. Amendolia’s fabulous blocking keeps the stage magnificently balanced at all times, making marvelous use of Josh Clabaugh’s delightful set, which uses obtuse angles and clean lines. The décor includes only two modernistic white leather chairs and a matching hassock, with a white section rug. Upstage are two display shelves which can be lit from behind or can look solid. The versatile set rises up like a little mountain range upstage, with a riser running by in front to create two levels. The extraordinary lighting, designed by Moira Wilke, blends with Amendolia’s inspired direction, best of all by highlighting the monologues in pools of light on a suddenly dark stage, breaking down the Fourth Wall when the actors speak directly to the audience. Huge kudos to the actors, and stage manager Diane David, for everyone flawlessly hitting their marks in the dark … gulp.

We must also applaud the fascinating pacing that the director has masterminded. The hills and valleys of intensity give such variety that both chaos and peaceful times are intensified by their contrast. It’s classic, and it’s lovely to watch such professionally guided timing, especially in moments of rapid-fire AK-47 dialogue.

We get to know the three characters quickly. Part of this is due to Bonnie Nipar’s beautifully thought-out costumes, which immediately tell us a lot about them. The overall comic energy of the play is hugely appealing—the actors start earning hearty laughs early, and it never stops.

It’s worth it to take a moment to analyze the quality of the comedy in ART. If you ask comedians, “What’s funny?” you’ll get a variety of answers. Here, it seems that the amusement comes from this play holding up a mirror to humankind in general, because we are never more ridiculous than when we’re stubbornly defending our righteous point of view. This comedy plays off the three different personalities—their opinions, vulnerabilities and vanities. (Watch them each eat an olive.)

It starts when Serge (Larry Raben) buys a painting. There aren’t many topics that divide people like modern art does, and with these three friends, their feelings about this painting are strong ones. Interestingly, this painting is completely white. (One of my art professors actually did this! Through the year of studying with him, we grew to understand and appreciate what he was doing, and he taught us to see art with different eyes. His white-on-white work looked different to us at the end of the year. However the characters in this play didn’t get to learn from my teacher, and so their opinions are … well, theirs.)

What the painting actually does is this: It touches off discussions—OK, arguments—that whip away the thin veneer of civility that covers the unexpressed hurts, misunderstandings and misinterpretations that can occur between people. Emotions, which have been suppressed in the name of friendship, suddenly bubble up to the surface. Because they now disagree, this opens up old wounds about the past, as well as some surprising thoughts and ideas about each other’s present situations. For example, Serge is divorced; Ivan (David Engel) has a significant other/life partner; Mark (Chuck Yates) has a fiancée busily planning their impending nuptials. Opinions about each other’s partners blurt forth, too, with tragicomic results. We see the ebb and flow of power in their relationships, with which everyone in the audience will identify.

The highlight of the play is a breathtaking monologue by Engel that caused an eruption of spontaneous and gleeful applause from the entire audience. However, all three actors are wonderfully cast. Their perfect diction is so rare nowadays (alas) as to demand a mention. You’ll be treated to some delightfully inspired gestures. They are each well-schooled and creative, and every one of their theatrical choices is awesome. Their highly sharpened skills allow the audience to relax into the story of the play, because Raben, Engel and Yates are so very convincing.

There is absolutely nothing to criticize in this work—and that’s the stuff that earns spontaneous joyous standing ovations.

ART, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Wednesday; 2 p.m., Thursday; 7:30 p.m., Friday; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 3, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit annenbergtheater.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Chuck Yates and his Coyote Stageworks are back!

They have a great new show, Buyer and Cellar, with a spectacular new script, in a gorgeous new venue—the theater at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center. Coyote Stageworks completely dominated the win list in last season’s Desert Theatre League awards, leaving all the rest of us coughing in his dust. When Coyote Stageworks suddenly found itself homeless at the end of last season, it made for a surreal contrast.

Thank goodness Yates landed on his feet.

Jonathan Tolins is the author of Buyer and Cellar, which was named “Best Unique Theatrical Experience” by the Off-Broadway Alliance. However, this information did not prepare me for the surprise of this play. None of the publicity gave away what we were about to see, either. Chuck Yates mentioned to me that although Tolins’ play is now running in New York, and will open soon in San Diego and Los Angeles, our little Coyote Stageworks is the second place to acquire the rights in the country.

Turns out Buyer and Cellar is a one-man show. The actor, Emerson Collins, currently appears as one of the stars of Bravo’s The People's Couch. His extensive history with the infamous Del Shores is beyond interesting; Collins played Max in Sordid Lives: The Series and appeared in Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, plus he produced Shores’ play Yellow, and then directed AND produced DVD live tapings of Shores’ one-man shows. His credits go on and on.

It’s hard for me to keep quiet about the subject of this play; part of the fun is the surprise you’ll get, and I only hope other critics will not give away the topic. Let’s just say that Emerson Collins plays all the parts, including the female characters, and that the play is about an American “megastar” of stage, film and recordings. It was even more interesting to me because I just happen to be reading a book about this very megastar’s early years and influences. Go figure.

Collins starts off playing the role of Alex More, a luckless actor forced to seek other employment when he loses his job in Anaheim at The World’s Happiest Place, as a result of an indiscretion at work. Maybe this would be the time for me to slip in a small language warning—frankly, it’s hardly worth bothering with, and it’s used more for humor than shock. Alex comes out of the closet early in the show, and we soon get to meet his new boyfriend, Barry—also played by Collins, of course. The humor is often Southern California stuff, like cracks about “the 405” and Malibu, so the denizens of our area might find even more to appreciate than, say, a New York audience. We watch Alex go off to apply for a new job, which brings him into contact with more new characters, all played by Collins. It is an extraordinary job, which he gets. And so it starts.

Collins immediately grabs the audience and never lets us go. He keeps everyone on the edge of their seats with his rapid-fire delivery, instantly morphing from character to character—with no props, wigs or costume changes, do you mind. For almost two hours, without intermission, he bounces, slides, flops, struts, flirts, sashays and even dances. Every character has its own voice. The laughs are so original and surprising that the first-night audience broke into spontaneous applause three times—and this does not include his lengthy standing ovation at the end. The sole criticism I could offer is that he dropped his voice on the last words of a punchline a couple of times, so we didn’t get the joke. The other 99.9 percent is flawless.

How much of the performance was Emerson Collins, and how much credit belongs to director Larry Raben? Impossible to tell, as always, but both deserve the very highest praise for the results.

The brilliance is breathtaking. We have no sense of time going by, which speaks not only to the comfortable seats of the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center theater, but also to the brisk pacing, the wonderfully fluid writing, and the astounding memorization challenge of what is basically a two-hour monologue on an almost-bare stage: It’s dressed with only one armchair and one coffee table. Collins changes the scenes by changing the angles of the “furniture.” We should mention there’s some help from back-lit upstage panels which display sketches, too. The props consist of one book—everything else, he mimes. Emerson has a masterful command of facial expressions, amazing body language and—so rare for many actors—a fantastic use of gestures. Like in hula, his hands tell the story. It’s fun; it’s fascinating; it’s overwhelming to watch him work.

Yates, when asked about the new 600-seat Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, which is now Coyote Stageworks’ home, responded by enthusiastically praising the high school students who volunteered their time and effort to run the lobby and box office during their spring break to make this show a success. Throughout the year, he gives them the chance to learn from him. What an opportunity for these kids! The young lady who showed us to our seats admitted to being a junior, and hopes to spend her life in theater. Good luck!

By the way: Other attendees joined me in experiencing brief panic while trying to find the new Galen Theater. It’s so new that our GPS (we named her Amelia Earhart) hasn’t yet heard of the place! It’s north of Ramon Road, between Bob Hope and Duvall drives, at Rancho Mirage High School. Look for the traffic lights at Rattler Road.

Do find it. Not only is it the newest, cleanest theater around; it’s home at last for Coyote Stageworks and Chuck Yates. Huzzah!

Coyote Stageworks’ Buyer and Cellar is performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 5, at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, 31001 Rattler Road, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-6482, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

If you don’t like to have fun, then you absolutely must stay away from Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers, at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater. Stay home; be a curmudgeon; be a grinch—because this show might get to you. Opening night’s nearly full house at the gently raked theater found itself whooping and applauding in fits of wild enthusiasm.

Let’s discuss why.

Part of it is the music: a live band! On the stage! True, we don’t get to actually see the musicians, who are parked behind a fence so they don’t distract from the action. (Bravo to the seven-piece group; they never missed a lick, despite their not being acknowledged, or even mentioned, in the program. Why aren’t they? They are performers too, right?) Nonetheless, nothing adds excitement like the thrill of live music. A gigantic YAY to Coyote for this decision!

Yes, The Andrews Brothers is a musical, written by Roger Bean, whose credits are breathtaking. It’s set in 1945 on a Pacific island where an evening USO show is planned for “the boys.” The plot is as flimsy as that of some 1940s movies, but nobody minds. The setting for Act 1 is a military camp (with a surprising amount of scenery for a stage like the Annenberg, which has such little room backstage), and Act 2 changes to “the stage” of the show. Also in keeping with Annenberg tradition, the sound is flawless, and the face microphones all function perfectly.

Coyote Stageworks’ artistic director, Chuck Yates, opened the show at exactly 7:31 p.m., observing military promptness rather than the theatrical tradition of starting five minutes late for the tardy. After a charming little talk, he invited all the veterans to stand so we could thank them with our applause. I hope this wasn’t just an opening-night thing, because it is lovely, and it is always very affecting. Whether or not this idea was lifted from the Palm Springs Follies, I don’t care—because we can never thank our warriors enough.

So we GI-jive into the show, meeting the three USO stagehands who are planning their upcoming production. They have been assigned to this job because they are “effies,” or 4F.  A lot of the humor in the play, incredibly, comes from the disabilities which kept them out of active duty; this may be hard to believe in the uber-correct 21st century, I know, but it works. Tall, slim Michael Paternostro plays Lawrence, who is helpless without his glasses. Sweet, youthful Larry Raben is Patrick, a stutterer. Crafty, bossy Jamie Torcellini is Max, and I won’t ruin the joke by revealing his problem (and it’s not what you’re thinking).

They are awaiting the arrival of Peggy—played by sweet, crisp-voiced Bets Malone—a contest winner and pin-up girl from Seattle who is nervous about launching her professional showbiz career with tonight’s presentation. All four of these actors are Equity professionals with stunning résumés, so it is no surprise when they trot out terrific vocal harmonies, fantastic footwork and knockout comedic timing. They are also awaiting the Andrews Sisters, who are scheduled to fly in and perform—but we soon find out they are not going to arrive. Horrors! Will the troops be sent off the next day without a show? Well, in the best Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland tradition of here’s-a-barn-let’s-put-on-a-show, the stagehands offer to step in as performers. Corny? Sure. Cute? Totally.

I’m not going to give away what happens, but I will report that the Hawaiian number drew actual cheers from the crowd, and the staging of the “Slow Boat to China” number was beyond clever, while the “Six Jerks in a Jeep” was inventive and adorable. Kudos to the director Nicholas DeGruccio, choreographer Roger Castellano, musical director Colin Freeman, and stage manager Jill Gold for their work. Nothing in the world is more difficult than comedy. (Remember the story of the dying actor who is asked “Tell me, is dying hard?” He snarls in reply: “Dying is easy. COMEDY is hard.”) However, this combination of perfect timing and superb craftsmanship hits a home run.

But ah, the music. You know many of the songs, from Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Billy Rose, Frank Loesser—the usual suspects. Some more-obscure tunes are thrown into the mix, giving us variety and laughs and keeping the show from wandering off into cliché.

This all gives the actors an extraordinary chance to show off. In Act 1, we see enough glimmers of their talent to acknowledge the finely honed skills of these four performers, but Act 2 really lets them cut loose. (By the way: The film clips that are run during the intermission, all from that era, are astonishing—everything from war-bond appeals, to a cartoon with a cow playing the flute in Bugs Bunny’s orchestra, to a three-little-pigs animation in which the wolf is wearing a swastika armband; I was left quite speechless!) The quality of their performances, with the beautiful sureness of their footwork and the hilarious sight gags, is wonderfully innovative. It’s two hours and 15 minutes of feel-good Broadway quality, right here in Palm Springs.

But don’t go if you don’t want to have fun.

Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers is performed at various times, Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/annenberg-theater.

Published in Theater and Dance