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Americans have always turned to entertainment to get them through tough times like recessions, wars and political upheaval. Live theater, movies and music soothe our souls and offer a respite from a sometimes-harsh reality.

Given what’s happening in our country (and the world) presently, pleasant diversions seem more important than ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has just the ticket: Its production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie Die! is raucous, raunchy and hilarious.

The play was first produced in Los Angeles in 1999, with a film version released in 2003. Set in 1960s Hollywood, the play tells the story of aging, washed-up singer Angela Arden (Loren Freeman), who—although her voice is shot—is planning a comeback.

Her marriage to movie mogul Sol Sussman (Dr. David Brendel) is a sham. He’s battling major digestive issues, perhaps brought on by owing money to the mob. Of course, Angela has a lover on the side: unemployed TV actor/tennis instructor Tony Parker (Rob Rota), who is famous for his physical endowment. Daughter Edith (Melanie Blue) can’t stand her mother, but has an incestuous attachment to daddy. Gay son Lance (Matt E. Allen) has just been cast as Ado Annie in his college’s production of Oklahoma!—but he has come home after being expelled for burning down the gym in an anti-war protest. Lorraine Williamson is the booze-swilling, Bible-spouting maid, Bootsie Carp, who has a thing for Sol.

Without giving too much away, the plot twists involve murder, seduction, mistaken identity, LSD trips and giant suppositories. The play moves along at a fast clip, and the laughs are nonstop. The story is campy and definitely over-the-top—and this production excels, because the performances are uniformly stellar. There is no weak link. That, as any director knows, starts with wise casting, and Robbie Wayne has put together an amazing ensemble here.

Freeman is clearly the star of the show. In a flaming red wig, heavy makeup and gorgeous gowns, his Angela sashays across the stage with total command. Hearkening back to the movie divas of yesteryear, his portrayal has just a touch of Joan Crawford, but his low, gravelly voice is more reminiscent of an aging Lucille Ball. His comic timing is impeccable, and he tosses off insults with great aplomb. He describes daughter Edith’s micro-miniskirt as “two inches shy of giving away the whole candy store,” and calls Bootsie “a floor-scrubbing old hag.” Freeman is a fine actor and could offer classes in the art of being a drag queen.

Sol is the least-flamboyant character in the play, yet Brendel holds his own with the rest of the cast. His disgust with his cheating wife and his flirtations with his Lolita-like daughter are quite memorable, as is the suppository scene. (No further details will be given.)

As the spoiled, daddy-obsessed Edith, Blue is fabulous. I’ve seen Blue in multiple productions, and she never disappoints—she is a superb comic actress. The audience roots for her, whether she’s inappropriately sitting in her father’s lap or platting her mother’s murder.

Allen’s portrayal of the effeminate Lance is spot-on. In a fringed vest, no shirt and short shorts, he perfectly embodies the mommy-loving, daddy-hating, shy yet lustful college student. The implication is that he’s a bit off mentally due to drugs Angela took while he was in utero … which makes us love him all the more. When all hell breaks loose, Allen’s histrionic scenes with Blue are priceless.

Rota knocks it out of the park as promiscuous tennis coach Tony Parker. Strutting around the stage in skin-tight pants that leave nothing to the imagination, he seems to lust after anything that moves. He has an extremely expressive face and great charisma.

Williamson’s Bootsie is terrific. After 25 years as the Sussmans’ maid, she’s seen it all. With a secret crush on Sol and a determination to see Richard Nixon in the White House, she turns to the Bible (and a flask of bourbon hidden in her uniform) for answers. Williamson’s wry, understated line delivery is perfect.

Wayne deserves congratulations for guiding these pros to top-notch performances. Special mention should also go to Bruce Weber for an outstanding set, and Bruce Weber, Ruth Braun and Brandon Cincotta for costumes and hair design, which are crucial in this show. The mood music is just right, while Phil Murphy, Duke Core and Robbie Wayne for handle the extensive sound and lighting cues (including a massive thunderstorm) with great skill.

Desert Rose Playhouse has earned a strong reputation for fun, campy and risqué, yet professional theatrical productions. Die, Mommie Die! is no exception. It will take you on a wild, entertaining ride—and give you a welcome break from the real world for a couple of hours.

Die, Mommie Die! is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the run time is about two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The View UpStairs, the latest production at Desert Rose Playhouse, proves once again that the theater is in good hands with new producing artistic director Robbie Wayne.

Given our current political climate, where bigotry and hatred of those who are “different” seems more blatant and accepted than it’s been in years, this musical—the book, music and lyrics are by Max Vernon—is something we all need to see. The story centers around a 1973 arson attack at a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that killed 32 people. Up until the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, it was the worst mass murder of gay Americans in our country’s history.

As the show opens, we’re transported back to the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the horrific crime. Set designer Bruce Weber has outdone himself here: The place is fabulously gaudy, tacky and filled with bling—topped off with a large nude portrait of a reclining Burt Reynolds behind the bar. Some audience members actually sit at tables onstage, making attendees feel like we’re part of the action. The lounge is a place where gay men could be themselves, sing, dance and escape from a society not yet ready to accept them.

The story soon fast-forwards to the present day. After several unsuccessful years in New York, aspiring fashion designer Wes (Van Angelo) has returned to New Orleans and purchased the rundown building which formerly housed the UpStairs Lounge, hoping to turn it into a boutique. One evening, Wes is transported back in time, and the characters who once frequented the lounge are all around him. At first weirded out by it all, Wes eventually goes with the flow, and quickly develops a strong attraction to the tall, handsome hustler Patrick (Matt E. Allen).

Underscoring all the action is piano man Buddy (Ben Reece), an Elton John wannabe who’s still in the closet about his homosexuality. Club owner and bartender Henri (Ceisley Jefferson) keeps an eye on things, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Patrons include the homeless Dale (Jacob Samples); Puerto Rican drag performer Freddy (Anthony Nannini), and his mother, Inez (Siobhan Velarde); and the aging, flamboyant Willie (DarRand Hall). Rounding out the group is Rita Mae (Ruth Braun), who leads prayer services for the Metropolitan Community Church at the bar, trying to establish allies in the community by soliciting donations for crippled children.

Director/choreographer Robbie Wayne has put together an excellent ensemble cast; there is not one weak link. Even in brief appearances as a cop in both the past and present day, Miguel Arballo is memorable.

Reece makes Buddy’s regret over his failed music career, conflict about his sexuality and continued lust for Patrick (after a brief fling) palpable. Jefferson is terrific as proprietor Henri, exhibiting a great combination of sass and soul.

As drag queen Freddy/Aurora, Nannini oozes charisma. His drag number, “Completely Overdone,” is fantastic, and the warmth between him and his doting mother (the fabulous Velarde) is genuine. Inez has totally accepted her son’s life choices—“I think gay men are more fun, anyway,” she says—and has one of the better songs, “Learn to Play Along.” Hall’s “old queen” Willie is a hoot; we cannot take our eyes off him as he minces around the stage, squeezing the drama out of every line.

Samples’ Dale is heartbreaking. Crushed and embarrassed by his poverty, he touches us all when singing “Better Than Silence.” It reminds each of us of times when we, too, have felt invisible. Equally effective is Braun as preacher Rita Mae.

In the pivotal roles of Wes and Patrick, Wayne has struck gold with Van Angelo and Matt E. Allen. Their onstage chemistry is strong, and both have excellent singing voices. The musical highlight of the night was Allen’s ballad revealing his parents’ efforts to “cure” him of his homosexuality. It was riveting, raw and authentic.

Kudos to Robbie Wayne and Ruth Braun for spot-on costumes, and musical director Jaci Davis for overseeing the pre-recorded accompaniment for the singers, which works quite well.

The only noticeable flaws on opening night were occasional projection issues and a missed note here and there—both problems likely to be remedied as the run continues.

Two things struck me as the cast took their bows on opening night. First, each character in this play seems so real—their joys, sorrows, longing for recognition and acceptance resonate with all of us. Second, sadly, is the possible deterioration of LGBT rights today. Let’s hope that this kind of theatrical experience helps people realize that deep inside, we truly are all the same.

The View UpStairs is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance