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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Theater and Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Theater and Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Know Your Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Previews and Features

There’s an old Japanese proverb, “Deru kugi wa utareru.” It basically means: “The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hit.” It represents Japan’s conformist tendencies, and the long-held belief that an individual should never rock the boat.

It’s also the underlying theme of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s season-ending production, Hold These Truths, written by Jeanne Sakata and starring Blake Kushi. Originally staged in 2007 as Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, it chronicles the true story of Hirabayashi, a second-generation Japanese American who had the guts to rock the boat by resisting the legally mandated internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.

The oldest son of a truck driver, Gordon learns about discrimination early on. As a young boy, after he tries to come to the aid of an injured dog in the street, a white man screams at him and his mother: “Get out of our country, you fucking Japs!” Local businesses hang signs warning, “Japs, go home!” During his first trip to New York, Gordon is relieved at the lack of such signs, and his ability to eat at a restaurant without being thrown out.

Hirabayashi is studying at the University of Washington in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, which requires that all West Coast residents of Japanese descent be sent to internment camps. Hirabayashi refuses to join the ranks of the hundreds who obeyed, in the process losing their homes, businesses and self-respect.

He writes a letter to the government explaining his actions—but he’s arrested for refusing the evacuation order. The legal defense group that takes up Hirabayashi’s cause claims the 1942 executive order violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the seizure of property and rights without due process of law.

Hirabayashi’s case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943, where he eloquently argues that ancestry is not a crime, and passionately declares: “I am an American.” However, he ultimately loses. After requesting a 90-day sentence rather than a 60-day sentence (it’s the only way he can serve it outdoors), Hirabayashi hitchhikes all the way to Tucson, Ariz., to serve his prison time in a labor camp.

The play depicts Hirabayashi’s subsequent marriage to his college sweetheart, the births of his children and his successful teaching career. Forty years later, he gets a phone call from a law professor who has unearthed old evidence that there was no military necessity for the mass incarceration. In 1987, Hirabayashi’s conviction was overturned, and in 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, just a couple of months after his death.

Not bad for a nail that stuck up.

Carrying a show alone that’s nearly two hours long is not easy, especially when the show deals with such heavy duty issues. Thankfully, both Jeanne Sakata’s writing and Blake Kushi’s performance are excellent. The script has many upbeat—and some downright funny—moments. Kushi has a great stage presence, and is very likable, which this role requires. Throughout the play, Kushi also portrays Hirabayashi’s father, mother, college friends and lawyer, as well as several other characters, all with great skill.

As always, Ron Celona’s direction is quite good. The simple set is effective, and the use of newsreel photos (flashed on downstage screens) and radio broadcasts from the era take the audience back in time.

Hold These Truths is a fabulous choice to end CV Rep’s season, which carried the theme “The American Melting Pot.” Don’t miss it. It will make you laugh, think and perhaps shed a tear or two. And it reminds us all that rocking the boat is sometimes necessary—in fact, it can change history.

Hold These Truths is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 3, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is now show at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 18.) The running time is just less than two hours, including a 10-minute intermission. Tickets are $45, with a special rate of $15 for children and college students with an I.D. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona are known for presenting challenging, thought-provoking theater pieces—and CV Rep has solidified that well-deserved reputation with Carmen Rivera’s La Gringa.

The Spanish version of the show opened at Repertorio Español in February 1996 and won an Obie that year. (CV Rep is presenting the English version.) It’s still in repertory and holds the distinction of being the longest-running Off-Broadway Spanish language play.

The story chronicles the journey of 20-something Maria (Ayanery Reyes), a Puerto Rican woman who was born and raised in New York, as she searches for her roots in her homeland. She heads to Puerto Rico at Christmas time to visit her aunt Norma (Marina Re), cousin Iris (Kyla Garcia) and uncles Victor (Robert Almodovar) and Manolo (Peter Mins). We also meet likable neighbor Monchi (Eliezer Ortiz), who owns a thriving vegetable farm.

Bouncing through the front door filled with enthusiasm and sporting a jeans-jacket adorned with a Puerto Rican flag appliqué, Maria hopes for a warm, fuzzy family reunion—and those hopes are soon dashed. Her hosts do not share her excitement about Puerto Rican life. They are blasé about the historical sites and irritated by the coqui frogs Maria considers charming.

Aunt Norma is bitter and filled with resentment that her sister Olga (Maria’s unseen mother) left the island to live in New York, and had their late mother buried far away from Norma’s home. Most of her anger is directed toward her niece, whom she calls la gringa (white girl), partly because Maria can barely speak Spanish. Norma is also filled with regret over opting for the ordinary life as a Puerto Rican housewife and mother over a once-promising singing career. Cousin Iris is frustrated over her as-yet unsuccessful job-hunting efforts, and she’s tired of island life in general. Though fond of Maria, she’s not thrilled about taking her on a tour of the island, and doesn’t really want to hear about the wonders of life in the Big Apple.

Norma’s brother, Uncle Manolo, is bedridden with an undisclosed illness. Norma treats him like a baby, yet she wields an iron hand, and is always on the lookout for the alcohol Manolo stashes under the bed. (Beer is one of the few pleasures he has left in life.) After all, he tells his sister: “I’m old, and I’m going to die. Let me drink!”

Norma’s husband, Victor, the good guy who tries to smooth things over, wonders why everyone just can’t get along. He spends most of the play attempting to get the family truck running … and eventually succeeds.

The cast is quite strong. Marina Re captures Norma’s self-righteous anger, which has been simmering for years. Her breakdown and eventual metamorphosis are quite moving. As Victor, Robert Almodovar is warm and appealing—the kind of guy with whom you’d like to share a drink. Peter Mins is very effective as Uncle Manolo; the audience genuinely feels his joy when he gets out of his sickbed. Eliezer Ortiz’s Monchi is fun to watch. We’re really rooting for his farm to succeed—and for Maria to fall for him. Kyla Garcia is quite good as Cousin Iris. She has great chemistry with Re and Reyes.

Though Ayanery Reyes is adorable as Maria—with a dazzling smile and great charisma—there were times when her acting came across as a tad shallow. Her transitions from deep sorrow to happiness (particularly after Uncle Victor announces he has made a stew out of the pet rabbit he recently gave her) sometimes don’t ring true. Reyes is dynamic onstage, and overall, she turns in a good performance; I’d just like to see her dig a little deeper emotionally.   

Ron Celona once again proves his skill as a director. He’s particularly good at casting, and elicits memorable performances from each actor. There were a few slow moments, though the pace does pick up in the second act.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is fabulous and creates just the right tone, as does the music. Cricket S. Meyers, Randy Hansen and Karen Goodwin do great work on the play’s sound, and Eddie Cancel’s lights are fantastic. Aalsa Lee’s costumes and Lynda Shaep’s hair and makeup are terrific.

La Gringa is particularly timely considering our country’s ongoing political battle over immigration. The play does make you think about what the word “home” really means. In the end, the play proves that the cliché is true: Home is where the heart is.

La Gringa is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Beautiful. They are just … beautiful.

At Coachella Valley Repertory’s first performance of Having Our Say, the gentle Delany Sisters stole our hearts. (With CV Rep’s permission, the Independent reviewed the first preview performance, rather than the opening-night show, so the review could make our February print deadline.) These two ladies charmed the packed house from their first words. Their stories and memories will make you laugh often, and you’ll find yourself misty-eyed at least once or twice.

The actresses are H. Chris Brown, playing 101-year-old Dr. Bessie Delany, and Regina Randolph, playing her 103-year-old sister, Miss Sadie Delany. Both give magnificently multilayered performances that fascinate and delight. Oh—and don’t call them “black” or even “African American.” They tell us they prefer “Negro” or “colored.” Interesting, eh?

We knew going in that words like “action-packed” or “a dizzying ride” were not going to be part of this play’s review. However, what we weren’t expecting was to be so completely enchanted by the Delany girls. In fact, having seen what the years can do to some people, the prospect of a play featuring two centenarians could be a little scary. But from the start, we meet two ladies who are—although a wee bit slow-moving, perhaps—articulate, thoughtful, intelligent and dignified, with lovely senses of humor and slices of life worth talking about.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty in Emily Mann’s script to make us squirm uncomfortably: mentions of Jim Crow laws, racial prejudice, lynchings and the fact that their father was actually born into slavery. But director Ron Celona has shrewdly juxtaposed the stark black-and-white historical photographs, shown on a flat screen disguised as a painting, against the colorful, three-part set of the Delanys’ wallpapered living room, dining room and warm kitchen.

The book Having Our Say, which the real Delany sisters wrote, was published in 1993, and this play is set in that same year. Do you expect to reach the age of 100? Well, these gals give you their recipe for longevity! Coming from a family of 10 children, the sisters think a lot about their parents and siblings. They speak, in their musical Southern accents, with inherent wisdom, discussing music, sex, values, men, education, taxes, entertainers, how they became professional career women, and survival against all odds. They talk about the special sense of humor of oppressed people. They talk about turning 100. (“The worst day of my life!” declares one of them.) They tell the truth about what it’s like to be, in their words, Negro.

Imagine actually knowing someone, living with someone, for 100 years. The Delanys show us what it’s like—and that alone would be fascinating. But the 20th century was quite interesting, and we get to see it from their point of view. What was their part in protest movements? How did their strong faith hold up in tough times? Why was higher education so important to them? I wonder what they’d think of the 21st century so far!

These graceful performances, developed under Celona’s steady and confident hand, will stay in your heart. This kind of audience engagement is the touchstone of professionalism and experience.

CV Rep’s technical-team members all lend their considerable talents to the mix: stage manager Karen Goodwin, set designer Jimmy Cuomo, costume designer Aalsa Lee, lights by Eddie Cancel, sound by Randy Hansen, props by Doug Morris, and superstar Lynda Shaeps creating the excellent makeup and hair. Everything works, so you can sit back, relax and let the magic happen.

And magic does happen. In a two-person play, with sisters yet, we need to see both the many similarities and the differences between these ladies; I won’t give away what those are. A lot of thought has gone into these performances, and the payoff is the audience’s spontaneous reactions of both hearty laughter and tears of empathy. It’s one thing to make us believe intellectually, with our heads, but entirely another to provoke our emotional responses, in our souls. When a terrific script, surefire direction and lovely performances all come together, as they do here, we fly away to another time and place … and in this case, land in the laps of the sweet Delany sisters.

When I asked actor Gavin MacLeod what he thought of the show, he smiled and said, “I want to take them home with me!”

The play runs through Feb. 8, and is dangerously close to selling out, so get your tickets ASAP. You don’t want to miss this show. Because it’s … just beautiful.

Having Our Say is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at Coachella Valley Repertory, at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. The show runs two hours, with two intermissions, and tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory’s season-opener, The Chosen, begins the company’s selection of four plays that represent the diverse cultural heritage of America.

This play is bracketed by World War II in 1944 and the successful establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and it takes place in Brooklyn. Two boys meet playing baseball—how American is that? But don’t think Norman Rockwell just yet: One of the boys belongs to the strict and tradition-bound Hassidic segment of Judaism, and the other belongs other to a more progressive, modernistic and liberal sect. Instant conflict.

While the play’s main characters are Jewish, this play’s themes echo the lives of people worldwide. Almost every religion has different groups within it, each with its own rules about food, drink, travel, marriage, clothing, hair—everything. Maybe that deep sense of spiritual identification is why the audience at The Chosen was the most spellbound, silent bunch I’ve seen in a theater. There was not even a sniffle, and how are your sinuses doing with all the reseeding and the winds? Not a sound. Not a move.

It has to be gratifying for the actors to perform such a powerful play, because they get to see and feel how its message reaches all of us. The five, all-male actors in The Chosen are marvelous, dealing with a tiny stage—but a GREAT set!—and an unamplified room, demanding great diction and projection; they are rewarded with magnificent lighting and a lovely subtle color palette. CV Rep’s artistic and production staff gets stars for their work here. Kudos to Louise Ross, Jimmy Cuomo, Aalsa Lee, Eddie Cancel and Randy Hansen. Artistic director Ron Celona beautifully and cleverly directs the piece, with some brilliant uses of the flexible set that will make you smile with appreciation. (Just to make it perfect, an actual cantor, Samuel B. Radwine, is their consultant for this production.)

The universal themes are boiled down into the friendship of these two kids in wartime Brooklyn. At the game, Reuven, played by Drew Feldman, is pitching to Daniel, played by Daniel Seigerman. The show is narrated by the older version of Reuven, acted by Dave Natale. The fathers of the two boys round out the rest of the cast: The intellectual writer David Malter is Reuven’s widowed dad, played by Dennis Gersten, and David Light plays Daniel’s father, the brilliant and rigid Hasidic Rabbi (Reb) Saunders. Guess what happens?

This wordy play is adapted from the novel and film by its original author Chaim Potok, with Aaron Posner. The script throws around a lot of Yiddish expressions, some translated into English and some not, so the greater vocabulary you bring to this play, the more you’ll get out of it. The script also tosses into the mix a few stunning examples of Talmudic philosophical debate—and even a little humor. It’s all about learning, and we marvel at the devotion to their studies of these boys, back when school was simpler and more distraction-free.

Watching the actors move on this stage is only part of the fascination. We are frozen in anticipation, wondering what path awaits these two boys, their fathers and their countries.

The casting is, well, perfect. Drew Feldman is excellent as the Nice Jewish Boy we all know; despite being raised motherless, he lives to learn and loves life. His father, played by Dennis Gersten, is totally convincing as the passionate Zionist writer. The older Reuven, Dave Natale, devours the stage as he paces it, linking time, place and situation for us—and he gets to have some fun, briefly charming us by playing other parts. Daniel Seigerman excels in the hugely challenging role of a young Hasid facing a changing world while being locked into tradition—and, strangely, being raised in almost total silence by his father. David Light, as his dad … well, you can’t take your eyes off him, with his flashing eyes, growly voice and bearlike moves. Wait ’til he shows off his character’s brilliance and knowledge; he’ll give you goose bumps.

The only tiny little nitpick I could come up with is that I’d like to see more use of the hands. It’s not a stereotype to say that Jewish people (and Italians!) talk with gestures. We could use more of that here.

The best entertainment takes us to a place to which we could never go, and then makes us love the people we find there. This show does that. We keenly understand and accept each character, and the pin-drop silence of the audience proves that we all identify. This is, after all, part of American history, and we don’t need to have ever set foot in Brooklyn to become swallowed up by the story. This two-hour, two-act play will take you further down the rabbit hole than you’ve ever been, because it’s so real. I almost wish there hadn’t been an intermission; the break shocked us back to reality.

The title The Chosen reminds me of that old joke about the Jewish leader who one day gets to actually talk with God, and asks him, “Are we really the Chosen People?” God answers, “Yes.” The man reflects on the historical problems faced by the Jews—Cossack raids, the Holocaust, ancient Egyptian rulers, Biblical plagues—and timidly requests of God, “You think you could choose somebody else for a while?”

When you see this play at CV Rep, you’ll be glad they were chosen.

The Chosen, a production of Coachella Valley Repertory, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 16, at The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The first thing you need to know about Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is that there’s nudity—quite a bit of full frontal nudity, right at the top of the first act.

The second thing you need to know is that the production is fabulous. Founder and artistic director Ron Celona has hit another one out of the park.

The two-character play by Terrence McNally was first performed off-Broadway in 1987. It tells the story of two lonely people, both in their 40s, whose first date ends with a mutually satisfying roll in the hay. While Johnny is convinced he will ride off into the sunset with Frankie, she has some serious doubts: She is far more cautious, and prefers to take things slowly. As the night progresses, they slowly bare their souls to each other … which may or may not lead to a viable relationship. The “Clair de Lune” referred to in the title is a piece of music by Claude Debussy. This fact is important to the plot.

When Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune made its way to Broadway in August 2002, it starred Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. It ran for 243 performances, and both the play (as a revival) and Tucci earned Tony nominations. I’m sure they were marvelous in the roles—but the CV Rep cast would give them a run for their money: Stephanie Dawn Greene (Frankie) and Joel Bryant (Johnny) are simply tremendous.

In a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry is vital, and Greene and Bryant have it in spades. From the second the lights come up as they’re exuberantly consummating their relationship, the audience believes that these two will—or at least should—somehow end up together. Greene is spunky yet vulnerable as waitress and failed actress Frankie. We feel for her when she doesn’t always understand the big words Johnny throws around—but we know, deep down, that she’s probably the wiser of the two. After their apparent one-night stand, Frankie becomes anxious for Johnny to leave. He resists, sometimes with charm, and at other times with a persistence that borders on creepy. (Some women in the audience may relate to this predicament.)

Like Frankie, Johnny (a cook who works with her) is longing for acceptance and hesitant to reveal all the details of his past. He’s divorced and has spent time in prison, while she is uneducated, can’t have kids and has survived an abusive relationship. Both had mothers who walked out on them as children. Bryant’s Johnny is funny and cocky, yet clearly desperate for love. There is one point in the second act when Johnny’s emotional breakdown seems just a tad over the top and whiny, but otherwise, both Bryant and Greene are flawless. (Both are also in great physical shape—a big plus when you’re running around onstage unclothed.)

Director Ron Celona elicits strong performances from the actors, and moves them around on stage quite effectively. Jimmy Cuomo’s set could not be any better, and the lighting (Stuart A. Fabel) and sound (Kara Masek) create just the right mood throughout the production.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, CV Rep’s final production of the 2013-2014 season, completes the theater’s retrospective of Terrence McNally plays. Congrats to Ron Celona for once again offering the Coachella Valley professional, high-quality entertainment. As long as you’re not squeamish about a little nudity and some salty language, this play is a must-see.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $40, and the running time is two hours, with a 15 minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

What can you say about a Terrence McNally play? You know before you enter the theater that he’s waiting to spring a surprise on you. But truthfully … this time, I didn’t think it would happen.

The story is about “two middle-aged ladies who travel to India.” OK … that doesn’t sound very exciting. But then again, I have friends who travelled to India and were so traumatized by the experience that they still can’t talk about what happened to them there. So was this play going to be about something like tourist muggings or pickpockets? Not everybody’s cup of oolong!

I got to Coachella Valley Repertory early for the Wednesday preview (the folks there graciously agreed to let us review the first preview show so we could get this piece into the February print edition); I wanted to study the program. Inserted between the pages was a drawing of Ganesh or Ganesha (either is acceptable—I looked it up) with a microscopic-print explanation of the “symbolism of Ganesha.” It’s worth reading; it describes everything from his trident to his fruit basket to his busted tusk. During this preshow, the audience is treated to an endless earful of sitar music, which will either completely jangle your nerves or transport you off to imaginary India.

The set is basic East Indian. The characters are transported from one venue to another by portaging bits and props that symbolically change the locales between scenes. The lights come up on the Elephant God Ganesha himself, half-naked and wearing an elaborate elephant head … which, alas, creates a muffling effect. The actor, Mueen Jahan, enunciates carefully and speaks as loudly and clearly as he can, but the trunk cuts his vocal projection drastically, and imparts a hollow sound. It’s a conundrum: How do you design a mask of an elephant, trunk and all, but not cover the mouth of the actor behind it? This problem resonated through the whole play, as the actor switched from role to role, wearing the elephant mask throughout. It brings us to a question for our brave director, Ron Celona: Did Jahan need to continue wearing the mask even when he wasn’t playing Ganesh? If playwright McNally demanded it, then Celona’s off the hook. Otherwise, couldn’t Jahan remove the mask while playing those other parts, as well as changing his costume, dialect and vocal quality, as he does?

Sean Galuszka plays so many roles that we lost count. We see him switch effortlessly from a gay flight attendant to an Untouchable Indian beggar to a Dutch tourist to a blood-spattered accident victim/ghost to a suave ballroom dancer, and on and on. He owns each role beautifully, and gets to show off his repertoire of voices, accents and looks. This is a superb opportunity for any actor to strut his stuff, and Galuszka, the only non-Equity cast member, gobbles it up; it’s delightful to see the actor’s craft on display.

Then we meet the ladies. Margaret, with her amazing red hair and fine features, is played by Sharon Sharth. She appears at the airport at the beginning of the show, snarking and whining and trying to assert herself. We get to watch her grow in this play (playwrights call it “arc,” the loveliest word) as she reveals bits and pieces of her past, and we slowly begin to understand the backstories that made her the way she is—but she starts out as a control freak and your textbook American tourist from hell. Why?

Katherine, or Kitty, is played by Kathleen M. Darcy, a gentle brunette. She brings too much luggage, tries to ingratiate herself in India by using her few words of Spanish (implying that all foreign countries are basically just one Non-United States), and generally drives Margaret crazy. Yet she is the one who eventually launches the quest for “the perfect Ganesh,” and as we learn about the other side of her seemingly golden life, we grow in respect and sympathy for her. Arc, here, too.

The crucially important thing to remember is this: A Perfect Ganesh is set in 1992. Think about it. Where were you; what were you doing; what was happening then? That’s the whole key to this play. It was pre-political correctness, so it was open-season on minorities in some places. AIDS was stalking us. Life was dangerously different. That’s how McNally gets us: The shock of the contrast to today’s life.

Oh, sure, there are laughs in the script—McNally loves to be downright silly sometimes—but the universal themes that emerge are the real stars of this work. Meanwhile, the actors are so hard-working! These lines are bears. The writing is very cerebral, and the audiences will respond to the ideas rather than the emotion. Don’t look for a lot of action, if that’s your cup of Darjeeling.

On this preview night, there were stumbles; for example, a phone rang after being picked up, and a picture came down, but that’ll be instantly fixed by the time the show emerges from previews.

Once again, Terrence McNally sets out to surprise us, to make us remember, to think. That is the real reason for the play, whether or not that’s your cup of chai.

And, as always, he succeeds, as does CV Rep.

A Perfect Ganesh is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9; at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. $40 regular; $35 preview on Thursday, Jan. 23; $50 opening night on Friday, Jan. 24. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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