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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

We all secretly hope that people say nice things about us after we die. In The Story of My Life, currently playing at Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, it’s a promise 12-year-old Alvin and Thomas make to each other (heard in voiceover) as the play opens.

Fast-forward 23 years: Tom, now a professional writer, is struggling to come up with an appropriate eulogy for Alvin, who has committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. It might seem daunting to base an entire holiday-related musical around a eulogy, but it actually works quite well.

Tom begins sharing anecdotes about his lifelong buddy, who now appears as a ghost. We learn that the friendship began thanks to Tom’s fascination with the bookstore run by Alvin’s father. Brian Hill’s book includes several references to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (a movie the boys watch often), including a flashback with the two friends making snow angels. Some manly roughhousing takes place as Tom heads off to college, leading to Alvin kissing Tom on the neck—a major turning point. Has Alvin always had romantic feelings for Tom? Young Alvin’s decision to wear his mother’s robe to school every Halloween following her death on his sixth birthday might have been a clue. 

The friends grow apart as Alvin stays behind in their small town to take over the bookstore after his father’s death; meanwhile, Tom seeks his fortune in the literary world. It’s natural for childhood friendships to diminish in intensity and sometimes fade away as we reach adulthood. Happy with his career and his girlfriend, Tom accepts this turn of events, while Alvin can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s unclear how much this factored into Alvin’s tragic demise.

As Tom finally stops looking for the “why” of Alvin’s death and instead focuses on celebrating the joy of their long friendship, his writer’s block begins to melt away—and the eulogy takes form.

Though it earned four 2009 Drama Desk Award nominations—Outstanding Music (Neil Bartram), Outstanding Lyrics (Bartram), Outstanding Book (Hill) and Outstanding Musical—The Story of My Life closed on Broadway after just five regular performances. Perhaps New York audiences used to theatrical extravaganzas could not appreciate its minimalism.

The actors in CV Rep’s production, Chris Daniel (Alvin) and Craig McEldowney (Tom), deliver superb, emotionally nuanced performances. Both handle the demanding score and intricate lyrics with great skill. McEldowney’s soaring tenor is particularly impressive. Kudos go to musical director Scott Storr for his orchestration with piano, cello and percussion. It works perfectly in CV Rep’s intimate theater. The only downside: While Bartram’s songs are very pretty, they occasionally sound a bit repetitive.

The simple, all-white set works quite well, with the library behind Tom representing the thousands of stories in his mind. Director Ron Celona succeeds in keeping the two actors moving around just enough to keep things interesting.

As another year comes to an end, we often become nostalgic for the old days and for friendships that have become only memories. CV Rep’s touching production of The Story of My Life reminds us that as we get swept up in the holiday hustle and bustle, it may be more important than we realize to take a moment to answer those Christmas cards from old friends.

The Story of My Life is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $40. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, or CV Rep to you, has launched its 2013-2014 season with Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

I was part of the very first audience of CV Rep’s new season. This little gem of a theater, located inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, tried out the idea of two “preview” shows before the grand opening. Not a bad idea. (The Independent would not normally review a preview performance, but we sent our November print edition to press before the grand opening. Therefore, the folks at CV Rep were kind enough to allow us to review the Wednesday-night preview.) CV Rep is also trying out a 7:30 curtain time, which, frankly, I love: 7 is too early, and 8 is so late, especially when you emerge from the theater in what feels like the middle of the night.

The open stage set which greets us, designed by Jimmy Cuomo, is charming. Stuart Fabel’s lighting is effective and creative. Aalsa Lee’s costumes are ideal. No changes needed here.

The play is set in 1971, at a “recital room” of Juilliard School, and Madame Maria Callas is going to teach a Master Class. We get to be the audience which is welcomed at such an event. Callas, at the time, was the most famous opera diva in the world, known for her tempestuous personality and style as much as her astonishing voice (which can reduce me to tears of awe within her first three notes).

But in the world of opera—whose mysterious, jealousy-ridden and colorful backstage we rarely see depicted in literature—the whispers have started: Is she losing her voice?

The role of Callas is a superhuman challenge for any actress, because of La Divina’s fame—and the circumstances which drove her to the top, both personal and historical. It’s also a challenge because of McNally’s script: It’s basically a two-hour monologue that demands emotional twists and turns you won’t believe. Marina Re plays Callas flawlessly, showing the naked pain, the unimaginable glory, the humiliation and despair, the obsessive perfectionism, and the dizzying excitement of her life—all on parade.

Her pronunciation of the many foreign languages which opera stars must command is very good. The gestures, facial expressions and body language fit. Her cheekbones are fabulous. She uses her eyes like Greeks do, and she moves like a once-overweight but now-thin woman. Re provides us with an astonishing amount of subtext.

How much of this is due to her interpretation of the role, and how much is due to the work of director Ron Celona? We’ll never know, but the results are stunning. Celona’s excellent work never calls attention to itself; every move is logical and natural—and this is the greatest compliment I can pay to a stage director.

The three innocent opera wannabes who have signed up for Maria Callas’ Master Class are absolutely delightful. Kara Masek plays Sophie; Mario Alberto Rios is Anthony; Nora Graham plays Sharon. These actors’ personal résumés go on for pages, and all three bring solid talents, serious training and surprisingly emotional interpretations to their roles. Opera, alas, is often filled with hackneyed gestures and stereotyped acting, leading to results that can be either hilarious or boring, but Callas demands Method-like research and deep thought from her students before even the first note is sung. The advice given to these aspirants by Callas is extremely worthwhile and important, and every serious performing-arts student could benefit from these teachings.

(Speaking of which: Some opera companies, in an attempt to educate that part of the audience that doesn’t speak the show’s foreign tongue, have set up an interpretive digitalized banner above the stage, which contains a running English translation. This has been met with mixed success. One of my friends attended an opera in which the chorus sang, over and over, a phrase which the banner assured the onlookers was: “We cry potatoes!”)

Steven Smith plays the role of Manny, the hapless piano accompanist who plays his music effortlessly and brings to the show another flavor—that of a steady working musician. Callas charms him, and then orders him around like a peasant; he bears both stoically. Michael Frank’s role of The Stagehand is played with more attitude, though he, too, is safe from La Divina’s storms, and he knows it.

We are overwhelmed by the gravitas and wisdom in McNally’s script—and by the emotional roller coaster through which Marina Re puts us. She recalls the height of Callas’ career at La Scala, and in the next minute, she is talking about having sex with the world’s richest (and power-mad, and abusive) man—and then she is a young girl again, an impoverished child in the middle of a war with nothing going for her but a fabulous voice and a burning determination to outwork anyone else. If you’re in the audience, you’ll need to brace yourself.

But do see this play, whether you’re a big opera buff, or you’ve never seen a live performance. Once you meet this volatile Maria Callas, you’ll never again fear a blonde valkyrie in metal breastplates.

Although the show I saw was a “preview,” all I can say is: Don’t change a thing.

Master Class, a production of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 10. The theater is located at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. $40. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For the Coachella Valley Repertory theater company, this season is all about tolerance.

“We live in a society that isn’t tolerant,” says Ron Celona, the CV Rep artistic director and the director of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, which opens Wednesday, Jan. 22, and runs through Sunday, Feb. 10.

That intolerance (undeniably a bad thing), combined with the increasing diversity in our not-so-little-anymore community (undeniably a good thing), led CV Rep to make tolerance the theme for the three adult plays (plus one children’s show) the company is presenting this season.

And how does Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks—a comedy by Richard Alfieri focusing on the widow of Southern Baptist minister and her gay dance teacher—fit into that theme?

“It brings up issues in the community that need to be addressed,” Celona says. “(The play) sort of pushes the tolerance of both of the characters.”

The woman, Lily Harrison (played by Bobbi Stamm), grew up in the South and has conservative, biblically rooted beliefs. The man, Michael Minetti (Sean Galuszka), came to Florida from New York City to take care of his mother; she has since died, and Michael feels stuck in Florida, an aging gay man trying to find his place in the world.

“They both have preconceived judgments about each other,” Celona says.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks had a brief—four weeks, to be exact—stint on Broadway in 2003, with Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill in the lead roles. Six Dance Lessons has since been performed on stages large and small around the world.

Celona says the play was appealing to him because it’s a comedy that addresses tolerance, and was a nice fit in between CV Rep’s other two plays this season, both of which are more dramatic: Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories, which was onstage in October and November, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, which opens in March.

In fact, the tension between Six Dance Lessons’ more dramatic elements and its comedic parts led to one of the biggest challenges for Celona as a director, he says.

“It was extra tricky to work around the very dramatic parts of the play, and to keep it a comedy,” says Celona, who had not seen a live version of the play before. “If I was not careful to choreograph and maneuver (through the more dramatic parts), it could have become a drama. We have to remind ourselves this is a comedy.”

He praised both of the actors for dedicating themselves so fully to the roles. Galuszka has been in a number of TV shows and films, including a large role in recent indie film Crossroad. Stamm has a background as a nightclub singer/comedian, with various stage and screen roles to her credit.

“When you have actors who are so committed to a role and the growth of a new company, it’s just so appreciated,” Celona says.

CV Rep is indeed one of the valley’s newer theatrical organizations, in its second year in its home at The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, Celona says. Celona, of course, thinks the future of CV Rep in the ever-diversifying Coachella Valley is bright.

“The time has come for a professional regional theater, where thriving, working artists can perform,” Celona says.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks takes place at 8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10. Tickets are $40. The Coachella Valley Repertory theater is located at The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. For tickets or more information, call 296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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