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Artistic director Jim Strait has never played it safe when choosing material to produce at the Desert Rose Playhouse. Local audiences have come to expect edgy fare from the valley’s only LGBT theater company—and Desert Rose’s current production, the world premiere of Allan Baker’s Dare, does not disappoint.

The play won New York’s 2017 Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Award for Best Political Play, beating out 299 other submissions. The contest encourages the writing of plays that focus on social, cultural and political issues—and Baker, who hails from Austin, has been an LGBT advocate in Texas for many years. Since 2004, he has penned 13 plays, most with gay characters and themes.

Dare introduces us to 82-year-old Jack (Richard Marlow), who lives in a nursing home in California’s Central Valley. Tired of living, Jack has decided to end it all by starving himself to death. Nursing-home administrators send in gerontology consultant Josh (Matthew Hocutt) to find out why Jack has made such a rash decision. Though both Jack and Josh are gay, their life experiences have been quite different, due to the disparity in their ages.

Jack regales Josh with tales of his past as an activist in the early days of LGBT liberation. In flashback scenes, we go along on the journey from San Francisco in the 1970s to Fire Island in ’78, then on to New York City in both 1987 and 1990.

We see a young Jack struggle to maintain his buttoned-up banker image by day while letting loose with wild experimentation in the bathhouses of New York at night. He meets the love of this life, young David (Noah Arce), who helps him loosen up and embrace his true identity. The relationship is intense, but not monogamous, because “commitment wasn’t the engine that drove that train.”

Then the scourge of AIDS rears its ugly head. “You could feel the fear growing in the village … and then people started dying,” Jack says, while railing against those who would pass judgment: “It just happened—don’t give it a moral spin!”

As Jack’s story unfolds, Josh comes to understand the older man’s end-of-life choice. Jack has his reasons, including the fact that “there’s a great quiet now that all my friends and family are gone.” As a theater veteran, he feels the dramatic arc of his life is complete.

The cast of five is strong. As the nursing-home attendant, Robbie Wayne makes quite an impression in two brief scenes at the beginning and end of the play. His character’s animosity towards homosexuals is palpable and disturbing.

Terry Huber’s portrayal of the younger, conflicted Jack is right on the money. His reluctant willingness to dress in drag and learn the movements to Madonna’s “Vogue” are fun to watch.

As Jack’s young lover, David, Noah Arce is quite a find. Stunning and androgynous, Arce perfectly embodies the free-spirited innocence, enthusiasm, determination and sensuality of young gay men at the time. It’s easy to see why Jack would fall for him.

Matthew Hocutt is terrific as Josh. With his clipboard, glasses and lab coat, he’s all business, yet kind and understanding as he absorbs Jack’s story. The audience can see his growing affection for the old man. It all rings true.

But the clear standout is Richard Marlow as Jack. This character is a huge part for any actor, including several long monologues and a wide range of emotion; there are times when it almost seems like a one man show. Marlow is absolutely up to the task. We feel his physical pain and weakness, his lust and love for David, his anger and frustration over widespread homophobia, and the peace he seems to have found at the end of his life. There is not one false note. It is truly an acting tour de force; if Marlow does not win an award for this performance, there is no justice in the world.

Once again, director Strait deserves great credit for eliciting strong performances from his cast. Material like this needs a director with sensitivity and passion, and Strait’s work exhibits both.

The set, costumes, sound and lighting all work well. Kudos to Steve Fisher, the stage manager, who helps keep the whole production running smoothly.

Dare is a gay-themed show, but there are lessons here for everyone. We all feel “different” from time to time. That’s when we should remember Jack’s advice: “You’re not like them … remember that. It’s the source of your strength.”

Desert Rose Playhouse’s Dare is terrific theater. Go see it.

Dare is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 13, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday out of the way, our thoughts turn to the Christmas season—and one of the special seasonal events in our valley is always Desert Rose Playhouse’s ever-innovative holiday production. This year, the choice is Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel.

Set in New York (and heaven, do you mind), it visits Manhattan in 1948—a wild postwar world of swinging nightclubs, famous restaurants, jazz and a night life that goes on until dawn. The underbelly of the town contains a second world of mobsters and molls, gambling and gunplay, cheesy shows and characters … and that’s where we find ourselves, with everyone speaking thick Manhattan-ese.

Understand that everything in this light-hearted comedy is over the top—you will find no subtle gritty-realism method acting here. It’s all for fun and for the effect, and producer Paul Taylor has assembled a cast that fully comprehends this.

The show stars the extraordinary Loren Freeman as Irish O’Flanagan, a carrot-topped nightclub singer whose miserly, selfish and mean-spirited ways earn her some flashback visits to the past, plus a glimpse of her destined future, courtesy of a guardian angel. (I know, I know—you’re already seeing the parallels with Scrooge.) The angel, Albert, is played by Robbie Wayne, who has been named a “DRP artistic associate” for his ever-growing and varied list of jobs with the group, including creating the choreography for this “musical pastiche.” As Albert, he’s a slick, pinstripe-suited and smart-mouthed former performer in trouble with God for a batch of heavenly infractions who is facing expulsion to Hades. He bargains to get back into God’s Good Books by agreeing to go down to Earth and trying to convert Irish into a being who is also worthy of admission to heaven. Which, as you’ve guessed, she currently is not.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the lead actor in this show. Everything turns on Irish O’Flanagan’s magnetism and believability, as she is in almost every scene. Loren Freeman, with his astonishing aquamarine eyes, resonant foghorn bass voice and shapely legs, brings an arsenal of skills and talents more than equal to this task. (In fact, this entire show features many great gams, both male and female—if the Desert Theatre League ever creates a category for Best Legs, this show is the, umm, hands-down winner.) A consummate professional, Freeman actually takes a pass on opportunities to react when another actor is speaking, knowing that if he does, it would draw the audience’s eye away to him … yet when he does react, it’s flawless. His New York accent is perfect, and in that whisky-baritone voice, he relishes rolling his mouth around the script’s 1940s street-slang—like “a clop on the chops,” “doll,” “jawboning” and “stooge.” Even as Irish blusters and struts, we see the vulnerability beneath the surface, and when she sings, it can break your heart. It’s a case of absolutely perfect casting.

DRP seems close to forming its own repertory company with the return to the boards of such favorite actors as Terry Huber, Cat Lyn Day, Michael Pacas, Melanie Blue and Kam Sisco. Also included are some welcome new faces: Ruth Braun, James Owens and Karen Schmitt. A growing company is a healthy company, and they all get to fill the stage and show off their versatility by playing a delicious variety of multiple roles. Parker Tenney plays The Voice of God, which might surprise you.

There were a couple of understandable first-night fumbles and misfortunes, and in some places, the timing was a little bit off, but knowing Jim Strait, this will be fixed by the time you see the show. And some of the accents need work—they’re a little muddy. There were a couple of bewildering moments, possibly because of some anachronisms in the costumes and the music, but for “heaven’s” sake, who cares?

Among my favorite moments were Huber’s touching solo; some of the terrific quick changes; Sisco’s hilarious portrait of a drunken former Vaudeville star from back when drunks were still funny; extra touches like the antlers; some lovely harmonies; several moments of exquisite timing; and the expression “a case of the dismals,” which will promptly be absorbed into everyone’s current vocab. The first-night audience must have agreed, because they broke into spontaneous applause during and between the scenes. The 95-minute play is performed without an intermission, just in case your kidneys might want to know in advance.

The production is designed and directed by DRP’s founding artistic director, Jim Strait. He and Paul Taylor unabashedly adore Christmas, wearing outrageous Yuletide garb to welcome the playgoers. How refreshing is this? It makes you want to rush home and get out your Christmas decorations.

Playwright Charles Busch—whose name you will remember from other DRP productions including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/Coma—frankly admits A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as inspirations for Times Square Angel, along with the gangster movies of the ’40s, with those tough-talking chorus girls and thugs found in places like this show’s gaudy Club Intime.

Musical director Joel Baker has pre-recorded the accompaniment music, which mixes styles such as doo-wop, blues, gospel and, of course, some good old Christmas songs everyone knows. (You DO know “Mele Kalikimaka” in Hawaiian, right? Because they sing it here.)

Regarding the aforementioned repertory, returning costume director Mark Demry (who delights us with two-tone spectator shoes, perky hats and nostalgic fur stoles) and hair stylist Toni Molano (the wigs are hugely important in this show … though some are a bit weird) are again joined by the incomparable Phil Murphy as lighting director, whose contribution makes this his 49th show for DRP. Steve Fisher is the stage manager once again. How pleasant for this company to be able to rely on the same tried-and-true talents for every production!

This play is fun. It will make you feel good. It will infuse you with Christmas spirit. You will want to immediately rush home and dust off the Christmas tree lights—and maybe it will even inspire you to give Christmas gifts of theater tickets or even season subscriptions, thereby giving ideal presents to everyone!

Times Square Angel is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 17, at 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

What actor wouldn’t want to have a play called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom included on one’s resume? From the moment I heard this show was coming to the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater company, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Director Jim Strait and producer Paul Taylor have chosen a play with one of the longest-ever Off-Broadway runs for their annual salute to gay heritage theater. Who doesn’t love a success story? This play opened with plans for just one weekend—and it turned into a five-year run! Strait informed me that he has wanted to do this play for 30 years; read on, and you’ll understand why.

Written by Charles Busch, this outrageous show actually consists of two one-acts: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma. (It’s important to distinguish thd latter one from the “other” Sleeping Beauty, lest suburban matrons mistakenly show up at the theater door with eager 6-year-olds.)

VLOS is the story of two rival ladies, beginning in the ancient city of Sodom—which you’ll remember was supposed to be, oh, you know, the most depraved city ever in the entire world. Both gals are immortal vampires who repeatedly cross paths on their 2,000-year journey, starting in Sodom at a pagan sacrifice, appearing next in Hollywood in the 1920s, and last in present-day Las Vegas.

SBOC starts off in the swingin’ ’60s of London. Who could forget it? Miniskirts, the Beatles, Twiggy, the Frug, bell bottoms, the Rolling Stones, Carnaby Steet, etc. This is exactly when the theatrical style of revue began. SBOC echoes its snappy style, with actors playing multiple roles, running gags, quick changes, satire, broad comedy, and snippets of song and dance. The revue style borrowed heavily from the old American vaudeville shows (and music halls in England), and its future would become TV shows like Laugh In, Benny Hill and Saturday Night Live.

Here at Desert Rose Playhouse, this cast members have been chosen for their versatility and inventiveness. Each actor works not just in both acts; Act 2 includes three separate scenes, so some actors play as many as four parts, complete with elaborate costume, wig and makeup changes. It’s a demanding show! We have to mention there’s nudity and a few choice vulgarities, by the way, if anyone still cares.

Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting even includes strobe lights and a “limelight” effect. (You can’t imagine the number of light cues.) Steve Fisher’s stage management whisks people, sets and props on and off stage with breathtaking ease. Allan Jensen’s colorful rich-textured costumes are just magnificent—some are awesomely elaborate (vampires, actresses, a Vegas show star) while others are built for speedy changes—some right onstage. The fascinating wigs are masterminded by Toni Molano. Strait himself created the scenery (and he runs the lights … talk about multiple talents), and it was painted by Walter Lab. Let’s also applaud Robbie Wayne’s delightful choreography, sprinkled throughout the show with flair and wicked humor. Along with Paul Taylor as producer, Edward Monie is listed as the show’s executive producer.

How do we describe this show? Do terms like “madcap” and “over the top” convey the wackiness? Do I tell you about the audience’s gasps, spontaneous applause and belly laughs? Should we discuss the lovely “takes,” the knockout legs of the actors in drag, and the amazing shoes? Where do we begin?

Let’s start with the actors. The stars are Loren Freeman and Kam Sisco, two seasoned professionals who devour the stage like their vampire characters devour blood. Freeman’s sensational and sonorous voice, his unequalled skill with makeup, his evident relish with his costumes (a gold dress with a popcorn trim; a delicious cerise suit with giant faux pearls)—these are hallmarks of a detail-oriented and vastly talented actor. His flawless diction is a joy—he never wastes a word. His deft performance is a must-see, and acting students could learn much from him.

Sisco’s amazing legs are fantastic enough to be distracting, and the flesh-colored pantyhose in the modern-time scenes flatters him wonderfully. (Wait until you see his canary-yellow heels.) He’s an actor who is right on top of every line and gesture, and his careful attention to his craft makes these roles unforgettable. He goes through so much in this show that you will be astonished by him.

Adina Lawson is the only real girl in the cast. There are so many men in drag that it feels like the stage is completely mobbed by ladies, but there’s really only Lawson! Hmmm. She is tinier by about a foot of height than everyone else, but always spunky and terrier-alert. She plays a variety of roles with extreme body language and attitude.

Terry Huber is an actor of enormous variety, with a whole pocketful of regional and international accents and seasoned theatrical skills. Here, he weaves his skills through some really strange roles. Oh, and there’s a shock underneath one of his outfits. Brace yourself.

Richard Marlow changes so completely in his roles that we had to sneak a look at our programs to make sure the designer Sebastian Lore was really the same person later playing King Carlisle, the Hollywood actor with a complicated persona. He brings a pleasing variety to his work.

Jacob Betts is almost unrecognizable as he switches roles from Ian McKenzie to Etienne the butler to Danny the dancer, showing his chameleonic ability to fully inhabit each part.

Steven Ciceron and John Fryer give us some smaller roles (my faves were two bitchy chorus boys), but they both inhabit their many characters with the conviction that grows out of working with a great director: Strait has pulled solid performances and impressive vocal variety out of both gentlemen.

SBOC and VLOS have to be seen to appreciate this wild ride. VLOS’ strange plot is, surprisingly, beautifully and satisfyingly resolved. I won’t talk about the finale, so I don’t ruin it for you. So buckle up, and see it. You’ll love it. The outrageous title only begins the fun in this show!

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma, are performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-320-2000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s autumn, and again, the theater season begins. How auspicious that the beginning of our fourth season of theater reviews coincides with the opening of the fifth season of plays by the fabulously successful Desert Rose Playhouse.

With all the doom-sayers proclaiming that live theater is dead, and that newspapers are dead, we have both survived.

This year, Desert Rose’s artistic director, Jim Strait, tells us that he and producer Paul Taylor are “addressing the woes of the world by doing comedy.” What a great idea! Their plans for 2016-17 include The Santaland Diaries, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom with Coma, Southern Baptist Sissies and Clark Gable Slept Here. If these crazy titles are any indication, we’re in for a LOT of fun this year at our desert’s LGBT playhouse.

The initial offering, POZ, was written by Michael Aman. It’s set in 2003 in The City (as New Yorkers proudly call it), and later on a beach in Massachussets. The play was nominated for a Carbonell Award (a theater award in Florida) last year, and this is only the third-ever production of the show. The writing is fluid and filled with echoes, and instead of being plot- or action-driven, it’s a comedy-splashed investigation into the lives and relationships of some fascinating characters.

The show’s open stage, specially designed by Thomas Valach, is painted by Walter Lab into a bright-red sky with fluffy white clouds. Red? It’s a clue. The set is minimalist, with just a curving set of stairs, one low platform and an armchair—across which the sky and clouds are also painted. Brilliantly lit by the award-winning Phil Murphy, the set is where the actors move into a variety of settings which our imaginations can flesh out. (You will particularly love how Murphy lights the waterfront scene.) Steve Fisher’s clever stage management rapidly transports us from one place to another, and the actors efficiently bus the props in and out of scenes themselves. Robbie Wayne’s costumes reflect each character’s special personality, and the casting is perfect.

And what personalities they are. Adina Lawson opens the play as Catherine, a sort-of-retired and stylish actress, neurotic and malcontent about everything from her aging to her out-of-order apartment building. Her edgy voice and superior attitude disguise the gentle and generous person hidden underneath, we realize as we get to know her and watch her interactions with others.

But … who’s that silently watching her? Turns out he’s Arthur, an angel, sweetly played by John Fryer. Ballet-trained and rehearsal-clad Arthur swirls throughout the play, strutting with the grace of a premier danseur; he eventually breaks his silence by launching into a lengthy monologue. He knows and visits all the other characters, even though they are not all are aware of his presence. (Just like the angels in our lives, perhaps.)

Edison, a 23-year-old who has been diagnosed with leukemia, is an actor/singer currently working as a waiter (of course), played by Peter Stoia. His is perhaps the most serious role, because the irony of his situation is affected by politics in every aspect of his life: In 2003, the disease was 78 percent curable, but ruinously expensive to treat. His youth and apparent inexperience provide a contrast to the other characters—but he shocks us with unexpected and disturbing cunning that we just don’t see coming.

The role of Robert, a cynical and weary 50-year-old lawyer (yes, there are a couple of good lawyer jokes), is performed by Richard Marlow. Self-consciously determined to keep up with technology and the times, he can’t help reminiscing about the Olden Days of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. He struggles to find an elusive relationship, yet sabotages his chances by keeping everyone at arm’s length—only partly because he is HIV-positive.

Lorraine Williamson is a breath of fresh air as Maia, a lesbian psychic. (How often do we hear those two words together?) She fills the stage with her garish, outrageous outfits and larger-than-life personality, but we can peek behind the facade to see her hidden pain. She gives us a multi-layered performance, which is especially notable in her musically voiced monologue.

Her ex-husband, Oscar, is played by Terry Huber, who has thrown caution to the winds with this performance. Here, he’s an over-the-top old-school queen who loves to dish, but who becomes suddenly vulnerable and uncertain when he struggles to resolve his relationship with his father. Huber never disappoints, and he’s delightful here, relishing his chance to deliver some of the best lines in the play. He shows us how even the most outrageous of us have to sometimes face the horrors of reality.

All these characters know each other and affect each other’s lives. The complexity builds through the play; my favorite scene is probably the one in the disco bar. (You’ll love the lighting!) The monologues are shot through with references to the life and times—what was popular on TV, what was legal and wasn’t, what was new back then, and the shock of being reminded of Sept. 11. There’s plenty about ghosts, Arthur included, and a thread of mystery running through the play. Death is always lurking, which increases the intensity of comedy through the contrast. Historically, 2003 was a different time, and it’s interesting to be jolted back to there.

The audience visibly warmed during this show. Perhaps we’d like to see a little more passion in the love story, but the characters are unforgettable, regardless. Jim Strait’s blocking is flawless—nobody knows how to use a space like he can—and the timing is excellent. The plot definitely takes a back seat to the characterizations, and the story is simply the stories of the lives of these people at this time. Are their memories the same as ours? It’s an interesting reality check; after all, we are never aware of change while it’s happening.

The year 2003 feels like a long time ago … that is, it did until I saw this play.

Poz is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

So the name of the play is Cock.

All right, settle down. Even though the show takes place at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater, the name does not mean what you’re thinking. Think cock FIGHT. Like, roosters. OK?

Included in the printed program is an actual fight card, listing the adversaries in each round. The setting is the next surprise: The audience sits around a square ring, inspired by the illegal sport, and the actors represent their chicken counterparts. Frankly, it’s the best seating arrangement I have seen at the Desert Rose: Everyone is so close to the action, and the raked back rows are on risers so we all can see perfectly. It’s great! Not all plays lend themselves to this format, but we hope that clever producer Paul Taylor will use this style again when possible.

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play opened last weekend, and will be performed for four more weekends at the Rancho Mirage playhouse. Lighting director Phil Murphy has brilliantly lit this stark set. Stage manager Steve Fisher rings a bell between rounds, as in boxing. (Sorry … I have no idea whether there are bells in actual cockfights.)

Theater in the round brings with it a true challenge for a director, because in this format, the actors are always facing away from some of the audience, while facing others, so they must change position frequently. But here the actors can face each other, like real people talking! This almost never happens on a proscenium stage where actors “cheat forward” to present their faces to the audience. Thank heaven for the excellent natural acoustics of the Desert Rose, as the intimate size (usually 83 seats, but 65 in this style) helps us hear everything. Theater in the round can fail horribly in too large of a room, where the actors’ voices vanish because they seem to be always facing away from you, or in a room with a ceiling that’s too high, where the sound drifts up, up and away from your straining ears. A modified three-quarters circle format is frequently the compromise; think classic Shakespeare. Here, director Jim Strait has brilliantly choreographed the actors’ movements, with the seduction scene being the model example of this theatrical style.

If you expect that this rumble just involves two guys squaring off, think again: It’s a cast of four, each with an agenda to defend. John, played by Stephen McMillen, has been in a long-term relationship with “M,” acted by Robert Rancano. They break up, and John “accidentally” falls in love with a straight girl, “W” (Phylicia Mason; we guess that the letters stand for “Man” and “Woman”). Of course, there is much angst all around when John goes back to M. Then M and W both agree to wait for John’s decision: With whom will he live? M’s father, “F,” (for “Father,” right?) gets to act as referee, so we meet Terry Huber at a dinner party given to sort things out.

So is John gay … or straight? Hmmm? What will he decide?

By the way, we have to slap a “mature” rating on this show due to “frank” (a term I love) sexual language. We’re so PC! But truly, this show not for anyone easily offended, as the playwright clearly wants us to be shocked.

The set consists of just two lavender hassocks on which to sit. There are no props—no cutlery, china, wine glasses or even a dinner table. There are no costumes, except what the actors are wearing, and no scenery. And get this: The actors don’t even mime their eating/drinking/taking coats off. So, no distractions! The author’s words are all that matter.

And the words! There are British accents all around. The writing is a cross between free-verse poetry and real life, where sentences are only partially spoken and often unfinished. Strait’s artful direction all but eliminates pauses between speeches, and the tension rises or falls with the speed, pitch and volume of the actors’ voices. It’s a masterful demo of acting technique.

At the show we attended, the actors were rewarded with pin-drop attention, as the audience is so physically close to the actors that every flicker of an eyelash contains significance. Our attention is riveted.

McMillen, the quintessential beautiful blond boy, dithers and stews and not only seems incapable of making decisions, but has never even figured out who or what he is. Youth! So he is frozen, overthinking everything. He makes us want to either smack him into action, or hug him in sympathy.

Rancano, dark-haired and fashionably unshaven, with flawless skin, is like pepper to McMillen’s salt. More mature and powerful, but attempting to hide his sensitivity, he shows a confidence that comes with age while trying to cover his fragile feelings. His performance hits just the right note.

Mason lights up the world with her sparkling eyes and gorgeous smile. She struts a perfect figure that will make everyone in the audience silently swear to go on a diet and get back to the gym. Great legs, toned body, amazing hair, sweet face—she has it all. Her character is complex, and she knows how to show it. Now if she could only do something about those black bra straps showing at the back of that terrific coral dress … .

Terry Huber, perhaps the busiest actor in the valley this season, has a face you just never get tired of watching. The shades of meaning he can express are uncountable, and as a gifted actor with a pocketful of regional accents from which to choose, his choice of this British one is pitch-perfect. His second-act role here is too small—we always want to see more of him.

The concept of fowl fisticuffs is wonderful; the casting is perfect; the direction is genius; the script is astonishing; and the actors’ energies are beautifully balanced. Obviously I’m not going to give away the ultimate decision or reveal who is left standing at the final bell.

You’ll have to go to the next match yourself.

Cock is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 10; there is no show on Easter Sunday, March 27. The shows take place at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season with A Queer Carol, billed as the first gay version of Charles Dickens’ classic story; it premiered in New York in 2001.

I really wanted to like this show. Given the excellent quality of previous productions I’ve seen at Desert Rose, I expected to like it. Sadly, it was a little like anticipating a stocking full of Christmas goodies and instead finding an empty sock.

The story here is set in modern day New York, where Ebenezer “Ben” Scrooge (Steve Fisher) is a Manhattan interior designer who makes life miserable for his loyal right-hand man, Bob Cratchit (David Brooks). Scrooge barks and snaps at Cratchit, pays him a meager salary and refuses to provide him with health insurance. The lack of insurance is especially problematic, since Tiny Tim here is an adult—Cratchit’s HIV-positive partner.

It is Christmas Eve, and as Scrooge does his best to put a damper on everyone’s holiday spirit, fabric-salesman Fred (Jayson Kraid) stops by to invite Ben to his annual Christmas party. Also paying a call to the shop is charity-worker (Terry Huber), looking for a donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. True to form, Scrooge declines to give, because there are already hospices and shelters to handle the problem. And if those infected should die, then “let them do it and decrease the surplus population.”

We also learn that Scrooge’s former business partner, the late Jacob “Jake” Marley (Aaron Zontek), was his ex-lover. As Scrooge’s night of terror and forced self-examination begins, the ghost of Marley appears in full S&M regalia—leather, chains and a bare tuckus.

This Scrooge has a lot more emotional baggage than Dickens’ version. In a flashback, we see young Ben’s father express rage and disgust that his son is turning into “a goddamn fairy.” The boy then suffers homophobic taunting when he’s shipped off to boarding school. At age 21, Ben meets Jake Markowitz (he later changes his name to Marley for business purposes) at a Christmas party, and the two become lovers. The relationship is problematic, because Jake can’t bring himself to say “I love you,” and Ben is conflicted about his homosexuality. After the pair take over Fezziwig’s Fabrics, Ben concentrates on making money, while Jake’s promiscuity results in him contracting the HIV virus.

In Desert Rose’s production, things start to pick up when The Ghost of Christmas Past (Cat Lyn Day) shows up in the form of Marilyn Monroe. As she guides Scrooge through the review of his life, references to the blonde bombshell’s movies abound. (“Every seven years, I get this itch.”) Day delivers a strong performance. She is flirty, vampy and fun to watch.

But the true high point of the evening is the entrance of The Ghost of Christmas Present (Loren Freeman), who shows up as an outrageous drag queen. She gives Ben a glimpse of the private world of Bob Cratchit and Tim, where money is scarce, but love is abundant. Dressed like a sparkling Christmas tree in boots—with red and green fringe, and tree ornaments for earrings—Freeman lights up the stage with camp and energy. We never want him to leave.

Fisher is well-cast as the world-weary, bitter Scrooge. He’s just the right age and has the proper physical type; his gruff, cold demeanor rings true. He’s most effective in the later scenes, when the Ghost of Christmas Future terrifies him with what might be if he does not change his ways.

Zontek (Jake Marley, Blake) comes across as a bit stiff and tentative throughout much of the show. With more passion and commitment, his Marley could be a tour de force.

David Brooks’ Cratchit is appropriately endearing and likable; we are rooting for him and Tim to prevail in the end. Alex Enriquez does a decent job as Young Scrooge and Tim, but as with much of the cast, he sometimes seems to hold back—we want more from him.

Always a pro, V.J. Hume (a frequent Independent contributor) handles multiple roles (Scrooge’s Mother, Jean, Nurse, Maria), and she handles them pretty well. Pulling off more than one role in a play is not easy. Hume and Day both succeed—although there were times when their accents (Russian and Latina) seemed inconsistent.

Kraid (Fred, Fezziwig, Pytor) and Huber (Nick, Scrooge’s Father, Noel, Fence) are pleasant enough, but could both use an infusion of energy.

The multiple sets functioned fairly well, although the blocking seemed awkward at times. Phil Murphy’s lighting was quite effective. Kudos to Allan H. Jensen for costumes and wigs.

Alas, there are several problems with this production. The script could use some tweaks; there’s a distinct a lack of energy from much of the cast, as well as slow pacing here and there, and some fumbling with lines (which could have been opening-night jitters).

Jim Strait is normally a strong director, as evidenced by his long list of excellent productions at Desert Rose. I’m not sure what happened here. Perhaps another week of work and some coaching from Freeman on stage presence would help.

Desert Rose Playhouse has brought some fabulous theater to the valley. Here’s hoping the show improves throughout the run.

A Queer Carol is being performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 20, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to 33, and the running time is about 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

You might think a critic’s worst nightmare is seeing a show in which there is absolutely nothing to criticize. You’d be wrong.

Here I am, smiling, while writing to tell you about a musical revue you’ll love, because Vitamin Q at the Desert Rose Playhouse is a total joy.

It’s perfect summer fare, because it’s light and fun and pokes gentle, sly, affectionate humor at the gay community. It’s filled with clever lyrics, interesting melodies, terrific comedy and—yes—even dancing! The theater is deliciously cool and comfortable, unlike some establishments which freeze us out with violent, sniffle-inducing air conditioning, thinking they’re doing us some kind of favor by giving us cold fingers and running noses. In other words, you are in for a total treat at this show. Savvy producer Paul Taylor has scheduled Vitamin Q through the last weekend in July, so you can see it more than once.

Staged and directed by the uber-talented Jim Strait, who modestly doesn’t credit himself as the show’s creator, it’s written by Eric Lane Barnes. Taylor and Strait approached the playwright after the success of last season’s The Stops, and suggested a musical revue of Barnes’ work. Apparently the result was a deluge of Barnes’ material; Strait, along with musical director Steven Smith—another gifted workhorse—pored through it and picked out the numbers that created the resulting work. Although this production is not credited as an original or first-time event, you won’t see it anywhere else on the planet—another reason to see this show.

Costumer Mark Demry has evidently located the longest orange feather boa in the entire world, among other treats. The show also features the always-perfect lighting of Phil Murphy, and the flawless timing of stage manager Steve Fisher. Their work combines to add to the professionalism invariably found at DRP.

For this show, DRP has added the mastery of dancer-choreographer Randy Doney to create the afore-mentioned hoofing. Did you know that he directed Barry Manilow’s shows for 25 years? Plus, he worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus (which occupies a special place in my heart, as they once let me spend a whole day with their immortal Coco the Clown). Plus he performed in the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies for 15 seasons. Wow. Though I suspect none of the actors in this show are professional dancers, Doney has guided them through a creditable performance which includes moves from disco, Latin music, country-Western, polka—and even, to our astonishment, an all-cast tap routine!

Of course, in revue theater, casting is crucial. Well, casting is always crucial, but this form of theater demands talented characters with all the necessary skills (they each must be actors, comedians, singers, dancers and sometimes even models, and must LOOK like a group), but above all, they must contrast each other, and stand out as individuals. The same, but different. Not easy. Here, however, the sharp eyes of Jim Strait have selected a cast that achieves exactly that.

We meet them, all together, when the show bursts open with its theme song, “Vitamin Q,” whose meaning you have doubtless figured out already. We are immediately impressed with their amazing five-part harmonies and their heads-high energy. The remaining numbers are shrewdly chosen to provide maximum variety in all areas, to get the most out of every scenario.

There are several defining features of revue: a bare stage which can be anything in scene after scene, blackouts after every “bit,” a high-energy pace, wide musical contrasts between numbers, live music, quick changes and a running gag that occurs throughout. It happens to be my favorite form of theater. Revue steals shamelessly from vaudeville, improv theater and anybody else who isn’t looking. In this show, the running gag is “Tomorrow Never Comes,” in which each actor gets to do a send-up of a diva you’ll have little trouble recognizing.

The show romps through such numbers as “Pansies,” “Drama Queen,” “I Don’t Like Show Tunes,” “It’s All in Your Mind” and “Homomotion,” all of which provoke great hilarity, and then one beautiful ballad that will stick with you, “Save Your Sundays for Me,” which could be done even by straight singers. Contrast.

Onstage, we get to see new sides of some actors we’ve watched before. Timm McBride, with his lovely silvery hair and charming gravitas, gets to play everything from a doo-wap ’50s backup singer to a saloon singer on a stool. Terry Huber, with sleepy eyes, sophistication and a snake-slim figure, surprisingly appears as a snotty cowboy in “Garbage,” and frolics through several dance routines. Raul Valenzuela unleashes his rich powerful voice and considerable dance skills and then gets laughs just by appearing in a babushka or wearing inexplicable lime-green socks. Andrew Knifer demonstrates his exquisite diction and expressive face, and then pops our eyes with a wild falsetto in some songs. Jeffrey Norman stands out by wearing a goatee and glasses on stage and adds his solid baritone skills to complicated harmony vocals such as those in “Mr. Satan” (done in dazzling outrageous red choir gowns). Great group. They are accompanied by Steven Smith on piano.

They have all mined the maximum out of this marvelous material, and created an evening of fun, variety and delight. This is what revue should be, but its breeziness masks the huge amount of planning, skill-stretching challenges and just-plain-hard labor of creating such a show. It’s too easy for an audience to be swept away by the laughter, and forget how much effort goes into the second-by-second timing that a revue demands. But what a pleasure to see it done so right!

Kudos to everyone at Desert Rose Playhouse for Vitamin Q. You’ll leave feeling oxygenated from laughing—and as energized as if you had just taken your vitamins.

Vitamin Q is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 26, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

“Don’t sit in the front row!” director Jim Strait warned me before the show. So, of course, that’s exactly where I sat.

I thought he was maybe trying to protect me from too much, um, in-your-face nudity, which is a key part of Love! Valour! Compassion!, now at the Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage. Instead, the issue is that thanks to a cast of seven actors, smart blocking and the ingenious use of the small space’s set design, every square inch of the area is used—including the floor between the audience’s shoes and the first riser. Many times, those of us in the first row needed to quickly tuck our feet under our chairs as actors moved right by us. But it was a pleasure to help out in any small way.

The play is this year’s “Gay Heritage Production”: Desert Rose annually schedules a key play from gay theatrical history, and this, written by the amazing Terrence McNally, won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1995. (It was also made into a film in 1997.) It is set in 1994, at a country house in upstate New York, over three weekends, each of which is featured in its own act: Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.

Beyond the front-row warning, the nudity warning and perhaps a “language” warning, you should know this: The play lasts more than three hours. Yes! But don’t think you’ll squirm and fuss: The show is fascinating, and you’ll be glued to your seat. You’ll get to watch seven men (eight, actually—more about that later) live their lives and react to each other and grow … or not. Is there anything better?

The tech side, as always at Desert Rose Playhouse, is wonderful, with lighting by the gifted Phil Murphy, stage-managing by the eagle-eyed Steve Fisher, and costumes by Tom Valach—yes, there are costumes; the boys are not running around in their pelts the whole time. A couple of the sound cues could be re-thought, perhaps, and the splash effects could use some tinkering, but otherwise, the work is most excellent.

With seven or eight characters, a mob scene of confusion could result if casting choices were poor. However, producer Paul Taylor cleverly chose actors who have such distinctive and strong individual personalities that once we paste the name onto the face of each role, the characters stand out as clearly and unforgettably as your own friends. How he managed to do that—plus find this number of guys who were willing to take their clothes off in front of a room full of strangers—we can’t imagine.

Gregory is a successful choreographer who has invited friends to his idyllic country home (including a pond or lake perfect for skinny-dipping) for the long weekend. They know each other in different ways, professionally or personally. His partner is Bobby, the sweetest and most spiritual guy ever, who is also blind. Perry and Arthur, a 14-year-married couple—it’s never explained how they pulled that off so long before the beginning of legalization of gay marriage—are a lawyer and an accountant, respectively. To all appearances, they are living comfortably in the straight world. Sharply contrasting this, Buzz is an over-the-top, outrageous and flamboyant character who lives for Broadway musical comedies, of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge. John is a failed playwright, British and bitter—and he brings the snake into this Eden, a dangerously beautiful Puerto Rican dancer named Ramon. We get to sit back and watch the relationships, the feelings, the friendships of them all.

In the second act, we meet a surprise: John has an identical twin brother, James, who joins the group. Voila! There’s the eighth character we told you about. He is brilliantly played by the same actor (Terry Huber), switching back and forth with sometimes lightning-fast costume changes and attitudes. James is uptight John’s polar opposite; his personality is completely different—sunny and funny. He arrives because of the silent unspoken cloud hanging over everyone back in 1995—AIDS … which he has.

Every one of the actors must be lauded for learning these lines, which director Strait has timed magnificently—telescoping some, and using time-stopping pauses with the alacrity of a matador. This is not a project for the faint of heart, or memory. Over the three hours, someone is talking for about two hours and 55 minutes. But it’s the emotions you’ll remember, and the story of each person’s life—their struggles and triumphs and fears and joys.

Gregory is played by John Ferrare, the perfect leader of the group—he has a lovely presence with natural leadership. His frustration with his creative blockage is utterly believable—it’s eating away at him while he suppresses his fears and hopes it will magically go away. His partner, Bobby, is Jason Hull, fragile, warm, sensitive and alarmingly vulnerable—prey in every way. Mark Demry plays Arthur the accountant, and is totally convincing as a blithe but buttoned-down, successful, toeing-the-line gentleman. His partner, Perry, played by J. Stegar Thompson, is the lawyer—experiencing the feelings for both of them, and way more connected to everyone. He carries deep hurts and rails at the world over injustices and bad drivers. Buzz, impressively acted by Kam Sisco, gets a lot of the laughs, with his flighty effervescence and cute attempts to imitate the queens of Broadway like Gwen Verdon, whom he adores—yet his is the greatest arc, as he changes completely in Act 3, when we see his courage beneath the fluff. Richie Sandino is Ramon, the youthful Latino glamour boy who stirs up everything. He manages to achieve something rare and difficult for an actor: Most performers want to be loved and admired, and Ramon inspires neither in us. Impressive.

But Terry Huber is the standout, so smoothly playing the dual roles of John and James. Not only is the physical achievement of playing two parts impressive; it’s amazing to witness the instant psychological changes between them created with minimal costuming, achieved primarily by body language, attitude and voice. What an accomplishment! He has the most lines, with a couple of huge monologues delivered by each twin. Huber’s split-second changes between the uptight, sour, scary John and the adorable, bright, joyous James will leave you awestruck.

The writing, of course, is brilliant—McNally sets out to startle us. But the most shocking moment of the play comes not from the nudity or language at all, but when one character spits in another’s face.

This play runs for five weeks. Don’t miss it.

Love! Valour! Compassion! is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

If you’re looking for an entertaining evening full of music and laughs, head over to the Desert Rose Playhouse to see The Stops (A Fabulously Fundamental Musical), by Eric Lane Barnes and Drew Emery.

Directed by Jim Strait, The Stops—the name comes from knobs on an organ, which when pulled out create different musical sounds—is the tale of three lady organists: Rose Rabinowitz Rigdale, a former Jewess turned Unitarian who’s just divorced her Catholic husband; Ginny Dooley, a bleached-blonde Baptist who’s never without her chardonnay; and Euglena Belcher, a pious Nazarene from Branson. They have formed an Andrews Sisters-style musical group at the urging of legendary church musical director Dale Meadows. He believes they have what it takes to spread his musical message to the rest of the world.

However, there’s a big problem: Meadows has lost his job and is about to stand trial after being outed as a homosexual by an overly righteous congregation member. The members of this trio, who met at a meeting of NALOG (North American Lady Organists’ Guild), are on a mission to free Meadows from jail and debut his songs. Though they have very different religious views, the three women are united in their determination.

A director friend of mine once said, “Knowing how to cast well is really the key.” Well, Jim Strait hit this one out of the ballpark: His cast is superb. All three have strong acting chops, excellent comic timing and great musicality. Their vocal harmonies are stellar.

As the holier-than-thou Euglena, Mark Ziemann is believable as a woman. His breakdown and dramatic solo toward the end of the show is actually quite moving. Terry Huber delivers as Rose, the wittiest and most down-to-earth of the characters. At one point, she asks what happens when you cross and agnostic with a dyslexic. The answer? “Someone who sits up all night wondering if there is a dog.” Valley favorite Raul Valenzuela nearly steals the show as the slutty, wine-guzzling Ginny. When Euglena goes on and on about her body being a temple, Ginny replies, “Well, mine’s an amusement park!” Her sexually charged “It’s All in Your Mind,” which includes onstage participation by two audience members, is one of the show’s highlights. Valenzuela’s simulated organ playing is also quite good. The real instrumental background is skillfully provided by musical director Steven Smith.

Men in drag can sometimes look overly cartoonish onstage, but not here. Mark Demry’s costumes and Art Healey’s wigs work well, and really help define each character. Kudos also to Phil Murphy (lighting), Steve Fisher (stage manager) and Paul Taylor (producer).

Desert Rose Playhouse bills itself as the “Coachella Valley’s LGBT and gay-positive stage company. It certainly is that, but even those who are new to LGBT theater will enjoy this production. Yes, it’s irreverent and bawdy, but not in an offensive way.

And the truth is, it’s a hoot!

The Stops, a production of Desert Rose Playhouse, is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Saturday, July 19, at 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30, and the running time is just less than 2 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

Nudity! Four-letter words! Sex! Gosh, I thought, I may need to write about how shocking The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is.

But guess what? The Desert Rose Playhouse’s latest production isn’t all that shocking. Instead, it is FUN!

This fast-paced, swirling, millennia-spanning history of the world is actually funny! “Funny” is something we don’t associate with history class much, especially if you had teachers like mine, who not only made the topic dry and boring, but made it worse because the teachers were dry and boring themselves. This show skews those history lessons by asking: What if the world had started out gay?

The “Stage Manager,” played by Terry Huber with an authoritative British accent and a cool demeanor, cues the beginning of the world—which we get to actually witness, thanks to a well-used projection screen; sound, courtesy of multitalented director Jim Strait; and the legendary Phil Murphy’s lighting. The “real” stage manager, Steve Fisher, handles the show’s many changes from the tech booth with characteristic smoothness.

The play starts with Adam, the first man, popping onstage wearing nothing but a jockstrap and a fig leaf. (Well, how else did they keep those leaves pinned on? Did you ever really think about it?) He eventually meets Steve, not Eve, as we have been misled to believe. If you can possibly get your mind off the fact that neither one of them has an ounce of body fat, you can ponder the question of why Peter Mins is credited with the costumes. Costumes? These are costumes? Well, brace yourself for the rest of the show, when you’ll get costumes! (If you’ve seen any of Mins’ work during his 50 years of experience, you must see this, his farewell show, because he is retiring from the business after this production, alas.)

So we meet Ryan Dominguez, playing Adam, and Timothy McGivney as Steve. They manage to spend several thousand years in this play without aging a day, or ever getting cosmetic surgery. Both actors manage their difficult roles and speeches beautifully, and play their laugh lines with wonderfully straight faces. Most important of all, they are convincing. Re-writing the Bible is no small task.

They meet the girls: Wendy Cohen plays Jane, a self-confessed bull-dyke who tries to be mean, but whose sparkling blue eyes hint at vast depths of emotion and humor. Mabel, her femme partner, is played by Lorraine Williamson, a blonde Valkyrie who magnificently resurrects the genius of the late and much-mourned Canadian comedienne, Barbara Hamilton. Jane and Mabel romp through the centuries, reinventing themselves constantly and earnestly. They throw a multitude of surprises at the audience, particularly when Cohen bursts into song, in an astonishingly sweet and true soprano.

The rest of the world’s population is skillfully played by four quick-changing actors who transmogrify into countless roles. Pretty Phylicia Mason gets the girlie ones (Fluffy, Peggy), and she is a delight to watch in every one, including such challenges as a sympathetic Mormon. Mark Demry eats up his tall-guy roles with great flair, obviously relishing turns such as the wonderfully caped pharaoh, and a weary Santa. Jeremy Johnson struts his stuff by playing everything from a serious Bible-wielding priest to a skimpily dressed Christmas elf with a flawless tan. And scratchy-voiced Toni Molano confidently tackles her juicy roles, playing everything from a smug sow on Noah’s ark to a rich televangelist rabbi in a jazzy wheelchair.

Fun? You bet. So let’s talk about the script: If there were a cuss jar on the stage, it would be full by the end of the first act. It would be refilled in the second act (especially thanks to Cohen’s “delivery” scene). But somehow, the language isn’t offensive—it’s just there. Go figure. Park your prudery at the door, and enjoy the wit.

The humor comes mostly from social satire, which is not an easy chore to write or deliver. It targets everything from Greenwich Village to ABBA to fashion choices. Relationships, with their ups and downs and constant change, supply the heavier notes. The tragedies that befall all of us—losses, failures, health issues—present themselves here, too.

How did producer Paul Taylor choose this Paul Rudnick play for Desert Rose’s Christmas show, and how did Jim Strait ever direct it? One has to wonder how many light and sound cues alone are required to stage this. More than the Follies? It is an awesome achievement, gentlemen. The only downer is the stage itself: It’s not making those booming sounds as it was during Desert Rose’s last show, but now it’s creaking and squeaking under the actors’ steps, sometimes loudly enough to interfere with speeches.

If you are curious about what would have happened if the world had started out gay, run to see The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. And be ready to laugh out loud.

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $25 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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