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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Admit it: You think it’s funny when a man puts on a dress.

Well, you’ve got company—and Desert Rose Playhouse is smart enough to know that. Hence, Pageant, the company’s final show of the 2018-2019 season. It’s guys in drag competing to win the title of “Miss Glamouresse”—and the hilarity builds right up to the final scene, which contains more belly laughs than any show in recent years. It only runs until May 12, so we strongly suggest that you run, not walk, to see this show—whether you’re in high heels or not. The packed house at our presentation—containing way more ladies than we’ve ever seen in a DRP audience—would agree.

The open stage that greets you—designed by Bruce Weber—is pink, pink, pink. This is the signature color of the “Glamouresse” brand, and your eyes will water from 50 shades of pink during the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission!). Pale pink ostrich feathers, Elsa Schiaparelli shocking-pink costumes, Pepto-Bismol pink—it’s everywhere. Brace yourself. Phil Murphy has even used pink lighting on the filmy curtains.

Robbie Wayne, the show’s director and Desert Rose’s producing artistic director, leaps onto the stage to welcome you—and joyously admits that this show has no “message.” It was just chosen because of its laughs. How wonderful!

So, bring on the girls. This pageant presents six semifinal competitors from various regions of the USA, such as Miss West Coast, Miss Industrial Northeast and Miss Bible Belt. Can you imagine such titles? Well, why am I surprised? In my home town there was a contest for Miss Potash, for heaven’s sake …

The competition’s emcee is Frankie Cavalier, played by Michael Pacas, who strides onto the stage wearing what might be the most frightening toupee in all of show biz. He fabulously combines the smarm of so many professional emcees with flawless timing and relentless cheeriness in the face of imminent disaster. Just keeping the names and titles straight must be exhausting, but Pacas’ energy never flags. He introduces the girls, who appear in all shapes and sizes, proudly wearing their title banners. Our judges, chosen from the audience, sit alertly up front. Consulting your program will only confuse you, as the actors’ headshots bear zero resemblance to the female flamboyance that you see on the stage.

Miss Great Plains, for example, is played by Larry Martin. Miss Industrial Northeast is created by Noah Arce. Timm McBride plays Miss Texas. Miss Bible Belt is Ben Reece. Miss Deep South is played by Miss Rusty Waters, and Miss West Coast is played by Jersey Shore, aka Brian Keith Scott.

Three shades of blonde, two shades of brunette, one auburn—and there they are.

Through the competitions, we get to know them personally. The emcee rattles off their qualifications and qualities (Miss West Coast, for example, is “Karma,” a double Gemini with a past including self-improvement techniques and tie-dying) throughout the various contests, such as evening gown, spokesmodel, fitness, talent cavalcade, philosophy, and—brace yourself—swimsuit.

You can instantly see the opportunities for merriment. My favorite part was the talent competition, during which these hugely talented actors toiled with their extremely creative director to create a jaw-dropping segment. Wait until you see what stuff they strut … and there are some extraordinary moments, such as Miss Bible Belt, wearing a flaming-red choir robe over a gold sequined gown, wailing a song called “I’m Bankin’ on Jesus,” or Miss Industrial Northeast on roller skates playing an accordion. Seriously!

There is no program credit given for costumes, but they are many and varied, and all are fantastic. Perhaps they came from the actors’ own closets. Some quick changes are required—another opportunity for laughs. There is no choreography credit, either, though there is dance aplenty, with some cute routines. One change suggestion: From most of the seats, when an actor lies down on the stage, he becomes invisible. It makes the neck-craning audience—except those in the front row—feel as if they are missing something, possibly important. The only real criticism is that the music, directed by Jaci Davis, was too loud, and drowned out the actors at times.

The competitors themselves select a “Girlfriend” award, like Miss Congeniality in most beauty pageants. A running gag throughout is their “spokesmodel” competition, in which the girls are forced to shamelessly shill for “Glamouresse,” which turns out to be a big-business brand in the field of beauty products, by creating a commercial. And the surprise guest who arrives at the end—well, let’s not ruin it for you.

The comedy here varies from slapstick to intellectual to tricky, so there is literally something for everyone in this play. Although I have had to stop slapping language warnings on reviews since four-letter words in theater have become so ubiquitous, we must compliment this show on not taking the cheap shots—there isn’t one objectionable word in the script. Amazing! It CAN be done. There are a couple of (terribly funny) adult-humor sexual references, but you could basically take anyone to see this show.

With drag queens, it’s all about nuance. It’s not just popping on a wig and makeup and a dress. To really be a standout requires infinite subtlety and much careful study. Drag is an art form dear to my heart, because when I was starting my performing career, I was invited to be in several shows at a drag club (they introduced me as “a real girl”)—and I learned a LOT from the queens of drag. This show reveals incredibly varied, individualized and thoughtful performances by all these entertainers, and it is a play I would love to see again.

So, who wins the crown? That rollicking finale alone is worth the price of admission.

Pageant is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 12, with a special show at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

If you’re one of those poor souls carrying resentment about mistreatment by nuns in Catholic school—or if you just need a few good belly laughs—get to the Desert Rose Playhouse, pronto.

The Divine Sister, produced by Paul Taylor, may just be your salvation.

The play was originally conceived by actor, writer and longtime female impersonator Charles Busch as a star vehicle for himself. Known for his off-Broadway play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch once said, “Drag is being more, more than you can be.”

The Divine Sister is a demented tribute to films featuring nuns, from The Sound of Music to Agnes of God. The story unfolds at St. Veronica’s Convent and grade school in Pittsburgh. Mother Superior (Jim Strait) has many issues to deal with, including the fact that the school building is falling down. She’s dealing with a young postulate named Agnes (of course), who believes she has magical healing powers and that the Virgin Mary speaks directly to her; Timothy, a young boy in desperate need of baseball coaching who doesn’t yet realize he’s gay; and a newly arrived German nun who may not be all that she seems.

Throw in devout atheist Mrs. Levinson, who could fund a new school if she were so inclined, and a man from Mother Superior’s crime-reporting past who is still pining for her, and you can understand the need for a few extra prayers.

Strait, who also serves as Desert Rose’s artistic director, is tremendous here. Though The Divine Sister is an ensemble piece, Strait is the captain of the ship, and he skillfully leads his cast through this irreverent romp. He’s strong actor and a charismatic presence who seems very comfortable in drag—but his physical size and voice remind us that there’s some testosterone in the mix as well. Sporting a long, curly wig and heels, Strait’s first appearance as girl reporter Susan Appleyard gets a huge laugh. Strait seems to be having as much fun as the audience is, which really enhances the theater-going experience.

Allison Feist is perfectly cast as innocent Agnes, who truly believes she’s been specially chosen by God. She exudes both the religious fervor of Meg Tilly in Agnes of God and the girlish mischievousness of Julie Andrews in The Sounds of Music. The physical gyrations she goes through while “healing” others are laugh-out-loud funny. Keep an eye on Feist; she has a bright future ahead of her.

As Sister Acacius, Lorraine Williamson knocks the role out of the park. Big, bold and brassy, she shows off animated facial expressions and perfect comic timing that remind me of a combination of Jo Anne Worley and Lucille Ball. Sister Acacius has a lusty past, and her vow of celibacy sometimes seems to waiver. When handsome movie consultant Jeremy (the fabulous Timm McBride) begins describing his impressive manhood in great detail, Williamson’s efforts not to drool are precious.

Adina Lawson delivers an award-worthy performance as smug, privileged Mrs. Levinson. Early in the show, two nuns visit her in an effort to secure funds to build a new school. Mrs. Levinson explains her devout atheism while describing agnostics as “wishy-washy fools afraid to take an intelligent stand. Give me religious zealots. At least you can depend on their stupidity.” Later, while sharing memories of her late husband Morris (including sea creatures during a visit to Crete, and his fatal heart attack), Levinson peppers her stories with hilarious Vogue magazine-esque descriptions of what she was wearing. Her turn as 12-year-old Timothy is equally impressive. Lawson is a pro—she totally embodies each character and is clearly having a blast on stage.

The always-interesting Alden West is quite good as the mysterious German nun, Sister Maria Walburga. Like pretty much everyone else in the play, her character has secrets—including a randy side. Walburga’s not-so-subtle invitation to Sister Acacius to have a sexual threesome with another nun is a hoot. West manages to maintain distinctly different (and believable) accents as both Berlin native Sister Walburga and, later, as a Scottish housekeeper. Any actor will tell you that to accomplish such a thing within the same play is not an easy feat.

As both Jeremy (the well-endowed film consultant hunting for a good story) and sinister monk Brother Venerius, Timm McBride is excellent. Having each actor play two roles in a production doesn’t always work, but it does here—beautifully. There is not a single weak performance here.

Director J. Stegar Thompson gets the best out of his strong cast. He keeps the pace going, which keeps the laughs flowing. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Thomas L. Valach’s set and Phil Murphy’s lighting provide just the right mood, as does Thompson’s sound. In a show with so much cross-dressing and actors playing dual roles, costumes (Kathryn Ferguson) and wigs (Toni Molano and Timm McBride) are crucial. All are spot on. Stage manager Steve Fisher deserves a nod as well.

This terrific show did suffer through a couple of glitches on opening night. There was a stumble right out of the gate with sound cues. After a delightful recorded welcome to the show from playwright Charles Busch, opening music began … then abruptly stopped. Then we heard a repeat of Busch’s welcome … which also abruptly stopped. Then there was the music again … which stopped. Finally, the music began in earnest, and the play got underway. The performances were so good that the audience soon forgot about the sound snafu, but it was an unfortunate way to start the night. Another big goof: Toward the end of the show, there was a premature entrance by an actor during a very dramatic moment in the script.

No matter what your religious affiliation, you will enjoy Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Divine Sister. It’s funny; it’s raucous; and it’s one hell of an entertaining evening.

The Divine Sister is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets or more information, call, 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The very premise is outrageous: At an English music hall, 17 of 20 cast members have been stricken with food poisoning, leaving only three people to perform all the roles in their presentation of A Christmas Carol.

At opening-night of Scrooge in Rouge at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the three actors-as-actors floored the audience with multilayered performances. The show runs through Dec. 21, so there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy this rare treat.

There is much to keep the audience’s attention. First off, the play features much hilarity, ranging from sly puns to amusing asides to outright groaners. (British humor, of course.) Next, attendees will be in awe at the indescribable energy of the show (more about this later). Then there’s the dazzling swirl of costumes and wigs and role-playing.

Should we really be surprised? Director Jim Strait’s proven forte is the multilayered interpretation of a script. But this show is extraordinary, because Strait lets us glimpse, in each of his actors, not just the many different roles they play, but the actors beneath that—their vanity, desperation, foolishness, competitiveness and consuming love of their work. We see the results of their British-theater training, in their wide-open-mouthed, flawless diction, and in their show-must-go-on tradition. We see their fleeting doubts about what they are doing, and their split-second of hesitation before plunging into a disaster-remedying (they hope) improvisation. You will never see more layers on anything, except maybe an onion.

The play begins with a tribute to beloved Queen Victoria, whose stern portrait glares out at us from the wall. We have to remember that the naughtiness of British music halls was a reaction to her reign, which was so strict and rule-bound that the legs of tables were covered with sleeves, lest they provoke impure thoughts. (Table legs?!) So immediately, we see the cast’s bawdy side.

The energy will leave you open-mouthed. The cast-members never stop moving, and their rapid changes of wardrobe are astonishing; Strait’s pacing guarantees a whirlwind of action. The laughs come one on top of another.

Timm McBride plays Mr. Charlie Schmaltz, an aging and world-weary entertainer who could never imagine doing anything else, and who will be onstage for the rest of his life. He probably began his career as a child performer and learned his craft from older actors. Now, none of this is told to us, but thanks to McBride’s thoughtful interpretation of this role, we don’t need to be told. It’s all there in his beautifully acted character—we get informative flashes about his life and mindset underneath his work. This is an example of perfect casting.

Ryan Dominguez is Miss Vesta Virile, who, as the juvenile in the cast, is assigned some of the weirdest tasks. We sense that the older actors are slightly threatened by his youth and promise, and they maybe bully him a little—yet he tackles everything with high energy and full attention. He demonstrates that wonderful vocal projection that all English actors must learn, giving his voice a crispness and carrying quality that is wondrous to the ear. Dominguez’s comedic talents are apparently bottomless, and he should never again waste his time on any project that doesn’t show them off. One of my many favorite moments in the show occurs when he is left alone onstage to handle the audience—which doesn’t go well—and he screams to his backstage cohorts, “They’re turning on me!”

Alexander Todd is the hilarious Miss Lottie Obligatto, and he astonishingly voices almost the entire show in a soprano range. Only an opera-trained performer could manage such a challenging role. My vocal cords ached in sympathy, but Todd breezed through with alacrity. Todd brings to the role an ability to imply Lottie’s, uh, colorful past, her career struggles, her professional training … and a fabulous pair of legs! This talented performer manages to convey Lottie’s brief doubts about the new roles into which she is thrust, making her even funnier as she leaps gamely into them. If his fellow actors weren’t so great, Todd would steal the show.

Producer Paul Taylor cleverly collected the valley’s best theater talent to help make the show a success: Phil Murphy to design the lighting, Tom Valach to create the scenery, Steve Fisher to stage-manage. The excellent wigs are by Toni Molano, and the costume design is by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, with costume coordinator Mark Demry. Taylor’s choices pay off magnificently.

I haven’t even fully mentioned yet that the show is a musical! Steven Smith, on the stage as the accompanist Alfred da Capo, masterminded the music direction—and it’s just right. Michael Mizerany choreographed the show, with book and lyrics by Ricky Graham. A lot of brainpower and talent has gone into the production of this play, and it all shows.

You don’t need to have been to a British music hall to appreciate Scrooge in Rouge. The cast will teach you, and you’ll love it—every wild moment, every outrageous setup, every laugh. And you’ll love the multiple layering of the hardworking actors. No matter how you feel about the holidays, Scrooge in Rouge will make the season just a little bit better.

Scrooge in Rouge is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $28 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance