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Fri11152019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Huzzah! The season has begun—and the only season that matters, of course, is the theater season—and it began with Rancho Mirage’s Desert Rose Playhouse, as usual.

Desert Rose’s season kickoff included a special event this year: the christening of the Phil Murphy and Robert McCracken Stage. You know these names; they’re the star supporters of DRP, and Phil has designed the lighting for the theater’s shows from the beginning in 2010. (They also own the cutest and most obedient theater puppy, a little darling who willingly attends every performance.) The theater’s founders, Paul Taylor and Jim Strait, held a special pre-show ceremony, praising Murphy and McCracken’s “matchless talents, generosity and friendship.” This kind of act gives a whole new meaning to “support for the arts,” because over the summer, the two donors financed, designed and built an entirely new lighting system for the theater. Inspirational. Congratulations, all!

So begins Desert Rose’s season as our area’s LGBT theater, this year to include five offerings. The first, Loot, by playwright Joe Orton, will run for five weekends. Director Jim Strait informed his packed house of first-nighters that the play had originally opened in England in 1966, where even the Brits were too shocked by it to let it live—despite the new freewheeling spirit in music, film and fashion. (Bell bottoms! Mini skirts! Carnaby Street!) Loot was revived several years later, when it became a huge hit.

Here’s the thing about British comedies: They’re like Beaujolais—they don’t always travel. For the life of me, I can’t understand why. I’m reminded of the experience of seeing a movie—also in 1966, in fact—in London, where I laughed so long and hard that tears poured down my face. Several months later, back in North America, the same film arrived in a theater, and I dragged a bunch of friends to see it, cautioning them not to hurt themselves from roaring with laughter. Everyone sat there pretty much stone-faced. WHY?? Who knows?

So for producer Paul Taylor to bring a play like Loot to American audiences is brave, indeed. Many aspects of the play need to be considered, not the least of which is what to do about the British accents. For Americans to understand the many dialects of England is not always easy, and we all know some people who would be lost without the subtitles while watching, for example, the addictive Downton Abbey on TV. Director Strait has chosen a safe and comprehensible “mid-Atlantic” accent, neither British nor American, for his actors. It means you can always perfectly understand them—but some of the comedy might be sacrificed without the hilarity or lilt of English speech.

It’s all about the choices, isn’t it? The posture. The timing. The comedic attitude. The costumes, by Mark Demry. The stage managing of Steve Fisher. The set design of Thomas L. Valach. And we’ve already mentioned Phil Murphy’s lighting, of course.

But the actors’ choices are most important of all. Wendy Cohen plays Faye, the only female in the cast, a chameleon-like character who constantly switches her relationships and her villainess/heroine attitude. (Confidentially, we wouldn’t weep if her first costume was replaced—it’s too large for her, and the color is just wrong.) Garnett Smith, the most physically comedic member of the cast, romps through his role as the bereaved husband, father and resident victim. Harold/Hal, his son, is played by Jason Hull, a terrific choice, since his body type is so like Garnett Smith’s that it makes their father-son relationship totally believable. Hal’s dangerous friend Dennis is played by Tim McGivney, and speaking of body types, he resembles Hal enough to make them seem like natural friends—great casting! Tom Warrick has the role of Truscott, a mysterious and bombastic creature who insists he’s from the Water Board, which hardly anyone believes, as we all watch him become progressively weirder. Meadows, played by Allen Jensen in his desert acting debut, is an offstage cop, about whom many references are made until, just when we think we’ll never see him, he appears at last!

Orton’s script is a talky one, full of the British Comedy Absolute Requirements of panic, lack of logic, misunderstandings, surprises, murky motivations, incessant entrances and exits with banging doors, contradictions, preposterous situations, plans going awry, shrieking, tears, cover-ups, absurdities, shifting alliances, reversals of fortune and general total outrageousness. The hardworking cast members have their hands full, because there’s a lot to master in this show, and that comedic timing is essential to making it work. They get more laughs in the second act (perhaps aided by an intermission during which we are bombarded with great ’60s music).

If anything, I’d like to see this cast give us more—bigger reactions, more expressive faces, wilder gestures and more extreme body work. I really hope they loosen up a bit, relax into their roles and enjoy the sheer fun of this brand of comedy. What would feel like overacting in America is routine style in England!

Like they say: A comedian is someone who says funny things, but a comic is one who says things funny. And this is a show made for comics—on either side of the Atlantic.

Loot is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 25, at the 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

Les Miserables is now the world’s longest-running musical, having been seen by an estimated 65 million people in 42 countries.

Given the show’s many years of stage success and the recent hit movie, audiences have high expectations when they go to see Les Miserables—and on many levels, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s current production succeeds. However, the show is far from seamless.

By now, almost everyone knows the basic plot. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel set among the poor in 19th-century France, it chronicles the determination of Inspector Javert to capture escaped convict Jean Valjean, who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family. Released after 20 years of hard labor, Valjean stops by a bishop’s house. Though treated with kindness, Valjean steals silverware and flees. When he’s apprehended and brought back to answer for his crime, the bishop says the silverware was a gift. The price for Valjean’s freedom: The expectation that he will treat others with kindness. He eventually develops a relationship with Fantine, a starving prostitute desperate to save her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. As Fantine dies, Valjean promises to raise Cosette as his own. Later, Cosette falls in love with a militant student, Marius; finally, Valjean and Javert have their final confrontation on the banks of the Seine.

At the top of the list of Palm Canyon’s successes is Raymond B. Johnson’s performance as Jean Valjean: He is simply flawless. He has the physical presence and the acting chops for the part, and his voice is exquisite. Anyone who knows the score waits for the moment when night falls on a battle, and Valjean sings the spine-tingling “Bring Him Home.” Johnson delivers: You can hear a pin drop as he hits the final high note; his paternal love for Marius feels authentic. Unfortunately, in the opening scenes, he is burdened by an ill-fitting wig, which covers his face far too often.

Valley favorite Mark Almy, as Inspector Javert, is also impressive. Thanks to his powerful pipes, he handles the difficult score with ease; his Javert is cold, stern and relentless. However, when folding the hands of a young boy killed in battle, you can see the softening of the inspector’s heart all over Almy’s face.

Se Layne Tethal (who is not credited in the program) is not bad as Fantine, even though she’s not age-appropriate for the part. She has a pretty voice, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” doesn’t hit the viewer in the gut; sneaking in a breath on the rising scale on the word “shame” diminishes the song. (Granted, playing Fantine these days is a thankless task, seeing as it would be nearly impossible to top Anne Hathaway’s now-famous performance in the film.)

Layne’s daughter Ava Tethal is touching as little Cosette, and her son Wyatt is adorable Gavroche. Husband Rodney Tethal ably directs, making this truly a family affair.

Jamie Leigh Walker is perfectly cast as Cosette. Her soaring soprano meshes well with the equally talented Shafik Wahhab, who plays Marius. Together, they make the young couple’s love totally believable.

Alisha Bates stands out as the tragic Eponine; unfortunately, her gut-wrenching “On My Own” was marred by a brief sharp note and too much noise behind the drop as fellow cast members stacked chairs to create the battle barricade. Also worth mentioning are Charles Harvey as The Bishop of Digne and Nicholas Sloan as Enjolras.

As for those seams: The raucous “Master of the House,” a number which normally stops the show, was lackluster. That was, in large part, because Tom Warrick (Thenardier) did not know his lyrics. Morgana Corelli (Madame Thenardier) also dropped a line or two, but Warrick was either having a really bad night, or needs another week of rehearsal. The pair have the appropriate buffoonish look (great costuming and makeup), and there are glimpses of good comic timing, but if the opening-night show was any indication, they may need to go over their songs. The same problem occurs when they reappear in the wedding scene near the end of the show.

Other issues include the overuse of onstage smoke during the battle scenes and Javert’s suicide. Several audience members were coughing and waving programs in front of their faces to clear the air—and creating a mood onstage is not more important than the safety and comfort of the audience. There were also occasional sound and microphone issues, though they were not as noticeable as in previous Palm Canyon shows. The volume level of cast members’ microphones should be consistent, but that was not the case here; some performers could be heard clearly, while others could not. Some ensemble members also need a bit of work on their diction.

The choice to use a prerecorded background track rather than live musicians in an intimate theater like the Palm Canyon is the only way to go. The recorded music worked well for the most part, though there was a glitch at the top of Act 2. The chorus could use a bit more direction during the crowd scenes—at times, they seemed to be just standing there waiting for their cue to sing.

With a few exceptions, these problems are relative nitpicks. Kudos go to musical director Charles Britt Endsley; costumers Se Layne and Jennifer Stowe; and lighting/sound director J.W. Layne. The set, also designed by J.W. Layne, is superb.

If you’re in the mood for a moving, sweeping historical epic, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Les Miserables is not a bad choice. The music is great, and most of the cast is strong; in fact, it’s worth going just to see Raymond B. Johnson’s performance. Let’s just hope the Thenardiers learn their songs, and the powers that be cut back on the smoke.

Les Miserables is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, or $10 for students. The running time is three hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The era depicted in Bye Bye Birdie must seem like ancient history to the kids in the cast of the production at the Palm Canyon Theatre. But for those of us who do remember those days, the show ironically recalls—and satirizes—that amazing time.

Thanks to J.W. Layne’s versatile set, the décor hurls us back in time to the iconic designs of 1958. Throughout this musical—which hit Broadway in 1960, followed by the big screen in 1963—we are treated to the outrageous colors, fashions and dance styles of the time. A big salute to Se Layne Tethal and her crew for the costumes, Mado Nunez for the hairstyles and wigs, Nick Edwards for props, Anthony Nannini for his choreography, Layne Tethal for the lighting, David McLaughlin for his musical direction, and all the crew members who pitched in. Of course, big kudos go to director Matthew Gose, who beautifully brought it all together. Whew!

Then there’s the cast: The actors range in age from single digits to seniors. The story is about an Elvis-like Conrad Birdie (apparently derived from singer Conway Twitty’s name) getting his draft notice from the Army (which, of course, actually happened to Elvis, no doubt throwing his management into fits at the idea that he might be forgotten by teenagers, notorious for short attention spans). So his agent comes up with the idea of memorializing Conrad’s last kiss, of a small town girl, who will obviously never forget him—hopefully leading the way for his other followers.

Everything spreads out from that. We meet Birdie’s agent, Albert Peterson, played magnificently by Dane Whitlock, and his annoyed secretary, Rosie Alvarez, played by the fabulous Layne Tethal. Peterson’s mother, Mae Peterson, is played for laughs by a scary Amanda Burr.

We meet the girl who is selected to be the recipient of Conrad’s last kiss, Kim MacAfee, solidly played by young Sasha Chasen. Her family: the nervous mother played by Colleen Walker, and the chauvinistic blustering father, played by Tom Warrick.

And her friends! Brace yourself: The screaming kids open the show, pounding down the stairs right through the audience. The tireless teens sing and dance and emote throughout, just like teenagers did then, and do today. Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, is moodily played by Max Mule. The town’s mayor, with Charles Gaines in the role, and Shirley LeMaster as his wife, lead the ensemble.

Of course, there’s Conrad Birdie himself. It would be interesting to know how Nicholas Sloan learned the moves of Elvis. He’s impossibly slim, with a pouty arrogance so like that of The King when he started out; Sloan catches all of the qualities that made kids go wild with excitement—and parents wild with horror—when Elvis burst onto the scene (and changed the music business overnight). Dressed in boots and over-the-top costumes, he’s perfectly cast.

The show, of course, is filled with ebullient song-and-dance numbers. From the wild writhing of the teenagers, to the breath-taking grace of Layne Tethal and Whitlock, the variety is delightful. This show gave us some unforgettable songs: “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and “Put on a Happy Face” were recorded by nearly everybody in the business, and have become classics. “Kids,” performed here by Walker and Warrick, enchanted everyone. “A Mother Doesn’t Matter,” done by the martyred harridan Mae, played by Burr, elicited appreciative laughs from the men as well as the ladies in the audience.

The sound, despite a couple of tiny glitches—the cast has to be careful with hugs while wearing face and Lavalier microphones—was as good as we’ve heard at the Palm Canyon Theatre. That said, there’s a lot of screeching that, amplified, made some heads ring. Basically, everyone yells. The singers are pitched at the top of their range, a technique used to create excitement, but that doesn’t always work with every voice; even sopranos have their limits. The hard-edged sound so often required in musical comedy can sometimes wear on listeners.

Not surprisingly, the show is dominated by the old pros, who display lovely energy and secure stage presences when compared to the frenetic youth. The writing throughout is bright, and the conflicts move along rapidly. A special “Ole!” to Se Layne Tethal for her “Spanish Rose” number, which managed to be sexy and clever at the same time.

Bye Bye Birdie’s short two-week run concludes this coming weekend. Of course, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the film version—as if you needed a reason to see it.

Bye Bye Birdie is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 23; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, May 24 and 25; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 26, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, and the show runs about two hours with one intermission. For tickets or more info, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org. Also: The theater is offering a Summer Kids Camp from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, from June 17 through July 27 ($125 per week); visit the site for more details.

Published in Theater and Dance