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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

Scott McPherson’s Marvin’s Room, now being produced at the Indio Performing Arts Center, has some big credentials: It premiered in Chicago in 1990, before heading to runs both off-Broadway and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. In 1992, it won both the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play, and was adapted into a film in 1996, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and Diane Keaton.

At the center of the play are two sisters: Bessie, a woman who is taking care of her ill father and aunt; and Lee, a wise-cracking, somewhat slutty woman who has not helped out Bessie and the rest of her family much at all. When Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia, she is faced with her own looming mortality. Mortality is a topic that playwright McPherson knew all too well: He cared for his partner who died of AIDS, and later succumbed to an AIDS-related illness himself at the young age of 33, in 1992.

Lee comes to Bessie’s Florida home to see if she or one of her two teenage sons can donate bone marrow to save her sister’s life. They also must decide what to do with their infirm relatives if Bessie can no longer care for them. Lee and her 17-year-old son, Hank, have had a tense relationship for years; in fact, the boy has been sent to a mental institution after burning down the house. But Bessie’s wise, loving influence leads mother and son to warm to each other; the door to mutual understanding cracks open just a bit. As Bessie faces her own impending death, she embraces a new sense of gratitude for her imperfect family and for life itself.

Though the play’s main theme is death, there are lots of laughs; McPherson manages to find humor in some very dark places. Subtlety is not his forte, however; for example, the self-absorbed Lee is a cosmetician, a profession that seems to exaggerate her shallowness. Her generous, spiritual side does peek through as she helps a group of local nuns bake their supply of communion hosts each week. Meanwhile, Bessie is battling loneliness, as her one real boyfriend drowned while she and others watched from the beach, thinking his cries for help were laughter. And Bessie’s father, Marvin—confined to bed and seen only in silhouette through the blinds—is not only dealing with the after-effects of a stroke, but is also battling diabetes and colon cancer. We do hear Marvin moaning from time to time and laughing when family members play “chase the flashlight beam” on his bedroom wall.

Pretty much every cast member in IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room has a few memorable moments. Kirk Geiger, best known for his role in the cult film Sordid Lives, plays Dr. Wally, and is quite funny in the opening scene while trying to draw blood from Bessie, whose panic is rising by the second. Too bad he’s not onstage more often. The always-dependable Louise Tonti (Aunt Ruth) does not disappoint here; she’s hilarious and loveable, and makes us forgive her character’s sometimes-frustrating forgetfulness.

As 17-year-old Hank, Diego Valdez has a great stage presence and some real acting chops. The scenes in which he discusses his possible bone-marrow donation with Bessie, and begins reconciling with his mother, are particularly touching. As younger brother Charlie, Julian Jacobo is adorable and exhibits nice comic flair.

Valerie-Jean (V.J.) Hume (my theater-reviewing colleague here at the Independent) is quite good in her brief scene as the psychiatrist working to bring Hank and Lee together. Domingo Winstead, as Bob, is fine.

The two leads, Denise Strand (Bessie) and Tiffani Lobue (Lee), are strong throughout much of the show. We genuinely feel Bessie’s weariness from the task of caring for Aunt Ruth and Marvin, though we know she loves them dearly. She also skillfully portrays her fears about her terminal diagnosis. Lobue really captures the essence of Lee, and has some nice comic moments—like dumping at entire bowl of candy at a nursing home lobby into her purse. Also, the growing warmth between the two sisters as they get to know each other for the first time is palpable. But like many in the cast, Strand and Lobue occasionally seem to run out of steam. Director Jeanette Knight deserves kudos, though I’d like to see her push the entire ensemble to keep their energy up until the final curtain, as well as pick up their cues a bit.

The set, lighting and sound are all effective, particularly the song selection for set changes.

I recommend seeing IPAC’s production of Marvin’s Room, to remind us that we’re all dying, one day at a time, and that family—and love—is what really matters.

Marvin’s Room is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $19 to $26, and the running time is just over two hours, with a 10-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s almost August, and that means that the Coachella Valley cultural scene is entering its deadest time of the year.

Nonetheless, there are still a lot of things going on: Movies and music can be found in surprising abundance throughout the month.

But when it comes to theater—forget it. The local companies pretty much ignore the month of August. Perhaps they’re prepping for the 2013-2014 season; perhaps they’re taking a much-needed break. Whatever the reason, August is, by far, the slowest theater month in the Coachella Valley.

Still, a few local companies are at least throwing us Coachella Valley theater-lovers a bone or two this month. Here are some shows worth your attention.

Friday and Saturday, Aug. 2 and 3

The brand-new Desert Theatreworks has big plans for 2013-2014: The company has four full shows slated for the season, ranging from an Agatha Christie whodunit to a musical set in a trailer park.

But the fine folks at Desert Theatreworks are offering the valley a nice appetizer before the main course: This summer, they’ve mounted a couple of one-weekend shows. This coming weekend, they’re following up July’s Up (The Man in the Flying Chair) with A.R. Gurney’s comedy Sylvia, a play about a man, a woman and the dog (played by a human running around on all fours!) that comes between them.

Catch Sylvia at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. Call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Saturday, Aug. 10

We admit we’re biased on this one: VJ Hume—you may know her as Valerie Jean, and those of us at Independent World Headquarters know and love her as our theater reviewer—wrote, directs and stars in LUSH!, her play about Marty Mann, the first woman who participated in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Catch a readers’-theater performance of LUSH!, at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Palm Springs Womans’ Club, 314 Cahuilla Road in Palm Springs. Tickets are $10, and the proceeds benefit Michael’s House, a Palm Springs recovery center. Call Zigi at (760) 464-2138 for reservations.

Saturday, Aug. 10

OK, we admit a little biased on this one, too: Shann Carr is a dear friend of the Independent. Plus she’s funny as hell—and you can see this for yourself when she performs her standup comedy (the news release calls it “debaucherous comedy and intimate storytelling; that sounds about right) at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage, also at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 10. Tickets are $20; call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org for those tickets or more info.

Saturday, Aug. 17

Take two magicians—Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh (“their skills in levitation are sure to haunt and mystify the kid in all of us,” the press release promises), and add in a comedy/magician, Jeff Hobson (“a combination of Liberace and Don Rickles,” the aforementioned release alarmingly claims). And what do you have?

You have the Carnival of Wonders!

We’re not exactly sure what all of this means, but the show has had successful runs in Reno, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, so it may be a nice of entertainment at 8 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 17, at The Show, at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $60. Get tickets or more info at www.hotwatercasino.com or 888-999-1995.

Pictured below: Local legend Shann Carr.

Shann Carr

Published in Theater and Dance

As I prepare for another production of Lush!, which I wrote about the first woman who was involved with Alcholics Anonymous, I thought I’d share the story behind the story.

It started onstage, when I was playing the supporting role of “Anne Smith,” wife of Dr. Bob Smith, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob. (Bill Wilson, of course, is the other co-founder.) It was a role I felt I was meant to do, since my paternal grandmother’s name was Mary Anne Smith … and her husband was my grandfather, “Dr. Bob” Hume. Loving that connection, I set out to bring the role to life.

During one performance, the unbidden thought popped into my head, “Wait a minute. Everyone makes such a fuss over these two guys. Who was the first WOMAN in AA?”

I didn’t know the answer.

Research revealed a fascinating and unknown story of a true American heroine. I had no idea that such a powerful and exciting tale could be lost in the shuffle of history’s cards—and decided that it was my duty and privilege to bring this tale to today’s audiences.

Marty Mann was born in 1904 in Chicago, to wealth and privilege. Despite her advantages, she wound up a hopeless and homeless drunk, living alone on a park bench in London, England. How could it happen? She had been smart and beautiful, with a sparkling personality and success in her work.

But that’s what happens to alcoholics. The disease is no respecter of education, class, sex or family name.

Today, everyone knows someone who is a drunk. Almost every family has one … or more. Statistics tell us that one out of every 10 people is an alcoholic. But in Marty’s day, nobody believed that women could be alcoholics. And until 1935, no program for helping the addicted had ever truly worked, despite attempts of all kinds throughout world history. So when Marty tried to get help, she was not only fighting her disease, but also the men in AA who didn’t want her there!

Well, Marty went on to change America. That journey is what my play is about. I called it Lush! because someone once referred to a friend with that term, and I felt a huge wave of embarrassment and shame wash over me on her behalf. I remembered that reaction when researching Marty Mann’s life, and realized I had found the perfect title. So I not only wrote it, but then directed it.

The two-act play is performed as “reading theater,” with the actors playing multiple roles. My husband, Ted Pethes, provides fabulous clarinet music between scenes, with the songs not only setting the mood, but indicating exactly the year of the upcoming scene. Musical snobs love that add-on! The show stars Mr. Ron Young as “Dr. Bob” and Mr. Dean Apple as “Bill W.” (reprising their roles from Bill W. and Dr. Bob). After directing three other actresses to play “Marty Mann,” guess who finally decided to accept her fate and play the lead role? Yup: moi.

The most amazing part of performing this play is the audience reactions. Not just the standing ovations, or the tears we see from the stage, or the roars of laughter we hear (drunks ARE funny … sometimes), but the comments that come back to us long after the show. The first time we performed it, a woman decided to get sober! Others have described it as “life-changing.”

It has been performed twice at the ABC Recovery Center in Indio, and twice at the Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage, as well as at the Indio Performing Arts Center and the world-famous Betty Ford Center, where they acknowledge that without Marty Mann, Betty Ford herself might never have found sobriety.

Of course, we hope the tale will someday end with the play being discovered and becoming the Hollywood movie (with an Oscar-winning role for its star) it should be. Come see it while it is still in its fledgling stage!

Lush! will be performed at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Palm Springs Womans’ Club, 314 Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are only $10. The production benefits Michael’s House, a Palm Springs recovery center, with its Heroes in Recovery program. Call Zigi at (760) 464-2138.

It's for a great cause. Please come see it!

Published in Theater and Dance