CVIndependent

Mon12162019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Imagine you are walking down the street, and suddenly you see … YOU, yourself, coming toward you. Your hair, face, hands, height and weight. It’s not a trick or illusion. It’s you.

What do you do?

A Number, presented by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, has opened at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. It’s a one-act, five-scene, two-man, 55 minute play, written by Caryl Churchill and produced by Tony Padilla. Which fact is most surprising: A female playwright created a work for two men? The provocative topic of the show? Or the fact that you’re back out on the street before 8 p.m., when some other theaters’ curtains are just going up?

The actors, Shawn Abramowitz and James E. Anderson III, work on a bare stage with only two tan leather chairs as the set. The color palette is limited to blues and some earth tones. Director Jerome Elliott has made the most of the space, with clever blocking that keeps the action natural-looking and emotion-motivated. The play is a talky one, with lines that interrupt each other and “telescope,” bedazzling us with speed and brevity. Yet thanks to the actors’ good diction, we rarely miss a word. (Learning these lines had to be a labor of love, for sure.) Everything looks simple—but your earth is about to be shaken.

For the audience: Don’t worry if you are confounded. The playwright delights in using half-sentences and incomplete thoughts. Interesting writing … very much like the way people really do talk. The actors accordingly have adopted a natural and realistic acting style.

We open with an ongoing conversation between two gentlemen: One younger, dark-haired, in jeans; the other silver-haired and silver-bearded, wearing glasses and a cardigan. We see them slouch, swipe at the nose (the “allergy salute,” so common in our desert), sulk, snark, get in each other’s faces—in other words, we are the fly on the wall watching the real-feel action as we struggle to understand the meaning of their conversation.

Finally, it becomes clear, and I will reveal it to you so you don’t have the duhhs quite as long as we did (and seeing as this information is included on the ticket-purchase website, it’s not a spoiler): The conversation is about cloning. Gasp! This play premiered in Britain in 2002, back when Dolly, the cloned sheep, was still alive. But A Number is about human cloning. Even creepier! In the play, some people are referred to as “The Others,” and as the conversation progresses, we find out who “they” are. Paranoia abounds: Why?

We eventually face another psychological conundrum: the “nature versus nurture” argument. Which is more important: what you inherit before birth, or the way you are raised? What determines how we turn out? The characters, whom we learn are father and son, walk us through all the stuff moaned about on a psychiatrist’s couch: the bitterness from unfair treatment, the differing memories of remembered cruelties, the new facts that alter one’s history. So who gets the blame for the flawed person that we all turn out to be? Genes, or environment?

The son has had the experience of seeing “himself” on the street, and confronts his father. The father, it is revealed, is not without problems of his own: He lies about the boy’s mother; he drinks too much; he plots lawsuit revenge. So how does his son react to events or information: the same as dad, or differently? Now it gets really interesting, because in the next scene, we get to meet the other son, physically identical to the first—and we see his personality interacting with the same father. What created those differences?

We won’t reveal any more, so that you can be surprised by what happens … and you will be surprised. If you enjoy intimate theater, this is an excellent example of it. The Palm Springs Woman’s Club is an appropriate size for such a show (now if only we could do something about those creaky floorboards onstage), as presenting such a work in a huge arena would be unthinkable: The closeness of the audience to the actors is mandatory for our involvement in, and concentration on, the play.

The actors do a wonderful job of luring us into their characters’ lives, with all of the complexity, denial and peculiarity. The play throws us into a world where we probably will never go, yet forces us to think about it: What if you found out you had been cloned, without your knowledge? How would that feel? What would you do? See, this is what theater can do: permanently expand our consciousness in a way that nothing else can.

Kudos to Jerome Elliott for his lean-and-clean style of directing, and to Abramowitz and Anderson for their memory of the lines and their shrewd interpretation of this script. Thanks also to Padilla for finding this thought-provoking play and bringing it to our valley.

The only possible change I could suggest involves wardrobe: The audience might understand more easily that Son No. 2 in Scene No. 2 is actually another person if he wore a jacket with a contrasting color. Here, both sons wore blue—obviously to make a statement about how they are The Same In So Many Ways—but although the actor even changed shoes, it wasn’t readily apparent that this wasn’t just another scene with the same actor at another time, dressed differently. This point is successfully addressed in Scene No. 5, which I’m really trying to not give away.

A Number is a very cerebral experience, but then, thought always precedes action, so you must see this show to clarify your thoughts about it. It’s a must-see play about, maybe, YOU.

So … Imagine you are walking down the street, and … ?

A Number, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. The show is 55 minutes long, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

A Class Act was nominated for five Tony Awards, and it won an Obie for Best Music and Lyrics. It’s now being presented locally by the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre—and founding artistic Ron Celona readily admits that it’s the most ambitious (and expensive) effort in CV Rep’s history.

Celona does keep raising the bar, doesn’t he? This time, he’s using an eight-member cast and a live four-piece band. Celona’s Little-Theater-That-Did is an inspiration for any start-up. This show, with music and lyrics by Edward Kleban (remember that name!) and book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price, takes us straight to Broadway musicals—an awesome topic for a regional theater. Here in Rancho Mirage, Ron Celona directs the show (of course), while Scott Storr is the musical director, and the choreography is by Mark Esposito.

Before I go on, a disclaimer: CVEP presents two nights of preview shows for audiences before the official opening. (Applause for that idea—there is nothing weirder than the first time in front of a real audience.) But for this review to make the deadline for our February print edition, the Coachella Valley Independent had to attend the very first preview of A Class Act. Obviously, a preview must be judged a little more gently than the “real” shows.

That said, the first preview’s packed house would agree: This show is ready.

The show opens with Kleban’s memorial service. (He died in 1987 at the age of 48 from smoking … a cautionary tale.) The rest of the show uses flashbacks to reveal his life, while his original music and lyrics weave through the story. You’ll enjoy such songs as his “Light on My Feet,” “Paris Through the Window,” “Follow Your Star,” “Broadway Boogie Woogie” and “The Next Best Thing to Love.” We watch him slave over his doomed show Gallery, and see his relationships ebb and flow. At the end of Act 2, we eventually return to the memorial service of this strange and talented man.

The plot, in a nutshell, focuses on Edward Kleban’s real-life creative struggle in the theater. That self-created struggle occurs simply because he is violently opposed to collaborating with anyone else, and wants desperately to be both lyricist and composer of his own Broadway musicals. The irony, of course, comes from the fact that he is best—really, ONLY—known, for his forced collaboration as lyricist, with the brilliant Marvin Hamlisch as composer, of A Chorus Line. In one flashback, we actually get to be present at the birth of such achingly magnificent songs as “At the Ballet,” “What I Did for Love” and “One.” These unforgettable pieces contrast with the rest of the music in this play, which was created solely by Kleban. It’s not bad music, but it’s just not up to the standard of the A Chorus Line work he did when he collaborated with someone else. Which he only did once. Go figure.

Kleban is played by Jeffrey Landman. He convincingly switches between Kleban’s varied neuroses, the vanity of the unsuccessful artist, and the stubborn belief in his own greatness. We see him go from attention-craving sniveling to genuine fear to lighthearted but sneaky charm. He’s complex character, well-played.

Craig Cady takes on two roles: Bobby, a fellow student, and Michael. The contrast between his two characters is fascinating, because he truly comes alive when he slaps on a moustache to play Michael Bennett of A Chorus Line, and he can use his lean dancer’s body to express every nuance of emotion.

Julie Garnye plays Sophie. As the curvaceous and luscious female lead and love interest (Yes! Kleban is straight!), Garnye has a quiet strength that serves her well, but it’s her powerful singing voice that you’ll remember.

Pretty Rachael M. Johnson is blonde Lucy, Kleban’s sweet friend and supporter. She’s a well-trained dancer and singer in the Broadway mode, and her trim, energetic moves are a pleasure to watch.

Craig McEldowney is Charley. He’s solid, gifted and reliable, and who wouldn’t like him?

Sal Mistretta plays Lehman Engel, the older-and-wiser teacher of the BMI songwriting class where his students meet. He brings a gravitas to the show with his thoughtful performance. Ironically, it is Kleban, not Engel, who gets to teach us “Lehman’s Rules” of showbiz.

Striking Christina Morrell is Felicia, ambitious and determined to live her dreams. She reminds us of when girls first began to succeed at working in all-male areas, and we like her for it.

Kristin Towers-Rowles plays Mona, a sexy redheaded singer/dancer out to conquer Kleban. She slithers and stalks seductively, but shows talent aplenty in her interpretation of this role.

I worried that stuffing this cast and all of the musicians into CV Rep’s space might prove to be what is called A Challenge. After all, CV Rep at the Atrium is basically a storefront. However, Jimmy Cuomo’s set—using dreamy rear-wall projections to transport us to locations such as Paris and Toronto, along with sliding panels that open to expand the area—give us a sense of greater space. This stage feels like the widest one CV Rep has created. Celona’s clean and clever direction uses every inch of the area; even in scenes using the entire cast, there is no feeling of crowding. The musicians—Jeff Barish on flute, sax and clarinet, Dave Hitchings on drums, Bill Saitta both bowing and plucking on bass, and Scott Storr on piano—find their home tucked in at stage left.

We must also mention Louise Ross as stage manager; Aalsa Lee, the costume designer; Eddie Cancel, who designed the lighting and technical effects; Randy Hansen as sound designer; Doug Morris as associate designer and prop master; and Karen Goodwin as sound tech. All did a terrific job in bringing this show to life. Because what this show tells us is this: In the theater, it’s ALL about the work.

Being preview-gentle: The only change I’d love to see in this show is for the first act to be as full of emotion as the second act. That will no doubt happen naturally during the play’s run. After all, it’s all about the work.

A Class Act is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 14, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, located in The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48; opening night (Friday, Jan. 22) is $58. The running time is 2 1/2 hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Playwright Charles Evered is sick of Christmas.

“There’s so little choice for theater!” he exclaimed. “There’s It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—and that’s about it.”

So Evered decided to do something about it. The result is his 90-minute one-act play called An Actor’s Carol—a take on Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol. It will have its world premiere at Joshua Tree’s Hi-Desert Cultural Center on the first two weekends of December. Emmy Award-winning actor Hal Linden (Barney Miller) and veteran TV and film actor Barry Cutler will star in the first and second weekends of the play, respectively.

“Someone HAD to write it!” Evered declared.

Evered is no stranger to the High Desert. His play Adopt a Sailor was presented at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center a few years ago, and his work Class was a fundraiser for the theater, which is still trying to rebuild after a devastating blow from Mother Nature: An unprecedented freeze in January 2007.

“What a wonderful venue this theater is,” he said. “There’s no pressure about money or audience size or reviews. The timing fits my schedule perfectly. And Jarrod Radnich and his fiancée, Anne, are marvelous to work with.”

Producer Radnich, the impresario of the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, is equally enthusiastic about An Actor’s Carol.

“We all have a great relationship,” he said. “Our theater is a place where we can experiment with nontraditional staging. I instantly loved the script for An Actor’s Carol, and I love working with great, talented people. This play is really different.”

Charles Evered, here for the production from his home in Princeton, N.J., fully expects these six performances will result in re-writes of his script. I was lucky enough to be invited to a staged reading of the very first version of An Actor’s Carol, hosted in Palm Springs by serene brunette beauty Kim Waltrip, whose company produced Evered’s first two movies. She told me she and Evered had known each other “for years. Our kids went to the same school!” At the reading, four actors introduced us to the multiple-role script—an actor’s delight.

The story is about a bitter, nasty actor who plays bitter, nasty Scrooge in some little theater’s production of A Christmas Carol. Like the character he’s playing, he experiences visitations from the beyond when he passes out backstage. (Yeah, he drinks.) It’s a modernized version of the classic tale, with cell phones, texting and some hilarious references to the 21st century life we know.

Like many who have faced tragedy, Evered chose to deal with life through comedy.

“Art saved my life,” he confided. “I might have gone to Yale … or to jail!”

We race through his resume: Raised in Rutherford, N.J., he lost both his parents early in life. His four siblings have all faced serious challenges, and frankly, some didn’t make it. A deathbed promise to his mother to never start drinking has been the foundation of his success—along with some fantastic luck.

He aspired to a career in baseball, of all things, but sadly found he was not sufficiently mega-talented in the sport. Oddly enough, it was a job as a janitor while still in high school, which included cleaning up the William Carlos Williams Center for the Performing Arts, that started the wheels turning. It was a shock to find out there were serious rental fees for the script—so he decided to write the plays himself. He was 18.

He experienced instant approval and success—and then he really did get to study playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

After graduating in 1991, he received a fellowship that allowed him to work in a Hollywood program sponsored by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. Spielberg advised him, “Don’t try to please us with your writing. Write from your own heart.”

“Great advice! It made my career!” Evered said.

He eventually went on to teach what he had learned, as a founding faculty member at our own little University of Riverside Palm Desert Center, before moving on to a full professorship at the main campus in Riverside.

So what’s the future for An Actor’s Carol? After the six high desert performances, the final draft will be printed as a book in January by Broadway Play Publishing, Inc.—and then it will be available for productions everywhere for Christmas of 2016.

“Christmas needs some fun,” he said. “… I hope An Actor’s Carol will exist forever. I’d like to see it done as repertory theater, so the audience can actually come to see Dickens’ play first, and then the next night, return to see An Actor’s Carol with the same actors, same stage and same set! Wouldn’t that be amazing?”

An Actor’s Carol will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, from Friday, Dec. 4, through Saturday, Dec. 12, at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center’s Blak Box Theater, located at 61231 Twentynine Palms Highway, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $15 to $24. For tickets or more information, call 760-366-3777, or visit hidesertculturalcenter.org.

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.

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.

Like the little dog, you’re going to laugh—and you’ll love it.

The Desert Rose Playhouse’s new comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, was written by Douglas Carter Beane. He’s not a household name, but perhaps he should be: He’s the genius who crafted the amazing screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, in which the late Patrick Swayze rose to new heights of acting skill, playing virtually his entire role in drag and turning in one of the most amazing and finely tuned performances ever.

So you already know you’re in for a comedic experience that combines wit with situational comedy and a cast of unusual characters. This four-person play, perfectly cast and deftly directed by Jim Strait, deals with Hollywood’s legendary but real craziness—though it’s mostly set in New York. The lights come up on a surprisingly bare stage: a rainbow-hued curtain, one chair, two doors and a lone rubber-tree plant.

Enter Joey. Oh, Joey! Miss English, dressed in her signature red wardrobe and with her red hair and enormous centipede eyelashes, catapults us into the play with a sensational monologue. She plays Diane, a lesbian Hollywood agent, and a classic, she is—she’s a product of Rodeo Drive and beauty salons and the horrors of trying to earn a living on the fringes of showbiz. Any actress who complains about no great roles for ladies older than 40 has never met Joey English, because she consistently finds terrific characters, and she’s always busy. In Joey’s Diane, we see an extraordinary combination of brassiness covering vulnerability, bravado hiding terror, and sarcasm shielding damage. Even at her snarkiest and sharkiest, we sense Diane’s bandaged wounds. With her huge comedic gifts and an edgy voice, Joey brings the script’s terrific lines to life, and snaps out some of the funniest lines in the play. Tottering about on her uber-heels, with sequins flashing wildly in Phil Murphy’s lighting, she is perfectly cast in this role as The Powerful Mistress of Hype. She is totally convincing, as her embittered verbal ax falls on such innocent victims as Cobb salads. The first-night audience rewarded nearly every one of her scenes with applause.

And then, surprise! The stage transforms in an instant. A bed rolls out; the lighting shifts; and, pow, we’re in a New York hotel room. We meet the show’s two males—the amazingly consistent John Ferrare (has he ever flubbed a line?) as Mitchell Green, a sleek, California-tanned, rising movie star obsessed with his “image.” He contrasts in every way with Timothy Douglas, playing Alex (or Bryan), an attractive youngster sent over by an escort service. And we’re off to a confusing start, with the movie star being drunk, and the greedy rent boy unsure about what to do with him. As actors, both appear effortless in their easy, seemingly natural relating to each other … and both are impressively fearless about stripping off their clothes. (The banner on the play’s poster warns about nudity and adult situations, so don’t say we didn’t tell you. Maybe now would be a good time to toss in a language warning, too.) Mr. Movie Star is emotionally conflicted about whether or not he is gay … and, it turns out, the male prostitute is as well: Despite multiple sexual experiences daily, he doesn’t “feel” gay. OK …

In fact, Alex has a girlfriend. Say what? Meet Allison Feist as Ellen. She is perfect as a potty-mouthed, hormone-ridden, completely self-absorbed Young Person of Today. Weak Ellen’s best gift seems to be her ability to take remorseless advantage of other people, rather than find her own purpose in life. Her youthful appearance, in every way, provides a stunning contrast to Diane’s artificial glam. Ellen is adrift on life’s surface, and we both sympathize with her and find her amusing at the same time. She is crucial to the plot, so don’t write her off … despite her managing to use every single annoying bit of verbal teen-slang in existence (starring “like” and “you know.” Like … you know).

The dialogue weaves through secrets, lies, truths and retractions, combining trash talk with yearning sincerity, and punching out the caught-you-off-guard humor. (“It’s like a relationship, only it’s enjoyable.”) The script mixes irony with real fears like the terror of being alone or having to fight for your own freedom. We are frequently told that “Diane solves problems,” and as the conflicts and confusion accrue, the characters turn to the agent for solutions. I won’t give away the wonderful twist at the end of the play, though I’ll promise that the writing is utterly masterful, and the resolution is a never-saw-that-coming surprise.

Kudos to the Desert Rose support team who made such a success of this play. We’ve already mentioned the mega-talented director, Jim Strait, whose flawless sense of timing, crystal-clear insights into the characters and lovely sense of stage balance all combine to make this play a delight. Turns out Strait is in charge of the scenery and the sound, too. His husband, Paul Taylor, is the play’s producer, and a steady hand on the wheel, he always is. Phil Murphy’s lighting is, of course, gorgeous; is there anything more fun than a disco ball? Mark Demry’s costumes are most excellent. (Well, there was a briefly hilarious entanglement with a tie belt on a robe.) And Steve Fisher’s stage managing is smooth and sweet, as usual.

It’s the contrasts that make this play brilliant—the playwright’s insights, the director’s right-on choices and the actors’ thoughtful explorations of their roles. New York versus California. Youth versus older. Shrewd versus naïve. Successful versus struggling. Focused versus confused. The multi-faceted result is hugely satisfying, and you will leave the theater smiling.

You’ll laugh … and you’ll love it.

The Little Dog Laughed is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 17, 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.

Chuck Yates and his Coyote Stageworks are back!

They have a great new show, Buyer and Cellar, with a spectacular new script, in a gorgeous new venue—the theater at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center. Coyote Stageworks completely dominated the win list in last season’s Desert Theatre League awards, leaving all the rest of us coughing in his dust. When Coyote Stageworks suddenly found itself homeless at the end of last season, it made for a surreal contrast.

Thank goodness Yates landed on his feet.

Jonathan Tolins is the author of Buyer and Cellar, which was named “Best Unique Theatrical Experience” by the Off-Broadway Alliance. However, this information did not prepare me for the surprise of this play. None of the publicity gave away what we were about to see, either. Chuck Yates mentioned to me that although Tolins’ play is now running in New York, and will open soon in San Diego and Los Angeles, our little Coyote Stageworks is the second place to acquire the rights in the country.

Turns out Buyer and Cellar is a one-man show. The actor, Emerson Collins, currently appears as one of the stars of Bravo’s The People's Couch. His extensive history with the infamous Del Shores is beyond interesting; Collins played Max in Sordid Lives: The Series and appeared in Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, plus he produced Shores’ play Yellow, and then directed AND produced DVD live tapings of Shores’ one-man shows. His credits go on and on.

It’s hard for me to keep quiet about the subject of this play; part of the fun is the surprise you’ll get, and I only hope other critics will not give away the topic. Let’s just say that Emerson Collins plays all the parts, including the female characters, and that the play is about an American “megastar” of stage, film and recordings. It was even more interesting to me because I just happen to be reading a book about this very megastar’s early years and influences. Go figure.

Collins starts off playing the role of Alex More, a luckless actor forced to seek other employment when he loses his job in Anaheim at The World’s Happiest Place, as a result of an indiscretion at work. Maybe this would be the time for me to slip in a small language warning—frankly, it’s hardly worth bothering with, and it’s used more for humor than shock. Alex comes out of the closet early in the show, and we soon get to meet his new boyfriend, Barry—also played by Collins, of course. The humor is often Southern California stuff, like cracks about “the 405” and Malibu, so the denizens of our area might find even more to appreciate than, say, a New York audience. We watch Alex go off to apply for a new job, which brings him into contact with more new characters, all played by Collins. It is an extraordinary job, which he gets. And so it starts.

Collins immediately grabs the audience and never lets us go. He keeps everyone on the edge of their seats with his rapid-fire delivery, instantly morphing from character to character—with no props, wigs or costume changes, do you mind. For almost two hours, without intermission, he bounces, slides, flops, struts, flirts, sashays and even dances. Every character has its own voice. The laughs are so original and surprising that the first-night audience broke into spontaneous applause three times—and this does not include his lengthy standing ovation at the end. The sole criticism I could offer is that he dropped his voice on the last words of a punchline a couple of times, so we didn’t get the joke. The other 99.9 percent is flawless.

How much of the performance was Emerson Collins, and how much credit belongs to director Larry Raben? Impossible to tell, as always, but both deserve the very highest praise for the results.

The brilliance is breathtaking. We have no sense of time going by, which speaks not only to the comfortable seats of the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center theater, but also to the brisk pacing, the wonderfully fluid writing, and the astounding memorization challenge of what is basically a two-hour monologue on an almost-bare stage: It’s dressed with only one armchair and one coffee table. Collins changes the scenes by changing the angles of the “furniture.” We should mention there’s some help from back-lit upstage panels which display sketches, too. The props consist of one book—everything else, he mimes. Emerson has a masterful command of facial expressions, amazing body language and—so rare for many actors—a fantastic use of gestures. Like in hula, his hands tell the story. It’s fun; it’s fascinating; it’s overwhelming to watch him work.

Yates, when asked about the new 600-seat Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, which is now Coyote Stageworks’ home, responded by enthusiastically praising the high school students who volunteered their time and effort to run the lobby and box office during their spring break to make this show a success. Throughout the year, he gives them the chance to learn from him. What an opportunity for these kids! The young lady who showed us to our seats admitted to being a junior, and hopes to spend her life in theater. Good luck!

By the way: Other attendees joined me in experiencing brief panic while trying to find the new Galen Theater. It’s so new that our GPS (we named her Amelia Earhart) hasn’t yet heard of the place! It’s north of Ramon Road, between Bob Hope and Duvall drives, at Rancho Mirage High School. Look for the traffic lights at Rattler Road.

Do find it. Not only is it the newest, cleanest theater around; it’s home at last for Coyote Stageworks and Chuck Yates. Huzzah!

Coyote Stageworks’ Buyer and Cellar is performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 5, at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, 31001 Rattler Road, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-6482, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

A Handful of Nickels and Dimes opened on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Indio Performing Arts Center to a sold-out house of appreciative vaudeville fans.

The attendees were mostly (very lively!) seniors, but this show would provide an education to any age group, as it deconstructs this fascinating segment of theatrical history, and analyzes the reasons for its success and eventual demise. The cast demonstrates the varied elements that created the wonder of vaudeville from the late 1800s through to the start of World War II.

The cast is equally varied. Musician/songstress Yve Evans leads the show, joined by magician Dean Apple, emcee and vocalist Justin Blake, wide-eyed blonde bombshell Cat Lyn Day, comedian Stephen Kauffman, and Jeanette Knight in dazzling assortment of roles from chorus girl to comedienne; similarly, Michael Seneca plays everything from a baggy-pants comic to a bratty schoolboy.

It’s all about timing. Vaudeville, of course, combines everything from the world’s corniest jokes to the split-second mastery of songs, dances, sketches and—most perilous of all—blackouts. In this show, we see samples of it all … and most of it works. The program gives credit to no director, and this might explain some of the less-than-snappy entrances and exits, things a sharp-eyed director would tighten.

The set resembles a rehearsal hall of some sort, with Evans and her piano (AND microphone AND sound system, which the rest of the cast unfortunately lacked) tucked in at stage left. The uneven sound shows up when Evans teams up with Blake on numbers such as “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The pro that she is, Evans shares her mic.

The rest of the time, we sit back in contented bliss as we admire Evans’ exquisite professionalism on such numbers as “Handyman,” “Second Hand Rose” and “Skylark.” She backphrases as well as anybody—she’s so in control of her music that although we might quietly panic while she toys with the notes, stretching and delaying, she always comes out exactly on the beat, letting us breathe again and smile in delight. Her prowess on the piano is just magnificent, and her vocal range has never been greater. She’s a perfect example of how experience pays off in performance; young singers would do well to take advantage of this opportunity to learn from her. She whisks us through tributes to Bessie Smith, Fanny Brice and the black entertainers of that day—and she flashes some priceless facial expressions when she turns to comedy.

Justin Blake provides the intellectual gravitas of the show, leading us through interesting explanations of how vaudeville managed to collect such variety as Burns and Allen’s wit, the baggy-pants comics’ outrageous silliness, and the specialty acts—and how vaudeville all ties in with burlesque, musical-comedy revues and extravaganzas like the Ziegfeld Follies. He performs parts of Will Rogers’ routines—but not the rope-twirling, alas. He manages to combine the educational portion with his own personal warmth and charm, so it works.

Dean Apple is the bright light of the show. We don’t see him and his magic until Act 2, when he manages to be not only very funny, but fresh and original. In his homage to Houdini, he uses audience participation to keep us on the edge of our seats while he struggles hilariously with his handcuffs. He pulls a rabbit out of a hat. He does card tricks. But what makes him special is his boyish charm and his unique ability to laugh at himself along with the rest of us—most unusual in a magician! Apple is refreshing and delightful.

Cat Lyn Day adds an exotic hint of the burlesque, like those girls who added spice and sex to the mix. Blonde and leggy, she romps through sketches and skits, adding flair and color everywhere.

Stephen Kauffman takes the business of comedy seriously. He appears in a wide variety of roles and seems comfortable in each one, ranging in style from baggy-pants comic to slick comedian with ease.

Jeanette Knight is known for being able to tackle anything, as she does here, playing everything from a star radio comedienne to a school kid. She switches between roles with aplomb—gaining the respect of the audience and, you can bet, of her fellow actors as well.

Her real-life husband, Patrick, is billed here as Michael Seneca, and he handles more roles than anyone—or so it seems, making lightning-fast changes between outrageous costumes and attitudes. Fearless about appearing silly, he is a breath of fresh air.

I wish the show had more blackout sketches. They are discussed, and there are a couple of them, but they are best demonstrated rather than talked about. “Blackouts,” of course, still exist in theater, but not like they were used in vaudeville, which introduced the audience to freeze-dried comedy, performed often in front of a curtain with no help from set changes or costumes or any kind of setup. These are often hugely effective and usually hilarious jabs, often “running gags” which become funnier every time because of the repetition.

While vaudeville faded away, overwhelmed by the innovations of radio and then TV, we should not let it stay forgotten. Shows like this are historically important, whether for reminiscence in those who actually still remember them, or to introduce vaudeville to those who’ve never been exposed to it. A Handful of Nickels and Dimes examines America back in the day, and we’re glad for it.

There’s a warning in the program about the double-entendres that abound through the evening. As Yve Evans says, “It helps if you have a dirty mind.” These double-entendres were part of the genre, but for some, this might be a consideration when deciding to bring other people to IPAC to see this show. But then so are the awful groaner jokes—and nobody seemed to mind them. (Well, we didn’t mind them much. The pain is brief.)

There are many reasons for you to see this show, but most of all, you should see it because you’ll learn something about the amazing world of vaudeville—and you’ll have fun while learning it.

A Handful of Nickels and Dimes is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., Indio. There are no shows March 6-8. Tickets are $26 with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.

Beautiful. They are just … beautiful.

At Coachella Valley Repertory’s first performance of Having Our Say, the gentle Delany Sisters stole our hearts. (With CV Rep’s permission, the Independent reviewed the first preview performance, rather than the opening-night show, so the review could make our February print deadline.) These two ladies charmed the packed house from their first words. Their stories and memories will make you laugh often, and you’ll find yourself misty-eyed at least once or twice.

The actresses are H. Chris Brown, playing 101-year-old Dr. Bessie Delany, and Regina Randolph, playing her 103-year-old sister, Miss Sadie Delany. Both give magnificently multilayered performances that fascinate and delight. Oh—and don’t call them “black” or even “African American.” They tell us they prefer “Negro” or “colored.” Interesting, eh?

We knew going in that words like “action-packed” or “a dizzying ride” were not going to be part of this play’s review. However, what we weren’t expecting was to be so completely enchanted by the Delany girls. In fact, having seen what the years can do to some people, the prospect of a play featuring two centenarians could be a little scary. But from the start, we meet two ladies who are—although a wee bit slow-moving, perhaps—articulate, thoughtful, intelligent and dignified, with lovely senses of humor and slices of life worth talking about.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty in Emily Mann’s script to make us squirm uncomfortably: mentions of Jim Crow laws, racial prejudice, lynchings and the fact that their father was actually born into slavery. But director Ron Celona has shrewdly juxtaposed the stark black-and-white historical photographs, shown on a flat screen disguised as a painting, against the colorful, three-part set of the Delanys’ wallpapered living room, dining room and warm kitchen.

The book Having Our Say, which the real Delany sisters wrote, was published in 1993, and this play is set in that same year. Do you expect to reach the age of 100? Well, these gals give you their recipe for longevity! Coming from a family of 10 children, the sisters think a lot about their parents and siblings. They speak, in their musical Southern accents, with inherent wisdom, discussing music, sex, values, men, education, taxes, entertainers, how they became professional career women, and survival against all odds. They talk about the special sense of humor of oppressed people. They talk about turning 100. (“The worst day of my life!” declares one of them.) They tell the truth about what it’s like to be, in their words, Negro.

Imagine actually knowing someone, living with someone, for 100 years. The Delanys show us what it’s like—and that alone would be fascinating. But the 20th century was quite interesting, and we get to see it from their point of view. What was their part in protest movements? How did their strong faith hold up in tough times? Why was higher education so important to them? I wonder what they’d think of the 21st century so far!

These graceful performances, developed under Celona’s steady and confident hand, will stay in your heart. This kind of audience engagement is the touchstone of professionalism and experience.

CV Rep’s technical-team members all lend their considerable talents to the mix: stage manager Karen Goodwin, set designer Jimmy Cuomo, costume designer Aalsa Lee, lights by Eddie Cancel, sound by Randy Hansen, props by Doug Morris, and superstar Lynda Shaeps creating the excellent makeup and hair. Everything works, so you can sit back, relax and let the magic happen.

And magic does happen. In a two-person play, with sisters yet, we need to see both the many similarities and the differences between these ladies; I won’t give away what those are. A lot of thought has gone into these performances, and the payoff is the audience’s spontaneous reactions of both hearty laughter and tears of empathy. It’s one thing to make us believe intellectually, with our heads, but entirely another to provoke our emotional responses, in our souls. When a terrific script, surefire direction and lovely performances all come together, as they do here, we fly away to another time and place … and in this case, land in the laps of the sweet Delany sisters.

When I asked actor Gavin MacLeod what he thought of the show, he smiled and said, “I want to take them home with me!”

The play runs through Feb. 8, and is dangerously close to selling out, so get your tickets ASAP. You don’t want to miss this show. Because it’s … just beautiful.

Having Our Say is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at Coachella Valley Repertory, at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. The show runs two hours, with two intermissions, and tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

We’re confused—not because we’re Lost in Yonkers, but because of all the questions that are raised by this production of this show.

Have we come to expect too much from Desert Theatreworks? Has the quality of its other productions led us to anticipate an impossible-to-achieve consistency? With all the projects DTW has going, has the company spread itself too thin to give sufficient time and effort to this show? While there are laughs aplenty in this play, they’re due to Neil Simon’s deft scriptwriting—not because of what we see happening on the stage of the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre.

The most egregious problems suggest a lack of steady leadership. Somebody took their eyes off the road here. Example: It’s hard for actors, affecting an accent, to hear themselves clearly, especially if they’re simultaneously worrying about lines/timing/blocking/orientation. They need somebody else’s keen ears to catch them if they wander off. The actors here were all over the place with their mishmash of accents, and the results fluctuated from no dialect at all to downright mispronunciations.

Another example: There were several blocking mistakes, which placed some actors downstage close to the audience—completely masking the action happening upstage. This is not the kind of error we would expect at this theater.

Want me to go on? How about the grandmother’s wig, which was so obviously false and misfit and wrong that it actually distracted us from her acting? Or what about Gert’s breathing problems? They were funny the first couple of times, but then she changed the effect and totally overdid it—causing the audience to stop laughing. How about the father, Eddie, reading his own letters aloud, while he holds the paper up so high that you can barely see his forehead? Why is Louis’ jacket bunched all funny in the front when it’s buttoned—did they just hope we wouldn’t notice? Should I mention doors that stick nearly every time—except for one that slowly swung open by itself during someone’s speech? How could this happen?

It makes me feel terrible to point these things out, as I have consistently lauded the work at this theater for its originality and solid old-school creativity. But something has gone wrong here—not that you won’t enjoy the wit and wisdom of Neil Simon’s play, and revel in his magnificently crafted humor. Setup! Punch line! Roar with laughter!

Lost in Yonkers takes place during World War II. The widowed father of two young boys (supposedly 13 and 15, but neither looks it … we might have believed 9 and 11) drops them off at his mother’s home above her confectionary store in Yonkers, so he can take advantage of a wartime work opportunity involving many months of travel. The grandmother is a German refugee and mother of six. The boys’ observations and comments about their new situation are wonderful, with their “out of the mouths of babes” insight.

The grandmother, a hard case played by June August, has the most fabulous face, tragically overshadowed by the already mentioned weird silver wig. Her remaining children—the kids’ aunts and uncle—who were raised under her rigid and severe hand, lead lives that show their reactions to her steely and uncompromising discipline. Aunt Bella, a difficult role performed by Daniela Ryan, is a multilayered young lady full of secrets who displays serious problems with reality. Aunt Gert, played by Adina Lawson—wearing yet another ghastly copper-colored hairpiece mistake—has developed breathing problems due to the stress. Uncle Louis, played by Stephen Blackwell, has defected to a freewheeling lifestyle in a world of gangsters, breezily choosing to ignore his former life—until he requires a handy hideout from his nefarious companions. Eddie, the boys’ father, portrayed by Gregg Aratin, comes off as a broken man, overwhelmed by his responsibilities and terrified of his mother, yet determined to set things right and get out of debt. Alas, his performance was robotic.

Of course, it’s the kids who get the very best lines, and Cameron Keys, as Jay—or Yakob, as their grandmother insists on calling him—the older brother, is a pleasant surprise. Because he doesn’t wear makeup, we watch his fine-skinned face go bright-red under the influence of anger or indignation or protest, an astonishing experience. His kid brother, the big-eyed Angus Feath as Arty or Arthur, shows a poise and composure far beyond his years, and indicates a tremendous promise for the future. This young man has a gift for comedy and is definitely one to watch.

So what happened here? Perhaps the play just simply wasn’t ready. When the actors all spoke their lines, they seemed to miss the deep conviction of a finished product, and lacked the thoughtfulness of a stage-ready performance. Every actor has to remember the words, the blocking, the plots, but it’s entirely another experience to bring to the play the convincing portrayal, the passion, the commitment, the sincerity of a performance that will move the audience not just to laughter, but a whole range of emotions. They call it “polishing,” and this show simply lacked polish.

If we are not honest about the things that are wrong in our fantastic local theater community, then our praise will mean nothing, either. And that leaves us not just Lost in Yonkers … but really confused.

Lost in Yonkers, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center, located at 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.