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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

The word “inspiration” came up a lot.

I was talking with composer and orchestrator Saverio Rapezzi, and Shawn Abramowitz, the executive director of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, about the creation of a one-night-only production of a new musical which has taken 10 years to bring to life.

Desert Ensemble will present Esperanza: The Musical of Hope as a concert performance at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24.

How did it all start? Writer Ken Luber, a TV and movie writer living in Idyllwild, began writing Esperanza’s book and lyrics in 2005—about sports figures, of all things. The work deals with the falls from grace of these once-worshipped creatures and their hopes to return to their former glory. When Saverio Rapezzi arrived in Los Angeles, Luber was one of the people he contacted while looking for work. The rest, of course, is history.

Shawn Abramowitz came into the picture when Luber contacted the DETC, because of the company’s interest in performing new works.

DETC started years ago as a theater-and-writing group, headed up by Tony Padilla and influenced by Rosemary Mallett, a legendary name in Palm Springs theater. The group offered students not only technical training, but also scholarships—a unique approach. As a theater company, DETC is now in its fourth season.

Esperanza has been in rehearsals since October, and Abramowitz promises theatergoers “a polished piece, with great music and a compelling story.” The cast includes Keisha D., Charles Herrera, Theresa Jewett, Phillip Moore and several others.

Saverio Rapezzi—don’t you love the name?—lives in Los Angeles half the year. The other months are spent in Italy’s Tuscany region, where his musician wife conducts choirs and teaches at the conservatory where they met. In L.A., his company Film Scoring Lab creates music for movies. On his website, he offers examples of various sounds to express the different moods of the films; it’s a great tutorial on this very special skill.

Rapezzi cut his teeth on short films, but has gone on to score feature-length movies as well. “If it’s a good film, it’s easy,” he muses. “It inspires you—you pick up on the rhythm. And if I like the story, each scene’s music is already in my mind by the time it’s finished. I play the scenes back two or three times, and then start writing it out.”

Rapezzi is one of those rare and special composers who can hear music in his head and write it down without having to pick it out on an instrument. His main instrument is the guitar, and he holds degrees in classical guitar and composition from the Royal Philharmonic Academy of Bologna. He also studied film-scoring with stellar names including Ennio Morricone, and continued his graduate studies at UCLA. But his first influence, as with so many musicians, was his father. He was a classical guitarist, and at age 13, young Saverio followed his papa’s lead, eventually using the guitar “to compose what was in my heart.” Rapezzi then became a respected concert performer.

However, writing music for the movies was always his goal. His first big film was a Mexican psychological thriller, The Echo of Fear.

“It was so exciting to see my name on the screen in a cinema!” he remembers. The same director hired him again for his next movie—the ultimate compliment. He recently finished scoring Ignatius Lin’s The System Is Broken. In 2015, Rapezzi’s new opera will debut—in Hungary, even though it’s in Italian.

When Rapezzi teamed up with Ken Luber to create Esperanza, he wrote about half the show—just enough to use in an audition. When they brought it to DETC, and the answer was a resounding, “YES!” he immediately wrote the rest of the music.

What’s in store for the future of Esperanza? Abramowitz, who also works both as an actor and as an account executive for KESQ-TV, dares to dream: He wants to take it all the way to Broadway!

“Even if it changes one person’s life, that makes a huge impact,” he said.

Summing up, I couldn’t resist asking Rapezzi what he thought of Americans. He took time to reflect seriously, and announced, “They are the best at getting things done. They know how to make things work. Italians are creative, but … .” Then he shrugged.

Will the performance become the first step on the long road to Broadway? “It takes time,” Abramowitz said. “But the message is strong—it’s one of hope, no matter where life takes you.”

Can’t wait. It sounds like … an inspiration.

The concert reading of Esperanza: The Musical of Hope takes place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

To be honest, I was dreading it.

Even though the Indio Performing Arts Center is the most comfortable theater in town (the angle of the rake for the audience area guarantees that every cushy seat gives perfect visibility; it has lots of leg room; and there are cup-holders like at the movies!), the ghastly fact is this: Neil Simon’s comedy The Odd Couple just doesn’t hold up in today’s world. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, his kooky characters and their navel-gazing were fresh, original and fun (despite their smoking, ewww). Frankly, I hadn’t realized how much comedy had changed with the times until we tried to watch reruns of Laugh-In a couple of years ago, and we all sat staring stone-faced and unamused instead of rolling on the floor and shrieking like we did back in the day. Many attempts to re-do Neil Simon’s work, some even with major stars, have bombed horribly in today’s world, because of those changes in comedy since this play opened in 1965.

But the Palm Desert Stage Company comes through!

Cozy in their new home at IPAC, Colleen Kelley’s troupe is directed by the uber-talented Jeanette Knight (one of the calmest directors you could ever work with) and gives us a delightful version of The Odd Couple that never wanes in its energy or quality. Did they tinker with the script? Who knows or cares? This production of the show works.

Of course, the first problem they faced was erasing the audience’s memories of the film version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, two genius comic actors with an enormous arsenal of techniques that made their movie unforgettable. But this production comes through, again, with their clever casting choices. Lou Galvan as Oscar Madison, and Matthew Shaker as Felix Ungar, look and behave nothing like Matthau and Lemon, and therein lies the secret of this success. Where Matthau was a slob and a sloth, Galvan is an intense mess who’s too high-energy to bother taking care of his surroundings (and a sports writer to add to the problem). Where Lemmon was an obsessive and whiny little wreck, Shaker is totally sympathetic as a just-dumped husband and father desperately trying to put his life in order by organizing the environment around him to hopefully stave off his falling apart within.

These two actors beautifully contrast each other. Their physical appearances, first of all—the result of clever casting—instantly put the “odd” in the title. But as actors, they go beyond that, to shrewdly create gestures and moves different from each other. Watch the way they use their eyes. Watch Shaker sniff. Watch Galvan throw a tantrum of frustration. Even though their relationship is at odds, they each create a perfect marriage of technique and method acting. Bravo!

Though it’s basically a two-person play, the fun is multiplied by the supporting actors. The poker players, from the start of the first scene, make us wish they had way more lines, because each performance here is fully imagined. Peter Mins, as the accountant Roy, is delightful as an observer of the human condition who has learned to keep his mouth shut. Vinnie, played by Charles Williams Gaines, is great as the guy who is everybody’s friend. Alan Berry plays Speed (a nickname which is never explained, alas), a bright light who is focused and serious about everything from poker to being a Manhattanite. And the ever-versatile and brilliant Ron Young is Murray the Cop, whose tough New York street-smarts contrast with his ham-fisted card -ealing and his insatiable appetite for comfort food.

But the girls! You can’t take your eyes off them, and not just because The Pigeon Sisters are so pretty and brightly dressed in contrast to the men. Debbie Apple as Cecily, and Colleen Kelley as Gwendolyn (names clearly stolen from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest) are delicious and fluttery and sweet and colorful; these two fine actresses could actually pass as sisters. They have worked hard on subtleties such as their head movements and their matching smiles. Of course, their similarity sharply contrasts the differences between Oscar and Felix. Their performances include an underlying layer of predatory yet breezy sexuality that makes them a little dangerous. Their British accents are perfect choices. We can’t get enough of them. If they appeared for the first time in today’s world, they’d have their own TV show immediately.

The set and costumes and props—all created by Colleen Kelley (with help from efficient Nick Cox and John Meyers)—give vague references to the ’60s, but without making the production “dated.” It’s a perfect balance to the acting styles, and the result is a comfortably universal feeling that doesn’t scream “period piece,” despite some excellent touches in the Madison apartment’s décor, like that clock.

Hard-working Colleen Kelley’s relentless promotion resulted in a truly packed house on Saturday, without a single seat left available. (Technically, this creates an interesting experience known as “polarization,” which causes the audience to react as one unit. It rarely happens in a scattered crowd. It’s what every producer of a comedy prays for, because each laugh’s timing and duration become identical, like a bullfight crowd’s “ole.”) This audience roared at the comedy—and Neil Simon held up just fine, thank heavens.

If you can get a ticket, you’ll be grateful. We’re already wondering if they will extend the run so everyone can get to see this play at IPAC, and maybe finally overcome their strange doubts about theater in Indio. It’s a showplace to love arguably Neil Simon’s best work ever, and a totally enjoyable experience as presented here. Just see it.

The Odd Couple, a presentation of Palm Desert Stage, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday. Nov. 23, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $28, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coachella Valley Repertory’s season-opener, The Chosen, begins the company’s selection of four plays that represent the diverse cultural heritage of America.

This play is bracketed by World War II in 1944 and the successful establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and it takes place in Brooklyn. Two boys meet playing baseball—how American is that? But don’t think Norman Rockwell just yet: One of the boys belongs to the strict and tradition-bound Hassidic segment of Judaism, and the other belongs other to a more progressive, modernistic and liberal sect. Instant conflict.

While the play’s main characters are Jewish, this play’s themes echo the lives of people worldwide. Almost every religion has different groups within it, each with its own rules about food, drink, travel, marriage, clothing, hair—everything. Maybe that deep sense of spiritual identification is why the audience at The Chosen was the most spellbound, silent bunch I’ve seen in a theater. There was not even a sniffle, and how are your sinuses doing with all the reseeding and the winds? Not a sound. Not a move.

It has to be gratifying for the actors to perform such a powerful play, because they get to see and feel how its message reaches all of us. The five, all-male actors in The Chosen are marvelous, dealing with a tiny stage—but a GREAT set!—and an unamplified room, demanding great diction and projection; they are rewarded with magnificent lighting and a lovely subtle color palette. CV Rep’s artistic and production staff gets stars for their work here. Kudos to Louise Ross, Jimmy Cuomo, Aalsa Lee, Eddie Cancel and Randy Hansen. Artistic director Ron Celona beautifully and cleverly directs the piece, with some brilliant uses of the flexible set that will make you smile with appreciation. (Just to make it perfect, an actual cantor, Samuel B. Radwine, is their consultant for this production.)

The universal themes are boiled down into the friendship of these two kids in wartime Brooklyn. At the game, Reuven, played by Drew Feldman, is pitching to Daniel, played by Daniel Seigerman. The show is narrated by the older version of Reuven, acted by Dave Natale. The fathers of the two boys round out the rest of the cast: The intellectual writer David Malter is Reuven’s widowed dad, played by Dennis Gersten, and David Light plays Daniel’s father, the brilliant and rigid Hasidic Rabbi (Reb) Saunders. Guess what happens?

This wordy play is adapted from the novel and film by its original author Chaim Potok, with Aaron Posner. The script throws around a lot of Yiddish expressions, some translated into English and some not, so the greater vocabulary you bring to this play, the more you’ll get out of it. The script also tosses into the mix a few stunning examples of Talmudic philosophical debate—and even a little humor. It’s all about learning, and we marvel at the devotion to their studies of these boys, back when school was simpler and more distraction-free.

Watching the actors move on this stage is only part of the fascination. We are frozen in anticipation, wondering what path awaits these two boys, their fathers and their countries.

The casting is, well, perfect. Drew Feldman is excellent as the Nice Jewish Boy we all know; despite being raised motherless, he lives to learn and loves life. His father, played by Dennis Gersten, is totally convincing as the passionate Zionist writer. The older Reuven, Dave Natale, devours the stage as he paces it, linking time, place and situation for us—and he gets to have some fun, briefly charming us by playing other parts. Daniel Seigerman excels in the hugely challenging role of a young Hasid facing a changing world while being locked into tradition—and, strangely, being raised in almost total silence by his father. David Light, as his dad … well, you can’t take your eyes off him, with his flashing eyes, growly voice and bearlike moves. Wait ’til he shows off his character’s brilliance and knowledge; he’ll give you goose bumps.

The only tiny little nitpick I could come up with is that I’d like to see more use of the hands. It’s not a stereotype to say that Jewish people (and Italians!) talk with gestures. We could use more of that here.

The best entertainment takes us to a place to which we could never go, and then makes us love the people we find there. This show does that. We keenly understand and accept each character, and the pin-drop silence of the audience proves that we all identify. This is, after all, part of American history, and we don’t need to have ever set foot in Brooklyn to become swallowed up by the story. This two-hour, two-act play will take you further down the rabbit hole than you’ve ever been, because it’s so real. I almost wish there hadn’t been an intermission; the break shocked us back to reality.

The title The Chosen reminds me of that old joke about the Jewish leader who one day gets to actually talk with God, and asks him, “Are we really the Chosen People?” God answers, “Yes.” The man reflects on the historical problems faced by the Jews—Cossack raids, the Holocaust, ancient Egyptian rulers, Biblical plagues—and timidly requests of God, “You think you could choose somebody else for a while?”

When you see this play at CV Rep, you’ll be glad they were chosen.

The Chosen, a production of Coachella Valley Repertory, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 16, at The Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Those of us who grew up in Canada were raised on it.

We knew The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Take It From Here on the radio; the Carry On gang’s outrageous ensemble movies; and, later, Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in theatrical revue, and the unforgettable Monty Python films.

So I felt very much at home with the British-humor outrages perpetrated in Desert Theatreworks’ “Noises Off!” at the Arthur Newman Theatre—as did the eager, nearly full house of supporters on opening night. They were probably all Americans, which is just fine; humor’s birthplace doesn’t matter. It’s all about having fun and being involved. Judging from the laughter and applause, it’s certain you’ll have a great time at this show, no matter where you were born.

The script, by Michael Frayn, starts with the final rehearsal of a play. We quickly see that it’s nowhere near ready to open, and the personalities of the actors are part of the reason why. The frustrated director, whom we hear only on a “God mic” from the audience, is desperately trying to control his nutso cast and get the show ready for the opening—which is only hours away.

The set, cleverly designed by Ron Phillips-Martinez, is a departure from the usual two-story setting of this show. “We create the illusion of two stories,” he confided to me, “and the way the set changes between acts leaves people saying, ‘How did you DO that?’ We wanted everything to be different, because this play has been done here before. … We didn’t want to re-do just another version of it.”

During the set change, the lights are left on so we can admire the super-efficient use of restricted space. When the scenery changes between acts, we find ourselves backstage at another performance of the same play—but now from the actors’ vantage point. Of course, the actors must not make the slightest noise during the performance, so everything is communicated in frantic mime.

Why would a small theater company like Desert Theatreworks, in an intimate space, even think of mounting such a production?

“I did it on a dare!” director Lance Phillips-Martinez told me. “They said this play couldn’t be done in this theater. There are 700 exits and entrances to deal with! It was a true challenge, and I spent six months thinking it through before deciding to do it. The actors were all open to it—though only two had ever performed in a farce before, so there was a lot of teaching involved.” 

Ah, the actors—the poor things were wringing wet by the end of the show, thanks to the astonishing amount of exertion needed. British comedy is indeed very physical, and Lance Phillips-Martinez has emphasized the importance of body language with this production, as he kaleidoscopes his constantly moving actors.

And what an ensemble! Everyone is physically transformed compared to other shows in which you may have seen them, and I don’t just mean costume and makeup changes—they talk, move and use their hair differently. They are, as the Brits might say, quite extraordinary. Farce lets a thespian get in touch with his inner ham, but make no mistake: This show is artfully disciplined, even though it seems like total chaos. Each actor has exquisitely developed his character fully, under Lance Phillips-Martinez’s guidance.

Stan Jensen plays the hapless director of this play-within-a-play (called “Nothing’s On”), and with that rich powerful voice, he’s perfect. His strained patience is conveyed in tones ranging from kindly coaxing to a bellow, and his authoritarian strut is exactly right. As in all caricatures, the exaggeration emphasizes rather than conceals his character’s qualities (and flaws).

Marjory Lewis plays actress Dotty Otley who plays Mrs. Clackett, the Cockney housekeeper. Lance Phillips-Martinez has nurtured and polished this gem of an actress to a high luster, with qualities we’ve never seen her display before. She is vibrantly alive, bright and multi-layered, and she runs through an astounding variety of emotions.

Stephen McMillen devours the stage as arrogant actor Garry LeJune, playing Roger in their play. A DTW staple, McMillen completely re-invents himself in every role, this time digging deep to give a complex performance as a talented but self-involved, neurotic and unintentionally hilarious thespian. He’s recognizable to anyone who has ever done theater at any level.

Mari Kerber is Brooke Ashton, playing Vicki (the “i” tells you so much), the troupe’s resident blonde glamour girl and idiot—but she’s street-smart enough to use her looks to fuel her ambition. Moody and vain, she shines as she prances and tosses her crimped hair artfully, constantly posing in calendar-girl fashion to show off her admirable figure.

Tanner Lieser plays Frederick Fellowes, who toils in the role of Philip Brent. A disaster magnet, he is instantly recognizable from his first lines: He’s the guy who puts himself down so you can’t do it. Hypersensitive and luckless—a terrible combination—he’s the epitome of insecurity. Lieser makes the most of this very funny role and actually enlists our sympathy.

Stacy Casaluci plays Belinda Blair, playing Flavia Brent in Nothing’s On, and she’s a sweetheart as the unsung heroine who is quietly keeping the cast together behind the scenes. She’s always upbeat, positive and there at the right time—one of those. She is convincing and pretty, and brings a lovely light to her scenes.

Garnett Smith is a seasoned actor—here playing the cast’s Selsdon Mowbray, acting as The Burglar—but we’ve never before seen him like this. He’s the cast’s old troublemaker and secret drinker, just this side of dangerous. He comes close to stealing the show with his unscripted monologue during a set change between acts, and his beautifully thought-out character gives us no end of delight. Smith knows his face, body and craft, and uses them all brilliantly.

Florentino Carrillo plays Tim Allgood, the overworked, youthful techie and stage manager of the troupe. His stillness gives us glimpses of his exhaustion, and contrasts delightfully with the rest of the high-energy group. He switches accents, a little confusing, but is delightful when he has to sub onstage, shaking in his shoes at being thrust into the spotlight.

Brittney De Leon-Reyes is Poppy, the assistant stage manager, the drab but sincere and hardworking little girl behind the scenes—almost every theater has one. She is a casting surprise in this role, a nervous nelly fearful of everything. It’s the mark of a true actress to be so versatile, and reveals a glimpse of her depth and her promise.

Curtain calls and applause! Go see this, and be prepared to laugh and be astonished. It’s a most unusual play, and whether or not you’ve ever actually been backstage for real, you will laugh out loud. A lot. I promise.

Noises Off!, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 9 (with no show on Oct. 31) at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; or $23 seniors and students with ID. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

The Phillips-Martinez boys have done it again. Lance, the artistic director of Desert Theatreworks, and Ron, its executive director, have hammered out a hit with Seminar, the play that opens the company’s new season at the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center.

How did they do it?

Well, first, they chose a wonderfully written script, created by Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She created Smash on TV, if that helps with the bona fides, but her credentials fill up a whole page of the program. The lady holds a Brandeis doctorate, do you mind. This two-act comedy deals with a private writing class given to four New York wannabes who have each forked over $5,000 for the privilege of being critiqued by an actual working writer for 10 weekly sessions.

Second, the casting is superb. More on this later, when we discuss the actors.

Third, the support system—along with the stage managing of Kathy Taylor-Smith, with sound and lights assistance from Jeremy Goodlander, Stephen McMillen and Alex Updyke—is solid and secure. The importance of this can’t be overlooked. Without lights and mics and sound cues being perfect, nobody can do their job. As for the setting, most of the show takes place in one Manhattan apartment, with the last scene in a different apartment, and you’ll be delighted by the scenery change (and even more in the final bows).

Fourth, Lance Phillips-Martinez’s directing is beautiful. What he did to create such excellent timing in the cast, we can only speculate. But it’s the clever blackouts that create the variations in pace, to great effect. Lance Phillips-Martinez’ hard work with the actors makes this show worth seeing.

So let’s talk about the acting. Recently, in James Franco’s autobiography, he memorably said, “Everyone can act. Not everyone can act well.” And ain’t that the truth? Here, fortunately, they act well. Brittney De Leon-Reyes, playing Izzy, gives new meaning to curves. Luscious and raven-haired, she prowls the stage like a panther wearing 4-inch heels. Flashing eyes, glowing olive skin and a lazy but confident smile give her an uber-sexy air. Va-va-voom! As an actress, she has the ability to focus completely, making her very watchable.

Mari Kerber plays Kate. And if Brittney is Rose Red, then Mari is Rose White. They are polar opposites, yet both are totally believable. Kerber brings to the show a cascade of sleek golden hair, a lovely face (those cheekbones!) and an attitude of calm acceptance about her WASP character’s wealthy and privileged background, making Kate sensitive, generous and thoughtful. She radiates being well-bred and well-read, yet she struggles to find her own voice as a writer.

Gabriel Lawrence is Martin, our mystery-man. Though at first he seems stereotypical (the Latino bad boy/poet from the streets), we soon begin to wonder about what lies beneath his surface. His multi-layered performance keeps us guessing throughout the play, and he surprises us more than once. DTW imported Lawrence back here from L.A. for this role, and he shrewdly fleshes out this unusual character.

The role of Douglas is performed by Tanner Lieser. He dominates the opening scene and can take credit for the chortles that start early in the show. He captures the outrageous and sometimes-pretentious qualities commonly associated with New York intellectuals, although none of the actors use any “N’Yawk” accents at all. Lieser plays the high-strung and hypersensitive Douglas as flamboyant, affected and a big talker happy only when he’s the center of attention.

Then there’s Leonard, the teacher, towering above the others in physical height and with experience in the glorious world of writing to which the students aspire—perfectly played by Luke Rainey. He blathers and blusters, but brilliantly, dumbfounding both his students and the audience. His masterful monologues leave us awestruck, as he tackles such subjects as: Who gets published? Why? What does one have to do to get published? One minute, Leonard is an addled blowhard; the next, he snaps out penetrating insights and revelations. Not an easy task for an actor less talented than this one.

Mixed all together, the group gives us a rare feeling of spontaneity. We believe them. We become the proverbial fly on the wall, listening and watching, because it seems to be real. This is why people go to the theater: They hope to be taken out of their own skins for a while, and live someone else’s life for just a couple of hours. The extraordinary casting in Seminar at Desert Theatreworks combines with the amazing script to make this happen.

We do need to slap a language warning on the production: Do not take the kids, unless you don’t mind that they’ll leave the theater cussing like stevedores (or newspaper editors?). However, with these characters, it serves to make them more believable and emphatic, and it’s not offensive.

So what can we criticize about this production? The play is listed as “contemporary,” and kids I see nowadays appear constantly wired into their cell phones, blogs, texting, selfies—not one of which appeared in this play! Which is perhaps why we enjoyed it! What a pleasure to see something of people other than the tops of their heads as they bend over their electronic devices! Is this an alternate and tolerable parallel universe?

Go see Seminar, and let me know if you figure it out.

Desert Theatreworks’ Seminar is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, through Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73-750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

The season at the Desert Rose Playhouse doesn’t officially begin until September, so two-man-play 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night is what artistic director Jim Strait calls a “lagniappe,” a delightful Cajun word you rarely hear outside of the South—meaning a “little bit extra.”

While this extra play has its charms, in the end, it just doesn’t capture us.

Producer Paul Taylor’s choice of this one-act add-on has helped make Desert Rose a year-round theater. Many of us remember when the desert seemingly shut down completely in the summer; for anyone to open a play in August was unthinkable. But it’s 2014, and a full house of fans turned out to take in this lagniappe, which will run for three weeks. Good for Desert Rose!

Don’t think that DRP has scrimped on the energy and time always lavished on its productions because it’s the summer. This play is a tricky one … well, maybe it was a tad easier for costume designer Mark Demry, since the cast is nude most of the time. Maybe lighting director Phil Murphy got a break, too, as the whole play is in real time, about an hour and a half in the night, and indoors, in a New York apartment—he doesn’t need to supply sunrises, storms or other fancy effects. But imagine the challenges for stage manager Steve Fisher, not to mention the director, Strait himself. The set is, well, a bed. It’s in a corner of a tiny New York apartment, with not much opportunity for blocking—a director’s nightmare. (Some of those New York apartments were/are REALLY tiny!)

It’s important for the audience to understand the time factor: This play is set in 1987. It’s the post-disco era, and to be gloriously single was to own the world. Except … we were already under the shadow of the wings of that disease. People were starting to sneak off to be tested. Rumors abounded. Nothing was clear, except that it seemed to be mostly in the gay community. Mostly. This is not the topic of 2 Boys in a Bed, though, of course, it is addressed eventually.

We find Peter and Daryl in the aftermath of a casual encounter. And this is where it happens: Is this The Start of Something Big, or another meaningless and forgettable experience? Both gay and straight audiences will see something in this play, as it reminds oneself how everyone feels at the beginning of a relationship, when the clock starts ticking, and we don’t know when it will (ever?) stop.

Peter and Daryl are finding out each other’s thoughts about all the important stuff: How do you feel about your past? Your future? (OUR future?) How do you feel about your personal pain? What makes you shy? What are your goals? How important is sex in a relationship? Are you telling the truth or lying? Peter and Daryl wobble through all these topics and more, as we all did/do. Not many people are good at reading others instantly, so they have to trailblaze through the forest of each other to find out the answers. And that’s the show, folks.

The hard-working actors—Ryan Dominguez as Daryl, and Chris Horychata as Peter—bring a couple of valuable assets to the play. First, thanks to their flawless skin and nice bodies, they’re easy on the eyes—and they are not self-consciousness about waltzing around in their nakedness. Second, they have their lines down pat. 2 Boys in a Bed is a hugely talky play—words words words, nonstop. (How much action can you weave through the dialogue in a one-act play set in a bed?) This is where an actor really earns his salt, because timing, the interpretation of emotion and body language become paramount.

That said, here’s where it gets sticky: Does the audience believe? Do we disappear into the play and forget ourselves?

Peter is supposed to be a construction worker, and I didn’t believe that for a second. We’ve all gone past enough construction sites to know what those guys generally look like—and this guy is strictly indoors.  Daryl is supposed to be an artist, yet Dominguez never exhibited anything that would make us believe he’s an artistic type for even an instant. There are a few other credibility-killers, but you can discover them yourself.

Alas, we don’t believe. We do not disappear into the play and lose ourselves. We just don’t see the push-pull of a new relationship being born (or not).

It’s difficult to discern whether this is the fault of the players or the script—but there is a lack of chemistry here that leaves us cold. As cold, say, as a winter’s night.

2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night is performed at at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Sept 7, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69260 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

For a show to open during these longest days of the year, and attract a packed house, proves that there is wonderful community support for our local productions. That’s exactly what happened on opening night of Southern Hospitality: Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez and their Desert Theatreworks are clearly doing it right at the Joslyn Center in Palm Desert.

So here’s the question: Can life in the Deep South possibly be as much fun as it’s depicted in the plays written about it? From the hilarity of Sordid Lives and Steel Magnolias to the glorious nonsense of the “Tuna” series and the “Pecan” series, the best comedy of our times seems to be coming from somewhere in Dixie.

In Southern Hospitality, we’re welcomed to Fayro, Texas, where everyone is some kind of nuts. The stage is loosely divided into three different areas, and the first scenes—brief and separated with lighting blackouts, accompanied by instrumental music—make us wonder if this is a revue. However, the characters eventually join up; the story begins, and the relationships become clear. Well, sort of. The four Futrelle Sisters (Frankie, Rhonda Lynn, Honey Raye and Twink) take time from their complicated personal lives to despair at the imminent demise of their town and ponder how it can be saved. The local characters—and this is really simplifying the tangled, mangled plot—come up with the idea of “Fayro Days” … and the planning begins.

The script is marvelous. Dealing with everything from midlife crises to guns to imaginary friends to hot flashes, the characters philosophize wildly. There are references to the “Squat ‘n’ Gobble” restaurant, the “Beaucoup Bouquet” flower shop, and other colorful place names. Fun. Just fun!

Playwrights Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten have combined their considerable expertise and experience to create a wordy but fluffy crowd-pleaser. The playwrights are credited as being among the most produced in America today, with more 3,000 productions … and this play is their newest.

Using a cast of 13 is a serious undertaking, and not for the faint of heart. Only a director with solid old-school skills like Lance Phillips-Martinez would even consider such a challenge. With a play like this, it’s more like “wrangling” than “directing” to move everyone around efficiently but logically.

Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez have created a company in which actors, when not onstage in a production, are given the chance to learn backstage/sound/lighting/management skills. This used to happen only in summer stock. It is fascinating for the audience to see these actors morph into different characters from one play to another; the company approach also offers a great way for actors to learn. For example, in this production, we see Don Cilluffo, as Raynerd, play the Southern-fried equivalent of a Shakespearean young Fool, though recently we saw him as a mysterious middle-age, dark-cloaked Italian in The Mousetrap. Alden West (is she the busiest actress in town?) appears here as a short-haired blonde in designer-frame glasses and tropical colors, though we last saw her sporting a high-styled tower of black hair and widow’s weeds as she snarled her way through Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch.

As for the acting: Hmm. There were some inconsistencies in the Southern accents. There were some timing issues, which reflect nothing more than being a little under-rehearsed or first-night jitters. West’s first entrance presented a blocking problem: She spoke her lines with her back to the audience, unlit. One actor’s diction was messed up, either by a sore throat or something going on with her teeth, but it’s back to speech class for her. And, a couple of times, actors tossed away parts of their lines by turning to face the upstage person to whom they were speaking, rather than finding a reason to face the audience. Hey, y’all: We learn nothing from watching the back of someone’s head! It’s one of the most common acting problems, because it is so contrary to real life, but if you want to sock that punch line, you’ve got to let the audience see you and hear it.

Those are the few negatives. Other than that, the mob of actors (Daniela Ryan, Shirley LeMaster, Kathy Taylor-Smith, Kitty Garascia, Hal O’Connell, Alexis Safoyan, Austin Schroeter, Peter Nicholson, Poppy Reybin, Jana Baumann and Domingo Winstead, in addition to Cilluffo and West) tackle their jobs with the brave and noble spirit of the South. It’s not easy to be outrageous: It requires an enormous commitment. You have to combine sincerity with comedic skills and timing, or it just looks like over-acting. Cilluffo is the one who shines at this, with a command of technique that makes him lovable yet hilarious at the same time. A lot of it has to do with his resonant voice and well-used wide eyes.

The cast will grow in confidence. I urge you to see Southern Hospitality regardless of the summer heat.

Desert Theatreworks’ production of Southern Hospitality is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., and Saturday, through Saturday, June 28, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; $23 seniors; $15 students; and $10 kids 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Regional theater companies don’t often have historic events taking place on their stages, but our comfy, 85-seat Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage is now mounting a 50th-anniversary production of a play that holds an important place in American theater’s history.

Robert Patrick, the author of The Haunted Host, was there on opening night to watch the new production of what’s considered one of the first contemporary gay plays. “I never dreamed I’d be seeing this play 50 years later,” he confided to me.

The whole thing happened as a result of having a venue at which to perform such works: the now-famous Caffe Cino. Back in the ’60s, Joe Cino opened the place so playwrights and actors could create productions that offered the polar opposite of Broadway’s razzmatazz.

“We didn’t know we were pioneers,” said Patrick. “But four Pulitzer Prize winners (and finalists) came from the Cino. John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, was the first. Lanford Wilson, author of Talley’s Folly; William Hoffman, who wrote As Is, and who co-starred as Frank in the first Haunted Host; and Tom Eyen, who went on to create Dreamgirls—all got their start at Caffe Cino, along with the writers of Hair and Dames at Sea, and names like Al Pacino and Sam Shepard.”

This is where LGBT theater got its very start. Joe Cino’s thought-provoking motto was, “Do what you have to do.” And so in 1964, Lanford Wilson’s play The Madness of Lady Bright was the first ever gay play to hit the boards.

“We called him ‘The Mozart from Missouri,’” reminisced Patrick.

I inquired as to the critics’ response to the show. “They were completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of the writing—to the point that the subject simply didn’t matter. It wasn’t even mentioned in the reviews! All they could think about was the writing.”

So when The Haunted Host came along later that year, the road to success for LGBT theater had already begun to be paved.

Of course it takes place in the ’60s, in New York’s Greenwich Village. “The stage was so small,” remembered Patrick, “I was about a foot away from the audience.”

At the Desert Rose, the open stage that greets playgoers is instantly recognizable as one of those tiny apartments stuffed with comfortable clutter (mine was on Jarvis Street in Toronto), and includes set-designer Steve Fisher’s great touches, like a bookcase made with bricks and boards, which back then was mandatory decor. The bright colors, the plush cushions, the souvenirs and the overfilled closet (with drag items, never referred to—a wealth of boas, spangles and furs) are all flawlessly illuminated by lighting designer Phil Murphy. Costume designer Mark Demry continues the decade’s theme: It’s an instant trip down Memory Lane for those fortunate enough to have been there.

From a theatrical point of view, however, all of this creates a challenge: There just isn’t much room left in which to move. Under the always-deft direction of Wendy Cohen, however, the two actors maneuver cleverly in the limited space.

The three scenes are separated by live music. The play opens with a folksinger (so prevalent in those days; this one even sports a loud tie-dye T-shirt), soprano Lin Gillham, on guitar. She is also the production’s stage manager, and what a job that must be. The other two entr’actes use stubble-bearded (not the fashion back then!) musician/vocalist Miguel Arballo (whose diction could use a wakeup call), also on a six-string. Oddly enough, the songs have absolutely nothing to do with the action, plot, mood or characters of the play, and except for establishing the time period, they add nothing. But, then, it was the ’60s, when everything was puzzling.

From the moment the play begins, when Jim Strait bursts onto the stage, you can’t take your eyes off him. He played this part in the ’80s in San Diego, but even that doesn’t explain his magisterial command of the role of Jay. It is rare to see an actor so enmeshed with his character that you can actually see a thought dawn in his eyes. We can only hope that every actor in town will rush to see this play, to learn from a master like Strait. Of course, the wittiness of the dialogue and the opportunity to toss around such wonderfully funny lines helps. The script is peppered with one-liners and smart-mouth comments; you’d swear that Strait just made them up. Wait until you see him do his breathtaking monologues and make those stunning quips. The sole problem in this brilliant performance is, to be honest, his hair: The bangs are so long that they keep flopping into his eyes, and although Jay sometimes tosses his hair to great effect, Jim Strait sometimes unconsciously wipes his curls back. It’s like an actor unaware of his hands constantly fussing with an itchy nose. It’s great hair—maybe a simple trim of the bangs could cure this?

Jay is a writer. And one of his friends sends him a wannabe writer, new in town from Iowa: Frank, played by former ballet-dancer John Ferrare. The gorgeous Frank has never encountered an actual gay person before. And so it begins. Ferrare, beautifully playing a straight man (in both senses of the word) to Strait’s comic character, has to work indescribably hard to provide the setups and to control the timing of the lines—some delivered so rapid-fire as to make an Uzi envious. Frank needs a place to stay (didn’t we all back then), so the recently bereaved Jay provides his pull-out couch. Frank has an agenda: He wants help with his writing, so he hopes to use Jay’s experience and skills to improve a play he has already written and brought along. Ferrare hits just the right note with his seriousness, and then he shocks us (all too rarely) with one of his light-up-the-world smiles.

I asked Patrick what has changed with his play in its 50 years. “The attitudes of the period,” he replied. “It puts me through the meat grinder to see the play now. … Nobody today could be as ignorant as Frank was then about gays. People ask me if I am the real Jay. Actually, Jay was Joe Cino! And Frank is all of us writers. That’s why I combine the comedy with the drama, like Shakespeare. The play is really about relationships, about codependency—and that, unfortunately, never seems to change.

“I set out to give the audience absolutely every bit of entertainment I could give them.”

And does he ever. Run, don’t walk, to see The Haunted Host.

The Haunted Host is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, June 1, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25 to $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

A cast of dozens! And only four people onstage.

Pardon?

The ever-faithful fans of Coyote Stageworks and the Annenberg Theater were rained-on, wind-blown, warmly bundled and umbrella-toting on the opening night of The 39 Steps. Though I never actually took an oath with the Independent along the lines of “neither wind nor sleet nor rain shall keep me from my appointed critique,” the harrowing drive (The traffic! Is our valley turning into Temecula?) to the theater was bountifully rewarded by this terrific new show: The 39 Steps is a must-see, regardless of wet weather or any other excuse.

It’s an homage to Hitchcock, a murder-mystery that paradoxically rocks you with laughter and acting brilliance. Set in 1935 in England and Scotland, The 39 Steps echoes the growing pre-war paranoia of those times. Though we too often take for granted the special effects of a show, in this production, they are stars, as Coyote Stageworks uses beyond-clever techniques with shadows or silhouettes, and a pervading moodiness that hangs over the entire play, giving a contrasting background to the levity taking place onstage. Kudos, as always, to Phil Murphy for his lighting innovations!

It would be so interesting to know what percentage of the genius that we see here comes from the actors, the director and the script directions. We’ll never know; all that we see is the end result of this happy union. The damp but enthusiastic opening-night audience gave warm applause at the end of every scene. (This is the second stop for this production; a few weeks ago, it ended a stint at the Norris Center for the Performing Arts down in Rolling Hills Estates, near Torrance.)

The director, Ken Parks, must be celebrated for his energy, consistency and his devotion to wringing every possible bit of action out of the script. (His resume will make your eyes widen in awe.) He keeps things hopping (You try directing a scene that takes place on an old train!) with delightful surprises—such as a tiny train itself, which chugs its way across the stage, an amazing detail for just a few seconds of amusement: Where did they get these tracks? Who starts the train, and who catches it at the other end? And what about the doors? There are so many doors! How much rehearsal time did THAT take to figure out?

You think these are small details? The actors have their hands full every second, because except for smoothly handsome Jeffrey Cannata, as the world-weary hero Richard Hannay (and he actually manages to be funny, too, a rarity in a lead role of this sort), they all play multiple roles. What could be more wonderful for an actor than the chance to show off one’s skills by playing a dazzling assortment of characters? The result is an unforgettable demonstration of acting chops by brilliant thespians. Their energy alone is breath-taking.

Every acting student, every actor and every director in town should see this show. Too often in regional theater, people use the “it’s just” excuse: It’s just regional theater. But this play shows what can be done in the hands of highly trained, hard-working, classically educated actors. Every single character they create is fully realized; they don’t just switch costumes. Everything—from the accents (some incomprehensible, as certain British/Scottish dialects are to the American ear, unfortunately) to the footwork to the eyebrows to the gestures to the breathing—is shrewdly planned and flawlessly executed.

The company’s sole lady is Karen Jean Olds. She plays three roles, creating complete transmogrifications between them. Slender and pretty, she moves convincingly from a hard exotic German spy (with the weirdest accent ever uttered on a stage) to a heartbreaking downtrodden Scottish farm wife to a wide-eyed and innocent young blonde on a train; it’s impossible to discern which one is most like “her.” Terrific work.

The two character actors will make your jaws drop. Kenny Landmon and Louis Lotorto are billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2. No, they don't have red fright wigs and oogah horns; this is the classic definition of a clown. These two amazing actors demonstrate a variety of comedy shtick and lightning-fast quick changes, as well as a stunning number of voices, attitudes and details unique to each character. Each one also plays a female at some time in the play, and both bring a lovely grace to these roles that is beyond charming. They shamelessly steal from vaudeville, burlesque, revue and, of course, Hitchcock; they make the show pure fun even when they aren’t being funny.  My favorite scene—it’s almost impossible to choose one—is probably the “political rally,” with the “clowns” playing two doddering patriots who assume our hapless hero (who stumbles in seeking refuge) is their speaker for the evening. Priceless.

The bizarre plot twists help; you just can’t fathom what will happen next. However, it’s the string of characters who are created here that will astound you and make you applaud wildly.

Though the show runs two hours and 20 minutes, we can only hope the cast is not exhausted by it (Jeffrey Cannata, for example, is in almost every scene), because it’s totally exhilarating for the audience. A display of pure talent is always exciting, and it will raise your respect for the profession to see this show. 

Don’t miss it—even if you need an umbrella to get there.

Coyote Stageworks’ production of The 39 Steps takes place at various times through Sunday, March 9, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/palm-springs/performance/39-steps.