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The View UpStairs, the latest production at Desert Rose Playhouse, proves once again that the theater is in good hands with new producing artistic director Robbie Wayne.

Given our current political climate, where bigotry and hatred of those who are “different” seems more blatant and accepted than it’s been in years, this musical—the book, music and lyrics are by Max Vernon—is something we all need to see. The story centers around a 1973 arson attack at a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that killed 32 people. Up until the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, it was the worst mass murder of gay Americans in our country’s history.

As the show opens, we’re transported back to the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the horrific crime. Set designer Bruce Weber has outdone himself here: The place is fabulously gaudy, tacky and filled with bling—topped off with a large nude portrait of a reclining Burt Reynolds behind the bar. Some audience members actually sit at tables onstage, making attendees feel like we’re part of the action. The lounge is a place where gay men could be themselves, sing, dance and escape from a society not yet ready to accept them.

The story soon fast-forwards to the present day. After several unsuccessful years in New York, aspiring fashion designer Wes (Van Angelo) has returned to New Orleans and purchased the rundown building which formerly housed the UpStairs Lounge, hoping to turn it into a boutique. One evening, Wes is transported back in time, and the characters who once frequented the lounge are all around him. At first weirded out by it all, Wes eventually goes with the flow, and quickly develops a strong attraction to the tall, handsome hustler Patrick (Matt E. Allen).

Underscoring all the action is piano man Buddy (Ben Reece), an Elton John wannabe who’s still in the closet about his homosexuality. Club owner and bartender Henri (Ceisley Jefferson) keeps an eye on things, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Patrons include the homeless Dale (Jacob Samples); Puerto Rican drag performer Freddy (Anthony Nannini), and his mother, Inez (Siobhan Velarde); and the aging, flamboyant Willie (DarRand Hall). Rounding out the group is Rita Mae (Ruth Braun), who leads prayer services for the Metropolitan Community Church at the bar, trying to establish allies in the community by soliciting donations for crippled children.

Director/choreographer Robbie Wayne has put together an excellent ensemble cast; there is not one weak link. Even in brief appearances as a cop in both the past and present day, Miguel Arballo is memorable.

Reece makes Buddy’s regret over his failed music career, conflict about his sexuality and continued lust for Patrick (after a brief fling) palpable. Jefferson is terrific as proprietor Henri, exhibiting a great combination of sass and soul.

As drag queen Freddy/Aurora, Nannini oozes charisma. His drag number, “Completely Overdone,” is fantastic, and the warmth between him and his doting mother (the fabulous Velarde) is genuine. Inez has totally accepted her son’s life choices—“I think gay men are more fun, anyway,” she says—and has one of the better songs, “Learn to Play Along.” Hall’s “old queen” Willie is a hoot; we cannot take our eyes off him as he minces around the stage, squeezing the drama out of every line.

Samples’ Dale is heartbreaking. Crushed and embarrassed by his poverty, he touches us all when singing “Better Than Silence.” It reminds each of us of times when we, too, have felt invisible. Equally effective is Braun as preacher Rita Mae.

In the pivotal roles of Wes and Patrick, Wayne has struck gold with Van Angelo and Matt E. Allen. Their onstage chemistry is strong, and both have excellent singing voices. The musical highlight of the night was Allen’s ballad revealing his parents’ efforts to “cure” him of his homosexuality. It was riveting, raw and authentic.

Kudos to Robbie Wayne and Ruth Braun for spot-on costumes, and musical director Jaci Davis for overseeing the pre-recorded accompaniment for the singers, which works quite well.

The only noticeable flaws on opening night were occasional projection issues and a missed note here and there—both problems likely to be remedied as the run continues.

Two things struck me as the cast took their bows on opening night. First, each character in this play seems so real—their joys, sorrows, longing for recognition and acceptance resonate with all of us. Second, sadly, is the possible deterioration of LGBT rights today. Let’s hope that this kind of theatrical experience helps people realize that deep inside, we truly are all the same.

The View UpStairs is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ah, yes, Christmas With the Crawfords … could the title sound any more Norman Rockwell-idyllic? But the very fact that Desert Rose Playhouse has chosen this play as its annual Christmas show should immediately arouse deep suspicion, because this theater has become known for twisting one’s head.

This offering, from producer and artistic director Robbie Wayne, was created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. It’s directed by Kam Sisco, Desert Rose’s managing director—and it is a romp. It turns out “The Crawfords” means the cobbled-together family of Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, so we are catapulted back to the early days of the movies. The play gives actors multiple opportunities for outrageous costumes and imitations of famous entertainers—all them happily in drag, flashing around in festively colored feathers, jewels, capes and some unusual accessories.

The more you know about those days of film and the fashions of the time, the more you’ll get out of the show. Oh … did I mention it’s a musical? All those familiar seasonal songs are trotted out for the cast members to belt out solos and combos and even harmonies with gusto. The costumes are wayyyyyyy over the top, with Joan Crawford sporting the most astonishing shoulder pads you’ll ever see—not to mention her red platform high heels, for which even a word like “awesome” fails. Toni Molano’s wigs give the actors opportunities for lots of delightful variety, and add extra fashion statements to the comedy. Phil Murphy’s lighting, as always, creates the proper pace and the mood changes. Kudos to the music director Jaci Davis, choreographer Daryl J. Roth and everyone who added their various and considerable talents.

The play opens in the living room Chez Crawford. Not only does Kam Sisco direct the show; he’s onstage for nearly all of it, playing Joan Crawford—a dual job he pulls off with impressive aplomb. He gives us a Crawford with layers of interpretation, from the frustrated and fearful actress whose career is skidding toward its end (fired by MGM Studio!), to the bizarre and sometimes even abusive mother we learned about in the tell-all book Mommie Dearest, to a suggestion of maybe a little alcohol abuse. She’s certainly feeling some pressure, as she is anxiously awaiting an interview with Jack Warner of Warner Bros., which she hopes will revive her flagging career, as she is now reduced to playing an extra, sneaking in at rival RKO Studio.

Since it’s Christmas Eve, gossip-queen journalist Hedda Hopper (played with relish by Jacob Samples) has decided to broadcast live on the radio from the Crawford home. The children, Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Ruth Braun), are expected to be charming and well-behaved under Crawford’s harsh rule. Joan’s sister Jane Hudson, also played by Samples, has shown up like a bad penny to help fry everyone’s minds—yet she vanishes just in time to reappear as Hopper before you can even say “quick change.”

But the neighbors next door are hosting a high-profile party, and many of Hollywood’s brightest stars wander into the Crawford domicile by mistake. Judy Garland, played by Anthony Nannini, drops in and stays, giving us a skillful interpretation of the singer in a mellower mood than usual—with terrific fishnet-clad gams and that man’s-suit-jacket look which became one of her most memorable outfits. Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell played by Ed Lefkowitz, shows up with Samba-dancing feet and a hilarious accent. He also shows up as slacks-clad and lock-jawed Katharine Hepburn, and can you possibly imagine two more different ladies? It’s a great stretch for any actor to tackle.

Sex-symbol Mae West briefly slithers in, played by Stan Jenson—and he, too, pulls off an impressive transformation, because we next see him as the dynamic and powerful Broadway/film star Ethel Merman. We would have loved to have seen more use made of Jensen’s amazing bass-toned voice. Tim McIntosh very nearly steals the show as the weird and intensely self-obsessed Gloria Swanson, whom you’ll remember from her dramatic and unforgettable Sunset Boulevard, spouting those immortal lines you will recognize. Then there are the three singing sisters you’ll know, LaVerne, Patty and Maxene, lost en route to perform at a USO show in their cute little faux uniforms and with their hairdos tucked into snoods … courtesy of Jenson, McIntosh and a very flirty-eyed Nannini.

Chaos ensues. But the music never stops, despite being punctuated by some delicious cattiness and misbehaving. The comedy styles juggle between parody, irony, drag humor and some good-old hamming. There’s even a salute to Hanukkah, with a dreidel song bearing the unforgettable title “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” It kind of turns into a revue with all of these performances … plus the fact that there is precious little plot in this script. (“Surviving the day” seems to be at the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list, giving the wacko proceedings a very subtle undercurrent of desperation.)

This show is shorter than usual for Desert Rose—just about 70 minutes, with no intermission, and it moves along quickly. The producer has now added Thursday shows to the lineup, at 7 p.m. It’s a great idea to spread the Christmas cheer with the choice of an early show. I guess we should also give Christmas With the Crawfords a language warning, but few plays these days can escape having one, so I’m not going to bother with it any more unless the vocabulary is particularly vile—and here, it is not.

Enjoy this fun play—and, hey, Merry Christmas!

Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Everybody loves a good wedding. However, whether the nuptials are for a family member, an old friend, or an ex, the best part of the wedding is the reception.

“All right! Everyone out on the dance floor—no exceptions! I can feel all the happiness in here tonight!” This is how Robbie Hart starts off a wedding reception. He knows what he’s doing; after all, he is a professional wedding singer.

It’s now been two decades since Adam Sandler’s hit film The Wedding Singer came out. Let me offer you a quick recap: In 1985, Robbie Hart—New Jersey’s favorite wedding singer and rock-star wannabe—is the life of the party … that is, until his fiancée leaves him at the altar. Heartbroken and devastated, he starts to make every wedding as disastrous as his own. Meanwhile, Robbie meets a waitress named Julia, and he falls for her … but Julia is about to be married to a powerful businessman. Robbie must figure out how to win her heart before it’s too late.

That 1998 film was turned into a 2006 Broadway musical, which today is being produced by Palm Canyon Theatre. Catch the play from July 6-15.

Anthony Nannini is the show’s director and choreographer. Anthony attended a musical-theater conservatory for two years in New York City, working on Broadway himself. After the glow of the lights wore off, he moved to the valley and has now been here for more than six years. He’s become a Palm Canyon Theatre regular, both as an actor and a choreographer—but The Wedding Singer will be Nannini’s valley directing debut.

The movie is famous for its soundtrack, so I had to ask Nannini if those songs made it into the musical. “A lot of the show is original music now—it’s not a jukebox,” he said. Of course, Robbie’s “Somebody Kill Me” is indeed included.

As for plot: “There is a lot of it that follows the same general storyline (as the film), but with new subplots to jazz it up a little bit,” Nannini said.

While The Wedding Singer was on Broadway for less than a year, the musical did make an impression, garnering five Tony Award nominations. “The songs are super-catchy and fun,” Nannini said. “It was very well-received during its time on Broadway. When I would go for auditions when I lived in New York, I would hear the girls using ‘A Note From Linda’ or duets using the song ‘Come Out of the Dumpster.’ I heard these numbers and just thought they were great!”

Nannini said he’s excited about helming this production. “This is my chance to prove my directing skills. This play has the same kind of stupid humor that I can relate to and understand, so it’s totally perfect for me.”

Most of the valley’s theater companies go dark over the entire summer—but the Palm Canyon Theatre does not.

“The Palm Canyon Theatre has been here 22 years and averages 14 or 15 different shows per season,” Nannini said. “During the summer, they offer a kids’ camp for local kids who are interested in experience on the stage with professionals and semi-professionals. They offer kids’ classes on makeup, acting, dancing and comedy, and then they put on a show for the parents, but anyone can come to it. (It is) also a nonprofit educational theatre, so they try to incorporate kids into the shows.” They have already announced the next season of shows, so it doesn’t look like they are slowing down anytime soon.

The Wedding Singer will be performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, July 6, through Sunday, July 15, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32 to $36. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Pippin. The very name suggests fun, music and lightness.

But there’s also a dark side to this season-closer musical at the Palm Canyon Theatre. It’s a show of contrasts.

It’s primarily a dance show. The bevy of “players” writhe, flip, shimmy, roll, strut, gyrate, leap, frolic, prance, hop, mince, stride, march, saunter, flit, spin, gallop, toddle, shuffle, glide, prowl and skim over every inch of the stage. The choreographer, Anthony Nannini, has adapted the dancing from the work of the immortal Bob Fosse. The dancers represent every possible body shape and type, but from the opening number—with the disembodied white-gloved hands illuminated by black light—it’s Fosse all the way. Sexy and suggestive moves combine with Peter Mins’ glitzy, dazzling costumes to maximize the effect.

As far as the plot goes, I’m reminded of TV and movie thugs who say, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” I’m particularly reminded of a scene—I think it was in The Sopranos—in which some semi-literate oaf offers his analysis of a script: “Maybe it’s got a weak plot.” Or, as my father used to say about opera, “If you worry about the plot, you’ll go crazy.” One problem is the betrayal of the Pippin audience’s belief when someone who is killed is then brought back to life, because it isn’t convenient to have him gone. Humph!

The story is the search for life’s meaning, by a barefoot young prince, Pippin—our choreographer, Anthony Nannini. He happens to be the heir to the throne of the great King Charlemagne, colorfully portrayed by the delightful Peter Mins. Predictably, this is complicated by a scheming second wife (Elissa Landi, with her famous legs and attitude, although she was clearly out of her depth with her vocal solo), who wants the throne to go to her son Lewis, played by the perfectly cast Daryl J. Roth, with his amazing sculpted body, chiseled face and chin for which Dick Tracy would kill. A charming turn is taken by the seasoned Rosanne Hopkins, with her admirably crisp diction, as the grandmother.

The first act is largely dominated by the mob of dancers, while Act 2 belongs to Nannini. Here, he seizes the opportunity to cut loose and show us what he can do (and do not take your eyes off the ropes). It wasn’t difficult to find out why his cast notes bid farewell to the Palm Canyon Theatre, where he has been nurtured for several years: He’s bound for New York and the big time. Watch him in this show, and you’ll see why. He’s a quadruple threat: actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. And he’s terrific at all of it. He was born to play lead roles like this. In fact, when he went off-script and improvised some dialogue to explain one of those opening-night ooops! accidents, the audience rewarded him with an appreciative ovation.

The second act also introduces his love interest, the widow Catherine, played by pretty Sarah Noe, and her son, Theo, a very young and sweet Stephen Lee. Throughout the show, Hiram Johnson, the “Leading Player,” acts as a host/narrator/Greek chorus, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to simply watch him move. His grace, economy of gesture and body awareness seem natural and effortless. That said, it was unfortunate that his mushy verbalizations made him difficult for the audience to understand. It wouldn’t matter so much, except that his interpretation of the events was important to explaining the action. His singing voice was true, however.

Director Don Lillie, who hails from Missouri (“where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended,” he told me), certainly had his hands full with this cast of 19. Interestingly, his first-ever theater teacher was the venerable William Layne, founder of the theater and patriarch of the family that runs it. The cast wrestles pieces of the J.W. Layne set around the stage to change scenes and locations, in full view of the audience—always fascinating to see. The Mado Nunez hair and wigs worked well, but the makeup of some actors featured a huge distracting blotch on the right side of some faces. (A heart? A star? WTF?)

Once again, the “old pros”—Mins, Hopkins, Landi—made Lillie’s production, along with the youthful Nannini, and Roth, who seemed to be flawless. Of course, the show benefits greatly from the contributions of designer Nick Edwards, musical director Charlie Creasy, the book by Roger O. Hirson, and the music/lyrics of Stephen Schwartz—and if that name sounds familiar it’s because he composed Wicked and Godspell.

So, it’s a production of contrasts. And don’t worry about the plot.

Pippin is performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 18; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance