CVIndependent

Thu04272017

Last updateFri, 16 Sep 2016 12pm

Given the hatred and divisiveness our country’s socio-political climate has stirred up, Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production, Southern Baptist Sissies, seems timelier than ever.

Del Shores’ play, which won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding L.A. Theatre Production during its original run in 2000, skillfully illustrates the painful conflict faced by homosexuals of faith who long to remain part of a church community that rejects the very essence of who they are.

The play tells the stories of four young men coming of age in Dallas. Each boy is trying to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality while also remaining an active member of the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church.

Mark (Joseph Tanner Paul), who also serves as the narrator, is sarcastic and bitter over the church’s narrow-mindedness about gays and its rigid rules for life—“So in God’s eyes, eating shrimp is just as bad as sucking cock.” Mark is a pivotal role, and Paul nails it. He’s a strong presence onstage—funny, acerbic and angry, yet often incredibly vulnerable.

Mark is strongly attracted to T.J. (the charismatic, well-built Cody Frank), who is in major denial about his own preference for men: “I am living a normal life with a woman—the way God intended, and I am happy!” T.J. spouts Bible verses and feigns interest in women, while brushing off a youthful sexual encounter with Mark as insignificant. Frank makes T.J.’s inner turmoil quite believable.

The sensitive, guilt-ridden Andrew (German Pavon) is the first of the quartet to accept Jesus as his personal savior. He prays fervently by day and secretly explores gay nightclubs by night. Andrew’s nightly fantasies are not of sweaty sex, but of caresses and a gentle male voice assuring him that he will always be taken care of. Pavon’s acting is quite effective; he makes the audience want to wrap him in a giant hug.

By far the boldest of the four boys is Benny (the amazing, androgynous Ben Heustess), who wholeheartedly embraces his gayness, dressing in drag and lip-syncing to Shania Twain songs with great glee. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part. Heustess is riveting—you cannot take your eyes off him. He excels not only as a female impersonator, but also at revealing the character’s deep inner pain.

Calvary’s preacher (the perfectly cast Larry Dyekman) holds forth with typical fire and brimstone, adamant that obedience to God is always the answer.

Local favorite Joey English is effective and holds her own as the mothers of each of the four young men. She has some of the show’s best lines. When discussing her trailer-park neighbor with the preacher, she quips, “She’s Catholic, you know—just one step off from them Jee-hovah’s Witnesses.”

Throughout the play, we are treated to brief scenes at a gay-themed bar called the Rose Room. There, we watch the growing friendship between the alcoholic Odette (Linda Cooke) and the equally booze-loving Peanut (Hal O’Connell). Both have many regrets in life, and there are some serious moments—but most of their interaction is a hoot. Odette repeatedly refers to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and admits that “when you give head like me, word gets out.” Cooke and O’Connell have fabulous chemistry and provide some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Rounding out the superb cast is Douglas Wilson as both church organist Brother Chaffey and lounge-pianist Houston.

Steve Fisher’s direction deserves special mention. He brings out the best in his cast. There are some profoundly emotional moments in this production, and each actor hits just the right notes without going over the top. It’s worth noting here that there are simulated sex acts and some nudity in this play—not an unusual occurrence in Desert Rose productions. The set, lights, sound, hair and makeup (particularly Benny’s drag get-ups) are all spot on.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Southern Baptist Sissies is not just a play about homosexuality and religion. It’s about the universal fear of letting others see who we really are. At one point, Mark recalls that while his mother taught him to love her, his father, Jesus and Elvis, “I guess she forgot to teach me to love myself.” What a different world this would be if we all learned that lesson early on.

But perhaps Benny sums it up best late in the play when he muses: “Maybe the world is just the way it should be. … Maybe we are ALL right … the gays, the Baptists, the Muslims, all of us.” What a different world, indeed.

Southern Baptist Sissies is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Contains nudity and adult situations. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Desert Rose Playhouse has scored a home run with Dennis Deal’s Nite Club Confidential, a “midcentury modern” film-noir-style musical that’s thoroughly entertaining and features a star turn by valley favorite Joey English.

Set in the 1950s, the show offers a look at the somewhat sleazy nightclub circuit of the day, complete with singing drama, a love triangle—and, of course, lots of booze. 

As the show opens in New York, we meet handsome crooner Buck Holden (the spot-on John Ferrare), who serves as both narrator and emcee. Speaking directly to the audience, he recounts the sordid tale of Nite Club Confidential in flashback. Blessed with good looks but merely moderate talent, Buck must rely on the largesse of maturing stars like Kay Goodman (English) to survive.

Buck is part of a vocal quartet called The High Hopes, also featuring Sal (Mark Ziemann), Mitch (Ryan Dominguez) and Dorothy Flynn (the lovely Katie Pavao). Kay gets a movie offer in Hollywood and wants Buck—her younger lover and agent—to accompany her. He initially declines, since he’s now busy romancing the more appropriately aged Dorothy, emerging as a star in her own right. The plot moves across both coasts, and to Paris and back, as we experience all the glamour, heartache, jealousy and humor of the 1950s nightclub scene. English and Pavao perfectly capture the legendary rivalry between aging female star and upcoming ingénue, especially in “All Man” (dressed in identical green gowns).

The cast is superb, with each member enjoying at least one starring number. Ferrare is charming and easy on the eyes; he keeps the show moving. His rendition of the jazz standard “I Thought About You” particularly stands out. It’s impossible not to smile watching Ryan Dominguez as Mitch, who captures the beatnik era in “Crazy New Words.” Special kudos go to Mark Ziemann as Sal, who stepped into the role with only about a week of rehearsal. Those of us who are performers know how tough that is to pull off—and he did not miss a beat. In fact, his solo number “Black Slacks” is one of the show’s highlights. 

Katie Pavao, as Dorothy, is truly a find. With her raven hair and peaches-and-cream complexion, she looks like she stepped out of a 1950s time machine. The girl has strong acting chops and a voice ideally suited to the musical style of the day; she knocks “He Never Leaves His Love Behind” out of the ballpark.

That leaves the show’s star, Joey English. Perfectly cast as the fading, somewhat insecure nightclub headliner “of a certain age,” English touchingly conveys the angst and jealousy Kay feels over watching her career and her love life crumble. English stays in her lower range and doesn’t push too hard vocally, lending a vulnerability to the character. I’ve seen her in other productions, and this may be the best thing she’s done in the valley.

The musical numbers—a mix of old standards (“Something’s Gotta Give,” “That Old Black Magic”), more obscure numbers (“Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made” by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser) and originals by Deal and Albert Evans (“The Canarsie Diner”)—are all terrific, aside from an occasional off note here and there. Special mention should be made of how well the trio (Pavao, Dominguez and Ziemann) handles tight, difficult harmonies. The singers are ably backed up by percussionist Douglas Dean, bassist Eric Lindstrom and pianist/musical director Steven Smith, positioned just off stage.

The costumes by Valentine Hooven and Mark Demry are excellent, as is the simple set. Previous issues with a creaky stage have vanished. Jim Strait’s direction, the lighting and the sound are all splendid.

Now in its second full season, the intimate Desert Rose Playhouse is filing the void left when Palm Springs’ Thorny Theatre closed a few years ago. If Nite Club Confidential is a hint of what’s to come, Desert Rose’s future is quite rosy indeed.

Nite Club Confidential is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $28 for Sunday matinees; the running time is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org. Below: John Ferrare and Katie Pavao.

Published in Theater and Dance

Annenberg Theater (Including Coyote StageWorks)

Dance for Life is a showcase of performances by renowned dance companies to benefit the AIDS Assistance Program, at 6 p.m., Friday, Jan. 17. $95; $200 VIP. Tony nominee Christine Andreas performs her one-woman show be-Mused at 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 18. $60 to $75. Coyote StageWorks’ star-studded fundraiser performance of The Man Who Came to Dinner takes place at 6 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19. $75 to $500. Coyote StageWorks’ The Andrews Brothers, a salute to the swinging ’40s, is performed at various times Wednesday through Sunday, from Friday, Jan. 24, through Sunday, Feb. 16. $39 to $55. At the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. 760-325-4490; www.psmuseum.org/annenberg-theater.

Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch—from Desert Theatreworks

Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … Or the Perfumed Badge: An Ol’ Fashion’ Melodrama is the latest show by the new Desert Theatreworks. At 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Jan. 24, through Sunday, Feb. 2. $25; $23 students; special kids’ prices and group rates available. At the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. 760-980-1455; www.dtworks.org.

Country Royalty: A Musical Tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline

Hank Williams: Lost Highway star Jason Petty plays Hank Williams, while Grammy-nominated Carolyn Martin performs as Patsy Cline, backed by a live band, at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 10. $15 to $45. At the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

The Importance of Being Earnest—from Theatre 29

Oscar Wilde’s classic focuses on country gentleman Jack Worthing and his imaginary big-city brother, Earnest. 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, from Friday, Jan. 10, through Saturday, Feb. 8, with additional matinees at 2:30 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 19 and Feb. 2. $12; $10 seniors and military; $8 students. At 73637 Sullivan Road, Twentynine Palms. 760-361-4151; theatre29.org.

Indian Wells Theater/CSUSB Palm Desert Events

I Do, I Do!, a concert version of the musical, features Joyce Bulifant and Roger Perry; it’s a benefit for the CSUSB Autism Program, at 7 p.m., Friday, Jan. 17. $50. A tribute concert featuring “The Piano Men”—Elton John, Ray Charles, Billy Joel and Little Richard—takes place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 18. $40 for first three rows; $35 for the remainder of the house. An afternoon Pops! concert featuring Yve Evans and the All Star Big Band occurs at 2 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 26. $50.At the Indian Wells Theater at CSUSB Palm Desert, 37500 Cook St. 760-341-6909; pdc.csusb.edu/eventstheater.html.

Invasion of Privacy—from Dezart Performs

This drama is based on the real 1946 case of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who was sued by her friend Zelma Cason for libel and the right to privacy. At 7:30 p.m., Friday; 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Jan. 31, through Sunday, Feb. 9. $22; $18 students, seniors and military. At the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, Palm Springs. 760-322-0179; www.dezartperforms.com.

Les Miserables—from the Palm Canyon Theatre

The classic musical is produced by the downtown Palm Springs mainstay. 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Jan. 24, through Sunday, Feb. 9. $32; $10 students/children (call the box office). At 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. 760-323-5123; www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Luis Bravo’s Forever Tango

The Broadway hit features 14 tango dancers, a vocalist and an 11-piece orchestra. 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 11; 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 12. $25 to $75. At the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Man of La Mancha

Enter the mind and world of Don Quixote as he pursues his quest for the impossible dream in this renowned musical. 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 24; 2 and 8 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 25; 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday, Jan. 26. $35 to $105. At the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, Palm Desert. 760-340-2787; www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Nite Club Confidential—from the Desert Rose Playhouse

The midcentury modern film noir musical stars Joey English as Kay Goodman. 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Jan. 10, through Sunday, Feb. 16. (The Saturday, Feb. 8, show is a 2 p.m. matinee.) $28 to $30. At 69260 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. 760-202-3000; www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

A Perfect Ganesh—from Coachella Valley Repertory

CV Rep’s season focusing on the works of Terrence McNally continues with this show about two middle-aged women throwing themselves into a tour of India. 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, from Wednesday, Jan. 22, through Sunday, Feb. 9. $35 preview (Jan. 22 and 23); $40 regular; $50 opening night (Jan. 24). At the Atrium, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, Rancho Mirage. 760-296-2966; www.cvrep.org.

Similar Journeys—from Script2Stage2Screen

Similar Journeys, a play by Palm Springs playwright Robert Abrami, features a cast of six characters in denial, in love, in crises, and in the process of defining their own lives. 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Jan. 10 and 11. $10. At the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Desert, 72425 Via Vail, Rancho Mirage. 760-345-7938; www.script2stage2screen.com.

Published in Theater and Dance