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Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona are known for presenting challenging, thought-provoking theater pieces—and CV Rep has solidified that well-deserved reputation with Carmen Rivera’s La Gringa.

The Spanish version of the show opened at Repertorio Español in February 1996 and won an Obie that year. (CV Rep is presenting the English version.) It’s still in repertory and holds the distinction of being the longest-running Off-Broadway Spanish language play.

The story chronicles the journey of 20-something Maria (Ayanery Reyes), a Puerto Rican woman who was born and raised in New York, as she searches for her roots in her homeland. She heads to Puerto Rico at Christmas time to visit her aunt Norma (Marina Re), cousin Iris (Kyla Garcia) and uncles Victor (Robert Almodovar) and Manolo (Peter Mins). We also meet likable neighbor Monchi (Eliezer Ortiz), who owns a thriving vegetable farm.

Bouncing through the front door filled with enthusiasm and sporting a jeans-jacket adorned with a Puerto Rican flag appliqué, Maria hopes for a warm, fuzzy family reunion—and those hopes are soon dashed. Her hosts do not share her excitement about Puerto Rican life. They are blasé about the historical sites and irritated by the coqui frogs Maria considers charming.

Aunt Norma is bitter and filled with resentment that her sister Olga (Maria’s unseen mother) left the island to live in New York, and had their late mother buried far away from Norma’s home. Most of her anger is directed toward her niece, whom she calls la gringa (white girl), partly because Maria can barely speak Spanish. Norma is also filled with regret over opting for the ordinary life as a Puerto Rican housewife and mother over a once-promising singing career. Cousin Iris is frustrated over her as-yet unsuccessful job-hunting efforts, and she’s tired of island life in general. Though fond of Maria, she’s not thrilled about taking her on a tour of the island, and doesn’t really want to hear about the wonders of life in the Big Apple.

Norma’s brother, Uncle Manolo, is bedridden with an undisclosed illness. Norma treats him like a baby, yet she wields an iron hand, and is always on the lookout for the alcohol Manolo stashes under the bed. (Beer is one of the few pleasures he has left in life.) After all, he tells his sister: “I’m old, and I’m going to die. Let me drink!”

Norma’s husband, Victor, the good guy who tries to smooth things over, wonders why everyone just can’t get along. He spends most of the play attempting to get the family truck running … and eventually succeeds.

The cast is quite strong. Marina Re captures Norma’s self-righteous anger, which has been simmering for years. Her breakdown and eventual metamorphosis are quite moving. As Victor, Robert Almodovar is warm and appealing—the kind of guy with whom you’d like to share a drink. Peter Mins is very effective as Uncle Manolo; the audience genuinely feels his joy when he gets out of his sickbed. Eliezer Ortiz’s Monchi is fun to watch. We’re really rooting for his farm to succeed—and for Maria to fall for him. Kyla Garcia is quite good as Cousin Iris. She has great chemistry with Re and Reyes.

Though Ayanery Reyes is adorable as Maria—with a dazzling smile and great charisma—there were times when her acting came across as a tad shallow. Her transitions from deep sorrow to happiness (particularly after Uncle Victor announces he has made a stew out of the pet rabbit he recently gave her) sometimes don’t ring true. Reyes is dynamic onstage, and overall, she turns in a good performance; I’d just like to see her dig a little deeper emotionally.   

Ron Celona once again proves his skill as a director. He’s particularly good at casting, and elicits memorable performances from each actor. There were a few slow moments, though the pace does pick up in the second act.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is fabulous and creates just the right tone, as does the music. Cricket S. Meyers, Randy Hansen and Karen Goodwin do great work on the play’s sound, and Eddie Cancel’s lights are fantastic. Aalsa Lee’s costumes and Lynda Shaep’s hair and makeup are terrific.

La Gringa is particularly timely considering our country’s ongoing political battle over immigration. The play does make you think about what the word “home” really means. In the end, the play proves that the cliché is true: Home is where the heart is.

La Gringa is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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.

Published in Theater and Dance

The spirit of Christmas, so pathetically diluted by crass commercialism, is alive and well at IPAC.

Colleen Kelley has brought her Palm Desert Stage Company’s holiday show to a new home in Indio, and on opening night, the house was packed with lively supporters. We can only hope that It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry, will become an annual treat. It’s a family-friendly play within a play, so grab your nieces and nephews—even the grandparents, if they’re still around—and don’t miss it.

The Indio Performing Arts Center—a gorgeous gem that contains three boutique-style theaters (one with a screen, for movies) plus a huge central multipurpose area—is an excellent choice for Kelley’s show. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, no matter how big the heads or hats are in front of you, due to wonderfully raked rows looking down onto a beautiful proscenium stage; the chairs are the most comfortable in town. For this show, the set has been fluffed with poinsettias and a stalwart glowing Christmas tree (designed by John Meyers and Colleen Kelley). The open stage reveals the friendly clutter of a radio station’s broadcast studio, with the call letters “WBFR” aloft.

Stations’ call letters beginning with “W” designate radio stations located east of the Mississippi; all those west of the river start with a “K.” So we know this broadcast takes place in the east, and it is soon revealed that the location is “Bedford Falls.” (WBFR, get it?) Kelley is known for her attention to detail in sets, props and effects, and she must have loved creating a setting like this, with framed, autographed headshots of actors on the walls; microphones with perky Xmas decorations; and a mysterious jumble of sound-effect tools.

Am I the only person in the world who hasn’t seen the Jimmy Stewart movie? Whether or not you have, it won’t ruin this show for you, because there’s a totally different approach. Here, we watch the actors do the show, broadcast live, just like they used to Back In The Day. Nowadays, there’s hardly anyone around who actually attended a live radio drama broadcast, but today at IPAC, you get to be swept back in time and become the actual participating audience—APPLAUSE sign and all.

What a thrill; opening-night playgoers shimmered with anticipation, probably just like they did in the old days. Technical director Nick Cox sits high at the back of the theater, serene and confident in his booth. The actors enter and mingle briefly with the audience. Dan Graff, playing sound-effects guy Jimmie Jeffries, reports to his station and fiddles with his arcane doodads. Steve Lyon plays the fictitious actor Jake Laurents, who gives us the voice of our hero George Bailey—already in character with his square jaw squared and big smile. Jeanette O’Neill, playing actress Lana Sherwood (sure that was her real name) floats around being gracious and diva-charming. Peter Mins, playing Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, fusses and dithers enchantingly, his extraordinary eyes flashing. And Colleen Kelley, as actress Sally Applewhite, sweeps in to impress us with her friendly style and gorgeous blonde beauty. Ron Young, playing The Narrator, ever so handsome in a snazzy vintage suit and with an authentic hairstyle, steps up to the mic and counts us down in a radio-perfect, resonant voice.

You think you know what’s going to happen next? IPAC doesn’t provide seat belts; otherwise, I would suggest buckling up.

These few actors play multiple roles; Young leads the list with 11. But remember—This is radio! The listeners can’t see the stage like we can—it’s all done with voices. These astonishing actors morph in microseconds to play a little kid, an angel, an aged grump, a heavily-accented immigrant, a vamp, a tough cop, a crying baby—whatever is required by the script. And always with perfect diction!

You’ll be floored. This kind of acting, where mistakes and re-takes and edits are not a possibility, barely exists any more: It had to be right the first time. Plus, being in character … and being distinctive … with the proper emotion? It’s almost too much to expect from today’s talents—but they did it back in those early radio days, as Garrison Keillor explained, because nobody told them they couldn’t!

Co-directors Kelley and O’Neill show what can happen when actors also direct. The only choice I would question is that the actors here are frequently off-script—and I wonder if radio actors would have had sufficient rehearsal time, back then, to achieve this. It plays better, of course, but is it real?

The prodigious and astonishing skills of these actors lead to the success of this play. The adorable Dan Graff (wait until you see him in high heels) as the sound-effects man, with his ingenious creation of sounds, adds comic relief to Joe Landry’s unforgettably dramatic script. But bring a hanky! The play’s message is summarized in the title, and despite what we see as dated, and maybe even corny sometimes, the thought still rings true today.

Admit it: Even in 2013, it is a wonderful life.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a production of the Palm Desert Stage Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors and friends of IPAC; $15 students; and $11 children. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Nudity! Four-letter words! Sex! Gosh, I thought, I may need to write about how shocking The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is.

But guess what? The Desert Rose Playhouse’s latest production isn’t all that shocking. Instead, it is FUN!

This fast-paced, swirling, millennia-spanning history of the world is actually funny! “Funny” is something we don’t associate with history class much, especially if you had teachers like mine, who not only made the topic dry and boring, but made it worse because the teachers were dry and boring themselves. This show skews those history lessons by asking: What if the world had started out gay?

The “Stage Manager,” played by Terry Huber with an authoritative British accent and a cool demeanor, cues the beginning of the world—which we get to actually witness, thanks to a well-used projection screen; sound, courtesy of multitalented director Jim Strait; and the legendary Phil Murphy’s lighting. The “real” stage manager, Steve Fisher, handles the show’s many changes from the tech booth with characteristic smoothness.

The play starts with Adam, the first man, popping onstage wearing nothing but a jockstrap and a fig leaf. (Well, how else did they keep those leaves pinned on? Did you ever really think about it?) He eventually meets Steve, not Eve, as we have been misled to believe. If you can possibly get your mind off the fact that neither one of them has an ounce of body fat, you can ponder the question of why Peter Mins is credited with the costumes. Costumes? These are costumes? Well, brace yourself for the rest of the show, when you’ll get costumes! (If you’ve seen any of Mins’ work during his 50 years of experience, you must see this, his farewell show, because he is retiring from the business after this production, alas.)

So we meet Ryan Dominguez, playing Adam, and Timothy McGivney as Steve. They manage to spend several thousand years in this play without aging a day, or ever getting cosmetic surgery. Both actors manage their difficult roles and speeches beautifully, and play their laugh lines with wonderfully straight faces. Most important of all, they are convincing. Re-writing the Bible is no small task.

They meet the girls: Wendy Cohen plays Jane, a self-confessed bull-dyke who tries to be mean, but whose sparkling blue eyes hint at vast depths of emotion and humor. Mabel, her femme partner, is played by Lorraine Williamson, a blonde Valkyrie who magnificently resurrects the genius of the late and much-mourned Canadian comedienne, Barbara Hamilton. Jane and Mabel romp through the centuries, reinventing themselves constantly and earnestly. They throw a multitude of surprises at the audience, particularly when Cohen bursts into song, in an astonishingly sweet and true soprano.

The rest of the world’s population is skillfully played by four quick-changing actors who transmogrify into countless roles. Pretty Phylicia Mason gets the girlie ones (Fluffy, Peggy), and she is a delight to watch in every one, including such challenges as a sympathetic Mormon. Mark Demry eats up his tall-guy roles with great flair, obviously relishing turns such as the wonderfully caped pharaoh, and a weary Santa. Jeremy Johnson struts his stuff by playing everything from a serious Bible-wielding priest to a skimpily dressed Christmas elf with a flawless tan. And scratchy-voiced Toni Molano confidently tackles her juicy roles, playing everything from a smug sow on Noah’s ark to a rich televangelist rabbi in a jazzy wheelchair.

Fun? You bet. So let’s talk about the script: If there were a cuss jar on the stage, it would be full by the end of the first act. It would be refilled in the second act (especially thanks to Cohen’s “delivery” scene). But somehow, the language isn’t offensive—it’s just there. Go figure. Park your prudery at the door, and enjoy the wit.

The humor comes mostly from social satire, which is not an easy chore to write or deliver. It targets everything from Greenwich Village to ABBA to fashion choices. Relationships, with their ups and downs and constant change, supply the heavier notes. The tragedies that befall all of us—losses, failures, health issues—present themselves here, too.

How did producer Paul Taylor choose this Paul Rudnick play for Desert Rose’s Christmas show, and how did Jim Strait ever direct it? One has to wonder how many light and sound cues alone are required to stage this. More than the Follies? It is an awesome achievement, gentlemen. The only downer is the stage itself: It’s not making those booming sounds as it was during Desert Rose’s last show, but now it’s creaking and squeaking under the actors’ steps, sometimes loudly enough to interfere with speeches.

If you are curious about what would have happened if the world had started out gay, run to see The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. And be ready to laugh out loud.

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $25 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.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