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Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season in high style with a return of Christmas With the Crawfords, created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. Artistic director Robbie Wayne is hoping to repeat the successful run the production enjoyed last season—and if the opening night audience’s reaction is any indication, his hopes are definitely being met.

Most of last year’s cast has returned to reprise their roles in this fun holiday romp, ably directed by Kam Sisco, who also plays Joan Crawford.

One of the most impressive elements of this show is Matthew McLean’s spectacular set. It’s Hollywood glam, holiday-style—and the sophisticated blend of white, silver and blue is simply stunning. It made me want to grab a glass of champagne and join the party myself. Desert Rose has always built outstanding sets, but this one is particularly superb.

The story revolves around a live radio broadcast on Christmas Eve, in 1944, at the Brentwood home of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford. (The play is based on an actual Christmas Eve broadcast that took place in 1949.) Having been labeled “box office poison” by MGM, Joan is desperately trying to revive her film career. Insulted that she must take a screen test to land the lead in the Warner Bros. film Mildred Pierce, Crawford has enlisted her friend Hedda Hopper (Timm McBride) to set up the radio interview. Later that evening, Jack Warner himself is scheduled to arrive to talk business.

Children Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Christine Tringali Nunes) are crucial parts of the perfect family portrait Crawford is attempting to portray. Dressed matching red plaid outfits, the two have clearly been drilled on what to do and say. As the evening wears on, however, Christina’s disdain for her “Mommy Dearest” becomes apparent. Baby Jane Hudson (also played by Timm McBride) is now working as Crawford’s servant, and the animosity between the two women has not waned a bit.

As the broadcast gets under way, surprise guests begin showing up at the door. Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda (Ed Lefkowitz), Mae West and Ethel Merman (Stan Jenson), Gloria Swanson (Timothy McIntosh), Judy Garland (Anthony Nannini) and even the Andrews Sisters (a mix of the aforementioned) arrive, having gotten lost trying to find neighbor Gary Cooper’s home. Cooper is throwing a large holiday bash—to which Joan has not been invited. The snub, and the competition for attention, only fuel Joan’s anger and insecurity.

The performances here are uniformly stellar. There’s no question that everyone onstage is having a ball, which certainly ramps up the fun for the audience. Sisco’s Crawford is perfect. His long legs enhance the effect of the splendid gowns he wears throughout the show, and the over-the top wig, huge red lips and ever-present evil sneer are perfect. Sisco truly embodies the desperation and bitterness of the fading Hollywood star Crawford was at that time.

It is hard to believe that McBride plays both Baby Jane Hudson and Hedda Hopper; the transformation into both characters is complete. When he makes his entrance as Baby Jane—dressed all in pink and white, and sporting blonde pigtails—it is impossible not to laugh. His bit on the phone with the local grocery store ordering booze for the evening’s festivities is terrific, as is his version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” His performance as PR maven Hedda Hopper is equally strong—all business, in an appropriate tweed suit.

McIntosh’s Gloria Swanson is fabulous. Garbed in black chiffon, he nails Swanson’s facial expressions and far-off stare. One of the marks of a true professional actor is what they do onstage when another actor has the spotlight. Staying in character when one is in the background is crucial—and not always easy. McIntosh is Gloria Swanson every second he’s onstage … except, of course, when he is one of the Andrews Sisters. He, Jenson and Nannini bring the trio back to life early in the show, with a rousing number about Hanukkah in Santa Monica.

Jenson, who also plays both Mae West and Ethel Merman, is a hoot. The juxtaposition of his blonde Mae West wig and pink feathered gown with his beard stubble and low growl is quite funny. He has great comic timing and is a joy to watch.

Lefkowitz also successfully juggles two roles: Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda. Though his Miranda is decked out in loud colors, huge earrings and a fruit-bedecked turban, he worries that his dress is too plain: “I feel like a stripped weasel!”

Martin (Christina) and Nunes (Christopher) are splendid. As the only female in the show, Nunes was tapped to play Crawford’s son, and nails his wide-eyed innocence. As Christina, Martin really makes us feel the girl’s growing resentment toward her controlling mother.

Every actor in Christmas With the Crawfords is amazing, but if there is a standout in the cast, it has to be Nannini as Judy Garland. You simply cannot take your eyes off him. Dressed in a black-sequined tux jacket, fishnets, dance pants and heels, with Nannini perfectly capturing her gestures and facials expressions, it’s not to believe he isn’t actually Judy. He nearly steals the show with his lip-quivering version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

If Bruce Weber and Matt Torres do not win Desert Theatre League awards for best costuming for this show, there is no justice in the world. The hair and make-up are fabulous as well.

The only minor flaw in this production came at the end: The timing and intensity of the dramatic yet campy finale seemed a tad muted. I would like to see a bigger bang at the end, and perhaps a faster blackout. I am betting that will happen as the run continues.

Congrats to Desert Rose Playhouse for knocking it out of the park once again: Christmas With the Crawfords is pure fun.

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. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the run time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. 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

I’m now in my third season as one of the Independent’s theater reviewers. I have seen many excellent productions here in the valley, and some … well … that were not so good. But I don’t know if I have ever been as emotionally affected by a play as I was by Dezart Performs’ world premiere of Suicide Dogs.

Jess Honovich’s play, which won the theater’s 2015 Play Reading Festival, chronicles how one family deals with the aftermath of a suicide of a man named Barry. Chief among the loose ends which must be tied up is what to do with Barry’s ailing dog, Driver.

Barry (Michael Shaw, who also directs), who was gay, was a successful golf pro—hence the dog’s name. In flashbacks, we learn that in his youth, Barry was insecure and a bit melancholy; he also had a somewhat difficult relationship with his mother. Perhaps the thing that brings him the greatest pleasure in lifeother than golfis the deep bond he has with his dog, which he adopted from a shelter.

As the play opens, Barry’s sister Amelia (Yo Younger); her husband, Dave (Rob Hubler); and their daughter, Frankie (Rachel Silverman) arrive at Barry’s home to prepare for his funeral. Soon after, Barry’s pushy neighbor, Podgy (Stan Jenson), drops in; not long after, Barry’s other sister, Dori (a very well-cast Denise Strand), unexpectedly shows up.

Shaken that her only brother has taken his own life with a bullet, Amelia valiantly tries to organize the funeral service while dealing with the media throng desperate for more details on the tragedy. Then there’s Driver, who is howling nonstop and puking all over the neighbor’s yard.

The always-stellar Yo Younger does not disappoint as Amelia. We feel her shock and grief at the loss of her brother. “Sometimes I feel like Barry’s playing some kind of joke on us—like he’s really in the hall closet or watching us on some computer somewhere,” she notes. She’s the anchor who holds the hold family—and the play—together.

Some of the strongest scenes are those featuring Amelia and the uptight, overly religious Dori. Dori, who has spent the last three years in rabbinical school, feels suicide is a sin, and announces that she will not be attending the funeral. Stunned, Amelia tries to understand Dori’s mindset while throwing a few barbs her way: “Everything you say sounds like it’s written on a pillow somewhere.”

Though it focuses on suicide, the play is billed as a “dramedy,” and it does have some very funny moments. Much of the humor is provided by Ron Huber, who is quite entertaining as Amelia’s harried husband, Dave.

Stan Jenson’s Podgy also gets a number of laughs. He’s nearly perfect as the nosy guy next door who good-naturedly insinuates himself into the drama a bit too often. He and Barry were clearly close friends—at the very least.

Rachel Silverman is a real find as Frankie, a precocious 16-year-old who swears a blue streak and often disrespects her parents. In an exchange with her self-centered Aunt Dori, Frankie boldly blurts out: “So … what’s wrong with you?” It’s a question everybody else in the family must also be thinking.

Doing double-duty, Michael Shaw succeeds admirably. He appears often in flashback as the likable but troubled Barry. We want to call out to him: “Things will look better tomorrow, Barry. Don’t do anything rash!” As the director, Shaw brings out strong performances from his cast.

Thomas L. Valach’s set, the lights (Phil Murphy) and sound (Clark Dugger) are all top-notch. Stage manager Blanche Mickelson also deserves a mention.

Suicide Dogs hit close to home. I’m in the midst of packing up the house of my ex-husband—a retired golf pro—who recently passed away. My partner and I had to put down a beloved, aging dog not long ago, and depression and suicide have touched me personally.

I’m certainly not the only person who will be moved: Everyone will find something to relate to in this play, which will have you laughing through your tears. It just may make you pick up the phone and call that family member you haven’t spoken to in years. It will certainly remind you that, as Podgy says: “Happiness is fleeting. Hang on to what you’ve got.”

Dezart Performs’ Suicide Dogs is being performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 31, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 for evening shows, and $24 for matinees. The running time is just less than 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Literature