CVIndependent

Wed05222019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

Dezart Performs Artistic Director Michael Shaw is ending the company’s 11th season on a perfect note with Audrey Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin.

Set in rural Alabama, this charming story follows the burgeoning romance between new neighbors Lizzy Nash (Kay Capasso) and Jack Key (Joel Bryant). Lizzy has taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher to mourn the loss of her husband in a roofing accident.

Jack, a physics teacher at the same school, has just moved in next door. He purchased the house not knowing that the previous owner died in the front bedroom, mere months after the man’s wife passed away. After Lizzy reveals this fact, Jack—a widower himself—becomes convinced the house is haunted, and takes to sleeping out on his back porch for safety. Featured prominently on that porch is a Maytag clothes dryer that Jack stubbornly refuses to move inside. Lizzy chooses to dry her laundry the old-fashioned way, on a clothes line, and finds the appliance an irritating eye-sore.

The neighbors discover a bag of old love letters the elderly tenant had written to his wife during their decades-long marriage, and they read them throughout the play. The tenderness of the letters helps Jack and Lizzy deal with the grief of losing their own spouses, and to slowly discover their feelings for each other.

In a two-hour play with only two characters, casting is crucial. If the performers don’t have strong acting chops and onstage chemistry, the audience is in for a long night. Thankfully here, director Deborah Harmon made excellent choices: Both Kay Capasso and Joel Bryant are superb.

Capasso’s Lizzy is conflicted, sexually frustrated, warm, likable and hilarious. The term “motormouth” does not adequately describe her penchant for chatter: The woman simply doesn’t shut up. Jacks sums it up perfectly, “You say it all out loud, huh?” When explaining why she can’t fall in love with a Catholic, Lizzy quips: “It’s just not done!” Her special meditation to “keep the dark thoughts out” is priceless. Capasso exquisitely captures all of Lizzy’s nuances. Her acting is flawless, and her Southern accent is spot-on. She has several long monologues in this production—hundreds and hundreds of lines to memorize—and I did not notice a single flub. Quite impressive.

As Jack, Joel Bryant is equally terrific. I’ve seen Bryant in several other valley productions, and he’s set the acting bar quite high for himself. He does not disappoint here: Attractive, well-built and charismatic, he commands the stage. Funny, friendly and kind, his Jack is the guy men want to be, and women want to be with. His attraction to Lizzy is apparent right away, but he realizes she is fragile and that he must tread carefully. Bryant’s comic timing is marvelous, and he handles the serious moments equally well. Not every actor could pull off the scene in which Jack breaks down when recalling his wife’s death. Bryant nails it.

It’s such a joy to see truly gifted actors ply their trade onstage. That is what you’ll see in this production of Maytag Virgin. I would encourage any acting student to check it out for that reason alone.

The production values are equally as good. Thomas Valach’s set could not be better. Every detail—from Lizzy’s collection of wind chimes to Jack’s statue of the Virgin Mary—seems just right. The costumes, lighting and song selection during the swift set changes are all fabulous.

Special mention should be made of the director: Deborah Harmon chose her actors well and then guided them expertly through the script. Even outstanding thespians need someone who knows what he or she is doing at the helm of the ship.

As a theater reviewer, it’s easy to second-guess yourself when you can’t find even a minor flaw in the production of a play: “Isn’t there something wrong here that I can write about?” But the truth is, there isn’t.

Maytag Virgin is a magical time at the theater. Go see it.

Dezart Performs’ production of Maytag Virgin is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 14, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35, and the running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

There is only one word to express the feeling one gets when entering Coachella Valley Repertory’s new digs: awe.

Artistic director Ron Celona and his board of directors have completely transformed the old IMAX theater in Cathedral City into a live playhouse worthy of Broadway. From the impressive “Wall of Donors” and the expansive refreshment bar with gracious bartenders, to the luxurious VIP Lounge (called the Producer’s Room)—complete with its own flat-screen TV, piano and automated sliding glass door—everything screams “class.” The lobby of the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City also features a rendering of the Cathedral City Downtown Arts and Entertainment District. With CVRep as a hub, if all goes according to plan, it will feature an outdoor amphitheater, an alternative transportation trail and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ new gaming/retail and entertainment center. As for the playhouse, the $3 million price tag was covered by private donors, a loan from the city and a grant from the Cathedral City Downtown Foundation.

Then there is the theater itself: Celona has more than doubled his seating capacity (208 versus 86 in his previous location) and installed a massive 2,700-square-foot stage.

It’s all the realization of a dream Celona said kicked into high gear when he left his position directing plays at the Joslyn Center 12 years ago. He took a year off and traveled the country, picking the brains of other successful theater companies. Celona’s goal was always to produce “theater of substance,” he said, adding that Coachella Valley audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years. As a result, the timing was just right for CVRep to take the step up to the current location.

The company’s production of Chess—with the book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson—was a wise choice to christen the new facility.

The musical tells the story of a world chess championship between brash American Freddie Trumper (Garrett Marshall) and dour Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (David Sattler); the characters are loosely based on Viktor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer. Freddie’s assistant is the beautiful Florence (Gabriela Carrillo), who tries her best to keep him in line. Anatoly’s second, Molokov (Michael Dotson), is actually a KGB agent. The first game of the match does not go well, and a meeting is called to smooth things over. Florence and Anatoly eventually realize they have feelings for each other; this budding romance and Freddie’s erratic behavior cause Florence to leave her post.

The Russian wins the chess championship—and defects to the West. While defending his title year a later in Bangkok, with Florence by his side, Anatoly faces even more complications: His wife, Svetlana (Ashley Hunt), has showed up to watch the match. Meanwhile, Freddie’s agent, Walter (Glenn Rosenblum), suggests to Florence that her father, whom she has not seen since they fled Hungary decades earlier, may still be alive. I won’t give away more, but the plot is chock-full of betrayal, heartbreak and political intrigue.

The cast is stellar across the board. Garrett Marshall’s Freddie is spot-on—cocky, immature and full of swagger. As the somber Anatoly, David Sattler is excellent. He has a soaring singing voice and strong acting chops; both his romantic and patriotic conflicts ring true.

Michael Dotson is terrific as Molokov. Cold, calculating and sly as a fox, he embodies our vision of a Russian spy. The Russian accents used by both Dotson and Sattler are quite believable. As Freddie’s money-hungry agent, Walter, Glenn Rosenblum is a perfect fit, as is Jeremy Whatley as the arbiter, who enforces the rules of chess throughout the show, and keeps the matches moving along. Ashley Hunt is quite strong as Anatoly’s betrayed wife, with musical pipes that shake the rafters.

The ensemble (Sydney Clemenson, Brianna Maloney, Cassidy McCarron, Roman Skryabin, Daniel Sugimoto and Michael Rawls) adds the right touch to the proceedings. Each actor is featured in small speaking roles, and their group numbers are top-notch.

But the highlight in this superb cast is Gabriela Carrillo as Florence. Lovely and charismatic, she has us rooting for her immediately. We feel her frustration in trying to control Freddie, and then later, we relate to her true love for Anatoly. Her singing voice is flawless, and she has some of the best numbers in the show, including “Heaven Help My Heart” and her duet with Svetlana, “I Know Him So Well.”

“Chess” has a bit of a rock-opera feel, and some of the music is a bit dissonant. If you’re a big fan of Oklahoma! and hoping for tunes to hum on the way home, you may be a bit disappointed.

The orchestra, led by musical director Scott Storr on piano, is fabulous. The choreography, lighting, sound and costumes are all outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Jimmy Cuomo’s exquisite set.

But the biggest kudos of all have to go to director Ron Celona for assembling such an amazing cast and coaxing stellar performances from each actor. Chess is an impressive production that’s well worth seeing.

It’s amazing to see the dream that Celona has made come true. Thanks to him for providing the Coachella Valley with thought-provoking, quality theater—now in a gorgeous Broadway-style venue.

Chess is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

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.

Michael Childers is truly a renaissance man; Merriam-Webster’s definition—“a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas”—describes him perfectly.

The Coachella Valley resident is an award-winning photographer, producer, writer and documentary filmmaker—and his talents are being showcased in several upcoming events.

Childers was the photographer and production assistant on the movie Midnight Cowboy, the legendary 1969 film directed by his late partner, John Schlesinger. Childers and former Variety editor Peter Bart will be sharing memories and photos at a special 50th anniversary screening of the film on Saturday, March 2, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center.

On Wednesday, April 24, Childers will bring his annual One Night Only Broadway extravaganza back to the McCallum Theatre.

Childers has been very busy as of late; in fact, he just picked up the award for Best Short Documentary at the 2019 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival in Los Angeles for I Knew Andy Warhol, which he produced. He’s also working on a documentary film about the late actress Natalie Wood. He recently took some time to speak to me about all these goings-on.

His gorgeous book of photography, Icons and Legends, graces coffee tables in homes across the country—but as far as the desert is concerned, Childers’ crowning achievement would have to be One Night Only, the musical-variety extravaganza he produces each year at the McCallum. He created the event 15 years ago as a fundraiser for local charities. Since then, more than 150 Broadway performers have participated in the show.

This year’s production, “Broadway Showstoppers,” features some of the best songs from Broadway musicals, including Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and Dear Evan Hansen. Proceeds will benefit the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, which provides services for abused and neglected children. The nonprofit center was founded in 1986 by Frank and Barbara Sinatra and offers individual, group and family counseling, as well as outreach and prevention programs.

“Showstoppers” will be directed by Broadway choreographer and director Larry Fuller, with musical direction by Christopher Marlowe. This year’s cast includes Ann Hampton Callaway, Liz Callaway, Lucie Arnaz, Christine Andreas, John Barrowman, Davis Gaines and Sal Mistretta. The production will be dedicated to the memory of two desert icons we lost recently, Carol Channing and Kaye Ballard. Both appeared in his One Night Only shows, and Childers knew them both well. In fact, he told me that he photographed Channing’s wedding to her former high-school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, at her Rancho Mirage home—and Ballard actually introduced Childers to his partner of 30 years, the aforementioned director John Schlesinger. She set them up on a bind date.

“Something just clicked,” he said.

Childers said he always has themes and dream casts for future shows floating around in his head. One Night Only is a huge undertaking, requiring seven months of planning and preparation. He said that having a great team around him, including the hard-working crew at the McCallum, makes it possible.

The show sells out every year, and because of its reputation, many Broadway stars are eager to join the cast.

“Who wouldn’t want to come enjoy the sunshine in Palm Springs when it’s cold and rainy in New York?” Childers said. Also worth noting: Performers are treated royally, with lots of perks and parties thrown into the mix. JetBlue is once again a main sponsor, offering a number of free airline tickets to those performing.

So what’s on Childers’ bucket list? He says he would like to produce more documentary films. In other words, it does not seem that the multi-talented Michael Childers will be slowing down anytime soon.

The 50th Anniversary of Midnight Cowboy takes place at 6 p.m., Saturday, March 2, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20 to $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-6565, or visit Eventbrite.com.

One Night Only, a show benefiting the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, takes place at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 24, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $75 to $175, with a limited number of VIP tickets, including an after-party, available for $495. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

Most valley theater-lovers are familiar with the work of Judith Chapman, either through her work onstage in The Belle of Amherst and Blythe Spirit, or stints on soap operas like The Young and the Restless. Striking, intense and always fully committed to her character, Chapman is a force to be reckoned with as an actress—and she certainly does not disappoint as Tallulah Bankhead in Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Matthew Lombardo’s Looped.

The play is set in a recording studio in 1965. Bankhead’s career as a stage and film star is beginning to fade after years of tawdry affairs and substance abuse. She has been summoned to dub in (or ”loop”) one line in Die! Die! My Darling, which would prove to be her final film. Sound technician Steve (Miguel Arballo) and film editor Danny (Mark Fearnow) are hoping for a relatively short and problem-free recording session--its only one line, after all—but it is not to be.

Bankhead stumbles into the studio, several hours late, swearing about the traffic. Looking every inch the Hollywood has-been, she wears attire including large sunglasses, a cocktail dress and an ankle-length fur coat (despite the Los Angeles heat).

Once recording begins, it becomes clear that this will be a long day. Tallulah cannot seem to remember the one simple line of dialogue and is more interested in verbally sparring with Danny. Their star demands a drink to keep her creative juices flowing, then turns up her nose at the bourbon Danny offers. “You don’t have to drink it,” he counsels. “Of course I have to drink it,” she snaps. “I’m an alcoholic—that’s what we do!”

As the booze flows and Tallulah adds cigarettes and cocaine to the mix, the tales of her sexual escapades and her language get even raunchier. Aghast that Danny has dared to move her purse, she admonishes him: “Touching a woman’s purse is like touching her vagina.”

Of course, Danny is becoming more and more frustrated with Bankhead’s behavior, and is starting to get pressure from studio executives to get the job done. But eventually, Tallulah’s booze-soaked charm and inquisitiveness wear him down, and he opens up about the secrets and frustrations in his own life.

Fearnow is terrific as the beleaguered Danny. Early on, he strikes just the right notes as the buttoned-up, all-business film editor who just wants to complete what should be a simple task. Trying to give his star her due, he willingly plays her straight man—but soon his patience wears thin, and his anger toward this grown woman who is acting like a sex-crazed 5-year-old comes roaring out. Later, Fearnow has some touching moments when laying bare the secrets of Danny’s past.

In the small but vital role of sound engineer Steve, Arballo is quite good. Observing the battle of wits between Danny and Tallulah from high up in the sound booth, Steve grows understandably frustrated and impatient. He just wants to get the damn line recorded so he can take his kids to a ball game.

Looped is Chapman’s show. She embodies Tallulah in every way. Strutting around the stage in her blue taffeta and heels, she certainly looks the part. Her comic timing is flawless, and Bankhead’s salty language and bluntness about sex come across as organic in Chapman’s performance. But it is in the quiet, poignant moments when Chapman’s skill as an actress is clear. When her large, blue eyes fill with tears while recalling some humiliating moments onstage, there is no doubt the pain is real. The audience is right there with her. An acting teacher I once had would often implore his students: “Make me FEEL something!” Judith Chapman does just that—every second she is on the stage. Her portrayal of Bankhead in this production is a star turn.

Jim Strait, who recently retired as Desert Rose’s artistic director, returns as director here—and a fabulous job of directing it is. He cast the production well, and brings strong performances from each of his actors. The set, sound, lights and costumes all work quite well.

I did not know that much about Tallulah Bankhead before seeing Looped. I learned quite a bit, as will you if you see this play. But the main reason to go is for Judith Chapman. Hers is a performance you will not soon forget.

Looped is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about two hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

After a decade of Dezart Performs producing excellent, thought-provoking plays, one would expect artistic director Michael Shaw to open the company’s 11th season with something special—but the production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State goes beyond special; it’s spectacular.

Shaw once again demonstrates his skill in choosing material. The themes of politics, religion, gun control and social media could not be any timelier.

The play opens three days before Election Day. Incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore (Beau Marie) is running neck and neck with his opponent in Raleigh, N.C.—but his victory could be in serious jeopardy after he admits to a blogger that a recent school shooting has shaken his faith and perhaps made him re-think his views on guns.

Whitmore’s devoutly Christian wife, Sara (Kelley Moody), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Tammy Hubler), are aghast at this turn of events, and desperately try to convince him to stay on script during an upcoming speech. They know that his desire to speak “from the heart” could offend his conservative base and dash his political hopes.

The senator’s visit to the elementary school immediately after the shooting has traumatized him. Seeing the blood of 6-year-olds spattered on their art projects is seared in his memory. He now has serious doubts about his previous stance on guns—the strong protection of “Second Amendment rights.” With two young sons of his own at home, he wonders: “How could I believe in a God that would let this happen?” He defends his newfound viewpoints passionately to his stunned wife and campaign manager. “They don’t need my prayers—they need my actions!”

Will Whitmore go out and give the prepared speech his supporters and his wife expect? Or will he be honest about his moral and spiritual epiphany?

Williams’ writing and the play’s themes alone would make Church and State worth seeing. The bonus here is that the performances are outstanding.

Beau Marie’s Whitmore is perfection. His Southern accent and “good ol’ boy” charm are spot-on. Even if we didn’t agree with his politics before his transformation, we would have liked him anyway. His torment over whether to keep his wife and supporters happy or truly honor the dead first-graders by taking action hits the audience right in the gut. There is not one false moment in his performance.

As Sara Whitmore, Kelley Moody is superb. She owns the stage from her first entrance. Her Sara does her duty as the devout and supportive political wife, but with lots of dramatic flair. She’s a bit controlling, not too shy about her fondness for sex and booze, and occasionally confused about her syntax: “What should we do? Throw a sticker-tape parade?”

Tammy Hubler is terrific as Whitmore’s campaign manager, Alex Klein. We absolutely believe she is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense Jew from New York who is always expecting the other shoe to drop. Alex’s job is to get Whitmore re-elected, and she takes it seriously. Hubler conveys that effortlessly, yet with wry humor mixed in as well.

In several small roles, James Owens is quite good—so much so that I had to look twice to make sure it was the same actor when he came out as his second and third characters.

The costumes, set, lighting and sound all work well—and Michael Shaw’s direction deserves special mention. After casting this play extraordinarily well, he went on to elicit strong performances from each actor. Bravo!

Dezart Performs’ production of Church and State is what good theater is all about—it’s not just an entertaining evening watching really good actors; it also has a story line that makes the audience think. It makes us debate important issues on the way home, and maybe consider a viewpoint we’ve never had before.

If you have strong opinions on politics, gun control, religion and/or social media, or even if you somehow don’t, I urge you to see Church and State. It’s a show you won’t soon forget.

Church and State, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Life is all about change, and there have been some major changes at the Desert Rose Playhouse this season—all of which bode well for the theater’s future.

After years of putting on excellent, edgy productions, founder and artistic director Jim Strait and his partner, producer Paul Taylor, have retired and handed over the reins to Robbie Wayne (producing artistic director) and Kam Sisco (managing director).

In addition, a collaboration with Streetbar has allowed Desert Rose to open a small bar in the lobby which was previously unused and hidden by a curtain. Now patrons can sit at small tables and enjoy a cocktail or a soda before the show and at intermission.

Wayne has wisely chosen Nathan Sanders’ Southern Gothic tale The Sugar Witch as this season’s opening production. With Halloween just weeks away, the spooky tone of the play—featuring ghosts, witches, murder and eerie music—seems just right.

The story is set in the fictitious swampland town of Sugar Bean, Fla. A curse has been placed on the Bean family, stemming from a deadly flood in 1928. (The incident has overtones similar to some recent natural disasters.) Residing in the modern-day ramshackle Bean home are Sisser (Leanna Rodgers), her younger brother Moses (Jacob Samples) and Annabelle (Kimberly Cole), the last of the sugar witches, a surrogate mother to the Bean siblings.

Sisser has eaten herself into morbid obesity and is now confined to a wheelchair. She is also clearly mentally ill. When one of her beloved pet palmetto bugs dies, she demands that her brother bury it in the front yard with great ceremony.

Nice-guy Moses is a car mechanic who tries to keep things under control in the midst of his sister’s craziness and Annabelle’s talk of curses. Moses is being pursued romantically by local girl Ruth Ann Meeks (April Mejia), who pesters him at his auto shop, trying desperately to get his attention. Another customer, funeral-home manager Hank Hartley (Kelly Peak), has also set his sights on Moses, though in a much subtler way.

As the play opens, Ruth Ann has braved the nearby swamp to arrive at the Bean house and is looking for Moses, who is not there. She tangles verbally with Sisser, who is sitting on the front porch in her wheelchair, eating sweets. Convinced that Sisser is lying about Moses not being around, Ruth Ann barges into the house in search of him. It is a big mistake. To give away more of the plot would spoil the chilling effect for the theater-goer.

The performances here are all top-notch. Wayne has cast The Sugar Witch quite well, which is half the battle for a director.

Last seen in Desert Rose’s Women Behind Bars, Cole is riveting as Annabelle. Her affection for Sisser and Moses is clear, as is her loyalty to “her people” and her respect for the powers she apparently possesses as the last of the sugar witches. Her attempts to lift the curse her grandmother placed on the Beans are heartfelt. Her performance combines the perfect mix of creepiness, wit and humor. When showing off a mummified creature she keeps in a glass box to the visiting Hank, she laments, “People just ain’t interested in flyin’ cats the way they used to be.”

Samples is affable and sympathetic as Moses. He’s the younger brother we’d all like to have. His devotion to Sisser, his frustration over being stuck in a small swamp town, and his attraction to Hank all ring true.

Rodgers is terrific as the bloated and dangerously demented Sisser. Though she is clearly engulfed in a fat suit, after a while, we accept that the excess is flesh is all really hers. Sometimes quietly staring off into the distance, sometimes emitting blood-curdling screams, Rodgers leaves no doubt that Sisser is deeply disturbed.

As the spoiled, pushy Ruth Ann, April Mejia is quite good. She has a great stage presence and imbues her character with such impertinence that it almost feels as if she brings her violent come-uppance on herself.

Kelly Peak’s Hank is extraordinarily likable. When his lust for Moses gets him roped into the insanity of the Bean family curse, the audience is rooting for him to somehow come out of it unscathed.

In the small role of Ruth Ann’s brother, Tim McIntosh is quite effective.

There were a few minor line flubs (not unexpected on opening night), but the actors quickly recovered. Robbie Wayne coaxes strong performances from each cast member. Toby Griffin’s set, Phil Murphy’s lighting and Wayne’s sound are all perfect.

The Sugar Witch is spooky, dramatic, scary, sometimes funny … and fabulous. Wayne has hit it out of the park with his debut production as the new artistic director at Desert Rose Playhouse. Bravo! I can’t wait for the next one …

The Sugar Witch is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is just less than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

What better way is there to deal with heartache on a 4 a.m. subway ride than to immerse oneself in a crossword puzzle?

That’s the mindset of Janet, the female character in Jerry Mayer’s 2 Across, now playing the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre. But the buttoned-up psychologist can’t seem to get a moment’s peace once free-spirited Josh barrels onto the subway car just as the doors close; he keeps trying to chat her up.

So opens the two-character comedy that artistic director Ron Celona has chosen to close CV Rep’s romance-themed season. It’s fun, funny and, yes—romantic. The dialogue and pacing are a bit reminiscent of situation comedies … which is not surprising, given playwright Mayer’s many years as a writer for shows like Bewitched and Bridget Loves Bernie.

During the 80-minute Bay Area Rapid Transit ride, we learn a great deal about the backgrounds and life philosophies of Josh and Janet as they each tackle the same crossword puzzle. Their styles are very different: She is a by-the-book kind of gal who believes all rules should be followed, that “a library card is a contract,” and that cheating on a crossword puzzle is sacrilege. (Her childhood nickname was “Granite Janet.”) Josh, an unemployed ad exec, is the very definition of laid back. He feels calling the 900 number for help on the puzzle is no big deal, and when it all gets too frustrating, he simply throws it away. Though he’s Jewish, Josh has brought a barbecued pork sandwich on the train as a snack. “I don’t follow dietary rules” he explains, ignoring Janet’s horror that he would dare violate the “No Eating on the Subway” sign posted in plain sight.

They banter back and forth, argue, flirt and slowly strip away the masks we all tend to wear when meeting someone new. Josh is charming, funny and likable. He’s also persistent in his efforts to win over Janet. When Janet bluntly announces that “she’s not the least bit interested," he retorts, “Well, try harder!”

With a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry between the leads is essential. Luckily, there is plenty between Andrea Gwynnel (Janet) and Joel Bryant (Josh). Veteran actors with impressive national credits, both are attractive, charismatic and comfortable onstage. Every moment in the arc of their blossoming friendship rings true.

Local actress Deborah Harmon, who directed the world premiere of 2 Across at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2004, is guest director here and does a superb job.

Special mention should be made of the terrific set, lights and sound. The recreation of a BART train, complete with periodic announcements of stops, is spot-on.

Congrats to Ron Celona for selecting a perfect piece to end CV Rep’s 2017-2018 season. 2 Across is light-hearted, upbeat and fun.

2 Across is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 20, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Artistic director Jim Strait has never played it safe when choosing material to produce at the Desert Rose Playhouse. Local audiences have come to expect edgy fare from the valley’s only LGBT theater company—and Desert Rose’s current production, the world premiere of Allan Baker’s Dare, does not disappoint.

The play won New York’s 2017 Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Award for Best Political Play, beating out 299 other submissions. The contest encourages the writing of plays that focus on social, cultural and political issues—and Baker, who hails from Austin, has been an LGBT advocate in Texas for many years. Since 2004, he has penned 13 plays, most with gay characters and themes.

Dare introduces us to 82-year-old Jack (Richard Marlow), who lives in a nursing home in California’s Central Valley. Tired of living, Jack has decided to end it all by starving himself to death. Nursing-home administrators send in gerontology consultant Josh (Matthew Hocutt) to find out why Jack has made such a rash decision. Though both Jack and Josh are gay, their life experiences have been quite different, due to the disparity in their ages.

Jack regales Josh with tales of his past as an activist in the early days of LGBT liberation. In flashback scenes, we go along on the journey from San Francisco in the 1970s to Fire Island in ’78, then on to New York City in both 1987 and 1990.

We see a young Jack struggle to maintain his buttoned-up banker image by day while letting loose with wild experimentation in the bathhouses of New York at night. He meets the love of this life, young David (Noah Arce), who helps him loosen up and embrace his true identity. The relationship is intense, but not monogamous, because “commitment wasn’t the engine that drove that train.”

Then the scourge of AIDS rears its ugly head. “You could feel the fear growing in the village … and then people started dying,” Jack says, while railing against those who would pass judgment: “It just happened—don’t give it a moral spin!”

As Jack’s story unfolds, Josh comes to understand the older man’s end-of-life choice. Jack has his reasons, including the fact that “there’s a great quiet now that all my friends and family are gone.” As a theater veteran, he feels the dramatic arc of his life is complete.

The cast of five is strong. As the nursing-home attendant, Robbie Wayne makes quite an impression in two brief scenes at the beginning and end of the play. His character’s animosity towards homosexuals is palpable and disturbing.

Terry Huber’s portrayal of the younger, conflicted Jack is right on the money. His reluctant willingness to dress in drag and learn the movements to Madonna’s “Vogue” are fun to watch.

As Jack’s young lover, David, Noah Arce is quite a find. Stunning and androgynous, Arce perfectly embodies the free-spirited innocence, enthusiasm, determination and sensuality of young gay men at the time. It’s easy to see why Jack would fall for him.

Matthew Hocutt is terrific as Josh. With his clipboard, glasses and lab coat, he’s all business, yet kind and understanding as he absorbs Jack’s story. The audience can see his growing affection for the old man. It all rings true.

But the clear standout is Richard Marlow as Jack. This character is a huge part for any actor, including several long monologues and a wide range of emotion; there are times when it almost seems like a one man show. Marlow is absolutely up to the task. We feel his physical pain and weakness, his lust and love for David, his anger and frustration over widespread homophobia, and the peace he seems to have found at the end of his life. There is not one false note. It is truly an acting tour de force; if Marlow does not win an award for this performance, there is no justice in the world.

Once again, director Strait deserves great credit for eliciting strong performances from his cast. Material like this needs a director with sensitivity and passion, and Strait’s work exhibits both.

The set, costumes, sound and lighting all work well. Kudos to Steve Fisher, the stage manager, who helps keep the whole production running smoothly.

Dare is a gay-themed show, but there are lessons here for everyone. We all feel “different” from time to time. That’s when we should remember Jack’s advice: “You’re not like them … remember that. It’s the source of your strength.”

Desert Rose Playhouse’s Dare is terrific theater. Go see it.

Dare is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 13, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayouse.org.

As I sat in Michael Childers’ gorgeous Rancho Mirage home—his award-winning photographs adorning the walls—he told me the story of how the hugely successful One Night Only show came to be.

The star-studded annual event, a benefit for Jewish Family Service of the Desert, will return to the McCallum Theatre Wednesday, April 25.

It all started nearly 13 years ago, Childers said, when he approached his dear friend Barbara Keller about putting on a variety show; it was an idea he’d had great success with in Santa Fe, N.M. The concept was simple: Assemble a cast of veteran cabaret performers and a great orchestra; choose crowd-pleasing musical numbers; and raise an impressive amount of money for a local charity. Keller spoke to her board of directors at Jewish Family Service—which provides psychological counseling, food, housing and other services to valley residents, regardless of religious affiliation.

A new Coachella Valley tradition was born: One Night Only premiered in the desert, with Childers’ buddy Lily Tomlin as the mistress of ceremonies. It was a smash, and now the event sells out every year.

It’s a large undertaking that takes a full nine months of planning. When deciding on the theme, Childers thinks about what he and audiences would like. Last year, it was the music of Jerry Herman; this year, it’s the classic music of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart. Jason Graae is back for his second year as director, with musical direction by Christopher Marlowe.

Childers and the director sit down with their rolodexes and choose the cast. Because of the show’s stellar reputation, many veteran cabaret performers clamor to be part of it—even though the performers are donating their time. However, being in the show has its perks: Childers says the stars are treated well, with glamorous parties and such—plus a few days in Palm Springs is very appealing if you’ve been dealing with months of chilly weather in New York.

This year’s cast is slated to include Liz Callaway, Ann Hampton Callaway, Davis Gaines, Julie Garnye, Bets Malone, Sal Mistretta, Faith Prince, Billy Stritch, Teri Ralston, Bruce Vilanch and many other stage veterans.

Weary of the traffic and backstabbing in Los Angeles, Childers moved here in 1999 with his partner, Oscar-winning film director John Schlesinger (who later died of a stroke). Calling the valley “a wonderful, very philanthropic community,” Childers quickly became involved in the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and joined the board of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

A world-famous photographer, Childers currently has an Andy Warhol-themed show on display at the Palm Springs Art Museum. His work is also being featured in San Diego and will be on display at Yale University in the summer of 2019. A frequent lecturer on the subject, Childers said a great photographer is consistent and produces a lifetime of work, including iconic photographs.

When asked what makes a great live stage show, Childers’ answer was simple: Fit the show to your target audience, and keep it moving—don’t let it go on too long. This year’s One Night Only is slated to be a compact 90 minutes, with no intermission.

So what’s left on Childers’ bucket list? He’s working on an autobiography, called And I Have the Pictures to Prove It. Music education is one of Childers’ passions—and he’s very proud of One Night Only, calling it an iconic production in the desert.

One Night Only, a show benefiting Jewish Family Services, takes place at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 25, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $75 to $175, with a limited number of VIP tickets, including an after-party, available for $495. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

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