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When Rent opened off-Broadway in February 1996, it rocked the theater world and won instant acclaim. The death of 35-year-old composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson from an aortic aneurysm just before the show’s opening certainly added to the show’s impact, but the musical’s stark depiction of life and death in New York City in the late 1980s stands on its own.

Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent—now getting an excellent production complements of College of the Desert—chronicles one year in the life of a group of poor artists living in the East Village of Manhattan. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Shafik Wahab) searches for professional recognition, while his HIV-positive songwriter-roommate, Roger (Christian Quevedo), longs to pen a hit tune before succumbing to his illness (“One Song Glory”). Soon, Roger meets Mimi (Allegra Angelo), also HIV-positive, and the two fall in love after she seduces him (“Light My Candle”).

Mark is pining for his ex-lover, Maureen (Meagan Van Dyke), a highly sexed performance artist who has left him for a woman, Joanne (Alisha Bates). Mark and Joanne sing of their mutual obsession with Maureen in “Tango: Maureen.”

Computer whiz Tom Collins (Anthony Martinez) falls for Angel (Aaron Anzaldua), an adorable transvestite inflicted with AIDS. Rounding out the principal cast is Benny (Dion Khan), Mark and Roger’s former roommate and current landlord, who is pressuring them for past-due rent.

The score is terrific, but certain numbers really stand out, including Mimi’s steamy “Out Tonight,” the tender Tom/Angel duet “I’ll Cover You,” and the best-known tune in the show—“Seasons of Love.”

I cannot say enough great things about this cast: The leads are all outstanding. I would not be at all surprised to see some of their names in lights on Broadway down the road. However, the glue that holds the show together is Wahab as Mark. His stage presence, strong voice and acting chops are perfectly suited to the role. As the tragic lovers Roger and Mimi, Quevedo and Angelo are marvelous. Their voices are terrific, and both dig down deep to bring true emotion to the stage. Their passion is palpable; both are guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye at some point.

With a cast this strong, it’s hard to do, but Anzaldua nearly steals the show as the doomed Angel. His slight build and outrageous costumes complement his superb performance. He is clearly having a blast onstage … but when the darkness sets in, the audience wants to wrap him in our arms and comfort him.

As Angel’s lover Tom, Martinez is stupendous. When he reprises “I’ll Cover You” after losing Angel, his voice soars up to the rafters. I defy any audience member with a pulse not to have chills after hearing that number.

Khan’s Benny is also fantastic. He handles his featured song “You’ll See” with great aplomb.

The chemistry between Van Dyke and Bates as lesbian lovers Maureen and Joanne is sizzling. Even women who’ve never had the slightest interest in switching teams might consider it after their erotic duet “Take Me or Leave Me.” Van Dyke has a huge future ahead of her in musical theater.

The members of the ensemble hold their own with the principals—there is not a weak link.

A lot goes on in this show—there’s a large cast, a band onstage, lots of dancing, heavy emotion, sexual themes—all of which require a director with great skill. Mark Almy has that skill; everything flows just as it should. Major kudos also go to musical director Scott Smith and choreographer Shea New. Joseph Layne’s set and lighting, and Jack Ramoran’s sound, are right on the money, as are the costumes (Rick Doerfler, Kathy Smith, Courtney Ohnstad).

The only flaw in this production is an occasional volume imbalance between the band (the excellent Scott Smith, Anthony Arizaga, Mikael Jacobson and Brad Vaughn) and the singers. There are times when the lyrics are difficult to understand—partly because the band’s a bit too loud, and partly because the singers’ diction is a bit unclear. A slight adjustment in the musicians’ volume would make a big difference.

The show is long—about 2 1/2 hours, but well worth it.

This was the first time I have seen a production of Rent. It won’t be my last.

College of the Desert’s Rent will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 3 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 29, at the Pollock Theatre on the COD campus, 43500 Monterey Ave., in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 for general admission, and $20 for students. The run time is 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-773-2574, or visit collegeofthedesert.ticketleap.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

What in the world were Tres Dean and the rest of the people at College of the Desert Performing Arts thinking when they decided to produce The Rocky Horror Show—with a cast and crew primarily consisting of unseasoned college students?

After all, it’s a complex musical with a large cast, challenging songs and a whole lot of choreography. At the opening-night show, my concern was heightened when a student wearing a headset took the stage and announced that the show’s start would be delayed a bit due to “technical difficulties.”

Gulp.

Heck, the name of Rocky Horror’s writer, Richard O’Brien, is misspelled on the show’s promo poster and program cover, for crying out loud.

The prospects, as they say, were looking dim.

Time-warp two hours into the future, though, and I was smiling. So were the rest of the attendees of the sold-out show as they left COD’s Theatre Too—because these talented students and their teachers had pulled it off. In every way, College of the Desert’s Rocky Horror Show is a rollicking, risqué good time.

Many elements of the show—directed by Dean, the assistant professor of theater at COD—were beyond impressive. The amazingly complex set, with multiple stairs and platforms and even a pull-down diagram depicting how to do the “Time Warp,” would have made a large-budget professional company proud; hats off to J.W. Layne, the college’s technical specialist, who acted as the scenic and properties designer. The costumes by Kailey Osgood-McAuliffe were perfect. And the five-piece band, conducted by Scott Smith, was tight. Amazing stuff.

In his introductory remarks, Dean—who noted that this is the first musical being performed in COD’s Theatre Two space in more than a decade—said he’s been emphasizing a student-first philosophy when it comes to casting and producing plays at College of the Desert, and he was proud to announce that COD students constituted “95 percent” of the Rocky Horror cast. He must have been beaming with pride after seeing what he’s helped these students accomplish.

That’s not to say all of the performances in the show were flawless. Portions definitely had a community-theater feel, and there was a wide range of acting, dancing and singing proficiency displayed throughout the cast. However, if you’re coming to COD expecting a fully professional production like you’d find a short walk away at the McCallum Theatre, you need to get your expectations in check.

By far, the most fully realized performance came from Alden Dickey, who played our bespectacled, uptight, tighty-whitey-wearing hero, Brad. This COD student can act, and boy, can he sing. If you slipped him into a Rocky Horror performance on a pro stage in New York or L.A., he’d fit right in. Michael Hadley, one of the non-student ringers in the cast—although he’s a COD alumnus who works at the college—was splendid as Riff Raff, the put-upon servant of Dr. Frank-n-Furter who gets his revenge in the end.

In that plumb role of the good Dr. Frank, Adam Genesta did well, for the most part. He sounded, sang and moved (other than some awkwardness in high heels) like the Frank-n-Furter we all know and love, even if his facial expressions seemed somewhat random at times. While Alden Dickey as Brad threatened to steal the show thanks to his amazing pipes, Genesta took it back by leaving the audience in absolute stitches during the scene toward the end when Dr. Frank slowly, oh so slowly, loses his life.

Johnny Bolth overcame some initial nervousness and wound up shining as the pipe-smoking, stuffy narrator. Briana Taylor was perfectly cast as Janet—man, she’s gorgeous. She won over the audience, even if her singing wasn’t always up to par.

Alisha Bates and April Mejia were fun as Magenta and Columbia, respectively, and Christine Michele was good during her brief appearance as Eddie. Yes, you read that right: Eddie is played by a woman, an interesting casting choice by Dean that makes the sexual dynamics of Rocky Horror even stranger. Who knew that was even possible?

Fans of abs will enjoy Raz Segev as Frank-n-Furter’s masterpiece, Rocky. I am still trying to recover from the handstand/butt-flex moves he showed off during one of the musical numbers. Alma Johnson-Lacy was amusing in during her brief time onstage as Dr. Scott, even if her wig was a bit ridiculous.

Ramon Martinez, Sergio Lopez, Courtney Pittsley, Leslie Benjamin, Miranda Hane, Ronda Williams, Brieana Holguin, Tamani Ono and Rebecca Ann Rodriguez kept the energy going as the cast’s Transylvanians and Phantoms, thanks in part to excellent choreography by Shea New.

If you’re a fan of this legendary show, by all means, go, and support the amazing College of the Desert talent that’s on display. By the time the cast concludes with an encore of “The Time Warp,” you’ll be beaming from ear to ear.

The Rocky Horror Show is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 3 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 2; there’s also a midnight show on Halloween. It takes place at Theatre Too at College of the Desert, 43500 Monterey Ave., in Palm Desert. Tickets are $30 general, with discounts for students, COD staff and seniors. For tickets or more information, call 760-773-2565, or visit collegeofthedesert.edu/performingarts.

Published in Theater and Dance

Les Miserables is now the world’s longest-running musical, having been seen by an estimated 65 million people in 42 countries.

Given the show’s many years of stage success and the recent hit movie, audiences have high expectations when they go to see Les Miserables—and on many levels, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s current production succeeds. However, the show is far from seamless.

By now, almost everyone knows the basic plot. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel set among the poor in 19th-century France, it chronicles the determination of Inspector Javert to capture escaped convict Jean Valjean, who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family. Released after 20 years of hard labor, Valjean stops by a bishop’s house. Though treated with kindness, Valjean steals silverware and flees. When he’s apprehended and brought back to answer for his crime, the bishop says the silverware was a gift. The price for Valjean’s freedom: The expectation that he will treat others with kindness. He eventually develops a relationship with Fantine, a starving prostitute desperate to save her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. As Fantine dies, Valjean promises to raise Cosette as his own. Later, Cosette falls in love with a militant student, Marius; finally, Valjean and Javert have their final confrontation on the banks of the Seine.

At the top of the list of Palm Canyon’s successes is Raymond B. Johnson’s performance as Jean Valjean: He is simply flawless. He has the physical presence and the acting chops for the part, and his voice is exquisite. Anyone who knows the score waits for the moment when night falls on a battle, and Valjean sings the spine-tingling “Bring Him Home.” Johnson delivers: You can hear a pin drop as he hits the final high note; his paternal love for Marius feels authentic. Unfortunately, in the opening scenes, he is burdened by an ill-fitting wig, which covers his face far too often.

Valley favorite Mark Almy, as Inspector Javert, is also impressive. Thanks to his powerful pipes, he handles the difficult score with ease; his Javert is cold, stern and relentless. However, when folding the hands of a young boy killed in battle, you can see the softening of the inspector’s heart all over Almy’s face.

Se Layne Tethal (who is not credited in the program) is not bad as Fantine, even though she’s not age-appropriate for the part. She has a pretty voice, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” doesn’t hit the viewer in the gut; sneaking in a breath on the rising scale on the word “shame” diminishes the song. (Granted, playing Fantine these days is a thankless task, seeing as it would be nearly impossible to top Anne Hathaway’s now-famous performance in the film.)

Layne’s daughter Ava Tethal is touching as little Cosette, and her son Wyatt is adorable Gavroche. Husband Rodney Tethal ably directs, making this truly a family affair.

Jamie Leigh Walker is perfectly cast as Cosette. Her soaring soprano meshes well with the equally talented Shafik Wahhab, who plays Marius. Together, they make the young couple’s love totally believable.

Alisha Bates stands out as the tragic Eponine; unfortunately, her gut-wrenching “On My Own” was marred by a brief sharp note and too much noise behind the drop as fellow cast members stacked chairs to create the battle barricade. Also worth mentioning are Charles Harvey as The Bishop of Digne and Nicholas Sloan as Enjolras.

As for those seams: The raucous “Master of the House,” a number which normally stops the show, was lackluster. That was, in large part, because Tom Warrick (Thenardier) did not know his lyrics. Morgana Corelli (Madame Thenardier) also dropped a line or two, but Warrick was either having a really bad night, or needs another week of rehearsal. The pair have the appropriate buffoonish look (great costuming and makeup), and there are glimpses of good comic timing, but if the opening-night show was any indication, they may need to go over their songs. The same problem occurs when they reappear in the wedding scene near the end of the show.

Other issues include the overuse of onstage smoke during the battle scenes and Javert’s suicide. Several audience members were coughing and waving programs in front of their faces to clear the air—and creating a mood onstage is not more important than the safety and comfort of the audience. There were also occasional sound and microphone issues, though they were not as noticeable as in previous Palm Canyon shows. The volume level of cast members’ microphones should be consistent, but that was not the case here; some performers could be heard clearly, while others could not. Some ensemble members also need a bit of work on their diction.

The choice to use a prerecorded background track rather than live musicians in an intimate theater like the Palm Canyon is the only way to go. The recorded music worked well for the most part, though there was a glitch at the top of Act 2. The chorus could use a bit more direction during the crowd scenes—at times, they seemed to be just standing there waiting for their cue to sing.

With a few exceptions, these problems are relative nitpicks. Kudos go to musical director Charles Britt Endsley; costumers Se Layne and Jennifer Stowe; and lighting/sound director J.W. Layne. The set, also designed by J.W. Layne, is superb.

If you’re in the mood for a moving, sweeping historical epic, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Les Miserables is not a bad choice. The music is great, and most of the cast is strong; in fact, it’s worth going just to see Raymond B. Johnson’s performance. Let’s just hope the Thenardiers learn their songs, and the powers that be cut back on the smoke.

Les Miserables is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, or $10 for students. The running time is three hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance