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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off its sixth season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s witty look at lost dreams and family dysfunction. The production is almost home run … almost.

The show opens as middle-aged siblings Sonia (Adina Lawson) and Vanya (Jim Strait) bemoan their uneventful lives over a cup of coffee in their Bucks County, Penn., house. Neither has moved out of their childhood home. It’s where they cared for their aging parents (now both deceased), and where they enjoy refuge from the trials and tribulations of life, subsidized by their movie-star sister, Masha (Heather Brendel). Vanya is a gay, mild-mannered, aspiring playwright, while 52-year-old Sonia (adopted into the family at age 8) is unmarried and bipolar.

Soon, their voodoo-practicing, fortune-telling cleaning lady, Cassandra (Alma Lacy), arrives, bringing with her predictions of doom and gloom. Things really get intense when Masha shows up unexpectedly, with her new young boy toy, Spike (Cody Frank), in tow.

Arrogant and demanding, Masha is tormented by the fact that her ingenue days are long gone. She needs the spotlight like the rest of us need oxygen, and must always be the center of attention. She looks down on Sonia and has little sympathy for her sister’s frequent emotional outbursts. Sonia, meanwhile, resents having sacrificed years of her life caring for their late parents while Masha was jet-setting around the world.

In the midst of the bickering, Masha makes two big announcements. First, she’s decided to sell the house, forcing her siblings to find more modest accommodations; second, they’ve all been invited to a costume party down the street. It’s all been planned out, and Masha has brought costumes for everyone. She will be attending as Snow White; Spike will be the Prince; and Sonia and Vanya are relegated to the roles of dwarfs. Sonia refuses, instead stealing her sister’s thunder as the Evil Queen (as interpreted by Maggie Smith).

Soon, the lovely Nina (April Mejia) is added to the mix; she’s an aspiring actress who lives next door. Masha is flattered by Nina’s admiration, yet angered that the young girl has captured Spike’s interest.

Everyone in the cast has memorable moments in this production, but the acting is uneven at times. The amazing Adina Lawson is unquestionably the standout. Her Sonia is riveting, hilarious, pitiful, poignant and wise, all at once. She has some of the best lines in the play. While extolling the virtues of her late father, she adds, “And he never molested me,” to which her brother replies “That’s nice.” Later, when someone suggests she could get a job at CVS, she shoots back: “I’d prefer death.”

Jim Strait’s Vanya seems a bit too subdued early on, but he has some great comic moments as he attempts to hide his sexual attraction to Spike. He definitely rises to the occasion in a passionate monologue near the end of the play during which he rails against the losses of his life, including black-and-white TV, and postage stamps you had to lick.

Alma Lacy’s Cassandra is a real hoot. Her blustering entrance—she’s clad in a billowing caftan and a curly red wig—really makes an impression. She throws herself into the voodoo sequences wholeheartedly, and makes the audience believe she really does have supernatural powers.

Heather Brendel is cast well as B-movie queen Masha. Her comedic acting chops are evident during her spats with Sonia, and her futile efforts to keep Spike from stripping down to his skivvies. Her performance seemed a bit one-note in the early scenes, but the character became fleshed out later on. Some of Brendel’s best moments are as Snow White (the Disney version), a persona she really makes her own.

As vapid sex-object Spike, Cody Frank holds his own, but he could use a little more swagger. This is not the first character Frank has played which called for him to show some skin. He has the body for it and is certainly is easy on the eyes. But parading around onstage in your underwear takes a lot of self-confidence—and that is sometimes missing in this performance.

Rounding out the cast as Nina, April Mejia does a fine job. Wide-eyed and innocent, she is the quintessential sweet ingénue. She’s absolutely adorable when she reluctantly appears in her dwarf costume, as mandated by the jealous Masha.

Special mention needs to be made about the sound design and exquisite original music by Mark Bennett. It adds just the right touch to the play.

Robbie Wayne wears several hats regarding the production. His set design and costumes are terrific. As the director, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast. The main problem here is pacing: Timing is everything in comedy. Perhaps it was a case of opening-night jitters, but there were occasions when you could drive a train through the pauses between the actors’ lines. I think a couple of speed-read run-throughs might do the trick. There were also a couple of dead spots during costume changes, during nothing was happening onstage, that went on too long.

Despite these minor flaws, I recommend seeing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It’s funny, sad and thought-provoking—and a good way to kick off the Coachella Valley theater season.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.n., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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