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Honky Tonk Laundry, presented by Coyote StageWorks, has boot-scooted into the Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs.

Are you ready, darlin’? Because the laughter, the music, and the sheer fun of this production will gallop off with you to Nashville.

Yes, it’s a romp.

The Wishy Washy Washateria (!) is owned by the overworked Lana Mae Hopkins (Bets Malone), and she hires redheaded Katie Lane Murphy (Misty Cotton) to help her out. What ensues is plenty of chaos, country Western music, soapsuds—ؙand a few surprising cleaning hints). A two-woman show is a great rarity in theater, and these actresses know how to use their special stuff to make us appreciate their differences.

The author of this wild ride is Roger Bean, who also directed the play. It gives a satisfying cohesion to a show when it is created and then directed by the same person—the voice is stronger and clearer when another person doesn’t “interpret” the words of the other. Artistic director Chuck Yates has already treated his audiences to Bean’s work via The Andrews Brothers, a delightful Coyote StageWorks success back in 2014, written about entertainers in USO shows during World War II.

The set, created by Tom Buderwitz, is the aforementioned Wishy Washy Washateria, and center stage is dominated by four looming washer-dryers of industrial strength and lemon-colored ugliness. The always-subtle lighting, created by Moira Wilke, provides some excellent effects.

Lana Mae and Katie Lane both struggle in the relationships with their men—well of course! It’s a prerequisite for country Western music, y’all. Both Lana Mae’s husband, Earl, and Katie Lang’s sort-of boyfriend, Danny, we learn, are cads unworthy of these good women, so the stage is set for the girls to burst into frequent song expressing their feelings. They manage to mix up the standards we all know, such as “Stand by Your Man” and “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’” with some new titles such as “I Need a Vacation” and “Potential New Boyfriend.” Yee haw!

Both of these belles get to strut through some entertaining choreography, designed by James Vasquez. He gives a line-dance feel to these steps, and the girls move smoothly through their dancing.

But what truly fascinates is one major characteristic of this kind of music: close harmony. In this show, both gals have chosen to use a hard-edged voice, holding the end-of-phrase notes with admirable breath control before segueing into their vibrato—and when they blend their voices together, the effect is magical. They merge their sounds perfectly, and the timing and their attacks on the notes is flawless. It is a breathtaking and too-rare experience in music. Brava, ladies!

Katie Lane and Lana Mae, both facing relationship ruin due to the “moral flexibility” of both their men and certain predatory females (whom we never meet), elect to comfort themselves and satisfy Lana’s unfulfilled ambitions by putting on a show. They choose to use the laundromat as their stage. This gives costume-designer Renetta Lloyd a chance to bedeck our heroines in classic faux-cowgirl-style boots plus crimson and white-trimmed skirt outfits. Oh … and keep an eye out for some outrageous second-act hair styles; they’re more fun than a rodeo.

The girls’ show pays tribute to many of the queens of country-Western music such as Loretta Lynn, Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette. Even during the intermission. we are treated to famous songs by Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline. One of their showy numbers, in which Lana Mae and Katie Lane break out in yodeling—a mystifying skill if there ever was one—will leave you astonished.

The script features an endless barrage of charming country-fried sayings and intentionally adorable provincial slang. They inspired most of the play’s hearty laughs. There is some fancy cussin’ and a goodly amount of name-callin’, but the undercurrents of the solid values of these rural people permeate their songs with hints of gospel music and its beliefs, an influence never too far from country songs. Family is everything. Heartache is to be expected. But love can conquer all … and we’re all going to heaven. Yahoo!

Frankly, the show surprised on several levels. First, it is cute. Yes, cute … something it’s not possible to say about very many productions. You will leave the theater smiling, which also doesn’t happen that often, doggone it.

Second, you will definitely agree that these are two of the hardest-working actresses you have ever seen. Their handling of these vocally demanding songs is truly impressive—nearly entirely done using their chest tones, only sliding up into head tones on a rare couple of notes (and the yodeling). The energy level is relentlessly high, excepting maybe a ballad or two, one of which had some echo added to the sound—but these ladies sing and dance and banter and move almost constantly. They will lasso your heart.

Third, I had expected much more caricature—the names alone!—but Malone and Cotton turned in fairly realistic interpretations of these roles. Perhaps choosing over-exaggeration and outrageousness would have been the easy way out, if sometimes more hilarious. There is even a serious note injected into the script, with some pill-popping, drug abuse and drinking, about which nothing, alas, is funny, provoking, at best, some laughs borne out of shock. I guess it happens, even in country settings, but since it didn’t advance the plot, I couldn’t help wishing we had been spared this, as the current news about our opioid crisis has left us all so raw that it briefly depresses the energy level of the show.

Despite that, this is, as I say, a romp, and you will have a great time. On opening night, the theater rocked with satisfying belly laughs, and the actresses were awarded a joyous standing ovation.

And as Lana Mae and Katie Lane their ownselves might say: Dang! It don’t git better than that.

Honky Tonk Laundry, a production of Coyote Stageworks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Arts Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

In the program notes for Dirty Blonde, Coyote StageWorks Founding Artistic Director Chuck Yates mentions he has wanted to present this play, which focuses on Mae West, since the theater’s inception 9 years ago. Since 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” he chose the perfect time to do so: Whether or not you’re a Mae West fan, it’s impossible to deny that she was an icon of womanhood, in her own way.

Written by and starring Claudia Shear, Dirty Blonde ran Off-Broadway in 2000, and on Broadway in 2000 and 2001. (Interestingly, it’s one of just a few plays in Broadway history to have its entire cast nominated for Tony Awards.) The show explores the phenomenon of West through the eyes of two devoted fans—aspiring actress and office-temp Jo, and public-library film archivist Charlie. They meet while visiting West’s grave, and develop a warm friendship based on a mutual love of the bawdy sex symbol.

Both Charlie and Jo are lonely and seem to be missing something in their lives, so finding in each other a fellow Mae West groupie seems like coming home. Jo idolizes West as an example of female strength, confidence and sexual liberation; after all, West spoke her mind and didn’t care a whit what anyone else thought. Mild-mannered Charlie, who actually got to meet and spend some time with West in her later years, is simply in awe of the star, describing her as “blonde and tough and ready for sex.” He basks in her flirtatiousness, and some of her sexual confidence even seems to rub off on him: When in her presence, he becomes the man he’s always wanted to be.

The scenes between Charlie and Jo are interspersed with vignettes from West’s career, from her early days in Vaudeville to her decline into parody while she was in her 80s. The audience is reminded of what a trailblazer she really was. Her battles with censors were legendary; she defied orders to tone down her hip swiveling in dance numbers, and even spent 10 days in jail for public lewdness during the run of her self-penned play Sex on Broadway.

Director James Gruessing has assembled a stellar cast; each member plays multiple roles with great skill. As Mae West and Jo, Bets Malone is simply superb. She perfectly captures both the sweet insecurity of Jo and the bold outrageousness of West. Though prettier than West herself, Malone nails it when it comes to West’s toughness—including the “don’t mess with me, but jump into bed when I snap my fingers” message to men. Of course, she has some of the play’s best lines: “I’ve seen more men than you’ve had hot lunches.” When an assistant is dismissed by West’s suggestion that he run down to the corner, he challenges her by asking, “What’s down on the corner?” Her answer: “YOU!” A strong actress, Malone also exhibits great pipes during the musical numbers.

Also an outstanding actor, Steve Gunderson plays Charlie with subtlety and tenderness. His growing affection for Jo is touching and believable, as is his conflict over whether he’s simply attracted to Mae West … or does he actually harbor a desire to be her? The onstage chemistry between Gunderson and Malone—crucial to this play—is quite strong.

Rounding out the cast is the fabulous Larry Raben, who portrays multiple characters, including West’s little-known husband, Frank Wallace. An actor knows that jumping back and forth between characters (and costumes) throughout a production is not easy, but Raben handles it with ease. He has great comic timing (as does the entire cast), and owns the stage whenever he appears.

Josh Clabaugh’s lovely set and Moira Wilkie’s lighting design are spot on. Special mention must be made of Bonnie Nipar’s lush costumes: The bright colors, sequins, glitter and boas are perfect for West’s larger-than-life persona. The hair and makeup are quite well-done in this production as well.

The musical numbers (the original score is by Bob Stillman) are a delight, especially “Dirty Blonde” and “Oh My, How We Pose.”

Kudos once again to Yates for choosing to mount this production now. It is so relevant to the current national conversation (long overdue) about what kind of sexual banter is and is not appropriate, and the movement for women to finally have both equal power in the workplace and complete control over what happens to their bodies.

I have a feeling Mae West would have quite a bit to say on the matter. Thank you, Mae, for your courage, your bluntness and your refusal to be anything other than what you were. And thank you, Chuck Yates and Coyote StageWorks, for giving valley audiences such a compelling and enjoyable evening of theater.

Dirty Blonde, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 3; 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 4; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 7; 2 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 8; 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 10; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs one hour and 40 minutes, with no Intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For me, it was a one-shouldered floral pink tunic.

I wore it to the premiere of an independent film in which I was featured. Accompanying me that evening was an older female producer friend I was living with while she recovered from an injury.

The film, alas, was a bomb; the friend, who had always been competitive with me, seemed to enjoy my humiliation. At the after-party, I discovered she had betrayed me professionally in a huge way. We had a screaming fight on the way home. I moved out the next day, and our friendship was over.

I could never bring myself to wear that pink top again.

Nearly every female has a similar emotionally charged story or two about articles of clothing, which is part of what makes Coyote StageWorks’ Love, Loss, and What I Wore so satisfying. Men (straight men, at least) may not get it, but women do: What we’re wearing during a major life-changing event can never be separated from the event itself.

Love, Loss, and What I Wore, written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, is based on a book by Ilene Beckerman. The play is a series of monologues using a cast of five women. When it was produced off-Broadway in 2009, the cast included Tyne Daly and Rosie O’Donnell. In 2010, it won the Broadway.com Audience Award for Favorite New Off-Broadway Play.

The five women, all dressed in black, sit on chairs downstage and occasionally refer to their scripts while relaying tales of first dates, bad marriages, divorce, death and fashion-challenged mothers.

Gingy (Gloria Loring) serves as the narrator. Gingy shares with the audience the way her wardrobe has marked important times in her life—starting with her Brownie uniform—and how easily such memories can be triggered. We learn of her three marriages, the death of one of her six kids (“Your son has expired,” the hospital tells her in a phone call), and her contentment in becoming a grandmother.

Loring—known to many as Liz Chandler on Days of Our Lives, to others for singing the hit duet “Friends and Lovers” with Carl Anderson, and to yet others as the mother of pop-sensation Robin Thicke—is wonderful. She exudes warmth and humor throughout the production, and pulls off the dramatic moments with skill. (Her breezy handling of a malfunctioning microphone at the top of the show on opening night set just the right tone.)

Mo Gaffney, who plays Gingy’s mother, among other characters, is hilarious. One of the evening’s highlights is her diatribe on purses, and how she can never keep hers tidy and organized. Her description of a friend who was trapped in a Paris café during a rainstorm so her $6,000 Grace Kelly handbag wouldn’t get ruined is priceless. Gaffney, a stage and film veteran, is the definition of a seasoned professional.  She’s magical onstage and makes it look easy.

Olympic gymnast-turned-actress Cathy Rigby is also terrific in multiple roles. She’s vulnerable and effective in a scene with Bets Malone as her lesbian lover, during which the two are deciding what to wear for their wedding. At another point, she recalls every stitch of clothing her character had on when she followed an abusive boyfriend to Seattle, begged him repeatedly to stay, and then finally mustered up the guts to dump the jerk.

Though not as well-known as the headliners, Malone is an amazingly versatile actress. She makes the most of a vignette comparing the loss of a favorite shirt to the end of a romantic relationship (“I just had to cherish the time I had with the shirt and move on”) and rivets us as a cancer survivor who decides to get a tattoo on her reconstructed breast.

Rounding out the cast is Elaine Hayhurst, also in several roles, including the girlfriend of a Chicago gang member. She shines in bits about choosing between wearing high heels or “thinking” shoes, and the trauma of having an unwanted audience of saleswomen help her buy a new bra. (All five women share amusing dressing-room angst: ”Oh my God, my butt fell!” and “This doesn’t fit, but I always lose weight in May.”)

Director Toni Kotite brings out the best in the cast. Each actress creates believable, likable characters whose stories draw us in, and the chemistry among the group is genuine. The tasteful lighting and simple set are perfect. Artistic director Chuck Yates once again has turned in a top-notch piece of theater, with a stellar cast and fabulous production values.

One of my pet peeves when attending plays these days is the tendency for audiences to jump to their feet at the end of every show, even when it’s mediocre or just plain awful. But the standing ovation Coyote StageWorks’ production of Love, Loss, and What I Wore received the night I saw it was richly deserved.

This play will make you laugh and cry—and perhaps make you wonder why you’re REALLY hanging on to those bell bottoms from junior high.

Coyote Stageworks’ Love, Loss, and What I Wore is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, through Saturday, April 5, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or go to www.annenbergtheater.org

Published in Theater and Dance

If you don’t like to have fun, then you absolutely must stay away from Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers, at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater. Stay home; be a curmudgeon; be a grinch—because this show might get to you. Opening night’s nearly full house at the gently raked theater found itself whooping and applauding in fits of wild enthusiasm.

Let’s discuss why.

Part of it is the music: a live band! On the stage! True, we don’t get to actually see the musicians, who are parked behind a fence so they don’t distract from the action. (Bravo to the seven-piece group; they never missed a lick, despite their not being acknowledged, or even mentioned, in the program. Why aren’t they? They are performers too, right?) Nonetheless, nothing adds excitement like the thrill of live music. A gigantic YAY to Coyote for this decision!

Yes, The Andrews Brothers is a musical, written by Roger Bean, whose credits are breathtaking. It’s set in 1945 on a Pacific island where an evening USO show is planned for “the boys.” The plot is as flimsy as that of some 1940s movies, but nobody minds. The setting for Act 1 is a military camp (with a surprising amount of scenery for a stage like the Annenberg, which has such little room backstage), and Act 2 changes to “the stage” of the show. Also in keeping with Annenberg tradition, the sound is flawless, and the face microphones all function perfectly.

Coyote Stageworks’ artistic director, Chuck Yates, opened the show at exactly 7:31 p.m., observing military promptness rather than the theatrical tradition of starting five minutes late for the tardy. After a charming little talk, he invited all the veterans to stand so we could thank them with our applause. I hope this wasn’t just an opening-night thing, because it is lovely, and it is always very affecting. Whether or not this idea was lifted from the Palm Springs Follies, I don’t care—because we can never thank our warriors enough.

So we GI-jive into the show, meeting the three USO stagehands who are planning their upcoming production. They have been assigned to this job because they are “effies,” or 4F.  A lot of the humor in the play, incredibly, comes from the disabilities which kept them out of active duty; this may be hard to believe in the uber-correct 21st century, I know, but it works. Tall, slim Michael Paternostro plays Lawrence, who is helpless without his glasses. Sweet, youthful Larry Raben is Patrick, a stutterer. Crafty, bossy Jamie Torcellini is Max, and I won’t ruin the joke by revealing his problem (and it’s not what you’re thinking).

They are awaiting the arrival of Peggy—played by sweet, crisp-voiced Bets Malone—a contest winner and pin-up girl from Seattle who is nervous about launching her professional showbiz career with tonight’s presentation. All four of these actors are Equity professionals with stunning résumés, so it is no surprise when they trot out terrific vocal harmonies, fantastic footwork and knockout comedic timing. They are also awaiting the Andrews Sisters, who are scheduled to fly in and perform—but we soon find out they are not going to arrive. Horrors! Will the troops be sent off the next day without a show? Well, in the best Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland tradition of here’s-a-barn-let’s-put-on-a-show, the stagehands offer to step in as performers. Corny? Sure. Cute? Totally.

I’m not going to give away what happens, but I will report that the Hawaiian number drew actual cheers from the crowd, and the staging of the “Slow Boat to China” number was beyond clever, while the “Six Jerks in a Jeep” was inventive and adorable. Kudos to the director Nicholas DeGruccio, choreographer Roger Castellano, musical director Colin Freeman, and stage manager Jill Gold for their work. Nothing in the world is more difficult than comedy. (Remember the story of the dying actor who is asked “Tell me, is dying hard?” He snarls in reply: “Dying is easy. COMEDY is hard.”) However, this combination of perfect timing and superb craftsmanship hits a home run.

But ah, the music. You know many of the songs, from Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Billy Rose, Frank Loesser—the usual suspects. Some more-obscure tunes are thrown into the mix, giving us variety and laughs and keeping the show from wandering off into cliché.

This all gives the actors an extraordinary chance to show off. In Act 1, we see enough glimmers of their talent to acknowledge the finely honed skills of these four performers, but Act 2 really lets them cut loose. (By the way: The film clips that are run during the intermission, all from that era, are astonishing—everything from war-bond appeals, to a cartoon with a cow playing the flute in Bugs Bunny’s orchestra, to a three-little-pigs animation in which the wolf is wearing a swastika armband; I was left quite speechless!) The quality of their performances, with the beautiful sureness of their footwork and the hilarious sight gags, is wonderfully innovative. It’s two hours and 15 minutes of feel-good Broadway quality, right here in Palm Springs.

But don’t go if you don’t want to have fun.

Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers is performed at various times, Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/annenberg-theater.

Published in Theater and Dance