CVIndependent

Wed08222018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona have a well-deserved reputation for offering first-rate theatrical productions—and the latest effort, Romance/Romance, does not disappoint.

To put it simply … the show is phenomenal.

With book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, Romance/Romance was first produced in 1987, and received five Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.

The show consists of two one-act musicals. The first, The Little Comedy, is based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler; it’s set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Alfred and Josefine, both well-off but lonely, each decide that creating a less-affluent persona might increase their chances of finding true love. He pretends to be a nearly penniless poet, while her charade is that of a poor seamstress. They meet while walking in the park … and soon fall in love. The progression of their romance is detailed in letters each writes to friends. The question is: How long can they keep up the facade? And will their love endure if they come clean about their true identities?

Both Conchita Belisle Newman (Josefine) and Christopher Carothers (Alfred) are superb. Blessed with beautiful, robust singing voices, they take us on a lovely romantic journey. Their acting is quite good as well, and the onstage chemistry is palpable. The musical numbers, including the hopeful “It’s Not Too Late” and “I’ll Always Remember the Song,” are all memorable, but the highlight of the first act has to be Josefine’s poignant “The Night It Had to End,” exquisitely sung by Newman.  

Supporting cast members Eric B. Anthony (Him) and Robyn Cohen (Her) add the perfect touch to the first act, performing lovely, skillful dances that take us from scene to scene and tie it all together.

Act II, Summer Share, is based on Jules Renard’s play Le Pain de Ménage. Set in modern times, it introduces us to best friends Monica (Newman) and Sam (Carothers), and their respective spouses, Lenny (Anthony) and Barb (Cohen), who are on vacation together. Though Lenny and Barb have always been fine with the platonic bond between Monica and Sam, things seem to shift on this trip. Suspicions (and other things?) are aroused after Barb and Lenny retire to bed, and the friends are left alone to chat in the wee hours. They wonder if their relationship is really platonic (“Let’s Not Talk About It”). Could their respective marriages survive an affair? Every long-married woman can relate to the yearning for sweet nothings in “Words He Doesn’t Say” (flawlessly delivered by Carothers).

In this act, the chemistry between Newman and Carothers is not just palpable—it is electric. The audience almost feels heat coming from the stage; it’s a terrific example of damn-good acting.

Anthony and Cohen are featured more in the second half, and they are both triple threats—fabulous actors, singers and dancers, with great comic timing. Their duet “Small Craft Warnings” is particularly notable.

There is much to like about this production, but what really stands out is how everything just flows together. Before the first note is played, one is struck by the gorgeous set. The cast is uniformly excellent; kudos to Ron Celona for both his spot-on casting and direction. The costumes, hair and makeup and lighting are wonderful.

Special mention has to be made of musical director Jaci Davis and the band, featuring Davis on piano, Daniel Gutierrez on keyboards, Bill Saitta on bass and Dave Hitchings on percussion. Their perfect blend supports the singers without being overpowering.

Whether you are a hopeless romantic, a theater aficionado or someone who simply wants an entertaining evening out, Romance/Romance is the ticket.

Romance/Romance is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 11, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is a little more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory artistic director Ron Celona has put on some fabulous productions since the theater opened its doors in 2008—but he has truly outdone himself with his current offering, Baby—The Musical.

The show, with book by Sybille Pearson, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., ran on Broadway in 1983-1984. It tells the story of three different couples and how they each react to the news of impending parenthood. College students Lizzie (Melody Hollis) and Danny (Caleb Horst) have just moved in together, and seem much more at ease with the prospect of having a baby than with the commitment of marriage. Thirty-somethings Pam (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and Nick (Perry Ojeda), coaches at the same college, are facing the heartbreak of apparent infertility. The oldest couple, 43-year-old Arlene (Janna Cardia), a stay-at-home mom of three grown daughters, and 48-year-old university staff member Alan (Tom Andrew), are stunned by a surprise pregnancy. The audience goes along for the ride as each couple faces the trials, tribulations and joys involved in bringing a new life into this world.

One of the most impressive things about CV Rep’s Baby is director Celona’s success in fitting 10 actors and five musicians on his intimate stage without them looking like a can of sardines. Everyone moves on and off the stage smoothly, and it never appears crowded. That is no easy feat.

The excellent band features some of the valley’s best musicians—Daniel Gutierrez on the keyboard, Dave Hitchings on percussion, Doug MacDonald on guitar, Bill Saitta on bass and Scott Storr (also the musical director) on piano. A musical play is always a richer experience with live music rather than recorded backgrounds.

The cast is superb across the board; there is not one weak link. The excellent ensemble—Jaci Davis, Jeff Stewart, Giulia Ethel Tomasi and Joseph H. Dahman—serves as a sort of Greek chorus, moving the story along. Each of them also shines in minor roles, particularly Tomasi as a fertility specialist having trouble with her contact lenses, and Stewart as a snooty real estate agent.

The leads all exhibit impressive voices and strong acting chops. As empty-nesters Alan and Arlene, Andrew and Cardia ably convey the conflict over whether they really want to become mired in the formula-and-diaper routine again later in their lives. It felt as if the audience was collectively holding their breath as the two danced around the subject of terminating the pregnancy.

The sexual chemistry between Hanrahan-Ball and Ojeda, as Pam and Nick, is palpable. We share the pain they feel about not being able to conceive. While the singing is uniformly superb, Ojeda’s soaring voice stands out.

Hollis and Horst are perfect as college sweethearts Lizzie and Danny. Just starting out in life, they are trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the new life they’re creating. Hollis can really sing.

Baby has a difficult score, with many songs written in minor keys, but the cast handles them well. Some of the more memorable numbers include the rousing “Fatherhood Blues” featuring all the men, Danny’s romantic “I Chose Right,” “I Want It All” featuring the three female leads, and Lizzie’s hilarious “The Ladies Singin’ Their Song,” her lament about strange women patting her growing belly and sharing their own childbirth experiences.

Ron Celona’s direction is spot-on here, as are the costumes, set, lighting and sound.

It’s wonderful—and not all that common—to have absolutely nothing negative to say about a show. I had that experience watching CV Rep’s production of Baby. It’s not just about childbirth. It’s about life, love and the complexity of human relationships. This show will touch your heart … even if you have no kids—or don’t even like them.

Baby—The Musical is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Tickets are $48, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966 or go to www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has built an excellent reputation as a place to see thought-provoking theater since it was founded in 2008.

But this summer, as CV Rep takes its annual seasonal break from plays, founder and artistic director Ron Celona decided to try something new: a summer jazz series, in association with world-class bassist Bill Saitta.

It all began when Saitta was hired as part of the band for CV Rep’s production of A Class Act early this year. (Ron first met Saitta through a common friend, Yve Evans, herself an amazing local jazz musician.) One day during rehearsals, as the story goes, Saitta suggested a summer jazz series.

Celona had already incorporated cabaret shows into the theater’s summer offerings, but CV Rep was looking for a way to increase revenues to cover rent for recently acquired additional space.

Thus, the Summer Jazz Series was born.

The two men hammered out the details during several brainstorming lunches. The concept was inspired by Fitz’s Jazz Café at the McCallum Theatre, which is curated by local musician and longtime radio personality Jimi “Fitz” Fitzgerald. This prompted Celona to tell Saitta: “I want you to be my Fitz!”

Celona said his appreciation of jazz—one of his favorite singers is Dinah Washington—began as a child. His father played the tenor saxophone, but gave it up to get a “regular” job to support his family. Celona himself—a talented singer, actor, dancer and director—studied piano briefly as a child.

“It didn’t stick,” he said.

Saitta began playing piano at the age of 7 and added the Fender bass at age 14. He studied bass and guitar with Carol Kaye and earned a degree in instrumental performance from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the season, Saitta is featured every Tuesday night at Backstreet Bistro in Palm Desert, jamming with great talents like Yve Evans, Doug MacDonald and Deanna Bogart. He’s also the staff bassist for the Jazz in the Pines Festival in Idyllwild every August.

Saitta will be featured on bass throughout the jazz series, with Tim Pleasant on drums. Saitta compared the process of collaboration between singers and musicians to the collaboration within an a capella group.

“Everybody’s pitching in and contributing to the harmonic sound,” Saitta said. “The conversation should reach out into the audience, yet I’m always striving for intimacy.”

Celona said he has “absolutely” achieved the goals he set for himself when he founded CV Rep back in 2008. He predicts that by this coming October, the theater’s season-ticket subscriber base will reach 1,400. CV Rep is also the only Equity theater in the valley.

Next season’s CV Rep lineup will feature guest directors, larger casts and extended runs—each show will be performed for a full four weeks.

As for rumors that CV Rep is moving to a new location, Celona would only confirm that the theater will definitely be in its current location, inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, during the upcoming season. (Watch for a mid-summer news release regarding the theater’s future.)

What makes CV Rep different from other live theaters in the valley?

“I try to choose plays that will challenge the audience—educational, thought-provoking fare that is not being offered elsewhere locally,” Celona said. His goal is to tap the passions of audience members, and perhaps have them look at the play’s subject matter from a different angle. 

Both Celona and Saitta hope the Summer Jazz Series will be a rousing success. If it is, Celona said he’ll bring in similar artists throughout the season in between plays.

The lineup:

  • The Sherry Williams Quartet: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, June 23-25.
  • Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton: 7 p.m., Thursday, July 21.
  • Josh Nelson: 7 p.m., Friday, July 22.
  • Carl Saunders and his quartet: 7 p.m., Saturday, July 23.
  • Jennifer Leitham Trio: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 25-27.

CV Rep’s Summer Jazz Series takes place at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for each show plus a post-show reception sponsored by Gelson’s Market. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

Published in Previews