CVIndependent

Wed06262019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

How do you get the best roles written for you, both onstage and onscreen?

In the case of the great Charles Busch, you write the roles yourself.

The gay/drag icon—who also found mainstream success with his Tony Award-nominated play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife—will bring his cabaret show Native New Yorker to the Purple Room on Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6.

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be on the stage,” Busch recently told me. “During college, I was never cast in any plays. I thought that if I was not making it in the university’s theater, I was going to have a big problem in the real world.

“It’s not like I could find any roles that were right for me. Being an androgynous young fellow, I didn’t know what would work for me. I started writing full-length plays when I was 11; I don’t know why it took me to the ripe old age of 19 to figure out I could write a starring role for myself. Northwestern didn’t offer the opportunity to put on your own production. I figured I’d never let that stop me. My senior year, I wrote a play and found a way of doing it myself. That was the first time I ever wrote, acted and directed my own play. … I really just became a writer so that I could have roles onstage.”

Busch, as the name of his show states, was born in New York City.

“I had an eccentric childhood. My mother died when I was 7, and I was very lucky that my Aunt Lillian, a widow with no children, lived in New York City. She was the great force in my life,” Busch said. “I was always spending weekends with her. She started taking me to the theater when I was about 9 years old. She was always very, very encouraging to me. When I was 13, I was living in a fantasy world, and I wasn’t functioning. I was going to be held back in school. I was living up in a suburb, and my aunt stepped in and brought me to live with her in New York City—just like Auntie Mame. She was the most influential person in my life. She encouraged any talent that I had and was extremely supportive. She taught me great lessons, and I was very fortunate I was never saddled with the concept of, ‘What would people think?’ It’s never been part of my consciousness, and that has allowed me to be something of an adventurist and just do something because I thought it would be fun or outrageous.

“My operative word that I have always held onto is always ‘fun.’ I don’t have the concern of, ‘What will people think?’—just, ‘How much fun this could be?’”

Busch’s April shows will mark a return to the Purple Room.

“I love Palm Springs and have been coming to the Purple Room for the last three years. I have some very good friends who live in Palm Springs, and I like to come whenever I can,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend as much time socializing, because I don’t want to exhaust myself before performing.”

Busch said Native New Yorker reflects his personal experience.

“I am a playwright—really, a storyteller. My cabaret show is about my story, where I come from—and then finding songs that help illuminate my stories,” Busch said. “This show is very much about my life in the ’70s and the ’80s. It starts off when I went to college at Northwestern, and it’s really about my quest during that decade and a half of how I was going to have a career in the theater. … The show ends at the opening of my 1985 show Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. This play helped establish me as a playwright and actor.

“I sing a collection of beautiful songs from the ’70s and ’80s by Sondheim, Rupert Holmes and Henry Mancini, as well as a collection of Broadway pop songs. The songs really helped to illuminate my storyline. It’s both touching and funny. I’ve told these stories so often in my living room that it’s nice to be able to share it on the stage. I create the illusion that the whole audience is in my living room.”

While Busch is known for his drag performances, he will not be in drag for Native New Yorker.

“Originally, the show was done with me in drag,” he said. “But it is my story, so a few years ago, I decided to try it without the drag. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it, but I’ve discovered that I really love it. It didn’t really change anything. It made me feel freer, and it makes more sense when I’m introduced as Charles Busch, and I enter as Charles Busch.”

Charles Busch: Native New Yorker will be performed at 8 p.m. (after a 6 p.m. dinner seating) on Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6, at the Purple Room, 1900 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $50 to $60 plus a $25 food/drink minimum. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-4422, or visit purpleroompalmsprings.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday out of the way, our thoughts turn to the Christmas season—and one of the special seasonal events in our valley is always Desert Rose Playhouse’s ever-innovative holiday production. This year, the choice is Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel.

Set in New York (and heaven, do you mind), it visits Manhattan in 1948—a wild postwar world of swinging nightclubs, famous restaurants, jazz and a night life that goes on until dawn. The underbelly of the town contains a second world of mobsters and molls, gambling and gunplay, cheesy shows and characters … and that’s where we find ourselves, with everyone speaking thick Manhattan-ese.

Understand that everything in this light-hearted comedy is over the top—you will find no subtle gritty-realism method acting here. It’s all for fun and for the effect, and producer Paul Taylor has assembled a cast that fully comprehends this.

The show stars the extraordinary Loren Freeman as Irish O’Flanagan, a carrot-topped nightclub singer whose miserly, selfish and mean-spirited ways earn her some flashback visits to the past, plus a glimpse of her destined future, courtesy of a guardian angel. (I know, I know—you’re already seeing the parallels with Scrooge.) The angel, Albert, is played by Robbie Wayne, who has been named a “DRP artistic associate” for his ever-growing and varied list of jobs with the group, including creating the choreography for this “musical pastiche.” As Albert, he’s a slick, pinstripe-suited and smart-mouthed former performer in trouble with God for a batch of heavenly infractions who is facing expulsion to Hades. He bargains to get back into God’s Good Books by agreeing to go down to Earth and trying to convert Irish into a being who is also worthy of admission to heaven. Which, as you’ve guessed, she currently is not.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the lead actor in this show. Everything turns on Irish O’Flanagan’s magnetism and believability, as she is in almost every scene. Loren Freeman, with his astonishing aquamarine eyes, resonant foghorn bass voice and shapely legs, brings an arsenal of skills and talents more than equal to this task. (In fact, this entire show features many great gams, both male and female—if the Desert Theatre League ever creates a category for Best Legs, this show is the, umm, hands-down winner.) A consummate professional, Freeman actually takes a pass on opportunities to react when another actor is speaking, knowing that if he does, it would draw the audience’s eye away to him … yet when he does react, it’s flawless. His New York accent is perfect, and in that whisky-baritone voice, he relishes rolling his mouth around the script’s 1940s street-slang—like “a clop on the chops,” “doll,” “jawboning” and “stooge.” Even as Irish blusters and struts, we see the vulnerability beneath the surface, and when she sings, it can break your heart. It’s a case of absolutely perfect casting.

DRP seems close to forming its own repertory company with the return to the boards of such favorite actors as Terry Huber, Cat Lyn Day, Michael Pacas, Melanie Blue and Kam Sisco. Also included are some welcome new faces: Ruth Braun, James Owens and Karen Schmitt. A growing company is a healthy company, and they all get to fill the stage and show off their versatility by playing a delicious variety of multiple roles. Parker Tenney plays The Voice of God, which might surprise you.

There were a couple of understandable first-night fumbles and misfortunes, and in some places, the timing was a little bit off, but knowing Jim Strait, this will be fixed by the time you see the show. And some of the accents need work—they’re a little muddy. There were a couple of bewildering moments, possibly because of some anachronisms in the costumes and the music, but for “heaven’s” sake, who cares?

Among my favorite moments were Huber’s touching solo; some of the terrific quick changes; Sisco’s hilarious portrait of a drunken former Vaudeville star from back when drunks were still funny; extra touches like the antlers; some lovely harmonies; several moments of exquisite timing; and the expression “a case of the dismals,” which will promptly be absorbed into everyone’s current vocab. The first-night audience must have agreed, because they broke into spontaneous applause during and between the scenes. The 95-minute play is performed without an intermission, just in case your kidneys might want to know in advance.

The production is designed and directed by DRP’s founding artistic director, Jim Strait. He and Paul Taylor unabashedly adore Christmas, wearing outrageous Yuletide garb to welcome the playgoers. How refreshing is this? It makes you want to rush home and get out your Christmas decorations.

Playwright Charles Busch—whose name you will remember from other DRP productions including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/Coma—frankly admits A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as inspirations for Times Square Angel, along with the gangster movies of the ’40s, with those tough-talking chorus girls and thugs found in places like this show’s gaudy Club Intime.

Musical director Joel Baker has pre-recorded the accompaniment music, which mixes styles such as doo-wop, blues, gospel and, of course, some good old Christmas songs everyone knows. (You DO know “Mele Kalikimaka” in Hawaiian, right? Because they sing it here.)

Regarding the aforementioned repertory, returning costume director Mark Demry (who delights us with two-tone spectator shoes, perky hats and nostalgic fur stoles) and hair stylist Toni Molano (the wigs are hugely important in this show … though some are a bit weird) are again joined by the incomparable Phil Murphy as lighting director, whose contribution makes this his 49th show for DRP. Steve Fisher is the stage manager once again. How pleasant for this company to be able to rely on the same tried-and-true talents for every production!

This play is fun. It will make you feel good. It will infuse you with Christmas spirit. You will want to immediately rush home and dust off the Christmas tree lights—and maybe it will even inspire you to give Christmas gifts of theater tickets or even season subscriptions, thereby giving ideal presents to everyone!

Times Square Angel is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 17, at 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.

Published in Theater and Dance

If you’re one of those poor souls carrying resentment about mistreatment by nuns in Catholic school—or if you just need a few good belly laughs—get to the Desert Rose Playhouse, pronto.

The Divine Sister, produced by Paul Taylor, may just be your salvation.

The play was originally conceived by actor, writer and longtime female impersonator Charles Busch as a star vehicle for himself. Known for his off-Broadway play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, Busch once said, “Drag is being more, more than you can be.”

The Divine Sister is a demented tribute to films featuring nuns, from The Sound of Music to Agnes of God. The story unfolds at St. Veronica’s Convent and grade school in Pittsburgh. Mother Superior (Jim Strait) has many issues to deal with, including the fact that the school building is falling down. She’s dealing with a young postulate named Agnes (of course), who believes she has magical healing powers and that the Virgin Mary speaks directly to her; Timothy, a young boy in desperate need of baseball coaching who doesn’t yet realize he’s gay; and a newly arrived German nun who may not be all that she seems.

Throw in devout atheist Mrs. Levinson, who could fund a new school if she were so inclined, and a man from Mother Superior’s crime-reporting past who is still pining for her, and you can understand the need for a few extra prayers.

Strait, who also serves as Desert Rose’s artistic director, is tremendous here. Though The Divine Sister is an ensemble piece, Strait is the captain of the ship, and he skillfully leads his cast through this irreverent romp. He’s strong actor and a charismatic presence who seems very comfortable in drag—but his physical size and voice remind us that there’s some testosterone in the mix as well. Sporting a long, curly wig and heels, Strait’s first appearance as girl reporter Susan Appleyard gets a huge laugh. Strait seems to be having as much fun as the audience is, which really enhances the theater-going experience.

Allison Feist is perfectly cast as innocent Agnes, who truly believes she’s been specially chosen by God. She exudes both the religious fervor of Meg Tilly in Agnes of God and the girlish mischievousness of Julie Andrews in The Sounds of Music. The physical gyrations she goes through while “healing” others are laugh-out-loud funny. Keep an eye on Feist; she has a bright future ahead of her.

As Sister Acacius, Lorraine Williamson knocks the role out of the park. Big, bold and brassy, she shows off animated facial expressions and perfect comic timing that remind me of a combination of Jo Anne Worley and Lucille Ball. Sister Acacius has a lusty past, and her vow of celibacy sometimes seems to waiver. When handsome movie consultant Jeremy (the fabulous Timm McBride) begins describing his impressive manhood in great detail, Williamson’s efforts not to drool are precious.

Adina Lawson delivers an award-worthy performance as smug, privileged Mrs. Levinson. Early in the show, two nuns visit her in an effort to secure funds to build a new school. Mrs. Levinson explains her devout atheism while describing agnostics as “wishy-washy fools afraid to take an intelligent stand. Give me religious zealots. At least you can depend on their stupidity.” Later, while sharing memories of her late husband Morris (including sea creatures during a visit to Crete, and his fatal heart attack), Levinson peppers her stories with hilarious Vogue magazine-esque descriptions of what she was wearing. Her turn as 12-year-old Timothy is equally impressive. Lawson is a pro—she totally embodies each character and is clearly having a blast on stage.

The always-interesting Alden West is quite good as the mysterious German nun, Sister Maria Walburga. Like pretty much everyone else in the play, her character has secrets—including a randy side. Walburga’s not-so-subtle invitation to Sister Acacius to have a sexual threesome with another nun is a hoot. West manages to maintain distinctly different (and believable) accents as both Berlin native Sister Walburga and, later, as a Scottish housekeeper. Any actor will tell you that to accomplish such a thing within the same play is not an easy feat.

As both Jeremy (the well-endowed film consultant hunting for a good story) and sinister monk Brother Venerius, Timm McBride is excellent. Having each actor play two roles in a production doesn’t always work, but it does here—beautifully. There is not a single weak performance here.

Director J. Stegar Thompson gets the best out of his strong cast. He keeps the pace going, which keeps the laughs flowing. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Thomas L. Valach’s set and Phil Murphy’s lighting provide just the right mood, as does Thompson’s sound. In a show with so much cross-dressing and actors playing dual roles, costumes (Kathryn Ferguson) and wigs (Toni Molano and Timm McBride) are crucial. All are spot on. Stage manager Steve Fisher deserves a nod as well.

This terrific show did suffer through a couple of glitches on opening night. There was a stumble right out of the gate with sound cues. After a delightful recorded welcome to the show from playwright Charles Busch, opening music began … then abruptly stopped. Then we heard a repeat of Busch’s welcome … which also abruptly stopped. Then there was the music again … which stopped. Finally, the music began in earnest, and the play got underway. The performances were so good that the audience soon forgot about the sound snafu, but it was an unfortunate way to start the night. Another big goof: Toward the end of the show, there was a premature entrance by an actor during a very dramatic moment in the script.

No matter what your religious affiliation, you will enjoy Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Divine Sister. It’s funny; it’s raucous; and it’s one hell of an entertaining evening.

The Divine Sister is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets or more information, call, 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s time to celebrate the beginning of the end of summer with some great events!

Fantasy Springs Resort Casino has some big names scheduled for September. Funny man George Lopez will be stopping by at 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 6. The Mexican-American comedian’s impressive career has included his own talk show, several sitcoms and various other acting credits. Tickets are $39 to $99. If that’s not a big enough name for you, sit down, because Diana Ross will be returning to the Coachella Valley for a performance at 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 20. The former Supremes singer is a Motown legend and R&B powerhouse. At 70 years old, she’s still going strong. Tickets are $49 to $109. Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, Indio; 800-827-2946; www.fantasyspringsresort.com.

Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa has a couple of excellent events worth mentioning. The first one: Janelle Monae is performing at 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 12. The psychedelic soul singer has performed at Coachella, won six Grammy awards, and supported many artists on various tours. Hers is not typical R&B music by any means. Tickets are $45 to $75. Peter Frampton (right) will take the stage at 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 19. If you were a child of the ’70s, you definitely were enveloped in the music of Peter Frampton. It’s been said that everyone once owned his record Frampton Comes Alive, because it came with free samples of Tide in the mail. Tickets are $50 to $70. The Show at Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, 32250 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage; 888-999-1995; www.hotwatercasino.com.

Morongo Casino Resort Spa has an event in September that you definitely shouldn’t miss: The legendary Engelbert Humperdinck (below) will be appearing at 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 19. The British crooner’s career goes back to 1956, and he enjoys a large following of female fans of all different ages. Legend says that he has more notches on his bedpost than Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead and Gene Simmons of KISS. Tickets are $59 to $69. Morongo Casino Resort Spa, 49500 Seminole Drive, Cabazon; 800-252-4499; www.morongocasinoresort.com.

The Ace Hotel and Swim Club has some great things going on during September. On Friday, Sept. 12, and Saturday, Sept. 13, the Ace Hotel will host Beer Culture: Craft Beer Weekend. There will be more than 20 craft breweries on hand, including the local big three: Coachella Valley Brewing Company, La Quinta Brewing Co., and Babe’s. There will be live music from Tijuana Panthers, Beach Party, RT n the 44s, and Pearl Charles and the Pipes Canyon Band. Prices vary. Ace Hotel and Swim Club, 701 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs; 760-325-9900; www.acehotel.com/palmsprings.

The Copa in Palm Springs is offering an impressive lineup in September. At 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 6, the Copa will host American Idol contestant Melinda Doolittle. Doolittle finished third during the show’s sixth season and almost always received praise from the judges. Tickets are $27.50 to $37.50. Drag legend Charles Busch will be stopping by at 8 p.m., Friday, Sept. 19, and Saturday, Sept. 20. Busch is also known as a playwright and a singer. Tickets are $35 to $65. Nita Whitaker, a vocalist who has shared the stage with Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand, will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 27. Tickets are $25 to $40. The Copa Palm Springs, 244 E. Amado Road, Palm Springs; 760-866-0021; www.coparoomps.com.

Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace has had an excellent summer and has an awesome schedule coming up for the fall. In September, Pappy’s is hosting one event you don’t want to miss: The reunited Cibo Matto will be appearing at 8 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28. The indie-rock band fronted by two Japanese women, Yuka Honda and Miho Matori, reunited in 2011 after almost a decade-long breakup. Yuka Honda worked with Damon Albarn as part of the animated band Gorillaz. Tickets are $15. Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown; 760-365-5956; www.pappyandharriets.com.

The Hood Bar and Pizza has a big fall and winter ahead, according to The Hood’s booking man, Jack Kohler. John Garcia of Kyuss will be having his album-release party at 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 5. This is the celebration of his self-titled solo album, which has been getting good reviews. Admission is $15. Now for some shameless self promotion (although it’s for a good cause): My second NestEggg Food Bank Benefit Show will happen at 9 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 13. Scheduled performers include The Yip Yops, Burning Bettie, Sunday Funeral and The Hellions. Admission is free, but a $5 donation is suggested. The Voodoo Glow Skulls will be returning to The Hood at 9 p.m., Friday, Sept. 19. Also on the bill will be local band Machin’. Admission is $5. At 9 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 27, Arizona punk outfit Authority Zero will be dropping in. Admission is $10. The Hood Bar and Pizza, 74360 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-636-5220; www.facebook.com/thehoodbar.

Published in Previews