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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season in high style with a return of Christmas With the Crawfords, created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. Artistic director Robbie Wayne is hoping to repeat the successful run the production enjoyed last season—and if the opening night audience’s reaction is any indication, his hopes are definitely being met.

Most of last year’s cast has returned to reprise their roles in this fun holiday romp, ably directed by Kam Sisco, who also plays Joan Crawford.

One of the most impressive elements of this show is Matthew McLean’s spectacular set. It’s Hollywood glam, holiday-style—and the sophisticated blend of white, silver and blue is simply stunning. It made me want to grab a glass of champagne and join the party myself. Desert Rose has always built outstanding sets, but this one is particularly superb.

The story revolves around a live radio broadcast on Christmas Eve, in 1944, at the Brentwood home of Hollywood legend Joan Crawford. (The play is based on an actual Christmas Eve broadcast that took place in 1949.) Having been labeled “box office poison” by MGM, Joan is desperately trying to revive her film career. Insulted that she must take a screen test to land the lead in the Warner Bros. film Mildred Pierce, Crawford has enlisted her friend Hedda Hopper (Timm McBride) to set up the radio interview. Later that evening, Jack Warner himself is scheduled to arrive to talk business.

Children Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Christine Tringali Nunes) are crucial parts of the perfect family portrait Crawford is attempting to portray. Dressed matching red plaid outfits, the two have clearly been drilled on what to do and say. As the evening wears on, however, Christina’s disdain for her “Mommy Dearest” becomes apparent. Baby Jane Hudson (also played by Timm McBride) is now working as Crawford’s servant, and the animosity between the two women has not waned a bit.

As the broadcast gets under way, surprise guests begin showing up at the door. Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda (Ed Lefkowitz), Mae West and Ethel Merman (Stan Jenson), Gloria Swanson (Timothy McIntosh), Judy Garland (Anthony Nannini) and even the Andrews Sisters (a mix of the aforementioned) arrive, having gotten lost trying to find neighbor Gary Cooper’s home. Cooper is throwing a large holiday bash—to which Joan has not been invited. The snub, and the competition for attention, only fuel Joan’s anger and insecurity.

The performances here are uniformly stellar. There’s no question that everyone onstage is having a ball, which certainly ramps up the fun for the audience. Sisco’s Crawford is perfect. His long legs enhance the effect of the splendid gowns he wears throughout the show, and the over-the top wig, huge red lips and ever-present evil sneer are perfect. Sisco truly embodies the desperation and bitterness of the fading Hollywood star Crawford was at that time.

It is hard to believe that McBride plays both Baby Jane Hudson and Hedda Hopper; the transformation into both characters is complete. When he makes his entrance as Baby Jane—dressed all in pink and white, and sporting blonde pigtails—it is impossible not to laugh. His bit on the phone with the local grocery store ordering booze for the evening’s festivities is terrific, as is his version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” His performance as PR maven Hedda Hopper is equally strong—all business, in an appropriate tweed suit.

McIntosh’s Gloria Swanson is fabulous. Garbed in black chiffon, he nails Swanson’s facial expressions and far-off stare. One of the marks of a true professional actor is what they do onstage when another actor has the spotlight. Staying in character when one is in the background is crucial—and not always easy. McIntosh is Gloria Swanson every second he’s onstage … except, of course, when he is one of the Andrews Sisters. He, Jenson and Nannini bring the trio back to life early in the show, with a rousing number about Hanukkah in Santa Monica.

Jenson, who also plays both Mae West and Ethel Merman, is a hoot. The juxtaposition of his blonde Mae West wig and pink feathered gown with his beard stubble and low growl is quite funny. He has great comic timing and is a joy to watch.

Lefkowitz also successfully juggles two roles: Katharine Hepburn and Carmen Miranda. Though his Miranda is decked out in loud colors, huge earrings and a fruit-bedecked turban, he worries that his dress is too plain: “I feel like a stripped weasel!”

Martin (Christina) and Nunes (Christopher) are splendid. As the only female in the show, Nunes was tapped to play Crawford’s son, and nails his wide-eyed innocence. As Christina, Martin really makes us feel the girl’s growing resentment toward her controlling mother.

Every actor in Christmas With the Crawfords is amazing, but if there is a standout in the cast, it has to be Nannini as Judy Garland. You simply cannot take your eyes off him. Dressed in a black-sequined tux jacket, fishnets, dance pants and heels, with Nannini perfectly capturing her gestures and facials expressions, it’s not to believe he isn’t actually Judy. He nearly steals the show with his lip-quivering version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

If Bruce Weber and Matt Torres do not win Desert Theatre League awards for best costuming for this show, there is no justice in the world. The hair and make-up are fabulous as well.

The only minor flaw in this production came at the end: The timing and intensity of the dramatic yet campy finale seemed a tad muted. I would like to see a bigger bang at the end, and perhaps a faster blackout. I am betting that will happen as the run continues.

Congrats to Desert Rose Playhouse for knocking it out of the park once again: Christmas With the Crawfords is pure fun.

Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the run time is about 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Loren Freeman is one of the best actors in our valley—and now he’s making his directorial debut with the Desert Rose Playhouse’s summer production of Ruthless! The Musical.

So here’s what is wrong with the show: Absolutely nothing! This is a not-to-be-missed romp, with a high energy level that will leave you wrung out from laughing, music that will delight you, and extreme hilarity.

I asked Freeman how he felt about directing his first show. “It’s a great excuse to boss everybody around,” he confided, “if you’re that kind of person.” Well, that is beyond modesty, because everyone in the cast clearly wears the stamp of his famous style. He has a matchless gift for over-the-top work, and has uniformly inspired these actors with his special comedic flair.

It is a show about obsessive showbiz ambition; can there be any juicier topic? The original Los Angeles production of Ruthless! ran for an extraordinary eight months back in 1993, and guess who starred in it? You got it: Loren Freeman himself. Voila!

The open set that greets the audience, designed by Bruce Weber, is a living room done in mid-century modernism classic, with crisp whites, cool blues and minty greens—a classic home of the ’50s. The lady of the house—in pearls, apron and a baby-blue polka dot shirtdress—is bizarrely Stepford Wife-like. This is Christine Tringali Nunes, perfectly playing the role of Judy Denmark with a brainwashed or maybe tranquilizer-addled sweetness—but this actress cleverly slips us a hint of other moods to come.

Her darling daughter, Tina, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Schmelling, wears identical polka dots, a crinoline and tap shoes; she introduces herself in a number that reveals a confident soprano voice, fine dance skills and the palest sky-blue eyes ever. Her heart-shaped face can instantly transmogrify from child-like sweetness into that of a devilish brat or a sullen rebellious youth; it’s a fabulous face that bears watching in the future.

The kid has talent—and she’s ambitious! Although still in school, Tina aspires to greatness. And that’s where Sylvia St. Croix—extravagantly and fabulously played by the theater’s artistic director, Robbie Wayne, in drag—comes in. Her amazing wardrobe, also courtesy of Bruce Weber, echoes Hedda and Louella and those overdressed Hollywood ladies of the ’50s. You can’t take your eyes off her. She is the self-appointed agent/guardian/manager of little Tina, swaggering around under gigantic hats, huge diamonds worn in the daytime, and wild colors in animal patterns. Her lipstick alone is terrifying.

Oh! This show is a musical, and the multitalented Steven Smith once again provides flawless music direction … plus he accompanies each performance as a one-person orchestra on keyboard. The songs are very funny, and the sound is beautifully balanced thanks to Adrian Niculescu and Miguel Gomez. There is no choreographer listed; evidently, the dance steps are the self-invented brainchild of the actors and/or Loren Freeman.

This show being a musical explains the presence of musician/vocalist Dana Adkins in the cast. A longtime Valley fave, she plays Miss Thorn, Tina’s teacher—everyone’s worst nightmare of a schoolmarm, with the nose-perched reading glasses, pencils poked into her beehive hairdo, ghastly sensible shoes, lips pursed in perennial disapproval, and the pointiest eyebrows imaginable. Her vocal range takes her from a hilarious falsetto to low growls—dangerous voice use for anyone except an experienced singer like Adkins, who manages it breezily.

Jaci Davis plays the theater critic (ahem!) Lita Encore with jaw-dropping gusto. She serves up a fascinating silver-haired character who sports one of the most powerful singing voices anywhere, demonstrating a masterful vibrato and an edgy style that appears effortless. Her energy is incandescent, and she simmers with a stunning stage presence.

One of the greatest challenges (and most fun) in acting is playing multiple roles in a production, and this play gives Leanna Rogers an opportunity to showcase her impressive chops with two wildly different characters. First, Louise is a peculiar schoolgirl aspiring to grab the lead in Pippi Longstocking, and then Rogers switches to play Eve, a jealousy-consumed secretary/assistant to a successful Broadway star. She changes everything from posture to hair, makeup and vocal choices between the characters, and yet manages to bring a tinge of brief sadness to both roles.

But there are laughs everywhere in this production. Our audience applauded frequently and enthusiastically, and roared at the punchlines. (Actually, a couple of people nearly lost it, so be warned.) The second-act set takes us to a Manhattan apartment, featuring the glitziest of multihued drapes, the purplest possible shade of settee cushions, and the fanciest telephone that ever rang.

This show involves several different styles of comedy, meaning the range for each of these actors can be fully explored. It is rare to find material that provides this kind of opportunity, and these six talented thespians are no doubt grateful for the chance to show us what they can do with the music of Marvin Laird and a book by Joel Paley. Yet the evenness of the production has to be credited to Freeman’s eagle eyes and his sense of timing.

Enormous kudos to whoever did the casting for this play; the selection of these players is flawless. The lighting is designed by the incomparable Phil Murphy, and it can’t get better than that, thanks also to lighting tech Duke Core. The temperature in the Desert Rose Playhouse is very comfortable (not like certain movie theaters determined to freeze us out with running noses). What a joy to see a live show in the summertime—and you are absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this one. It has some really great moments and truly unforgettable lines.

This is a directorial debut that was evidently long overdue. Not only has Freeman pulled hilarious and layered performances out of his actors, but the stage blocking is beautifully balanced; the tension continues to mount through surprising plot twists right to the outrageous endings; and the overall atmosphere of silliness and send-up never stops tickling the audience. The only way this show could possibly be improved would be to see Loren Freeman himself back up on the stage along with his fabulous cast!

Ruthless! The Musical is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 14, at the 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