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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

We’ve reached the end of the season at most of the valley’s theater companies—sob! But what a year it’s been, and what a great way to end it: with Good People, at Coachella Valley Repertory.

Have you seen the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City? This is the second production here, and right away, you have to love the steeply raked levels of seating so that no head, no matter how tall, can blot out your view of the stage. Huzzah! And they serve coffee at the snack bar! Can it get better than this?

Well, actually yes. I hate to give this away, but nothing could dampen the surprise that awaits you when you see the scenery: The amazing Jimmy Cuomo, CVRep’s resident set designer, nearly steals the show. Wait until you see what he does with this high-tech new stage! The open set that greets the audience is a grotty and depressing back alley in South Boston’s lower end, with one lonely plain chair on the stage. Some jaw-dropping theater magic is in store for you thanks to Cuomo. It gave us goose bumps.

The playwright of Good People is David Lindsay-Abaire, a Pulitzer Prize-winner. When this play opened on Broadway, it garnered all kinds of awards, including two Tony nominations. If his name seems familiar, it’s because he penned Rabbit Hole (which was given a riveting production by Dezart Performs in January 2018), and you might remember him as author and lyricist for Shrek the Musical. You are in good hands here.

The show’s guest director, Michael Matthews, has brilliantly aimed this script directly at your brain pan. Its gritty reality is played out, giving the audience a being-there feeling that never wavers. The dialogue is cleverly “telescoped” so that Matthews’ actors appear truly spontaneous, and it gives the show a spirit of breathless anticipation. There isn’t a great deal of movement onstage, but it is accomplished logically (except twice when an actor moved on someone else’s line … distracting, but not important.)

Remember the seedy back alley we mentioned? Our protagonist, Margaret, magnificently and utterly believably portrayed by Reamy Hall, is marched out the back of the dollar store where she toils, by manager Stevie, perfectly underplayed by Erik Odom, for a talking-to about her work performance. It does not go well. In the next scene, in a cramped kitchen with two friends—the cynical Dottie, unforgettably played by Barbara Gruen, and the fiery gossip Jean, delightfully played by Candi Milo—Margie bemoans her lot. We learn about the women’s relationships with their families, the neighbors and each other. We learn about their values like “Southie Pride,” the local spirit in so many places—here with a special defiance attached to it. We see some flashes of the infamous Irish temper. We learn about their lives in “the projects,” and attempts to escape—with various results.

How much does it matter where you come from? So many desert residents cheerfully admit to “re-inventing” themselves upon arrival here, without a trace of embarrassment about it. But back in Southie, it apparently matters a great deal. Those who do well are jeered at as being “lace-curtain Irish.” Those who never make it away from their ghetto will forever play desperate mind games of “What if?” How much does our environment really shape us?

But we also discover that, in looking back, two people can selectively remember the same incident very differently. Michael Matthys gives us a deliciously multi-layered performance as Mikey Dillon, who, through hard work and some luck, makes it out of the neighborhood. Now an upscale and successful doctor, he is married to his privileged, elegant and sophisticated wife, an African-American woman named Kate, played by the smoothly stunning Nadege August. When they find themselves confronted with Mike’s past by Margie, their attitudes about it show how memory can be affected by time. Kate, with her combination of high-society finishing-school grace—plus her phenomenal figure in a skin-tight knit, and her wicked eagerness to sneak into the wild side—is one of the most complex characters on any stage, and August shrewdly plays every card in her hand to create this fascinating role.

The play’s theme slowly emerges: the eternal conflict between truth and rationalization. How far can your moral compass wobble before you are no longer a good person? Can blaming someone else justify your actions? Are your choices the right ones? How far will you bend your morality to change someone else’s life? Whom do you “owe,” and how much? Whew …

Study the biographies of the actors (and staff!) in the hefty program. The full bios detail where you may have glimpsed these terrific performers elsewhere, in movies or on TV. These experienced pros know how to sweep you into their world. They will drag you through a bumpy mix of thoughts and emotions … and they’ll bring you to your feet at the end of the show.

This theater’s matchless brain trust, led by artistic director Ron Celona, has assembled a formidable staff. Kudos to lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, production stage manager Marcedes L. Clanton, sound designer Rebecca Kessin, sound engineer/audio technician Karlene Roller, costume designer Chandler Smith, hair/makeup artist Lynda Shaeps, and prop master Doug Morris. Flawless work!

Good People is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 19, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. (There is no show Tuesday, May 7.) Tickets are $53. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

There is only one word to express the feeling one gets when entering Coachella Valley Repertory’s new digs: awe.

Artistic director Ron Celona and his board of directors have completely transformed the old IMAX theater in Cathedral City into a live playhouse worthy of Broadway. From the impressive “Wall of Donors” and the expansive refreshment bar with gracious bartenders, to the luxurious VIP Lounge (called the Producer’s Room)—complete with its own flat-screen TV, piano and automated sliding glass door—everything screams “class.” The lobby of the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City also features a rendering of the Cathedral City Downtown Arts and Entertainment District. With CVRep as a hub, if all goes according to plan, it will feature an outdoor amphitheater, an alternative transportation trail and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ new gaming/retail and entertainment center. As for the playhouse, the $3 million price tag was covered by private donors, a loan from the city and a grant from the Cathedral City Downtown Foundation.

Then there is the theater itself: Celona has more than doubled his seating capacity (208 versus 86 in his previous location) and installed a massive 2,700-square-foot stage.

It’s all the realization of a dream Celona said kicked into high gear when he left his position directing plays at the Joslyn Center 12 years ago. He took a year off and traveled the country, picking the brains of other successful theater companies. Celona’s goal was always to produce “theater of substance,” he said, adding that Coachella Valley audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years. As a result, the timing was just right for CVRep to take the step up to the current location.

The company’s production of Chess—with the book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson—was a wise choice to christen the new facility.

The musical tells the story of a world chess championship between brash American Freddie Trumper (Garrett Marshall) and dour Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (David Sattler); the characters are loosely based on Viktor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer. Freddie’s assistant is the beautiful Florence (Gabriela Carrillo), who tries her best to keep him in line. Anatoly’s second, Molokov (Michael Dotson), is actually a KGB agent. The first game of the match does not go well, and a meeting is called to smooth things over. Florence and Anatoly eventually realize they have feelings for each other; this budding romance and Freddie’s erratic behavior cause Florence to leave her post.

The Russian wins the chess championship—and defects to the West. While defending his title year a later in Bangkok, with Florence by his side, Anatoly faces even more complications: His wife, Svetlana (Ashley Hunt), has showed up to watch the match. Meanwhile, Freddie’s agent, Walter (Glenn Rosenblum), suggests to Florence that her father, whom she has not seen since they fled Hungary decades earlier, may still be alive. I won’t give away more, but the plot is chock-full of betrayal, heartbreak and political intrigue.

The cast is stellar across the board. Garrett Marshall’s Freddie is spot-on—cocky, immature and full of swagger. As the somber Anatoly, David Sattler is excellent. He has a soaring singing voice and strong acting chops; both his romantic and patriotic conflicts ring true.

Michael Dotson is terrific as Molokov. Cold, calculating and sly as a fox, he embodies our vision of a Russian spy. The Russian accents used by both Dotson and Sattler are quite believable. As Freddie’s money-hungry agent, Walter, Glenn Rosenblum is a perfect fit, as is Jeremy Whatley as the arbiter, who enforces the rules of chess throughout the show, and keeps the matches moving along. Ashley Hunt is quite strong as Anatoly’s betrayed wife, with musical pipes that shake the rafters.

The ensemble (Sydney Clemenson, Brianna Maloney, Cassidy McCarron, Roman Skryabin, Daniel Sugimoto and Michael Rawls) adds the right touch to the proceedings. Each actor is featured in small speaking roles, and their group numbers are top-notch.

But the highlight in this superb cast is Gabriela Carrillo as Florence. Lovely and charismatic, she has us rooting for her immediately. We feel her frustration in trying to control Freddie, and then later, we relate to her true love for Anatoly. Her singing voice is flawless, and she has some of the best numbers in the show, including “Heaven Help My Heart” and her duet with Svetlana, “I Know Him So Well.”

“Chess” has a bit of a rock-opera feel, and some of the music is a bit dissonant. If you’re a big fan of Oklahoma! and hoping for tunes to hum on the way home, you may be a bit disappointed.

The orchestra, led by musical director Scott Storr on piano, is fabulous. The choreography, lighting, sound and costumes are all outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Jimmy Cuomo’s exquisite set.

But the biggest kudos of all have to go to director Ron Celona for assembling such an amazing cast and coaxing stellar performances from each actor. Chess is an impressive production that’s well worth seeing.

It’s amazing to see the dream that Celona has made come true. Thanks to him for providing the Coachella Valley with thought-provoking, quality theater—now in a gorgeous Broadway-style venue.

Chess is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance