CVIndependent

Wed01172018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

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

It’s a very good thing that the latest production by Desert Rose Playhouse, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, has settled in for a six-week run. That gives a large percentage of valley theater-lovers the chance to see it.

And they should.

The play, which won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, is an ambitious undertaking. The only way to do Kushner’s powerful script justice is with amazing acting—and director Jim Strait’s cast delivers.

The story is set in 1985. Ronald Reagan is president, and AIDS has begun ravaging the gay population. We meet two couples: Prior Walter (Nick Edwards), who is battling the disease, and his lover, Louis Ironson (Daniel Gutierrez); and Joe Porter Pitt (Alex Updike), a devout Mormon lawyer in denial about his homosexuality, and his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Allison Feist).

Joe has gone to work for gruff, conservative Roy Cohn (Eliott Goretsky), who is also closeted and battling AIDS, but refuses to accept the diagnosis. Cohn believes gay men are weak and powerless; he refers to his illness as cancer instead. Meanwhile, Louis cannot handle the realities of the disease, and cruelly abandons Prior when the first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions appear.

Interfacing with both patients is AIDS hospital-ward nurse Belize (the superb Robert Ramirez). Doing double duty as the fur-coat-wearing Mr. Lies, Ramirez is caring, campy, hilarious and viciously witty all at the same time.

When Joe finally comes out of the closet, his mother, Hannah (Adina Lawson), travels from Salt Lake City to try to push him back in.

Director Jim Strait (who also designed the set, sound and projections) brings out the best in each member of his stellar cast. Each actor is a standout.

Nick Edwards rips your heart out as the dying Prior. His depiction of what AIDS does to the body is wrenching. This is an award-winning performance. As his Jewish lover, Louis, Daniel Gutierrez ably portrays a mix of guilt and callousness. His performance occasionally seemed to lack just a bit of energy, but that may have been an artistic choice for the character.

Goretsky’s Roy Cohn (based on the real political figure) is fabulous: dark, cynical, condescending and yet charismatic as he spews profanity at clients and barks orders at underlings over the phone. Just as strong is Alex Updike as the conflicted Joe. Talk about issues: He has the ultimate glass-half-empty guy, Roy Cohn, for a boss; a pill-popping, delusional wife; and a sexual attraction to men that he refuses to acknowledge. Updike’s emotional pain is palpable.

As Joe’s beleaguered wife, Harper, Allison Feist is impressive. I’ve seen this young actress in a number of productions now, and she never disappoints. She’s got a long career ahead of her.

Loren Freeman—a standout in the recent A Queer Carol—is terrific here as well in several cameos (The Angel, Nurse, Sister Ella Chapter, A Homeless Woman in the Bronx). He exudes presence, which is something you cannot teach.

Rounding out the cast is the amazingly versatile Adina Lawson. She also plays multiple parts, hitting each one out of the ballpark. Unrecognizable as a rabbi in the show’s opening, she is also notable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman executed for being a Soviet spy. I can’t help but grin each time I go to a show and see her name in the program; I know the audience is in for a treat.

This play is challenging technically, and Desert Rose rises to the occasion. There are lots of quick scene changes, and they are executed quite well. Phil Murphy should take a bow for his prism lightning design during those changes; it is beautiful and quite effective. Designer Tom Valach creates just the right dramatic tone with the angel costume, and the other costumes, hair and makeup are spot on.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is producing Angels in America as its annual Gay Heritage Production. Desert Rose is the Coachella Valley’s only LGBT and gay-positive stage company, and most everything the playhouse does is edgy and often pushes the envelope. So be warned: This show does contain brief full frontal nudity and a fairly graphic depiction of gay sex. Also keep in mind the show is 3 1/2 hours long—although the time whizzes by.

This play is not for the faint of heart; it touches on love, sex, death, betrayal, greed, bigotry, addiction and the afterlife. It will shake you to your core—and might make you look at what you’re doing with the time you have left on this Earth.

It’s damn good theater. Don’t miss it.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Evening tickets are $33; matinee tickets are $30. Running time is 3 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance