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The View UpStairs, the latest production at Desert Rose Playhouse, proves once again that the theater is in good hands with new producing artistic director Robbie Wayne.

Given our current political climate, where bigotry and hatred of those who are “different” seems more blatant and accepted than it’s been in years, this musical—the book, music and lyrics are by Max Vernon—is something we all need to see. The story centers around a 1973 arson attack at a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that killed 32 people. Up until the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, it was the worst mass murder of gay Americans in our country’s history.

As the show opens, we’re transported back to the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the horrific crime. Set designer Bruce Weber has outdone himself here: The place is fabulously gaudy, tacky and filled with bling—topped off with a large nude portrait of a reclining Burt Reynolds behind the bar. Some audience members actually sit at tables onstage, making attendees feel like we’re part of the action. The lounge is a place where gay men could be themselves, sing, dance and escape from a society not yet ready to accept them.

The story soon fast-forwards to the present day. After several unsuccessful years in New York, aspiring fashion designer Wes (Van Angelo) has returned to New Orleans and purchased the rundown building which formerly housed the UpStairs Lounge, hoping to turn it into a boutique. One evening, Wes is transported back in time, and the characters who once frequented the lounge are all around him. At first weirded out by it all, Wes eventually goes with the flow, and quickly develops a strong attraction to the tall, handsome hustler Patrick (Matt E. Allen).

Underscoring all the action is piano man Buddy (Ben Reece), an Elton John wannabe who’s still in the closet about his homosexuality. Club owner and bartender Henri (Ceisley Jefferson) keeps an eye on things, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Patrons include the homeless Dale (Jacob Samples); Puerto Rican drag performer Freddy (Anthony Nannini), and his mother, Inez (Siobhan Velarde); and the aging, flamboyant Willie (DarRand Hall). Rounding out the group is Rita Mae (Ruth Braun), who leads prayer services for the Metropolitan Community Church at the bar, trying to establish allies in the community by soliciting donations for crippled children.

Director/choreographer Robbie Wayne has put together an excellent ensemble cast; there is not one weak link. Even in brief appearances as a cop in both the past and present day, Miguel Arballo is memorable.

Reece makes Buddy’s regret over his failed music career, conflict about his sexuality and continued lust for Patrick (after a brief fling) palpable. Jefferson is terrific as proprietor Henri, exhibiting a great combination of sass and soul.

As drag queen Freddy/Aurora, Nannini oozes charisma. His drag number, “Completely Overdone,” is fantastic, and the warmth between him and his doting mother (the fabulous Velarde) is genuine. Inez has totally accepted her son’s life choices—“I think gay men are more fun, anyway,” she says—and has one of the better songs, “Learn to Play Along.” Hall’s “old queen” Willie is a hoot; we cannot take our eyes off him as he minces around the stage, squeezing the drama out of every line.

Samples’ Dale is heartbreaking. Crushed and embarrassed by his poverty, he touches us all when singing “Better Than Silence.” It reminds each of us of times when we, too, have felt invisible. Equally effective is Braun as preacher Rita Mae.

In the pivotal roles of Wes and Patrick, Wayne has struck gold with Van Angelo and Matt E. Allen. Their onstage chemistry is strong, and both have excellent singing voices. The musical highlight of the night was Allen’s ballad revealing his parents’ efforts to “cure” him of his homosexuality. It was riveting, raw and authentic.

Kudos to Robbie Wayne and Ruth Braun for spot-on costumes, and musical director Jaci Davis for overseeing the pre-recorded accompaniment for the singers, which works quite well.

The only noticeable flaws on opening night were occasional projection issues and a missed note here and there—both problems likely to be remedied as the run continues.

Two things struck me as the cast took their bows on opening night. First, each character in this play seems so real—their joys, sorrows, longing for recognition and acceptance resonate with all of us. Second, sadly, is the possible deterioration of LGBT rights today. Let’s hope that this kind of theatrical experience helps people realize that deep inside, we truly are all the same.

The View UpStairs is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, 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

Most valley theater-lovers are familiar with the work of Judith Chapman, either through her work onstage in The Belle of Amherst and Blythe Spirit, or stints on soap operas like The Young and the Restless. Striking, intense and always fully committed to her character, Chapman is a force to be reckoned with as an actress—and she certainly does not disappoint as Tallulah Bankhead in Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Matthew Lombardo’s Looped.

The play is set in a recording studio in 1965. Bankhead’s career as a stage and film star is beginning to fade after years of tawdry affairs and substance abuse. She has been summoned to dub in (or ”loop”) one line in Die! Die! My Darling, which would prove to be her final film. Sound technician Steve (Miguel Arballo) and film editor Danny (Mark Fearnow) are hoping for a relatively short and problem-free recording session--its only one line, after all—but it is not to be.

Bankhead stumbles into the studio, several hours late, swearing about the traffic. Looking every inch the Hollywood has-been, she wears attire including large sunglasses, a cocktail dress and an ankle-length fur coat (despite the Los Angeles heat).

Once recording begins, it becomes clear that this will be a long day. Tallulah cannot seem to remember the one simple line of dialogue and is more interested in verbally sparring with Danny. Their star demands a drink to keep her creative juices flowing, then turns up her nose at the bourbon Danny offers. “You don’t have to drink it,” he counsels. “Of course I have to drink it,” she snaps. “I’m an alcoholic—that’s what we do!”

As the booze flows and Tallulah adds cigarettes and cocaine to the mix, the tales of her sexual escapades and her language get even raunchier. Aghast that Danny has dared to move her purse, she admonishes him: “Touching a woman’s purse is like touching her vagina.”

Of course, Danny is becoming more and more frustrated with Bankhead’s behavior, and is starting to get pressure from studio executives to get the job done. But eventually, Tallulah’s booze-soaked charm and inquisitiveness wear him down, and he opens up about the secrets and frustrations in his own life.

Fearnow is terrific as the beleaguered Danny. Early on, he strikes just the right notes as the buttoned-up, all-business film editor who just wants to complete what should be a simple task. Trying to give his star her due, he willingly plays her straight man—but soon his patience wears thin, and his anger toward this grown woman who is acting like a sex-crazed 5-year-old comes roaring out. Later, Fearnow has some touching moments when laying bare the secrets of Danny’s past.

In the small but vital role of sound engineer Steve, Arballo is quite good. Observing the battle of wits between Danny and Tallulah from high up in the sound booth, Steve grows understandably frustrated and impatient. He just wants to get the damn line recorded so he can take his kids to a ball game.

Looped is Chapman’s show. She embodies Tallulah in every way. Strutting around the stage in her blue taffeta and heels, she certainly looks the part. Her comic timing is flawless, and Bankhead’s salty language and bluntness about sex come across as organic in Chapman’s performance. But it is in the quiet, poignant moments when Chapman’s skill as an actress is clear. When her large, blue eyes fill with tears while recalling some humiliating moments onstage, there is no doubt the pain is real. The audience is right there with her. An acting teacher I once had would often implore his students: “Make me FEEL something!” Judith Chapman does just that—every second she is on the stage. Her portrayal of Bankhead in this production is a star turn.

Jim Strait, who recently retired as Desert Rose’s artistic director, returns as director here—and a fabulous job of directing it is. He cast the production well, and brings strong performances from each of his actors. The set, sound, lights and costumes all work quite well.

I did not know that much about Tallulah Bankhead before seeing Looped. I learned quite a bit, as will you if you see this play. But the main reason to go is for Judith Chapman. Hers is a performance you will not soon forget.

Looped is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about two hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Ah, yes, Christmas With the Crawfords … could the title sound any more Norman Rockwell-idyllic? But the very fact that Desert Rose Playhouse has chosen this play as its annual Christmas show should immediately arouse deep suspicion, because this theater has become known for twisting one’s head.

This offering, from producer and artistic director Robbie Wayne, was created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. It’s directed by Kam Sisco, Desert Rose’s managing director—and it is a romp. It turns out “The Crawfords” means the cobbled-together family of Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, so we are catapulted back to the early days of the movies. The play gives actors multiple opportunities for outrageous costumes and imitations of famous entertainers—all them happily in drag, flashing around in festively colored feathers, jewels, capes and some unusual accessories.

The more you know about those days of film and the fashions of the time, the more you’ll get out of the show. Oh … did I mention it’s a musical? All those familiar seasonal songs are trotted out for the cast members to belt out solos and combos and even harmonies with gusto. The costumes are wayyyyyyy over the top, with Joan Crawford sporting the most astonishing shoulder pads you’ll ever see—not to mention her red platform high heels, for which even a word like “awesome” fails. Toni Molano’s wigs give the actors opportunities for lots of delightful variety, and add extra fashion statements to the comedy. Phil Murphy’s lighting, as always, creates the proper pace and the mood changes. Kudos to the music director Jaci Davis, choreographer Daryl J. Roth and everyone who added their various and considerable talents.

The play opens in the living room Chez Crawford. Not only does Kam Sisco direct the show; he’s onstage for nearly all of it, playing Joan Crawford—a dual job he pulls off with impressive aplomb. He gives us a Crawford with layers of interpretation, from the frustrated and fearful actress whose career is skidding toward its end (fired by MGM Studio!), to the bizarre and sometimes even abusive mother we learned about in the tell-all book Mommie Dearest, to a suggestion of maybe a little alcohol abuse. She’s certainly feeling some pressure, as she is anxiously awaiting an interview with Jack Warner of Warner Bros., which she hopes will revive her flagging career, as she is now reduced to playing an extra, sneaking in at rival RKO Studio.

Since it’s Christmas Eve, gossip-queen journalist Hedda Hopper (played with relish by Jacob Samples) has decided to broadcast live on the radio from the Crawford home. The children, Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Ruth Braun), are expected to be charming and well-behaved under Crawford’s harsh rule. Joan’s sister Jane Hudson, also played by Samples, has shown up like a bad penny to help fry everyone’s minds—yet she vanishes just in time to reappear as Hopper before you can even say “quick change.”

But the neighbors next door are hosting a high-profile party, and many of Hollywood’s brightest stars wander into the Crawford domicile by mistake. Judy Garland, played by Anthony Nannini, drops in and stays, giving us a skillful interpretation of the singer in a mellower mood than usual—with terrific fishnet-clad gams and that man’s-suit-jacket look which became one of her most memorable outfits. Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell played by Ed Lefkowitz, shows up with Samba-dancing feet and a hilarious accent. He also shows up as slacks-clad and lock-jawed Katharine Hepburn, and can you possibly imagine two more different ladies? It’s a great stretch for any actor to tackle.

Sex-symbol Mae West briefly slithers in, played by Stan Jenson—and he, too, pulls off an impressive transformation, because we next see him as the dynamic and powerful Broadway/film star Ethel Merman. We would have loved to have seen more use made of Jensen’s amazing bass-toned voice. Tim McIntosh very nearly steals the show as the weird and intensely self-obsessed Gloria Swanson, whom you’ll remember from her dramatic and unforgettable Sunset Boulevard, spouting those immortal lines you will recognize. Then there are the three singing sisters you’ll know, LaVerne, Patty and Maxene, lost en route to perform at a USO show in their cute little faux uniforms and with their hairdos tucked into snoods … courtesy of Jenson, McIntosh and a very flirty-eyed Nannini.

Chaos ensues. But the music never stops, despite being punctuated by some delicious cattiness and misbehaving. The comedy styles juggle between parody, irony, drag humor and some good-old hamming. There’s even a salute to Hanukkah, with a dreidel song bearing the unforgettable title “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” It kind of turns into a revue with all of these performances … plus the fact that there is precious little plot in this script. (“Surviving the day” seems to be at the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list, giving the wacko proceedings a very subtle undercurrent of desperation.)

This show is shorter than usual for Desert Rose—just about 70 minutes, with no intermission, and it moves along quickly. The producer has now added Thursday shows to the lineup, at 7 p.m. It’s a great idea to spread the Christmas cheer with the choice of an early show. I guess we should also give Christmas With the Crawfords a language warning, but few plays these days can escape having one, so I’m not going to bother with it any more unless the vocabulary is particularly vile—and here, it is not.

Enjoy this fun play—and, hey, Merry Christmas!

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. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Life is all about change, and there have been some major changes at the Desert Rose Playhouse this season—all of which bode well for the theater’s future.

After years of putting on excellent, edgy productions, founder and artistic director Jim Strait and his partner, producer Paul Taylor, have retired and handed over the reins to Robbie Wayne (producing artistic director) and Kam Sisco (managing director).

In addition, a collaboration with Streetbar has allowed Desert Rose to open a small bar in the lobby which was previously unused and hidden by a curtain. Now patrons can sit at small tables and enjoy a cocktail or a soda before the show and at intermission.

Wayne has wisely chosen Nathan Sanders’ Southern Gothic tale The Sugar Witch as this season’s opening production. With Halloween just weeks away, the spooky tone of the play—featuring ghosts, witches, murder and eerie music—seems just right.

The story is set in the fictitious swampland town of Sugar Bean, Fla. A curse has been placed on the Bean family, stemming from a deadly flood in 1928. (The incident has overtones similar to some recent natural disasters.) Residing in the modern-day ramshackle Bean home are Sisser (Leanna Rodgers), her younger brother Moses (Jacob Samples) and Annabelle (Kimberly Cole), the last of the sugar witches, a surrogate mother to the Bean siblings.

Sisser has eaten herself into morbid obesity and is now confined to a wheelchair. She is also clearly mentally ill. When one of her beloved pet palmetto bugs dies, she demands that her brother bury it in the front yard with great ceremony.

Nice-guy Moses is a car mechanic who tries to keep things under control in the midst of his sister’s craziness and Annabelle’s talk of curses. Moses is being pursued romantically by local girl Ruth Ann Meeks (April Mejia), who pesters him at his auto shop, trying desperately to get his attention. Another customer, funeral-home manager Hank Hartley (Kelly Peak), has also set his sights on Moses, though in a much subtler way.

As the play opens, Ruth Ann has braved the nearby swamp to arrive at the Bean house and is looking for Moses, who is not there. She tangles verbally with Sisser, who is sitting on the front porch in her wheelchair, eating sweets. Convinced that Sisser is lying about Moses not being around, Ruth Ann barges into the house in search of him. It is a big mistake. To give away more of the plot would spoil the chilling effect for the theater-goer.

The performances here are all top-notch. Wayne has cast The Sugar Witch quite well, which is half the battle for a director.

Last seen in Desert Rose’s Women Behind Bars, Cole is riveting as Annabelle. Her affection for Sisser and Moses is clear, as is her loyalty to “her people” and her respect for the powers she apparently possesses as the last of the sugar witches. Her attempts to lift the curse her grandmother placed on the Beans are heartfelt. Her performance combines the perfect mix of creepiness, wit and humor. When showing off a mummified creature she keeps in a glass box to the visiting Hank, she laments, “People just ain’t interested in flyin’ cats the way they used to be.”

Samples is affable and sympathetic as Moses. He’s the younger brother we’d all like to have. His devotion to Sisser, his frustration over being stuck in a small swamp town, and his attraction to Hank all ring true.

Rodgers is terrific as the bloated and dangerously demented Sisser. Though she is clearly engulfed in a fat suit, after a while, we accept that the excess is flesh is all really hers. Sometimes quietly staring off into the distance, sometimes emitting blood-curdling screams, Rodgers leaves no doubt that Sisser is deeply disturbed.

As the spoiled, pushy Ruth Ann, April Mejia is quite good. She has a great stage presence and imbues her character with such impertinence that it almost feels as if she brings her violent come-uppance on herself.

Kelly Peak’s Hank is extraordinarily likable. When his lust for Moses gets him roped into the insanity of the Bean family curse, the audience is rooting for him to somehow come out of it unscathed.

In the small role of Ruth Ann’s brother, Tim McIntosh is quite effective.

There were a few minor line flubs (not unexpected on opening night), but the actors quickly recovered. Robbie Wayne coaxes strong performances from each cast member. Toby Griffin’s set, Phil Murphy’s lighting and Wayne’s sound are all perfect.

The Sugar Witch is spooky, dramatic, scary, sometimes funny … and fabulous. Wayne has hit it out of the park with his debut production as the new artistic director at Desert Rose Playhouse. Bravo! I can’t wait for the next one …

The Sugar Witch is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is just less than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Believe it or not, I have 10 years of experience with female incarceration! Yes, me!

OK … it was as a weekly volunteer at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. But still …

For most of us, there is something fascinating about the behind-locked-doors aspect of prisons, as many movies and TV shows have found. Think Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Orange Is the New Black, etc. But theater about women’s prisons? There’s not much.

So it was interesting that Desert Rose Playhouse producer Paul Taylor would choose Women Behind Bars as the company’s season closer. It is advertised as a satire of the B movies of the 1950s. They are now sometimes considered “exploitation” films, but here, it is the simple story of the innocent Mary Eleanor, who has been duped into taking the fall for a crime and who lands in the Greenwich Village House of Detention in 1952.

If you are the kind of person who likes getting offended, and who enjoys being all bent out of shape when faced with four-letter words, bizarre sexual situations and some very strange people, then run, do not walk, to see this play. You’ll have the most wonderful time. For those who do have a sense of humor and will relish the exquisite timing, over-the-top melodrama and hilarious stereotypes, you will also have a wonderful time. The equal-opportunity offenses include racial epithets, abuse of all kinds, extreme cussing and vicious power struggles. So enjoy! (The program puts it more pleasantly: “Recommended for mature audiences due to language, adult situations and sexual content.”)

Playwright Tom Eyen has crafted this 90-minute (no intermission!) work as a fast-paced trip through the 1950s, ending on the New Year’s Eve that brings in 1960. The play has earned great success, running “somewhere” since 1974, continuously, including New York and Los Angeles.

The tiny stage and the enormous cast, under the directorial expertise of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, serve as a textbook example of clever stage blocking. They combine to convey the sense of claustrophobic communal living. The credits run on the back wall, just like a black-and-white movie (the ’50s, get it?), as the show opens. The scenery, by Toby Griffin, is all basic gray gray gray—a plain rocking chair and blocky benches. Costume designer Jennifer Stowe made the girls’ prison dresses all grey. However, the ladies accessorize with high heels of all kinds—and jewelry! Also, Toni Molano’s wigs provide individualization so each character stands out. Needless to say, Phil Murphy’s lighting as always creates flawless mood and scene changes. Stage manager Ben Cole wrangles the mob efficiently--and working the props in this play is no small feat, either, as you will come to appreciate, with some peculiar additions from the barnyard and the nursery.

You meet the cellmates right at the start of the show, when they are ordered to line up and identify themselves, their booking number and their crime. Here is the entire 11-member cast, alphabetically by surname:

Francesca Amari plays Ada, a complex character long departed from reality. Her basic sweetness peeks through her winged alternate life, in a multi-layered portrayal that you will not forget.

Miguel Arballo plays multiple roles, from a psychiatrist to a dream lover (nude scene alert!) to a dumb husband. His portrayals are always solid.

Melanie Blue is Guadalupe, a Puerto Rican, played with a convincing accent and attitude. She beautifully imbues her character with passion, vanity and tragedy.

Ruth Braun plays Louise, the servile matron’s assistant who grows up to surprise us with a huge turnaround arc that takes her from cringing slave to triumph.

Kimberly Cole is Jo-Jo, the only black inmate, a sweet-faced girl who unflinchingly faces her attackers, and bums cigarettes with aplomb, creating a very special and sympathetic character.

Loren Freeman owns the juicy role of the dreaded matron, Pauline. He uses his extraordinary voice and lithe physique (including lots of unusual arm work) to dominate the stage just as his cruel character dominates the convicts. A heavy, in every sense.

Deborah Harmon is Blanche, an aging Southern beauty stuck in Streetcar mode in her flight from reality, but the actress shows that Blanche’s mannered flutterings occasionally slip to reveal a bit of a dangerous and weird underside.

Adina Lawson devours the role of Granny, who has already lived in the big house for 42 years. This tiny, Bible-spouting creature mixes scripture with gutter language, creating shock and awe. She, too, deals us an unexpected surprise.

Phylicia Mason plays Mary Eleanor, a sweet flower tossed into prison who changes enormously as a result of incarceration and exposure to her cellmates. She carries the play’s theme: Locking people up creates a whole new problem.

Kam Sisco is Cheri, a wannabe Marilyn Monroe type with amazing legs, a whispery voice and a perennial pout, all useful in her career as a Hollywood-bound hooker.

Yo Younger glitters as a hard-edged, hard-voiced chain smoker with a cynical view of life. But her tight-lipped, eye-rolling character eventually reveals a soft spot.

There is a huge amount of screaming in this play, and one worries for the throats of the cast during their six-week run. This show is among the most high-energy productions ever, with constant movement, surprises and plot twists, so it will consume your attention and provide plenty of outrageous laughs. The characters are fully realized, and the plot shakeups just keep coming. The casting is just perfect, and the mix of personalities is classic.

If this show is a hit, it’ll run all summer, which has happened before at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The company’s next season opens in October, with many changes taking place—as Paul Taylor and Jim Strait ease into retirement through the next year, with Robbie Wayne taking over the company. They’ve presented the Coachella Valley with some wonderful theater.

Women Behind Bars is a play you will remember—and hopefully it’s as close as you’ll ever get to landing in the hoosegow.

Women Behind Bars is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 29, 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 desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Artistic director Jim Strait has never played it safe when choosing material to produce at the Desert Rose Playhouse. Local audiences have come to expect edgy fare from the valley’s only LGBT theater company—and Desert Rose’s current production, the world premiere of Allan Baker’s Dare, does not disappoint.

The play won New York’s 2017 Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Award for Best Political Play, beating out 299 other submissions. The contest encourages the writing of plays that focus on social, cultural and political issues—and Baker, who hails from Austin, has been an LGBT advocate in Texas for many years. Since 2004, he has penned 13 plays, most with gay characters and themes.

Dare introduces us to 82-year-old Jack (Richard Marlow), who lives in a nursing home in California’s Central Valley. Tired of living, Jack has decided to end it all by starving himself to death. Nursing-home administrators send in gerontology consultant Josh (Matthew Hocutt) to find out why Jack has made such a rash decision. Though both Jack and Josh are gay, their life experiences have been quite different, due to the disparity in their ages.

Jack regales Josh with tales of his past as an activist in the early days of LGBT liberation. In flashback scenes, we go along on the journey from San Francisco in the 1970s to Fire Island in ’78, then on to New York City in both 1987 and 1990.

We see a young Jack struggle to maintain his buttoned-up banker image by day while letting loose with wild experimentation in the bathhouses of New York at night. He meets the love of this life, young David (Noah Arce), who helps him loosen up and embrace his true identity. The relationship is intense, but not monogamous, because “commitment wasn’t the engine that drove that train.”

Then the scourge of AIDS rears its ugly head. “You could feel the fear growing in the village … and then people started dying,” Jack says, while railing against those who would pass judgment: “It just happened—don’t give it a moral spin!”

As Jack’s story unfolds, Josh comes to understand the older man’s end-of-life choice. Jack has his reasons, including the fact that “there’s a great quiet now that all my friends and family are gone.” As a theater veteran, he feels the dramatic arc of his life is complete.

The cast of five is strong. As the nursing-home attendant, Robbie Wayne makes quite an impression in two brief scenes at the beginning and end of the play. His character’s animosity towards homosexuals is palpable and disturbing.

Terry Huber’s portrayal of the younger, conflicted Jack is right on the money. His reluctant willingness to dress in drag and learn the movements to Madonna’s “Vogue” are fun to watch.

As Jack’s young lover, David, Noah Arce is quite a find. Stunning and androgynous, Arce perfectly embodies the free-spirited innocence, enthusiasm, determination and sensuality of young gay men at the time. It’s easy to see why Jack would fall for him.

Matthew Hocutt is terrific as Josh. With his clipboard, glasses and lab coat, he’s all business, yet kind and understanding as he absorbs Jack’s story. The audience can see his growing affection for the old man. It all rings true.

But the clear standout is Richard Marlow as Jack. This character is a huge part for any actor, including several long monologues and a wide range of emotion; there are times when it almost seems like a one man show. Marlow is absolutely up to the task. We feel his physical pain and weakness, his lust and love for David, his anger and frustration over widespread homophobia, and the peace he seems to have found at the end of his life. There is not one false note. It is truly an acting tour de force; if Marlow does not win an award for this performance, there is no justice in the world.

Once again, director Strait deserves great credit for eliciting strong performances from his cast. Material like this needs a director with sensitivity and passion, and Strait’s work exhibits both.

The set, costumes, sound and lighting all work well. Kudos to Steve Fisher, the stage manager, who helps keep the whole production running smoothly.

Dare is a gay-themed show, but there are lessons here for everyone. We all feel “different” from time to time. That’s when we should remember Jack’s advice: “You’re not like them … remember that. It’s the source of your strength.”

Desert Rose Playhouse’s Dare is terrific theater. Go see it.

Dare is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 13, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The title Suddenly Last Summer has to be one of the most unforgettable, ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has revived this “Southern Gothic” one-act drama by Tennessee Williams, which was adapted into the amazing 1959 movie. That film gave me a permanent case of the creeps (and left me forever debating who was prettier: Elizabeth Taylor or Anthony Perkins?).

In fact, the show is actually referred to as a “horror story,” giving credence to my goose bumps. Here, producer Paul Taylor and director Jim Strait emphasize the music in those soft Louisiana accents and the rhythm of the drawling dialogue. “It’s free-verse poetry,” Strait told me, and he’s right.

The open set is a lush garden, in late spring 1936, burgeoning with life. It actually plays a part in the foreboding—using Venus flytraps, those plants which trap and devour insects, as a topic of discussion. Kudos to Allan Jensen for the lush set decoration and the plantation-style costumes.

The plot concerns a young man, Sebastian Venable, who has met a violent and gory demise while in Europe. His mother is an aging Southern belle, Violet Venable, played by Marjory Lewis, a wealthy society lady determined to cover up her spoiled son’s scandalous life and death. She firmly believes her money and her force of personality can wipe out the ghastly story. But her niece Catherine, played by Cat Lyn Day, remembers it clearly, as she was there, on vacation in southern Spain with him, and Violet is frantic to do something about her before she blabs the truth: What Violet really wants is a lobotomy to be performed on Catherine to destroy the part of her brain containing the story of Sebastian’s death. She schemes to bribe anyone standing in her way—relatives and doctors alike.(Interestingly, Strait informed the audience in his pre-show greeting that this topic was heavily on Tennessee Williams’ mind at the time of writing, as he was in deep therapy, and his sister Rose had actually had a lobotomy. Eek.)

The doctor, played by Cody Frank in the perfect seersucker summer suit, is full of Southern gallantry and determined charm. The relatives (who are actually related to Violet only by marriage, not blood, which does mean something in the South), are Catherine’s brother, George, a wannabe frat boy played by Winston Gieseke, and her mother, a wonderful ditz without portfolio, giddily played by Lorraine Williamson. As the poor relations who have caught an addictive whiff of money, they try to hide their greed and their wobbly moral compasses, yet keep their eyes firmly on their ambitious goals.

Rounding out the cast are Leslie Benjamin, playing the harassed maid, a professional worrier and the only one capable of running in that heat and humidity; and Alden West, playing the fragile nun Sister Felicity, an antiquated import from somewhere in the British Isles, who precariously accompanies Catherine from St. Mary’s Hospital, where she is being held prior to her possible surgery.

This is a women’s play: Unlike in the movie, we never meet Sebastian through flashbacks, so the conflict between Violet and Catherine becomes the center of the action. Marjory Lewis beautifully shades her portrayal of a fading but still fluttering Southern lady, hiding both her backbone of steel and her firm belief that her money can buy anyone. Her innocent lavender-dress-and-garden-hat façade belie a grim determination to rule her little world as if it was really important enough to circle the globe. Lewis gives us a powerful first-scene speech that will take your breath away. We gradually realize that she is driven by her strong conviction that reputation and social standing are everything, and that if faced with absent or weak men, she will control anything and everything necessary, from helming a debutante’s ball to a sailboat.

Cat Lyn Day, on the other hand, marvelously captures the opposing sides of the inner conflict Catherine experiences. She vacillates heartbreakingly between her helplessness when faced by older, wealthier or more-powerful people, and her shaky belief in herself. She hesitates to stand up to others—as Louisiana ladies are not supposed to make a fuss by challenging anyone. She wears a smart blue suit, but we see runs in her stockings. Her naturally elegant looks (great cheekbones!) can’t hide her insecurities. And yet she knows her truth, and no amount of medication or bullying will keep her from speaking it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime role, and Day has pulled out all the stops for it. Her masterful monologue will knock you out.

I wish the cast could have been spared the awkwardness of attempting to look like they were smoking, but it’s written right into the script. Sigh … The fabulous lighting by Phil Murphy, of course, makes the mood of this 95-minute (no intermission!) play a memorable experience.

Strait once again offers a definitive example of how to block stage movement, demonstrating his wonderful sense of balance as well as proving how action affects the mood of a show. He has pulled excellent performances out of his stars, and the commitment to the work makes this production shine. Even the descent into the morass is handled with care.

The audience stays firmly hooked as we are reeled in through this story. The feeling that a train wreck is about to happen before our eyes grows slowly and deliberately. We are in the hands of the unforgettable.

Suddenly Last Summer is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 1, 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

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July broke new ground in the theater world when it premiered in 1978—because it depicted gay characters as “normal” people rather than lisping queens. This makes it a worthy selection as the Desert Rose Playhouse’s annual Gay Heritage Production.

The play’s four week run begins this weekend, and the production, directed by Jim Strait, had some definite flaws on opening night—but it’s worth seeing.

The play is the last of three plays featuring the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. The others are the one-act Talley’s Folly, about Sally Talley and her soon-to be husband Matt, and Talley and Son, about her father and grandfather.

Fifth of July revolves around Kenny Talley, Sally’s nephew and a gay Vietnam vet who lost his legs in the war; he is living in his childhood home with his botanist lover, Jed. As the play opens, Kenny is wrestling with whether or not to return to his former career as an English teacher. Faced with the prospect of stares and pity from his students over his physical condition, he opts not to.

Enter Ken’s sister, former flower-child June Talley, and her precocious daughter, Shirley. They have come to visit, along with longtime friends John Landis and his wife, Gwen. John is considering buying the Talley House and converting it into a recording studio to support his wife’s fledging career as a country-music singer. Later it is revealed that the relationship between June, Shirley, John and Gwen is more complicated than it seems.

Also along for the ride are Gwen’s guitarist, Weston Hurley, and Sally Talley, who carries her husband Matt’s ashes around in a box a year after his death. John’s desire to buy the family home does not sit well with Sally.

There are some nice moments of affection between Kenny (Brent Anderson) and Jed (Jason Hull) in this production, though there is a lack of intensity—a problem with much of this show. Anderson does a nice job of portraying the bottled-up self-hatred of being “a crippled fairy,” as he describes himself. However, much of his dialogue is hard to understand due to a lack of vocal projection. I’m not sure if this was an artistic choice for the character, but Anderson’s sometimes overly quiet speaking prevents the audience from really connecting with Kenny.

Jason Hull’s Jed is a steady presence, tending to both Kenny’s needs and his beloved garden. He is a likable character, though a little more onstage energy and intensity would let the audience see more of who he really is.

The pacing is slow at the top of the show, but really picks up with the arrival of Melanie Blue as Gwen. She bursts onto the stage full of bravado and a lust for life, thanks in part to her dreams of country-music stardom. Blue has terrific charisma and an energy level some other cast members should match. When young Shirley declares, “I intend never to have sex in my life!” randy Gwen wisely counters: “No honey, that’s not what you intend.”

Another strong member of the ensemble is Michael Pacas as Gwen’s hubby, John. His character has a lot on his mind—family secrets, possible record deals and a house purchase, all while he’s trying to keep his spitfire wife happy. He juggles it all, and manages to keep John likable.

As June Talley, Ann Van Haley has some nice moments of genuine affection for daughter Shirley, but often seems uncomfortable onstage. James Owens is perfectly cast as the laid-back, drugged-out guitarist Weston, and has some of the play’s best lines. When asked, “Don’t they have air in New Jersey?” he replies: “Oh, they got somethin’, but it ain’t air.”

Interestingly, the two standouts in the cast (other than Melanie Blue as Gwen) are the youngest and oldest actors. Every time young Monique Burke’s Shirley opens her mouth, the audience is riveted. Possessing boundless energy and charisma, I predict a bright future for Ms. Burke in the theater world. And valley favorite Alden West is nearly perfect as Aunt Sally. Whether recounting experiences with UFOs, losing track of the candy box containing her late husband’s ashes, or fighting to hang on to the family homestead, West hits all the right notes. She is a joy to watch.

While the Act I sometimes seems a bit disjointed, things fall into place much more in Act II. Many loose ends are tied up, and we do feel genuine affection for these folks as the lights go down.

The lighting, sound, set and costumes all work well. A shout-out goes to Steve Fisher’s work as the stage manager.

I have great respect for Jim Strait’s skills as a director, and I’m confident that he can help even up the ensemble. More vocal projection here and there, a couple of speed reads and an overall injection of energy would do the trick. Fifth of July is a worthwhile story, and there is enormous potential here.

Fifth of July is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 4, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about two hours, with a 15-minute Intermission. For tickets or more information call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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

The Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off its sixth season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s witty look at lost dreams and family dysfunction. The production is almost home run … almost.

The show opens as middle-aged siblings Sonia (Adina Lawson) and Vanya (Jim Strait) bemoan their uneventful lives over a cup of coffee in their Bucks County, Penn., house. Neither has moved out of their childhood home. It’s where they cared for their aging parents (now both deceased), and where they enjoy refuge from the trials and tribulations of life, subsidized by their movie-star sister, Masha (Heather Brendel). Vanya is a gay, mild-mannered, aspiring playwright, while 52-year-old Sonia (adopted into the family at age 8) is unmarried and bipolar.

Soon, their voodoo-practicing, fortune-telling cleaning lady, Cassandra (Alma Lacy), arrives, bringing with her predictions of doom and gloom. Things really get intense when Masha shows up unexpectedly, with her new young boy toy, Spike (Cody Frank), in tow.

Arrogant and demanding, Masha is tormented by the fact that her ingenue days are long gone. She needs the spotlight like the rest of us need oxygen, and must always be the center of attention. She looks down on Sonia and has little sympathy for her sister’s frequent emotional outbursts. Sonia, meanwhile, resents having sacrificed years of her life caring for their late parents while Masha was jet-setting around the world.

In the midst of the bickering, Masha makes two big announcements. First, she’s decided to sell the house, forcing her siblings to find more modest accommodations; second, they’ve all been invited to a costume party down the street. It’s all been planned out, and Masha has brought costumes for everyone. She will be attending as Snow White; Spike will be the Prince; and Sonia and Vanya are relegated to the roles of dwarfs. Sonia refuses, instead stealing her sister’s thunder as the Evil Queen (as interpreted by Maggie Smith).

Soon, the lovely Nina (April Mejia) is added to the mix; she’s an aspiring actress who lives next door. Masha is flattered by Nina’s admiration, yet angered that the young girl has captured Spike’s interest.

Everyone in the cast has memorable moments in this production, but the acting is uneven at times. The amazing Adina Lawson is unquestionably the standout. Her Sonia is riveting, hilarious, pitiful, poignant and wise, all at once. She has some of the best lines in the play. While extolling the virtues of her late father, she adds, “And he never molested me,” to which her brother replies “That’s nice.” Later, when someone suggests she could get a job at CVS, she shoots back: “I’d prefer death.”

Jim Strait’s Vanya seems a bit too subdued early on, but he has some great comic moments as he attempts to hide his sexual attraction to Spike. He definitely rises to the occasion in a passionate monologue near the end of the play during which he rails against the losses of his life, including black-and-white TV, and postage stamps you had to lick.

Alma Lacy’s Cassandra is a real hoot. Her blustering entrance—she’s clad in a billowing caftan and a curly red wig—really makes an impression. She throws herself into the voodoo sequences wholeheartedly, and makes the audience believe she really does have supernatural powers.

Heather Brendel is cast well as B-movie queen Masha. Her comedic acting chops are evident during her spats with Sonia, and her futile efforts to keep Spike from stripping down to his skivvies. Her performance seemed a bit one-note in the early scenes, but the character became fleshed out later on. Some of Brendel’s best moments are as Snow White (the Disney version), a persona she really makes her own.

As vapid sex-object Spike, Cody Frank holds his own, but he could use a little more swagger. This is not the first character Frank has played which called for him to show some skin. He has the body for it and is certainly is easy on the eyes. But parading around onstage in your underwear takes a lot of self-confidence—and that is sometimes missing in this performance.

Rounding out the cast as Nina, April Mejia does a fine job. Wide-eyed and innocent, she is the quintessential sweet ingénue. She’s absolutely adorable when she reluctantly appears in her dwarf costume, as mandated by the jealous Masha.

Special mention needs to be made about the sound design and exquisite original music by Mark Bennett. It adds just the right touch to the play.

Robbie Wayne wears several hats regarding the production. His set design and costumes are terrific. As the director, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast. The main problem here is pacing: Timing is everything in comedy. Perhaps it was a case of opening-night jitters, but there were occasions when you could drive a train through the pauses between the actors’ lines. I think a couple of speed-read run-throughs might do the trick. There were also a couple of dead spots during costume changes, during nothing was happening onstage, that went on too long.

Despite these minor flaws, I recommend seeing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It’s funny, sad and thought-provoking—and a good way to kick off the Coachella Valley theater season.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.n., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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