CVIndependent

Wed07172019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

Admit it: You think it’s funny when a man puts on a dress.

Well, you’ve got company—and Desert Rose Playhouse is smart enough to know that. Hence, Pageant, the company’s final show of the 2018-2019 season. It’s guys in drag competing to win the title of “Miss Glamouresse”—and the hilarity builds right up to the final scene, which contains more belly laughs than any show in recent years. It only runs until May 12, so we strongly suggest that you run, not walk, to see this show—whether you’re in high heels or not. The packed house at our presentation—containing way more ladies than we’ve ever seen in a DRP audience—would agree.

The open stage that greets you—designed by Bruce Weber—is pink, pink, pink. This is the signature color of the “Glamouresse” brand, and your eyes will water from 50 shades of pink during the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission!). Pale pink ostrich feathers, Elsa Schiaparelli shocking-pink costumes, Pepto-Bismol pink—it’s everywhere. Brace yourself. Phil Murphy has even used pink lighting on the filmy curtains.

Robbie Wayne, the show’s director and Desert Rose’s producing artistic director, leaps onto the stage to welcome you—and joyously admits that this show has no “message.” It was just chosen because of its laughs. How wonderful!

So, bring on the girls. This pageant presents six semifinal competitors from various regions of the USA, such as Miss West Coast, Miss Industrial Northeast and Miss Bible Belt. Can you imagine such titles? Well, why am I surprised? In my home town there was a contest for Miss Potash, for heaven’s sake …

The competition’s emcee is Frankie Cavalier, played by Michael Pacas, who strides onto the stage wearing what might be the most frightening toupee in all of show biz. He fabulously combines the smarm of so many professional emcees with flawless timing and relentless cheeriness in the face of imminent disaster. Just keeping the names and titles straight must be exhausting, but Pacas’ energy never flags. He introduces the girls, who appear in all shapes and sizes, proudly wearing their title banners. Our judges, chosen from the audience, sit alertly up front. Consulting your program will only confuse you, as the actors’ headshots bear zero resemblance to the female flamboyance that you see on the stage.

Miss Great Plains, for example, is played by Larry Martin. Miss Industrial Northeast is created by Noah Arce. Timm McBride plays Miss Texas. Miss Bible Belt is Ben Reece. Miss Deep South is played by Miss Rusty Waters, and Miss West Coast is played by Jersey Shore, aka Brian Keith Scott.

Three shades of blonde, two shades of brunette, one auburn—and there they are.

Through the competitions, we get to know them personally. The emcee rattles off their qualifications and qualities (Miss West Coast, for example, is “Karma,” a double Gemini with a past including self-improvement techniques and tie-dying) throughout the various contests, such as evening gown, spokesmodel, fitness, talent cavalcade, philosophy, and—brace yourself—swimsuit.

You can instantly see the opportunities for merriment. My favorite part was the talent competition, during which these hugely talented actors toiled with their extremely creative director to create a jaw-dropping segment. Wait until you see what stuff they strut … and there are some extraordinary moments, such as Miss Bible Belt, wearing a flaming-red choir robe over a gold sequined gown, wailing a song called “I’m Bankin’ on Jesus,” or Miss Industrial Northeast on roller skates playing an accordion. Seriously!

There is no program credit given for costumes, but they are many and varied, and all are fantastic. Perhaps they came from the actors’ own closets. Some quick changes are required—another opportunity for laughs. There is no choreography credit, either, though there is dance aplenty, with some cute routines. One change suggestion: From most of the seats, when an actor lies down on the stage, he becomes invisible. It makes the neck-craning audience—except those in the front row—feel as if they are missing something, possibly important. The only real criticism is that the music, directed by Jaci Davis, was too loud, and drowned out the actors at times.

The competitors themselves select a “Girlfriend” award, like Miss Congeniality in most beauty pageants. A running gag throughout is their “spokesmodel” competition, in which the girls are forced to shamelessly shill for “Glamouresse,” which turns out to be a big-business brand in the field of beauty products, by creating a commercial. And the surprise guest who arrives at the end—well, let’s not ruin it for you.

The comedy here varies from slapstick to intellectual to tricky, so there is literally something for everyone in this play. Although I have had to stop slapping language warnings on reviews since four-letter words in theater have become so ubiquitous, we must compliment this show on not taking the cheap shots—there isn’t one objectionable word in the script. Amazing! It CAN be done. There are a couple of (terribly funny) adult-humor sexual references, but you could basically take anyone to see this show.

With drag queens, it’s all about nuance. It’s not just popping on a wig and makeup and a dress. To really be a standout requires infinite subtlety and much careful study. Drag is an art form dear to my heart, because when I was starting my performing career, I was invited to be in several shows at a drag club (they introduced me as “a real girl”)—and I learned a LOT from the queens of drag. This show reveals incredibly varied, individualized and thoughtful performances by all these entertainers, and it is a play I would love to see again.

So, who wins the crown? That rollicking finale alone is worth the price of admission.

Pageant is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 12, with a special show at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 9, 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

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

Page 1 of 7