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Wed06262019

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

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

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona have a well-deserved reputation for offering first-rate theatrical productions—and the latest effort, Romance/Romance, does not disappoint.

To put it simply … the show is phenomenal.

With book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, Romance/Romance was first produced in 1987, and received five Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.

The show consists of two one-act musicals. The first, The Little Comedy, is based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler; it’s set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Alfred and Josefine, both well-off but lonely, each decide that creating a less-affluent persona might increase their chances of finding true love. He pretends to be a nearly penniless poet, while her charade is that of a poor seamstress. They meet while walking in the park … and soon fall in love. The progression of their romance is detailed in letters each writes to friends. The question is: How long can they keep up the facade? And will their love endure if they come clean about their true identities?

Both Conchita Belisle Newman (Josefine) and Christopher Carothers (Alfred) are superb. Blessed with beautiful, robust singing voices, they take us on a lovely romantic journey. Their acting is quite good as well, and the onstage chemistry is palpable. The musical numbers, including the hopeful “It’s Not Too Late” and “I’ll Always Remember the Song,” are all memorable, but the highlight of the first act has to be Josefine’s poignant “The Night It Had to End,” exquisitely sung by Newman.  

Supporting cast members Eric B. Anthony (Him) and Robyn Cohen (Her) add the perfect touch to the first act, performing lovely, skillful dances that take us from scene to scene and tie it all together.

Act II, Summer Share, is based on Jules Renard’s play Le Pain de Ménage. Set in modern times, it introduces us to best friends Monica (Newman) and Sam (Carothers), and their respective spouses, Lenny (Anthony) and Barb (Cohen), who are on vacation together. Though Lenny and Barb have always been fine with the platonic bond between Monica and Sam, things seem to shift on this trip. Suspicions (and other things?) are aroused after Barb and Lenny retire to bed, and the friends are left alone to chat in the wee hours. They wonder if their relationship is really platonic (“Let’s Not Talk About It”). Could their respective marriages survive an affair? Every long-married woman can relate to the yearning for sweet nothings in “Words He Doesn’t Say” (flawlessly delivered by Carothers).

In this act, the chemistry between Newman and Carothers is not just palpable—it is electric. The audience almost feels heat coming from the stage; it’s a terrific example of damn-good acting.

Anthony and Cohen are featured more in the second half, and they are both triple threats—fabulous actors, singers and dancers, with great comic timing. Their duet “Small Craft Warnings” is particularly notable.

There is much to like about this production, but what really stands out is how everything just flows together. Before the first note is played, one is struck by the gorgeous set. The cast is uniformly excellent; kudos to Ron Celona for both his spot-on casting and direction. The costumes, hair and makeup and lighting are wonderful.

Special mention has to be made of musical director Jaci Davis and the band, featuring Davis on piano, Daniel Gutierrez on keyboards, Bill Saitta on bass and Dave Hitchings on percussion. Their perfect blend supports the singers without being overpowering.

Whether you are a hopeless romantic, a theater aficionado or someone who simply wants an entertaining evening out, Romance/Romance is the ticket.

Romance/Romance is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 11, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is a little more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory artistic director Ron Celona has put on some fabulous productions since the theater opened its doors in 2008—but he has truly outdone himself with his current offering, Baby—The Musical.

The show, with book by Sybille Pearson, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., ran on Broadway in 1983-1984. It tells the story of three different couples and how they each react to the news of impending parenthood. College students Lizzie (Melody Hollis) and Danny (Caleb Horst) have just moved in together, and seem much more at ease with the prospect of having a baby than with the commitment of marriage. Thirty-somethings Pam (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and Nick (Perry Ojeda), coaches at the same college, are facing the heartbreak of apparent infertility. The oldest couple, 43-year-old Arlene (Janna Cardia), a stay-at-home mom of three grown daughters, and 48-year-old university staff member Alan (Tom Andrew), are stunned by a surprise pregnancy. The audience goes along for the ride as each couple faces the trials, tribulations and joys involved in bringing a new life into this world.

One of the most impressive things about CV Rep’s Baby is director Celona’s success in fitting 10 actors and five musicians on his intimate stage without them looking like a can of sardines. Everyone moves on and off the stage smoothly, and it never appears crowded. That is no easy feat.

The excellent band features some of the valley’s best musicians—Daniel Gutierrez on the keyboard, Dave Hitchings on percussion, Doug MacDonald on guitar, Bill Saitta on bass and Scott Storr (also the musical director) on piano. A musical play is always a richer experience with live music rather than recorded backgrounds.

The cast is superb across the board; there is not one weak link. The excellent ensemble—Jaci Davis, Jeff Stewart, Giulia Ethel Tomasi and Joseph H. Dahman—serves as a sort of Greek chorus, moving the story along. Each of them also shines in minor roles, particularly Tomasi as a fertility specialist having trouble with her contact lenses, and Stewart as a snooty real estate agent.

The leads all exhibit impressive voices and strong acting chops. As empty-nesters Alan and Arlene, Andrew and Cardia ably convey the conflict over whether they really want to become mired in the formula-and-diaper routine again later in their lives. It felt as if the audience was collectively holding their breath as the two danced around the subject of terminating the pregnancy.

The sexual chemistry between Hanrahan-Ball and Ojeda, as Pam and Nick, is palpable. We share the pain they feel about not being able to conceive. While the singing is uniformly superb, Ojeda’s soaring voice stands out.

Hollis and Horst are perfect as college sweethearts Lizzie and Danny. Just starting out in life, they are trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the new life they’re creating. Hollis can really sing.

Baby has a difficult score, with many songs written in minor keys, but the cast handles them well. Some of the more memorable numbers include the rousing “Fatherhood Blues” featuring all the men, Danny’s romantic “I Chose Right,” “I Want It All” featuring the three female leads, and Lizzie’s hilarious “The Ladies Singin’ Their Song,” her lament about strange women patting her growing belly and sharing their own childbirth experiences.

Ron Celona’s direction is spot-on here, as are the costumes, set, lighting and sound.

It’s wonderful—and not all that common—to have absolutely nothing negative to say about a show. I had that experience watching CV Rep’s production of Baby. It’s not just about childbirth. It’s about life, love and the complexity of human relationships. This show will touch your heart … even if you have no kids—or don’t even like them.

Baby—The Musical is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Tickets are $48, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966 or go to www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance