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After a decade of Dezart Performs producing excellent, thought-provoking plays, one would expect artistic director Michael Shaw to open the company’s 11th season with something special—but the production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State goes beyond special; it’s spectacular.

Shaw once again demonstrates his skill in choosing material. The themes of politics, religion, gun control and social media could not be any timelier.

The play opens three days before Election Day. Incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore (Beau Marie) is running neck and neck with his opponent in Raleigh, N.C.—but his victory could be in serious jeopardy after he admits to a blogger that a recent school shooting has shaken his faith and perhaps made him re-think his views on guns.

Whitmore’s devoutly Christian wife, Sara (Kelley Moody), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Tammy Hubler), are aghast at this turn of events, and desperately try to convince him to stay on script during an upcoming speech. They know that his desire to speak “from the heart” could offend his conservative base and dash his political hopes.

The senator’s visit to the elementary school immediately after the shooting has traumatized him. Seeing the blood of 6-year-olds spattered on their art projects is seared in his memory. He now has serious doubts about his previous stance on guns—the strong protection of “Second Amendment rights.” With two young sons of his own at home, he wonders: “How could I believe in a God that would let this happen?” He defends his newfound viewpoints passionately to his stunned wife and campaign manager. “They don’t need my prayers—they need my actions!”

Will Whitmore go out and give the prepared speech his supporters and his wife expect? Or will he be honest about his moral and spiritual epiphany?

Williams’ writing and the play’s themes alone would make Church and State worth seeing. The bonus here is that the performances are outstanding.

Beau Marie’s Whitmore is perfection. His Southern accent and “good ol’ boy” charm are spot-on. Even if we didn’t agree with his politics before his transformation, we would have liked him anyway. His torment over whether to keep his wife and supporters happy or truly honor the dead first-graders by taking action hits the audience right in the gut. There is not one false moment in his performance.

As Sara Whitmore, Kelley Moody is superb. She owns the stage from her first entrance. Her Sara does her duty as the devout and supportive political wife, but with lots of dramatic flair. She’s a bit controlling, not too shy about her fondness for sex and booze, and occasionally confused about her syntax: “What should we do? Throw a sticker-tape parade?”

Tammy Hubler is terrific as Whitmore’s campaign manager, Alex Klein. We absolutely believe she is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense Jew from New York who is always expecting the other shoe to drop. Alex’s job is to get Whitmore re-elected, and she takes it seriously. Hubler conveys that effortlessly, yet with wry humor mixed in as well.

In several small roles, James Owens is quite good—so much so that I had to look twice to make sure it was the same actor when he came out as his second and third characters.

The costumes, set, lighting and sound all work well—and Michael Shaw’s direction deserves special mention. After casting this play extraordinarily well, he went on to elicit strong performances from each actor. Bravo!

Dezart Performs’ production of Church and State is what good theater is all about—it’s not just an entertaining evening watching really good actors; it also has a story line that makes the audience think. It makes us debate important issues on the way home, and maybe consider a viewpoint we’ve never had before.

If you have strong opinions on politics, gun control, religion and/or social media, or even if you somehow don’t, I urge you to see Church and State. It’s a show you won’t soon forget.

Church and State, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

When a reviewer puts down her pen because what’s happening onstage is just too darned riveting to take any more notes, you know you’ve got a hit—and such was the case with opening night of Motherhood Out Loud, the final show of the season for Dezart Performs.

Conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein, the show consists of 19 short stories about the trials, tribulations and exquisite joys of being a mom. Starting with the painful, messy birthing process itself (“Fast Birth Fugue” by Michele Lowe), the play covers just about every aspect of parenthood imaginable, including foreign adoption, surrogacy, step-parenting and dealing with autism.

This was one of those magical nights at the theater when everything worked. First, artistic director Michael Shaw (who also directs this production) has once again chose a superbly written play—and then he cast it extraordinarily well. Finally, he seemed to find just the right touch as a director … not too heavy-handed, but not too laid-back, either. Obviously, the audience knows a director was involved, but the performances seemed to flow from each actor organically.

Desiree Clarke gets to show off her comic chops early in the show while sharing advice on how to minimize the damage childbirth can do to a woman’s body and her sex life (“Squeeze, Hold, Release,” by Cheryl L. West), and then much later, when her grown-up daughter brings home a questionable suitor for Thanksgiving dinner: “Sierra says Conrad is vegan, so we’ll have to carve the turkey in the mud room, under a sheet.” (“Thanksgiving Fugue” by Michele Lowe).

The always-impressive Melanie Blue shines brightest as a Muslim mother helping her daughter deal with her first menstrual period (“Nooha’s List” by Lameece Issaq), and a mom driving her 15-year-old autistic son to the movies with his new girlfriend (“Michael’s Date” by Claire LaZebnik).

Leanna Rodgers has great stage presence, and really draws us in as an elderly woman being interviewed about motherhood by her 12-year-old great-grand-daughter (Melanie Blue). When asked what she likes best about being a mother, Rodgers replies, “I never really liked being a mother,” and admits to loving some of her children more than others.

James Owens, the one male in the cast, mostly pops in here and there to support the female scenes. But he provides one of the evening’s highlights with “If We’re Using a Surrogate, How Come I’m The One With Morning Sickness?” by Marco Pennette. It’s a funny, moving look at what gay men must go through to become parents. Owens commands the stage and handles the scene with great skill.

The cast is superb across the board, but if I had to pick one standout, it would be Theresa Jewett. She is most memorable portraying the conflicted mom of a young boy who likes to dress as a girl (“Queen Esther,” by Michele Lowe), and breaking our hearts with the maternal anguish over a son sent off to war (“Stars and Stripes” by Jessica Goldberg). Jewett is an exceptional actress. Every emotion rings true, and you can’t take your eyes off her.

The other vignettes are penned by Leslie Ayvazian, Brooke Berman, David Cale, Beth Henley, Lisa Loomer, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice and Annie Weisman. Thomas L. Valach’s minimalist set works very well here, as do the costumes (Frank Cazares), the lighting (Phil Murphy) and the sound (Clark Duggar).

Motherhood Out Loud runs just more than 90 minutes with no intermission. The outstanding acting and the seamless flow of one scene to the next makes the production fly by. It never drags, which is always a blessing for a theater-goer. Congratulations to Michael Shaw and his company for ending their 10th season on such a high note.

If you are a mother, there are sure to be many relatable moments in this show. If, like me, you chose not to have kids, it may evoke a few twinges of regret. Dezart Performs’ Motherhood Out Loud will make you laugh and cry—and it will also make you want to go call your mom. Do yourself a favor … go see it.

Motherhood Out Loud, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.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