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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

Married Alive! brings to the Desert Theatreworks stage one of the wittiest revue scripts you’ll ever encounter. The contemporary work examines the institution of marriage from the perspective of both long-timers and newlyweds. Rich though this topic may be, it is not to be mined by the faint of heart.

Author Sean Grennan has combined his dialogue and lyrics (the music, by Leah Okimoto, is nothing you’ll remember afterward, but it’s serviceable) to create a play that gives the audience laughs ranging from chortles to guffaws. Don’t be surprised if those laughs are sprinkled with one or two tears.

The style is vaudeville-like, with lighting blackouts between sketches and songs. Those blackouts, of course, are one of the most defining characteristics of a revue (along with running gags). Co-directed by the seasoned Lance Phillips-Martinez and newbie Ron Phillips-Martinez (he’s making his directorial debut), the pace is varied, as a revue must be for maximum impact. The set is stark (some revues use no sets at all) and recalls the Laugh-In set, with windows that pop open to reveal disembodied heads spouting one-liners. Of course, there is no actual story to this kind of show, but themes abound. As for those themes: Think of your own life, and how your opinions about relationships have changed through the years.

The opening number plunges us into a delicious satire about weddings and their clichés. We meet the whole cast at once in a number called “Suddenly/Stupidly in Love.” The young bride is Erin, played by Briana Taylor, a silky blonde with a lot of confidence, as revealed by some of her costume choices. Her groom is Paul, played by William Fernandez Jr., whose amazing comedic talents and timing will serve him well in the promising career before him. Karen Schmitt, a tiny, feisty dynamo playing the older Diane, attends the wedding with her longtime spouse, Ron, played by Lance Phillips-Martinez himself, a tall sophisticate who somehow manages to be world-weary and lively at the same time. The wedding officiant is Corbett Brattin (listed as “The Observer”), who slides in and out of scenes, providing links and transitions. He’s his usual solid self as he offers additions of subtle comedy.

As for the singing voices: The show features superb harmonies, and not a bum note in the lot. However, both ladies would do well to stick with chest tones rather than wandering off into operatic head tones—they’re not good for revue theater, anyway, and they’re fraught with dangerous weakness and possible lack of control. Speaking of sound: There were a couple of moments when the musical accompaniment was a little too loud, but mostly it was just fine. It’s always tricky working with soundtracks.

A couple of microphones stood at the front of the stage, and it was impossible to tell whether they were even turned on, because the sound carried with no added resonance or reverb (a singer’s best friend). The downside: The audience didn’t catch some dropped last words—or even whole phrases—delivered when the actors’ faces were turned away from the audience, or spoken too quietly, or maybe (horrors!) mumbled. Every word counts! (Let every actor write this phrase on his mirror so he sees it 18 times a day! I’m going to keep spanking the culprits until every word of every show in town is intelligible!) That said, there were some excellent examples of lovely diction in other scenes.

What really stands out in this show are the actors’ faces. Kudos in particular go to Schmitt (those eyes!) and Fernandez (those eyebrows!), whose flexible and expressive comedic mugs create some of the best and funniest moments in the play. I confess to howling in a most unladylike fashion as I watched these two in the eggnog bit called “Ding Dong Family”—appropriately, for now, about Christmas. Brattin adds sparkle with his facial reactions—always understated, often wry and always admirable.

The characters claw their way through situations that plague every relationship—money, time, families, sex, work, communication, aging—in songs and vignettes, in solos and group harmonies. With gay marriage now common, I wonder if we’ll ever see a gay version of this show. Gay divorces are happening, too; these are all truly universal relationship problems. Anyone can have conflict over watching sports on TV, or wondering which member of the couple will die first and how it will be handled, or Viagra, or credit cards. This revue deals with all of it.

We have to keep an analysis of this production of Married Alive in proportion: The problems here are so tiny that it’s tempting to ignore them altogether, because of the brilliance of the writing. (For example, Act 2 is better than Act 1, which contained a couple of timing glitches and seemed under-rehearsed in comparison. Big deal.) It takes a lot of nerve for actors to perform musical-comedy revue, and carrying off these outrageous scenarios is only possible with a terrific script. And, I can promise you, Married Alive! has it.

By the way: Painted in cursive on the back wall of the set is a mysterious invitation to “the wedding,” dated Dec. 15, 2013, at 2 p.m. Because this is never addressed in the show, I asked co-directors Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez (recently married themselves) about it. They explained that they were hoping to find a couple willing to be married on the stage at their last performance! This is not a publicity stunt, obviously, or it would have taken place at the first performance.

So … any takers?

Married Alive!, a production of Desert Theatreworks, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25, or $23 for students and seniors. The show runs two hours with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance