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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

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

So you need a break from the endless search for the perfect holiday gifts, and the kids need a distraction from Santa’s impending arrival. What to do?

My suggestion: Head over to the Palm Canyon Theatre, and take in a performance of Shrek the Musical.

The show, of course, is based on the 2001 blockbuster DreamWorks film, and the book and lyrics are by David-Lindsay Abaire, with music by Jeanine Tesori. It tells the story of an ogre named Shrek, who is sent out into the world by his parents at the age of 7. His parents warn him that because of his odd appearance, life will be difficult for him. Shrek is living alone in a swamp when all sorts of fairy-tale creatures show up, having been banished from the Kingdom of Duloc by the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad (who belts out “Story of My Life” to explain).

Shrek sets off to see Farquaad in an effort to get his privacy back, and runs into an annoyingly chatty donkey along the way. Meanwhile, Farquaad is making plans to marry Princess Fiona, who’s been locked up in a tower for years; meanwhile, she’s waiting for a brave knight to rescue her with a kiss. Like Shrek, she’s been on her own since the age of 7. Farquaad agrees to give Shrek the deed to the swamp in exchange for rescuing Fiona—a task which includes dealing with a fire-breathing dragon and a moat of lava.

Fiona is initially shocked by Shrek’s looks, but we later learn that she’s hiding a secret. Shrek assures her that it’s Lord Farquaad she is to marry, and wedding plans are made. But affection grows between the princess and the ogre.

Does the wedding occur? Or does Fiona’s friendship with Shrek blossom into romance? Do Pinocchio, Peter Pan and the other the fairy-tale creatures move out of the swamp? If you are one of the few people who haven’t watched the movie, see Palm Canyon’s production to find out.

This Shrek gets off to a slow start. The actors lack a bit of energy, but that all changes when the Donkey (Shafik Wahhab) enters the picture. Wahhab nearly steals the show, thanks to his physical antics and Eddie Murphy-esque repartee. He provides much of the humor, and it’s hard to keep your eyes off him.

Kelly Peak is quite good as Shrek. He has a strong singing voice and allows us to see the ogre’s vulnerability; after all, ogres need love, too. Also notable is Anne Schroeder as Fiona, whose comic timing and strong voice are reminiscent of a young Carol Burnett, in “Once Upon a Mattress.” Nicholas Sloan’s Lord Farquaad is hilarious; his performance (delivered entirely on his knees) deserves a Supporting Actor nomination of some sort. The always-dependable Julie Rosser is fabulous as the voice of the Dragon.

The ensemble—which includes many children—is adorable, but some of the group numbers seem a tad under-rehearsed. Director William Layne keeps things moving along, and the relationships between the main characters are well-developed and believable.

Once the cast’s energy level picks up, it stays up, and everyone onstage seems to be having a blast. The music is catchy; the costumes are colorful; and the large dragon puppet is terrific and manipulated with great skill. (During the matinee I saw, there were microphone glitches in the first five minutes, but I’m sure those will be worked out.)

The underlying message—love and happiness is possible for all of us, no matter what we look like or how rocky of a start we had in life—is one we can’t hear often enough. Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Shrek the Musical is uplifting and fun, and a great addition to the valley’s holiday entertainment. The closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” will have you humming and tapping your toes all the way home.

Shrek the Musical is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. Running time is about 2 1/2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or go to www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Yes, Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Avenue Q is a musical with puppets—but this is definitely not a show geared toward children. Instead, it’s a show with substance (and, it should be noted, decidedly adult themes).

The show, conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who also wrote the music and lyrics), with a book by Jeff Whitty, was originally meant to be a television series. In 2002, it was developed as a stage production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center for the National Musical Theatre Conference. It hit Broadway in 2003—and went on to win three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Avenue Q addresses the issues we all face while becoming adults. Its characters (some of whom are puppets animated and voiced by unconcealed actors onstage) hit bumps in the road as they try to make their way in the world. The show opens as recent college graduate Princeton (Nicholas Sloan) is looking for his purpose in life. He has just moved to Avenue Q, a fictional street in New York, where he meets his neighbors: kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (the fabulous Sarah Noe); uptight banker Rod (Hanz Enyeart) and his roommate, Nicky (Kelly Peak, who also directs); and Brian, an aspiring comedian (the always-dependable Cliff Plummer) and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Carissa Dizon), a therapist with no clients. Rounding out the cast are Nicole Tillman as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), the building superintendent; and Stephen Blackwell and Jennifer Stowe as the Bad Idea Bears.

Debate begins over who has things the toughest with the song “It Sucks to Be Me.” Tough subjects including racism, porn, angst over one’s sexual orientation, homelessness and infidelity are all touched on in the musical numbers, with understanding and great humor. The biggest laughs come during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” as Kate Monster and Princeton have raunchy puppet sex.

Trials and tribulations ensue, but eventually, most of the characters make progress in their life’s journeys. In the closing number, “For Now,” the cast reminds that it’s OK that some people never find their life’s purpose—since everything is only temporary, anyway.

The Palm Canyon’s production is well-paced; J.W. Layne’s set is spot-on; and the lighting and sound are great (other than a common Palm Canyon Theatre problem: body-mic feedback when the actors/puppets have physical contact).

The cast is strong overall, but special kudos go to Noe, double-cast as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, who closes Act 1 with Kate singing the superb “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”; and Dizon, who shines in the duet “The More Yu Ruv Someone.”

But the highlight of Avenue Q is the masterful puppeteering. The cast manages to make the audience forget about the humans behind the foam-rubber heads with the painted-on faces; in the end, the audience sees only each puppet’s individual character—which is no small feat.

Yes, this puppet play requires more suspension of disbelief than usual—but Palm Canyon’s production succeeds beautifully.

Avenue Q, presented by Palm Canyon Theatre, is performed at 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 17. The theater is located at 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. The show runs about two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123 or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.com.

Published in Theater and Dance