CVIndependent

Wed08212019

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 script is the star.

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced eight plays written by Tony Padilla during its eight seasons. And get this: English is his second language!

There are precious few authors who can achieve this kind of success, let alone in a second language. Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness, which later inspired the movie Apocalypse Now, spoke Polish as his cradle tongue … and frankly, I can’t think of another example off the top of my head. Padilla comes from Cuba, where at age 11, he and his family escaped during the historic exodus from Castro’s fiefdom. Today, he not only speaks flawless English, but writes as playwright-in-residence for DETC.

At the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, a venue the group is sure to outgrow soon, award-winning Padilla’s newest work is titled For a Reason. “It’s very different,” he said about the new work. “It’s not personal—I didn’t experience this. It comes from research, from becoming passionate about the subject of relationships, from reading and seeing other people in their relationships, and learning about them. That’s what moves me.”

Frankly, isn’t how we treat our fellow man the essence of our development? Look at how you act when you’re mixed in with other people—and that will show you who you really are, especially in intimate relationships. Look at how many court cases there are because of the problems! In the case of For a Reason, Padilla’s script sparkles with not just brilliant writing, but also with his tremendous insights about people and how they interact.

A glance at the printed program might make one anticipate a musical, since these actors are so well known for their singing—but no, it’s a straight-up play, despite well-known local music-biz names like Charles Herrera, Leanna Rodgers and my dear colleague, the Independent’s own Bonnie Gilgallon. Interestingly, Shawn Abramowitz directed the play (with Sierra Barrick as assistant director), and then had to step in to play a role on the stage—which he does perfectly, never missing a word. In other words, everyone in the cast boasts multiple talents.

The open stage shows us a casual and slightly messy living room/den, designed by Lauren Bright, containing a big globe and souvenirs, artwork and tchotchkes from around the world. Artistic director Jerome Elliott greets the audience and informs us that this is a world premiere! The lights, designed by Ashton J. Bolanos, come up, and we begin. Sandra (played by Rodgers, an actress with the most beautiful eyes and smile), is the live-in daughter-in-law of the aging but successful writer Pablo Luna (a cane-stumping, grey-haired, grumpy but lovable Hererra). They are interviewing for a position of companion/caretaker for him, as he suffers from an unnamed degenerative disease. Aaron Watson, cleverly played by a black-bearded Abramowitz, is the last applicant of that day.

It is revealed that Pablo is “isolating,” and we see that the patient is indeed trying to push everyone away from him. But Aaron proves to be bright and feisty, and the verbal jousting begins. Pablo is deemed “a difficult client,” but Aaron is more than a match for his wit and wisdom. The two actors swat lines at each other with complete believability, on the topics of happiness, loneliness, choices, success, mothers, artistic virtue, social masks, balance, sex, youth versus age, writer’s block, men’s animal magnetism, and movies. There is great charm in their mind games, and this is where Padilla’s script shines brightest. He manipulates the language joyfully and curiously, giving us inventive and refreshing results. The two actors have mined the script deeply, and their shades of meaning, even when trading some rude insults, are beautifully thought out.

The men eventually arrive at an impasse in their philosophical swordplay, and have to call in an adjudicator. Enter Gilgallon as Gisele. She’s a dream girl in stiletto heels, black hose on her long legs, and a clingy scarlet dress that hugs her eye-popping curves. (Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares.) We are led to believe that she is a Lady of the Night … but watching her moves and listening to her talk, we begin to wonder. She is way too shrewd, too literate, too thoughtful. She keeps us guessing. Gilgallon’s focus in this role is beautiful to behold, and she is totally believable as this mystery woman (with the exception—forgive me—of the wig). Her warm and musical voice is shown to its best advantage in this role.

There are some smart theatrical choices made in this play, such as bringing in the champagne already poured instead of the time-wasting, not to mention dangerous, pouring in front of an audience … but we need to hear the offstage POP! of the cork to make it real.

This is an extraordinary play, and it runs smoothly. The theme of the play—relationships—posits the idea that people are brought together to affect each other’s lives with the chance that they will be better persons as a result. It is a lovely thought—even though some of us might be able to think of a few people we wish we’d done without. All these characters do experience an arc as a result of meeting each other, with Sandra’s change possibly being the most dramatic.

The play runs 60 minutes with no intermission, and says everything it has to say with such lovely conciseness that it makes you wonder why other plays have to go on for hours to achieve the same results.

Angelantonio Padilla’s words and thoughts will stay in your head. Whose lives have you met and changed … for a reason?

For a Reason, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.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

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