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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

You never know whom you might meet at a dinner party.

I was surprised when my hosts invited their excellent “caterer” to join the table. I was even more surprised when the affable young man was asked if he would sing to us after dinner. Michael Graham stood by the table and blew the group away with his resonant baritone voice in an a capella rendering of “If Ever I Would Leave You.”

We enthusiastically applauded while he modestly beamed.

Only 29, Graham is a young man who not only loves the culinary arts, but who sings his heart out with the California Desert Chorale; takes award-winning photographs; and offers personal services from organizing events to IT consulting.

“I like helping others whenever I can,” he says.

Born in Victorville and raised in Desert Hot Springs and Palm Desert, Graham now lives in Sky Valley. His motivation comes from advice he got from his mother: “She always told me to win my own race,” he says. “I judge my success in any endeavor by using my own previous success as my goalpost.”

From a young age, Graham—an only child who was home-schooled—found his voice in music.

“I was always interested in music,” he remembers. “I spent a short time in a children’s chorus. Music was in my family; my mom and grandmother were both pianists, and my grandfather, a writer, was always interested in music. I was raised on a diet of Andrew Lloyd Webber, opera, musical theater and German lieder songs. In my teens, I began to explore music from around the world. I had no confidence in my own ability to sing, but I was able to work with my grandmother when I started to learn, and that was so gratifying.”

Graham enrolled at College of the Desert. “I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue, but it was suggested I major in music,” he says.

The music program at COD offers both certificates and degrees to music majors, and includes both private lessons and public-performance opportunities.

“I had to audition, and I was so unsure about my voice,” says Graham. “There were a lot of really talented people. I took Broadway-voice classes along with jazz, and I was lucky enough to work with Mark Almy for one-on-one instruction.”

Almy is an adjunct faculty member at COD with an operatic background. He’s taught at the University of Redlands, Riverside Community College, Cal State San Bernardino and the Idyllwild Arts Academy, and has directed full operas at COD.

Currently, Graham’s passion is his involvement with the California Desert Chorale, with 60 voices of men and women between the ages of 29 and 85. The group was founded in 1986. The chorale’s artistic director, Tim Bruneau, was trained by the likes of Marilyn Horne and Beverly Sills, and has appeared as a soloist and choral singer with organizations that include the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Los Angeles Master Chorale.

“I entered the program at COD in 2009, and by spring 2010, I was invited by Tim Bruneau to try out for the chorale,” Graham says. “I was one of four interns he selected from students at COD.”

For Graham, the chorale offers a range of music that fits his background: “There is an equal mix of pop and classical music. I loved doing their program last Christmas. It had something for everyone.”

What’s ahead for young Michael Graham? “I’d love to travel and see the world. I want to know what’s out there. Music and cooking right now are more of a hobby. … I do like staying here in the Coachella Valley. I appreciate the beauty of the desert; the whole landscape is so rich once you stop to appreciate it, so I have considered my photography as a profession.”

As a man not yet 30, does Michael Graham have any advice for other young people?

“I owe so much to the great teachers at COD and to the California Desert Chorale,” he says. “I’ve been able to work with many superb people and musicians, because I learned from my family not to be limited by fear.

“It’s easy to rule something out before you’ve even tried it, saying to yourself, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ Whenever I’ve tried, I’ve found those fears are not usually valid. Try not to worry about it—just go for it!”

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

When Rent opened off-Broadway in February 1996, it rocked the theater world and won instant acclaim. The death of 35-year-old composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson from an aortic aneurysm just before the show’s opening certainly added to the show’s impact, but the musical’s stark depiction of life and death in New York City in the late 1980s stands on its own.

Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent—now getting an excellent production complements of College of the Desert—chronicles one year in the life of a group of poor artists living in the East Village of Manhattan. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Shafik Wahab) searches for professional recognition, while his HIV-positive songwriter-roommate, Roger (Christian Quevedo), longs to pen a hit tune before succumbing to his illness (“One Song Glory”). Soon, Roger meets Mimi (Allegra Angelo), also HIV-positive, and the two fall in love after she seduces him (“Light My Candle”).

Mark is pining for his ex-lover, Maureen (Meagan Van Dyke), a highly sexed performance artist who has left him for a woman, Joanne (Alisha Bates). Mark and Joanne sing of their mutual obsession with Maureen in “Tango: Maureen.”

Computer whiz Tom Collins (Anthony Martinez) falls for Angel (Aaron Anzaldua), an adorable transvestite inflicted with AIDS. Rounding out the principal cast is Benny (Dion Khan), Mark and Roger’s former roommate and current landlord, who is pressuring them for past-due rent.

The score is terrific, but certain numbers really stand out, including Mimi’s steamy “Out Tonight,” the tender Tom/Angel duet “I’ll Cover You,” and the best-known tune in the show—“Seasons of Love.”

I cannot say enough great things about this cast: The leads are all outstanding. I would not be at all surprised to see some of their names in lights on Broadway down the road. However, the glue that holds the show together is Wahab as Mark. His stage presence, strong voice and acting chops are perfectly suited to the role. As the tragic lovers Roger and Mimi, Quevedo and Angelo are marvelous. Their voices are terrific, and both dig down deep to bring true emotion to the stage. Their passion is palpable; both are guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye at some point.

With a cast this strong, it’s hard to do, but Anzaldua nearly steals the show as the doomed Angel. His slight build and outrageous costumes complement his superb performance. He is clearly having a blast onstage … but when the darkness sets in, the audience wants to wrap him in our arms and comfort him.

As Angel’s lover Tom, Martinez is stupendous. When he reprises “I’ll Cover You” after losing Angel, his voice soars up to the rafters. I defy any audience member with a pulse not to have chills after hearing that number.

Khan’s Benny is also fantastic. He handles his featured song “You’ll See” with great aplomb.

The chemistry between Van Dyke and Bates as lesbian lovers Maureen and Joanne is sizzling. Even women who’ve never had the slightest interest in switching teams might consider it after their erotic duet “Take Me or Leave Me.” Van Dyke has a huge future ahead of her in musical theater.

The members of the ensemble hold their own with the principals—there is not a weak link.

A lot goes on in this show—there’s a large cast, a band onstage, lots of dancing, heavy emotion, sexual themes—all of which require a director with great skill. Mark Almy has that skill; everything flows just as it should. Major kudos also go to musical director Scott Smith and choreographer Shea New. Joseph Layne’s set and lighting, and Jack Ramoran’s sound, are right on the money, as are the costumes (Rick Doerfler, Kathy Smith, Courtney Ohnstad).

The only flaw in this production is an occasional volume imbalance between the band (the excellent Scott Smith, Anthony Arizaga, Mikael Jacobson and Brad Vaughn) and the singers. There are times when the lyrics are difficult to understand—partly because the band’s a bit too loud, and partly because the singers’ diction is a bit unclear. A slight adjustment in the musicians’ volume would make a big difference.

The show is long—about 2 1/2 hours, but well worth it.

This was the first time I have seen a production of Rent. It won’t be my last.

College of the Desert’s Rent will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 3 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 29, at the Pollock Theatre on the COD campus, 43500 Monterey Ave., in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 for general admission, and $20 for students. The run time is 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-773-2574, or visit collegeofthedesert.ticketleap.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

Les Miserables is now the world’s longest-running musical, having been seen by an estimated 65 million people in 42 countries.

Given the show’s many years of stage success and the recent hit movie, audiences have high expectations when they go to see Les Miserables—and on many levels, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s current production succeeds. However, the show is far from seamless.

By now, almost everyone knows the basic plot. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel set among the poor in 19th-century France, it chronicles the determination of Inspector Javert to capture escaped convict Jean Valjean, who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family. Released after 20 years of hard labor, Valjean stops by a bishop’s house. Though treated with kindness, Valjean steals silverware and flees. When he’s apprehended and brought back to answer for his crime, the bishop says the silverware was a gift. The price for Valjean’s freedom: The expectation that he will treat others with kindness. He eventually develops a relationship with Fantine, a starving prostitute desperate to save her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. As Fantine dies, Valjean promises to raise Cosette as his own. Later, Cosette falls in love with a militant student, Marius; finally, Valjean and Javert have their final confrontation on the banks of the Seine.

At the top of the list of Palm Canyon’s successes is Raymond B. Johnson’s performance as Jean Valjean: He is simply flawless. He has the physical presence and the acting chops for the part, and his voice is exquisite. Anyone who knows the score waits for the moment when night falls on a battle, and Valjean sings the spine-tingling “Bring Him Home.” Johnson delivers: You can hear a pin drop as he hits the final high note; his paternal love for Marius feels authentic. Unfortunately, in the opening scenes, he is burdened by an ill-fitting wig, which covers his face far too often.

Valley favorite Mark Almy, as Inspector Javert, is also impressive. Thanks to his powerful pipes, he handles the difficult score with ease; his Javert is cold, stern and relentless. However, when folding the hands of a young boy killed in battle, you can see the softening of the inspector’s heart all over Almy’s face.

Se Layne Tethal (who is not credited in the program) is not bad as Fantine, even though she’s not age-appropriate for the part. She has a pretty voice, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” doesn’t hit the viewer in the gut; sneaking in a breath on the rising scale on the word “shame” diminishes the song. (Granted, playing Fantine these days is a thankless task, seeing as it would be nearly impossible to top Anne Hathaway’s now-famous performance in the film.)

Layne’s daughter Ava Tethal is touching as little Cosette, and her son Wyatt is adorable Gavroche. Husband Rodney Tethal ably directs, making this truly a family affair.

Jamie Leigh Walker is perfectly cast as Cosette. Her soaring soprano meshes well with the equally talented Shafik Wahhab, who plays Marius. Together, they make the young couple’s love totally believable.

Alisha Bates stands out as the tragic Eponine; unfortunately, her gut-wrenching “On My Own” was marred by a brief sharp note and too much noise behind the drop as fellow cast members stacked chairs to create the battle barricade. Also worth mentioning are Charles Harvey as The Bishop of Digne and Nicholas Sloan as Enjolras.

As for those seams: The raucous “Master of the House,” a number which normally stops the show, was lackluster. That was, in large part, because Tom Warrick (Thenardier) did not know his lyrics. Morgana Corelli (Madame Thenardier) also dropped a line or two, but Warrick was either having a really bad night, or needs another week of rehearsal. The pair have the appropriate buffoonish look (great costuming and makeup), and there are glimpses of good comic timing, but if the opening-night show was any indication, they may need to go over their songs. The same problem occurs when they reappear in the wedding scene near the end of the show.

Other issues include the overuse of onstage smoke during the battle scenes and Javert’s suicide. Several audience members were coughing and waving programs in front of their faces to clear the air—and creating a mood onstage is not more important than the safety and comfort of the audience. There were also occasional sound and microphone issues, though they were not as noticeable as in previous Palm Canyon shows. The volume level of cast members’ microphones should be consistent, but that was not the case here; some performers could be heard clearly, while others could not. Some ensemble members also need a bit of work on their diction.

The choice to use a prerecorded background track rather than live musicians in an intimate theater like the Palm Canyon is the only way to go. The recorded music worked well for the most part, though there was a glitch at the top of Act 2. The chorus could use a bit more direction during the crowd scenes—at times, they seemed to be just standing there waiting for their cue to sing.

With a few exceptions, these problems are relative nitpicks. Kudos go to musical director Charles Britt Endsley; costumers Se Layne and Jennifer Stowe; and lighting/sound director J.W. Layne. The set, also designed by J.W. Layne, is superb.

If you’re in the mood for a moving, sweeping historical epic, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Les Miserables is not a bad choice. The music is great, and most of the cast is strong; in fact, it’s worth going just to see Raymond B. Johnson’s performance. Let’s just hope the Thenardiers learn their songs, and the powers that be cut back on the smoke.

Les Miserables is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, or $10 for students. The running time is three hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were at the top of their game when they wrote The Sound of Music, and it remains as wonderful today as it was when it premiered in 1959.

The true story—from the memoir written by Maria von Trapp—is the basis for the plot. Does anyone not know it? Regardless, this theatrical snapshot of idyllic Austrian life in the 1930s, impacted by the gathering storm clouds of Nazism, is inevitably affecting—and you will leave the theater humming, singing or at least thinking about the music. It’s like an earworm, in a good way.

At the Palm Canyon Theatre’s production, the first hurdle to be cleared is The Kids. Baron von Trapp has seven children and a deceased wife (and not one person ever wonders why), so a girl from the nearby nunnery is hired to act as a nanny for them. Maria, whom we’ve already established is not particularly suited for the cloistered life, is sent to do the job. Well, the whole play could be sunk without a gurgle if the children weren’t as ideally cast as these are: They’re adorable without being syrupy, fresh without being boring, and their singing is just great, particularly the kid playing Leisl. Kudos to all of them!

The next problem could be Baron von Trapp. But stage veteran Mark Almy fills the bill as the imperially slim, naturally elegant and casually sophisticated Navy captain. (Austria is a landlocked country, so this is a bit puzzling … but they do have some lakes.) Almy never does show us the power that we know he can command, as vocally gifted as he is, yet his choices are correct for his character. However, we have to rap his knuckles for too often dropping his voice at the ends of spoken sentences. Nonetheless, he carries von Trapp through the lovely arc from uptight single dad to warm, caring husband and father, all due to Maria.

And that brings us to Maria: Any actress brave enough to follow in Julie Andrews’ incomparable footsteps deserves credit. Palm Canyon’s uncredited Maria has the face of an angel … and later on, in her wedding dress, a va-va-voom Barbie Doll figure. Her glorious blonde hair is a ray of sunshine (and no, I do not say that because it is exactly my color), even if the braids are a little too fat to be believable. It is a daunting role, and a demanding role. Vocally, she started out singing sharp, and it took some time for her to regain her pitch—but what unfortunately didn’t change was her choice to sing behind the beat of her solos. This is OK for saloon and torch singers, but not for musical comedy. Still, she handled the emotional range fairly well, despite some overacting on the high-energy end.

The supporting roles were often played unevenly, with actors sometimes stiff, hesitant, unconvincing or unintelligible, and almost all of them needing more of that one ingredient that defines the Austrian persona: charm.

The Palm Canyon Theatre has a commitment to the community, and as such, it tries to include a variety of people in its productions. Double-casting is one way to get more people on the stage, and in this show, there is a “Blue” cast and a “Green” cast, so patrons visiting on different days may see different actors—and, hence, a different show. Director Steve Fisher handled these challenges admirably in the “Blue” version that we saw. With such a huge cast, logistics are invariably a nightmare, but they were performed fairly smoothly. Fisher uses every part of the theater for blocking, even pouring the cast down the staircases and through the audience.

The set, of course, is simply marvelous; J.W. Layne never disappoints. But what’s up with the sound? The Sound of Music became The Sound of Static far too often, with microphones cutting out, scraping against costumes, and sputtering—with one deafening attack of feedback. We’ve mentioned this problem before. Is it time to consider overhead microphones, or some other alternative? Instead of the hills being alive, here, they are too often dead. Someone has got to check the lighting, too—several scenes were ruined by shadows across the faces of the very actors who were singing or speaking. The technical aspect of theater must be nearly flawless, because unfortunately, everyone remembers only failures. Some special moments do deserve applause, such as the appearance of the uber-creepy swastika sweeping onstage.

By the way, the first act runs one hour and 45 minutes—so make sure your kidneys are advised. Mercifully, the von Trapp family speeds through the second-act plight in record time.

We must never forget that this show was written by Americans—often a surprise to those who think that “Edelweiss” is an olde European folk song. (As an aside: When I was an on-the-road musician, in another life, a sweet old drunk in Vancouver, British Columbia, frequently appeared in my lounge and demanded to hear that tune. While I sang it, he would lurch around the room and show everyone his actual dried edelweiss—the flower was pressed, preserved and displayed with his driver’s license. It’s impossible for me to hear that song and not think of him.) The words are thoughtfully printed in the program—to help you later with your earworm.

The Sound of Music is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 10; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11 and 12; and 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123; or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance