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If you’re looking for an entertaining evening full of music and laughs, head over to the Desert Rose Playhouse to see The Stops (A Fabulously Fundamental Musical), by Eric Lane Barnes and Drew Emery.

Directed by Jim Strait, The Stops—the name comes from knobs on an organ, which when pulled out create different musical sounds—is the tale of three lady organists: Rose Rabinowitz Rigdale, a former Jewess turned Unitarian who’s just divorced her Catholic husband; Ginny Dooley, a bleached-blonde Baptist who’s never without her chardonnay; and Euglena Belcher, a pious Nazarene from Branson. They have formed an Andrews Sisters-style musical group at the urging of legendary church musical director Dale Meadows. He believes they have what it takes to spread his musical message to the rest of the world.

However, there’s a big problem: Meadows has lost his job and is about to stand trial after being outed as a homosexual by an overly righteous congregation member. The members of this trio, who met at a meeting of NALOG (North American Lady Organists’ Guild), are on a mission to free Meadows from jail and debut his songs. Though they have very different religious views, the three women are united in their determination.

A director friend of mine once said, “Knowing how to cast well is really the key.” Well, Jim Strait hit this one out of the ballpark: His cast is superb. All three have strong acting chops, excellent comic timing and great musicality. Their vocal harmonies are stellar.

As the holier-than-thou Euglena, Mark Ziemann is believable as a woman. His breakdown and dramatic solo toward the end of the show is actually quite moving. Terry Huber delivers as Rose, the wittiest and most down-to-earth of the characters. At one point, she asks what happens when you cross and agnostic with a dyslexic. The answer? “Someone who sits up all night wondering if there is a dog.” Valley favorite Raul Valenzuela nearly steals the show as the slutty, wine-guzzling Ginny. When Euglena goes on and on about her body being a temple, Ginny replies, “Well, mine’s an amusement park!” Her sexually charged “It’s All in Your Mind,” which includes onstage participation by two audience members, is one of the show’s highlights. Valenzuela’s simulated organ playing is also quite good. The real instrumental background is skillfully provided by musical director Steven Smith.

Men in drag can sometimes look overly cartoonish onstage, but not here. Mark Demry’s costumes and Art Healey’s wigs work well, and really help define each character. Kudos also to Phil Murphy (lighting), Steve Fisher (stage manager) and Paul Taylor (producer).

Desert Rose Playhouse bills itself as the “Coachella Valley’s LGBT and gay-positive stage company. It certainly is that, but even those who are new to LGBT theater will enjoy this production. Yes, it’s irreverent and bawdy, but not in an offensive way.

And the truth is, it’s a hoot!

The Stops, a production of Desert Rose Playhouse, is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Saturday, July 19, at 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30, and the running time is just less than 2 hours, with one 15 minute Intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Desert Rose Playhouse has scored a home run with Dennis Deal’s Nite Club Confidential, a “midcentury modern” film-noir-style musical that’s thoroughly entertaining and features a star turn by valley favorite Joey English.

Set in the 1950s, the show offers a look at the somewhat sleazy nightclub circuit of the day, complete with singing drama, a love triangle—and, of course, lots of booze. 

As the show opens in New York, we meet handsome crooner Buck Holden (the spot-on John Ferrare), who serves as both narrator and emcee. Speaking directly to the audience, he recounts the sordid tale of Nite Club Confidential in flashback. Blessed with good looks but merely moderate talent, Buck must rely on the largesse of maturing stars like Kay Goodman (English) to survive.

Buck is part of a vocal quartet called The High Hopes, also featuring Sal (Mark Ziemann), Mitch (Ryan Dominguez) and Dorothy Flynn (the lovely Katie Pavao). Kay gets a movie offer in Hollywood and wants Buck—her younger lover and agent—to accompany her. He initially declines, since he’s now busy romancing the more appropriately aged Dorothy, emerging as a star in her own right. The plot moves across both coasts, and to Paris and back, as we experience all the glamour, heartache, jealousy and humor of the 1950s nightclub scene. English and Pavao perfectly capture the legendary rivalry between aging female star and upcoming ingénue, especially in “All Man” (dressed in identical green gowns).

The cast is superb, with each member enjoying at least one starring number. Ferrare is charming and easy on the eyes; he keeps the show moving. His rendition of the jazz standard “I Thought About You” particularly stands out. It’s impossible not to smile watching Ryan Dominguez as Mitch, who captures the beatnik era in “Crazy New Words.” Special kudos go to Mark Ziemann as Sal, who stepped into the role with only about a week of rehearsal. Those of us who are performers know how tough that is to pull off—and he did not miss a beat. In fact, his solo number “Black Slacks” is one of the show’s highlights. 

Katie Pavao, as Dorothy, is truly a find. With her raven hair and peaches-and-cream complexion, she looks like she stepped out of a 1950s time machine. The girl has strong acting chops and a voice ideally suited to the musical style of the day; she knocks “He Never Leaves His Love Behind” out of the ballpark.

That leaves the show’s star, Joey English. Perfectly cast as the fading, somewhat insecure nightclub headliner “of a certain age,” English touchingly conveys the angst and jealousy Kay feels over watching her career and her love life crumble. English stays in her lower range and doesn’t push too hard vocally, lending a vulnerability to the character. I’ve seen her in other productions, and this may be the best thing she’s done in the valley.

The musical numbers—a mix of old standards (“Something’s Gotta Give,” “That Old Black Magic”), more obscure numbers (“Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made” by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser) and originals by Deal and Albert Evans (“The Canarsie Diner”)—are all terrific, aside from an occasional off note here and there. Special mention should be made of how well the trio (Pavao, Dominguez and Ziemann) handles tight, difficult harmonies. The singers are ably backed up by percussionist Douglas Dean, bassist Eric Lindstrom and pianist/musical director Steven Smith, positioned just off stage.

The costumes by Valentine Hooven and Mark Demry are excellent, as is the simple set. Previous issues with a creaky stage have vanished. Jim Strait’s direction, the lighting and the sound are all splendid.

Now in its second full season, the intimate Desert Rose Playhouse is filing the void left when Palm Springs’ Thorny Theatre closed a few years ago. If Nite Club Confidential is a hint of what’s to come, Desert Rose’s future is quite rosy indeed.

Nite Club Confidential is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $28 for Sunday matinees; the running time is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org. Below: John Ferrare and Katie Pavao.

Published in Theater and Dance