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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

What actor wouldn’t want to have a play called Vampire Lesbians of Sodom included on one’s resume? From the moment I heard this show was coming to the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater company, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Director Jim Strait and producer Paul Taylor have chosen a play with one of the longest-ever Off-Broadway runs for their annual salute to gay heritage theater. Who doesn’t love a success story? This play opened with plans for just one weekend—and it turned into a five-year run! Strait informed me that he has wanted to do this play for 30 years; read on, and you’ll understand why.

Written by Charles Busch, this outrageous show actually consists of two one-acts: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma. (It’s important to distinguish thd latter one from the “other” Sleeping Beauty, lest suburban matrons mistakenly show up at the theater door with eager 6-year-olds.)

VLOS is the story of two rival ladies, beginning in the ancient city of Sodom—which you’ll remember was supposed to be, oh, you know, the most depraved city ever in the entire world. Both gals are immortal vampires who repeatedly cross paths on their 2,000-year journey, starting in Sodom at a pagan sacrifice, appearing next in Hollywood in the 1920s, and last in present-day Las Vegas.

SBOC starts off in the swingin’ ’60s of London. Who could forget it? Miniskirts, the Beatles, Twiggy, the Frug, bell bottoms, the Rolling Stones, Carnaby Steet, etc. This is exactly when the theatrical style of revue began. SBOC echoes its snappy style, with actors playing multiple roles, running gags, quick changes, satire, broad comedy, and snippets of song and dance. The revue style borrowed heavily from the old American vaudeville shows (and music halls in England), and its future would become TV shows like Laugh In, Benny Hill and Saturday Night Live.

Here at Desert Rose Playhouse, this cast members have been chosen for their versatility and inventiveness. Each actor works not just in both acts; Act 2 includes three separate scenes, so some actors play as many as four parts, complete with elaborate costume, wig and makeup changes. It’s a demanding show! We have to mention there’s nudity and a few choice vulgarities, by the way, if anyone still cares.

Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting even includes strobe lights and a “limelight” effect. (You can’t imagine the number of light cues.) Steve Fisher’s stage management whisks people, sets and props on and off stage with breathtaking ease. Allan Jensen’s colorful rich-textured costumes are just magnificent—some are awesomely elaborate (vampires, actresses, a Vegas show star) while others are built for speedy changes—some right onstage. The fascinating wigs are masterminded by Toni Molano. Strait himself created the scenery (and he runs the lights … talk about multiple talents), and it was painted by Walter Lab. Let’s also applaud Robbie Wayne’s delightful choreography, sprinkled throughout the show with flair and wicked humor. Along with Paul Taylor as producer, Edward Monie is listed as the show’s executive producer.

How do we describe this show? Do terms like “madcap” and “over the top” convey the wackiness? Do I tell you about the audience’s gasps, spontaneous applause and belly laughs? Should we discuss the lovely “takes,” the knockout legs of the actors in drag, and the amazing shoes? Where do we begin?

Let’s start with the actors. The stars are Loren Freeman and Kam Sisco, two seasoned professionals who devour the stage like their vampire characters devour blood. Freeman’s sensational and sonorous voice, his unequalled skill with makeup, his evident relish with his costumes (a gold dress with a popcorn trim; a delicious cerise suit with giant faux pearls)—these are hallmarks of a detail-oriented and vastly talented actor. His flawless diction is a joy—he never wastes a word. His deft performance is a must-see, and acting students could learn much from him.

Sisco’s amazing legs are fantastic enough to be distracting, and the flesh-colored pantyhose in the modern-time scenes flatters him wonderfully. (Wait until you see his canary-yellow heels.) He’s an actor who is right on top of every line and gesture, and his careful attention to his craft makes these roles unforgettable. He goes through so much in this show that you will be astonished by him.

Adina Lawson is the only real girl in the cast. There are so many men in drag that it feels like the stage is completely mobbed by ladies, but there’s really only Lawson! Hmmm. She is tinier by about a foot of height than everyone else, but always spunky and terrier-alert. She plays a variety of roles with extreme body language and attitude.

Terry Huber is an actor of enormous variety, with a whole pocketful of regional and international accents and seasoned theatrical skills. Here, he weaves his skills through some really strange roles. Oh, and there’s a shock underneath one of his outfits. Brace yourself.

Richard Marlow changes so completely in his roles that we had to sneak a look at our programs to make sure the designer Sebastian Lore was really the same person later playing King Carlisle, the Hollywood actor with a complicated persona. He brings a pleasing variety to his work.

Jacob Betts is almost unrecognizable as he switches roles from Ian McKenzie to Etienne the butler to Danny the dancer, showing his chameleonic ability to fully inhabit each part.

Steven Ciceron and John Fryer give us some smaller roles (my faves were two bitchy chorus boys), but they both inhabit their many characters with the conviction that grows out of working with a great director: Strait has pulled solid performances and impressive vocal variety out of both gentlemen.

SBOC and VLOS have to be seen to appreciate this wild ride. VLOS’ strange plot is, surprisingly, beautifully and satisfyingly resolved. I won’t talk about the finale, so I don’t ruin it for you. So buckle up, and see it. You’ll love it. The outrageous title only begins the fun in this show!

Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Sleeping Beauty, or Coma, are performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-320-2000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and I was hopeful as I settled into my seat at the Desert Rose Playhouse on opening night of The Santaland Diaries.

I wanted to like it—and indeed, I did. However, I wish I’d liked it a little bit more.

David Sedaris first presented his essay about working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s on National Public Radio in 1992. The piece was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello in 1996, and the one-man show debuted at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in November that year.

The play, which runs not quite 90 minutes with no intermission, details Sedaris’ trials and tribulations as he first interviews for—and then lands—a position at Santaland as an assistant to the big man in red. 

The elf selection process has 30-something out-of-work actor David (played by Chris Clonts) on edge: “If you can’t even find work as an elf, that’s when you KNOW you’re a failure.” Luckily, he makes it through, and chooses “Crumpet” as his elf name.

Crumpet lets us in on the daily grind of elf training, and introduces us to some of his colorful co-workers—including the Santa who never breaks character, insisting that he really does live at the North Pole. We also learn that the really bitter elves include people like former ad executives who were hit by the recession and “never saw a velvet costume in their futures.”

Life as an elf is rarely glamorous. Duties include wiping up the vomit of nervous children and trying to explain to the little ones why Mr. Claus sometimes accidentally spits on them while promising to bring shiny new toys on Christmas morning.

Then there is the sea of humanity lined up for a chance to spend a few moments with Santa: “I could not tell where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began.” Crumpet laments that dealing with difficult parents is also part of an elf’s job description—including some parents who demand a Santa of a particular race. Then there was the time a mother asked for help getting her misbehaving son under control. All she wants is for Crumpet to echo her warning that if the boy does not shape up, Santa will bring him coal for Christmas. Alas, the elf goes a bit overboard, terrifying the child by telling him Santa will actually come to his house and steal everything.

Alone on the stage for the entire play, Chris Clonts does an admirable job as David/Crumpet. One-person shows are not easy; for starters, there are no other actors onstage to save you if you forget your lines. Clonts fell victim to this early on during the opening-night performance, and stage manager Steve Fisher had to prompt him from the sound booth. First-night jitters aside, Clonts has some very nice moments, including a fabulous Billie Holiday-esque version of “Away in a Manger.”

Charisma, confidence and good pacing are vital when a single actor must carry an entire show, and I’d like to see Clonts ratchet up the latter two items just a bit. There were times when he seemed somewhat tentative—again, that may just be a case of opening-night jitters. Though the brief blackouts between vignettes, accompanied by upbeat holiday music, were effective, a couple of them felt too long.

The festive set, designed by director Jim Strait, is superb. Santa’s “throne” is dead center. Large Christmas packages wrapped in shiny red and green abound; a reindeer and columns adorned with tinsel add the perfect finishing touches. The adorably tacky elf costume created by Robbie Wayne is terrific as well. Kudos go to Phil Murphy for his lighting, and Steve Fisher for both stage direction and sound.

Strait elicits a good performance from Clonts, but I think there’s some untapped potential there. A faster pace, a slightly stronger entrance and maybe even some ad-libbing or bantering with the audience here and there would enhance the evening.

Get yourself in the holiday spirit by going to see Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Santaland Diaries. It’s fun, entertaining and sometimes touching, even if the opening-night show left me wanting just a little but more.

The Santaland Diaries is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, go to www.desertroseplayhouse.org or call 760-202-3000.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s autumn, and again, the theater season begins. How auspicious that the beginning of our fourth season of theater reviews coincides with the opening of the fifth season of plays by the fabulously successful Desert Rose Playhouse.

With all the doom-sayers proclaiming that live theater is dead, and that newspapers are dead, we have both survived.

This year, Desert Rose’s artistic director, Jim Strait, tells us that he and producer Paul Taylor are “addressing the woes of the world by doing comedy.” What a great idea! Their plans for 2016-17 include The Santaland Diaries, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom with Coma, Southern Baptist Sissies and Clark Gable Slept Here. If these crazy titles are any indication, we’re in for a LOT of fun this year at our desert’s LGBT playhouse.

The initial offering, POZ, was written by Michael Aman. It’s set in 2003 in The City (as New Yorkers proudly call it), and later on a beach in Massachussets. The play was nominated for a Carbonell Award (a theater award in Florida) last year, and this is only the third-ever production of the show. The writing is fluid and filled with echoes, and instead of being plot- or action-driven, it’s a comedy-splashed investigation into the lives and relationships of some fascinating characters.

The show’s open stage, specially designed by Thomas Valach, is painted by Walter Lab into a bright-red sky with fluffy white clouds. Red? It’s a clue. The set is minimalist, with just a curving set of stairs, one low platform and an armchair—across which the sky and clouds are also painted. Brilliantly lit by the award-winning Phil Murphy, the set is where the actors move into a variety of settings which our imaginations can flesh out. (You will particularly love how Murphy lights the waterfront scene.) Steve Fisher’s clever stage management rapidly transports us from one place to another, and the actors efficiently bus the props in and out of scenes themselves. Robbie Wayne’s costumes reflect each character’s special personality, and the casting is perfect.

And what personalities they are. Adina Lawson opens the play as Catherine, a sort-of-retired and stylish actress, neurotic and malcontent about everything from her aging to her out-of-order apartment building. Her edgy voice and superior attitude disguise the gentle and generous person hidden underneath, we realize as we get to know her and watch her interactions with others.

But … who’s that silently watching her? Turns out he’s Arthur, an angel, sweetly played by John Fryer. Ballet-trained and rehearsal-clad Arthur swirls throughout the play, strutting with the grace of a premier danseur; he eventually breaks his silence by launching into a lengthy monologue. He knows and visits all the other characters, even though they are not all are aware of his presence. (Just like the angels in our lives, perhaps.)

Edison, a 23-year-old who has been diagnosed with leukemia, is an actor/singer currently working as a waiter (of course), played by Peter Stoia. His is perhaps the most serious role, because the irony of his situation is affected by politics in every aspect of his life: In 2003, the disease was 78 percent curable, but ruinously expensive to treat. His youth and apparent inexperience provide a contrast to the other characters—but he shocks us with unexpected and disturbing cunning that we just don’t see coming.

The role of Robert, a cynical and weary 50-year-old lawyer (yes, there are a couple of good lawyer jokes), is performed by Richard Marlow. Self-consciously determined to keep up with technology and the times, he can’t help reminiscing about the Olden Days of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. He struggles to find an elusive relationship, yet sabotages his chances by keeping everyone at arm’s length—only partly because he is HIV-positive.

Lorraine Williamson is a breath of fresh air as Maia, a lesbian psychic. (How often do we hear those two words together?) She fills the stage with her garish, outrageous outfits and larger-than-life personality, but we can peek behind the facade to see her hidden pain. She gives us a multi-layered performance, which is especially notable in her musically voiced monologue.

Her ex-husband, Oscar, is played by Terry Huber, who has thrown caution to the winds with this performance. Here, he’s an over-the-top old-school queen who loves to dish, but who becomes suddenly vulnerable and uncertain when he struggles to resolve his relationship with his father. Huber never disappoints, and he’s delightful here, relishing his chance to deliver some of the best lines in the play. He shows us how even the most outrageous of us have to sometimes face the horrors of reality.

All these characters know each other and affect each other’s lives. The complexity builds through the play; my favorite scene is probably the one in the disco bar. (You’ll love the lighting!) The monologues are shot through with references to the life and times—what was popular on TV, what was legal and wasn’t, what was new back then, and the shock of being reminded of Sept. 11. There’s plenty about ghosts, Arthur included, and a thread of mystery running through the play. Death is always lurking, which increases the intensity of comedy through the contrast. Historically, 2003 was a different time, and it’s interesting to be jolted back to there.

The audience visibly warmed during this show. Perhaps we’d like to see a little more passion in the love story, but the characters are unforgettable, regardless. Jim Strait’s blocking is flawless—nobody knows how to use a space like he can—and the timing is excellent. The plot definitely takes a back seat to the characterizations, and the story is simply the stories of the lives of these people at this time. Are their memories the same as ours? It’s an interesting reality check; after all, we are never aware of change while it’s happening.

The year 2003 feels like a long time ago … that is, it did until I saw this play.

Poz is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Sold out!

A wall-to-wall audience surged into the Desert Rose Playhouse for the LGBT theater company’s summer show: David Dillon’s Party. The play was originally created in 1992 in response to the heavy hearts of that time, weighed down by the stigma of being gay, plus the fear and loss created by the AIDS epidemic.

When it opened in Chicago, producers anticipated a run of several weeks—but it ran for two years! Next, it went to New York—specifically, off-Broadway—where it flourished before going worldwide. And now, it’s onstage in Rancho Mirage.

The timing could not be better: Opening night came 12 days after the Orlando shooting. With our hearts still aching and our tears not yet dry after the horrors at Pulse, Party takes us to a carefree evening where seven gay friends congregate. Is there anything more healing than laughter? This show gives us belly laughs, chortles, whoops, cackles, hoo-haws and snickers. The capacity audience roared and applauded freely throughout, then rose to a standing ovation for the artistry of the cast and crew. You must not miss Party … because this is how we all heal.

The one-act, 105-minute play (no intermission) is set in the cramped Manhattan apartment of Kevin. As his guests arrive, the introductions teach us faces and names—which could be daunting if the clever casting didn’t honor the wildly diverse characters with whom we will spend the evening. All are single. Light conversation fills us in regarding professions and some backgrounds. Former relationships are touched upon. (All you really need to remember is that one of them … is a priest!)

The show is produced by Paul Taylor, and Jim Strait directs. If you think blocking seven characters isn’t a task, just watch the movement on this stage. But Strait has also carefully mined each role to bring out the personality differences, and the result is a study in psychology. Steve Fisher masterminds the technical world of sound and the cues of Phil Murphy’s incomparable lighting.

So let’s start the party. Kevin, the host, is a complex role brought to life by actor John Fryer. In his sleeveless shirt, Kevin weaves his story through the evening in scraps. We come to realize that he is still emotionally raw from the end of a very long-term relationship, though he never asks for pity from his friends … or from us.

Boldly dressed in black and red, his talky friend Ray is the priest, played by Kam Sisco. He grabs most of the laughs, including some uproarious ones about church life. Sisco’s bigger-than-life personality is ideal for portraying an older authority figure … but one who lives to let his hair down and “dish.”

Next is the arrival of Phillip, the creation of actor Jason Hull. This unforgettable young man with his lean body and sculptured face looks intense even while at rest. (Great profile!) His stage character seems to blend effortlessly with his real self, and his combination of laid-back and high energy is a fascinating mix.

Brian, played by Allan Jensen, is convincing as a type we know well: the skilled and talented individual whose life is the arts. Jensen romps through his demanding role with obvious pleasure—and what fun it is to see an actor relaxing into his role so completely … even when performing a strip tease.

Strip tease? Did I forget to mention the nudity? Well, take a look at the poster: Yes, these guys all eventually wind up in their pelts. I’ll explain later.

Miguel Arballo plays Peter, a beer-swiller whose personality blends the watchful and thoughtful with a tinge of the dangerous. He appears to be complete and self-satisfied—but then panics at the thought of taking off his clothes in front of a group of men, even if they’re friends.

James is marvelously played by Robbie Wayne. He swaggers in as the butchy, leather-vested, tattoed type. But then he smiles—and he lights up the stage and our hearts. That million-watt mega-grin transforms his handsome face over and over.

Jacob Betts portrays Andy, a youthful and nerdy newcomer whose role contains the greatest arc of all. We watch in astonishment as this young man sheds his shell as he peels off his clothes. As the evening progresses, he becomes another person, in a commanding and impressive performance.

Yes, the cast is filled with accomplished actors, and directed by Jim Strait, each produces a beautifully subtle and shaded portrayal of his character.

Here’s the idea of Party: The boys have gathered to spend an evening in a safe place where they can just be themselves. Someone brings along a game, a version of “Truth or Dare,” here called “Fact, Fiction or Fantasy.” So that’s how the clothes come off, as they win or lose at each turn, while we learn more about each one’s life. We gain insight as they describe an incident in their past or act out a challenge. It builds into an amazing and gleeful final scene which you will love.

You don’t have to be gay to enjoy this show (although it’d help; the script is sprinkled with underground vocabulary and references to preferences). The humor is universal, and that’s the most important takeaway. It’s a simple plot, and the show is devoid of any real action, which makes it perfect for this intimate stage.

It’s the laughter, that wonderful laughter with so many levels, which unites us all in the joy of life and the appreciation of our differences. This is an extraordinary show that offers a most important gift: Help for us all to heal.

Party is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30-$33, and the show runs one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

When the opening of a play is postponed a week, apparently because the cast is not quite ready, it tends to make reviewers a bit nervous.

What if the cast is still not ready? What if the show’s just a bomb?

Thankfully, my worries about the world premiere of Junk at the Desert Rose Playhouse were unfounded: Other than a few opening night jitters, it was quite an enjoyable production.

The musical is based on the real-life experience of writer/composer Michael Penny. While helping clean out a dead man’s home, two friends find the place chock-full of porn and other indications of the late resident’s loneliness and quirks.

So begins the plot of Junk. Two gay men—60ish Miss Lily (Jim Strait) and his “student,” 35-year-old Chris (Robbie Wayne)—arrive to dispose of the contents of a recently deceased man’s North Carolina cottage. The dearly departed has left behind a huge collection of homosexual porn, piles of cigarette butts, and an unmistakable aura of isolation and melancholy.

While sorting through the mess, Miss Lily and Chris explore the different ways in which they have experienced life as gay men. They bicker and snipe at one another; they laugh and cry; they commiserate; and ultimately, they strengthen the bond of their 20-year-old friendship.

The aforementioned opening-night jitters occurred very early on, as the pair launched into the first musical number, “A Man Needs a Hobby.” The actors seemed a tad uncertain as to where to come in, and slightly tentative with the first few lyrics—but they hit their stride quickly. Both Strait and Wayne have nice singing voices (particularly the latter), although there were a few occasions (especially on the very low notes) when they were difficult to hear. More vocal projection was also needed once or twice during spoken lines while accompanist/musical director Joel Baker was providing lovely background music. The versatile Baker, who tickles the ivories all over the desert, is fabulous, as always.

The word “intimate” kept popping into my mind throughout the evening. The Desert Rose Playhouse is an intimate theater; Junk is an intimate play; and the two actors and director Steve Fisher successfully create a warm, intimate world onstage.

Some of the musical numbers are quite memorable, including Chris’ touching musings about his mother, “She Loves Me” and the hilarious duet “She Believes in Bran.”

One of the big debates between the two men is whether or not prospective lovers should remove their pubic hair. Chris votes yes, in the risqué “I Like ’Em Smooth,” while Miss Lily equates the clean-shaven to “those cats who are bred to have no fuzz—it’s creepy!”

Aging—particularly the inevitability of losing one’s looks and sex appeal—is one of the show’s major themes. On the subject of turning 50, Miss Lily says, “You’re no longer a butterfly, but a gross, stinking wasp that no one wants to be with.” Though to a certain degree, Miss Lily has resigned himself to the fact he’s no longer a young stud, he does fondly remember his past sexual conquests. He brags about how gorgeous he was back then, and makes comparisons to what he considers Chris’ inadequacies in that department: “I wonder what’s going to happen when YOUR small store of looks runs out and no one wants you any more?”

Chris quickly fires back: “And what’s that like, Miss Lily?”

Both Strait and Wayne deliver strong, nuanced performances. Their chemistry is terrific. We really believe these two have been friends and “student-teacher” for a couple of decades. Always charismatic onstage, Strait does not disappoint here. His Miss Lily is witty, acerbic, hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking. One of Strait’s best moments is his rhapsodic description of seeing the movie The Sound of Music at age 9. It is priceless.

Wayne, whose work I had not seen before, is tremendous. It’s hard to take your eyes off him as his struts around the stage. He’s a triple threat: a strong actor, singer and dancer. (He created the show’s fun choreography as well.) His “I Hate Musicals” is one of the evening’s highlights.

The play’s double-entendre title, Junk, could of course refer to either the jumble of possessions the late homeowner has left behind, or a man’s genitals (which are often discussed throughout the show). While Desert Rose often pushes the envelope, and Junk does not shy away from the subject of gay sex, its themes are universal. We all, regardless of our sexual orientation, grow old, lose our sexual attractiveness and need to face our own mortality. Strait’s moving rendition of the closing song, “No One Wants to Leave the Party,” drives that home.

Desert Rose’s resident stage manager Steve Fisher once again proves his talent as a director. Phil Murphy’s lights and Thomas L. Valach’s set are spot-on.

Junk was worth waiting an extra week to see. It’s a memorable experience I would encourage all valley theater-goers to try.

Junk is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

So the name of the play is Cock.

All right, settle down. Even though the show takes place at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the valley’s LGBT theater, the name does not mean what you’re thinking. Think cock FIGHT. Like, roosters. OK?

Included in the printed program is an actual fight card, listing the adversaries in each round. The setting is the next surprise: The audience sits around a square ring, inspired by the illegal sport, and the actors represent their chicken counterparts. Frankly, it’s the best seating arrangement I have seen at the Desert Rose: Everyone is so close to the action, and the raked back rows are on risers so we all can see perfectly. It’s great! Not all plays lend themselves to this format, but we hope that clever producer Paul Taylor will use this style again when possible.

British playwright Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play opened last weekend, and will be performed for four more weekends at the Rancho Mirage playhouse. Lighting director Phil Murphy has brilliantly lit this stark set. Stage manager Steve Fisher rings a bell between rounds, as in boxing. (Sorry … I have no idea whether there are bells in actual cockfights.)

Theater in the round brings with it a true challenge for a director, because in this format, the actors are always facing away from some of the audience, while facing others, so they must change position frequently. But here the actors can face each other, like real people talking! This almost never happens on a proscenium stage where actors “cheat forward” to present their faces to the audience. Thank heaven for the excellent natural acoustics of the Desert Rose, as the intimate size (usually 83 seats, but 65 in this style) helps us hear everything. Theater in the round can fail horribly in too large of a room, where the actors’ voices vanish because they seem to be always facing away from you, or in a room with a ceiling that’s too high, where the sound drifts up, up and away from your straining ears. A modified three-quarters circle format is frequently the compromise; think classic Shakespeare. Here, director Jim Strait has brilliantly choreographed the actors’ movements, with the seduction scene being the model example of this theatrical style.

If you expect that this rumble just involves two guys squaring off, think again: It’s a cast of four, each with an agenda to defend. John, played by Stephen McMillen, has been in a long-term relationship with “M,” acted by Robert Rancano. They break up, and John “accidentally” falls in love with a straight girl, “W” (Phylicia Mason; we guess that the letters stand for “Man” and “Woman”). Of course, there is much angst all around when John goes back to M. Then M and W both agree to wait for John’s decision: With whom will he live? M’s father, “F,” (for “Father,” right?) gets to act as referee, so we meet Terry Huber at a dinner party given to sort things out.

So is John gay … or straight? Hmmm? What will he decide?

By the way, we have to slap a “mature” rating on this show due to “frank” (a term I love) sexual language. We’re so PC! But truly, this show not for anyone easily offended, as the playwright clearly wants us to be shocked.

The set consists of just two lavender hassocks on which to sit. There are no props—no cutlery, china, wine glasses or even a dinner table. There are no costumes, except what the actors are wearing, and no scenery. And get this: The actors don’t even mime their eating/drinking/taking coats off. So, no distractions! The author’s words are all that matter.

And the words! There are British accents all around. The writing is a cross between free-verse poetry and real life, where sentences are only partially spoken and often unfinished. Strait’s artful direction all but eliminates pauses between speeches, and the tension rises or falls with the speed, pitch and volume of the actors’ voices. It’s a masterful demo of acting technique.

At the show we attended, the actors were rewarded with pin-drop attention, as the audience is so physically close to the actors that every flicker of an eyelash contains significance. Our attention is riveted.

McMillen, the quintessential beautiful blond boy, dithers and stews and not only seems incapable of making decisions, but has never even figured out who or what he is. Youth! So he is frozen, overthinking everything. He makes us want to either smack him into action, or hug him in sympathy.

Rancano, dark-haired and fashionably unshaven, with flawless skin, is like pepper to McMillen’s salt. More mature and powerful, but attempting to hide his sensitivity, he shows a confidence that comes with age while trying to cover his fragile feelings. His performance hits just the right note.

Mason lights up the world with her sparkling eyes and gorgeous smile. She struts a perfect figure that will make everyone in the audience silently swear to go on a diet and get back to the gym. Great legs, toned body, amazing hair, sweet face—she has it all. Her character is complex, and she knows how to show it. Now if she could only do something about those black bra straps showing at the back of that terrific coral dress … .

Terry Huber, perhaps the busiest actor in the valley this season, has a face you just never get tired of watching. The shades of meaning he can express are uncountable, and as a gifted actor with a pocketful of regional accents from which to choose, his choice of this British one is pitch-perfect. His second-act role here is too small—we always want to see more of him.

The concept of fowl fisticuffs is wonderful; the casting is perfect; the direction is genius; the script is astonishing; and the actors’ energies are beautifully balanced. Obviously I’m not going to give away the ultimate decision or reveal who is left standing at the final bell.

You’ll have to go to the next match yourself.

Cock is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 10; there is no show on Easter Sunday, March 27. The shows take place at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season with A Queer Carol, billed as the first gay version of Charles Dickens’ classic story; it premiered in New York in 2001.

I really wanted to like this show. Given the excellent quality of previous productions I’ve seen at Desert Rose, I expected to like it. Sadly, it was a little like anticipating a stocking full of Christmas goodies and instead finding an empty sock.

The story here is set in modern day New York, where Ebenezer “Ben” Scrooge (Steve Fisher) is a Manhattan interior designer who makes life miserable for his loyal right-hand man, Bob Cratchit (David Brooks). Scrooge barks and snaps at Cratchit, pays him a meager salary and refuses to provide him with health insurance. The lack of insurance is especially problematic, since Tiny Tim here is an adult—Cratchit’s HIV-positive partner.

It is Christmas Eve, and as Scrooge does his best to put a damper on everyone’s holiday spirit, fabric-salesman Fred (Jayson Kraid) stops by to invite Ben to his annual Christmas party. Also paying a call to the shop is charity-worker (Terry Huber), looking for a donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. True to form, Scrooge declines to give, because there are already hospices and shelters to handle the problem. And if those infected should die, then “let them do it and decrease the surplus population.”

We also learn that Scrooge’s former business partner, the late Jacob “Jake” Marley (Aaron Zontek), was his ex-lover. As Scrooge’s night of terror and forced self-examination begins, the ghost of Marley appears in full S&M regalia—leather, chains and a bare tuckus.

This Scrooge has a lot more emotional baggage than Dickens’ version. In a flashback, we see young Ben’s father express rage and disgust that his son is turning into “a goddamn fairy.” The boy then suffers homophobic taunting when he’s shipped off to boarding school. At age 21, Ben meets Jake Markowitz (he later changes his name to Marley for business purposes) at a Christmas party, and the two become lovers. The relationship is problematic, because Jake can’t bring himself to say “I love you,” and Ben is conflicted about his homosexuality. After the pair take over Fezziwig’s Fabrics, Ben concentrates on making money, while Jake’s promiscuity results in him contracting the HIV virus.

In Desert Rose’s production, things start to pick up when The Ghost of Christmas Past (Cat Lyn Day) shows up in the form of Marilyn Monroe. As she guides Scrooge through the review of his life, references to the blonde bombshell’s movies abound. (“Every seven years, I get this itch.”) Day delivers a strong performance. She is flirty, vampy and fun to watch.

But the true high point of the evening is the entrance of The Ghost of Christmas Present (Loren Freeman), who shows up as an outrageous drag queen. She gives Ben a glimpse of the private world of Bob Cratchit and Tim, where money is scarce, but love is abundant. Dressed like a sparkling Christmas tree in boots—with red and green fringe, and tree ornaments for earrings—Freeman lights up the stage with camp and energy. We never want him to leave.

Fisher is well-cast as the world-weary, bitter Scrooge. He’s just the right age and has the proper physical type; his gruff, cold demeanor rings true. He’s most effective in the later scenes, when the Ghost of Christmas Future terrifies him with what might be if he does not change his ways.

Zontek (Jake Marley, Blake) comes across as a bit stiff and tentative throughout much of the show. With more passion and commitment, his Marley could be a tour de force.

David Brooks’ Cratchit is appropriately endearing and likable; we are rooting for him and Tim to prevail in the end. Alex Enriquez does a decent job as Young Scrooge and Tim, but as with much of the cast, he sometimes seems to hold back—we want more from him.

Always a pro, V.J. Hume (a frequent Independent contributor) handles multiple roles (Scrooge’s Mother, Jean, Nurse, Maria), and she handles them pretty well. Pulling off more than one role in a play is not easy. Hume and Day both succeed—although there were times when their accents (Russian and Latina) seemed inconsistent.

Kraid (Fred, Fezziwig, Pytor) and Huber (Nick, Scrooge’s Father, Noel, Fence) are pleasant enough, but could both use an infusion of energy.

The multiple sets functioned fairly well, although the blocking seemed awkward at times. Phil Murphy’s lighting was quite effective. Kudos to Allan H. Jensen for costumes and wigs.

Alas, there are several problems with this production. The script could use some tweaks; there’s a distinct a lack of energy from much of the cast, as well as slow pacing here and there, and some fumbling with lines (which could have been opening-night jitters).

Jim Strait is normally a strong director, as evidenced by his long list of excellent productions at Desert Rose. I’m not sure what happened here. Perhaps another week of work and some coaching from Freeman on stage presence would help.

Desert Rose Playhouse has brought some fabulous theater to the valley. Here’s hoping the show improves throughout the run.

A Queer Carol is being performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 20, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to 33, and the running time is about 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Huzzah! The season has begun—and the only season that matters, of course, is the theater season—and it began with Rancho Mirage’s Desert Rose Playhouse, as usual.

Desert Rose’s season kickoff included a special event this year: the christening of the Phil Murphy and Robert McCracken Stage. You know these names; they’re the star supporters of DRP, and Phil has designed the lighting for the theater’s shows from the beginning in 2010. (They also own the cutest and most obedient theater puppy, a little darling who willingly attends every performance.) The theater’s founders, Paul Taylor and Jim Strait, held a special pre-show ceremony, praising Murphy and McCracken’s “matchless talents, generosity and friendship.” This kind of act gives a whole new meaning to “support for the arts,” because over the summer, the two donors financed, designed and built an entirely new lighting system for the theater. Inspirational. Congratulations, all!

So begins Desert Rose’s season as our area’s LGBT theater, this year to include five offerings. The first, Loot, by playwright Joe Orton, will run for five weekends. Director Jim Strait informed his packed house of first-nighters that the play had originally opened in England in 1966, where even the Brits were too shocked by it to let it live—despite the new freewheeling spirit in music, film and fashion. (Bell bottoms! Mini skirts! Carnaby Street!) Loot was revived several years later, when it became a huge hit.

Here’s the thing about British comedies: They’re like Beaujolais—they don’t always travel. For the life of me, I can’t understand why. I’m reminded of the experience of seeing a movie—also in 1966, in fact—in London, where I laughed so long and hard that tears poured down my face. Several months later, back in North America, the same film arrived in a theater, and I dragged a bunch of friends to see it, cautioning them not to hurt themselves from roaring with laughter. Everyone sat there pretty much stone-faced. WHY?? Who knows?

So for producer Paul Taylor to bring a play like Loot to American audiences is brave, indeed. Many aspects of the play need to be considered, not the least of which is what to do about the British accents. For Americans to understand the many dialects of England is not always easy, and we all know some people who would be lost without the subtitles while watching, for example, the addictive Downton Abbey on TV. Director Strait has chosen a safe and comprehensible “mid-Atlantic” accent, neither British nor American, for his actors. It means you can always perfectly understand them—but some of the comedy might be sacrificed without the hilarity or lilt of English speech.

It’s all about the choices, isn’t it? The posture. The timing. The comedic attitude. The costumes, by Mark Demry. The stage managing of Steve Fisher. The set design of Thomas L. Valach. And we’ve already mentioned Phil Murphy’s lighting, of course.

But the actors’ choices are most important of all. Wendy Cohen plays Faye, the only female in the cast, a chameleon-like character who constantly switches her relationships and her villainess/heroine attitude. (Confidentially, we wouldn’t weep if her first costume was replaced—it’s too large for her, and the color is just wrong.) Garnett Smith, the most physically comedic member of the cast, romps through his role as the bereaved husband, father and resident victim. Harold/Hal, his son, is played by Jason Hull, a terrific choice, since his body type is so like Garnett Smith’s that it makes their father-son relationship totally believable. Hal’s dangerous friend Dennis is played by Tim McGivney, and speaking of body types, he resembles Hal enough to make them seem like natural friends—great casting! Tom Warrick has the role of Truscott, a mysterious and bombastic creature who insists he’s from the Water Board, which hardly anyone believes, as we all watch him become progressively weirder. Meadows, played by Allen Jensen in his desert acting debut, is an offstage cop, about whom many references are made until, just when we think we’ll never see him, he appears at last!

Orton’s script is a talky one, full of the British Comedy Absolute Requirements of panic, lack of logic, misunderstandings, surprises, murky motivations, incessant entrances and exits with banging doors, contradictions, preposterous situations, plans going awry, shrieking, tears, cover-ups, absurdities, shifting alliances, reversals of fortune and general total outrageousness. The hardworking cast members have their hands full, because there’s a lot to master in this show, and that comedic timing is essential to making it work. They get more laughs in the second act (perhaps aided by an intermission during which we are bombarded with great ’60s music).

If anything, I’d like to see this cast give us more—bigger reactions, more expressive faces, wilder gestures and more extreme body work. I really hope they loosen up a bit, relax into their roles and enjoy the sheer fun of this brand of comedy. What would feel like overacting in America is routine style in England!

Like they say: A comedian is someone who says funny things, but a comic is one who says things funny. And this is a show made for comics—on either side of the Atlantic.

Loot is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 25, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

You might think a critic’s worst nightmare is seeing a show in which there is absolutely nothing to criticize. You’d be wrong.

Here I am, smiling, while writing to tell you about a musical revue you’ll love, because Vitamin Q at the Desert Rose Playhouse is a total joy.

It’s perfect summer fare, because it’s light and fun and pokes gentle, sly, affectionate humor at the gay community. It’s filled with clever lyrics, interesting melodies, terrific comedy and—yes—even dancing! The theater is deliciously cool and comfortable, unlike some establishments which freeze us out with violent, sniffle-inducing air conditioning, thinking they’re doing us some kind of favor by giving us cold fingers and running noses. In other words, you are in for a total treat at this show. Savvy producer Paul Taylor has scheduled Vitamin Q through the last weekend in July, so you can see it more than once.

Staged and directed by the uber-talented Jim Strait, who modestly doesn’t credit himself as the show’s creator, it’s written by Eric Lane Barnes. Taylor and Strait approached the playwright after the success of last season’s The Stops, and suggested a musical revue of Barnes’ work. Apparently the result was a deluge of Barnes’ material; Strait, along with musical director Steven Smith—another gifted workhorse—pored through it and picked out the numbers that created the resulting work. Although this production is not credited as an original or first-time event, you won’t see it anywhere else on the planet—another reason to see this show.

Costumer Mark Demry has evidently located the longest orange feather boa in the entire world, among other treats. The show also features the always-perfect lighting of Phil Murphy, and the flawless timing of stage manager Steve Fisher. Their work combines to add to the professionalism invariably found at DRP.

For this show, DRP has added the mastery of dancer-choreographer Randy Doney to create the afore-mentioned hoofing. Did you know that he directed Barry Manilow’s shows for 25 years? Plus, he worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus (which occupies a special place in my heart, as they once let me spend a whole day with their immortal Coco the Clown). Plus he performed in the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies for 15 seasons. Wow. Though I suspect none of the actors in this show are professional dancers, Doney has guided them through a creditable performance which includes moves from disco, Latin music, country-Western, polka—and even, to our astonishment, an all-cast tap routine!

Of course, in revue theater, casting is crucial. Well, casting is always crucial, but this form of theater demands talented characters with all the necessary skills (they each must be actors, comedians, singers, dancers and sometimes even models, and must LOOK like a group), but above all, they must contrast each other, and stand out as individuals. The same, but different. Not easy. Here, however, the sharp eyes of Jim Strait have selected a cast that achieves exactly that.

We meet them, all together, when the show bursts open with its theme song, “Vitamin Q,” whose meaning you have doubtless figured out already. We are immediately impressed with their amazing five-part harmonies and their heads-high energy. The remaining numbers are shrewdly chosen to provide maximum variety in all areas, to get the most out of every scenario.

There are several defining features of revue: a bare stage which can be anything in scene after scene, blackouts after every “bit,” a high-energy pace, wide musical contrasts between numbers, live music, quick changes and a running gag that occurs throughout. It happens to be my favorite form of theater. Revue steals shamelessly from vaudeville, improv theater and anybody else who isn’t looking. In this show, the running gag is “Tomorrow Never Comes,” in which each actor gets to do a send-up of a diva you’ll have little trouble recognizing.

The show romps through such numbers as “Pansies,” “Drama Queen,” “I Don’t Like Show Tunes,” “It’s All in Your Mind” and “Homomotion,” all of which provoke great hilarity, and then one beautiful ballad that will stick with you, “Save Your Sundays for Me,” which could be done even by straight singers. Contrast.

Onstage, we get to see new sides of some actors we’ve watched before. Timm McBride, with his lovely silvery hair and charming gravitas, gets to play everything from a doo-wap ’50s backup singer to a saloon singer on a stool. Terry Huber, with sleepy eyes, sophistication and a snake-slim figure, surprisingly appears as a snotty cowboy in “Garbage,” and frolics through several dance routines. Raul Valenzuela unleashes his rich powerful voice and considerable dance skills and then gets laughs just by appearing in a babushka or wearing inexplicable lime-green socks. Andrew Knifer demonstrates his exquisite diction and expressive face, and then pops our eyes with a wild falsetto in some songs. Jeffrey Norman stands out by wearing a goatee and glasses on stage and adds his solid baritone skills to complicated harmony vocals such as those in “Mr. Satan” (done in dazzling outrageous red choir gowns). Great group. They are accompanied by Steven Smith on piano.

They have all mined the maximum out of this marvelous material, and created an evening of fun, variety and delight. This is what revue should be, but its breeziness masks the huge amount of planning, skill-stretching challenges and just-plain-hard labor of creating such a show. It’s too easy for an audience to be swept away by the laughter, and forget how much effort goes into the second-by-second timing that a revue demands. But what a pleasure to see it done so right!

Kudos to everyone at Desert Rose Playhouse for Vitamin Q. You’ll leave feeling oxygenated from laughing—and as energized as if you had just taken your vitamins.

Vitamin Q is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 26, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Like the little dog, you’re going to laugh—and you’ll love it.

The Desert Rose Playhouse’s new comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, was written by Douglas Carter Beane. He’s not a household name, but perhaps he should be: He’s the genius who crafted the amazing screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, in which the late Patrick Swayze rose to new heights of acting skill, playing virtually his entire role in drag and turning in one of the most amazing and finely tuned performances ever.

So you already know you’re in for a comedic experience that combines wit with situational comedy and a cast of unusual characters. This four-person play, perfectly cast and deftly directed by Jim Strait, deals with Hollywood’s legendary but real craziness—though it’s mostly set in New York. The lights come up on a surprisingly bare stage: a rainbow-hued curtain, one chair, two doors and a lone rubber-tree plant.

Enter Joey. Oh, Joey! Miss English, dressed in her signature red wardrobe and with her red hair and enormous centipede eyelashes, catapults us into the play with a sensational monologue. She plays Diane, a lesbian Hollywood agent, and a classic, she is—she’s a product of Rodeo Drive and beauty salons and the horrors of trying to earn a living on the fringes of showbiz. Any actress who complains about no great roles for ladies older than 40 has never met Joey English, because she consistently finds terrific characters, and she’s always busy. In Joey’s Diane, we see an extraordinary combination of brassiness covering vulnerability, bravado hiding terror, and sarcasm shielding damage. Even at her snarkiest and sharkiest, we sense Diane’s bandaged wounds. With her huge comedic gifts and an edgy voice, Joey brings the script’s terrific lines to life, and snaps out some of the funniest lines in the play. Tottering about on her uber-heels, with sequins flashing wildly in Phil Murphy’s lighting, she is perfectly cast in this role as The Powerful Mistress of Hype. She is totally convincing, as her embittered verbal ax falls on such innocent victims as Cobb salads. The first-night audience rewarded nearly every one of her scenes with applause.

And then, surprise! The stage transforms in an instant. A bed rolls out; the lighting shifts; and, pow, we’re in a New York hotel room. We meet the show’s two males—the amazingly consistent John Ferrare (has he ever flubbed a line?) as Mitchell Green, a sleek, California-tanned, rising movie star obsessed with his “image.” He contrasts in every way with Timothy Douglas, playing Alex (or Bryan), an attractive youngster sent over by an escort service. And we’re off to a confusing start, with the movie star being drunk, and the greedy rent boy unsure about what to do with him. As actors, both appear effortless in their easy, seemingly natural relating to each other … and both are impressively fearless about stripping off their clothes. (The banner on the play’s poster warns about nudity and adult situations, so don’t say we didn’t tell you. Maybe now would be a good time to toss in a language warning, too.) Mr. Movie Star is emotionally conflicted about whether or not he is gay … and, it turns out, the male prostitute is as well: Despite multiple sexual experiences daily, he doesn’t “feel” gay. OK …

In fact, Alex has a girlfriend. Say what? Meet Allison Feist as Ellen. She is perfect as a potty-mouthed, hormone-ridden, completely self-absorbed Young Person of Today. Weak Ellen’s best gift seems to be her ability to take remorseless advantage of other people, rather than find her own purpose in life. Her youthful appearance, in every way, provides a stunning contrast to Diane’s artificial glam. Ellen is adrift on life’s surface, and we both sympathize with her and find her amusing at the same time. She is crucial to the plot, so don’t write her off … despite her managing to use every single annoying bit of verbal teen-slang in existence (starring “like” and “you know.” Like … you know).

The dialogue weaves through secrets, lies, truths and retractions, combining trash talk with yearning sincerity, and punching out the caught-you-off-guard humor. (“It’s like a relationship, only it’s enjoyable.”) The script mixes irony with real fears like the terror of being alone or having to fight for your own freedom. We are frequently told that “Diane solves problems,” and as the conflicts and confusion accrue, the characters turn to the agent for solutions. I won’t give away the wonderful twist at the end of the play, though I’ll promise that the writing is utterly masterful, and the resolution is a never-saw-that-coming surprise.

Kudos to the Desert Rose support team who made such a success of this play. We’ve already mentioned the mega-talented director, Jim Strait, whose flawless sense of timing, crystal-clear insights into the characters and lovely sense of stage balance all combine to make this play a delight. Turns out Strait is in charge of the scenery and the sound, too. His husband, Paul Taylor, is the play’s producer, and a steady hand on the wheel, he always is. Phil Murphy’s lighting is, of course, gorgeous; is there anything more fun than a disco ball? Mark Demry’s costumes are most excellent. (Well, there was a briefly hilarious entanglement with a tie belt on a robe.) And Steve Fisher’s stage managing is smooth and sweet, as usual.

It’s the contrasts that make this play brilliant—the playwright’s insights, the director’s right-on choices and the actors’ thoughtful explorations of their roles. New York versus California. Youth versus older. Shrewd versus naïve. Successful versus struggling. Focused versus confused. The multi-faceted result is hugely satisfying, and you will leave the theater smiling.

You’ll laugh … and you’ll love it.

The Little Dog Laughed is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 17, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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