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The very premise is outrageous: At an English music hall, 17 of 20 cast members have been stricken with food poisoning, leaving only three people to perform all the roles in their presentation of A Christmas Carol.

At opening-night of Scrooge in Rouge at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the three actors-as-actors floored the audience with multilayered performances. The show runs through Dec. 21, so there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy this rare treat.

There is much to keep the audience’s attention. First off, the play features much hilarity, ranging from sly puns to amusing asides to outright groaners. (British humor, of course.) Next, attendees will be in awe at the indescribable energy of the show (more about this later). Then there’s the dazzling swirl of costumes and wigs and role-playing.

Should we really be surprised? Director Jim Strait’s proven forte is the multilayered interpretation of a script. But this show is extraordinary, because Strait lets us glimpse, in each of his actors, not just the many different roles they play, but the actors beneath that—their vanity, desperation, foolishness, competitiveness and consuming love of their work. We see the results of their British-theater training, in their wide-open-mouthed, flawless diction, and in their show-must-go-on tradition. We see their fleeting doubts about what they are doing, and their split-second of hesitation before plunging into a disaster-remedying (they hope) improvisation. You will never see more layers on anything, except maybe an onion.

The play begins with a tribute to beloved Queen Victoria, whose stern portrait glares out at us from the wall. We have to remember that the naughtiness of British music halls was a reaction to her reign, which was so strict and rule-bound that the legs of tables were covered with sleeves, lest they provoke impure thoughts. (Table legs?!) So immediately, we see the cast’s bawdy side.

The energy will leave you open-mouthed. The cast-members never stop moving, and their rapid changes of wardrobe are astonishing; Strait’s pacing guarantees a whirlwind of action. The laughs come one on top of another.

Timm McBride plays Mr. Charlie Schmaltz, an aging and world-weary entertainer who could never imagine doing anything else, and who will be onstage for the rest of his life. He probably began his career as a child performer and learned his craft from older actors. Now, none of this is told to us, but thanks to McBride’s thoughtful interpretation of this role, we don’t need to be told. It’s all there in his beautifully acted character—we get informative flashes about his life and mindset underneath his work. This is an example of perfect casting.

Ryan Dominguez is Miss Vesta Virile, who, as the juvenile in the cast, is assigned some of the weirdest tasks. We sense that the older actors are slightly threatened by his youth and promise, and they maybe bully him a little—yet he tackles everything with high energy and full attention. He demonstrates that wonderful vocal projection that all English actors must learn, giving his voice a crispness and carrying quality that is wondrous to the ear. Dominguez’s comedic talents are apparently bottomless, and he should never again waste his time on any project that doesn’t show them off. One of my many favorite moments in the show occurs when he is left alone onstage to handle the audience—which doesn’t go well—and he screams to his backstage cohorts, “They’re turning on me!”

Alexander Todd is the hilarious Miss Lottie Obligatto, and he astonishingly voices almost the entire show in a soprano range. Only an opera-trained performer could manage such a challenging role. My vocal cords ached in sympathy, but Todd breezed through with alacrity. Todd brings to the role an ability to imply Lottie’s, uh, colorful past, her career struggles, her professional training … and a fabulous pair of legs! This talented performer manages to convey Lottie’s brief doubts about the new roles into which she is thrust, making her even funnier as she leaps gamely into them. If his fellow actors weren’t so great, Todd would steal the show.

Producer Paul Taylor cleverly collected the valley’s best theater talent to help make the show a success: Phil Murphy to design the lighting, Tom Valach to create the scenery, Steve Fisher to stage-manage. The excellent wigs are by Toni Molano, and the costume design is by Jennifer Brawn Gittings, with costume coordinator Mark Demry. Taylor’s choices pay off magnificently.

I haven’t even fully mentioned yet that the show is a musical! Steven Smith, on the stage as the accompanist Alfred da Capo, masterminded the music direction—and it’s just right. Michael Mizerany choreographed the show, with book and lyrics by Ricky Graham. A lot of brainpower and talent has gone into the production of this play, and it all shows.

You don’t need to have been to a British music hall to appreciate Scrooge in Rouge. The cast will teach you, and you’ll love it—every wild moment, every outrageous setup, every laugh. And you’ll love the multiple layering of the hardworking actors. No matter how you feel about the holidays, Scrooge in Rouge will make the season just a little bit better.

Scrooge in Rouge is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $28 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The season at the Desert Rose Playhouse doesn’t officially begin until September, so two-man-play 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night is what artistic director Jim Strait calls a “lagniappe,” a delightful Cajun word you rarely hear outside of the South—meaning a “little bit extra.”

While this extra play has its charms, in the end, it just doesn’t capture us.

Producer Paul Taylor’s choice of this one-act add-on has helped make Desert Rose a year-round theater. Many of us remember when the desert seemingly shut down completely in the summer; for anyone to open a play in August was unthinkable. But it’s 2014, and a full house of fans turned out to take in this lagniappe, which will run for three weeks. Good for Desert Rose!

Don’t think that DRP has scrimped on the energy and time always lavished on its productions because it’s the summer. This play is a tricky one … well, maybe it was a tad easier for costume designer Mark Demry, since the cast is nude most of the time. Maybe lighting director Phil Murphy got a break, too, as the whole play is in real time, about an hour and a half in the night, and indoors, in a New York apartment—he doesn’t need to supply sunrises, storms or other fancy effects. But imagine the challenges for stage manager Steve Fisher, not to mention the director, Strait himself. The set is, well, a bed. It’s in a corner of a tiny New York apartment, with not much opportunity for blocking—a director’s nightmare. (Some of those New York apartments were/are REALLY tiny!)

It’s important for the audience to understand the time factor: This play is set in 1987. It’s the post-disco era, and to be gloriously single was to own the world. Except … we were already under the shadow of the wings of that disease. People were starting to sneak off to be tested. Rumors abounded. Nothing was clear, except that it seemed to be mostly in the gay community. Mostly. This is not the topic of 2 Boys in a Bed, though, of course, it is addressed eventually.

We find Peter and Daryl in the aftermath of a casual encounter. And this is where it happens: Is this The Start of Something Big, or another meaningless and forgettable experience? Both gay and straight audiences will see something in this play, as it reminds oneself how everyone feels at the beginning of a relationship, when the clock starts ticking, and we don’t know when it will (ever?) stop.

Peter and Daryl are finding out each other’s thoughts about all the important stuff: How do you feel about your past? Your future? (OUR future?) How do you feel about your personal pain? What makes you shy? What are your goals? How important is sex in a relationship? Are you telling the truth or lying? Peter and Daryl wobble through all these topics and more, as we all did/do. Not many people are good at reading others instantly, so they have to trailblaze through the forest of each other to find out the answers. And that’s the show, folks.

The hard-working actors—Ryan Dominguez as Daryl, and Chris Horychata as Peter—bring a couple of valuable assets to the play. First, thanks to their flawless skin and nice bodies, they’re easy on the eyes—and they are not self-consciousness about waltzing around in their nakedness. Second, they have their lines down pat. 2 Boys in a Bed is a hugely talky play—words words words, nonstop. (How much action can you weave through the dialogue in a one-act play set in a bed?) This is where an actor really earns his salt, because timing, the interpretation of emotion and body language become paramount.

That said, here’s where it gets sticky: Does the audience believe? Do we disappear into the play and forget ourselves?

Peter is supposed to be a construction worker, and I didn’t believe that for a second. We’ve all gone past enough construction sites to know what those guys generally look like—and this guy is strictly indoors.  Daryl is supposed to be an artist, yet Dominguez never exhibited anything that would make us believe he’s an artistic type for even an instant. There are a few other credibility-killers, but you can discover them yourself.

Alas, we don’t believe. We do not disappear into the play and lose ourselves. We just don’t see the push-pull of a new relationship being born (or not).

It’s difficult to discern whether this is the fault of the players or the script—but there is a lack of chemistry here that leaves us cold. As cold, say, as a winter’s night.

2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night is performed at at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Sept 7, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69260 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

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

Nudity! Four-letter words! Sex! Gosh, I thought, I may need to write about how shocking The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is.

But guess what? The Desert Rose Playhouse’s latest production isn’t all that shocking. Instead, it is FUN!

This fast-paced, swirling, millennia-spanning history of the world is actually funny! “Funny” is something we don’t associate with history class much, especially if you had teachers like mine, who not only made the topic dry and boring, but made it worse because the teachers were dry and boring themselves. This show skews those history lessons by asking: What if the world had started out gay?

The “Stage Manager,” played by Terry Huber with an authoritative British accent and a cool demeanor, cues the beginning of the world—which we get to actually witness, thanks to a well-used projection screen; sound, courtesy of multitalented director Jim Strait; and the legendary Phil Murphy’s lighting. The “real” stage manager, Steve Fisher, handles the show’s many changes from the tech booth with characteristic smoothness.

The play starts with Adam, the first man, popping onstage wearing nothing but a jockstrap and a fig leaf. (Well, how else did they keep those leaves pinned on? Did you ever really think about it?) He eventually meets Steve, not Eve, as we have been misled to believe. If you can possibly get your mind off the fact that neither one of them has an ounce of body fat, you can ponder the question of why Peter Mins is credited with the costumes. Costumes? These are costumes? Well, brace yourself for the rest of the show, when you’ll get costumes! (If you’ve seen any of Mins’ work during his 50 years of experience, you must see this, his farewell show, because he is retiring from the business after this production, alas.)

So we meet Ryan Dominguez, playing Adam, and Timothy McGivney as Steve. They manage to spend several thousand years in this play without aging a day, or ever getting cosmetic surgery. Both actors manage their difficult roles and speeches beautifully, and play their laugh lines with wonderfully straight faces. Most important of all, they are convincing. Re-writing the Bible is no small task.

They meet the girls: Wendy Cohen plays Jane, a self-confessed bull-dyke who tries to be mean, but whose sparkling blue eyes hint at vast depths of emotion and humor. Mabel, her femme partner, is played by Lorraine Williamson, a blonde Valkyrie who magnificently resurrects the genius of the late and much-mourned Canadian comedienne, Barbara Hamilton. Jane and Mabel romp through the centuries, reinventing themselves constantly and earnestly. They throw a multitude of surprises at the audience, particularly when Cohen bursts into song, in an astonishingly sweet and true soprano.

The rest of the world’s population is skillfully played by four quick-changing actors who transmogrify into countless roles. Pretty Phylicia Mason gets the girlie ones (Fluffy, Peggy), and she is a delight to watch in every one, including such challenges as a sympathetic Mormon. Mark Demry eats up his tall-guy roles with great flair, obviously relishing turns such as the wonderfully caped pharaoh, and a weary Santa. Jeremy Johnson struts his stuff by playing everything from a serious Bible-wielding priest to a skimpily dressed Christmas elf with a flawless tan. And scratchy-voiced Toni Molano confidently tackles her juicy roles, playing everything from a smug sow on Noah’s ark to a rich televangelist rabbi in a jazzy wheelchair.

Fun? You bet. So let’s talk about the script: If there were a cuss jar on the stage, it would be full by the end of the first act. It would be refilled in the second act (especially thanks to Cohen’s “delivery” scene). But somehow, the language isn’t offensive—it’s just there. Go figure. Park your prudery at the door, and enjoy the wit.

The humor comes mostly from social satire, which is not an easy chore to write or deliver. It targets everything from Greenwich Village to ABBA to fashion choices. Relationships, with their ups and downs and constant change, supply the heavier notes. The tragedies that befall all of us—losses, failures, health issues—present themselves here, too.

How did producer Paul Taylor choose this Paul Rudnick play for Desert Rose’s Christmas show, and how did Jim Strait ever direct it? One has to wonder how many light and sound cues alone are required to stage this. More than the Follies? It is an awesome achievement, gentlemen. The only downer is the stage itself: It’s not making those booming sounds as it was during Desert Rose’s last show, but now it’s creaking and squeaking under the actors’ steps, sometimes loudly enough to interfere with speeches.

If you are curious about what would have happened if the world had started out gay, run to see The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. And be ready to laugh out loud.

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $25 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Being a brand-new startup sometimes has its advantages. Just ask the folks at the Desert Rose Playhouse.

The next play on the boards for the LGBT and gay-friendly company—British playwright Joe Orton’s controversial (during its debut in 1964, at least) Entertaining Mr. Sloane—was originally slated to open this week. But the play wasn’t quite ready, so artistic director Jim Strait and managing director Paul Taylor decided to push the opening back a week. Then came a last-minute casting change, so Strait and Taylor decided to delay the opening yet another week: The show is now scheduled to debut on Friday, March 1.

“We’re determined not to put up a show unless it’s up to a certain standard,” Strait says.

Of course, an established company could never do what the Desert Rose has done—at least not without upsetting season-ticket holders and sponsors.

“We have no subscribers,” Strait says. “So our schedule is our own.”

That flexibility allowed the Desert Rose’s inaugural show, Dirty Little Showtunes—a gay-themed musical revue/comedy that debuted in San Francisco and features … well, dirty little showtunes—to enjoy a nearly unprecedented run.

“It opened on July 21, and we were going to do four shows per week for seven weeks,” Strait explains. “Well, people kept coming to it.”

So Desert Rose kept extending the play. It finally closed as 2012 closed, after an amazing 24-week run.

“It kept going,” Strait says. “It wasn’t always profitable, but it was always fun.”

After a recently concluded four-week run of Stephen Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little will come Entertaining Mr. Sloane.

“It’s a very early gay play,” says Strait. “Joe Orton was of the bad boys of British theater. He only wrote five plays before his lover killed him with a hammer. … Audiences in the West End were just aghast (at the play).”

The play focuses on a middle-aged woman named Kath, who takes in a young man named Mr. Sloane. Kath’s father immediately dislikes Sloane; meanwhile, Kath begins to take a sexual interest in Sloane. And so does her brother, Ed.

Strait compares the piece to “Britcoms” like Are You Being Served? and Keeping Up Appearances.

“It’s not Ozzie and Harriet,” he says while emphasizing that the play is not that dirty, and is appropriate for all audiences.

Ryan Dominguez, who performed in Desert Rose’s Dirty Little Showtunes, recently joined the cast as Mr. Sloane. Valorie Armstrong plays Kath, and Hal O’Connell plays Ed. Another Showtunes performer, Terry Huber, plays the father of Ed and Kath.

Strait concedes that the play is not the easiest show to produce. It features a fair amount of unfamiliar British slang. And then there’s the play’s length.

“It’s a three-act play, with two intermissions,” he says. “It’s a serious evening of theater.”

After the abbreviated nine-show run, the Desert Rose will produce The Boys in the Band, before concluding the company’s first season with a yet-to-be-determined show.

It’s been an up-and-down journey for the Desert Rose, which was founded by Strait and Taylor—two theater veterans—in 2010 in an effort to fill the void after another LGBT company, the Thorny Theatre, closed. They started raising money, and planned on taking over a Cathedral City building as the Desert Rose’s home. However, the election and the competition for charity dollars with other local causes led to a slowdown in donations; meanwhile, code changes meant the building they wanted was in need of more bathrooms.

Therefore, Strait and Taylor switched courses and found The Commissary in Rancho Mirage, and rented it out last year. They moved in to the spot in May, and converted it into a showroom. Then came their Desert Rose’s first full show, Dirty Little Showtunes, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While Strait and Taylor are still seeking donations, and keeping their eyes open for a permanent home for Desert Rose, Strait says they’re happy to be focusing on theater.

“This is pretty much a grassroots kind of thing,” he says. “It’s really quite charming.”

The Desert Rose Playhouse will perform Entertaining Mr. Sloane, barring any further schedule changes, at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, March 1, through Sunday, March 17. Tickets are $25, and shows take place at The Commissary, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. For tickets or more information, call 202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance