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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Cathy Schenkelberg is coming to the valley to perform her renowned one-woman show, Squeeze My Cans: Surviving Scientology, for one reason: Scott Smith.

“He’s been my friend since (we both lived in) Chicago,” Schenkelberg said during a recent phone interview. “We did Hair together, the Midwest tour. He was Berger, and I was Crissy. Scott is gay, and he knew that I loved him. I was like, ‘Oh, why are you gay? I want you to be my lover.’ We made a pact that if either of us reached a certain age, and neither of us had kids, we would have a child together. I remember when I got pregnant with my daughter, I said, ‘Well, too late. I’m pregnant.’”

Scott Smith, a beloved local performer who was on the board of Dezart Performs, died suddenly last year, after suffering a heart attack. He was 61 years old.

“I was literally getting on a plane to Ireland; it was March 1, 2018,” Schenkelberg said. “I got a call from Michael (Shaw, Dezart Performs’ artistic director). That loss was so great to me, because I had never lost anybody close to me, aside from family members. When I flew back from Ireland to be at his service, I said to Michael Shaw, ‘If you get together some kind of scholarship fund, I will make sure that I come and perform for you.’”

Schenkelberg will perform Squeeze My Cans on Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 7 and 8, at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The proceeds will go to Dezart Performs and the Scott Smith Scholarship Fund.

The show tells the true story of how, in Schenkelberg’s words, a girl from a large Catholic family in Nebraska wound up having her life nearly destroyed by spending 14 years as a Scientologist. Oh, yeah, it also discusses that one time she auditioned to be Tom Cruise’s girlfriend.

“It’s a roller coaster ride,” Schenkelberg said. “I take you down the rabbit hole of Scientology, but I also do it with humor, because how else is there to get past this loss of almost two decades and a million dollars, than being able to laugh at yourself? It was like being in a job for 18 years that you hated, or being in an abusive relationship, and going, ‘How do I get out of this thing?’ I find humor in loss.”

It all started when Schenkelberg met a Scientologist while she was in her early 20s.

“I was a successful actress in Chicago,” she said. “I did a lot of voice-over work, and I was the first female clown at The Bozo Show. I had a steady income, but I felt like I wasn’t contributing. So when I found Scientology, it was the right thing for me. Someone mentioned to me this morning: ‘You know, you wouldn’t have been in this for 18 years if there wasn’t something good about it.’”

At first, Schenkelberg said, Scientology made her feel special. “They love-bomb you,” she said. But as Schenkelberg’s career and income grew, the church took notice.

“On every step through the Scientology Bridge to Total Freedom, it’s called, I went to a higher level, and in this process, each level costs you more money, until (you reach) the point where you’re in ‘dianetic clear’—you’re clear of your reactive mind,” she said. “It’s an indoctrination, but it slow-burns. … I got to the point where I was afraid to lose (Scientology), because I thought I would die, or something bad would happen to me, or I would lose my friends, and my agent, and my doctor. All the people I was connected to, suddenly, were Scientologists. They isolate you in that way, but it was very slow. … If they’d have introduced the aliens early on, I probably would’ve been out of there in two seconds.”

Schenkelberg finally decided to make a break with Scientology for two reasons: She was running out of money, and the church started to come after her daughter.

“People who see the show will see, in 75 minutes, how someone can be indoctrinated,” she said. “Keep in mind (that when I started in Scientology in the 1990s), I didn’t have Google; I didn’t have the internet, and once you’re in the church, you can’t look at the internet.”

Schenkelberg said that although the show is about her experience in Scientology, its themes are universal.

“Each time I perform, I realize that this isn’t just about Scientology. It’s about anything anyone is afraid to leave,” she said.

I had to ask: What’s the story behind the name of the show?

“I was having a drink in L.A. with my agent. I said, ‘Eric I need a name for my show.’ And he says, ‘Squeeze My Cans.’ He used to always mock me when I was auditing … where you use the e-meter, which is like a lie detector, and connected to the e-meter are two metal cans. So it’s a play on words,” she said with a laugh.

Squeeze My Cans: Surviving Scientology will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 7 and 8, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Admission is $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A ghastly, unimaginable tragedy can strike without warning—shocking you and changing your life in a moment, forever, beyond anything you ever envisioned for yourself.

But … why? Fate? Kharmic payback? Written on the wind from the day you were born? Are you destiny’s plaything? Or was there some random lightning bolt hurled by a careless deity, meant for someone else, that just happened to hit you instead? This desperate search for answers is the theme of Rabbit Hole, now being presented in a fine production by Dezart Performs, celebrating 10 years this season.

Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, the play earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007, as well as five Tony nominations during its Broadway run. The script examines the pain and the different ways of dealing with the grieving process. Too little has been written about this experience, though there is certainly a lot more information about it now than there was 30 years ago, when all I could find were two soft-cover books and a “support” group that stupidly refused to let you join until you had suffered alone for three months. Whether or not you have yet been through the grieving experience, you might identify with someone in the family of this play, as it demonstrates how different your recovery may be from those around you.

The play is set in Larchmont, N.Y. Becca and Howie Corbett have been struck by one of those lightning bolts and are attempting to survive it. The mundane is counterpointed with unexpected shots of raw emotion as they struggle through their days. Inevitably, blame surfaces. Self-examination results in guilt, defiance and denial. Other members of the family are dragged in to the maelstrom—and then, so is a stranger.

The actors have had to turn on their very deepest method acting skills to make this play work. Michael Shaw, Dezart Performs’ artistic director, plays Howie. He’s a New York broker who commutes and manages to leave his work behind when he comes home. His character is likable, and he makes us care for him, despite his serious demeanor. Most New York brokers I’ve encountered seem way more driven and obsessive than the quiet B-type personality Shaw gives us. His performance is thoughtful and sympathetic, but it might have been even more compelling with a dose of the slick and the cocky.

Yo Younger, as Howie’s wife, Becca, gives us a multi-layered performance that shows a lovely woman on the very edge of unraveling. Her fragility and her resilience are at war inside her, and her survival depends on which one wins. Younger makes interesting use of her mouth to convey so many emotions—and it’s something that acting students should carefully note, as Becca attempts to cope with her now-mountainous challenges, from a profound emotional healing to simply sorting the laundry.

Becca’s sister, Izzy, is played by Phylicia Mason; she’s a wild child and a loosely wrapped creature who lives for the excitement of club-hopping. She opens the play wearing an outrageous and dazzling outfit apparently left over from the previous evening’s excesses—but she, too, is forced to change her ways and try to accept a more conventional lifestyle, creating an unusual arc of growth. Mason is always fun to watch, and here, she cleverly uses her eyes to convey her character’s many facets.

Deborah Harmon is the girls’ mother, Nat. Whether or not Harmon was chosen because of her physical resemblance to Yo Younger, it is very refreshing to see a mother and a daughter onstage who actually look like they could be a real life mother and daughter. Her appearance and her impressive resume are only some of her skills; here, she gives us a solid and thoughtful performance that is a pleasure to watch. We know we are safe in the hands of a seasoned professional with her.

It’s rare to mention an actor’s age, but Jonathan Hatsios is just 19, which is indeed worth noting. He’s a College of the Desert student in the Theatre Arts program, and he is perfectly cast as Jason, the lightning bolt who changes everyone else’s life. He displays the slight awkwardness of youth as he attempts to handle a situation that requires a maturity way beyond his years. Bent on doing the right thing, he is at sea trying to deal with the adults in the room, and is very believable in this role.

Scott Smith directs Rabbit Hole—his first time directing with Dezart Performs, though he has been seen at many other valley theaters, in many capacities. Though I disagreed with some of his blocking choices, he has pulled performances out of his actors that make this play move. The rehearsals must have been exhausting. It’s all about the emotions, as we watch the characters make all the mistakes—focusing on others rather than on their own recovery, scolding to try to dominate each other, inappropriate behavior blurting out under stress, and so on.

Smith is aided by a plethora of skilled compatriots such as Thomas Valach doing set design (I hope you will appreciate the so-clever center-stage “painting” which becomes an entire room in Act II), costumes by Frank Cazares, stage management by Diane McClure, props by Cecilia Orosco, and lighting by the always-amazing Phil Murphy. Shaw shares a production credit with Clark Dugger, who also designed the sound. And as a salute to Dezart’s mission of involving and training young people, let’s mention the three working interns from Palm Springs High School: Sierra Barrick, Kaley Doherty and Sierra Johnson.

Rabbit Hole was made into a movie in 2010, starring Nicole Kidman, which I now look forward to viewing. I hope it contains the same emotional power and the serious investigation of the grieving process that this work from Dezart Performs does. And consider yourself warned: The last 60 seconds of this play will break your heart.

Rabbit Hole, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 21, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

How far should spousal loyalty go when your mate’s creative expression causes you emotional pain? When does a risqué hobby become deviancy—and who decides what’s deviant, anyway?

These are the questions examined in Dezart Performs’ production of Casa Valentina. Harvey Fierstein’s provocative play earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best New Play, in 2014. The time in Casa Valentina is 1962—a more innocent yet much less tolerant era. A group of professional heterosexual men gather at a bungalow in the Catskills to relax and blow off steam. They eat, drink, dance and laugh—all while dressed as women.

This haven for transvestites really existed, at a resort called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th-century cross-dresser. The story was revealed when antiques dealer Robert Swopes stumbled across a box of pictures at a Manhattan flea market. Each photo captured these men in all their feminine glory: Bewigged and clad in dresses, heels and pearls, group members were shown doing mundane things like sipping coffee and playing cards. Intrigued, Swopes purchased the photos and put them together in a book called Café Susanna in 2005.

In the play, the establishment (here called “Casa Valentina”) is run by George (aka Valentina), played by Scott Smith, and his long-suffering wife, Rita (Tammy Hubler). As the show opens, they are preparing for yet another weekend of hosting men who relax by taking on their female personas for a few days. The couple is anticipating the arrival of a new guest, Jonathan (Cameron Shingler), also known as Miranda.

The strong bond between Rita and George is apparent. They banter back and forth while she lovingly pins on his wig cap as he begins his transformation into Valentina. It’s clear that Rita long ago accepted her husband’s predilection, and adores him in spite of it. “There’s no secret to being popular with men … just never say no,” she says. Smith is excellent as Valentina. You can feel both his devotion to Rita and his compulsion to express his feminine side.

Soon we meet Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Norman), resplendent in an over-sized housecoat and hot pink turban. A plus-sized cross-dresser, Bessie relishes every moment as a woman. Norman is a hoot as he tosses off some of the best lines in the show. When someone brings up the inadequacies of the male form, Bessie quips, “I once had a male form; I filled it out and mailed it back!”

A pivotal character in the play is the judge (the exceptional Bruce Cronander), who strides in with a shotgun. His professional position and penchant for firearms are irrelevant when he slips off his robe to reveal a floral satin dress and coos, “Hello, Amy, I’ve missed you!”

When Theodore/Terry (the fabulous Garnett Smith) must jump up shortly after perching on a chair, he complains, “Just when I got my skirt to lay right on the first try.”

Cameron Shingler ably captures the awkwardness and insecurity young Jonathan feels as the newcomer to the group. Getting settled in his room, he clutches a flowered frock, seemingly not knowing what to do with it. The other “girls” soon rally around him, giving him a proper makeover, complete with phony breasts and hips, cosmetics and jewelry. Their enthusiastic efforts to transform him into Miranda are touching.

The cast is excellent across the board, but San Diego resident Dale Morris as Isadore/Charlotte deserves special mention. Looking stunning in his gold lame blouse, designer suite and heels, he clearly revels in the freedom to express his inner diva. But he also knows the risk involved in theses activities, and chafes at society’s disapproval. As he admonishes one of the group’s younger members, “I’ve gone to jail so you don’t have to!”

Kevin Coubal (Michael/Gloria) is the most traditionally attractive woman of the group, by far. Statuesque in his heels, he flips his long auburn curls constantly and really works it. He is the standout when the girls perform a cute lip-synced version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with the jukebox.

Louise Ross appears briefly toward the end of the play as Eleanor, the judge’s daughter. The always-dependable Ross ably conveys the pain, anger and resentment as she deals with her cross-dressing family member.

Things turn serious when Charlotte announces that the “sorority” has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and needs to appoint officers. Some members aren’t thrilled about that, preferring to just keep things as they are. Their weekend escapades are harmless, they say, and the fewer people who know about them, the better. But Charlotte argues that secrecy is the enemy. Then things really get crazy when Charlotte asks each member to sign a document barring homosexuals from joining the group. In 1962, it seems, cross-dressers believed that putting on a dress was OK, but actually having sex with a man was true deviancy. The guests at Casa Valentina are divided on the issue. Since the gay community often accepted “the girls” when no on else would, they feel the need to return that loyalty. The booze-fueled tension finally explodes in an act of violence.

The costumes, makeup, wigs and lighting are all right on the money. There was only one problem with Dezart’s Casa Valentina on opening night, but it was distracting: There were many occasions when some of the actors could not be heard. In a theater the size of the Pearl McManus, one would not think that body microphones should be necessary. The hum of the building’s air conditioning unit was a factor, but it really comes down to projecting: Actors of this caliber know how to project, and did so during much of the show. But at several dramatic moments, the actors were inaudible. It was particularly annoying when much of the audience could not hear the last two or three lines of the play, delivered by the otherwise-superb Tammy Huber.

This an important play and a terrific production. Michael Shaw’s direction is spot-on. I only hope he corrects the sound issue so valley audiences can enjoy Casa Valentina in its entirety.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater (inside the historic Palm Springs Woman’s Club), 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in downtown Palm Springs. Tickets run $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Dezart Performs has developed a reputation for presenting bold and avant-garde theatrical productions—so it means something when artistic director Michael Shaw says that the 2016-2017 season is Dezart’s boldest yet.

Shaw says he has a fondness socially relevant yet “wacky” plays. Casa Valentina, Dezart’s season-opener, certainly fits that bill.

Written by Harvey Fierstein, Casa Valentina received four 2014 Tony Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Play. Set in the Catskills in 1962, the play offers a peek into the lives of heterosexual men who enjoy dressing up and behaving like women. During the week, they pursue respectable careers as ad execs, lawyers and sales reps—but when the weekend rolls around, they cut loose and take on their female personas. Casa Valentina is owned and operated by George—whose alter ego is Valentina—as well as George’s wife, Rita.

The play is based on a real-life haven for heterosexual transvestites that was originally called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th century cross-dresser and spy. The story of the place, later named Casa Susanna, came to light when antiques dealer Robert Swope bought a box of 100 photographs at a Manhattan flea market; the pictures all depict men dressed as women watering the lawn, playing bridge, etc. In 2005, Swope published the pictures in a book, Café Susanna.

Shaw says the play intrigues him, because he learned a lot from it—especially about transvestites.

“It’s a community that I am totally naïve about,” Shaw says. “I think there’s a perception that transvestites usually relate as gay. That’s not the truth.”

Shaw says authentic, realistic hair, makeup and costumes are crucial to the play. He cites a quote from the character of Bessie, talking to newbie Jonathon/Miranda: “… Our goal is to assimilate. The more you look as if you just stepped away from a bridge table, the higher we grade you. Passing undetected is our zenith.”

There’s no dress or makeup in the play that’s over the top. Wig and costume fittings were done early in the rehearsal process, and the actors have been working in high heels and skirts since the rehearsals began. The male cast members got lessons in how to apply makeup with a softer touch—the way real women do.

Dezart Performs received a huge assist from the Pasadena Playhouse, which produced Casa Valentina earlier this year: The renowned company is lending Dezart all of the costumes and jewelry used in the play.

Shaw says that due to the show’s rich dialogue and well-written characters, Casa Valentina is one of the strongest season openers Dezart has ever produced.

“It teaches us that it’s very important to learn about those around you,” he says. “The transvestite group saw themselves as normal while viewing the gay community as deviants. They saw what they were doing as simply creative expression; they were fulfilling a desire to show their feminine sides. The crux of the play is the conflict between two factions of the transvestite society—one sympathetic to the gay community, and one most definitely not.

“One of (character) Charlotte’s lines is quite telling: ‘Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as every-day as cigarette-smoking.’”

Casa Valentina also marks another first for Dezart: The nine cast members make up the largest cast the company has ever had. Shaw also says the cast is one of the best.

The second he saw San Diego resident Dale Morris, Shaw says, he knew Morris would be perfect as Charlotte; Shaw even applauded after Morris’ audition, he said.

Morris says that being cast in the play is a blessing—although he added that playing an unlikable character can be challenging. A theater veteran, Morris lists performing in His Girl Friday at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as two of his career highlights.

Though Morris claims there has been no competition among the male cast members as to who is the best-looking “woman” onstage, he admits he wanted to look pretty when he first got the gig.

For what it’s worth, he apparently pulled it off: Shaw says that when Morris first walked across the stage in high heels, he was impressed with the actor’s calves, and notes that Morris is “stunning” in his gold lame blouse.

Shaw says there are two good reasons Palm Springs theater-goers should see Dezart’s production of Casa Valentina. One is the superb cast. The other?

“If you think you’ve seen cross dressing before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” he said.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Nov. 4, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org. Below: Actors in Casa Valentina pose for a photo in a rehearsal scene that includes Garnett Smith, Kevin Coubal, Dale Morris, Scott Smith, Jeffrey Norman and Tammy Hubler. Photo courtesy of Clark Dugger.

Published in Theater and Dance

A number of plays have moved me while I’ve been doing theater reviews in the Coachella Valley—but none have pierced my heart and shaken me to the core the way Dezart Performs’ The Outgoing Tide did.

That’s due, in large part, to its subject matter: Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a hideous, devastating illness—one which took my mother’s life nearly five years ago. She spent her final years in an assisted-living facility on the East Coast, so I was spared the daily trauma of seeing my mother wither into a mere shadow of who she once was. That pain fell to my dear, devoted father, who drove to the facility and fed her lunch every day for years. When I did visit, it was deeply painful to observe this once-vibrant, articulate woman rendered nearly speechless following two strokes and the dementia. Nothing scared her more … the thought of ending life in an institution, incapacitated and in a wheelchair, feeling helpless and alone.

It’s something we all fear. Many of us studiously avoid talking about the possibility that it could happen to us. But talk about it, we must.

Written by Bruce Graham, The Outgoing Tide tackles this tough subject matter head-on. The play centers around Gunner (Michael Fairman), who is battling the scourge of Alzheimer’s; his wife of 50 years, Peg (Judith Chapman); and their son, Jack (Scott Smith). Gunner is aware that his disease is rapidly progressing, which makes him grumpy and fearful. The situation is often humiliating, as when, after a tirade over a broken television, Peg points out that Gunner is trying to watch Cops on the microwave.

Things are really going downhill: Peg has begun securing the gates at night so her husband can’t wander, and he almost burned up his newspapers after placing them on the stove. Peg is considering an assisted-living facility where both she and Gunner can take up residence; they can be together, and she can still care for him as long as possible.

Both Peg and Jack (visiting at his father’s request) think it’s a good idea—but Gunner won’t hear of it. After touring the place and noting the condition of some of the current residents, Gunner quips, “It’s like a roach motel. You check in, but you don’t check out.” Gunner adamantly refuses to consider selling his house and moving to such a place, even though he admits to Jack that his condition is worsening: “I feel like it’s starting to show.”

Instead, Gunner has an alternative plan—one that would end his suffering and set up his family financially. It’s radical and controversial, and Peg is totally against it. Jack (currently going through a divorce) is often stuck in between his two strong-willed parents, and doesn’t know what to do. When Jack asks Peg if she really wants to spend the rest of her life taking care of her husband, she responds: “What else am I good at?”

Though the play’s theme is gut-wrenching, there’s plenty of humor as well. Peg dismisses the possibility of a suicide pact with Gunner: “He’d probably shoot me and then forget to shoot himself!”

The acting is absolutely superb across the board. As Gunner, Michael Fairman is flawless. We feel every bit of the fear, anger and frustration his deteriorating mental condition triggers. Though he’s made some mistakes as a father, he’s funny, charismatic and lovable, yet ultimately tragic. His Gunner makes us wonder about our fathers, grandfathers or uncles…what would they do in this situation? Could we support their choice, even if it meant we’d lose them?

The amazing Judith Chapman does not disappoint. As the long-suffering Peg, she is the glue that keeps the family together. She’s strong and level-headed, and seems to be able to keep it all together despite the gradual loss of her husband. But Chapman lets us see the heartbreak just beneath the surface. Does she love her husband enough to let him do what’s right for him … or will her fear of being alone stand in the way? There is not one false note in her performance.

Scott Smith is terrific as the returning son who loves his parents, but feels he’s in a no-win situation. Beyond the drama of Gunner’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease, Jack’s visit home reveals some long-held family secrets.

Once again, artistic director Michael Shaw proves his mettle as a director. He moves his cast members around ably on Thomas L. Valach’s outstanding set, and draws out award-worthy performances from each of them. Clark Duggar’s sound was spot-on, as was Phil Murphy’s lighting (after a couple of brief glitches early in the play).

I have seen a number of very good plays from Dezart Performs, but The Outgoing Tide is in a league of its own. The opening-night audience gave the show a well-deserved standing ovation. The play forces us to think about end-of-life issues and personal choice. Most of us, at one point or another, will be touched by the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease. A parent, a spouse, a friend or even we ourselves will experience the mind slowly slipping away. What would you do?

The Outgoing Tide is the most profound theater experience I have had in quite a long time.

The Outgoing Tide, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $24 to $28, and the show is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, 760-322-1079, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

October 1962 was a crazy time in the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis had the world on the verge of nuclear war. Deadly riots after the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi had the country on edge.

Cultural change was afoot as well: Rock ’n’ roll was taking the country by storm, and some women, in some places, could gain control over their own bodies thanks to “the pill.” Oh, and kids were starting to wear sneakers to school. Yes, God forbid, sneakers.

This is the world in which the Whitebottom family of Worcester, Mass., finds itself in Duck and Cover, the dramatic comedy currently on the Palm Springs Womans Club stage, compliments of Dezart Performs. The organization’s mission is to present newer works of theater, and this is the West Coast premiere of Michael Kimball’s play. He should be proud of the fun, if flawed, production it is receiving from Dezart Performs and director Judith Chapman.

We first meet the Whitebottom family as the father, Hugh, is quizzing his 12-year-old son, Stevie, on state capitals and proper knot-tying. The mother, Claire, looks on, as the friendly neighborhood milkman, Mr. Rippit, drops by. We soon learn that Hugh served our country during World War II on a submarine, and that Stevie wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up. The scene is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting—at first.

We soon start to see small cracks in this all-American scene: Hugh chastises Claire for mentioning a financial matter “with strangers,” and makes Stevie feel stupid for dangerously leaving the door unlocked. Yes, Hugh’s a bit domineering—and we sense early on that this is going to become a problem at some point for the Whitebottoms.

The family’s relative peace is thrown into total disarray with the sudden arrival of Bunny, Claire’s brother. He shows up wearing tattered pajamas and holding a trumpet—the one thing he was able to save from the fire that has just destroyed his apartment. Hugh’s not a fan of his musician brother-in-law; he begrudgingly lets Bunny stay, but only until the end of November, and only if he pays $10 per week as rent.

A little later, the family is thrown into further turmoil when Eddie, a—gasp!—black man!—arrives. Turns out he’s a nice guy who is Bunny’s friend and co-worker, but his arrival sends Stevie fearfully scurrying into the bedroom, and leaves Claire wondering whether she’s ever seen a “negro” in person before.

Any play starring Yo Younger and Michael Shaw (Michael, I should disclose, is a good friend of mine) has a lot going for it; after all, they’re two of the best actors working in the valley today. True to form, Younger is amazing; she is, by far, the best thing about this production. She fully inhabits the role of Claire as she transforms from a put-on-a-happy-face housewife into a woman who decides she finally needs to put her foot down to protect her brother, her son and—most importantly—her own self-interests. This is a flawless, fantastic performance; Younger is so good that, at times, you may be tempted to race to the stage to give her a hug as she struggles to reconcile her needs with her reality.

Shaw, on the other hand, falls a bit short in his characterization of Hugh. The lines Hugh is given reminded one of my fellow play-goers of Archie Bunker—Hugh is a domineering bully of a man who declares repeatedly that in HIS house, and with HIS family, HE is the one who makes the rules. While Shaw brings plenty of bluster and frustration to the character, he doesn’t amp up the domination and anger quite enough; it’s hard to believe that Stevie and Claire would be so fully under the thumb of this Hugh. It’s only when Hugh shows off his lovable and noble traits—most notably in a scene near the end of the play when he cries out that all he really wants to do is protect his family from the turmoil of the world that surrounds them—that Shaw truly shines.

Local middle-schooler Stephen Lee is perfectly cast as the awkward, nerdy Stevie, while Scott Smith is good as Bunny; he’s especially good when expressing the adoration he feels for his dear sister, Claire. Hal O’Connell brings a lot of laughs as Mr. Rippit, the milkman who, we learn as the play progresses, is delivering more than dairy products to some of his customers. Robert Ramirez is strong in the first act as Eddie, although he descends a bit too far into stereotypes in the second.

All of the technical aspects of the play, per usual at Dezart Performs, are excellent, with one notable exception: The set. It’s a gorgeous, detailed, technically flawless piece of work, and may well be the best set that could have possibly been designed for the smallish stage at the Womans Club’s Pearl McManus Theater. Problem is, this play feels a bit too big for this stage: A living room, a kitchen and Stevie’s bedroom are all crammed in, and this leads to some awkward blocking by the characters, especially when four or more people are on stage at once.

Kimball’s script has some hilarious lines; I laughed out loud at least a half-dozen times. Still, the book could use some smoothing out. The characters’ transformations at the end seemed unrealistically sudden, and one moment—involving Stevie and Mr. Rippit—came off as downright creepy.

These issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Duck and Cover. It’s a funny and, at times, moving piece of theater that will leave you smiling as the talented actors take their bows. Don’t miss it.

Duck and Cover, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Imagine that you’re a young Jewish mother, about to give birth to your second child, a girl. You’re in the rabbi’s office discussing the naming ceremony, when out of the blue, your husband announces that your 3-year-old son is the Messiah. He’s come to that conclusion based on a long list of “miracles” the child has supposedly performed.

How does one react to a bombshell like that? That’s the dilemma presented in the opening scene of Stephen Kaplan’s Exquisite Potential, now being produced by Dezart Performs.

It is the West Coast premiere of the comedy/drama by Stephen Kaplan. Sobering at times but loaded with laughs, Exquisite Potential explores the expectations parents put on their children—as well as those we burden ourselves with.

The young mother, Laura Zuckerman, is played to near-perfection by Adina Lawson. Her comic timing is fabulous, and she skillfully captures her character’s shock, embarrassment and confusion. Has her husband completely lost his mind? Or could he be right? Michael Shaw (Dezart’s artistic director) brings great humanity and depth to the role of Alan Zuckerman. Though his assertion seems ludicrous at first, his conviction and earnestness begin to make it all seem possible.

As the rabbi who Alan turns to for advice on what to do now that he’s sure his son, David, is the Messiah, Scott Smith delivers a solid performance. In Act 2, as the group reconvenes 30 years later to determine whether David has proved his “Messiah-hood,” valley favorite Garnett Smith adds charm and humor as the older rabbi. In a brief walk-on, young Makai Armstrong Ross is adorable and clearly enjoys being onstage. (Ross rotates the role throughout the run with Sawyer Lanterman.)

The only flaws in the production were slow pacing and a few opening-night jitters early in the first act, and a long delay in what should have been an instantaneous blackout at the end of Act 2.

It’s often said that expectations are “the building blocks of resentment.” Are they? What would it be like growing up as the sibling of the Messiah? Aren’t we all capable of amazing deeds? What constitutes a miracle, anyway? What is our purpose in life? Exquisite Potential will have you debating these questions and more—long after you leave the theater.

Exquisite Potential, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 1, at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22 general; and $18 for students, seniors and members of the military. For tickets or more information, call 800-838-3006 (tickets) or 760-322-0179 (info), or go to www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance