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Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

Coachella Valley Repertory has chosen a re-imagined version of Jerome Kass’ Ballroom as its second production this season.

Originally based on Kass’ Emmy Award-winning teleplay Queen of the Stardust Ballroom starring Maureen Stapleton, the show morphed into the 1978 Broadway musical Ballroom, which was nominated for eight Tony Awards, winning the Tony for Best Choreography.

This is the most ambitious production the Small Professional Theatre with Equity status has ever pulled off: CVRep’s version includes all the musical numbers from the Broadway production, plus several restored songs—and three brand-new numbers, written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, and Billy Goldenberg, who also wrote the music and lyrics for the original. This production boasts a cast of 24, an onstage eight-piece orchestra and impressive sets by Jimmy Cuomo. There are some lovely moments, along with strong singing, and often-entertaining dancing.

Unfortunately, despite the grandness of the production, and all of the great bells and whistles, the pacing of this production of Ballroom slow, and the audience is left feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

Set in the 1970s, the story centers around Bea Asher (Melodie Wolford), a lonely Bronx widow who doesn’t know what to do with herself since the death of her husband the year before. Friends convince her to tag along to a night at the local dance hall, the Stardust Ballroom. It’s a place where other middle-aged folks meet to socialize, kick up their heels—and hopefully find romance.

Bea hits the jackpot when she meets Al Rossi (Bill Nolte), a local mailman … who happens to be married. Their budding romance is not received well by Bea’s meddling sister, Helen (Marcia Rodd), or her daughter, Diane (Aviva Pressman). They would prefer that Bea continue mourning, though it’s been a year since her husband’s death. The men in the family, son David (Sean Timothy Brown) and brother-in-law Jack (Bill Lewis), are far more accepting of Bea’s newfound happiness.

There are some interesting characters who frequent the Stardust Ballroom, including Bea’s buddy Angie (Teri Ralston), Harry “The Noodle” (Doug Graham), recent heart-attack-survivor Shirley (Corinne Levy), and current Queen of the Ballroom, Pauline (Leslie Tinnaro).

The Stardust Orchestra is terrific. Featuring Bill Saitta (bass), Dominique Torres (drums), Kurt Kelley (keyboards), Dave Thomason (reeds), Stewart Undem (trombone), Stan Watkins (trumpet), Cindy Brogan (vioIin) and musical director Scott Storr on piano, the band executes the score beautifully, and provides wonderful musical interludes during what seem like endless scene changes.

The constant rearranging of the set is one of the biggest problems with this production. Part of that is due to the way the show is written, of course. However—given the huge stage CVRep has to work with—one wonders if Bea’s apartment couldn’t have been stationary, with the shift in focus between there and the ballroom indicated with lighting changes, rather than dragging furniture on and off repeatedly.

The ensemble does well, with a nice feeling of camaraderie onstage. Though one would not expect a Bronx dance hall to be filled with hoofers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, I was hoping to see more than the few flashes of great dancing this production offers.

The best part of this show is the sweet love story between Bea and Al, and the strength of the lead actors. Wolford captures our hearts as Bea. We root for her as she tentatively steps into her new life, and with the support of Al’s love, blossoms. She’s also a dynamic singer—even if she missed opportunities to really wow the audience during her big number, “Fifty Percent,” and the reprise of “I Wish You a Waltz.” Both renditions were lovely, but could have concluded with a bit more drama and “oomph.”

Nolte is marvelous as Al. A big, lovable teddy bear, his sometimes-awkward attempts to win Bea’s heart are touching. He shows off his superb vocal pipes on “Suddenly There’s You,” one of the more memorable musical numbers.

Both Rodd, as Bea’s sister Helen, and Ralston, as Bea’s friend Angie, are marvelous. When Bea shows off her new haircut and wardrobe, Rodd’s reaction is swift and priceless: “You look ridiculous!” Pressman and Brown, as Bea’s children, are quite good.

Local favorite Doug Graham nearly steals the show as the odd but highly skilled dancer Harry “The Noodle.” He commands the stage every time he appears; too bad we don’t get to see more of him.

The revamped Ballroom score is pleasant, but not particularly memorable. One notable exception is “When a Guy Really Knows How to Dance,” a group number featuring several of the dance-hall gals.

Director Ron Celona and choreographer Jose De La Cuesta do a nice job of keeping the large cast moving around the stage smoothly—a monumental task. Celona also pulls some strong acting out of his leads. But the production is long (about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission), and the many set changes and the lack of show-stopping musical numbers make it seem even longer.

Pretty music, fun sets, strong lead actors and enjoyable dancing make CVRep’s Ballroom a lovely, if flawed, evening of theater. It’s neither momentous, nor deeply moving, but it’s lovely.

Ballroom is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53 to $63. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Coachella Valley Repertory artistic director Ron Celona has put on some fabulous productions since the theater opened its doors in 2008—but he has truly outdone himself with his current offering, Baby—The Musical.

The show, with book by Sybille Pearson, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., ran on Broadway in 1983-1984. It tells the story of three different couples and how they each react to the news of impending parenthood. College students Lizzie (Melody Hollis) and Danny (Caleb Horst) have just moved in together, and seem much more at ease with the prospect of having a baby than with the commitment of marriage. Thirty-somethings Pam (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and Nick (Perry Ojeda), coaches at the same college, are facing the heartbreak of apparent infertility. The oldest couple, 43-year-old Arlene (Janna Cardia), a stay-at-home mom of three grown daughters, and 48-year-old university staff member Alan (Tom Andrew), are stunned by a surprise pregnancy. The audience goes along for the ride as each couple faces the trials, tribulations and joys involved in bringing a new life into this world.

One of the most impressive things about CV Rep’s Baby is director Celona’s success in fitting 10 actors and five musicians on his intimate stage without them looking like a can of sardines. Everyone moves on and off the stage smoothly, and it never appears crowded. That is no easy feat.

The excellent band features some of the valley’s best musicians—Daniel Gutierrez on the keyboard, Dave Hitchings on percussion, Doug MacDonald on guitar, Bill Saitta on bass and Scott Storr (also the musical director) on piano. A musical play is always a richer experience with live music rather than recorded backgrounds.

The cast is superb across the board; there is not one weak link. The excellent ensemble—Jaci Davis, Jeff Stewart, Giulia Ethel Tomasi and Joseph H. Dahman—serves as a sort of Greek chorus, moving the story along. Each of them also shines in minor roles, particularly Tomasi as a fertility specialist having trouble with her contact lenses, and Stewart as a snooty real estate agent.

The leads all exhibit impressive voices and strong acting chops. As empty-nesters Alan and Arlene, Andrew and Cardia ably convey the conflict over whether they really want to become mired in the formula-and-diaper routine again later in their lives. It felt as if the audience was collectively holding their breath as the two danced around the subject of terminating the pregnancy.

The sexual chemistry between Hanrahan-Ball and Ojeda, as Pam and Nick, is palpable. We share the pain they feel about not being able to conceive. While the singing is uniformly superb, Ojeda’s soaring voice stands out.

Hollis and Horst are perfect as college sweethearts Lizzie and Danny. Just starting out in life, they are trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the new life they’re creating. Hollis can really sing.

Baby has a difficult score, with many songs written in minor keys, but the cast handles them well. Some of the more memorable numbers include the rousing “Fatherhood Blues” featuring all the men, Danny’s romantic “I Chose Right,” “I Want It All” featuring the three female leads, and Lizzie’s hilarious “The Ladies Singin’ Their Song,” her lament about strange women patting her growing belly and sharing their own childbirth experiences.

Ron Celona’s direction is spot-on here, as are the costumes, set, lighting and sound.

It’s wonderful—and not all that common—to have absolutely nothing negative to say about a show. I had that experience watching CV Rep’s production of Baby. It’s not just about childbirth. It’s about life, love and the complexity of human relationships. This show will touch your heart … even if you have no kids—or don’t even like them.

Baby—The Musical is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Tickets are $48, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966 or go to www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance