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The script is the star.

Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced eight plays written by Tony Padilla during its eight seasons. And get this: English is his second language!

There are precious few authors who can achieve this kind of success, let alone in a second language. Joseph Conrad, who wrote Heart of Darkness, which later inspired the movie Apocalypse Now, spoke Polish as his cradle tongue … and frankly, I can’t think of another example off the top of my head. Padilla comes from Cuba, where at age 11, he and his family escaped during the historic exodus from Castro’s fiefdom. Today, he not only speaks flawless English, but writes as playwright-in-residence for DETC.

At the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, a venue the group is sure to outgrow soon, award-winning Padilla’s newest work is titled For a Reason. “It’s very different,” he said about the new work. “It’s not personal—I didn’t experience this. It comes from research, from becoming passionate about the subject of relationships, from reading and seeing other people in their relationships, and learning about them. That’s what moves me.”

Frankly, isn’t how we treat our fellow man the essence of our development? Look at how you act when you’re mixed in with other people—and that will show you who you really are, especially in intimate relationships. Look at how many court cases there are because of the problems! In the case of For a Reason, Padilla’s script sparkles with not just brilliant writing, but also with his tremendous insights about people and how they interact.

A glance at the printed program might make one anticipate a musical, since these actors are so well known for their singing—but no, it’s a straight-up play, despite well-known local music-biz names like Charles Herrera, Leanna Rodgers and my dear colleague, the Independent’s own Bonnie Gilgallon. Interestingly, Shawn Abramowitz directed the play (with Sierra Barrick as assistant director), and then had to step in to play a role on the stage—which he does perfectly, never missing a word. In other words, everyone in the cast boasts multiple talents.

The open stage shows us a casual and slightly messy living room/den, designed by Lauren Bright, containing a big globe and souvenirs, artwork and tchotchkes from around the world. Artistic director Jerome Elliott greets the audience and informs us that this is a world premiere! The lights, designed by Ashton J. Bolanos, come up, and we begin. Sandra (played by Rodgers, an actress with the most beautiful eyes and smile), is the live-in daughter-in-law of the aging but successful writer Pablo Luna (a cane-stumping, grey-haired, grumpy but lovable Hererra). They are interviewing for a position of companion/caretaker for him, as he suffers from an unnamed degenerative disease. Aaron Watson, cleverly played by a black-bearded Abramowitz, is the last applicant of that day.

It is revealed that Pablo is “isolating,” and we see that the patient is indeed trying to push everyone away from him. But Aaron proves to be bright and feisty, and the verbal jousting begins. Pablo is deemed “a difficult client,” but Aaron is more than a match for his wit and wisdom. The two actors swat lines at each other with complete believability, on the topics of happiness, loneliness, choices, success, mothers, artistic virtue, social masks, balance, sex, youth versus age, writer’s block, men’s animal magnetism, and movies. There is great charm in their mind games, and this is where Padilla’s script shines brightest. He manipulates the language joyfully and curiously, giving us inventive and refreshing results. The two actors have mined the script deeply, and their shades of meaning, even when trading some rude insults, are beautifully thought out.

The men eventually arrive at an impasse in their philosophical swordplay, and have to call in an adjudicator. Enter Gilgallon as Gisele. She’s a dream girl in stiletto heels, black hose on her long legs, and a clingy scarlet dress that hugs her eye-popping curves. (Kudos to costume designer Frank Cazares.) We are led to believe that she is a Lady of the Night … but watching her moves and listening to her talk, we begin to wonder. She is way too shrewd, too literate, too thoughtful. She keeps us guessing. Gilgallon’s focus in this role is beautiful to behold, and she is totally believable as this mystery woman (with the exception—forgive me—of the wig). Her warm and musical voice is shown to its best advantage in this role.

There are some smart theatrical choices made in this play, such as bringing in the champagne already poured instead of the time-wasting, not to mention dangerous, pouring in front of an audience … but we need to hear the offstage POP! of the cork to make it real.

This is an extraordinary play, and it runs smoothly. The theme of the play—relationships—posits the idea that people are brought together to affect each other’s lives with the chance that they will be better persons as a result. It is a lovely thought—even though some of us might be able to think of a few people we wish we’d done without. All these characters do experience an arc as a result of meeting each other, with Sandra’s change possibly being the most dramatic.

The play runs 60 minutes with no intermission, and says everything it has to say with such lovely conciseness that it makes you wonder why other plays have to go on for hours to achieve the same results.

Angelantonio Padilla’s words and thoughts will stay in your head. Whose lives have you met and changed … for a reason?

For a Reason, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

How auspicious to open a show on Chinese New Year. Gung hay fat choy, by the way, and welcome to the year of the dog. People born under this sign are loyal, honest, just, socially popular, helpful and decisive—and they keep all their worries and anxieties buried deep inside. Famous dogs include Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Elvis, Madonna and Michael Jackson.

That’s the good news. Election Day, presented by the hardworking, clever and talented people at Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is our topic, but all the news regarding this play is not so good.

We now live in a world where humor, and particularly political humor, has changed drastically. Of course, who could ever have predicted that the show’s opening night would follow the ghastly reality of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., just two days before? With that and other recent horrors, in my mind, there just wasn’t much to find that’s funny about this play’s hostage mutilation, car bombs, violence or assault weapons.

That’s not to say there aren’t some amusing lines and situations in the show. I’m sure the script, by Josh Tobiessen, read well when DETC was making the decision about presenting this play. Many in the opening-night audience may disagree with my feelings, as the audience offered a lot of support and encouragement.

The greeter at the front door pasted cute little stickers on all of us as we arrived, reading “I VOTED TODAY.” It reminded me of all the kerfuffle and excitement and emotion of our 2016 elections. Election Day’s program-cover illustration was totally adorable. It set us in an enthusiastic if cautious frame of mind for the upcoming presentation. We were curious and intrigued to see what was to follow.

The story concerns a mayoral election in a northern California city. This is not a Republican-Democrat-independent political thing—this is about people trying to select a mayor from two choices: “the right guy” or the hated “Jerry Clark.” That was a relief—even for non-political me, as emotions still seem to run high every day on the news about American two-party politics.

The play opens on Brenda, an attorney, played by real-life TV weather person Kelley Moody, and Adam, her graphic-artist boyfriend, played by Sean Timothy Brown, who is moving into her apartment with her. The next scene introduces us to Adam’s sister, Cleo (Maricela Sandoval), and an activist hippie type, Edmund, or Eddie (Brian La Belle). Both are trying to look cool while slumped on a park bench and making plans for an act of protest about the election … with Molotov cocktails. None of these people come off as very likable, but when candidate Jerry Clark himself shows up for some desperate last-minute campaigning, the oily politician with his spiel of knee-jerk stock rigmarole, slickly played by Shawn Abramowitz, makes them look much nicer by comparison.

Directed by the legendary Rosemary Mallett, the action moves right along, and the actors are all on top of their rapid-fire lines. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission, and as the play bowls along, we watch some of the characters change—most notably Brenda, who ingests a batch of drugs and becomes hugely entertaining when high. In contrast, Sandoval’s Cleo—who loses some good lines through poor diction—comes off as an annoying teen rather than the young adult she’s supposed to be, despite drinking wine. (Note to young actors: It’s OK to turn your back on the audience, but not while speaking, especially in a room like the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, where the acoustics are so famously difficult.) Though Edmund smokes dope, he shows little change after—yes—inhaling, missing out on a great chance to mine the sure-fire comedy of portraying the stoned pothead, although his gravelly Nick Nolte-style voice is a great choice.

In contrast to that, observe Jerry Clark as he swallows a bottle of painkillers and shows us how it’s done, thanks to Abramowitz’ superb timing. Adam comes alive in a refrigerator bit, but otherwise stays pretty much the same. Good theater is all about the arc.

It’s interesting to see how the comedy that comes from the script compares and contrasts with the comedy that comes from the play’s director. Mallett has upped the pace with a lot of physical stuff, while the script throws out lines like the deadpanned, “You don’t need a truck to vote”—lines which come from situations and logic. Sometimes one works, sometimes the other, sometimes both. Unfortunately, sometimes neither.

Thirty years ago, this play probably would have been screamingly funny. How sad it is that today, at least for some of us, our laughs have been compromised by reality. Professional speakers tell me that about the only really safe topic to make fun of any more is yourself. While there are things to like about this production of Election Day—some of the humor does work, and Abramowitz is fantastic—there is just too much that rips the scabs off sensitivities to terrorism, bombs, victimization and harming other people to advance someone’s personal cause.

Election Day, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Angst over the current political climate seems to be leading many people to seek escape in a variety of ways—and live theater is a popular choice. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Expressions is a well-executed play, and it may take your mind off the details of what’s going on in the White House for a while, make no mistake: It’s no light-hearted diversion.

Its themes—post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), alcoholism and family dysfunction—are quite serious, indeed. Written and directed by DETC’s executive director, Shawn Abramowitz, Expressions is a stark and unflinching look at all of those issues.

As the play opens, we meet cousins Paul (Cameron Keys) and Joseph (Nick Wass) as they prepare for a family party to celebrate their graduation from high school. Each young man is contemplating what his next step in life should be. While Paul is thinking about attending community college and a film career, Joseph has decided to join the Army, largely due to his admiration of his Uncle Steven, a Vietnam vet. Steven’s stories of adventure and heroism have convinced young Joseph that a life in the military is the way to go. However, Paul has experienced a much different side of Steven over the years: His father’s alcoholism and emotional neglect have left their scars. Paul is hurt and bitter, and does not view his dad as the war hero Joseph does.

Joseph’s parents, Emily (Kelley Moody) and Karl (Fergus Loughnane), arrive home with supplies for the party. Karl is also a Vietnam veteran, and has a bad case of PTSD. He is emotionally withdrawn, and loud noises send him into a panic. The last thing he would want is for his son to become a soldier and face the horrors of war. He and Emily know their son has applied to several colleges, and feel confident he will be safely ensconced in university life come fall.

When Uncle Steven (James E. Anderson III) shows up, he heads straight for the bar. The tension between the adult brothers is thick: Despite the damage the war did to his soul, Karl has managed to keep his professional and family life together, at least on the surface. Steven, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in a bottle. His wife walked out shortly after he returned from the war, and he has virtually no relationship with Paul.

Steven applauds his nephew’s choice to join the Army, telling him: “America needs you. You’d make a great solder!” He even tags along when Joseph secretly enlists. When the secret comes out during the family celebration, all hell breaks loose. There are several twists and turns in the plot, which I won’t give away here.

The acting is strong across the board. Wass and Keys have great chemistry as the young cousins, and both ably convey the combination of uncertainty and bravado typical of 18-year-old boys.

Moody (also the morning weather anchor at CBS Local 2 News) is compelling as the wife struggling to deal with her husband’s illness (“I love you, but you’ve got to get your shit together!”) and terrified of losing her only son. She has many nice moments onstage with Loughnane, who is terrific, as always. He’s one of the valley’s strongest actors, and seemingly never gives a bad performance. The audience feels his love for his wife, his fears for his son’s safety, and his anger and frustration over what he sees as his brother’s failures.

As the troubled Steven, Anderson is fabulous. The climactic scene in which Steven comes clean to young Joseph about what really happened in Vietnam should be required viewing for every acting student. There is not a single false note.

Kudos to Abramowitz for his directing skills here. He elicits strong, emotional performances from each cast member, and no one ever goes over the top.

Abramowitz wrote Expressions partly as an homage to his own father, a Vietnam vet who lost three fingers in combat. His dad spent 35 years battling with Veterans Affairs to get the treatment he needed. Both father and son agree something that needs to change.

No, this is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good play—but it is definitely worth seeing. It will move you, make you squirm, make you think and possibly even make you cry. Isn’t that what good theater is supposed to do?

Expressions, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Ave., in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Squabbles over family heirlooms following the death of the patriarch are not new—but they are taken to a whole new level in the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production, Bad Jews.

Written by Joshua Harmon, the play received an Outer Critic’s Circle nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2012-2013. It’s set in a New York City apartment the evening after the funeral of Poppy, the aforementioned patriarch. His three grandchildren—Diana (she prefers her Hebrew name, Daphna), her cousin Jonah, and his brother Liam (who does NOT like his Hebrew moniker, Schlomo)—are spending the night, as is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.

The word “dysfunctional” does not even begin to describe the dynamics of this group. Things start out tense and deteriorate steadily from there. Diana is angry at Liam because he and Melody (a shiksa!) missed the funeral after Liam dropped his iPhone from an Aspen ski lift. But the bad blood between the two cousins goes way back: Diana professes deep devotion to her Jewish faith, while Liam takes a much more casual approach. His propensity to date non-Jewish women really sticks in Diana’s craw; she thinks they’re “beneath him.” Liam, on the other hand, mocks what he calls Diana’s temporary religious fanaticism, and does not believe that her Israeli fiancé truly exists.

But the real drama of the play centers around a piece of jewelry Poppy wore for most of his life. It’s a chain with the Hebrew word “chai” (living) spelled out in gold. He kept it safe from the Nazis while in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. He later proposed to his wife with it, because he could not afford a ring. Diana desperately wants this memento of her grandfather, and feels that it’s rightfully hers—especially since she’s always been a devout Jew. What Diana doesn’t know is that the chain has already been passed down to Liam (sent to him by his mother), and that he intends to give it to Melody this very evening when he proposes.

Each member of the four person cast is terrific. Though he does not have many lines, Cameron Shingler skillfully portrays Jonah’s anguish and discomfort at being thrust into the middle of his family members’ battles. He sits quietly absorbed in his iPhone or with his head in his hands as the verbal artillery flies around him. You get the sense he’d rather the floor open up and swallow him. Actively listening onstage and believably reacting (or NOT reacting as appropriate) requires great acting skill. Shingler pulls it off.

Kyrsten Watt is equally as good as Melody, the meek, squeaky-voiced former opera student. After just two professional auditions, Melody bagged a classical music career and is now working for a nonprofit—but she sports a tattoo of a treble clef on her calf (which Diana describes as “the size of a tumor”) as a sentimental reminder of her former life. Like Jonah, Melody tries valiantly to avoid being drawn into the Diana-Liam war. In an attempt to relax everyone when the yelling gets too intense, Melody sings an absolutely hilarious, off-pitch version of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. It’s one of the highlights of the show.

As Liam, Sean Timothy Brown ably captures the character’s shallow, smug and entitled demeanor, and matches Diana insult for insult. Some of their verbal sparring is quite loud and sometimes frightening. Being Jewish does not seem to mean all that much to him. We learn that once during Passover, Liam apparently consumed a forbidden cookie, proclaiming “I’m a bad Jew”—hence the play’s title. But Brown also shows a tender side; he makes Liam’s love for Melody seem quite genuine.

The MVP Award for this production of Bad Jews goes to Jordana Simone Pepper as the verbose, hot-tempered Diana. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, when she could have used a little more vocal projection, she’s nearly flawless. Once this girl gets started talking, it’s hard to get her to stop. (You know the type.) Whether she’s shouting at Liam over their religious differences, chastising Jonah for not taking her side, or grilling poor Melody about where her people were from “before Delaware,” Pepper makes every note ring true. She’s often a hoot, sometimes irritating, occasionally touching, and always real.

Rosemary Mallett’s direction is spot-on. She gets strong performances from everyone, while a terrific set and great costumes, sound and lighting all help bring this thought-provoking play to life.

Kudos to Desert Ensemble Theatre’s founding director Tony Padilla and executive director Shawn Abramowitz for another excellent production. (Full disclosure: I acted in Desert Ensemble’s previous show.) Bad Jews is not bad; it’s damn good.

Bad Jews, produced by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 17, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets, call 760-565-2476 or go to www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Imagine you are walking down the street, and suddenly you see … YOU, yourself, coming toward you. Your hair, face, hands, height and weight. It’s not a trick or illusion. It’s you.

What do you do?

A Number, presented by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, has opened at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. It’s a one-act, five-scene, two-man, 55 minute play, written by Caryl Churchill and produced by Tony Padilla. Which fact is most surprising: A female playwright created a work for two men? The provocative topic of the show? Or the fact that you’re back out on the street before 8 p.m., when some other theaters’ curtains are just going up?

The actors, Shawn Abramowitz and James E. Anderson III, work on a bare stage with only two tan leather chairs as the set. The color palette is limited to blues and some earth tones. Director Jerome Elliott has made the most of the space, with clever blocking that keeps the action natural-looking and emotion-motivated. The play is a talky one, with lines that interrupt each other and “telescope,” bedazzling us with speed and brevity. Yet thanks to the actors’ good diction, we rarely miss a word. (Learning these lines had to be a labor of love, for sure.) Everything looks simple—but your earth is about to be shaken.

For the audience: Don’t worry if you are confounded. The playwright delights in using half-sentences and incomplete thoughts. Interesting writing … very much like the way people really do talk. The actors accordingly have adopted a natural and realistic acting style.

We open with an ongoing conversation between two gentlemen: One younger, dark-haired, in jeans; the other silver-haired and silver-bearded, wearing glasses and a cardigan. We see them slouch, swipe at the nose (the “allergy salute,” so common in our desert), sulk, snark, get in each other’s faces—in other words, we are the fly on the wall watching the real-feel action as we struggle to understand the meaning of their conversation.

Finally, it becomes clear, and I will reveal it to you so you don’t have the duhhs quite as long as we did (and seeing as this information is included on the ticket-purchase website, it’s not a spoiler): The conversation is about cloning. Gasp! This play premiered in Britain in 2002, back when Dolly, the cloned sheep, was still alive. But A Number is about human cloning. Even creepier! In the play, some people are referred to as “The Others,” and as the conversation progresses, we find out who “they” are. Paranoia abounds: Why?

We eventually face another psychological conundrum: the “nature versus nurture” argument. Which is more important: what you inherit before birth, or the way you are raised? What determines how we turn out? The characters, whom we learn are father and son, walk us through all the stuff moaned about on a psychiatrist’s couch: the bitterness from unfair treatment, the differing memories of remembered cruelties, the new facts that alter one’s history. So who gets the blame for the flawed person that we all turn out to be? Genes, or environment?

The son has had the experience of seeing “himself” on the street, and confronts his father. The father, it is revealed, is not without problems of his own: He lies about the boy’s mother; he drinks too much; he plots lawsuit revenge. So how does his son react to events or information: the same as dad, or differently? Now it gets really interesting, because in the next scene, we get to meet the other son, physically identical to the first—and we see his personality interacting with the same father. What created those differences?

We won’t reveal any more, so that you can be surprised by what happens … and you will be surprised. If you enjoy intimate theater, this is an excellent example of it. The Palm Springs Woman’s Club is an appropriate size for such a show (now if only we could do something about those creaky floorboards onstage), as presenting such a work in a huge arena would be unthinkable: The closeness of the audience to the actors is mandatory for our involvement in, and concentration on, the play.

The actors do a wonderful job of luring us into their characters’ lives, with all of the complexity, denial and peculiarity. The play throws us into a world where we probably will never go, yet forces us to think about it: What if you found out you had been cloned, without your knowledge? How would that feel? What would you do? See, this is what theater can do: permanently expand our consciousness in a way that nothing else can.

Kudos to Jerome Elliott for his lean-and-clean style of directing, and to Abramowitz and Anderson for their memory of the lines and their shrewd interpretation of this script. Thanks also to Padilla for finding this thought-provoking play and bringing it to our valley.

The only possible change I could suggest involves wardrobe: The audience might understand more easily that Son No. 2 in Scene No. 2 is actually another person if he wore a jacket with a contrasting color. Here, both sons wore blue—obviously to make a statement about how they are The Same In So Many Ways—but although the actor even changed shoes, it wasn’t readily apparent that this wasn’t just another scene with the same actor at another time, dressed differently. This point is successfully addressed in Scene No. 5, which I’m really trying to not give away.

A Number is a very cerebral experience, but then, thought always precedes action, so you must see this show to clarify your thoughts about it. It’s a must-see play about, maybe, YOU.

So … Imagine you are walking down the street, and … ?

A Number, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. The show is 55 minutes long, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

For many years, Coachella Valley audiences have enjoyed the works of award-winning playwright Tony Padilla. He was co-founder of the Playwright’s Circle with Marilee Warner, and is now enjoying success with his own company, Desert Ensemble Theatre.

A member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Tony has won many local awards, including the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing for his play Becoming Ava. Knowing his impressive background, I always look forward to seeing a new play by Tony with great anticipation. His latest offering, Two by Tony, is a couple of one-act plays now on stage at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The first is Family Meeting, directed by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director, Rosemary Mallett. It’s a drama peppered with dark comedy which takes place in the home of Daniel Mann (Alan Berry), a bitter, washed-up playwright now reduced to writing B-movie scripts. He’s planning to relocate to New York to get back into the live-theater scene, where he feels he belongs. Daniel’s 20-something grandson, Jason (Shawn Abramowitz), has stopped by to ask if he can move in for a while. Armed with an Internet law degree, Jason is also planning a long-distance move to get his career rolling. He’s anxious to move out of his parents’ home, because their constant bickering is driving him crazy.

Soon, his father, Ed (Rob Hubler), shows up, looking for advice from Daniel on whether or not to divorce his wife, Karen (Denise Strand). Ed calls Karen to join them, and the whole clan is soon gathered in Daniel’s study, swigging red wine and trading barbs. The marriage between Karen and Ed is beyond strained—he’s got an Internet porn addiction, and she’s banging the contractor. Everyone has buried resentments and baggage, but the animosity between Karen and her father-in-law is particularly intense.

The acting is uniformly strong, though there were some volume issues at the top of the show. At first, I thought Berry seemed a tad too young to be cast as Ed’s father, but that reservation faded eventually away. Berry’s Daniel clearly bears the scars of having been beaten up by life over the years. Abramowitz is quite likable as Jason; he spends a lot of time engrossed in computer games on his cell phone, partly to drown out the sound of his battling parents. As Ed, Hubler ably communicates the disappointment and frustration many of us face in middle age. Nothing’s going right—and now his son wants to get away from him. Denise Strand is terrific as Karen. The energy picks up noticeably when she enters the scene. She has fabulous mother-son chemistry with Abramowitz in some of the play’s few tender moments. Occasionally uncomfortable because it mirrors some of our own dysfunctional families (this group sure does drink a lot!), Family Meeting is thought-provoking and worth seeing.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, the second play, The Comeback, would get my vote. A farce directed by Padilla set in the mid 1950s, it’s reminiscent of 1940s films like Blithe Spirit and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The play tells the story of Nora Raymond (Lee Rice), a Norma Desmond-esque, aging film actress attempting a comeback with the help of her loyal assistant, Thelma (Theresa Jewett). Nora receives a mysterious message urging her to contact a Count Orca (Theo Nowicki). The count later arrives at her home to conduct a séance in hopes of contacting Johnny Bellini (Stephen McMillen), Nora’s long-missing and presumed-dead husband. When Johnny appears, much hilarity ensues. There’s lust, greed, schemes-within-schemes and characters who are not who they seem to be. Everything’s a bit over the top, and laughs abound. The cast is uniformly terrific.

As the dramatic, self-important Nora, Rice is perfect. Cute and petite, but exuding the egomania typical of Hollywood, Rice has the audience routing for Nora’s success, both in the movies and in love. Jewett is a scream as Thelma. Wise, wry and wary, she trusts almost no one, and does not suffer fools gladly. At one point, she advises Nora’s man-servant, Morgan (Nowicki, in a dual role), “Don’t try to be mysterious; you’re no good at it.” Jewett is known to many as an amazing singer; she’s one hell of an actress as well. This is an award-winning performance.

Equally as funny is Nowicki, particularly as Count Orca. Sporting a heavy accent and an obviously fake mustache, Nowicki romps through the role, having a great time onstage, and tickling the audience’s funny bone nonstop. McMillen is quite good as Johnny; he has just the right mix of good looks and comic acting chops.

Kudos to director Tony Padilla … and to playwright Padilla, for a nice evening of theater.

Two by Tony, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, or $18 for students, seniors and members of the military. The running time is just more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The word “inspiration” came up a lot.

I was talking with composer and orchestrator Saverio Rapezzi, and Shawn Abramowitz, the executive director of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, about the creation of a one-night-only production of a new musical which has taken 10 years to bring to life.

Desert Ensemble will present Esperanza: The Musical of Hope as a concert performance at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24.

How did it all start? Writer Ken Luber, a TV and movie writer living in Idyllwild, began writing Esperanza’s book and lyrics in 2005—about sports figures, of all things. The work deals with the falls from grace of these once-worshipped creatures and their hopes to return to their former glory. When Saverio Rapezzi arrived in Los Angeles, Luber was one of the people he contacted while looking for work. The rest, of course, is history.

Shawn Abramowitz came into the picture when Luber contacted the DETC, because of the company’s interest in performing new works.

DETC started years ago as a theater-and-writing group, headed up by Tony Padilla and influenced by Rosemary Mallett, a legendary name in Palm Springs theater. The group offered students not only technical training, but also scholarships—a unique approach. As a theater company, DETC is now in its fourth season.

Esperanza has been in rehearsals since October, and Abramowitz promises theatergoers “a polished piece, with great music and a compelling story.” The cast includes Keisha D., Charles Herrera, Theresa Jewett, Phillip Moore and several others.

Saverio Rapezzi—don’t you love the name?—lives in Los Angeles half the year. The other months are spent in Italy’s Tuscany region, where his musician wife conducts choirs and teaches at the conservatory where they met. In L.A., his company Film Scoring Lab creates music for movies. On his website, he offers examples of various sounds to express the different moods of the films; it’s a great tutorial on this very special skill.

Rapezzi cut his teeth on short films, but has gone on to score feature-length movies as well. “If it’s a good film, it’s easy,” he muses. “It inspires you—you pick up on the rhythm. And if I like the story, each scene’s music is already in my mind by the time it’s finished. I play the scenes back two or three times, and then start writing it out.”

Rapezzi is one of those rare and special composers who can hear music in his head and write it down without having to pick it out on an instrument. His main instrument is the guitar, and he holds degrees in classical guitar and composition from the Royal Philharmonic Academy of Bologna. He also studied film-scoring with stellar names including Ennio Morricone, and continued his graduate studies at UCLA. But his first influence, as with so many musicians, was his father. He was a classical guitarist, and at age 13, young Saverio followed his papa’s lead, eventually using the guitar “to compose what was in my heart.” Rapezzi then became a respected concert performer.

However, writing music for the movies was always his goal. His first big film was a Mexican psychological thriller, The Echo of Fear.

“It was so exciting to see my name on the screen in a cinema!” he remembers. The same director hired him again for his next movie—the ultimate compliment. He recently finished scoring Ignatius Lin’s The System Is Broken. In 2015, Rapezzi’s new opera will debut—in Hungary, even though it’s in Italian.

When Rapezzi teamed up with Ken Luber to create Esperanza, he wrote about half the show—just enough to use in an audition. When they brought it to DETC, and the answer was a resounding, “YES!” he immediately wrote the rest of the music.

What’s in store for the future of Esperanza? Abramowitz, who also works both as an actor and as an account executive for KESQ-TV, dares to dream: He wants to take it all the way to Broadway!

“Even if it changes one person’s life, that makes a huge impact,” he said.

Summing up, I couldn’t resist asking Rapezzi what he thought of Americans. He took time to reflect seriously, and announced, “They are the best at getting things done. They know how to make things work. Italians are creative, but … .” Then he shrugged.

Will the performance become the first step on the long road to Broadway? “It takes time,” Abramowitz said. “But the message is strong—it’s one of hope, no matter where life takes you.”

Can’t wait. It sounds like … an inspiration.

The concert reading of Esperanza: The Musical of Hope takes place at 7 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Great American Trailer Park Musical debuted at the New York Theater Festival in 2004 and opened off-Broadway in September 2005. Today, the two-act musical, written by David Nehls and Betsy Kelso—which examines the relationships between the tenants at the Armadillo Acres Trailer Park in Starke, Fla.—has made its way to the desert, thanks to the efforts of Desert Theatreworks.

There’s not much of a plot; some of the characters need more fleshing out; and many of the songs are weak, but the show has enjoyed moderate success over the past 10 years. If you’re a Jeff Foxworthy fan and like your humor on the crass side, this show is right up your alley.

If the only criterion for reviewing a show was the earnest effort of the cast, Desert Theatreworks’ production would get five stars. Director Lance Phillips-Martinez has assembled a group of energetic actors with great comic timing who do their best to keep the audience smiling throughout the production.

So what’s the downside? The show is a musical, and many of those onstage lack the necessary singing ability. 

As the show opens, we meet Betty (Adina Lawson), Pickles (Briana Taylor) and Lin (Kitty Garascia)—whose name is short for linoleum, since she was born on the kitchen floor. The rousing first musical number, “This Side of the Tracks,” sets the tone of the narration and the commentary on trailer-park life that the trio provides. Though it’s one of the better songs, right away, issues of pitch and shrillness became apparent. Excess volume is also a problem. Nearly everyone in the cast seems to follow the “if in doubt, sing louder” mantra—something director and vocal coach Phillips-Martinez should have nipped in the bud. (I once had a fabulous musical theater instructor who said: “Loud does not equal better; it’s just loud.”)

Lawson fares the best. She hits the notes a bit more often than her cohorts, and her street-smart, cigarette-puffing Betty keeps us laughing, especially during the talk-show-spoofing The Great American TV Show. Taylor is amusing as the not-too-bright Pickles, and Garascia has her moments as the wife of a death-row inmate (who tries to postpone his execution by sabotaging the prison’s electricity).

The strongest pipes in the cast belong to Ashley Hernandez, as stripper-on-the-run Pippi, who arrives at Armadillo Acres and promptly starts an affair with tollbooth-collector Norbert Gastecki (Shawn Abramowitz). Norbert’s wife, Jeanne (Stacy Casaluci), is devoted but agoraphobic, and hasn’t stepped out of their trailer in years. Hernandez has a strong, pleasing voice, and has clearly had vocal training—but even she occasionally pushes too hard. Abramowitz captures the essence of Norbert, who feels guilty about cheating on his wife, but is also frustrated by her neurosis. Sadly, he is not a singer. His duet with Casaluci (“Owner of My Heart”) just did not work, because the harmonies seemed off. Though she has a pretty voice well-suited to the quiet solo numbers, Casaluci becomes shrill at times.

Rounding out the ensemble, Stephen McMillen delivers a nice comic turn as Pippi’s marker-inhaling ex-boyfriend, Duke. 

Kudos go to Ron Phillips-Martinez for the sets and costumes, which are quite good. The lighting, sound and choreography are all fine. 

The opening-night audience seemed to enjoy The Great American Trailer Park Musical at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, though applause following many of the musical numbers was not always very enthusiastic.

The show is loud, colorful, tacky and, most important, fun. If you don’t go expecting beautiful singing, or songs you can whistle on your way home, you just might like it.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 23, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 general; and $23 for seniors and students. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Yes, The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the history of the world. (I saw it in London decades ago, and it’s still going strong in the West End, 60-plus years after its debut.) Yes, it’s an Agatha Christie story, and she is the grande dame of mystery writing. Yes, it’s a different type of presentation than we usually see in the desert.

But that’s not why you should go to see the Desert Theatreworks production of The Mousetrap at the Joslyn Center. Every theater student and actor—and anyone remotely interested in theater—should see this play to study its direction. Lance Phillips-Martinez gifts us with a classic piece of what he readily admits is “old-school.” It’s rare enough to see clever directing, but this extraordinary example of balanced blocking is textbook.

Watch how the actors move. Because of Florentino Carrillo’s good sound, you can sit anywhere in the auditorium. Too often, we focus on the actor who is speaking, but here, we are treated to a constantly moving kaleidoscope of motion by all. Everyone glides with lava-lamp smoothness in a beautiful ballet, particularly delicious when all eight actors are onstage at once. And although the symmetry shifts constantly, the scene is always in balance. This is big-picture directing at its best.

Ron Phillips-Martinez’s excellent set, with its clever absence of doors and its use of multi-layered depth, enhances his life-partner Lance’s direction. And yet no move is made without motivation. Lance Phillips-Martinez doesn’t just idly shift actors about as if they were chess-board pieces. Every movement is the result of a character’s clearly shown anxiety, deep thought, boredom or curiosity. Again: Directing at its best.

The first act presents the characters. It’s not easy to keep eight roles straight in some plays, but the clever casting here results in eight wildly differing body types, and personalities that are gradually revealed. Everyone’s back-story emerges as the plot thickens. The laughs come easily as the characters become defined, and the clues are discovered. We can take a moment to admire the hard work of makeup/hair/props manager Kathy Taylor-Smith, the lighting by Doug Ridgeway, and the stage managing of Megan Camacho.

The characters are gradually introduced. Christopher Wren is played by Luke Rainey, who works without makeup so we can actually see him go bright red when he is upset, embarrassed or freaked out—an astonishing effect. Alden West, the desert’s grande dame of the theater, is Mrs. Boyle; West’s magnificent silver hair is inexplicably covered by a heavy gray wig, but her natural dignity comes through beautifully, and her upper-class accent is flawless. The role of Major Metcalf is played by Hal O’Connell, with a mysterious and tight-lipped presence, as well as a remote and formal air. Briana Taylor plays Miss Casewell, a mannish, abrupt, pantsuited (In the 1930s? Hmmm …) character clearly covering up a murky past. Don Cilluffo eats up his fun role as Signor Paravicini, flailing about, Italian-style, kissing hands and gesturing wildly—and having the most fabulous time. Stephen McMillen appears as Sgt. Trotter, who unexpectedly shows up to investigate a murder, with a correct, clipped and appropriately militaristic style.

The second act changes the mood: Now we focus on the story. Everyone is snowed in (being Canadian, I can sure identify with that) at a country inn 30 miles from London, owned by Giles (solidly played by the reliable Shawn Abramowitz, with a quite delightful Scottish accent) and Mollie (Ashley Hernandez, morphing into another role so thoroughly as to be unrecognizable from her other recent work—except for her unmistakable and beautifully carrying voice). They and their guests are trapped there on the inn’s opening day.

We are solemnly sworn not to talk about the rest of the plot. Really; I mean sworn: The audience has to stand and swear not to reveal the ending! Fortunately, I saw the play so long ago that I didn’t remember how it resolves. The twists and turns of the plot, the clever “red herrings” that are introduced to confuse us, and the puzzling aspects of the characters’ actions all combine to make it impossible for the audience to guess “whodunit.” I was as surprised as anyone to see how this 61-year-old play turned out. Agatha Christie strikes again!

My lips are sealed. Go see for yourself.

The Mousetrap, presented by Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 10, at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. The show runs two hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

Published in Theater and Dance