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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Those of us who grew up in Canada were raised on it.

We knew The Goon Show with Peter Sellers and Take It From Here on the radio; the Carry On gang’s outrageous ensemble movies; and, later, Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in theatrical revue, and the unforgettable Monty Python films.

So I felt very much at home with the British-humor outrages perpetrated in Desert Theatreworks’ “Noises Off!” at the Arthur Newman Theatre—as did the eager, nearly full house of supporters on opening night. They were probably all Americans, which is just fine; humor’s birthplace doesn’t matter. It’s all about having fun and being involved. Judging from the laughter and applause, it’s certain you’ll have a great time at this show, no matter where you were born.

The script, by Michael Frayn, starts with the final rehearsal of a play. We quickly see that it’s nowhere near ready to open, and the personalities of the actors are part of the reason why. The frustrated director, whom we hear only on a “God mic” from the audience, is desperately trying to control his nutso cast and get the show ready for the opening—which is only hours away.

The set, cleverly designed by Ron Phillips-Martinez, is a departure from the usual two-story setting of this show. “We create the illusion of two stories,” he confided to me, “and the way the set changes between acts leaves people saying, ‘How did you DO that?’ We wanted everything to be different, because this play has been done here before. … We didn’t want to re-do just another version of it.”

During the set change, the lights are left on so we can admire the super-efficient use of restricted space. When the scenery changes between acts, we find ourselves backstage at another performance of the same play—but now from the actors’ vantage point. Of course, the actors must not make the slightest noise during the performance, so everything is communicated in frantic mime.

Why would a small theater company like Desert Theatreworks, in an intimate space, even think of mounting such a production?

“I did it on a dare!” director Lance Phillips-Martinez told me. “They said this play couldn’t be done in this theater. There are 700 exits and entrances to deal with! It was a true challenge, and I spent six months thinking it through before deciding to do it. The actors were all open to it—though only two had ever performed in a farce before, so there was a lot of teaching involved.” 

Ah, the actors—the poor things were wringing wet by the end of the show, thanks to the astonishing amount of exertion needed. British comedy is indeed very physical, and Lance Phillips-Martinez has emphasized the importance of body language with this production, as he kaleidoscopes his constantly moving actors.

And what an ensemble! Everyone is physically transformed compared to other shows in which you may have seen them, and I don’t just mean costume and makeup changes—they talk, move and use their hair differently. They are, as the Brits might say, quite extraordinary. Farce lets a thespian get in touch with his inner ham, but make no mistake: This show is artfully disciplined, even though it seems like total chaos. Each actor has exquisitely developed his character fully, under Lance Phillips-Martinez’s guidance.

Stan Jensen plays the hapless director of this play-within-a-play (called “Nothing’s On”), and with that rich powerful voice, he’s perfect. His strained patience is conveyed in tones ranging from kindly coaxing to a bellow, and his authoritarian strut is exactly right. As in all caricatures, the exaggeration emphasizes rather than conceals his character’s qualities (and flaws).

Marjory Lewis plays actress Dotty Otley who plays Mrs. Clackett, the Cockney housekeeper. Lance Phillips-Martinez has nurtured and polished this gem of an actress to a high luster, with qualities we’ve never seen her display before. She is vibrantly alive, bright and multi-layered, and she runs through an astounding variety of emotions.

Stephen McMillen devours the stage as arrogant actor Garry LeJune, playing Roger in their play. A DTW staple, McMillen completely re-invents himself in every role, this time digging deep to give a complex performance as a talented but self-involved, neurotic and unintentionally hilarious thespian. He’s recognizable to anyone who has ever done theater at any level.

Mari Kerber is Brooke Ashton, playing Vicki (the “i” tells you so much), the troupe’s resident blonde glamour girl and idiot—but she’s street-smart enough to use her looks to fuel her ambition. Moody and vain, she shines as she prances and tosses her crimped hair artfully, constantly posing in calendar-girl fashion to show off her admirable figure.

Tanner Lieser plays Frederick Fellowes, who toils in the role of Philip Brent. A disaster magnet, he is instantly recognizable from his first lines: He’s the guy who puts himself down so you can’t do it. Hypersensitive and luckless—a terrible combination—he’s the epitome of insecurity. Lieser makes the most of this very funny role and actually enlists our sympathy.

Stacy Casaluci plays Belinda Blair, playing Flavia Brent in Nothing’s On, and she’s a sweetheart as the unsung heroine who is quietly keeping the cast together behind the scenes. She’s always upbeat, positive and there at the right time—one of those. She is convincing and pretty, and brings a lovely light to her scenes.

Garnett Smith is a seasoned actor—here playing the cast’s Selsdon Mowbray, acting as The Burglar—but we’ve never before seen him like this. He’s the cast’s old troublemaker and secret drinker, just this side of dangerous. He comes close to stealing the show with his unscripted monologue during a set change between acts, and his beautifully thought-out character gives us no end of delight. Smith knows his face, body and craft, and uses them all brilliantly.

Florentino Carrillo plays Tim Allgood, the overworked, youthful techie and stage manager of the troupe. His stillness gives us glimpses of his exhaustion, and contrasts delightfully with the rest of the high-energy group. He switches accents, a little confusing, but is delightful when he has to sub onstage, shaking in his shoes at being thrust into the spotlight.

Brittney De Leon-Reyes is Poppy, the assistant stage manager, the drab but sincere and hardworking little girl behind the scenes—almost every theater has one. She is a casting surprise in this role, a nervous nelly fearful of everything. It’s the mark of a true actress to be so versatile, and reveals a glimpse of her depth and her promise.

Curtain calls and applause! Go see this, and be prepared to laugh and be astonished. It’s a most unusual play, and whether or not you’ve ever actually been backstage for real, you will laugh out loud. A lot. I promise.

Noises Off!, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 9 (with no show on Oct. 31) at the Arthur Newman Theatre in the Joslyn Center, 73750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 regular; or $23 seniors and students with ID. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.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