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Thu12132018

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Given the hatred and divisiveness our country’s socio-political climate has stirred up, Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production, Southern Baptist Sissies, seems timelier than ever.

Del Shores’ play, which won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding L.A. Theatre Production during its original run in 2000, skillfully illustrates the painful conflict faced by homosexuals of faith who long to remain part of a church community that rejects the very essence of who they are.

The play tells the stories of four young men coming of age in Dallas. Each boy is trying to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality while also remaining an active member of the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church.

Mark (Joseph Tanner Paul), who also serves as the narrator, is sarcastic and bitter over the church’s narrow-mindedness about gays and its rigid rules for life—“So in God’s eyes, eating shrimp is just as bad as sucking cock.” Mark is a pivotal role, and Paul nails it. He’s a strong presence onstage—funny, acerbic and angry, yet often incredibly vulnerable.

Mark is strongly attracted to T.J. (the charismatic, well-built Cody Frank), who is in major denial about his own preference for men: “I am living a normal life with a woman—the way God intended, and I am happy!” T.J. spouts Bible verses and feigns interest in women, while brushing off a youthful sexual encounter with Mark as insignificant. Frank makes T.J.’s inner turmoil quite believable.

The sensitive, guilt-ridden Andrew (German Pavon) is the first of the quartet to accept Jesus as his personal savior. He prays fervently by day and secretly explores gay nightclubs by night. Andrew’s nightly fantasies are not of sweaty sex, but of caresses and a gentle male voice assuring him that he will always be taken care of. Pavon’s acting is quite effective; he makes the audience want to wrap him in a giant hug.

By far the boldest of the four boys is Benny (the amazing, androgynous Ben Heustess), who wholeheartedly embraces his gayness, dressing in drag and lip-syncing to Shania Twain songs with great glee. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part. Heustess is riveting—you cannot take your eyes off him. He excels not only as a female impersonator, but also at revealing the character’s deep inner pain.

Calvary’s preacher (the perfectly cast Larry Dyekman) holds forth with typical fire and brimstone, adamant that obedience to God is always the answer.

Local favorite Joey English is effective and holds her own as the mothers of each of the four young men. She has some of the show’s best lines. When discussing her trailer-park neighbor with the preacher, she quips, “She’s Catholic, you know—just one step off from them Jee-hovah’s Witnesses.”

Throughout the play, we are treated to brief scenes at a gay-themed bar called the Rose Room. There, we watch the growing friendship between the alcoholic Odette (Linda Cooke) and the equally booze-loving Peanut (Hal O’Connell). Both have many regrets in life, and there are some serious moments—but most of their interaction is a hoot. Odette repeatedly refers to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and admits that “when you give head like me, word gets out.” Cooke and O’Connell have fabulous chemistry and provide some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Rounding out the superb cast is Douglas Wilson as both church organist Brother Chaffey and lounge-pianist Houston.

Steve Fisher’s direction deserves special mention. He brings out the best in his cast. There are some profoundly emotional moments in this production, and each actor hits just the right notes without going over the top. It’s worth noting here that there are simulated sex acts and some nudity in this play—not an unusual occurrence in Desert Rose productions. The set, lights, sound, hair and makeup (particularly Benny’s drag get-ups) are all spot on.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Southern Baptist Sissies is not just a play about homosexuality and religion. It’s about the universal fear of letting others see who we really are. At one point, Mark recalls that while his mother taught him to love her, his father, Jesus and Elvis, “I guess she forgot to teach me to love myself.” What a different world this would be if we all learned that lesson early on.

But perhaps Benny sums it up best late in the play when he muses: “Maybe the world is just the way it should be. … Maybe we are ALL right … the gays, the Baptists, the Muslims, all of us.” What a different world, indeed.

Southern Baptist Sissies is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Contains nudity and adult situations. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

When the opening of a play is postponed a week, apparently because the cast is not quite ready, it tends to make reviewers a bit nervous.

What if the cast is still not ready? What if the show’s just a bomb?

Thankfully, my worries about the world premiere of Junk at the Desert Rose Playhouse were unfounded: Other than a few opening night jitters, it was quite an enjoyable production.

The musical is based on the real-life experience of writer/composer Michael Penny. While helping clean out a dead man’s home, two friends find the place chock-full of porn and other indications of the late resident’s loneliness and quirks.

So begins the plot of Junk. Two gay men—60ish Miss Lily (Jim Strait) and his “student,” 35-year-old Chris (Robbie Wayne)—arrive to dispose of the contents of a recently deceased man’s North Carolina cottage. The dearly departed has left behind a huge collection of homosexual porn, piles of cigarette butts, and an unmistakable aura of isolation and melancholy.

While sorting through the mess, Miss Lily and Chris explore the different ways in which they have experienced life as gay men. They bicker and snipe at one another; they laugh and cry; they commiserate; and ultimately, they strengthen the bond of their 20-year-old friendship.

The aforementioned opening-night jitters occurred very early on, as the pair launched into the first musical number, “A Man Needs a Hobby.” The actors seemed a tad uncertain as to where to come in, and slightly tentative with the first few lyrics—but they hit their stride quickly. Both Strait and Wayne have nice singing voices (particularly the latter), although there were a few occasions (especially on the very low notes) when they were difficult to hear. More vocal projection was also needed once or twice during spoken lines while accompanist/musical director Joel Baker was providing lovely background music. The versatile Baker, who tickles the ivories all over the desert, is fabulous, as always.

The word “intimate” kept popping into my mind throughout the evening. The Desert Rose Playhouse is an intimate theater; Junk is an intimate play; and the two actors and director Steve Fisher successfully create a warm, intimate world onstage.

Some of the musical numbers are quite memorable, including Chris’ touching musings about his mother, “She Loves Me” and the hilarious duet “She Believes in Bran.”

One of the big debates between the two men is whether or not prospective lovers should remove their pubic hair. Chris votes yes, in the risqué “I Like ’Em Smooth,” while Miss Lily equates the clean-shaven to “those cats who are bred to have no fuzz—it’s creepy!”

Aging—particularly the inevitability of losing one’s looks and sex appeal—is one of the show’s major themes. On the subject of turning 50, Miss Lily says, “You’re no longer a butterfly, but a gross, stinking wasp that no one wants to be with.” Though to a certain degree, Miss Lily has resigned himself to the fact he’s no longer a young stud, he does fondly remember his past sexual conquests. He brags about how gorgeous he was back then, and makes comparisons to what he considers Chris’ inadequacies in that department: “I wonder what’s going to happen when YOUR small store of looks runs out and no one wants you any more?”

Chris quickly fires back: “And what’s that like, Miss Lily?”

Both Strait and Wayne deliver strong, nuanced performances. Their chemistry is terrific. We really believe these two have been friends and “student-teacher” for a couple of decades. Always charismatic onstage, Strait does not disappoint here. His Miss Lily is witty, acerbic, hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking. One of Strait’s best moments is his rhapsodic description of seeing the movie The Sound of Music at age 9. It is priceless.

Wayne, whose work I had not seen before, is tremendous. It’s hard to take your eyes off him as his struts around the stage. He’s a triple threat: a strong actor, singer and dancer. (He created the show’s fun choreography as well.) His “I Hate Musicals” is one of the evening’s highlights.

The play’s double-entendre title, Junk, could of course refer to either the jumble of possessions the late homeowner has left behind, or a man’s genitals (which are often discussed throughout the show). While Desert Rose often pushes the envelope, and Junk does not shy away from the subject of gay sex, its themes are universal. We all, regardless of our sexual orientation, grow old, lose our sexual attractiveness and need to face our own mortality. Strait’s moving rendition of the closing song, “No One Wants to Leave the Party,” drives that home.

Desert Rose’s resident stage manager Steve Fisher once again proves his talent as a director. Phil Murphy’s lights and Thomas L. Valach’s set are spot-on.

Junk was worth waiting an extra week to see. It’s a memorable experience I would encourage all valley theater-goers to try.

Junk is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season with A Queer Carol, billed as the first gay version of Charles Dickens’ classic story; it premiered in New York in 2001.

I really wanted to like this show. Given the excellent quality of previous productions I’ve seen at Desert Rose, I expected to like it. Sadly, it was a little like anticipating a stocking full of Christmas goodies and instead finding an empty sock.

The story here is set in modern day New York, where Ebenezer “Ben” Scrooge (Steve Fisher) is a Manhattan interior designer who makes life miserable for his loyal right-hand man, Bob Cratchit (David Brooks). Scrooge barks and snaps at Cratchit, pays him a meager salary and refuses to provide him with health insurance. The lack of insurance is especially problematic, since Tiny Tim here is an adult—Cratchit’s HIV-positive partner.

It is Christmas Eve, and as Scrooge does his best to put a damper on everyone’s holiday spirit, fabric-salesman Fred (Jayson Kraid) stops by to invite Ben to his annual Christmas party. Also paying a call to the shop is charity-worker (Terry Huber), looking for a donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. True to form, Scrooge declines to give, because there are already hospices and shelters to handle the problem. And if those infected should die, then “let them do it and decrease the surplus population.”

We also learn that Scrooge’s former business partner, the late Jacob “Jake” Marley (Aaron Zontek), was his ex-lover. As Scrooge’s night of terror and forced self-examination begins, the ghost of Marley appears in full S&M regalia—leather, chains and a bare tuckus.

This Scrooge has a lot more emotional baggage than Dickens’ version. In a flashback, we see young Ben’s father express rage and disgust that his son is turning into “a goddamn fairy.” The boy then suffers homophobic taunting when he’s shipped off to boarding school. At age 21, Ben meets Jake Markowitz (he later changes his name to Marley for business purposes) at a Christmas party, and the two become lovers. The relationship is problematic, because Jake can’t bring himself to say “I love you,” and Ben is conflicted about his homosexuality. After the pair take over Fezziwig’s Fabrics, Ben concentrates on making money, while Jake’s promiscuity results in him contracting the HIV virus.

In Desert Rose’s production, things start to pick up when The Ghost of Christmas Past (Cat Lyn Day) shows up in the form of Marilyn Monroe. As she guides Scrooge through the review of his life, references to the blonde bombshell’s movies abound. (“Every seven years, I get this itch.”) Day delivers a strong performance. She is flirty, vampy and fun to watch.

But the true high point of the evening is the entrance of The Ghost of Christmas Present (Loren Freeman), who shows up as an outrageous drag queen. She gives Ben a glimpse of the private world of Bob Cratchit and Tim, where money is scarce, but love is abundant. Dressed like a sparkling Christmas tree in boots—with red and green fringe, and tree ornaments for earrings—Freeman lights up the stage with camp and energy. We never want him to leave.

Fisher is well-cast as the world-weary, bitter Scrooge. He’s just the right age and has the proper physical type; his gruff, cold demeanor rings true. He’s most effective in the later scenes, when the Ghost of Christmas Future terrifies him with what might be if he does not change his ways.

Zontek (Jake Marley, Blake) comes across as a bit stiff and tentative throughout much of the show. With more passion and commitment, his Marley could be a tour de force.

David Brooks’ Cratchit is appropriately endearing and likable; we are rooting for him and Tim to prevail in the end. Alex Enriquez does a decent job as Young Scrooge and Tim, but as with much of the cast, he sometimes seems to hold back—we want more from him.

Always a pro, V.J. Hume (a frequent Independent contributor) handles multiple roles (Scrooge’s Mother, Jean, Nurse, Maria), and she handles them pretty well. Pulling off more than one role in a play is not easy. Hume and Day both succeed—although there were times when their accents (Russian and Latina) seemed inconsistent.

Kraid (Fred, Fezziwig, Pytor) and Huber (Nick, Scrooge’s Father, Noel, Fence) are pleasant enough, but could both use an infusion of energy.

The multiple sets functioned fairly well, although the blocking seemed awkward at times. Phil Murphy’s lighting was quite effective. Kudos to Allan H. Jensen for costumes and wigs.

Alas, there are several problems with this production. The script could use some tweaks; there’s a distinct a lack of energy from much of the cast, as well as slow pacing here and there, and some fumbling with lines (which could have been opening-night jitters).

Jim Strait is normally a strong director, as evidenced by his long list of excellent productions at Desert Rose. I’m not sure what happened here. Perhaps another week of work and some coaching from Freeman on stage presence would help.

Desert Rose Playhouse has brought some fabulous theater to the valley. Here’s hoping the show improves throughout the run.

A Queer Carol is being performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 20, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to 33, and the running time is about 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were at the top of their game when they wrote The Sound of Music, and it remains as wonderful today as it was when it premiered in 1959.

The true story—from the memoir written by Maria von Trapp—is the basis for the plot. Does anyone not know it? Regardless, this theatrical snapshot of idyllic Austrian life in the 1930s, impacted by the gathering storm clouds of Nazism, is inevitably affecting—and you will leave the theater humming, singing or at least thinking about the music. It’s like an earworm, in a good way.

At the Palm Canyon Theatre’s production, the first hurdle to be cleared is The Kids. Baron von Trapp has seven children and a deceased wife (and not one person ever wonders why), so a girl from the nearby nunnery is hired to act as a nanny for them. Maria, whom we’ve already established is not particularly suited for the cloistered life, is sent to do the job. Well, the whole play could be sunk without a gurgle if the children weren’t as ideally cast as these are: They’re adorable without being syrupy, fresh without being boring, and their singing is just great, particularly the kid playing Leisl. Kudos to all of them!

The next problem could be Baron von Trapp. But stage veteran Mark Almy fills the bill as the imperially slim, naturally elegant and casually sophisticated Navy captain. (Austria is a landlocked country, so this is a bit puzzling … but they do have some lakes.) Almy never does show us the power that we know he can command, as vocally gifted as he is, yet his choices are correct for his character. However, we have to rap his knuckles for too often dropping his voice at the ends of spoken sentences. Nonetheless, he carries von Trapp through the lovely arc from uptight single dad to warm, caring husband and father, all due to Maria.

And that brings us to Maria: Any actress brave enough to follow in Julie Andrews’ incomparable footsteps deserves credit. Palm Canyon’s uncredited Maria has the face of an angel … and later on, in her wedding dress, a va-va-voom Barbie Doll figure. Her glorious blonde hair is a ray of sunshine (and no, I do not say that because it is exactly my color), even if the braids are a little too fat to be believable. It is a daunting role, and a demanding role. Vocally, she started out singing sharp, and it took some time for her to regain her pitch—but what unfortunately didn’t change was her choice to sing behind the beat of her solos. This is OK for saloon and torch singers, but not for musical comedy. Still, she handled the emotional range fairly well, despite some overacting on the high-energy end.

The supporting roles were often played unevenly, with actors sometimes stiff, hesitant, unconvincing or unintelligible, and almost all of them needing more of that one ingredient that defines the Austrian persona: charm.

The Palm Canyon Theatre has a commitment to the community, and as such, it tries to include a variety of people in its productions. Double-casting is one way to get more people on the stage, and in this show, there is a “Blue” cast and a “Green” cast, so patrons visiting on different days may see different actors—and, hence, a different show. Director Steve Fisher handled these challenges admirably in the “Blue” version that we saw. With such a huge cast, logistics are invariably a nightmare, but they were performed fairly smoothly. Fisher uses every part of the theater for blocking, even pouring the cast down the staircases and through the audience.

The set, of course, is simply marvelous; J.W. Layne never disappoints. But what’s up with the sound? The Sound of Music became The Sound of Static far too often, with microphones cutting out, scraping against costumes, and sputtering—with one deafening attack of feedback. We’ve mentioned this problem before. Is it time to consider overhead microphones, or some other alternative? Instead of the hills being alive, here, they are too often dead. Someone has got to check the lighting, too—several scenes were ruined by shadows across the faces of the very actors who were singing or speaking. The technical aspect of theater must be nearly flawless, because unfortunately, everyone remembers only failures. Some special moments do deserve applause, such as the appearance of the uber-creepy swastika sweeping onstage.

By the way, the first act runs one hour and 45 minutes—so make sure your kidneys are advised. Mercifully, the von Trapp family speeds through the second-act plight in record time.

We must never forget that this show was written by Americans—often a surprise to those who think that “Edelweiss” is an olde European folk song. (As an aside: When I was an on-the-road musician, in another life, a sweet old drunk in Vancouver, British Columbia, frequently appeared in my lounge and demanded to hear that tune. While I sang it, he would lurch around the room and show everyone his actual dried edelweiss—the flower was pressed, preserved and displayed with his driver’s license. It’s impossible for me to hear that song and not think of him.) The words are thoughtfully printed in the program—to help you later with your earworm.

The Sound of Music is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 10; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11 and 12; and 2 and 7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123; or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance