CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Huzzah! The season has begun—and the only season that matters, of course, is the theater season—and it began with Rancho Mirage’s Desert Rose Playhouse, as usual.

Desert Rose’s season kickoff included a special event this year: the christening of the Phil Murphy and Robert McCracken Stage. You know these names; they’re the star supporters of DRP, and Phil has designed the lighting for the theater’s shows from the beginning in 2010. (They also own the cutest and most obedient theater puppy, a little darling who willingly attends every performance.) The theater’s founders, Paul Taylor and Jim Strait, held a special pre-show ceremony, praising Murphy and McCracken’s “matchless talents, generosity and friendship.” This kind of act gives a whole new meaning to “support for the arts,” because over the summer, the two donors financed, designed and built an entirely new lighting system for the theater. Inspirational. Congratulations, all!

So begins Desert Rose’s season as our area’s LGBT theater, this year to include five offerings. The first, Loot, by playwright Joe Orton, will run for five weekends. Director Jim Strait informed his packed house of first-nighters that the play had originally opened in England in 1966, where even the Brits were too shocked by it to let it live—despite the new freewheeling spirit in music, film and fashion. (Bell bottoms! Mini skirts! Carnaby Street!) Loot was revived several years later, when it became a huge hit.

Here’s the thing about British comedies: They’re like Beaujolais—they don’t always travel. For the life of me, I can’t understand why. I’m reminded of the experience of seeing a movie—also in 1966, in fact—in London, where I laughed so long and hard that tears poured down my face. Several months later, back in North America, the same film arrived in a theater, and I dragged a bunch of friends to see it, cautioning them not to hurt themselves from roaring with laughter. Everyone sat there pretty much stone-faced. WHY?? Who knows?

So for producer Paul Taylor to bring a play like Loot to American audiences is brave, indeed. Many aspects of the play need to be considered, not the least of which is what to do about the British accents. For Americans to understand the many dialects of England is not always easy, and we all know some people who would be lost without the subtitles while watching, for example, the addictive Downton Abbey on TV. Director Strait has chosen a safe and comprehensible “mid-Atlantic” accent, neither British nor American, for his actors. It means you can always perfectly understand them—but some of the comedy might be sacrificed without the hilarity or lilt of English speech.

It’s all about the choices, isn’t it? The posture. The timing. The comedic attitude. The costumes, by Mark Demry. The stage managing of Steve Fisher. The set design of Thomas L. Valach. And we’ve already mentioned Phil Murphy’s lighting, of course.

But the actors’ choices are most important of all. Wendy Cohen plays Faye, the only female in the cast, a chameleon-like character who constantly switches her relationships and her villainess/heroine attitude. (Confidentially, we wouldn’t weep if her first costume was replaced—it’s too large for her, and the color is just wrong.) Garnett Smith, the most physically comedic member of the cast, romps through his role as the bereaved husband, father and resident victim. Harold/Hal, his son, is played by Jason Hull, a terrific choice, since his body type is so like Garnett Smith’s that it makes their father-son relationship totally believable. Hal’s dangerous friend Dennis is played by Tim McGivney, and speaking of body types, he resembles Hal enough to make them seem like natural friends—great casting! Tom Warrick has the role of Truscott, a mysterious and bombastic creature who insists he’s from the Water Board, which hardly anyone believes, as we all watch him become progressively weirder. Meadows, played by Allen Jensen in his desert acting debut, is an offstage cop, about whom many references are made until, just when we think we’ll never see him, he appears at last!

Orton’s script is a talky one, full of the British Comedy Absolute Requirements of panic, lack of logic, misunderstandings, surprises, murky motivations, incessant entrances and exits with banging doors, contradictions, preposterous situations, plans going awry, shrieking, tears, cover-ups, absurdities, shifting alliances, reversals of fortune and general total outrageousness. The hardworking cast members have their hands full, because there’s a lot to master in this show, and that comedic timing is essential to making it work. They get more laughs in the second act (perhaps aided by an intermission during which we are bombarded with great ’60s music).

If anything, I’d like to see this cast give us more—bigger reactions, more expressive faces, wilder gestures and more extreme body work. I really hope they loosen up a bit, relax into their roles and enjoy the sheer fun of this brand of comedy. What would feel like overacting in America is routine style in England!

Like they say: A comedian is someone who says funny things, but a comic is one who says things funny. And this is a show made for comics—on either side of the Atlantic.

Loot is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 25, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

You might think a critic’s worst nightmare is seeing a show in which there is absolutely nothing to criticize. You’d be wrong.

Here I am, smiling, while writing to tell you about a musical revue you’ll love, because Vitamin Q at the Desert Rose Playhouse is a total joy.

It’s perfect summer fare, because it’s light and fun and pokes gentle, sly, affectionate humor at the gay community. It’s filled with clever lyrics, interesting melodies, terrific comedy and—yes—even dancing! The theater is deliciously cool and comfortable, unlike some establishments which freeze us out with violent, sniffle-inducing air conditioning, thinking they’re doing us some kind of favor by giving us cold fingers and running noses. In other words, you are in for a total treat at this show. Savvy producer Paul Taylor has scheduled Vitamin Q through the last weekend in July, so you can see it more than once.

Staged and directed by the uber-talented Jim Strait, who modestly doesn’t credit himself as the show’s creator, it’s written by Eric Lane Barnes. Taylor and Strait approached the playwright after the success of last season’s The Stops, and suggested a musical revue of Barnes’ work. Apparently the result was a deluge of Barnes’ material; Strait, along with musical director Steven Smith—another gifted workhorse—pored through it and picked out the numbers that created the resulting work. Although this production is not credited as an original or first-time event, you won’t see it anywhere else on the planet—another reason to see this show.

Costumer Mark Demry has evidently located the longest orange feather boa in the entire world, among other treats. The show also features the always-perfect lighting of Phil Murphy, and the flawless timing of stage manager Steve Fisher. Their work combines to add to the professionalism invariably found at DRP.

For this show, DRP has added the mastery of dancer-choreographer Randy Doney to create the afore-mentioned hoofing. Did you know that he directed Barry Manilow’s shows for 25 years? Plus, he worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus (which occupies a special place in my heart, as they once let me spend a whole day with their immortal Coco the Clown). Plus he performed in the Fabulous Palm Springs Follies for 15 seasons. Wow. Though I suspect none of the actors in this show are professional dancers, Doney has guided them through a creditable performance which includes moves from disco, Latin music, country-Western, polka—and even, to our astonishment, an all-cast tap routine!

Of course, in revue theater, casting is crucial. Well, casting is always crucial, but this form of theater demands talented characters with all the necessary skills (they each must be actors, comedians, singers, dancers and sometimes even models, and must LOOK like a group), but above all, they must contrast each other, and stand out as individuals. The same, but different. Not easy. Here, however, the sharp eyes of Jim Strait have selected a cast that achieves exactly that.

We meet them, all together, when the show bursts open with its theme song, “Vitamin Q,” whose meaning you have doubtless figured out already. We are immediately impressed with their amazing five-part harmonies and their heads-high energy. The remaining numbers are shrewdly chosen to provide maximum variety in all areas, to get the most out of every scenario.

There are several defining features of revue: a bare stage which can be anything in scene after scene, blackouts after every “bit,” a high-energy pace, wide musical contrasts between numbers, live music, quick changes and a running gag that occurs throughout. It happens to be my favorite form of theater. Revue steals shamelessly from vaudeville, improv theater and anybody else who isn’t looking. In this show, the running gag is “Tomorrow Never Comes,” in which each actor gets to do a send-up of a diva you’ll have little trouble recognizing.

The show romps through such numbers as “Pansies,” “Drama Queen,” “I Don’t Like Show Tunes,” “It’s All in Your Mind” and “Homomotion,” all of which provoke great hilarity, and then one beautiful ballad that will stick with you, “Save Your Sundays for Me,” which could be done even by straight singers. Contrast.

Onstage, we get to see new sides of some actors we’ve watched before. Timm McBride, with his lovely silvery hair and charming gravitas, gets to play everything from a doo-wap ’50s backup singer to a saloon singer on a stool. Terry Huber, with sleepy eyes, sophistication and a snake-slim figure, surprisingly appears as a snotty cowboy in “Garbage,” and frolics through several dance routines. Raul Valenzuela unleashes his rich powerful voice and considerable dance skills and then gets laughs just by appearing in a babushka or wearing inexplicable lime-green socks. Andrew Knifer demonstrates his exquisite diction and expressive face, and then pops our eyes with a wild falsetto in some songs. Jeffrey Norman stands out by wearing a goatee and glasses on stage and adds his solid baritone skills to complicated harmony vocals such as those in “Mr. Satan” (done in dazzling outrageous red choir gowns). Great group. They are accompanied by Steven Smith on piano.

They have all mined the maximum out of this marvelous material, and created an evening of fun, variety and delight. This is what revue should be, but its breeziness masks the huge amount of planning, skill-stretching challenges and just-plain-hard labor of creating such a show. It’s too easy for an audience to be swept away by the laughter, and forget how much effort goes into the second-by-second timing that a revue demands. But what a pleasure to see it done so right!

Kudos to everyone at Desert Rose Playhouse for Vitamin Q. You’ll leave feeling oxygenated from laughing—and as energized as if you had just taken your vitamins.

Vitamin Q is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 26, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Like the little dog, you’re going to laugh—and you’ll love it.

The Desert Rose Playhouse’s new comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, was written by Douglas Carter Beane. He’s not a household name, but perhaps he should be: He’s the genius who crafted the amazing screenplay for To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, in which the late Patrick Swayze rose to new heights of acting skill, playing virtually his entire role in drag and turning in one of the most amazing and finely tuned performances ever.

So you already know you’re in for a comedic experience that combines wit with situational comedy and a cast of unusual characters. This four-person play, perfectly cast and deftly directed by Jim Strait, deals with Hollywood’s legendary but real craziness—though it’s mostly set in New York. The lights come up on a surprisingly bare stage: a rainbow-hued curtain, one chair, two doors and a lone rubber-tree plant.

Enter Joey. Oh, Joey! Miss English, dressed in her signature red wardrobe and with her red hair and enormous centipede eyelashes, catapults us into the play with a sensational monologue. She plays Diane, a lesbian Hollywood agent, and a classic, she is—she’s a product of Rodeo Drive and beauty salons and the horrors of trying to earn a living on the fringes of showbiz. Any actress who complains about no great roles for ladies older than 40 has never met Joey English, because she consistently finds terrific characters, and she’s always busy. In Joey’s Diane, we see an extraordinary combination of brassiness covering vulnerability, bravado hiding terror, and sarcasm shielding damage. Even at her snarkiest and sharkiest, we sense Diane’s bandaged wounds. With her huge comedic gifts and an edgy voice, Joey brings the script’s terrific lines to life, and snaps out some of the funniest lines in the play. Tottering about on her uber-heels, with sequins flashing wildly in Phil Murphy’s lighting, she is perfectly cast in this role as The Powerful Mistress of Hype. She is totally convincing, as her embittered verbal ax falls on such innocent victims as Cobb salads. The first-night audience rewarded nearly every one of her scenes with applause.

And then, surprise! The stage transforms in an instant. A bed rolls out; the lighting shifts; and, pow, we’re in a New York hotel room. We meet the show’s two males—the amazingly consistent John Ferrare (has he ever flubbed a line?) as Mitchell Green, a sleek, California-tanned, rising movie star obsessed with his “image.” He contrasts in every way with Timothy Douglas, playing Alex (or Bryan), an attractive youngster sent over by an escort service. And we’re off to a confusing start, with the movie star being drunk, and the greedy rent boy unsure about what to do with him. As actors, both appear effortless in their easy, seemingly natural relating to each other … and both are impressively fearless about stripping off their clothes. (The banner on the play’s poster warns about nudity and adult situations, so don’t say we didn’t tell you. Maybe now would be a good time to toss in a language warning, too.) Mr. Movie Star is emotionally conflicted about whether or not he is gay … and, it turns out, the male prostitute is as well: Despite multiple sexual experiences daily, he doesn’t “feel” gay. OK …

In fact, Alex has a girlfriend. Say what? Meet Allison Feist as Ellen. She is perfect as a potty-mouthed, hormone-ridden, completely self-absorbed Young Person of Today. Weak Ellen’s best gift seems to be her ability to take remorseless advantage of other people, rather than find her own purpose in life. Her youthful appearance, in every way, provides a stunning contrast to Diane’s artificial glam. Ellen is adrift on life’s surface, and we both sympathize with her and find her amusing at the same time. She is crucial to the plot, so don’t write her off … despite her managing to use every single annoying bit of verbal teen-slang in existence (starring “like” and “you know.” Like … you know).

The dialogue weaves through secrets, lies, truths and retractions, combining trash talk with yearning sincerity, and punching out the caught-you-off-guard humor. (“It’s like a relationship, only it’s enjoyable.”) The script mixes irony with real fears like the terror of being alone or having to fight for your own freedom. We are frequently told that “Diane solves problems,” and as the conflicts and confusion accrue, the characters turn to the agent for solutions. I won’t give away the wonderful twist at the end of the play, though I’ll promise that the writing is utterly masterful, and the resolution is a never-saw-that-coming surprise.

Kudos to the Desert Rose support team who made such a success of this play. We’ve already mentioned the mega-talented director, Jim Strait, whose flawless sense of timing, crystal-clear insights into the characters and lovely sense of stage balance all combine to make this play a delight. Turns out Strait is in charge of the scenery and the sound, too. His husband, Paul Taylor, is the play’s producer, and a steady hand on the wheel, he always is. Phil Murphy’s lighting is, of course, gorgeous; is there anything more fun than a disco ball? Mark Demry’s costumes are most excellent. (Well, there was a briefly hilarious entanglement with a tie belt on a robe.) And Steve Fisher’s stage managing is smooth and sweet, as usual.

It’s the contrasts that make this play brilliant—the playwright’s insights, the director’s right-on choices and the actors’ thoughtful explorations of their roles. New York versus California. Youth versus older. Shrewd versus naïve. Successful versus struggling. Focused versus confused. The multi-faceted result is hugely satisfying, and you will leave the theater smiling.

You’ll laugh … and you’ll love it.

The Little Dog Laughed is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 17, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Chuck Yates and his Coyote Stageworks are back!

They have a great new show, Buyer and Cellar, with a spectacular new script, in a gorgeous new venue—the theater at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center. Coyote Stageworks completely dominated the win list in last season’s Desert Theatre League awards, leaving all the rest of us coughing in his dust. When Coyote Stageworks suddenly found itself homeless at the end of last season, it made for a surreal contrast.

Thank goodness Yates landed on his feet.

Jonathan Tolins is the author of Buyer and Cellar, which was named “Best Unique Theatrical Experience” by the Off-Broadway Alliance. However, this information did not prepare me for the surprise of this play. None of the publicity gave away what we were about to see, either. Chuck Yates mentioned to me that although Tolins’ play is now running in New York, and will open soon in San Diego and Los Angeles, our little Coyote Stageworks is the second place to acquire the rights in the country.

Turns out Buyer and Cellar is a one-man show. The actor, Emerson Collins, currently appears as one of the stars of Bravo’s The People's Couch. His extensive history with the infamous Del Shores is beyond interesting; Collins played Max in Sordid Lives: The Series and appeared in Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, plus he produced Shores’ play Yellow, and then directed AND produced DVD live tapings of Shores’ one-man shows. His credits go on and on.

It’s hard for me to keep quiet about the subject of this play; part of the fun is the surprise you’ll get, and I only hope other critics will not give away the topic. Let’s just say that Emerson Collins plays all the parts, including the female characters, and that the play is about an American “megastar” of stage, film and recordings. It was even more interesting to me because I just happen to be reading a book about this very megastar’s early years and influences. Go figure.

Collins starts off playing the role of Alex More, a luckless actor forced to seek other employment when he loses his job in Anaheim at The World’s Happiest Place, as a result of an indiscretion at work. Maybe this would be the time for me to slip in a small language warning—frankly, it’s hardly worth bothering with, and it’s used more for humor than shock. Alex comes out of the closet early in the show, and we soon get to meet his new boyfriend, Barry—also played by Collins, of course. The humor is often Southern California stuff, like cracks about “the 405” and Malibu, so the denizens of our area might find even more to appreciate than, say, a New York audience. We watch Alex go off to apply for a new job, which brings him into contact with more new characters, all played by Collins. It is an extraordinary job, which he gets. And so it starts.

Collins immediately grabs the audience and never lets us go. He keeps everyone on the edge of their seats with his rapid-fire delivery, instantly morphing from character to character—with no props, wigs or costume changes, do you mind. For almost two hours, without intermission, he bounces, slides, flops, struts, flirts, sashays and even dances. Every character has its own voice. The laughs are so original and surprising that the first-night audience broke into spontaneous applause three times—and this does not include his lengthy standing ovation at the end. The sole criticism I could offer is that he dropped his voice on the last words of a punchline a couple of times, so we didn’t get the joke. The other 99.9 percent is flawless.

How much of the performance was Emerson Collins, and how much credit belongs to director Larry Raben? Impossible to tell, as always, but both deserve the very highest praise for the results.

The brilliance is breathtaking. We have no sense of time going by, which speaks not only to the comfortable seats of the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center theater, but also to the brisk pacing, the wonderfully fluid writing, and the astounding memorization challenge of what is basically a two-hour monologue on an almost-bare stage: It’s dressed with only one armchair and one coffee table. Collins changes the scenes by changing the angles of the “furniture.” We should mention there’s some help from back-lit upstage panels which display sketches, too. The props consist of one book—everything else, he mimes. Emerson has a masterful command of facial expressions, amazing body language and—so rare for many actors—a fantastic use of gestures. Like in hula, his hands tell the story. It’s fun; it’s fascinating; it’s overwhelming to watch him work.

Yates, when asked about the new 600-seat Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, which is now Coyote Stageworks’ home, responded by enthusiastically praising the high school students who volunteered their time and effort to run the lobby and box office during their spring break to make this show a success. Throughout the year, he gives them the chance to learn from him. What an opportunity for these kids! The young lady who showed us to our seats admitted to being a junior, and hopes to spend her life in theater. Good luck!

By the way: Other attendees joined me in experiencing brief panic while trying to find the new Galen Theater. It’s so new that our GPS (we named her Amelia Earhart) hasn’t yet heard of the place! It’s north of Ramon Road, between Bob Hope and Duvall drives, at Rancho Mirage High School. Look for the traffic lights at Rattler Road.

Do find it. Not only is it the newest, cleanest theater around; it’s home at last for Coyote Stageworks and Chuck Yates. Huzzah!

Coyote Stageworks’ Buyer and Cellar is performed at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 5, at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, 31001 Rattler Road, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $45 to $60. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-6482, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

A Handful of Nickels and Dimes opened on Friday, Feb. 20, at the Indio Performing Arts Center to a sold-out house of appreciative vaudeville fans.

The attendees were mostly (very lively!) seniors, but this show would provide an education to any age group, as it deconstructs this fascinating segment of theatrical history, and analyzes the reasons for its success and eventual demise. The cast demonstrates the varied elements that created the wonder of vaudeville from the late 1800s through to the start of World War II.

The cast is equally varied. Musician/songstress Yve Evans leads the show, joined by magician Dean Apple, emcee and vocalist Justin Blake, wide-eyed blonde bombshell Cat Lyn Day, comedian Stephen Kauffman, and Jeanette Knight in dazzling assortment of roles from chorus girl to comedienne; similarly, Michael Seneca plays everything from a baggy-pants comic to a bratty schoolboy.

It’s all about timing. Vaudeville, of course, combines everything from the world’s corniest jokes to the split-second mastery of songs, dances, sketches and—most perilous of all—blackouts. In this show, we see samples of it all … and most of it works. The program gives credit to no director, and this might explain some of the less-than-snappy entrances and exits, things a sharp-eyed director would tighten.

The set resembles a rehearsal hall of some sort, with Evans and her piano (AND microphone AND sound system, which the rest of the cast unfortunately lacked) tucked in at stage left. The uneven sound shows up when Evans teams up with Blake on numbers such as “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” The pro that she is, Evans shares her mic.

The rest of the time, we sit back in contented bliss as we admire Evans’ exquisite professionalism on such numbers as “Handyman,” “Second Hand Rose” and “Skylark.” She backphrases as well as anybody—she’s so in control of her music that although we might quietly panic while she toys with the notes, stretching and delaying, she always comes out exactly on the beat, letting us breathe again and smile in delight. Her prowess on the piano is just magnificent, and her vocal range has never been greater. She’s a perfect example of how experience pays off in performance; young singers would do well to take advantage of this opportunity to learn from her. She whisks us through tributes to Bessie Smith, Fanny Brice and the black entertainers of that day—and she flashes some priceless facial expressions when she turns to comedy.

Justin Blake provides the intellectual gravitas of the show, leading us through interesting explanations of how vaudeville managed to collect such variety as Burns and Allen’s wit, the baggy-pants comics’ outrageous silliness, and the specialty acts—and how vaudeville all ties in with burlesque, musical-comedy revues and extravaganzas like the Ziegfeld Follies. He performs parts of Will Rogers’ routines—but not the rope-twirling, alas. He manages to combine the educational portion with his own personal warmth and charm, so it works.

Dean Apple is the bright light of the show. We don’t see him and his magic until Act 2, when he manages to be not only very funny, but fresh and original. In his homage to Houdini, he uses audience participation to keep us on the edge of our seats while he struggles hilariously with his handcuffs. He pulls a rabbit out of a hat. He does card tricks. But what makes him special is his boyish charm and his unique ability to laugh at himself along with the rest of us—most unusual in a magician! Apple is refreshing and delightful.

Cat Lyn Day adds an exotic hint of the burlesque, like those girls who added spice and sex to the mix. Blonde and leggy, she romps through sketches and skits, adding flair and color everywhere.

Stephen Kauffman takes the business of comedy seriously. He appears in a wide variety of roles and seems comfortable in each one, ranging in style from baggy-pants comic to slick comedian with ease.

Jeanette Knight is known for being able to tackle anything, as she does here, playing everything from a star radio comedienne to a school kid. She switches between roles with aplomb—gaining the respect of the audience and, you can bet, of her fellow actors as well.

Her real-life husband, Patrick, is billed here as Michael Seneca, and he handles more roles than anyone—or so it seems, making lightning-fast changes between outrageous costumes and attitudes. Fearless about appearing silly, he is a breath of fresh air.

I wish the show had more blackout sketches. They are discussed, and there are a couple of them, but they are best demonstrated rather than talked about. “Blackouts,” of course, still exist in theater, but not like they were used in vaudeville, which introduced the audience to freeze-dried comedy, performed often in front of a curtain with no help from set changes or costumes or any kind of setup. These are often hugely effective and usually hilarious jabs, often “running gags” which become funnier every time because of the repetition.

While vaudeville faded away, overwhelmed by the innovations of radio and then TV, we should not let it stay forgotten. Shows like this are historically important, whether for reminiscence in those who actually still remember them, or to introduce vaudeville to those who’ve never been exposed to it. A Handful of Nickels and Dimes examines America back in the day, and we’re glad for it.

There’s a warning in the program about the double-entendres that abound through the evening. As Yve Evans says, “It helps if you have a dirty mind.” These double-entendres were part of the genre, but for some, this might be a consideration when deciding to bring other people to IPAC to see this show. But then so are the awful groaner jokes—and nobody seemed to mind them. (Well, we didn’t mind them much. The pain is brief.)

There are many reasons for you to see this show, but most of all, you should see it because you’ll learn something about the amazing world of vaudeville—and you’ll have fun while learning it.

A Handful of Nickels and Dimes is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., Indio. There are no shows March 6-8. Tickets are $26 with discounts. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5200, or visit www.indioperformingartscenter.org.

Beautiful. They are just … beautiful.

At Coachella Valley Repertory’s first performance of Having Our Say, the gentle Delany Sisters stole our hearts. (With CV Rep’s permission, the Independent reviewed the first preview performance, rather than the opening-night show, so the review could make our February print deadline.) These two ladies charmed the packed house from their first words. Their stories and memories will make you laugh often, and you’ll find yourself misty-eyed at least once or twice.

The actresses are H. Chris Brown, playing 101-year-old Dr. Bessie Delany, and Regina Randolph, playing her 103-year-old sister, Miss Sadie Delany. Both give magnificently multilayered performances that fascinate and delight. Oh—and don’t call them “black” or even “African American.” They tell us they prefer “Negro” or “colored.” Interesting, eh?

We knew going in that words like “action-packed” or “a dizzying ride” were not going to be part of this play’s review. However, what we weren’t expecting was to be so completely enchanted by the Delany girls. In fact, having seen what the years can do to some people, the prospect of a play featuring two centenarians could be a little scary. But from the start, we meet two ladies who are—although a wee bit slow-moving, perhaps—articulate, thoughtful, intelligent and dignified, with lovely senses of humor and slices of life worth talking about.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty in Emily Mann’s script to make us squirm uncomfortably: mentions of Jim Crow laws, racial prejudice, lynchings and the fact that their father was actually born into slavery. But director Ron Celona has shrewdly juxtaposed the stark black-and-white historical photographs, shown on a flat screen disguised as a painting, against the colorful, three-part set of the Delanys’ wallpapered living room, dining room and warm kitchen.

The book Having Our Say, which the real Delany sisters wrote, was published in 1993, and this play is set in that same year. Do you expect to reach the age of 100? Well, these gals give you their recipe for longevity! Coming from a family of 10 children, the sisters think a lot about their parents and siblings. They speak, in their musical Southern accents, with inherent wisdom, discussing music, sex, values, men, education, taxes, entertainers, how they became professional career women, and survival against all odds. They talk about the special sense of humor of oppressed people. They talk about turning 100. (“The worst day of my life!” declares one of them.) They tell the truth about what it’s like to be, in their words, Negro.

Imagine actually knowing someone, living with someone, for 100 years. The Delanys show us what it’s like—and that alone would be fascinating. But the 20th century was quite interesting, and we get to see it from their point of view. What was their part in protest movements? How did their strong faith hold up in tough times? Why was higher education so important to them? I wonder what they’d think of the 21st century so far!

These graceful performances, developed under Celona’s steady and confident hand, will stay in your heart. This kind of audience engagement is the touchstone of professionalism and experience.

CV Rep’s technical-team members all lend their considerable talents to the mix: stage manager Karen Goodwin, set designer Jimmy Cuomo, costume designer Aalsa Lee, lights by Eddie Cancel, sound by Randy Hansen, props by Doug Morris, and superstar Lynda Shaeps creating the excellent makeup and hair. Everything works, so you can sit back, relax and let the magic happen.

And magic does happen. In a two-person play, with sisters yet, we need to see both the many similarities and the differences between these ladies; I won’t give away what those are. A lot of thought has gone into these performances, and the payoff is the audience’s spontaneous reactions of both hearty laughter and tears of empathy. It’s one thing to make us believe intellectually, with our heads, but entirely another to provoke our emotional responses, in our souls. When a terrific script, surefire direction and lovely performances all come together, as they do here, we fly away to another time and place … and in this case, land in the laps of the sweet Delany sisters.

When I asked actor Gavin MacLeod what he thought of the show, he smiled and said, “I want to take them home with me!”

The play runs through Feb. 8, and is dangerously close to selling out, so get your tickets ASAP. You don’t want to miss this show. Because it’s … just beautiful.

Having Our Say is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at Coachella Valley Repertory, at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. The show runs two hours, with two intermissions, and tickets are $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

We’re confused—not because we’re Lost in Yonkers, but because of all the questions that are raised by this production of this show.

Have we come to expect too much from Desert Theatreworks? Has the quality of its other productions led us to anticipate an impossible-to-achieve consistency? With all the projects DTW has going, has the company spread itself too thin to give sufficient time and effort to this show? While there are laughs aplenty in this play, they’re due to Neil Simon’s deft scriptwriting—not because of what we see happening on the stage of the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre.

The most egregious problems suggest a lack of steady leadership. Somebody took their eyes off the road here. Example: It’s hard for actors, affecting an accent, to hear themselves clearly, especially if they’re simultaneously worrying about lines/timing/blocking/orientation. They need somebody else’s keen ears to catch them if they wander off. The actors here were all over the place with their mishmash of accents, and the results fluctuated from no dialect at all to downright mispronunciations.

Another example: There were several blocking mistakes, which placed some actors downstage close to the audience—completely masking the action happening upstage. This is not the kind of error we would expect at this theater.

Want me to go on? How about the grandmother’s wig, which was so obviously false and misfit and wrong that it actually distracted us from her acting? Or what about Gert’s breathing problems? They were funny the first couple of times, but then she changed the effect and totally overdid it—causing the audience to stop laughing. How about the father, Eddie, reading his own letters aloud, while he holds the paper up so high that you can barely see his forehead? Why is Louis’ jacket bunched all funny in the front when it’s buttoned—did they just hope we wouldn’t notice? Should I mention doors that stick nearly every time—except for one that slowly swung open by itself during someone’s speech? How could this happen?

It makes me feel terrible to point these things out, as I have consistently lauded the work at this theater for its originality and solid old-school creativity. But something has gone wrong here—not that you won’t enjoy the wit and wisdom of Neil Simon’s play, and revel in his magnificently crafted humor. Setup! Punch line! Roar with laughter!

Lost in Yonkers takes place during World War II. The widowed father of two young boys (supposedly 13 and 15, but neither looks it … we might have believed 9 and 11) drops them off at his mother’s home above her confectionary store in Yonkers, so he can take advantage of a wartime work opportunity involving many months of travel. The grandmother is a German refugee and mother of six. The boys’ observations and comments about their new situation are wonderful, with their “out of the mouths of babes” insight.

The grandmother, a hard case played by June August, has the most fabulous face, tragically overshadowed by the already mentioned weird silver wig. Her remaining children—the kids’ aunts and uncle—who were raised under her rigid and severe hand, lead lives that show their reactions to her steely and uncompromising discipline. Aunt Bella, a difficult role performed by Daniela Ryan, is a multilayered young lady full of secrets who displays serious problems with reality. Aunt Gert, played by Adina Lawson—wearing yet another ghastly copper-colored hairpiece mistake—has developed breathing problems due to the stress. Uncle Louis, played by Stephen Blackwell, has defected to a freewheeling lifestyle in a world of gangsters, breezily choosing to ignore his former life—until he requires a handy hideout from his nefarious companions. Eddie, the boys’ father, portrayed by Gregg Aratin, comes off as a broken man, overwhelmed by his responsibilities and terrified of his mother, yet determined to set things right and get out of debt. Alas, his performance was robotic.

Of course, it’s the kids who get the very best lines, and Cameron Keys, as Jay—or Yakob, as their grandmother insists on calling him—the older brother, is a pleasant surprise. Because he doesn’t wear makeup, we watch his fine-skinned face go bright-red under the influence of anger or indignation or protest, an astonishing experience. His kid brother, the big-eyed Angus Feath as Arty or Arthur, shows a poise and composure far beyond his years, and indicates a tremendous promise for the future. This young man has a gift for comedy and is definitely one to watch.

So what happened here? Perhaps the play just simply wasn’t ready. When the actors all spoke their lines, they seemed to miss the deep conviction of a finished product, and lacked the thoughtfulness of a stage-ready performance. Every actor has to remember the words, the blocking, the plots, but it’s entirely another experience to bring to the play the convincing portrayal, the passion, the commitment, the sincerity of a performance that will move the audience not just to laughter, but a whole range of emotions. They call it “polishing,” and this show simply lacked polish.

If we are not honest about the things that are wrong in our fantastic local theater community, then our praise will mean nothing, either. And that leaves us not just Lost in Yonkers … but really confused.

Lost in Yonkers, a production of Desert Theatreworks, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 25, at the Arthur Newman Theatre at the Joslyn Center, located at 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

“Don’t sit in the front row!” director Jim Strait warned me before the show. So, of course, that’s exactly where I sat.

I thought he was maybe trying to protect me from too much, um, in-your-face nudity, which is a key part of Love! Valour! Compassion!, now at the Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage. Instead, the issue is that thanks to a cast of seven actors, smart blocking and the ingenious use of the small space’s set design, every square inch of the area is used—including the floor between the audience’s shoes and the first riser. Many times, those of us in the first row needed to quickly tuck our feet under our chairs as actors moved right by us. But it was a pleasure to help out in any small way.

The play is this year’s “Gay Heritage Production”: Desert Rose annually schedules a key play from gay theatrical history, and this, written by the amazing Terrence McNally, won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1995. (It was also made into a film in 1997.) It is set in 1994, at a country house in upstate New York, over three weekends, each of which is featured in its own act: Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor Day.

Beyond the front-row warning, the nudity warning and perhaps a “language” warning, you should know this: The play lasts more than three hours. Yes! But don’t think you’ll squirm and fuss: The show is fascinating, and you’ll be glued to your seat. You’ll get to watch seven men (eight, actually—more about that later) live their lives and react to each other and grow … or not. Is there anything better?

The tech side, as always at Desert Rose Playhouse, is wonderful, with lighting by the gifted Phil Murphy, stage-managing by the eagle-eyed Steve Fisher, and costumes by Tom Valach—yes, there are costumes; the boys are not running around in their pelts the whole time. A couple of the sound cues could be re-thought, perhaps, and the splash effects could use some tinkering, but otherwise, the work is most excellent.

With seven or eight characters, a mob scene of confusion could result if casting choices were poor. However, producer Paul Taylor cleverly chose actors who have such distinctive and strong individual personalities that once we paste the name onto the face of each role, the characters stand out as clearly and unforgettably as your own friends. How he managed to do that—plus find this number of guys who were willing to take their clothes off in front of a room full of strangers—we can’t imagine.

Gregory is a successful choreographer who has invited friends to his idyllic country home (including a pond or lake perfect for skinny-dipping) for the long weekend. They know each other in different ways, professionally or personally. His partner is Bobby, the sweetest and most spiritual guy ever, who is also blind. Perry and Arthur, a 14-year-married couple—it’s never explained how they pulled that off so long before the beginning of legalization of gay marriage—are a lawyer and an accountant, respectively. To all appearances, they are living comfortably in the straight world. Sharply contrasting this, Buzz is an over-the-top, outrageous and flamboyant character who lives for Broadway musical comedies, of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge. John is a failed playwright, British and bitter—and he brings the snake into this Eden, a dangerously beautiful Puerto Rican dancer named Ramon. We get to sit back and watch the relationships, the feelings, the friendships of them all.

In the second act, we meet a surprise: John has an identical twin brother, James, who joins the group. Voila! There’s the eighth character we told you about. He is brilliantly played by the same actor (Terry Huber), switching back and forth with sometimes lightning-fast costume changes and attitudes. James is uptight John’s polar opposite; his personality is completely different—sunny and funny. He arrives because of the silent unspoken cloud hanging over everyone back in 1995—AIDS … which he has.

Every one of the actors must be lauded for learning these lines, which director Strait has timed magnificently—telescoping some, and using time-stopping pauses with the alacrity of a matador. This is not a project for the faint of heart, or memory. Over the three hours, someone is talking for about two hours and 55 minutes. But it’s the emotions you’ll remember, and the story of each person’s life—their struggles and triumphs and fears and joys.

Gregory is played by John Ferrare, the perfect leader of the group—he has a lovely presence with natural leadership. His frustration with his creative blockage is utterly believable—it’s eating away at him while he suppresses his fears and hopes it will magically go away. His partner, Bobby, is Jason Hull, fragile, warm, sensitive and alarmingly vulnerable—prey in every way. Mark Demry plays Arthur the accountant, and is totally convincing as a blithe but buttoned-down, successful, toeing-the-line gentleman. His partner, Perry, played by J. Stegar Thompson, is the lawyer—experiencing the feelings for both of them, and way more connected to everyone. He carries deep hurts and rails at the world over injustices and bad drivers. Buzz, impressively acted by Kam Sisco, gets a lot of the laughs, with his flighty effervescence and cute attempts to imitate the queens of Broadway like Gwen Verdon, whom he adores—yet his is the greatest arc, as he changes completely in Act 3, when we see his courage beneath the fluff. Richie Sandino is Ramon, the youthful Latino glamour boy who stirs up everything. He manages to achieve something rare and difficult for an actor: Most performers want to be loved and admired, and Ramon inspires neither in us. Impressive.

But Terry Huber is the standout, so smoothly playing the dual roles of John and James. Not only is the physical achievement of playing two parts impressive; it’s amazing to witness the instant psychological changes between them created with minimal costuming, achieved primarily by body language, attitude and voice. What an accomplishment! He has the most lines, with a couple of huge monologues delivered by each twin. Huber’s split-second changes between the uptight, sour, scary John and the adorable, bright, joyous James will leave you awestruck.

The writing, of course, is brilliant—McNally sets out to startle us. But the most shocking moment of the play comes not from the nudity or language at all, but when one character spits in another’s face.

This play runs for five weeks. Don’t miss it.

Love! Valour! Compassion! is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, located at 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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.

To be honest, I was dreading it.

Even though the Indio Performing Arts Center is the most comfortable theater in town (the angle of the rake for the audience area guarantees that every cushy seat gives perfect visibility; it has lots of leg room; and there are cup-holders like at the movies!), the ghastly fact is this: Neil Simon’s comedy The Odd Couple just doesn’t hold up in today’s world. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, his kooky characters and their navel-gazing were fresh, original and fun (despite their smoking, ewww). Frankly, I hadn’t realized how much comedy had changed with the times until we tried to watch reruns of Laugh-In a couple of years ago, and we all sat staring stone-faced and unamused instead of rolling on the floor and shrieking like we did back in the day. Many attempts to re-do Neil Simon’s work, some even with major stars, have bombed horribly in today’s world, because of those changes in comedy since this play opened in 1965.

But the Palm Desert Stage Company comes through!

Cozy in their new home at IPAC, Colleen Kelley’s troupe is directed by the uber-talented Jeanette Knight (one of the calmest directors you could ever work with) and gives us a delightful version of The Odd Couple that never wanes in its energy or quality. Did they tinker with the script? Who knows or cares? This production of the show works.

Of course, the first problem they faced was erasing the audience’s memories of the film version with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, two genius comic actors with an enormous arsenal of techniques that made their movie unforgettable. But this production comes through, again, with their clever casting choices. Lou Galvan as Oscar Madison, and Matthew Shaker as Felix Ungar, look and behave nothing like Matthau and Lemon, and therein lies the secret of this success. Where Matthau was a slob and a sloth, Galvan is an intense mess who’s too high-energy to bother taking care of his surroundings (and a sports writer to add to the problem). Where Lemmon was an obsessive and whiny little wreck, Shaker is totally sympathetic as a just-dumped husband and father desperately trying to put his life in order by organizing the environment around him to hopefully stave off his falling apart within.

These two actors beautifully contrast each other. Their physical appearances, first of all—the result of clever casting—instantly put the “odd” in the title. But as actors, they go beyond that, to shrewdly create gestures and moves different from each other. Watch the way they use their eyes. Watch Shaker sniff. Watch Galvan throw a tantrum of frustration. Even though their relationship is at odds, they each create a perfect marriage of technique and method acting. Bravo!

Though it’s basically a two-person play, the fun is multiplied by the supporting actors. The poker players, from the start of the first scene, make us wish they had way more lines, because each performance here is fully imagined. Peter Mins, as the accountant Roy, is delightful as an observer of the human condition who has learned to keep his mouth shut. Vinnie, played by Charles Williams Gaines, is great as the guy who is everybody’s friend. Alan Berry plays Speed (a nickname which is never explained, alas), a bright light who is focused and serious about everything from poker to being a Manhattanite. And the ever-versatile and brilliant Ron Young is Murray the Cop, whose tough New York street-smarts contrast with his ham-fisted card -ealing and his insatiable appetite for comfort food.

But the girls! You can’t take your eyes off them, and not just because The Pigeon Sisters are so pretty and brightly dressed in contrast to the men. Debbie Apple as Cecily, and Colleen Kelley as Gwendolyn (names clearly stolen from Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest) are delicious and fluttery and sweet and colorful; these two fine actresses could actually pass as sisters. They have worked hard on subtleties such as their head movements and their matching smiles. Of course, their similarity sharply contrasts the differences between Oscar and Felix. Their performances include an underlying layer of predatory yet breezy sexuality that makes them a little dangerous. Their British accents are perfect choices. We can’t get enough of them. If they appeared for the first time in today’s world, they’d have their own TV show immediately.

The set and costumes and props—all created by Colleen Kelley (with help from efficient Nick Cox and John Meyers)—give vague references to the ’60s, but without making the production “dated.” It’s a perfect balance to the acting styles, and the result is a comfortably universal feeling that doesn’t scream “period piece,” despite some excellent touches in the Madison apartment’s décor, like that clock.

Hard-working Colleen Kelley’s relentless promotion resulted in a truly packed house on Saturday, without a single seat left available. (Technically, this creates an interesting experience known as “polarization,” which causes the audience to react as one unit. It rarely happens in a scattered crowd. It’s what every producer of a comedy prays for, because each laugh’s timing and duration become identical, like a bullfight crowd’s “ole.”) This audience roared at the comedy—and Neil Simon held up just fine, thank heavens.

If you can get a ticket, you’ll be grateful. We’re already wondering if they will extend the run so everyone can get to see this play at IPAC, and maybe finally overcome their strange doubts about theater in Indio. It’s a showplace to love arguably Neil Simon’s best work ever, and a totally enjoyable experience as presented here. Just see it.

The Odd Couple, a presentation of Palm Desert Stage, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday. Nov. 23, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $28, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.