CVIndependent

Mon06242019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

What can you say about a Terrence McNally play? You know before you enter the theater that he’s waiting to spring a surprise on you. But truthfully … this time, I didn’t think it would happen.

The story is about “two middle-aged ladies who travel to India.” OK … that doesn’t sound very exciting. But then again, I have friends who travelled to India and were so traumatized by the experience that they still can’t talk about what happened to them there. So was this play going to be about something like tourist muggings or pickpockets? Not everybody’s cup of oolong!

I got to Coachella Valley Repertory early for the Wednesday preview (the folks there graciously agreed to let us review the first preview show so we could get this piece into the February print edition); I wanted to study the program. Inserted between the pages was a drawing of Ganesh or Ganesha (either is acceptable—I looked it up) with a microscopic-print explanation of the “symbolism of Ganesha.” It’s worth reading; it describes everything from his trident to his fruit basket to his busted tusk. During this preshow, the audience is treated to an endless earful of sitar music, which will either completely jangle your nerves or transport you off to imaginary India.

The set is basic East Indian. The characters are transported from one venue to another by portaging bits and props that symbolically change the locales between scenes. The lights come up on the Elephant God Ganesha himself, half-naked and wearing an elaborate elephant head … which, alas, creates a muffling effect. The actor, Mueen Jahan, enunciates carefully and speaks as loudly and clearly as he can, but the trunk cuts his vocal projection drastically, and imparts a hollow sound. It’s a conundrum: How do you design a mask of an elephant, trunk and all, but not cover the mouth of the actor behind it? This problem resonated through the whole play, as the actor switched from role to role, wearing the elephant mask throughout. It brings us to a question for our brave director, Ron Celona: Did Jahan need to continue wearing the mask even when he wasn’t playing Ganesh? If playwright McNally demanded it, then Celona’s off the hook. Otherwise, couldn’t Jahan remove the mask while playing those other parts, as well as changing his costume, dialect and vocal quality, as he does?

Sean Galuszka plays so many roles that we lost count. We see him switch effortlessly from a gay flight attendant to an Untouchable Indian beggar to a Dutch tourist to a blood-spattered accident victim/ghost to a suave ballroom dancer, and on and on. He owns each role beautifully, and gets to show off his repertoire of voices, accents and looks. This is a superb opportunity for any actor to strut his stuff, and Galuszka, the only non-Equity cast member, gobbles it up; it’s delightful to see the actor’s craft on display.

Then we meet the ladies. Margaret, with her amazing red hair and fine features, is played by Sharon Sharth. She appears at the airport at the beginning of the show, snarking and whining and trying to assert herself. We get to watch her grow in this play (playwrights call it “arc,” the loveliest word) as she reveals bits and pieces of her past, and we slowly begin to understand the backstories that made her the way she is—but she starts out as a control freak and your textbook American tourist from hell. Why?

Katherine, or Kitty, is played by Kathleen M. Darcy, a gentle brunette. She brings too much luggage, tries to ingratiate herself in India by using her few words of Spanish (implying that all foreign countries are basically just one Non-United States), and generally drives Margaret crazy. Yet she is the one who eventually launches the quest for “the perfect Ganesh,” and as we learn about the other side of her seemingly golden life, we grow in respect and sympathy for her. Arc, here, too.

The crucially important thing to remember is this: A Perfect Ganesh is set in 1992. Think about it. Where were you; what were you doing; what was happening then? That’s the whole key to this play. It was pre-political correctness, so it was open-season on minorities in some places. AIDS was stalking us. Life was dangerously different. That’s how McNally gets us: The shock of the contrast to today’s life.

Oh, sure, there are laughs in the script—McNally loves to be downright silly sometimes—but the universal themes that emerge are the real stars of this work. Meanwhile, the actors are so hard-working! These lines are bears. The writing is very cerebral, and the audiences will respond to the ideas rather than the emotion. Don’t look for a lot of action, if that’s your cup of Darjeeling.

On this preview night, there were stumbles; for example, a phone rang after being picked up, and a picture came down, but that’ll be instantly fixed by the time the show emerges from previews.

Once again, Terrence McNally sets out to surprise us, to make us remember, to think. That is the real reason for the play, whether or not that’s your cup of chai.

And, as always, he succeeds, as does CV Rep.

A Perfect Ganesh is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9; at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. $40 regular; $35 preview on Thursday, Jan. 23; $50 opening night on Friday, Jan. 24. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Married Alive! brings to the Desert Theatreworks stage one of the wittiest revue scripts you’ll ever encounter. The contemporary work examines the institution of marriage from the perspective of both long-timers and newlyweds. Rich though this topic may be, it is not to be mined by the faint of heart.

Author Sean Grennan has combined his dialogue and lyrics (the music, by Leah Okimoto, is nothing you’ll remember afterward, but it’s serviceable) to create a play that gives the audience laughs ranging from chortles to guffaws. Don’t be surprised if those laughs are sprinkled with one or two tears.

The style is vaudeville-like, with lighting blackouts between sketches and songs. Those blackouts, of course, are one of the most defining characteristics of a revue (along with running gags). Co-directed by the seasoned Lance Phillips-Martinez and newbie Ron Phillips-Martinez (he’s making his directorial debut), the pace is varied, as a revue must be for maximum impact. The set is stark (some revues use no sets at all) and recalls the Laugh-In set, with windows that pop open to reveal disembodied heads spouting one-liners. Of course, there is no actual story to this kind of show, but themes abound. As for those themes: Think of your own life, and how your opinions about relationships have changed through the years.

The opening number plunges us into a delicious satire about weddings and their clichés. We meet the whole cast at once in a number called “Suddenly/Stupidly in Love.” The young bride is Erin, played by Briana Taylor, a silky blonde with a lot of confidence, as revealed by some of her costume choices. Her groom is Paul, played by William Fernandez Jr., whose amazing comedic talents and timing will serve him well in the promising career before him. Karen Schmitt, a tiny, feisty dynamo playing the older Diane, attends the wedding with her longtime spouse, Ron, played by Lance Phillips-Martinez himself, a tall sophisticate who somehow manages to be world-weary and lively at the same time. The wedding officiant is Corbett Brattin (listed as “The Observer”), who slides in and out of scenes, providing links and transitions. He’s his usual solid self as he offers additions of subtle comedy.

As for the singing voices: The show features superb harmonies, and not a bum note in the lot. However, both ladies would do well to stick with chest tones rather than wandering off into operatic head tones—they’re not good for revue theater, anyway, and they’re fraught with dangerous weakness and possible lack of control. Speaking of sound: There were a couple of moments when the musical accompaniment was a little too loud, but mostly it was just fine. It’s always tricky working with soundtracks.

A couple of microphones stood at the front of the stage, and it was impossible to tell whether they were even turned on, because the sound carried with no added resonance or reverb (a singer’s best friend). The downside: The audience didn’t catch some dropped last words—or even whole phrases—delivered when the actors’ faces were turned away from the audience, or spoken too quietly, or maybe (horrors!) mumbled. Every word counts! (Let every actor write this phrase on his mirror so he sees it 18 times a day! I’m going to keep spanking the culprits until every word of every show in town is intelligible!) That said, there were some excellent examples of lovely diction in other scenes.

What really stands out in this show are the actors’ faces. Kudos in particular go to Schmitt (those eyes!) and Fernandez (those eyebrows!), whose flexible and expressive comedic mugs create some of the best and funniest moments in the play. I confess to howling in a most unladylike fashion as I watched these two in the eggnog bit called “Ding Dong Family”—appropriately, for now, about Christmas. Brattin adds sparkle with his facial reactions—always understated, often wry and always admirable.

The characters claw their way through situations that plague every relationship—money, time, families, sex, work, communication, aging—in songs and vignettes, in solos and group harmonies. With gay marriage now common, I wonder if we’ll ever see a gay version of this show. Gay divorces are happening, too; these are all truly universal relationship problems. Anyone can have conflict over watching sports on TV, or wondering which member of the couple will die first and how it will be handled, or Viagra, or credit cards. This revue deals with all of it.

We have to keep an analysis of this production of Married Alive in proportion: The problems here are so tiny that it’s tempting to ignore them altogether, because of the brilliance of the writing. (For example, Act 2 is better than Act 1, which contained a couple of timing glitches and seemed under-rehearsed in comparison. Big deal.) It takes a lot of nerve for actors to perform musical-comedy revue, and carrying off these outrageous scenarios is only possible with a terrific script. And, I can promise you, Married Alive! has it.

By the way: Painted in cursive on the back wall of the set is a mysterious invitation to “the wedding,” dated Dec. 15, 2013, at 2 p.m. Because this is never addressed in the show, I asked co-directors Lance and Ron Phillips-Martinez (recently married themselves) about it. They explained that they were hoping to find a couple willing to be married on the stage at their last performance! This is not a publicity stunt, obviously, or it would have taken place at the first performance.

So … any takers?

Married Alive!, a production of Desert Theatreworks, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25, or $23 for students and seniors. The show runs two hours with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

The spirit of Christmas, so pathetically diluted by crass commercialism, is alive and well at IPAC.

Colleen Kelley has brought her Palm Desert Stage Company’s holiday show to a new home in Indio, and on opening night, the house was packed with lively supporters. We can only hope that It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, by Joe Landry, will become an annual treat. It’s a family-friendly play within a play, so grab your nieces and nephews—even the grandparents, if they’re still around—and don’t miss it.

The Indio Performing Arts Center—a gorgeous gem that contains three boutique-style theaters (one with a screen, for movies) plus a huge central multipurpose area—is an excellent choice for Kelley’s show. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, no matter how big the heads or hats are in front of you, due to wonderfully raked rows looking down onto a beautiful proscenium stage; the chairs are the most comfortable in town. For this show, the set has been fluffed with poinsettias and a stalwart glowing Christmas tree (designed by John Meyers and Colleen Kelley). The open stage reveals the friendly clutter of a radio station’s broadcast studio, with the call letters “WBFR” aloft.

Stations’ call letters beginning with “W” designate radio stations located east of the Mississippi; all those west of the river start with a “K.” So we know this broadcast takes place in the east, and it is soon revealed that the location is “Bedford Falls.” (WBFR, get it?) Kelley is known for her attention to detail in sets, props and effects, and she must have loved creating a setting like this, with framed, autographed headshots of actors on the walls; microphones with perky Xmas decorations; and a mysterious jumble of sound-effect tools.

Am I the only person in the world who hasn’t seen the Jimmy Stewart movie? Whether or not you have, it won’t ruin this show for you, because there’s a totally different approach. Here, we watch the actors do the show, broadcast live, just like they used to Back In The Day. Nowadays, there’s hardly anyone around who actually attended a live radio drama broadcast, but today at IPAC, you get to be swept back in time and become the actual participating audience—APPLAUSE sign and all.

What a thrill; opening-night playgoers shimmered with anticipation, probably just like they did in the old days. Technical director Nick Cox sits high at the back of the theater, serene and confident in his booth. The actors enter and mingle briefly with the audience. Dan Graff, playing sound-effects guy Jimmie Jeffries, reports to his station and fiddles with his arcane doodads. Steve Lyon plays the fictitious actor Jake Laurents, who gives us the voice of our hero George Bailey—already in character with his square jaw squared and big smile. Jeanette O’Neill, playing actress Lana Sherwood (sure that was her real name) floats around being gracious and diva-charming. Peter Mins, playing Harry “Jazzbo” Heywood, fusses and dithers enchantingly, his extraordinary eyes flashing. And Colleen Kelley, as actress Sally Applewhite, sweeps in to impress us with her friendly style and gorgeous blonde beauty. Ron Young, playing The Narrator, ever so handsome in a snazzy vintage suit and with an authentic hairstyle, steps up to the mic and counts us down in a radio-perfect, resonant voice.

You think you know what’s going to happen next? IPAC doesn’t provide seat belts; otherwise, I would suggest buckling up.

These few actors play multiple roles; Young leads the list with 11. But remember—This is radio! The listeners can’t see the stage like we can—it’s all done with voices. These astonishing actors morph in microseconds to play a little kid, an angel, an aged grump, a heavily-accented immigrant, a vamp, a tough cop, a crying baby—whatever is required by the script. And always with perfect diction!

You’ll be floored. This kind of acting, where mistakes and re-takes and edits are not a possibility, barely exists any more: It had to be right the first time. Plus, being in character … and being distinctive … with the proper emotion? It’s almost too much to expect from today’s talents—but they did it back in those early radio days, as Garrison Keillor explained, because nobody told them they couldn’t!

Co-directors Kelley and O’Neill show what can happen when actors also direct. The only choice I would question is that the actors here are frequently off-script—and I wonder if radio actors would have had sufficient rehearsal time, back then, to achieve this. It plays better, of course, but is it real?

The prodigious and astonishing skills of these actors lead to the success of this play. The adorable Dan Graff (wait until you see him in high heels) as the sound-effects man, with his ingenious creation of sounds, adds comic relief to Joe Landry’s unforgettably dramatic script. But bring a hanky! The play’s message is summarized in the title, and despite what we see as dated, and maybe even corny sometimes, the thought still rings true today.

Admit it: Even in 2013, it is a wonderful life.

It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a production of the Palm Desert Stage Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo St., in Indio. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors and friends of IPAC; $15 students; and $11 children. For tickets or more information, call 760-636-9682, or visit www.pdstage.com.

Nudity! Four-letter words! Sex! Gosh, I thought, I may need to write about how shocking The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is.

But guess what? The Desert Rose Playhouse’s latest production isn’t all that shocking. Instead, it is FUN!

This fast-paced, swirling, millennia-spanning history of the world is actually funny! “Funny” is something we don’t associate with history class much, especially if you had teachers like mine, who not only made the topic dry and boring, but made it worse because the teachers were dry and boring themselves. This show skews those history lessons by asking: What if the world had started out gay?

The “Stage Manager,” played by Terry Huber with an authoritative British accent and a cool demeanor, cues the beginning of the world—which we get to actually witness, thanks to a well-used projection screen; sound, courtesy of multitalented director Jim Strait; and the legendary Phil Murphy’s lighting. The “real” stage manager, Steve Fisher, handles the show’s many changes from the tech booth with characteristic smoothness.

The play starts with Adam, the first man, popping onstage wearing nothing but a jockstrap and a fig leaf. (Well, how else did they keep those leaves pinned on? Did you ever really think about it?) He eventually meets Steve, not Eve, as we have been misled to believe. If you can possibly get your mind off the fact that neither one of them has an ounce of body fat, you can ponder the question of why Peter Mins is credited with the costumes. Costumes? These are costumes? Well, brace yourself for the rest of the show, when you’ll get costumes! (If you’ve seen any of Mins’ work during his 50 years of experience, you must see this, his farewell show, because he is retiring from the business after this production, alas.)

So we meet Ryan Dominguez, playing Adam, and Timothy McGivney as Steve. They manage to spend several thousand years in this play without aging a day, or ever getting cosmetic surgery. Both actors manage their difficult roles and speeches beautifully, and play their laugh lines with wonderfully straight faces. Most important of all, they are convincing. Re-writing the Bible is no small task.

They meet the girls: Wendy Cohen plays Jane, a self-confessed bull-dyke who tries to be mean, but whose sparkling blue eyes hint at vast depths of emotion and humor. Mabel, her femme partner, is played by Lorraine Williamson, a blonde Valkyrie who magnificently resurrects the genius of the late and much-mourned Canadian comedienne, Barbara Hamilton. Jane and Mabel romp through the centuries, reinventing themselves constantly and earnestly. They throw a multitude of surprises at the audience, particularly when Cohen bursts into song, in an astonishingly sweet and true soprano.

The rest of the world’s population is skillfully played by four quick-changing actors who transmogrify into countless roles. Pretty Phylicia Mason gets the girlie ones (Fluffy, Peggy), and she is a delight to watch in every one, including such challenges as a sympathetic Mormon. Mark Demry eats up his tall-guy roles with great flair, obviously relishing turns such as the wonderfully caped pharaoh, and a weary Santa. Jeremy Johnson struts his stuff by playing everything from a serious Bible-wielding priest to a skimpily dressed Christmas elf with a flawless tan. And scratchy-voiced Toni Molano confidently tackles her juicy roles, playing everything from a smug sow on Noah’s ark to a rich televangelist rabbi in a jazzy wheelchair.

Fun? You bet. So let’s talk about the script: If there were a cuss jar on the stage, it would be full by the end of the first act. It would be refilled in the second act (especially thanks to Cohen’s “delivery” scene). But somehow, the language isn’t offensive—it’s just there. Go figure. Park your prudery at the door, and enjoy the wit.

The humor comes mostly from social satire, which is not an easy chore to write or deliver. It targets everything from Greenwich Village to ABBA to fashion choices. Relationships, with their ups and downs and constant change, supply the heavier notes. The tragedies that befall all of us—losses, failures, health issues—present themselves here, too.

How did producer Paul Taylor choose this Paul Rudnick play for Desert Rose’s Christmas show, and how did Jim Strait ever direct it? One has to wonder how many light and sound cues alone are required to stage this. More than the Follies? It is an awesome achievement, gentlemen. The only downer is the stage itself: It’s not making those booming sounds as it was during Desert Rose’s last show, but now it’s creaking and squeaking under the actors’ steps, sometimes loudly enough to interfere with speeches.

If you are curious about what would have happened if the world had started out gay, run to see The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. And be ready to laugh out loud.

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $25 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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.

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, or CV Rep to you, has launched its 2013-2014 season with Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

I was part of the very first audience of CV Rep’s new season. This little gem of a theater, located inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, tried out the idea of two “preview” shows before the grand opening. Not a bad idea. (The Independent would not normally review a preview performance, but we sent our November print edition to press before the grand opening. Therefore, the folks at CV Rep were kind enough to allow us to review the Wednesday-night preview.) CV Rep is also trying out a 7:30 curtain time, which, frankly, I love: 7 is too early, and 8 is so late, especially when you emerge from the theater in what feels like the middle of the night.

The open stage set which greets us, designed by Jimmy Cuomo, is charming. Stuart Fabel’s lighting is effective and creative. Aalsa Lee’s costumes are ideal. No changes needed here.

The play is set in 1971, at a “recital room” of Juilliard School, and Madame Maria Callas is going to teach a Master Class. We get to be the audience which is welcomed at such an event. Callas, at the time, was the most famous opera diva in the world, known for her tempestuous personality and style as much as her astonishing voice (which can reduce me to tears of awe within her first three notes).

But in the world of opera—whose mysterious, jealousy-ridden and colorful backstage we rarely see depicted in literature—the whispers have started: Is she losing her voice?

The role of Callas is a superhuman challenge for any actress, because of La Divina’s fame—and the circumstances which drove her to the top, both personal and historical. It’s also a challenge because of McNally’s script: It’s basically a two-hour monologue that demands emotional twists and turns you won’t believe. Marina Re plays Callas flawlessly, showing the naked pain, the unimaginable glory, the humiliation and despair, the obsessive perfectionism, and the dizzying excitement of her life—all on parade.

Her pronunciation of the many foreign languages which opera stars must command is very good. The gestures, facial expressions and body language fit. Her cheekbones are fabulous. She uses her eyes like Greeks do, and she moves like a once-overweight but now-thin woman. Re provides us with an astonishing amount of subtext.

How much of this is due to her interpretation of the role, and how much is due to the work of director Ron Celona? We’ll never know, but the results are stunning. Celona’s excellent work never calls attention to itself; every move is logical and natural—and this is the greatest compliment I can pay to a stage director.

The three innocent opera wannabes who have signed up for Maria Callas’ Master Class are absolutely delightful. Kara Masek plays Sophie; Mario Alberto Rios is Anthony; Nora Graham plays Sharon. These actors’ personal résumés go on for pages, and all three bring solid talents, serious training and surprisingly emotional interpretations to their roles. Opera, alas, is often filled with hackneyed gestures and stereotyped acting, leading to results that can be either hilarious or boring, but Callas demands Method-like research and deep thought from her students before even the first note is sung. The advice given to these aspirants by Callas is extremely worthwhile and important, and every serious performing-arts student could benefit from these teachings.

(Speaking of which: Some opera companies, in an attempt to educate that part of the audience that doesn’t speak the show’s foreign tongue, have set up an interpretive digitalized banner above the stage, which contains a running English translation. This has been met with mixed success. One of my friends attended an opera in which the chorus sang, over and over, a phrase which the banner assured the onlookers was: “We cry potatoes!”)

Steven Smith plays the role of Manny, the hapless piano accompanist who plays his music effortlessly and brings to the show another flavor—that of a steady working musician. Callas charms him, and then orders him around like a peasant; he bears both stoically. Michael Frank’s role of The Stagehand is played with more attitude, though he, too, is safe from La Divina’s storms, and he knows it.

We are overwhelmed by the gravitas and wisdom in McNally’s script—and by the emotional roller coaster through which Marina Re puts us. She recalls the height of Callas’ career at La Scala, and in the next minute, she is talking about having sex with the world’s richest (and power-mad, and abusive) man—and then she is a young girl again, an impoverished child in the middle of a war with nothing going for her but a fabulous voice and a burning determination to outwork anyone else. If you’re in the audience, you’ll need to brace yourself.

But do see this play, whether you’re a big opera buff, or you’ve never seen a live performance. Once you meet this volatile Maria Callas, you’ll never again fear a blonde valkyrie in metal breastplates.

Although the show I saw was a “preview,” all I can say is: Don’t change a thing.

Master Class, a production of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 10. The theater is located at 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. $40. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

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.

The first thing you should know about The House of the Rising Son: It’s mostly set in New Orleans, so immediately, you know there’s a grand capacity for weird.

The second thing you should know: The cast is all-male (well, there’s one female impersonator), and all play double roles in this strange play.

The third thing: Most theatergoers will find their eyebrows raised by this show, possibly more than once. Now at the Desert Rose Playhouse, the desert’s only LGBT theater, the play runs through Oct. 27.

The hard-working cast, under the firm directorial hand of Jim Strait, should be applauded, first of all, for learning the lines of this talky play—but, of course, they bring much more to the show. Courage, for example—and you’ll know what I mean when you hear the audience gasp.

John Ferrare plays Trent, a parasitologist giving a lecture in Los Angeles. Jeff Rosenberg is Felix, an audience member and employee of the museum where the talk is being presented. Long story short: They fall for each other, and Trent takes Felix home to New Orleans to meet his family. So we meet Garrett, played by Terry Huber, who is Trent’s father; we also meet his grandfather, Bowen, played by Garnett Smith. All is not what it seems with this woman-free family. (“All dead,” Garrett solemnly reports.)

The casting is excellent, and all four gentlemen look their part. The ominous air that hangs over the show is fed by references to ghosts, family trees and, of course, several chunks from Trent’s erudite lectures about parasites, accompanied by some rather ewwww graphics and yucky descriptions of their behavior. Remember the word “parasites,” and see how it echoes.

The exquisite lighting by Phil Murphy complements the ingenious set design of Jon Triplett, which through the play continues to spread to other venues. Clever!

Yet there is a fatal flaw that Desert Rose must address: They have built a hollow stage. Each footstep sounds like a drum—and there are plenty of footsteps. Part of the floor is carpeted, but that doesn’t help much. This is not an uncommon problem in regional theater, alas, but it is distracting, and it can actually compromise an audience’s hearing of the dialogue.

The play offers a couple of laughs, and one fascinating monologue about the history of homosexuality in the 20th century. The underlying theme is not the acceptance of gays, but the value they have contributed to society. The argument is presented as yet another lecture, which gives it a gravitas it would lack if it was merely a conversation between the characters.

The role that shines is, interestingly, that of Grandpa, the outrageous old curmudgeon. Smith eats it up, flailing around the stage, cussing and drinking and loathing everybody—as he feels his age has given him the right to do. But the balance among the cast is to be admired, and each actor brings powerful strengths to his role. Felix is cute and young; Garrett is mysterious and quiet; Trent is brilliant and searching.

Whether you love the play, or are merely shocked by it, you’ll admit: It is never dull. Tom Jacobson’s two-act script moves the story along beautifully, with new plot revelations throughout. The play doesn’t really move you, however.

Producer Paul Taylor chose this show to open the Desert Rose’s new season, which runs through next June—and will include one world premiere. I like this comfortable theater, with its splashy wall art, its stairs (they give a slightly exciting speakeasy feel to the entryway), its friendliness, and the fact that there are no long lines for the ladies’ room at intermission. But most of all, I like the Desert Rose for its brave commitment to presenting shows that you won’t see anywhere else.

House of the Rising Son plays at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $28, or $25 for Sunday matinees. For tickets or more information, call at 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

As I prepare for another production of Lush!, which I wrote about the first woman who was involved with Alcholics Anonymous, I thought I’d share the story behind the story.

It started onstage, when I was playing the supporting role of “Anne Smith,” wife of Dr. Bob Smith, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, in the play Bill W. and Dr. Bob. (Bill Wilson, of course, is the other co-founder.) It was a role I felt I was meant to do, since my paternal grandmother’s name was Mary Anne Smith … and her husband was my grandfather, “Dr. Bob” Hume. Loving that connection, I set out to bring the role to life.

During one performance, the unbidden thought popped into my head, “Wait a minute. Everyone makes such a fuss over these two guys. Who was the first WOMAN in AA?”

I didn’t know the answer.

Research revealed a fascinating and unknown story of a true American heroine. I had no idea that such a powerful and exciting tale could be lost in the shuffle of history’s cards—and decided that it was my duty and privilege to bring this tale to today’s audiences.

Marty Mann was born in 1904 in Chicago, to wealth and privilege. Despite her advantages, she wound up a hopeless and homeless drunk, living alone on a park bench in London, England. How could it happen? She had been smart and beautiful, with a sparkling personality and success in her work.

But that’s what happens to alcoholics. The disease is no respecter of education, class, sex or family name.

Today, everyone knows someone who is a drunk. Almost every family has one … or more. Statistics tell us that one out of every 10 people is an alcoholic. But in Marty’s day, nobody believed that women could be alcoholics. And until 1935, no program for helping the addicted had ever truly worked, despite attempts of all kinds throughout world history. So when Marty tried to get help, she was not only fighting her disease, but also the men in AA who didn’t want her there!

Well, Marty went on to change America. That journey is what my play is about. I called it Lush! because someone once referred to a friend with that term, and I felt a huge wave of embarrassment and shame wash over me on her behalf. I remembered that reaction when researching Marty Mann’s life, and realized I had found the perfect title. So I not only wrote it, but then directed it.

The two-act play is performed as “reading theater,” with the actors playing multiple roles. My husband, Ted Pethes, provides fabulous clarinet music between scenes, with the songs not only setting the mood, but indicating exactly the year of the upcoming scene. Musical snobs love that add-on! The show stars Mr. Ron Young as “Dr. Bob” and Mr. Dean Apple as “Bill W.” (reprising their roles from Bill W. and Dr. Bob). After directing three other actresses to play “Marty Mann,” guess who finally decided to accept her fate and play the lead role? Yup: moi.

The most amazing part of performing this play is the audience reactions. Not just the standing ovations, or the tears we see from the stage, or the roars of laughter we hear (drunks ARE funny … sometimes), but the comments that come back to us long after the show. The first time we performed it, a woman decided to get sober! Others have described it as “life-changing.”

It has been performed twice at the ABC Recovery Center in Indio, and twice at the Tolerance Education Center in Rancho Mirage, as well as at the Indio Performing Arts Center and the world-famous Betty Ford Center, where they acknowledge that without Marty Mann, Betty Ford herself might never have found sobriety.

Of course, we hope the tale will someday end with the play being discovered and becoming the Hollywood movie (with an Oscar-winning role for its star) it should be. Come see it while it is still in its fledgling stage!

Lush! will be performed at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 10, at the Palm Springs Womans’ Club, 314 Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are only $10. The production benefits Michael’s House, a Palm Springs recovery center, with its Heroes in Recovery program. Call Zigi at (760) 464-2138.

It's for a great cause. Please come see it!

Pippin. The very name suggests fun, music and lightness.

But there’s also a dark side to this season-closer musical at the Palm Canyon Theatre. It’s a show of contrasts.

It’s primarily a dance show. The bevy of “players” writhe, flip, shimmy, roll, strut, gyrate, leap, frolic, prance, hop, mince, stride, march, saunter, flit, spin, gallop, toddle, shuffle, glide, prowl and skim over every inch of the stage. The choreographer, Anthony Nannini, has adapted the dancing from the work of the immortal Bob Fosse. The dancers represent every possible body shape and type, but from the opening number—with the disembodied white-gloved hands illuminated by black light—it’s Fosse all the way. Sexy and suggestive moves combine with Peter Mins’ glitzy, dazzling costumes to maximize the effect.

As far as the plot goes, I’m reminded of TV and movie thugs who say, “Fuhgeddaboudit!” I’m particularly reminded of a scene—I think it was in The Sopranos—in which some semi-literate oaf offers his analysis of a script: “Maybe it’s got a weak plot.” Or, as my father used to say about opera, “If you worry about the plot, you’ll go crazy.” One problem is the betrayal of the Pippin audience’s belief when someone who is killed is then brought back to life, because it isn’t convenient to have him gone. Humph!

The story is the search for life’s meaning, by a barefoot young prince, Pippin—our choreographer, Anthony Nannini. He happens to be the heir to the throne of the great King Charlemagne, colorfully portrayed by the delightful Peter Mins. Predictably, this is complicated by a scheming second wife (Elissa Landi, with her famous legs and attitude, although she was clearly out of her depth with her vocal solo), who wants the throne to go to her son Lewis, played by the perfectly cast Daryl J. Roth, with his amazing sculpted body, chiseled face and chin for which Dick Tracy would kill. A charming turn is taken by the seasoned Rosanne Hopkins, with her admirably crisp diction, as the grandmother.

The first act is largely dominated by the mob of dancers, while Act 2 belongs to Nannini. Here, he seizes the opportunity to cut loose and show us what he can do (and do not take your eyes off the ropes). It wasn’t difficult to find out why his cast notes bid farewell to the Palm Canyon Theatre, where he has been nurtured for several years: He’s bound for New York and the big time. Watch him in this show, and you’ll see why. He’s a quadruple threat: actor, singer, dancer and choreographer. And he’s terrific at all of it. He was born to play lead roles like this. In fact, when he went off-script and improvised some dialogue to explain one of those opening-night ooops! accidents, the audience rewarded him with an appreciative ovation.

The second act also introduces his love interest, the widow Catherine, played by pretty Sarah Noe, and her son, Theo, a very young and sweet Stephen Lee. Throughout the show, Hiram Johnson, the “Leading Player,” acts as a host/narrator/Greek chorus, and I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to simply watch him move. His grace, economy of gesture and body awareness seem natural and effortless. That said, it was unfortunate that his mushy verbalizations made him difficult for the audience to understand. It wouldn’t matter so much, except that his interpretation of the events was important to explaining the action. His singing voice was true, however.

Director Don Lillie, who hails from Missouri (“where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended,” he told me), certainly had his hands full with this cast of 19. Interestingly, his first-ever theater teacher was the venerable William Layne, founder of the theater and patriarch of the family that runs it. The cast wrestles pieces of the J.W. Layne set around the stage to change scenes and locations, in full view of the audience—always fascinating to see. The Mado Nunez hair and wigs worked well, but the makeup of some actors featured a huge distracting blotch on the right side of some faces. (A heart? A star? WTF?)

Once again, the “old pros”—Mins, Hopkins, Landi—made Lillie’s production, along with the youthful Nannini, and Roth, who seemed to be flawless. Of course, the show benefits greatly from the contributions of designer Nick Edwards, musical director Charlie Creasy, the book by Roger O. Hirson, and the music/lyrics of Stephen Schwartz—and if that name sounds familiar it’s because he composed Wicked and Godspell.

So, it’s a production of contrasts. And don’t worry about the plot.

Pippin is performed at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs, at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 18; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, July 19 and 20; and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Tickets are $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.