CVIndependent

Wed01292020

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

Regional theater companies don’t often have historic events taking place on their stages, but our comfy, 85-seat Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage is now mounting a 50th-anniversary production of a play that holds an important place in American theater’s history.

Robert Patrick, the author of The Haunted Host, was there on opening night to watch the new production of what’s considered one of the first contemporary gay plays. “I never dreamed I’d be seeing this play 50 years later,” he confided to me.

The whole thing happened as a result of having a venue at which to perform such works: the now-famous Caffe Cino. Back in the ’60s, Joe Cino opened the place so playwrights and actors could create productions that offered the polar opposite of Broadway’s razzmatazz.

“We didn’t know we were pioneers,” said Patrick. “But four Pulitzer Prize winners (and finalists) came from the Cino. John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, was the first. Lanford Wilson, author of Talley’s Folly; William Hoffman, who wrote As Is, and who co-starred as Frank in the first Haunted Host; and Tom Eyen, who went on to create Dreamgirls—all got their start at Caffe Cino, along with the writers of Hair and Dames at Sea, and names like Al Pacino and Sam Shepard.”

This is where LGBT theater got its very start. Joe Cino’s thought-provoking motto was, “Do what you have to do.” And so in 1964, Lanford Wilson’s play The Madness of Lady Bright was the first ever gay play to hit the boards.

“We called him ‘The Mozart from Missouri,’” reminisced Patrick.

I inquired as to the critics’ response to the show. “They were completely overwhelmed by the brilliance of the writing—to the point that the subject simply didn’t matter. It wasn’t even mentioned in the reviews! All they could think about was the writing.”

So when The Haunted Host came along later that year, the road to success for LGBT theater had already begun to be paved.

Of course it takes place in the ’60s, in New York’s Greenwich Village. “The stage was so small,” remembered Patrick, “I was about a foot away from the audience.”

At the Desert Rose, the open stage that greets playgoers is instantly recognizable as one of those tiny apartments stuffed with comfortable clutter (mine was on Jarvis Street in Toronto), and includes set-designer Steve Fisher’s great touches, like a bookcase made with bricks and boards, which back then was mandatory decor. The bright colors, the plush cushions, the souvenirs and the overfilled closet (with drag items, never referred to—a wealth of boas, spangles and furs) are all flawlessly illuminated by lighting designer Phil Murphy. Costume designer Mark Demry continues the decade’s theme: It’s an instant trip down Memory Lane for those fortunate enough to have been there.

From a theatrical point of view, however, all of this creates a challenge: There just isn’t much room left in which to move. Under the always-deft direction of Wendy Cohen, however, the two actors maneuver cleverly in the limited space.

The three scenes are separated by live music. The play opens with a folksinger (so prevalent in those days; this one even sports a loud tie-dye T-shirt), soprano Lin Gillham, on guitar. She is also the production’s stage manager, and what a job that must be. The other two entr’actes use stubble-bearded (not the fashion back then!) musician/vocalist Miguel Arballo (whose diction could use a wakeup call), also on a six-string. Oddly enough, the songs have absolutely nothing to do with the action, plot, mood or characters of the play, and except for establishing the time period, they add nothing. But, then, it was the ’60s, when everything was puzzling.

From the moment the play begins, when Jim Strait bursts onto the stage, you can’t take your eyes off him. He played this part in the ’80s in San Diego, but even that doesn’t explain his magisterial command of the role of Jay. It is rare to see an actor so enmeshed with his character that you can actually see a thought dawn in his eyes. We can only hope that every actor in town will rush to see this play, to learn from a master like Strait. Of course, the wittiness of the dialogue and the opportunity to toss around such wonderfully funny lines helps. The script is peppered with one-liners and smart-mouth comments; you’d swear that Strait just made them up. Wait until you see him do his breathtaking monologues and make those stunning quips. The sole problem in this brilliant performance is, to be honest, his hair: The bangs are so long that they keep flopping into his eyes, and although Jay sometimes tosses his hair to great effect, Jim Strait sometimes unconsciously wipes his curls back. It’s like an actor unaware of his hands constantly fussing with an itchy nose. It’s great hair—maybe a simple trim of the bangs could cure this?

Jay is a writer. And one of his friends sends him a wannabe writer, new in town from Iowa: Frank, played by former ballet-dancer John Ferrare. The gorgeous Frank has never encountered an actual gay person before. And so it begins. Ferrare, beautifully playing a straight man (in both senses of the word) to Strait’s comic character, has to work indescribably hard to provide the setups and to control the timing of the lines—some delivered so rapid-fire as to make an Uzi envious. Frank needs a place to stay (didn’t we all back then), so the recently bereaved Jay provides his pull-out couch. Frank has an agenda: He wants help with his writing, so he hopes to use Jay’s experience and skills to improve a play he has already written and brought along. Ferrare hits just the right note with his seriousness, and then he shocks us (all too rarely) with one of his light-up-the-world smiles.

I asked Patrick what has changed with his play in its 50 years. “The attitudes of the period,” he replied. “It puts me through the meat grinder to see the play now. … Nobody today could be as ignorant as Frank was then about gays. People ask me if I am the real Jay. Actually, Jay was Joe Cino! And Frank is all of us writers. That’s why I combine the comedy with the drama, like Shakespeare. The play is really about relationships, about codependency—and that, unfortunately, never seems to change.

“I set out to give the audience absolutely every bit of entertainment I could give them.”

And does he ever. Run, don’t walk, to see The Haunted Host.

The Haunted Host is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, June 1, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25 to $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

A cast of dozens! And only four people onstage.

Pardon?

The ever-faithful fans of Coyote Stageworks and the Annenberg Theater were rained-on, wind-blown, warmly bundled and umbrella-toting on the opening night of The 39 Steps. Though I never actually took an oath with the Independent along the lines of “neither wind nor sleet nor rain shall keep me from my appointed critique,” the harrowing drive (The traffic! Is our valley turning into Temecula?) to the theater was bountifully rewarded by this terrific new show: The 39 Steps is a must-see, regardless of wet weather or any other excuse.

It’s an homage to Hitchcock, a murder-mystery that paradoxically rocks you with laughter and acting brilliance. Set in 1935 in England and Scotland, The 39 Steps echoes the growing pre-war paranoia of those times. Though we too often take for granted the special effects of a show, in this production, they are stars, as Coyote Stageworks uses beyond-clever techniques with shadows or silhouettes, and a pervading moodiness that hangs over the entire play, giving a contrasting background to the levity taking place onstage. Kudos, as always, to Phil Murphy for his lighting innovations!

It would be so interesting to know what percentage of the genius that we see here comes from the actors, the director and the script directions. We’ll never know; all that we see is the end result of this happy union. The damp but enthusiastic opening-night audience gave warm applause at the end of every scene. (This is the second stop for this production; a few weeks ago, it ended a stint at the Norris Center for the Performing Arts down in Rolling Hills Estates, near Torrance.)

The director, Ken Parks, must be celebrated for his energy, consistency and his devotion to wringing every possible bit of action out of the script. (His resume will make your eyes widen in awe.) He keeps things hopping (You try directing a scene that takes place on an old train!) with delightful surprises—such as a tiny train itself, which chugs its way across the stage, an amazing detail for just a few seconds of amusement: Where did they get these tracks? Who starts the train, and who catches it at the other end? And what about the doors? There are so many doors! How much rehearsal time did THAT take to figure out?

You think these are small details? The actors have their hands full every second, because except for smoothly handsome Jeffrey Cannata, as the world-weary hero Richard Hannay (and he actually manages to be funny, too, a rarity in a lead role of this sort), they all play multiple roles. What could be more wonderful for an actor than the chance to show off one’s skills by playing a dazzling assortment of characters? The result is an unforgettable demonstration of acting chops by brilliant thespians. Their energy alone is breath-taking.

Every acting student, every actor and every director in town should see this show. Too often in regional theater, people use the “it’s just” excuse: It’s just regional theater. But this play shows what can be done in the hands of highly trained, hard-working, classically educated actors. Every single character they create is fully realized; they don’t just switch costumes. Everything—from the accents (some incomprehensible, as certain British/Scottish dialects are to the American ear, unfortunately) to the footwork to the eyebrows to the gestures to the breathing—is shrewdly planned and flawlessly executed.

The company’s sole lady is Karen Jean Olds. She plays three roles, creating complete transmogrifications between them. Slender and pretty, she moves convincingly from a hard exotic German spy (with the weirdest accent ever uttered on a stage) to a heartbreaking downtrodden Scottish farm wife to a wide-eyed and innocent young blonde on a train; it’s impossible to discern which one is most like “her.” Terrific work.

The two character actors will make your jaws drop. Kenny Landmon and Louis Lotorto are billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2. No, they don't have red fright wigs and oogah horns; this is the classic definition of a clown. These two amazing actors demonstrate a variety of comedy shtick and lightning-fast quick changes, as well as a stunning number of voices, attitudes and details unique to each character. Each one also plays a female at some time in the play, and both bring a lovely grace to these roles that is beyond charming. They shamelessly steal from vaudeville, burlesque, revue and, of course, Hitchcock; they make the show pure fun even when they aren’t being funny.  My favorite scene—it’s almost impossible to choose one—is probably the “political rally,” with the “clowns” playing two doddering patriots who assume our hapless hero (who stumbles in seeking refuge) is their speaker for the evening. Priceless.

The bizarre plot twists help; you just can’t fathom what will happen next. However, it’s the string of characters who are created here that will astound you and make you applaud wildly.

Though the show runs two hours and 20 minutes, we can only hope the cast is not exhausted by it (Jeffrey Cannata, for example, is in almost every scene), because it’s totally exhilarating for the audience. A display of pure talent is always exciting, and it will raise your respect for the profession to see this show. 

Don’t miss it—even if you need an umbrella to get there.

Coyote Stageworks’ production of The 39 Steps takes place at various times through Sunday, March 9, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/palm-springs/performance/39-steps.

The famine is at an end: Our Coachella Valley may have been starved for melodrama, but relief has arrived at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, in Palm Desert.

Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is the first “mellerdrammer” presented here in the valley (that we can recall, at least), and if audience response is any gauge of its success, we need MORE! Desert Theatreworks, led by executive director Ron Phillips-Martinez, is offering this play by Shubert Fendrich through Sunday, Feb. 2, and it is an experience not to be missed.

More than any other theatrical form, the melodrama requires an audience—and not just warm bodies sitting there. Oh no! Here, you must boo and hiss the nasty villain, cheer the brave hero, and go awwww for the sweet little heroine. Some venues (but not this one, darn it) let you pelt the cast with popcorn at appropriate junctures. It’s the most engaged you’ll ever be at the theater—and I’ve never seen a desert audience laugh so hard or so often.

The strong and innovative directorial hand of Lance Phillips-Martinez is a lovely thing to watch. His cast is evenly matched, with everyone overacting wildly, delivering confidential asides to the audience, and executing elaborate reaction “takes.” His guidance results in extraordinary acting details, including shoulder work, hand placement and footwork—aspects so often ignored by busy directors. Try to sit where you can see the actors’ shoes, because there are some lovely and hilarious extra bits done with their feet—sometimes the most-neglected part of the actor’s repertoire. Lance Phillips-Martinez has obviously kept a sharp eye on every member of his large cast, resulting in a beautiful unity among the actors. For example, he has paid exceptional attention to the actors’ use of their eyebrows. Powerful! Acting students can learn much from watching this production.

Melodrama is defined by the staging. One set (the hotel lobby) is all that’s needed for both acts. Off to one side perches the glamorous Miss Kitty (Kitty Garascia), who acts as emcee, with big white cue cards that advise the audience when and how to respond to the action. BOO! says one. CHEER! says another. And we do. Interestingly, the word OLIOS shows up on a placard after intermission, and she explains that this means it’s an opportunity for the cast to demonstrate their other talents—which they then do, by telling jokes, performing magic and singing tearjerkers of the day such as “The Bowery” or “Father, Dear Father, Come Home With Me Now.” Yikes.

“Breaking the fourth wall” is the term given to the acting technique of stepping out of the onstage action to address the audience directly. It can be done with spoken dialogue or just a look. It is employed wonderfully in this production, resulting in the audience's continuing involvement with the action, even when not actually delivering boos and hisses or applause. The finest example of this comes from actress Alden West (the evil Widow Black, owner of the town’s sole hotel), who snarls in reply to the audience’s reactions. “Aw, stuff it,” she snaps at us after being booed, provoking screams of laughter. (Yes, a female villain!)

Rubber-faced young actor Austin Schroeter, playing the aw-shucks overalls-clad farm-boy ingénue role of Bill Filbert, is delightful. (“That’s weird,” he comments thoughtfully at one point, his beyond-blue eyes staring into space.) Savvy and thoughtful actor Hal O’Connell, as Barney Black, the hapless son-in-law who toils as the hotel’s clerk, almost steals the show at one point, and I’m not going to ruin the surprise on that one. But it’s crafty Stephen McMillen, who plays two roles (Snipe Vermin and Harry Heartstone—you have got to love those names) and seizes a double opportunity to impress us by switching between facial expressions/voice/gestures/attitudes, as well as from black Stetson to white Stetson. Yee-haw!

And wait until you meet Flora and Dora, played by Jana Baumann and Joyce Ellenson, respectively. They never break character, even with their high-energy antics. Watch what they do with their eyes. They play bizarre showgirls in the troupe of Colonel Crabtree, played by charming and suave veteran actor John Alex Houlton, always a solid performer—this time augmented with a terrific cape. Adina Lawson plays Martha Muldoon, an aging escapee from said troupe, who has been hiding out at Widow Black’s hotel for two years. She’s a petticoat-and-frilled-pantaloon’d flirt with long curls and a parasol, ready to tackle any available male who happens by. Then there’s the lady sheriff, Willie Lovelace, smoothly played by Hannah Ruzicka, with all the body consciousness of a Marilyn Monroe and the self-confidence of a Bette Davis—in a fabulous pair of iguana-skin cowboy boots. The cast seems to be having as much fun as the audience!

The plot is more complicated than you’d expect from this kind of theater—with an interesting twist. The actors get to push their Western drawls over the top (along with everything else, except the furniture). The production team holds up its end beautifully. Bless them.

When he opens the show, artistic director Lance Phillips-Martinez reminds us that Desert Theatreworks is entirely funded by ticket sales—with no sponsors or donors at all—and always uses local actors, definitely another important reason to support them. How else will regional theater grow?

But the best reason of all to see Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is that it’s fantastic. Imagine: You, at last, in the audience of a melodrama!

Desert Theatreworks’  Blazing Guns at Roaring Gulch … or the Perfumed Badge is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 2, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73750 Catalina Way, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 general; $23 seniors; and $12 children 15 and younger. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.

If you don’t like to have fun, then you absolutely must stay away from Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers, at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater. Stay home; be a curmudgeon; be a grinch—because this show might get to you. Opening night’s nearly full house at the gently raked theater found itself whooping and applauding in fits of wild enthusiasm.

Let’s discuss why.

Part of it is the music: a live band! On the stage! True, we don’t get to actually see the musicians, who are parked behind a fence so they don’t distract from the action. (Bravo to the seven-piece group; they never missed a lick, despite their not being acknowledged, or even mentioned, in the program. Why aren’t they? They are performers too, right?) Nonetheless, nothing adds excitement like the thrill of live music. A gigantic YAY to Coyote for this decision!

Yes, The Andrews Brothers is a musical, written by Roger Bean, whose credits are breathtaking. It’s set in 1945 on a Pacific island where an evening USO show is planned for “the boys.” The plot is as flimsy as that of some 1940s movies, but nobody minds. The setting for Act 1 is a military camp (with a surprising amount of scenery for a stage like the Annenberg, which has such little room backstage), and Act 2 changes to “the stage” of the show. Also in keeping with Annenberg tradition, the sound is flawless, and the face microphones all function perfectly.

Coyote Stageworks’ artistic director, Chuck Yates, opened the show at exactly 7:31 p.m., observing military promptness rather than the theatrical tradition of starting five minutes late for the tardy. After a charming little talk, he invited all the veterans to stand so we could thank them with our applause. I hope this wasn’t just an opening-night thing, because it is lovely, and it is always very affecting. Whether or not this idea was lifted from the Palm Springs Follies, I don’t care—because we can never thank our warriors enough.

So we GI-jive into the show, meeting the three USO stagehands who are planning their upcoming production. They have been assigned to this job because they are “effies,” or 4F.  A lot of the humor in the play, incredibly, comes from the disabilities which kept them out of active duty; this may be hard to believe in the uber-correct 21st century, I know, but it works. Tall, slim Michael Paternostro plays Lawrence, who is helpless without his glasses. Sweet, youthful Larry Raben is Patrick, a stutterer. Crafty, bossy Jamie Torcellini is Max, and I won’t ruin the joke by revealing his problem (and it’s not what you’re thinking).

They are awaiting the arrival of Peggy—played by sweet, crisp-voiced Bets Malone—a contest winner and pin-up girl from Seattle who is nervous about launching her professional showbiz career with tonight’s presentation. All four of these actors are Equity professionals with stunning résumés, so it is no surprise when they trot out terrific vocal harmonies, fantastic footwork and knockout comedic timing. They are also awaiting the Andrews Sisters, who are scheduled to fly in and perform—but we soon find out they are not going to arrive. Horrors! Will the troops be sent off the next day without a show? Well, in the best Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland tradition of here’s-a-barn-let’s-put-on-a-show, the stagehands offer to step in as performers. Corny? Sure. Cute? Totally.

I’m not going to give away what happens, but I will report that the Hawaiian number drew actual cheers from the crowd, and the staging of the “Slow Boat to China” number was beyond clever, while the “Six Jerks in a Jeep” was inventive and adorable. Kudos to the director Nicholas DeGruccio, choreographer Roger Castellano, musical director Colin Freeman, and stage manager Jill Gold for their work. Nothing in the world is more difficult than comedy. (Remember the story of the dying actor who is asked “Tell me, is dying hard?” He snarls in reply: “Dying is easy. COMEDY is hard.”) However, this combination of perfect timing and superb craftsmanship hits a home run.

But ah, the music. You know many of the songs, from Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Billy Rose, Frank Loesser—the usual suspects. Some more-obscure tunes are thrown into the mix, giving us variety and laughs and keeping the show from wandering off into cliché.

This all gives the actors an extraordinary chance to show off. In Act 1, we see enough glimmers of their talent to acknowledge the finely honed skills of these four performers, but Act 2 really lets them cut loose. (By the way: The film clips that are run during the intermission, all from that era, are astonishing—everything from war-bond appeals, to a cartoon with a cow playing the flute in Bugs Bunny’s orchestra, to a three-little-pigs animation in which the wolf is wearing a swastika armband; I was left quite speechless!) The quality of their performances, with the beautiful sureness of their footwork and the hilarious sight gags, is wonderfully innovative. It’s two hours and 15 minutes of feel-good Broadway quality, right here in Palm Springs.

But don’t go if you don’t want to have fun.

Coyote Stageworks’ The Andrews Brothers is performed at various times, Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/annenberg-theater.

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.