CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

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.

Pecans! Who doesn’t love ‘em?

Playwright Stephen Bittrich, on a chatty program page, admits to being born in a pecan environment: Seguin, Texas, the setting for his two-act Home of the Great Pecan, now being performed in Joshua Tree. The Hi-Desert Cultural Center is hosting the play through Saturday, July 13.

The publicity hints at UFO sightings and other weirdness, and, of course, the play takes place in the South, whence come pecans. The play echoes Sordid Lives, Trailer Trash, and other wildly colorful spoofs of the South’s characters … in the 1980s, no less. Was there ever another time like that?

Huge kudos to director Wendy Cohen for even attempting this show—the cast contains 15 actors. Casting this, in a small town? I can’t even imagine the logistics of scheduling rehearsals, let alone wrangling such a mob. And the show is in a “black box” setting! The theater seats about 90 people (with preferred seating in the first two rows, which usually sells out) and is cozily edged in thick black curtains on three sides, surrounding the raked seating and facing an almost-bare stage with a giant screen upstage. The screen cleverly provides instant backgrounds of everything from a beauty parlor, to a starry outdoor country night, to a bathroom where a beauty contestant pitches hysterics and attempts hunger strikes. The actual physical scenery is conveniently minimized, making the quick setting changes a snap.

I kept thinking: Charming. From the warm greetings at the door from Anne and Carol, to the friendly audience welcome by center president Jarrod Radnich before the show, to the delightful servings of actual pecans at the intermission (plus gratis nonalcoholic refreshments in the lobby throughout), the theater exudes comfort and ease. The chairs relax you; the country-Western mood music makes you smile and tap your toes; the audience chats and hugs. The play is rated PG-13. Pleasant.

The basic plot swirls around the mysterious theft of the Great Pecan, a huge and heavy statue honoring the nut. The crime occurs on the cusp of Seguin's annual celebration and pecan harvest. We are treated to a look inside the minds of a homicidal bride, a sheriff who sleeps in his office, the town’s only gay guy (who almost steals the show), a Baptist preacher with more sins than his entire congregation, a Yankee juvenile delinquent, and on and on. And, of course, UFOs! Could it get any more strange?

It’s really all about the friendships, relationships, the community—and everyone’s emotional investments in each other.

So, the cast: They were surprisingly well fitted to their physical types, which include several decades of age difference, with the exception of Kathleen Anderson, whose great smile and pretty face were wasted unconvincingly on her playing a teenage boy. The women—Velma Demaray, Marge Doyle, Toni Molano, Becky Renish, Anja Homburg and especially Lorraine Williamson as “Rosy,” and Michaela Chambers as “Priscilla Rotweiler” (don’t tell me you don’t love that name)—were very believable in their casting. The men—Scott Cutler, Dave Jessup, Tim Kelly, Dennis Priest, Karl Weimer and especially Richie Sande—all bore good physical resemblances to their characters. Jack Kennedy contributes “The Voice of Johnny Johns,” the radio announcer, and is well-cast because of his fine voice.

Most of the cast could benefit from vocal training. Last syllables of words were dropped; some actors never mustered the volume to be heard by the entire room; accents were wildly varied. Too often in regional theater, voice is the last consideration. What a shame, because voice problems compromise the audience’s understanding of the play. And we have to smack the wrists of those who bobbled their lines—but give stars to the actors who kindly jumped in to save each other's bacon.

Yeah, there were a few debatable directorial choices, but in the end, that script shines through, thanks to plenty of laugh lines, bizarre predicaments and wild characters. You can learn more about the playwright at www.stephenbittrich.com.

It’s a one-hour drive from nearly anywhere in our Low Desert to get to Joshua Tree, but it’ll be at least 10 degrees cooler there! After all, it is the Home of the Great Pecan.

The Home of the Great Pecan takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, through Saturday, July 13, with an additional matinee at 2 p.m., Sunday, July 7. The show is performed at the Hi-Desert Cultural Center, 61231 Highway 62, in Joshua Tree. Tickets are $15 or $20. For tickets or more information, call (760) 366-3777, or visit www.hidesertculturalcenter.com.

Is there anything more exciting than the prospect of an upcoming theater season? The offerings from the valley’s varied companies always provide a huge variety—and the 2013-2014 season is no exception. I can’t wait!

Below, you’ll find comments from the theater companies that had announced their schedules and shared their information with us as of our press deadline; we will add more at CVIndependent.com as other companies report back to us.

Don’t miss my reviews of many of these plays, both online and in the Independent’s monthly edition, launching in October!

Desert Rose Playhouse

HOUSE OF THE RISING SON, by Tom Jacobsen: Sept. 27-Oct. 27

THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD, by Paul Rudnick: Nov. 15-Dec. 22

NITE CLUB CONFIDENTIAL, by Dennis Deal: Jan. 10-Feb. 16

An untitled new play, by Dan Clancy: March 21-April 20

THE HAUNTED HOST, by Robert Patrick: May 2-June 1

Jim Strait and partner Paul Taylor report that the season for their LGBT playhouse begins with a Southern gothic, Los Angeles-New Orleans show; think “Anne Rice meets Tennessee Williams.” House of the Rising Son features ghosts, graves, special effects, and a post-Katrina/Rita all-male dynasty. Eek!

The Most Fabulous Story is a re-writing of the Old Testament. “It starts in Eden. Adam looks over the fence, and it all goes to hell in a handcart! They invent civilization, wind up in Noah’s Ark (where the bartender is a rhinoceros, and there is an amorous pig), get enslaved by a fabulous pharaoh, and wind up at the Nativity. The second act is in contemporary New York.”

Nite Club Confidential is “a film-noir musical, a cross between Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve. Stars on the rise and a diva on the rocks! Very stylistic, with American songbook music plus new original music. … It takes place in the Eisenhower years.”

The Haunted Host was one of the very first gay plays in New York, and is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. Strait acted in a performance in San Diego in 1983, and it was reportedly the first show that Harvey Fierstein ever did.

In addition, Desert Rose will feature a special attraction in March: Dorothy Kirk, a 65-year-old monologist. Strait muses, “I love a storyteller. We don’t get a lot of lesbian participation, so this will change that. It is charming!”

Tickets go on sale in August; www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory

MASTER CLASS, by Terrence McNally: Oct. 23-Nov. 10

THE STORY OF MY LIFE, by Brian Hill and Neil Bartram: Dec. 4-22

A PERFECT GANESH, by Terrence McNally: Jan. 22-Feb. 9

FRANKIE AND JOHNNY IN THE CLAIR DE LUNE, by Terrence McNally: March 19-April 6

Louise Ross, the theater’s PR lady, is “really excited” about this season’s theme.

“McNally is one of America’s greatest playwrights, and we’re doing a collection of his work,” she says.

The 84-seat theater, raked for visibility, is the home of Ron Celona’s brainchild. The first Wednesday and Thursday of each show are considered preview nights (with tickets $30 instead of the usual $40); that first Thursday is also a “talkback,” featuring an audience Q&A.

“McNally has a way of being thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time. He brings controversial subjects into life situations, and makes you want to talk about what you’ve seen afterward,” says Ross.

I saw Master Class, about a celeb teaching opera, years ago in L.A., and it was stunning, with everything depending on the role of Maria Callas. Frankie became a movie, marvelous with Pacino and Pfeiffer. Ross told me about a stage version with Stanley Tucci and Frances Sternhagen—and why this show has an audience advisory due to language and brief nudity, a first for CV Rep.

Ganesh is a search for The Exotic by two white ladies in India. “It starts with an ordinary situation and becomes this whole other world,” says Ross, “about your bucket list.”

More info at www.cvrep.org.

Dezart Performs

EXQUISITE POTENTIAL, by Stephen Kaplan: Nov. 22-Dec. 1

INVASION OF PRIVACY, by Larry Parr: Jan. 31-Feb. 9

SIXTH ANNUAL PLAYREADING SERIES, April 11-19

Artistic director Michael Shaw co-founded this 5-year-old group, known for its play-reading series on which the audience votes, with the winner produced the following year. Last season brought a tie—so both plays are being produced this coming season.

Exquisite playwright Stephen Kaplan came to the reading (and was very pleased), and intends to be here again for the production. “It’s brilliant, clever, one of the most interesting story lines ever,” enthuses Shaw. The comedy-drama deals with a man who believes his 3-year-old son is the Messiah—to the surprise of his rabbi and his pregnant wife.

The second play resonates with Shaw, who once lived in Central Florida, where it is set. Invasion is about a relationship that becomes a libel suit—one that really went to the Supreme Court in the 1940s. Shaw knows the life depicted in the play well. “I had alligator stew often, and my dad used to catch wild turkeys and snapping turtles for dinner. I want to hang moss for this show!”

Considering everything happening news, these topics are as timely as ever, Shaw says.

“Tickets will be on sale in July!” promises Shaw, who keeps the ticket prices to a sensible $18-$22; www.dezartperforms.com.

Desert Theatreworks

THE MOUSETRAP, by Agatha Christie: Nov. 1-10

MARRIED ALIVE, by Sean Grennan and Leah Okimoto: Dec. 6-15

BLAZING GUNS AT ROARING GULCH: Jan. 24-Feb. 2

THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK MUSICAL: March 14-23

The Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert is now home to the Desert Theatreworks, with Lance Phillips-Martinez at the helm. He tells me that Mousetrap is the longest-running play in the world—and it already had that distinction when I saw it back in London in 1966! It’s a whodunit murder-mystery, of course.

Married is a new musical which he describes as “zany,” with newlyweds and “oldyweds” looking at marriage. Blazing is an old-fashioned “mellerdrammer” in the Wild West, with songs, skits and a very hissable villain.

Trailer is a musical that is “the theatrical equivalent of a bag of Doritos,” says Phillips-Martinez, “at Armadillo Acres in Florida—a fun, fun, fun time!”

It’ll be exciting to watch this new company as it enters the desert’s theatrical community; www.dtworks.org.

Palm Canyon Theatre

THE SOUND OF MUSIC: Oct. 4-13

AVENUE Q: Nov. 8-17

SHREK: Dec. 6-22

LES MISERABLES: Jan. 24-Feb. 9

9 TO 5: Feb. 28-March 9

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR: April 4-20

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE: May 2-11

SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL: July 11-20

This coming season, the downtown Palm Springs mainstay is focusing on big Broadway shows—and they’re throwing in a “classic series” of one-weekend shows as well. We’d tell you more, but nobody from the theater got back to us before our press deadline; www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

Watch CVIndependent.com frequently for updates, reviews and theater news. Enjoy!

The era depicted in Bye Bye Birdie must seem like ancient history to the kids in the cast of the production at the Palm Canyon Theatre. But for those of us who do remember those days, the show ironically recalls—and satirizes—that amazing time.

Thanks to J.W. Layne’s versatile set, the décor hurls us back in time to the iconic designs of 1958. Throughout this musical—which hit Broadway in 1960, followed by the big screen in 1963—we are treated to the outrageous colors, fashions and dance styles of the time. A big salute to Se Layne Tethal and her crew for the costumes, Mado Nunez for the hairstyles and wigs, Nick Edwards for props, Anthony Nannini for his choreography, Layne Tethal for the lighting, David McLaughlin for his musical direction, and all the crew members who pitched in. Of course, big kudos go to director Matthew Gose, who beautifully brought it all together. Whew!

Then there’s the cast: The actors range in age from single digits to seniors. The story is about an Elvis-like Conrad Birdie (apparently derived from singer Conway Twitty’s name) getting his draft notice from the Army (which, of course, actually happened to Elvis, no doubt throwing his management into fits at the idea that he might be forgotten by teenagers, notorious for short attention spans). So his agent comes up with the idea of memorializing Conrad’s last kiss, of a small town girl, who will obviously never forget him—hopefully leading the way for his other followers.

Everything spreads out from that. We meet Birdie’s agent, Albert Peterson, played magnificently by Dane Whitlock, and his annoyed secretary, Rosie Alvarez, played by the fabulous Layne Tethal. Peterson’s mother, Mae Peterson, is played for laughs by a scary Amanda Burr.

We meet the girl who is selected to be the recipient of Conrad’s last kiss, Kim MacAfee, solidly played by young Sasha Chasen. Her family: the nervous mother played by Colleen Walker, and the chauvinistic blustering father, played by Tom Warrick.

And her friends! Brace yourself: The screaming kids open the show, pounding down the stairs right through the audience. The tireless teens sing and dance and emote throughout, just like teenagers did then, and do today. Kim’s boyfriend, Hugo Peabody, is moodily played by Max Mule. The town’s mayor, with Charles Gaines in the role, and Shirley LeMaster as his wife, lead the ensemble.

Of course, there’s Conrad Birdie himself. It would be interesting to know how Nicholas Sloan learned the moves of Elvis. He’s impossibly slim, with a pouty arrogance so like that of The King when he started out; Sloan catches all of the qualities that made kids go wild with excitement—and parents wild with horror—when Elvis burst onto the scene (and changed the music business overnight). Dressed in boots and over-the-top costumes, he’s perfectly cast.

The show, of course, is filled with ebullient song-and-dance numbers. From the wild writhing of the teenagers, to the breath-taking grace of Layne Tethal and Whitlock, the variety is delightful. This show gave us some unforgettable songs: “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and “Put on a Happy Face” were recorded by nearly everybody in the business, and have become classics. “Kids,” performed here by Walker and Warrick, enchanted everyone. “A Mother Doesn’t Matter,” done by the martyred harridan Mae, played by Burr, elicited appreciative laughs from the men as well as the ladies in the audience.

The sound, despite a couple of tiny glitches—the cast has to be careful with hugs while wearing face and Lavalier microphones—was as good as we’ve heard at the Palm Canyon Theatre. That said, there’s a lot of screeching that, amplified, made some heads ring. Basically, everyone yells. The singers are pitched at the top of their range, a technique used to create excitement, but that doesn’t always work with every voice; even sopranos have their limits. The hard-edged sound so often required in musical comedy can sometimes wear on listeners.

Not surprisingly, the show is dominated by the old pros, who display lovely energy and secure stage presences when compared to the frenetic youth. The writing throughout is bright, and the conflicts move along rapidly. A special “Ole!” to Se Layne Tethal for her “Spanish Rose” number, which managed to be sexy and clever at the same time.

Bye Bye Birdie’s short two-week run concludes this coming weekend. Of course, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the film version—as if you needed a reason to see it.

Bye Bye Birdie is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 23; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, May 24 and 25; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 26, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, and the show runs about two hours with one intermission. For tickets or more info, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org. Also: The theater is offering a Summer Kids Camp from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, from June 17 through July 27 ($125 per week); visit the site for more details.

The eyebrow-raising title alerts: This is probably not just another cabaret show. And then playwright-actor-singer-lyricist-dancer David Pevsner proves it isn't.

Making its world premiere at the Desert Rose Playhouse, Musical Comedy Whore escorts us into another world. The one-act, one-man show is the season’s closer for Desert Rose. (Artistic director Jim Strait opens the evening with a description of the company’s history and the shows on tap next season, which begins on Sept. 27.)

Pevsner pops onto the stage wearing a plain green T-shirt and old jeans. Gasp—is he not even wearing makeup? Where is the razzmatazz and glitter of “musical comedy” that we’ve come to expect? Good heavens—he hasn’t even touched up his graying hair! What are we in for?

The answer to that question: raw honesty. Pevsner is here to tell us about his life—unvarnished, unretouched, unpardoned. He neither whines nor makes excuses nor assigns blame, as he begins with his childhood and guides us through the tales of his sexual experiences, all while using song and dance. There are no props, no costume changes—nothing but his narrative. Talented pianist Patrick Karst (perhaps you’ve seen him at Spencer’s) kicks in with occasional vocal harmonies, but other than that, this is simply one man’s barefaced story of growing up gay in America. Yes, there are plenty of four-letter words and explicit descriptions, but Pevsner’s focus on the truth makes us realize that the story could be told in no other way.

The excellent lighting by Phil Murphy, the slick stage management of Steve Fisher, and the shrewd direction by Randy Brenner make for a smooth and professional production. The show’s lyrics were penned by Pevsner, with a host of contributors of original music.

We watch Pevsner work without a break, or so much as a sip of water, for a solid 90 minutes—an awesome task from which young cabaret aspirants could learn much about work ethics. He leads us through the tale of his strange, scary and sometimes dangerous sexual adventures.

Already I can hear people thinking: “Yes, but do we need to know this? TMI?” Even Pevsner anticipates this, and with a shrug, he admits that the show is written as much for himself as for us.

Which brings us to: How many of us are capable of standing on a bare stage and recounting our most intimate moments to a live audience? This immediately re-focuses our perspective: Out of the 333 million people in America, how many could perform such a show? This realization makes Musical Comedy Whore a very rare experience. When you see the show, realize—whether or not it makes you squirm—that you are in the presence of unflinching honesty from a brave and fearless writer-performer.

The cozy, year-old LGBT and gay-friendly Desert Rose Playhouse is located in the Commissary, on Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. The natural acoustics are so marvelous that Pevsner performs without amplification; what a relief it is to be spared the ear-splitting volume and annoying feedback so common nowadays.

I only wish that the charming managing director, Paul Taylor, could somehow rake the seating so that visibility everywhere is equal. Getting stuck behind a couple of large heads can compromise one’s appreciation. However, the theater’s energy is beautiful, warm and satisfying, and the chairs are comfortable.

You’ll probably leave the show with many mixed feelings … but could you do what you just watched Pevsner do?

Musical Comedy Whore is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, June 16, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, at The Commissary, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $25, and the show runs 90 minutes without an intermission. For tickets or more info, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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