CVIndependent

Thu08132020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Valerie-Jean (VJ) Hume

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.

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!