CVIndependent

Mon06252018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

What better way is there to deal with heartache on a 4 a.m. subway ride than to immerse oneself in a crossword puzzle?

That’s the mindset of Janet, the female character in Jerry Mayer’s 2 Across, now playing the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre. But the buttoned-up psychologist can’t seem to get a moment’s peace once free-spirited Josh barrels onto the subway car just as the doors close; he keeps trying to chat her up.

So opens the two-character comedy that artistic director Ron Celona has chosen to close CV Rep’s romance-themed season. It’s fun, funny and, yes—romantic. The dialogue and pacing are a bit reminiscent of situation comedies … which is not surprising, given playwright Mayer’s many years as a writer for shows like Bewitched and Bridget Loves Bernie.

During the 80-minute Bay Area Rapid Transit ride, we learn a great deal about the backgrounds and life philosophies of Josh and Janet as they each tackle the same crossword puzzle. Their styles are very different: She is a by-the-book kind of gal who believes all rules should be followed, that “a library card is a contract,” and that cheating on a crossword puzzle is sacrilege. (Her childhood nickname was “Granite Janet.”) Josh, an unemployed ad exec, is the very definition of laid back. He feels calling the 900 number for help on the puzzle is no big deal, and when it all gets too frustrating, he simply throws it away. Though he’s Jewish, Josh has brought a barbecued pork sandwich on the train as a snack. “I don’t follow dietary rules” he explains, ignoring Janet’s horror that he would dare violate the “No Eating on the Subway” sign posted in plain sight.

They banter back and forth, argue, flirt and slowly strip away the masks we all tend to wear when meeting someone new. Josh is charming, funny and likable. He’s also persistent in his efforts to win over Janet. When Janet bluntly announces that “she’s not the least bit interested," he retorts, “Well, try harder!”

With a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry between the leads is essential. Luckily, there is plenty between Andrea Gwynnel (Janet) and Joel Bryant (Josh). Veteran actors with impressive national credits, both are attractive, charismatic and comfortable onstage. Every moment in the arc of their blossoming friendship rings true.

Local actress Deborah Harmon, who directed the world premiere of 2 Across at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2004, is guest director here and does a superb job.

Special mention should be made of the terrific set, lights and sound. The recreation of a BART train, complete with periodic announcements of stops, is spot-on.

Congrats to Ron Celona for selecting a perfect piece to end CV Rep’s 2017-2018 season. 2 Across is light-hearted, upbeat and fun.

2 Across is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 20, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Artistic director Jim Strait has never played it safe when choosing material to produce at the Desert Rose Playhouse. Local audiences have come to expect edgy fare from the valley’s only LGBT theater company—and Desert Rose’s current production, the world premiere of Allan Baker’s Dare, does not disappoint.

The play won New York’s 2017 Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Award for Best Political Play, beating out 299 other submissions. The contest encourages the writing of plays that focus on social, cultural and political issues—and Baker, who hails from Austin, has been an LGBT advocate in Texas for many years. Since 2004, he has penned 13 plays, most with gay characters and themes.

Dare introduces us to 82-year-old Jack (Richard Marlow), who lives in a nursing home in California’s Central Valley. Tired of living, Jack has decided to end it all by starving himself to death. Nursing-home administrators send in gerontology consultant Josh (Matthew Hocutt) to find out why Jack has made such a rash decision. Though both Jack and Josh are gay, their life experiences have been quite different, due to the disparity in their ages.

Jack regales Josh with tales of his past as an activist in the early days of LGBT liberation. In flashback scenes, we go along on the journey from San Francisco in the 1970s to Fire Island in ’78, then on to New York City in both 1987 and 1990.

We see a young Jack struggle to maintain his buttoned-up banker image by day while letting loose with wild experimentation in the bathhouses of New York at night. He meets the love of this life, young David (Noah Arce), who helps him loosen up and embrace his true identity. The relationship is intense, but not monogamous, because “commitment wasn’t the engine that drove that train.”

Then the scourge of AIDS rears its ugly head. “You could feel the fear growing in the village … and then people started dying,” Jack says, while railing against those who would pass judgment: “It just happened—don’t give it a moral spin!”

As Jack’s story unfolds, Josh comes to understand the older man’s end-of-life choice. Jack has his reasons, including the fact that “there’s a great quiet now that all my friends and family are gone.” As a theater veteran, he feels the dramatic arc of his life is complete.

The cast of five is strong. As the nursing-home attendant, Robbie Wayne makes quite an impression in two brief scenes at the beginning and end of the play. His character’s animosity towards homosexuals is palpable and disturbing.

Terry Huber’s portrayal of the younger, conflicted Jack is right on the money. His reluctant willingness to dress in drag and learn the movements to Madonna’s “Vogue” are fun to watch.

As Jack’s young lover, David, Noah Arce is quite a find. Stunning and androgynous, Arce perfectly embodies the free-spirited innocence, enthusiasm, determination and sensuality of young gay men at the time. It’s easy to see why Jack would fall for him.

Matthew Hocutt is terrific as Josh. With his clipboard, glasses and lab coat, he’s all business, yet kind and understanding as he absorbs Jack’s story. The audience can see his growing affection for the old man. It all rings true.

But the clear standout is Richard Marlow as Jack. This character is a huge part for any actor, including several long monologues and a wide range of emotion; there are times when it almost seems like a one man show. Marlow is absolutely up to the task. We feel his physical pain and weakness, his lust and love for David, his anger and frustration over widespread homophobia, and the peace he seems to have found at the end of his life. There is not one false note. It is truly an acting tour de force; if Marlow does not win an award for this performance, there is no justice in the world.

Once again, director Strait deserves great credit for eliciting strong performances from his cast. Material like this needs a director with sensitivity and passion, and Strait’s work exhibits both.

The set, costumes, sound and lighting all work well. Kudos to Steve Fisher, the stage manager, who helps keep the whole production running smoothly.

Dare is a gay-themed show, but there are lessons here for everyone. We all feel “different” from time to time. That’s when we should remember Jack’s advice: “You’re not like them … remember that. It’s the source of your strength.”

Desert Rose Playhouse’s Dare is terrific theater. Go see it.

Dare is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 13, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayouse.org.

As I sat in Michael Childers’ gorgeous Rancho Mirage home—his award-winning photographs adorning the walls—he told me the story of how the hugely successful One Night Only show came to be.

The star-studded annual event, a benefit for Jewish Family Service of the Desert, will return to the McCallum Theatre Wednesday, April 25.

It all started nearly 13 years ago, Childers said, when he approached his dear friend Barbara Keller about putting on a variety show; it was an idea he’d had great success with in Santa Fe, N.M. The concept was simple: Assemble a cast of veteran cabaret performers and a great orchestra; choose crowd-pleasing musical numbers; and raise an impressive amount of money for a local charity. Keller spoke to her board of directors at Jewish Family Service—which provides psychological counseling, food, housing and other services to valley residents, regardless of religious affiliation.

A new Coachella Valley tradition was born: One Night Only premiered in the desert, with Childers’ buddy Lily Tomlin as the mistress of ceremonies. It was a smash, and now the event sells out every year.

It’s a large undertaking that takes a full nine months of planning. When deciding on the theme, Childers thinks about what he and audiences would like. Last year, it was the music of Jerry Herman; this year, it’s the classic music of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart. Jason Graae is back for his second year as director, with musical direction by Christopher Marlowe.

Childers and the director sit down with their rolodexes and choose the cast. Because of the show’s stellar reputation, many veteran cabaret performers clamor to be part of it—even though the performers are donating their time. However, being in the show has its perks: Childers says the stars are treated well, with glamorous parties and such—plus a few days in Palm Springs is very appealing if you’ve been dealing with months of chilly weather in New York.

This year’s cast is slated to include Liz Callaway, Ann Hampton Callaway, Davis Gaines, Julie Garnye, Bets Malone, Sal Mistretta, Faith Prince, Billy Stritch, Teri Ralston, Bruce Vilanch and many other stage veterans.

Weary of the traffic and backstabbing in Los Angeles, Childers moved here in 1999 with his partner, Oscar-winning film director John Schlesinger (who later died of a stroke). Calling the valley “a wonderful, very philanthropic community,” Childers quickly became involved in the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and joined the board of the Palm Springs Art Museum.

A world-famous photographer, Childers currently has an Andy Warhol-themed show on display at the Palm Springs Art Museum. His work is also being featured in San Diego and will be on display at Yale University in the summer of 2019. A frequent lecturer on the subject, Childers said a great photographer is consistent and produces a lifetime of work, including iconic photographs.

When asked what makes a great live stage show, Childers’ answer was simple: Fit the show to your target audience, and keep it moving—don’t let it go on too long. This year’s One Night Only is slated to be a compact 90 minutes, with no intermission.

So what’s left on Childers’ bucket list? He’s working on an autobiography, called And I Have the Pictures to Prove It. Music education is one of Childers’ passions—and he’s very proud of One Night Only, calling it an iconic production in the desert.

One Night Only, a show benefiting Jewish Family Services, takes place at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 25, at the McCallum Theatre, 73000 Fred Waring Drive, in Palm Desert. Tickets are $75 to $175, with a limited number of VIP tickets, including an after-party, available for $495. For tickets or more information, call 760-340-2787, or visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.

When a reviewer puts down her pen because what’s happening onstage is just too darned riveting to take any more notes, you know you’ve got a hit—and such was the case with opening night of Motherhood Out Loud, the final show of the season for Dezart Performs.

Conceived by Susan R. Rose and Joan Stein, the show consists of 19 short stories about the trials, tribulations and exquisite joys of being a mom. Starting with the painful, messy birthing process itself (“Fast Birth Fugue” by Michele Lowe), the play covers just about every aspect of parenthood imaginable, including foreign adoption, surrogacy, step-parenting and dealing with autism.

This was one of those magical nights at the theater when everything worked. First, artistic director Michael Shaw (who also directs this production) has once again chose a superbly written play—and then he cast it extraordinarily well. Finally, he seemed to find just the right touch as a director … not too heavy-handed, but not too laid-back, either. Obviously, the audience knows a director was involved, but the performances seemed to flow from each actor organically.

Desiree Clarke gets to show off her comic chops early in the show while sharing advice on how to minimize the damage childbirth can do to a woman’s body and her sex life (“Squeeze, Hold, Release,” by Cheryl L. West), and then much later, when her grown-up daughter brings home a questionable suitor for Thanksgiving dinner: “Sierra says Conrad is vegan, so we’ll have to carve the turkey in the mud room, under a sheet.” (“Thanksgiving Fugue” by Michele Lowe).

The always-impressive Melanie Blue shines brightest as a Muslim mother helping her daughter deal with her first menstrual period (“Nooha’s List” by Lameece Issaq), and a mom driving her 15-year-old autistic son to the movies with his new girlfriend (“Michael’s Date” by Claire LaZebnik).

Leanna Rodgers has great stage presence, and really draws us in as an elderly woman being interviewed about motherhood by her 12-year-old great-grand-daughter (Melanie Blue). When asked what she likes best about being a mother, Rodgers replies, “I never really liked being a mother,” and admits to loving some of her children more than others.

James Owens, the one male in the cast, mostly pops in here and there to support the female scenes. But he provides one of the evening’s highlights with “If We’re Using a Surrogate, How Come I’m The One With Morning Sickness?” by Marco Pennette. It’s a funny, moving look at what gay men must go through to become parents. Owens commands the stage and handles the scene with great skill.

The cast is superb across the board, but if I had to pick one standout, it would be Theresa Jewett. She is most memorable portraying the conflicted mom of a young boy who likes to dress as a girl (“Queen Esther,” by Michele Lowe), and breaking our hearts with the maternal anguish over a son sent off to war (“Stars and Stripes” by Jessica Goldberg). Jewett is an exceptional actress. Every emotion rings true, and you can’t take your eyes off her.

The other vignettes are penned by Leslie Ayvazian, Brooke Berman, David Cale, Beth Henley, Lisa Loomer, Theresa Rebeck, Luanne Rice and Annie Weisman. Thomas L. Valach’s minimalist set works very well here, as do the costumes (Frank Cazares), the lighting (Phil Murphy) and the sound (Clark Duggar).

Motherhood Out Loud runs just more than 90 minutes with no intermission. The outstanding acting and the seamless flow of one scene to the next makes the production fly by. It never drags, which is always a blessing for a theater-goer. Congratulations to Michael Shaw and his company for ending their 10th season on such a high note.

If you are a mother, there are sure to be many relatable moments in this show. If, like me, you chose not to have kids, it may evoke a few twinges of regret. Dezart Performs’ Motherhood Out Loud will make you laugh and cry—and it will also make you want to go call your mom. Do yourself a favor … go see it.

Motherhood Out Loud, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

In the program notes for Dirty Blonde, Coyote StageWorks Founding Artistic Director Chuck Yates mentions he has wanted to present this play, which focuses on Mae West, since the theater’s inception 9 years ago. Since 2018 has been dubbed “The Year of the Woman,” he chose the perfect time to do so: Whether or not you’re a Mae West fan, it’s impossible to deny that she was an icon of womanhood, in her own way.

Written by and starring Claudia Shear, Dirty Blonde ran Off-Broadway in 2000, and on Broadway in 2000 and 2001. (Interestingly, it’s one of just a few plays in Broadway history to have its entire cast nominated for Tony Awards.) The show explores the phenomenon of West through the eyes of two devoted fans—aspiring actress and office-temp Jo, and public-library film archivist Charlie. They meet while visiting West’s grave, and develop a warm friendship based on a mutual love of the bawdy sex symbol.

Both Charlie and Jo are lonely and seem to be missing something in their lives, so finding in each other a fellow Mae West groupie seems like coming home. Jo idolizes West as an example of female strength, confidence and sexual liberation; after all, West spoke her mind and didn’t care a whit what anyone else thought. Mild-mannered Charlie, who actually got to meet and spend some time with West in her later years, is simply in awe of the star, describing her as “blonde and tough and ready for sex.” He basks in her flirtatiousness, and some of her sexual confidence even seems to rub off on him: When in her presence, he becomes the man he’s always wanted to be.

The scenes between Charlie and Jo are interspersed with vignettes from West’s career, from her early days in Vaudeville to her decline into parody while she was in her 80s. The audience is reminded of what a trailblazer she really was. Her battles with censors were legendary; she defied orders to tone down her hip swiveling in dance numbers, and even spent 10 days in jail for public lewdness during the run of her self-penned play Sex on Broadway.

Director James Gruessing has assembled a stellar cast; each member plays multiple roles with great skill. As Mae West and Jo, Bets Malone is simply superb. She perfectly captures both the sweet insecurity of Jo and the bold outrageousness of West. Though prettier than West herself, Malone nails it when it comes to West’s toughness—including the “don’t mess with me, but jump into bed when I snap my fingers” message to men. Of course, she has some of the play’s best lines: “I’ve seen more men than you’ve had hot lunches.” When an assistant is dismissed by West’s suggestion that he run down to the corner, he challenges her by asking, “What’s down on the corner?” Her answer: “YOU!” A strong actress, Malone also exhibits great pipes during the musical numbers.

Also an outstanding actor, Steve Gunderson plays Charlie with subtlety and tenderness. His growing affection for Jo is touching and believable, as is his conflict over whether he’s simply attracted to Mae West … or does he actually harbor a desire to be her? The onstage chemistry between Gunderson and Malone—crucial to this play—is quite strong.

Rounding out the cast is the fabulous Larry Raben, who portrays multiple characters, including West’s little-known husband, Frank Wallace. An actor knows that jumping back and forth between characters (and costumes) throughout a production is not easy, but Raben handles it with ease. He has great comic timing (as does the entire cast), and owns the stage whenever he appears.

Josh Clabaugh’s lovely set and Moira Wilkie’s lighting design are spot on. Special mention must be made of Bonnie Nipar’s lush costumes: The bright colors, sequins, glitter and boas are perfect for West’s larger-than-life persona. The hair and makeup are quite well-done in this production as well.

The musical numbers (the original score is by Bob Stillman) are a delight, especially “Dirty Blonde” and “Oh My, How We Pose.”

Kudos once again to Yates for choosing to mount this production now. It is so relevant to the current national conversation (long overdue) about what kind of sexual banter is and is not appropriate, and the movement for women to finally have both equal power in the workplace and complete control over what happens to their bodies.

I have a feeling Mae West would have quite a bit to say on the matter. Thank you, Mae, for your courage, your bluntness and your refusal to be anything other than what you were. And thank you, Chuck Yates and Coyote StageWorks, for giving valley audiences such a compelling and enjoyable evening of theater.

Dirty Blonde, a production of Coyote StageWorks, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 3; 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 4; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 7; 2 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 8; 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 10; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs one hour and 40 minutes, with no Intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.coyotestageworks.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory and artistic director Ron Celona have a well-deserved reputation for offering first-rate theatrical productions—and the latest effort, Romance/Romance, does not disappoint.

To put it simply … the show is phenomenal.

With book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann, Romance/Romance was first produced in 1987, and received five Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical.

The show consists of two one-act musicals. The first, The Little Comedy, is based on a short story by Arthur Schnitzler; it’s set in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Alfred and Josefine, both well-off but lonely, each decide that creating a less-affluent persona might increase their chances of finding true love. He pretends to be a nearly penniless poet, while her charade is that of a poor seamstress. They meet while walking in the park … and soon fall in love. The progression of their romance is detailed in letters each writes to friends. The question is: How long can they keep up the facade? And will their love endure if they come clean about their true identities?

Both Conchita Belisle Newman (Josefine) and Christopher Carothers (Alfred) are superb. Blessed with beautiful, robust singing voices, they take us on a lovely romantic journey. Their acting is quite good as well, and the onstage chemistry is palpable. The musical numbers, including the hopeful “It’s Not Too Late” and “I’ll Always Remember the Song,” are all memorable, but the highlight of the first act has to be Josefine’s poignant “The Night It Had to End,” exquisitely sung by Newman.  

Supporting cast members Eric B. Anthony (Him) and Robyn Cohen (Her) add the perfect touch to the first act, performing lovely, skillful dances that take us from scene to scene and tie it all together.

Act II, Summer Share, is based on Jules Renard’s play Le Pain de Ménage. Set in modern times, it introduces us to best friends Monica (Newman) and Sam (Carothers), and their respective spouses, Lenny (Anthony) and Barb (Cohen), who are on vacation together. Though Lenny and Barb have always been fine with the platonic bond between Monica and Sam, things seem to shift on this trip. Suspicions (and other things?) are aroused after Barb and Lenny retire to bed, and the friends are left alone to chat in the wee hours. They wonder if their relationship is really platonic (“Let’s Not Talk About It”). Could their respective marriages survive an affair? Every long-married woman can relate to the yearning for sweet nothings in “Words He Doesn’t Say” (flawlessly delivered by Carothers).

In this act, the chemistry between Newman and Carothers is not just palpable—it is electric. The audience almost feels heat coming from the stage; it’s a terrific example of damn-good acting.

Anthony and Cohen are featured more in the second half, and they are both triple threats—fabulous actors, singers and dancers, with great comic timing. Their duet “Small Craft Warnings” is particularly notable.

There is much to like about this production, but what really stands out is how everything just flows together. Before the first note is played, one is struck by the gorgeous set. The cast is uniformly excellent; kudos to Ron Celona for both his spot-on casting and direction. The costumes, hair and makeup and lighting are wonderful.

Special mention has to be made of musical director Jaci Davis and the band, featuring Davis on piano, Daniel Gutierrez on keyboards, Bill Saitta on bass and Dave Hitchings on percussion. Their perfect blend supports the singers without being overpowering.

Whether you are a hopeless romantic, a theater aficionado or someone who simply wants an entertaining evening out, Romance/Romance is the ticket.

Romance/Romance is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 11, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is a little more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July broke new ground in the theater world when it premiered in 1978—because it depicted gay characters as “normal” people rather than lisping queens. This makes it a worthy selection as the Desert Rose Playhouse’s annual Gay Heritage Production.

The play’s four week run begins this weekend, and the production, directed by Jim Strait, had some definite flaws on opening night—but it’s worth seeing.

The play is the last of three plays featuring the Talley family of Lebanon, Missouri. The others are the one-act Talley’s Folly, about Sally Talley and her soon-to be husband Matt, and Talley and Son, about her father and grandfather.

Fifth of July revolves around Kenny Talley, Sally’s nephew and a gay Vietnam vet who lost his legs in the war; he is living in his childhood home with his botanist lover, Jed. As the play opens, Kenny is wrestling with whether or not to return to his former career as an English teacher. Faced with the prospect of stares and pity from his students over his physical condition, he opts not to.

Enter Ken’s sister, former flower-child June Talley, and her precocious daughter, Shirley. They have come to visit, along with longtime friends John Landis and his wife, Gwen. John is considering buying the Talley House and converting it into a recording studio to support his wife’s fledging career as a country-music singer. Later it is revealed that the relationship between June, Shirley, John and Gwen is more complicated than it seems.

Also along for the ride are Gwen’s guitarist, Weston Hurley, and Sally Talley, who carries her husband Matt’s ashes around in a box a year after his death. John’s desire to buy the family home does not sit well with Sally.

There are some nice moments of affection between Kenny (Brent Anderson) and Jed (Jason Hull) in this production, though there is a lack of intensity—a problem with much of this show. Anderson does a nice job of portraying the bottled-up self-hatred of being “a crippled fairy,” as he describes himself. However, much of his dialogue is hard to understand due to a lack of vocal projection. I’m not sure if this was an artistic choice for the character, but Anderson’s sometimes overly quiet speaking prevents the audience from really connecting with Kenny.

Jason Hull’s Jed is a steady presence, tending to both Kenny’s needs and his beloved garden. He is a likable character, though a little more onstage energy and intensity would let the audience see more of who he really is.

The pacing is slow at the top of the show, but really picks up with the arrival of Melanie Blue as Gwen. She bursts onto the stage full of bravado and a lust for life, thanks in part to her dreams of country-music stardom. Blue has terrific charisma and an energy level some other cast members should match. When young Shirley declares, “I intend never to have sex in my life!” randy Gwen wisely counters: “No honey, that’s not what you intend.”

Another strong member of the ensemble is Michael Pacas as Gwen’s hubby, John. His character has a lot on his mind—family secrets, possible record deals and a house purchase, all while he’s trying to keep his spitfire wife happy. He juggles it all, and manages to keep John likable.

As June Talley, Ann Van Haley has some nice moments of genuine affection for daughter Shirley, but often seems uncomfortable onstage. James Owens is perfectly cast as the laid-back, drugged-out guitarist Weston, and has some of the play’s best lines. When asked, “Don’t they have air in New Jersey?” he replies: “Oh, they got somethin’, but it ain’t air.”

Interestingly, the two standouts in the cast (other than Melanie Blue as Gwen) are the youngest and oldest actors. Every time young Monique Burke’s Shirley opens her mouth, the audience is riveted. Possessing boundless energy and charisma, I predict a bright future for Ms. Burke in the theater world. And valley favorite Alden West is nearly perfect as Aunt Sally. Whether recounting experiences with UFOs, losing track of the candy box containing her late husband’s ashes, or fighting to hang on to the family homestead, West hits all the right notes. She is a joy to watch.

While the Act I sometimes seems a bit disjointed, things fall into place much more in Act II. Many loose ends are tied up, and we do feel genuine affection for these folks as the lights go down.

The lighting, sound, set and costumes all work well. A shout-out goes to Steve Fisher’s work as the stage manager.

I have great respect for Jim Strait’s skills as a director, and I’m confident that he can help even up the ensemble. More vocal projection here and there, a couple of speed reads and an overall injection of energy would do the trick. Fifth of July is a worthwhile story, and there is enormous potential here.

Fifth of July is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 4, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about two hours, with a 15-minute Intermission. For tickets or more information call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Dezart Performs’ artistic director Michael Shaw has chosen to kick off Greater Palm Springs Pride and the company’s 10th season with The Legend of Georgia McBride—and I can’t imagine a better play for him to choose. Matthew Lopez’s hilarious yet touching romp through the world of small-town drag shows hits all the right notes and is enormously entertaining.

The show opens with Casey (Sean Timothy Brown) entertaining a small crowd at a Panama City, Fla., bar with his Elvis impersonation. Though Casey is not a bad Elvis, the nightly audiences are dwindling steadily, and the bar owner, Eddie (Chet Cole), is not happy. Deciding that a drag show just might do the trick, Eddie calls his female-impersonator cousin Tracy (Michael Mullen) to help save his business. Casey is out of a job—and at the worst possible time: His young wife, Jo (Brianna Maloney), is pregnant, and their latest rent check has bounced.

Tracy soon arrives, with fellow drag queen Rexy (Hanz Enyeart) in tow. The two are a hit with the bar patrons (much to Eddie’s relief), but temperamental Rexy (short for Miss Anorexia Nervosa) has a problem with booze. When she passes out drunk one night right before her Edith Piaf number, Tracy and Eddie enlist Casey to take her place—and the financial pressures of impending fatherhood cause the initially resistant Casey to eventually give in.

Tracy’s efforts to prepare Casey for his drag debut are a hoot. Dubbing him “Georgia McBride,” Casey admonishes him to “Suck it in, bitch … beauty hurts!” while struggling with a waist-whittling corset. Her advice on what to do if he forgets the words to his lip-synced song is priceless.

After a shaky start, Casey begins relishing his new female persona, and the crowds love him. Not everyone is pleased, however. Rexy is angry about being replaced, and Jo is shocked to discover that the wads of cash her young husband is bringing home come from him prancing around onstage in sequins and lipstick.

Director Michael Shaw has once again proved his skill at casting. Each actor in The Legend of Georgia McBride is terrific. There really is not a weak link.

Chet Cole hits all the right notes as Eddie. He’s a likable, jovial and charismatic emcee for the nightly shows at his bar, but when it comes to the bottom line—what’s in the till—he can be tough as nails. When his unrecognizable cousin Tracy shows up in full drag and appears to come on to him, Eddie blurts out: “Look. I’m sure we had fun, but I’m sterile!” Eddie’s increasingly flashy attire, including his holiday-themed sunglasses and toupee, are perfect.

Brianna Maloney is adorable as Casey’s long-suffering wife, Jo. We can see how much she loves him, and their chemistry is strong. But we also understand that, with unpaid bills piling up and a baby on the way, her belief in his talent may not be enough. Maloney’s acting is quite good; however, there were times during opening night—particularly early in the play—when some of Maloney’s lines got lost. Stronger vocal projection is the answer. It’s one tiny flaw in this production, and one that can be easily remedied.

In dual roles as Rexy and Casey’s buddy and landlord, Jason, Hanz Enyeart is superb. When he makes his entrance as Rexy—clad in a leopard jumpsuit and Elton John-esque rhinestone sunglasses—it’s hard to take your eyes off him. His Amy Winehouse number, “Rehab,” is flawless. Enyeart proves he has some serious acting chops, too: His monologue recalling a severe beating he endured in his early days as a drag queen is riveting.

Sean Timothy Brown is excellent as Casey. We can feel his sincere love for Jo, his drive to succeed as an Elvis-tribute artist, and his initial hesitance about performing onstage as a woman. The audience goes along for the ride as he blossoms into a bona fide drag star, and we root for him every step of the way. It’s hard to choose a favorite among his musical numbers—they are all laugh-out-loud funny—but his Edith Piaf, and, later, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” stood out for me.

If there is a standout in this stellar cast, it would have to be Michael Mullen as Tracy. First of all, he makes a damn good-looking broad. Though he’s been knocked around by life as a drag queen, he has a kind, maternal side to him, especially when he’s coaching Casey on the finer points of performing as a female. Mullen is one of the best drag queens I have seen: He looks great as a woman; dances well, even in 4-inch heels; and really captures the sass, attitude and humor necessary when portraying pop divas like Cher and Diana Ross. He is a fine dramatic actor as well. When he challenges Casey in an intimate scene to be honest about who he really is, you can hear a pin drop.

Huge kudos go to both Doug Graham for his amazing choreography and Kara Harmon for her costume design. James Geier’s wigs and Timothy McIntosh’s makeup design are also spot-on. The set design, sound and lighting are also top-notch.

Shaw gets the best out of everyone in the cast. The glitz and glam of the drag numbers is appropriately over-the-top, yet the emotion and humanity of the characters is very real.

Dezart Performs has offered the Coachella Valley fine theatrical productions over the past 10 years—but this is among the company’s best shows. The cast had the audience members on their feet, cheering and clapping along with the final musical number. There is only one word that sums up this incredibly entertaining night of theater: Bravo!

The Legend of Georgia McBride, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 to $32. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

What better way to rev up Greater Palm Springs Pride than with a play about a struggling Elvis impersonator who finds great success … as a drag queen?

That was the thinking of Dezart Performs artistic director Michael Shaw when he chose The Legend of Georgia McBride—a play he described as heartwarming and “funny as heck”—as the opening production of the theater’s 10th anniversary season.

The Legend of Georgia McBride debuted in 2015 and has been performed successfully several times, including runs in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Dezart is using the costumes from the San Francisco production—and costuming has been very challenging, Shaw said. There are three drag-queen characters, requiring a total of 19 wigs and 20 dresses. The staging, including multiple lip-synced musical numbers, has also posed a challenge on Dezart’s relatively small stage at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The story revolves around Casey (aka Georgia McBride), a beleaguered young Elvis impersonator who is barely making a living. Bill collectors are calling, and Casey has just learned that his young wife, Jo, is pregnant. Then he loses his Elvis gig at a run-down Florida bar; the owner, Eddie, brings in a mediocre drag queen named Rexy as the new entertainment. When Rexy gets too drunk to perform one night, his companion Tracy tutors Casey on the finer points of female impersonation—and a star is born.

Shaw says he easily cast the roles of Casey (Sean Timothy Brown), Jo (Brianna Maloney) and Eddie (Chet Cole) right here in the desert; the two more-seasoned drag-queen characters, Rexy (Hanz Enyeart) and Tracy (Michael Mullen), were harder to find.

“I auditioned several excellent drag queens here in the valley—and there are some darned good ones—but there is some serious dramatic acting required in this play, and being a fabulous drag queen wasn’t quite enough.” Shaw said.

So far, the cast has meshed well. “They adore each other!” Shaw said.

When asked what is unique about this play, Shaw paused. “Casey is a lost young man; he throws himself into Elvis and other characters because he really doesn’t know who he is. Casey hides behind the other personas because they are more together than he is. He is a man-child who cannot even balance his checkbook.” However, Tracy takes Casey under his wing and makes him an amazing drag queen—and a better person, too.

Just two years out of high school, young Brianna Maloney said she is thrilled to be performing in her first play with Dezart Performs. She did quite a bit of musical theater at Palm Springs High School with David Green, who introduced her to Shaw. Brianna calls her character, Jo, “the boss” in the marriage with Casey. Jo loves her husband, but she is frustrated by his irresponsibility. She knows the Elvis thing is his passion—but it’s not paying the bills, which is an even bigger problem now that a baby is coming. Still, she gets a kick out of Casey’s Elvis performances, and to some degree lives vicariously through him.

Sean Timothy Brown calls his character, Casey, a simpleton. ”He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer,” Brown said. But Casey is passionate about performing, and loves being onstage. He takes to the drag stuff quickly, and finds that “Georgia McBride” has traits he wishes he had himself.

Brown—who had never done drag before this show—worked with Shaw previously in the cast of Dezart’s production of Clybourne Park. Local audiences have also seen him in Bad Jews, by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, and as Daddy Warbucks in Palm Springs High School’s recent production of Annie.

Shaw says that with all of the musical numbers, The Legend of Georgia McBride is unlike anything Dezart has ever done. There is no particular theme to this year’s 10th anniversary season, which will be celebrated with an anniversary party and fundraising event hosted by Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge on Sunday, Jan. 14.

Shaw said he’s looking forward to starting the season on Pride weekend with The Legend of Georgia McBride.

“It’s a play with a heart of gold,” Shaw said. “It’s so much fun!”

Dezart Performs’ The Legend of Georgia McBride will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Nov. 3, through Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $40 for opening night with a post-show reception; $32 for evening performances; and $28 for matinees. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off its sixth season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s witty look at lost dreams and family dysfunction. The production is almost home run … almost.

The show opens as middle-aged siblings Sonia (Adina Lawson) and Vanya (Jim Strait) bemoan their uneventful lives over a cup of coffee in their Bucks County, Penn., house. Neither has moved out of their childhood home. It’s where they cared for their aging parents (now both deceased), and where they enjoy refuge from the trials and tribulations of life, subsidized by their movie-star sister, Masha (Heather Brendel). Vanya is a gay, mild-mannered, aspiring playwright, while 52-year-old Sonia (adopted into the family at age 8) is unmarried and bipolar.

Soon, their voodoo-practicing, fortune-telling cleaning lady, Cassandra (Alma Lacy), arrives, bringing with her predictions of doom and gloom. Things really get intense when Masha shows up unexpectedly, with her new young boy toy, Spike (Cody Frank), in tow.

Arrogant and demanding, Masha is tormented by the fact that her ingenue days are long gone. She needs the spotlight like the rest of us need oxygen, and must always be the center of attention. She looks down on Sonia and has little sympathy for her sister’s frequent emotional outbursts. Sonia, meanwhile, resents having sacrificed years of her life caring for their late parents while Masha was jet-setting around the world.

In the midst of the bickering, Masha makes two big announcements. First, she’s decided to sell the house, forcing her siblings to find more modest accommodations; second, they’ve all been invited to a costume party down the street. It’s all been planned out, and Masha has brought costumes for everyone. She will be attending as Snow White; Spike will be the Prince; and Sonia and Vanya are relegated to the roles of dwarfs. Sonia refuses, instead stealing her sister’s thunder as the Evil Queen (as interpreted by Maggie Smith).

Soon, the lovely Nina (April Mejia) is added to the mix; she’s an aspiring actress who lives next door. Masha is flattered by Nina’s admiration, yet angered that the young girl has captured Spike’s interest.

Everyone in the cast has memorable moments in this production, but the acting is uneven at times. The amazing Adina Lawson is unquestionably the standout. Her Sonia is riveting, hilarious, pitiful, poignant and wise, all at once. She has some of the best lines in the play. While extolling the virtues of her late father, she adds, “And he never molested me,” to which her brother replies “That’s nice.” Later, when someone suggests she could get a job at CVS, she shoots back: “I’d prefer death.”

Jim Strait’s Vanya seems a bit too subdued early on, but he has some great comic moments as he attempts to hide his sexual attraction to Spike. He definitely rises to the occasion in a passionate monologue near the end of the play during which he rails against the losses of his life, including black-and-white TV, and postage stamps you had to lick.

Alma Lacy’s Cassandra is a real hoot. Her blustering entrance—she’s clad in a billowing caftan and a curly red wig—really makes an impression. She throws herself into the voodoo sequences wholeheartedly, and makes the audience believe she really does have supernatural powers.

Heather Brendel is cast well as B-movie queen Masha. Her comedic acting chops are evident during her spats with Sonia, and her futile efforts to keep Spike from stripping down to his skivvies. Her performance seemed a bit one-note in the early scenes, but the character became fleshed out later on. Some of Brendel’s best moments are as Snow White (the Disney version), a persona she really makes her own.

As vapid sex-object Spike, Cody Frank holds his own, but he could use a little more swagger. This is not the first character Frank has played which called for him to show some skin. He has the body for it and is certainly is easy on the eyes. But parading around onstage in your underwear takes a lot of self-confidence—and that is sometimes missing in this performance.

Rounding out the cast as Nina, April Mejia does a fine job. Wide-eyed and innocent, she is the quintessential sweet ingénue. She’s absolutely adorable when she reluctantly appears in her dwarf costume, as mandated by the jealous Masha.

Special mention needs to be made about the sound design and exquisite original music by Mark Bennett. It adds just the right touch to the play.

Robbie Wayne wears several hats regarding the production. His set design and costumes are terrific. As the director, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast. The main problem here is pacing: Timing is everything in comedy. Perhaps it was a case of opening-night jitters, but there were occasions when you could drive a train through the pauses between the actors’ lines. I think a couple of speed-read run-throughs might do the trick. There were also a couple of dead spots during costume changes, during nothing was happening onstage, that went on too long.

Despite these minor flaws, I recommend seeing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It’s funny, sad and thought-provoking—and a good way to kick off the Coachella Valley theater season.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.n., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 15, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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