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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

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.

Desperate for an escape from the current chaos swirling around us? I have just the ticket: See Clark Gable Slept Here at Desert Rose Playhouse. This terrific play will transport you into another world … filled with lurid sex, glamour, murder—and lots of laughs.

Michael McKeever’s dark comedy opens with the corpse of a naked man (David Boyd) face-down on the floor in a posh suite at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Hollywood. Estelle, the maid (the fabulous Melanie Blue) is in a state of hysteria, while hotel manager Gage Holland (Winston Gieseke) and Hollywood agent Jarrod “Hilly” Hilliard (Michael Pacas) are trying to discern what actually happened, and what to do about it.

It’s a delicate situation, since the dead man on the floor is apparently a hooker, and the hotel room had been rented to Jarrod’s biggest client, action star Patrick Zane—who is supposedly straight, married and up for a Golden Globe Award that night. The timing could not possibly be worse.

Enter Morgan Wright (the incomparable Yo Younger), a Hollywood “fixer” who has been dragged away from her prime seat at the awards ceremony (and the welcome attention of a flirtatious Jon Hamm) to take care of this PR disaster.

Hilarity—along with a great deal of colorful language—ensues. With no intermission, the 90-minute show moves along at a brisk pace.

The cast is uniformly superb. Blue’s Estelle is a hoot. She describes stumbling upon the body in Spanish, yet her over-the-top gestures make it easy to understand everything she’s saying. She keeps the audience laughing throughout the evening, when she delivers a comic yet pious prayer over the dead man, or sneaks swigs of whiskey while pretending to dust. Her physicality reminds me of a young Carol Burnett.

Winston Gieseke strikes just the right notes as Gage, who is trying hard to maintain the dignity of his position as manager of the hotel. Concerned about the scandal of finding a dead male prostitute in his establishment, he sniffs that “the Chateau Marmont has a rich and illustrious history.” Jarrod shoots back: “which I’m sure is filled with dead prostitutes.”

Michael Pacas’ Jarrod is spot on. He completely captures the shallow, self-important aura of a Hollywood agent: “This is not about a dead hooker—this is about ME!” Later on, he points out: “This is Hollywood; no one wants reality!”

As the hooker (whose real name is Travis), David Boyd convincingly portrays the weariness and angst of a young man feeling old before his time due to his profession, but there were a couple of occasions when he could have used a bit more vocal projection.

But the clear star of this show is Yo Younger as Morgan. From the moment she enters—hair upswept and resplendent in a fire-engine red gown and huge drop-diamond earrings—the stage is hers. Clearly irritated by having to clean up this mess rather than sip champagne and play footsie with Jon Hamm at the Golden Globes, Younger snaps at everyone in her path, dropping the f-bomb frequently. When Jarrod begins to chime in with an unwelcome comment, she fixes him with a steely glare: “Don’t you say it, or I’ll punch you in the throat!”

As the lurid details of the evening are revealed, Morgan must repeatedly check in by phone with her team of “fixers.” Younger’s delivery of a line inquiring about dwarfs on record is priceless. She glides effortlessly from anger to sarcasm, to flirtation and back again. I have reviewed Younger many times, and she’s always good—but this may be one of the best performances she’s ever given in the valley.

Director Jim Strait deserves a great deal of credit here, beginning with the casting. Each actor plays off the other beautifully. He keeps the action moving and the laughs coming. Bravo!

Mention must be made of the gorgeous set. It is lush, opulent and perfect. As usual, the costumes, lighting and sound are excellent.

Run, don’t walk, to see Desert Rose’s production of Clark Gable Slept Here. You will laugh yourself silly as you enjoy an evening of escape from reality. And God knows, we could all use a little of that.

Clark Gable Slept Here is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 28, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111 in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Coyote StageWorks’ The Lady With All the Answers, a play by David Rambo, offers an inside look at the life of advice columnist Ann Landers.

Landers was part of American popular culture for decades, offering words of wisdom on everything from marital troubles to the proper method for hanging toilet paper. What many may not know is that the woman most of us know as Ann Landers was not the first Ann Landers.

Back in 1955, Landers (born Esther Pauline Friedman, or “Eppie”) was a comfortable wife and mother to one daughter. She began reading the original Ann Landers advice column in the Chicago Sun-Times. Not overly impressed, Landers called the paper, asking if she could help the columnist answer some of her mail. It turns out the original answer lady, a nurse named Ruth Crowley, had just died, and the paper was looking for a replacement. Eppie got the gig—which led to fame, fortune and the nickname “The Answer Lady.”

The multi-talented Gloria Loring stars as Landers, and she is terrific. Impeccably dressed and coiffed in a bouffant wig, Loring comes across as classy and elegant, yet down to earth, just as Landers herself was. She roams about her lovely Chicago apartment (the set is superb), alternately sharing letters from previous readers, answering new ones, and reminiscing about her life and career.

We learn that while shopping for bridal veils for a double-wedding with her twin sister Pauline (who later became Dear Abby), Landers fell for the salesman and later married him after breaking off her engagement. And many folks may not be aware of just how politically active Eppie was: An avid Democrat, she went to Washington, D.C., as a young wife and got to know Hubert Humphrey, Justice William O. Douglas and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When she later quoted them all in her columns, her editor worried the paper would be sued for fraud—until Landers assured him that these men were indeed her friends. Landers was vehemently against the Vietnam War, and frequently told Lyndon B. Johnson that the U.S. needed to get out of the conflict. He would look at her sadly and reply, “I know, Eppie, I know.” She visited hundreds of hospitals in Vietmam, and spent hours calling soldiers’ families with words of comfort and reassurance.

Though Ann Landers counseled the masses through marital discord—likely saving many marriages—she could not save her own. When, after 30-plus years of wedded bliss, her husband confessed to a three-year affair with a much-younger woman, Landers simply announced: “This marriage is over.” Her struggle to appropriately share this news with her readers in a column drives The Lady With All the Answers.

Loring is known as an actress on Days of Our Lives, as a singer on her No. 1 hit “Friends and Lovers” with Carl Anderson, as the author of several books including Coincidence Is God’s Way of Remaining Anonymous, and for her philanthropy in the field of biomedical research after her son was diagnosed with diabetes. Here, Loring effortlessly conveys Landers’ warmth and humor. Her interactions with the audience are quite entertaining, particularly her surveys on how to hang toilet paper and a discussion on teenage sexual experimentation.

Loring has a great stage presence and perfect diction. Carrying a one-person show is not easy, but she knocks it out of the park. She is particularly effective in moments of silence, letting the previous moment sink in before moving on to the next revelation. We feel her pain when discussing her divorce, yet she’s always dignified and in control.

Much credit also goes to director Don Amendolia, who elicits a spot-on performance from Loring and keeps the play moving along while maintaining a sense of intimacy.

If you’re someone who must have huge productions like Les Miserables, then The Lady With All the Answers may not be your cup of tea. But for those who love quiet, intimate, thought-provoking theater, it’s just the ticket.

The play allows us to really get to know Ms. Landers, a woman always spoke her mind. Now, one bit of advice from me: Go see Coyote Stageworks’ The Lady With All the Answers at the Annenberg Theater. It’s darn good.

Coyote StageWorks’ The Lady With All the Answers is performed at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 15; 2 p.m., Sunday, April 16; 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 19; 2 p.m., Thursday, April 20; 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 21; 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 22; and 2 p.m., Sunday, April 23, 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 105 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.annenbergtheater.org.

Given the hatred and divisiveness our country’s socio-political climate has stirred up, Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production, Southern Baptist Sissies, seems timelier than ever.

Del Shores’ play, which won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding L.A. Theatre Production during its original run in 2000, skillfully illustrates the painful conflict faced by homosexuals of faith who long to remain part of a church community that rejects the very essence of who they are.

The play tells the stories of four young men coming of age in Dallas. Each boy is trying to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality while also remaining an active member of the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church.

Mark (Joseph Tanner Paul), who also serves as the narrator, is sarcastic and bitter over the church’s narrow-mindedness about gays and its rigid rules for life—“So in God’s eyes, eating shrimp is just as bad as sucking cock.” Mark is a pivotal role, and Paul nails it. He’s a strong presence onstage—funny, acerbic and angry, yet often incredibly vulnerable.

Mark is strongly attracted to T.J. (the charismatic, well-built Cody Frank), who is in major denial about his own preference for men: “I am living a normal life with a woman—the way God intended, and I am happy!” T.J. spouts Bible verses and feigns interest in women, while brushing off a youthful sexual encounter with Mark as insignificant. Frank makes T.J.’s inner turmoil quite believable.

The sensitive, guilt-ridden Andrew (German Pavon) is the first of the quartet to accept Jesus as his personal savior. He prays fervently by day and secretly explores gay nightclubs by night. Andrew’s nightly fantasies are not of sweaty sex, but of caresses and a gentle male voice assuring him that he will always be taken care of. Pavon’s acting is quite effective; he makes the audience want to wrap him in a giant hug.

By far the boldest of the four boys is Benny (the amazing, androgynous Ben Heustess), who wholeheartedly embraces his gayness, dressing in drag and lip-syncing to Shania Twain songs with great glee. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part. Heustess is riveting—you cannot take your eyes off him. He excels not only as a female impersonator, but also at revealing the character’s deep inner pain.

Calvary’s preacher (the perfectly cast Larry Dyekman) holds forth with typical fire and brimstone, adamant that obedience to God is always the answer.

Local favorite Joey English is effective and holds her own as the mothers of each of the four young men. She has some of the show’s best lines. When discussing her trailer-park neighbor with the preacher, she quips, “She’s Catholic, you know—just one step off from them Jee-hovah’s Witnesses.”

Throughout the play, we are treated to brief scenes at a gay-themed bar called the Rose Room. There, we watch the growing friendship between the alcoholic Odette (Linda Cooke) and the equally booze-loving Peanut (Hal O’Connell). Both have many regrets in life, and there are some serious moments—but most of their interaction is a hoot. Odette repeatedly refers to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and admits that “when you give head like me, word gets out.” Cooke and O’Connell have fabulous chemistry and provide some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Rounding out the superb cast is Douglas Wilson as both church organist Brother Chaffey and lounge-pianist Houston.

Steve Fisher’s direction deserves special mention. He brings out the best in his cast. There are some profoundly emotional moments in this production, and each actor hits just the right notes without going over the top. It’s worth noting here that there are simulated sex acts and some nudity in this play—not an unusual occurrence in Desert Rose productions. The set, lights, sound, hair and makeup (particularly Benny’s drag get-ups) are all spot on.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Southern Baptist Sissies is not just a play about homosexuality and religion. It’s about the universal fear of letting others see who we really are. At one point, Mark recalls that while his mother taught him to love her, his father, Jesus and Elvis, “I guess she forgot to teach me to love myself.” What a different world this would be if we all learned that lesson early on.

But perhaps Benny sums it up best late in the play when he muses: “Maybe the world is just the way it should be. … Maybe we are ALL right … the gays, the Baptists, the Muslims, all of us.” What a different world, indeed.

Southern Baptist Sissies is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Contains nudity and adult situations. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

If you’re not a Muslim, imagine being a Muslim living in America today.

Would you be brave enough to wear traditional garb? Would you discuss your heritage openly? Or would fear cause you to change your name and hide who you are? These are some of the questions CV Rep’s fantastic production Disgraced addresses.

Though Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered in 2012, it could not possibly be any more timely than it is now. The fear, anger and bigotry our current political climate has stirred up make this play with a Muslim protagonist painfully relevant.

The tight, 80-minute production centers around Pakistani-American lawyer Amir Kapoor (Arash Mokhtar), and his American-born artist wife, Emily (Elizabeth Saydah). Amir has abandoned his Muslim upbringing: He has changed his name from Abdullah and calls himself an apostate. He passes himself off as Indian in order to get ahead in the world of corporate mergers.

Emily, meanwhile, is drawn to the exotic nature of Islamic art, and embraces Islam far more than her husband does. As the play opens, Emily is completing a portrait of her husband. She hopes the piece will be reminiscent of Diego Velazquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja, a Moorish slave. The comparison, she explains, came to her after a waiter was rude to Amir at a restaurant. Emily laments the man’s inability to see her husband for who he really is, while Amir himself shrugs off the incident as just part of the racism he deals with every day.

Soon, Amir’s nephew (Kamran Abbassian) arrives. He has also turned his back on his heritage, having changed his name from Hussein Malik to Abe Jensen. Abe is seeking Amir’s help in defending a local imam who is facing charges of terrorist activity. Amir is not keen on the idea, fearing professional reprisals for getting involved in the case. When Abe tries to guilt his uncle into helping the fellow Muslim, Amir insists that he no longer practices the religion. But eventually, Amir relents and meets with the imam, though his firm is not officially defending the man. The meeting is mentioned in a newspaper article, which Amir worries could damage his professional future.

Soon, Emily gets a visit from Isaac (Joel Polis), a Jewish art gallery owner who is married to one of Amir’s colleagues, an African-American woman named Jory (Maya Lynne Robinson). He is impressed with Emily’s work, and is considering putting some of her pieces in an upcoming show.

Things come to a head three months later, during a dinner party at the Kapoor home, attended by Jory and Isaac. Amir is in a foul mood. His involvement in the Imam case has caused his law partners to question his heritage, and they are now accusing him of misrepresenting himself. The dinner conversation soon gets heated, as Amir ponders his Muslim heritage.

This production succeeds on every level. The cast is superb. I agree with an audience member who, during the post-show Q&A, called it one of the best examples of an ensemble cast he’d ever seen. However, each actor also stands out.

Mokhtar’s Amir is flawless. (Frustrated at the inability to find the right person after seeing 20 different actors, director Joanne Gordon finally struck gold and cast him via Skype.) Mokhtar’s striking good looks and charm initially hide the animosity and conflict boiling just beneath the surface. We feel for him as he struggles with questions of loyalty and cultural identity, as well as the possibilities of losing both his wife and his career.

Saydah, as Emily, is both stunning and a dynamite actress. The strong chemistry she has with Mokhtar makes us root for them as a couple. We want to see her achieve her dreams of stardom in the art world, and to live happily ever after with Amir.

Polis’ Isaac hits all the right notes as a typical New York art dealer. His intense, climactic scene with Amir hits the audience in the gut, as it should.

Abbassian holds his own as the young, earnest Abe.

Perhaps my favorite member of the cast is Maya Lynne Robinson as Jory. A strong, charismatic dramatic actress, she also provides most of the evening’s comic relief. When Isaac turns to her during a heavy political discussion and says “Honey, it’s racial profiling,” she snaps back: “I know what it is!”

I applaud artistic director Ron Celona’s choice to hold a Q&A immediately after every performance. It allows the audience to share some of the intense emotions the play stirs up, and to get to know the players a bit. Perhaps the most enlightening moment during the opening-night Q&A was the revelation that director Joanne Gordon grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. She vividly recalls that in those days, it was literally against the law for a white person to touch a black person. Perhaps that’s why she handles this play with such skill.

Jimmy Cuomo’s set is exquisite, while the lighting and sound are also spot-on.

Disgraced brings up important questions. Who are we, really? Is cultural bias in our DNA? The time to find these answers is now.

Disgraced is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 2, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, March 14. Tickets are $48, and the running time is 80 minutes, with no intermission, followed by a Q&A. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Angst over the current political climate seems to be leading many people to seek escape in a variety of ways—and live theater is a popular choice. While Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s Expressions is a well-executed play, and it may take your mind off the details of what’s going on in the White House for a while, make no mistake: It’s no light-hearted diversion.

Its themes—post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), alcoholism and family dysfunction—are quite serious, indeed. Written and directed by DETC’s executive director, Shawn Abramowitz, Expressions is a stark and unflinching look at all of those issues.

As the play opens, we meet cousins Paul (Cameron Keys) and Joseph (Nick Wass) as they prepare for a family party to celebrate their graduation from high school. Each young man is contemplating what his next step in life should be. While Paul is thinking about attending community college and a film career, Joseph has decided to join the Army, largely due to his admiration of his Uncle Steven, a Vietnam vet. Steven’s stories of adventure and heroism have convinced young Joseph that a life in the military is the way to go. However, Paul has experienced a much different side of Steven over the years: His father’s alcoholism and emotional neglect have left their scars. Paul is hurt and bitter, and does not view his dad as the war hero Joseph does.

Joseph’s parents, Emily (Kelley Moody) and Karl (Fergus Loughnane), arrive home with supplies for the party. Karl is also a Vietnam veteran, and has a bad case of PTSD. He is emotionally withdrawn, and loud noises send him into a panic. The last thing he would want is for his son to become a soldier and face the horrors of war. He and Emily know their son has applied to several colleges, and feel confident he will be safely ensconced in university life come fall.

When Uncle Steven (James E. Anderson III) shows up, he heads straight for the bar. The tension between the adult brothers is thick: Despite the damage the war did to his soul, Karl has managed to keep his professional and family life together, at least on the surface. Steven, meanwhile, drowns his sorrows in a bottle. His wife walked out shortly after he returned from the war, and he has virtually no relationship with Paul.

Steven applauds his nephew’s choice to join the Army, telling him: “America needs you. You’d make a great solder!” He even tags along when Joseph secretly enlists. When the secret comes out during the family celebration, all hell breaks loose. There are several twists and turns in the plot, which I won’t give away here.

The acting is strong across the board. Wass and Keys have great chemistry as the young cousins, and both ably convey the combination of uncertainty and bravado typical of 18-year-old boys.

Moody (also the morning weather anchor at CBS Local 2 News) is compelling as the wife struggling to deal with her husband’s illness (“I love you, but you’ve got to get your shit together!”) and terrified of losing her only son. She has many nice moments onstage with Loughnane, who is terrific, as always. He’s one of the valley’s strongest actors, and seemingly never gives a bad performance. The audience feels his love for his wife, his fears for his son’s safety, and his anger and frustration over what he sees as his brother’s failures.

As the troubled Steven, Anderson is fabulous. The climactic scene in which Steven comes clean to young Joseph about what really happened in Vietnam should be required viewing for every acting student. There is not a single false note.

Kudos to Abramowitz for his directing skills here. He elicits strong, emotional performances from each cast member, and no one ever goes over the top.

Abramowitz wrote Expressions partly as an homage to his own father, a Vietnam vet who lost three fingers in combat. His dad spent 35 years battling with Veterans Affairs to get the treatment he needed. Both father and son agree something that needs to change.

No, this is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good play—but it is definitely worth seeing. It will move you, make you squirm, make you think and possibly even make you cry. Isn’t that what good theater is supposed to do?

Expressions, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Ave., in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory artistic director Ron Celona has put on some fabulous productions since the theater opened its doors in 2008—but he has truly outdone himself with his current offering, Baby—The Musical.

The show, with book by Sybille Pearson, music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., ran on Broadway in 1983-1984. It tells the story of three different couples and how they each react to the news of impending parenthood. College students Lizzie (Melody Hollis) and Danny (Caleb Horst) have just moved in together, and seem much more at ease with the prospect of having a baby than with the commitment of marriage. Thirty-somethings Pam (Erica Hanrahan-Ball) and Nick (Perry Ojeda), coaches at the same college, are facing the heartbreak of apparent infertility. The oldest couple, 43-year-old Arlene (Janna Cardia), a stay-at-home mom of three grown daughters, and 48-year-old university staff member Alan (Tom Andrew), are stunned by a surprise pregnancy. The audience goes along for the ride as each couple faces the trials, tribulations and joys involved in bringing a new life into this world.

One of the most impressive things about CV Rep’s Baby is director Celona’s success in fitting 10 actors and five musicians on his intimate stage without them looking like a can of sardines. Everyone moves on and off the stage smoothly, and it never appears crowded. That is no easy feat.

The excellent band features some of the valley’s best musicians—Daniel Gutierrez on the keyboard, Dave Hitchings on percussion, Doug MacDonald on guitar, Bill Saitta on bass and Scott Storr (also the musical director) on piano. A musical play is always a richer experience with live music rather than recorded backgrounds.

The cast is superb across the board; there is not one weak link. The excellent ensemble—Jaci Davis, Jeff Stewart, Giulia Ethel Tomasi and Joseph H. Dahman—serves as a sort of Greek chorus, moving the story along. Each of them also shines in minor roles, particularly Tomasi as a fertility specialist having trouble with her contact lenses, and Stewart as a snooty real estate agent.

The leads all exhibit impressive voices and strong acting chops. As empty-nesters Alan and Arlene, Andrew and Cardia ably convey the conflict over whether they really want to become mired in the formula-and-diaper routine again later in their lives. It felt as if the audience was collectively holding their breath as the two danced around the subject of terminating the pregnancy.

The sexual chemistry between Hanrahan-Ball and Ojeda, as Pam and Nick, is palpable. We share the pain they feel about not being able to conceive. While the singing is uniformly superb, Ojeda’s soaring voice stands out.

Hollis and Horst are perfect as college sweethearts Lizzie and Danny. Just starting out in life, they are trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the new life they’re creating. Hollis can really sing.

Baby has a difficult score, with many songs written in minor keys, but the cast handles them well. Some of the more memorable numbers include the rousing “Fatherhood Blues” featuring all the men, Danny’s romantic “I Chose Right,” “I Want It All” featuring the three female leads, and Lizzie’s hilarious “The Ladies Singin’ Their Song,” her lament about strange women patting her growing belly and sharing their own childbirth experiences.

Ron Celona’s direction is spot-on here, as are the costumes, set, lighting and sound.

It’s wonderful—and not all that common—to have absolutely nothing negative to say about a show. I had that experience watching CV Rep’s production of Baby. It’s not just about childbirth. It’s about life, love and the complexity of human relationships. This show will touch your heart … even if you have no kids—or don’t even like them.

Baby—The Musical is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 12, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. There is no show on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Tickets are $48, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966 or go to www.cvrep.org.

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