CVIndependent

Thu11142019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

Great theater should do more than just entertain us. Ideally, it challenges us, uplifts us—or stuns and outrages us, and perhaps forces us to re-examine some of our core beliefs. Dezart Performs’ production of Robert Askins’ Broadway hit Hand to God does all that—and more.

The story is set in a church basement in suburban Cypress, Texas. Just-widowed Margery (Yo Younger) has assembled a small group of volunteers to put on a Christian puppet show. In attendance are her troubled teenage son, Jason (Eddie Vona); his secret crush, Jessica (Brenna Williams); and local bad-boy Timothy (Danny Gomez).

Jason’s anger and grief over the loss of his father are raw. He blames Margery for not being able to provide the emotional support his dad apparently needed. Instead, the man turned to food for comfort—and ate his way into a fatal heart attack. Margery is also adrift; the loss of her husband—with the emotional and financial support he provided—has left her anxious. Compounding Margery’s stress are not-so-subtle sexual advances from both teenage Timothy and the church’s pastor, Greg (Roy Abramsohn).

Things start spinning out of control when Jason’s sock puppet, named Tyrone, begins describing Jason’s attraction to the mild-mannered Jessica in a lewd manner. Mortified by Jessica’s embarrassment, Jason attempts to muzzle Tyrone—to no avail. Seemingly possessed by the devil, Tyrone becomes increasingly obscene and violent. No one is spared: Every character gets a taste of the puppet’s vitriol, even Jason himself. It’s as if every bitter, hateful thing Jason ever wanted to say, but was afraid to, is now coming out of Tyrone’s mouth.

Jason’s ongoing battle with Tyrone is intense, often ugly, and almost always hilarious. At one point, Jessica shows up with a female sock puppet, which she offers up for therapy. Of course, chaos ensues.

Once again, director Michael Shaw has assembled a stellar cast. Each actor delivers a dynamite performance, but special mention must be made of Eddie Vona. He deftly conveys the angst of a boy mourning his father, who’s also conflicted about religion and his burgeoning sexuality. Vona’s puppeteering skill with Tyrone is outstanding, especially in the rapid-fire exchanges Jason and Tyrone have with each other. The audience becomes absolutely convinced that Tyrone is an autonomous being, not just a sock with felt hair being manipulated by someone else.

The always-superb Yo Younger does not disappoint. Prim and proper early in the play, and outwardly displaying the appropriate religious devotion, we see the sadness in her eyes—the fear and loneliness of widowhood, the regret over her rocky relationship with her son, and the worry about where life will take her next. When it all explodes, we are momentarily stunned … but then it suddenly all makes sense. No one can stay that buttoned-up forever; something’s got to give. Younger gives Mrs. Robinson a run for her money in a true tour de force performance.

As sneering, bad-boy Timothy, Danny Gomez is fabulous. Tall and well-built, he’s a physically imposing presence onstage. Think of a foul-mouthed, more brazenly sexual Vinnie Barbarino.

Roy Abramsohn is perfect as Pastor Greg. He exudes a fantastic combination of smarmy piety and barely concealed lust, with great comic timing. When the pastor suggests an exorcism to get rid of Tyrone, Jason asks, “Isn’t there supposed to be a young priest and an old priest?” Greg replies: “We’re not Catholic!”

Brenna Williams is quite good as the innocent Jessica. She, too, has some memorable comic moments. Early on, she chides Timothy: “You are so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia!” Her facial expressions during a lengthy puppet sex scene are priceless.

The colorful, whimsical set is excellent, as are the sound, lighting and costumes.

Congratulations once again to Shaw for choosing yet another provocative, entertaining play that pushes the envelope. Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is hilarious, but not for the faint of heart. It touches on subjects some may find uncomfortable—good versus evil, demonic possession and rough sex. But then again, isn’t touching on uncomfortable subjects what good theater is all about?

Dezart Performs’ production of Hand to God is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov, 17, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $35 to $40, and the running time is just less than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Americans have always turned to entertainment to get them through tough times like recessions, wars and political upheaval. Live theater, movies and music soothe our souls and offer a respite from a sometimes-harsh reality.

Given what’s happening in our country (and the world) presently, pleasant diversions seem more important than ever. Desert Rose Playhouse has just the ticket: Its production of Charles Busch’s Die, Mommie Die! is raucous, raunchy and hilarious.

The play was first produced in Los Angeles in 1999, with a film version released in 2003. Set in 1960s Hollywood, the play tells the story of aging, washed-up singer Angela Arden (Loren Freeman), who—although her voice is shot—is planning a comeback.

Her marriage to movie mogul Sol Sussman (Dr. David Brendel) is a sham. He’s battling major digestive issues, perhaps brought on by owing money to the mob. Of course, Angela has a lover on the side: unemployed TV actor/tennis instructor Tony Parker (Rob Rota), who is famous for his physical endowment. Daughter Edith (Melanie Blue) can’t stand her mother, but has an incestuous attachment to daddy. Gay son Lance (Matt E. Allen) has just been cast as Ado Annie in his college’s production of Oklahoma!—but he has come home after being expelled for burning down the gym in an anti-war protest. Lorraine Williamson is the booze-swilling, Bible-spouting maid, Bootsie Carp, who has a thing for Sol.

Without giving too much away, the plot twists involve murder, seduction, mistaken identity, LSD trips and giant suppositories. The play moves along at a fast clip, and the laughs are nonstop. The story is campy and definitely over-the-top—and this production excels, because the performances are uniformly stellar. There is no weak link. That, as any director knows, starts with wise casting, and Robbie Wayne has put together an amazing ensemble here.

Freeman is clearly the star of the show. In a flaming red wig, heavy makeup and gorgeous gowns, his Angela sashays across the stage with total command. Hearkening back to the movie divas of yesteryear, his portrayal has just a touch of Joan Crawford, but his low, gravelly voice is more reminiscent of an aging Lucille Ball. His comic timing is impeccable, and he tosses off insults with great aplomb. He describes daughter Edith’s micro-miniskirt as “two inches shy of giving away the whole candy store,” and calls Bootsie “a floor-scrubbing old hag.” Freeman is a fine actor and could offer classes in the art of being a drag queen.

Sol is the least-flamboyant character in the play, yet Brendel holds his own with the rest of the cast. His disgust with his cheating wife and his flirtations with his Lolita-like daughter are quite memorable, as is the suppository scene. (No further details will be given.)

As the spoiled, daddy-obsessed Edith, Blue is fabulous. I’ve seen Blue in multiple productions, and she never disappoints—she is a superb comic actress. The audience roots for her, whether she’s inappropriately sitting in her father’s lap or platting her mother’s murder.

Allen’s portrayal of the effeminate Lance is spot-on. In a fringed vest, no shirt and short shorts, he perfectly embodies the mommy-loving, daddy-hating, shy yet lustful college student. The implication is that he’s a bit off mentally due to drugs Angela took while he was in utero … which makes us love him all the more. When all hell breaks loose, Allen’s histrionic scenes with Blue are priceless.

Rota knocks it out of the park as promiscuous tennis coach Tony Parker. Strutting around the stage in skin-tight pants that leave nothing to the imagination, he seems to lust after anything that moves. He has an extremely expressive face and great charisma.

Williamson’s Bootsie is terrific. After 25 years as the Sussmans’ maid, she’s seen it all. With a secret crush on Sol and a determination to see Richard Nixon in the White House, she turns to the Bible (and a flask of bourbon hidden in her uniform) for answers. Williamson’s wry, understated line delivery is perfect.

Wayne deserves congratulations for guiding these pros to top-notch performances. Special mention should also go to Bruce Weber for an outstanding set, and Bruce Weber, Ruth Braun and Brandon Cincotta for costumes and hair design, which are crucial in this show. The mood music is just right, while Phil Murphy, Duke Core and Robbie Wayne for handle the extensive sound and lighting cues (including a massive thunderstorm) with great skill.

Desert Rose Playhouse has earned a strong reputation for fun, campy and risqué, yet professional theatrical productions. Die, Mommie Die! is no exception. It will take you on a wild, entertaining ride—and give you a welcome break from the real world for a couple of hours.

Die, Mommie Die! is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 27, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the run time is about two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

There’s a new entry in the Coachella Valley theater scene: Meet the Encore Theatre District.

Encore began in February 2017, when artistic director Tiffanie Patscheck and her son, Jeremiah Rhoads, took the first steps toward making their dream—presenting financially accessible theater with a message—into reality. The nonprofit company’s first production was a staged reading of Lydia, in September 2017. Written by Octavio Solis, it explores the experience of a Mexican-American family living on the Texas-Mexico border and trying to live their own version of the American dream. Patscheck says the play perfectly fit the company’s mission statement, which is “integrating diversity through the performing arts and inspiring the surrounding community.”

Encore just closed its second, 2018-2019 season with Falling, the story of a family struggling to raise their autistic son. The company partnered up with the Coachella Valley Autism Society of America, and Patscheck says the partnership helped the company set the proper tone for Falling—which earned rave reviews.

Social relevance is a key element in the plays Encore chooses to do, Patscheck says. She and her son have so far shared the directing duties. Encore is always looking for interesting plays—as well as a musical they could sink their teeth into, provided the company finds the proper sponsor.

“We don’t want to do what everyone else is doing,” Patscheck says.

Because of Encore’s community focus and the ample amount of talent in the Coachella Valley, Encore only casts local actors.

“There’s no need to look elsewhere!” she says.

Encore has been presenting its shows at the Black Box at Palm Springs High School, but Patscheck says she hopes the company can find a permanent home in the future. Like most local theater companies, Encore relies heavily on donations to stay up and running, and to keep ticket prices low ($20 in advance, and $25 at the door).

Patscheck, who began performing when she was 5 years old, says audiences for Encore’s productions have been enthusiastic, but small, and she’d love to see more public support.

Encore’s 2019-2020 season is slated to include an all-female series of one acts; an “avant-garde, minimalist” version of Alice in Wonderland; and 14, a piece regarding 14 immigrants who died in Yuma, Ariz. Patscheck said Encore is planning individual auditions for each show rather than season auditions.

“We embrace odd, funny, sometimes uncomfortable productions in a minimalistic way,” Patscheck says. “Our directors and actors create the illusion for the audience, and we hope to continue to bring the whole community into our silly little world.”

To find out more about Encore Theatre Company, visit www.facebook.com/encoretheatredistrict.

Dezart Performs Artistic Director Michael Shaw is ending the company’s 11th season on a perfect note with Audrey Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin.

Set in rural Alabama, this charming story follows the burgeoning romance between new neighbors Lizzy Nash (Kay Capasso) and Jack Key (Joel Bryant). Lizzy has taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher to mourn the loss of her husband in a roofing accident.

Jack, a physics teacher at the same school, has just moved in next door. He purchased the house not knowing that the previous owner died in the front bedroom, mere months after the man’s wife passed away. After Lizzy reveals this fact, Jack—a widower himself—becomes convinced the house is haunted, and takes to sleeping out on his back porch for safety. Featured prominently on that porch is a Maytag clothes dryer that Jack stubbornly refuses to move inside. Lizzy chooses to dry her laundry the old-fashioned way, on a clothes line, and finds the appliance an irritating eye-sore.

The neighbors discover a bag of old love letters the elderly tenant had written to his wife during their decades-long marriage, and they read them throughout the play. The tenderness of the letters helps Jack and Lizzy deal with the grief of losing their own spouses, and to slowly discover their feelings for each other.

In a two-hour play with only two characters, casting is crucial. If the performers don’t have strong acting chops and onstage chemistry, the audience is in for a long night. Thankfully here, director Deborah Harmon made excellent choices: Both Kay Capasso and Joel Bryant are superb.

Capasso’s Lizzy is conflicted, sexually frustrated, warm, likable and hilarious. The term “motormouth” does not adequately describe her penchant for chatter: The woman simply doesn’t shut up. Jacks sums it up perfectly, “You say it all out loud, huh?” When explaining why she can’t fall in love with a Catholic, Lizzy quips: “It’s just not done!” Her special meditation to “keep the dark thoughts out” is priceless. Capasso exquisitely captures all of Lizzy’s nuances. Her acting is flawless, and her Southern accent is spot-on. She has several long monologues in this production—hundreds and hundreds of lines to memorize—and I did not notice a single flub. Quite impressive.

As Jack, Joel Bryant is equally terrific. I’ve seen Bryant in several other valley productions, and he’s set the acting bar quite high for himself. He does not disappoint here: Attractive, well-built and charismatic, he commands the stage. Funny, friendly and kind, his Jack is the guy men want to be, and women want to be with. His attraction to Lizzy is apparent right away, but he realizes she is fragile and that he must tread carefully. Bryant’s comic timing is marvelous, and he handles the serious moments equally well. Not every actor could pull off the scene in which Jack breaks down when recalling his wife’s death. Bryant nails it.

It’s such a joy to see truly gifted actors ply their trade onstage. That is what you’ll see in this production of Maytag Virgin. I would encourage any acting student to check it out for that reason alone.

The production values are equally as good. Thomas Valach’s set could not be better. Every detail—from Lizzy’s collection of wind chimes to Jack’s statue of the Virgin Mary—seems just right. The costumes, lighting and song selection during the swift set changes are all fabulous.

Special mention should be made of the director: Deborah Harmon chose her actors well and then guided them expertly through the script. Even outstanding thespians need someone who knows what he or she is doing at the helm of the ship.

As a theater reviewer, it’s easy to second-guess yourself when you can’t find even a minor flaw in the production of a play: “Isn’t there something wrong here that I can write about?” But the truth is, there isn’t.

Maytag Virgin is a magical time at the theater. Go see it.

Dezart Performs’ production of Maytag Virgin is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 14, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35, and the running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

There is only one word to express the feeling one gets when entering Coachella Valley Repertory’s new digs: awe.

Artistic director Ron Celona and his board of directors have completely transformed the old IMAX theater in Cathedral City into a live playhouse worthy of Broadway. From the impressive “Wall of Donors” and the expansive refreshment bar with gracious bartenders, to the luxurious VIP Lounge (called the Producer’s Room)—complete with its own flat-screen TV, piano and automated sliding glass door—everything screams “class.” The lobby of the new CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City also features a rendering of the Cathedral City Downtown Arts and Entertainment District. With CVRep as a hub, if all goes according to plan, it will feature an outdoor amphitheater, an alternative transportation trail and the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians’ new gaming/retail and entertainment center. As for the playhouse, the $3 million price tag was covered by private donors, a loan from the city and a grant from the Cathedral City Downtown Foundation.

Then there is the theater itself: Celona has more than doubled his seating capacity (208 versus 86 in his previous location) and installed a massive 2,700-square-foot stage.

It’s all the realization of a dream Celona said kicked into high gear when he left his position directing plays at the Joslyn Center 12 years ago. He took a year off and traveled the country, picking the brains of other successful theater companies. Celona’s goal was always to produce “theater of substance,” he said, adding that Coachella Valley audiences have grown more sophisticated in recent years. As a result, the timing was just right for CVRep to take the step up to the current location.

The company’s production of Chess—with the book by Richard Nelson, lyrics by Tim Rice and music by ABBA’s Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson—was a wise choice to christen the new facility.

The musical tells the story of a world chess championship between brash American Freddie Trumper (Garrett Marshall) and dour Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (David Sattler); the characters are loosely based on Viktor Korchnoi and Bobby Fischer. Freddie’s assistant is the beautiful Florence (Gabriela Carrillo), who tries her best to keep him in line. Anatoly’s second, Molokov (Michael Dotson), is actually a KGB agent. The first game of the match does not go well, and a meeting is called to smooth things over. Florence and Anatoly eventually realize they have feelings for each other; this budding romance and Freddie’s erratic behavior cause Florence to leave her post.

The Russian wins the chess championship—and defects to the West. While defending his title year a later in Bangkok, with Florence by his side, Anatoly faces even more complications: His wife, Svetlana (Ashley Hunt), has showed up to watch the match. Meanwhile, Freddie’s agent, Walter (Glenn Rosenblum), suggests to Florence that her father, whom she has not seen since they fled Hungary decades earlier, may still be alive. I won’t give away more, but the plot is chock-full of betrayal, heartbreak and political intrigue.

The cast is stellar across the board. Garrett Marshall’s Freddie is spot-on—cocky, immature and full of swagger. As the somber Anatoly, David Sattler is excellent. He has a soaring singing voice and strong acting chops; both his romantic and patriotic conflicts ring true.

Michael Dotson is terrific as Molokov. Cold, calculating and sly as a fox, he embodies our vision of a Russian spy. The Russian accents used by both Dotson and Sattler are quite believable. As Freddie’s money-hungry agent, Walter, Glenn Rosenblum is a perfect fit, as is Jeremy Whatley as the arbiter, who enforces the rules of chess throughout the show, and keeps the matches moving along. Ashley Hunt is quite strong as Anatoly’s betrayed wife, with musical pipes that shake the rafters.

The ensemble (Sydney Clemenson, Brianna Maloney, Cassidy McCarron, Roman Skryabin, Daniel Sugimoto and Michael Rawls) adds the right touch to the proceedings. Each actor is featured in small speaking roles, and their group numbers are top-notch.

But the highlight in this superb cast is Gabriela Carrillo as Florence. Lovely and charismatic, she has us rooting for her immediately. We feel her frustration in trying to control Freddie, and then later, we relate to her true love for Anatoly. Her singing voice is flawless, and she has some of the best numbers in the show, including “Heaven Help My Heart” and her duet with Svetlana, “I Know Him So Well.”

“Chess” has a bit of a rock-opera feel, and some of the music is a bit dissonant. If you’re a big fan of Oklahoma! and hoping for tunes to hum on the way home, you may be a bit disappointed.

The orchestra, led by musical director Scott Storr on piano, is fabulous. The choreography, lighting, sound and costumes are all outstanding. Special mention has to be made of Jimmy Cuomo’s exquisite set.

But the biggest kudos of all have to go to director Ron Celona for assembling such an amazing cast and coaxing stellar performances from each actor. Chess is an impressive production that’s well worth seeing.

It’s amazing to see the dream that Celona has made come true. Thanks to him for providing the Coachella Valley with thought-provoking, quality theater—now in a gorgeous Broadway-style venue.

Chess is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, the CVRep Playhouse in Cathedral City, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive. Tickets are $53, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

The View UpStairs, the latest production at Desert Rose Playhouse, proves once again that the theater is in good hands with new producing artistic director Robbie Wayne.

Given our current political climate, where bigotry and hatred of those who are “different” seems more blatant and accepted than it’s been in years, this musical—the book, music and lyrics are by Max Vernon—is something we all need to see. The story centers around a 1973 arson attack at a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that killed 32 people. Up until the Pulse Nightclub massacre in 2016, it was the worst mass murder of gay Americans in our country’s history.

As the show opens, we’re transported back to the UpStairs Lounge shortly before the horrific crime. Set designer Bruce Weber has outdone himself here: The place is fabulously gaudy, tacky and filled with bling—topped off with a large nude portrait of a reclining Burt Reynolds behind the bar. Some audience members actually sit at tables onstage, making attendees feel like we’re part of the action. The lounge is a place where gay men could be themselves, sing, dance and escape from a society not yet ready to accept them.

The story soon fast-forwards to the present day. After several unsuccessful years in New York, aspiring fashion designer Wes (Van Angelo) has returned to New Orleans and purchased the rundown building which formerly housed the UpStairs Lounge, hoping to turn it into a boutique. One evening, Wes is transported back in time, and the characters who once frequented the lounge are all around him. At first weirded out by it all, Wes eventually goes with the flow, and quickly develops a strong attraction to the tall, handsome hustler Patrick (Matt E. Allen).

Underscoring all the action is piano man Buddy (Ben Reece), an Elton John wannabe who’s still in the closet about his homosexuality. Club owner and bartender Henri (Ceisley Jefferson) keeps an eye on things, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Patrons include the homeless Dale (Jacob Samples); Puerto Rican drag performer Freddy (Anthony Nannini), and his mother, Inez (Siobhan Velarde); and the aging, flamboyant Willie (DarRand Hall). Rounding out the group is Rita Mae (Ruth Braun), who leads prayer services for the Metropolitan Community Church at the bar, trying to establish allies in the community by soliciting donations for crippled children.

Director/choreographer Robbie Wayne has put together an excellent ensemble cast; there is not one weak link. Even in brief appearances as a cop in both the past and present day, Miguel Arballo is memorable.

Reece makes Buddy’s regret over his failed music career, conflict about his sexuality and continued lust for Patrick (after a brief fling) palpable. Jefferson is terrific as proprietor Henri, exhibiting a great combination of sass and soul.

As drag queen Freddy/Aurora, Nannini oozes charisma. His drag number, “Completely Overdone,” is fantastic, and the warmth between him and his doting mother (the fabulous Velarde) is genuine. Inez has totally accepted her son’s life choices—“I think gay men are more fun, anyway,” she says—and has one of the better songs, “Learn to Play Along.” Hall’s “old queen” Willie is a hoot; we cannot take our eyes off him as he minces around the stage, squeezing the drama out of every line.

Samples’ Dale is heartbreaking. Crushed and embarrassed by his poverty, he touches us all when singing “Better Than Silence.” It reminds each of us of times when we, too, have felt invisible. Equally effective is Braun as preacher Rita Mae.

In the pivotal roles of Wes and Patrick, Wayne has struck gold with Van Angelo and Matt E. Allen. Their onstage chemistry is strong, and both have excellent singing voices. The musical highlight of the night was Allen’s ballad revealing his parents’ efforts to “cure” him of his homosexuality. It was riveting, raw and authentic.

Kudos to Robbie Wayne and Ruth Braun for spot-on costumes, and musical director Jaci Davis for overseeing the pre-recorded accompaniment for the singers, which works quite well.

The only noticeable flaws on opening night were occasional projection issues and a missed note here and there—both problems likely to be remedied as the run continues.

Two things struck me as the cast took their bows on opening night. First, each character in this play seems so real—their joys, sorrows, longing for recognition and acceptance resonate with all of us. Second, sadly, is the possible deterioration of LGBT rights today. Let’s hope that this kind of theatrical experience helps people realize that deep inside, we truly are all the same.

The View UpStairs is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 31, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Michael Childers is truly a renaissance man; Merriam-Webster’s definition—“a person who has wide interests and is expert in several areas”—describes him perfectly.

The Coachella Valley resident is an award-winning photographer, producer, writer and documentary filmmaker—and his talents are being showcased in several upcoming events.

Childers was the photographer and production assistant on the movie Midnight Cowboy, the legendary 1969 film directed by his late partner, John Schlesinger. Childers and former Variety editor Peter Bart will be sharing memories and photos at a special 50th anniversary screening of the film on Saturday, March 2, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center.

On Wednesday, April 24, Childers will bring his annual One Night Only Broadway extravaganza back to the McCallum Theatre.

Childers has been very busy as of late; in fact, he just picked up the award for Best Short Documentary at the 2019 Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival in Los Angeles for I Knew Andy Warhol, which he produced. He’s also working on a documentary film about the late actress Natalie Wood. He recently took some time to speak to me about all these goings-on.

His gorgeous book of photography, Icons and Legends, graces coffee tables in homes across the country—but as far as the desert is concerned, Childers’ crowning achievement would have to be One Night Only, the musical-variety extravaganza he produces each year at the McCallum. He created the event 15 years ago as a fundraiser for local charities. Since then, more than 150 Broadway performers have participated in the show.

This year’s production, “Broadway Showstoppers,” features some of the best songs from Broadway musicals, including Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and Dear Evan Hansen. Proceeds will benefit the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, which provides services for abused and neglected children. The nonprofit center was founded in 1986 by Frank and Barbara Sinatra and offers individual, group and family counseling, as well as outreach and prevention programs.

“Showstoppers” will be directed by Broadway choreographer and director Larry Fuller, with musical direction by Christopher Marlowe. This year’s cast includes Ann Hampton Callaway, Liz Callaway, Lucie Arnaz, Christine Andreas, John Barrowman, Davis Gaines and Sal Mistretta. The production will be dedicated to the memory of two desert icons we lost recently, Carol Channing and Kaye Ballard. Both appeared in his One Night Only shows, and Childers knew them both well. In fact, he told me that he photographed Channing’s wedding to her former high-school sweetheart, Harry Kullijian, at her Rancho Mirage home—and Ballard actually introduced Childers to his partner of 30 years, the aforementioned director John Schlesinger. She set them up on a bind date.

“Something just clicked,” he said.

Childers said he always has themes and dream casts for future shows floating around in his head. One Night Only is a huge undertaking, requiring seven months of planning and preparation. He said that having a great team around him, including the hard-working crew at the McCallum, makes it possible.

The show sells out every year, and because of its reputation, many Broadway stars are eager to join the cast.

“Who wouldn’t want to come enjoy the sunshine in Palm Springs when it’s cold and rainy in New York?” Childers said. Also worth noting: Performers are treated royally, with lots of perks and parties thrown into the mix. JetBlue is once again a main sponsor, offering a number of free airline tickets to those performing.

So what’s on Childers’ bucket list? He says he would like to produce more documentary films. In other words, it does not seem that the multi-talented Michael Childers will be slowing down anytime soon.

The 50th Anniversary of Midnight Cowboy takes place at 6 p.m., Saturday, March 2, at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, 2300 E. Baristo Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20 to $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-6565, or visit Eventbrite.com.

One Night Only, a show benefiting the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center, takes place at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 24, 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.

Most valley theater-lovers are familiar with the work of Judith Chapman, either through her work onstage in The Belle of Amherst and Blythe Spirit, or stints on soap operas like The Young and the Restless. Striking, intense and always fully committed to her character, Chapman is a force to be reckoned with as an actress—and she certainly does not disappoint as Tallulah Bankhead in Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Matthew Lombardo’s Looped.

The play is set in a recording studio in 1965. Bankhead’s career as a stage and film star is beginning to fade after years of tawdry affairs and substance abuse. She has been summoned to dub in (or ”loop”) one line in Die! Die! My Darling, which would prove to be her final film. Sound technician Steve (Miguel Arballo) and film editor Danny (Mark Fearnow) are hoping for a relatively short and problem-free recording session--its only one line, after all—but it is not to be.

Bankhead stumbles into the studio, several hours late, swearing about the traffic. Looking every inch the Hollywood has-been, she wears attire including large sunglasses, a cocktail dress and an ankle-length fur coat (despite the Los Angeles heat).

Once recording begins, it becomes clear that this will be a long day. Tallulah cannot seem to remember the one simple line of dialogue and is more interested in verbally sparring with Danny. Their star demands a drink to keep her creative juices flowing, then turns up her nose at the bourbon Danny offers. “You don’t have to drink it,” he counsels. “Of course I have to drink it,” she snaps. “I’m an alcoholic—that’s what we do!”

As the booze flows and Tallulah adds cigarettes and cocaine to the mix, the tales of her sexual escapades and her language get even raunchier. Aghast that Danny has dared to move her purse, she admonishes him: “Touching a woman’s purse is like touching her vagina.”

Of course, Danny is becoming more and more frustrated with Bankhead’s behavior, and is starting to get pressure from studio executives to get the job done. But eventually, Tallulah’s booze-soaked charm and inquisitiveness wear him down, and he opens up about the secrets and frustrations in his own life.

Fearnow is terrific as the beleaguered Danny. Early on, he strikes just the right notes as the buttoned-up, all-business film editor who just wants to complete what should be a simple task. Trying to give his star her due, he willingly plays her straight man—but soon his patience wears thin, and his anger toward this grown woman who is acting like a sex-crazed 5-year-old comes roaring out. Later, Fearnow has some touching moments when laying bare the secrets of Danny’s past.

In the small but vital role of sound engineer Steve, Arballo is quite good. Observing the battle of wits between Danny and Tallulah from high up in the sound booth, Steve grows understandably frustrated and impatient. He just wants to get the damn line recorded so he can take his kids to a ball game.

Looped is Chapman’s show. She embodies Tallulah in every way. Strutting around the stage in her blue taffeta and heels, she certainly looks the part. Her comic timing is flawless, and Bankhead’s salty language and bluntness about sex come across as organic in Chapman’s performance. But it is in the quiet, poignant moments when Chapman’s skill as an actress is clear. When her large, blue eyes fill with tears while recalling some humiliating moments onstage, there is no doubt the pain is real. The audience is right there with her. An acting teacher I once had would often implore his students: “Make me FEEL something!” Judith Chapman does just that—every second she is on the stage. Her portrayal of Bankhead in this production is a star turn.

Jim Strait, who recently retired as Desert Rose’s artistic director, returns as director here—and a fabulous job of directing it is. He cast the production well, and brings strong performances from each of his actors. The set, sound, lights and costumes all work quite well.

I did not know that much about Tallulah Bankhead before seeing Looped. I learned quite a bit, as will you if you see this play. But the main reason to go is for Judith Chapman. Hers is a performance you will not soon forget.

Looped is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 10, 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 one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

After a decade of Dezart Performs producing excellent, thought-provoking plays, one would expect artistic director Michael Shaw to open the company’s 11th season with something special—but the production of Jason Odell Williams’ Church and State goes beyond special; it’s spectacular.

Shaw once again demonstrates his skill in choosing material. The themes of politics, religion, gun control and social media could not be any timelier.

The play opens three days before Election Day. Incumbent Republican Sen. Charles Whitmore (Beau Marie) is running neck and neck with his opponent in Raleigh, N.C.—but his victory could be in serious jeopardy after he admits to a blogger that a recent school shooting has shaken his faith and perhaps made him re-think his views on guns.

Whitmore’s devoutly Christian wife, Sara (Kelley Moody), and liberal Jewish campaign manager, Alex (Tammy Hubler), are aghast at this turn of events, and desperately try to convince him to stay on script during an upcoming speech. They know that his desire to speak “from the heart” could offend his conservative base and dash his political hopes.

The senator’s visit to the elementary school immediately after the shooting has traumatized him. Seeing the blood of 6-year-olds spattered on their art projects is seared in his memory. He now has serious doubts about his previous stance on guns—the strong protection of “Second Amendment rights.” With two young sons of his own at home, he wonders: “How could I believe in a God that would let this happen?” He defends his newfound viewpoints passionately to his stunned wife and campaign manager. “They don’t need my prayers—they need my actions!”

Will Whitmore go out and give the prepared speech his supporters and his wife expect? Or will he be honest about his moral and spiritual epiphany?

Williams’ writing and the play’s themes alone would make Church and State worth seeing. The bonus here is that the performances are outstanding.

Beau Marie’s Whitmore is perfection. His Southern accent and “good ol’ boy” charm are spot-on. Even if we didn’t agree with his politics before his transformation, we would have liked him anyway. His torment over whether to keep his wife and supporters happy or truly honor the dead first-graders by taking action hits the audience right in the gut. There is not one false moment in his performance.

As Sara Whitmore, Kelley Moody is superb. She owns the stage from her first entrance. Her Sara does her duty as the devout and supportive political wife, but with lots of dramatic flair. She’s a bit controlling, not too shy about her fondness for sex and booze, and occasionally confused about her syntax: “What should we do? Throw a sticker-tape parade?”

Tammy Hubler is terrific as Whitmore’s campaign manager, Alex Klein. We absolutely believe she is a buttoned-up, no-nonsense Jew from New York who is always expecting the other shoe to drop. Alex’s job is to get Whitmore re-elected, and she takes it seriously. Hubler conveys that effortlessly, yet with wry humor mixed in as well.

In several small roles, James Owens is quite good—so much so that I had to look twice to make sure it was the same actor when he came out as his second and third characters.

The costumes, set, lighting and sound all work well—and Michael Shaw’s direction deserves special mention. After casting this play extraordinarily well, he went on to elicit strong performances from each actor. Bravo!

Dezart Performs’ production of Church and State is what good theater is all about—it’s not just an entertaining evening watching really good actors; it also has a story line that makes the audience think. It makes us debate important issues on the way home, and maybe consider a viewpoint we’ve never had before.

If you have strong opinions on politics, gun control, religion and/or social media, or even if you somehow don’t, I urge you to see Church and State. It’s a show you won’t soon forget.

Church and State, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30-$35. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Life is all about change, and there have been some major changes at the Desert Rose Playhouse this season—all of which bode well for the theater’s future.

After years of putting on excellent, edgy productions, founder and artistic director Jim Strait and his partner, producer Paul Taylor, have retired and handed over the reins to Robbie Wayne (producing artistic director) and Kam Sisco (managing director).

In addition, a collaboration with Streetbar has allowed Desert Rose to open a small bar in the lobby which was previously unused and hidden by a curtain. Now patrons can sit at small tables and enjoy a cocktail or a soda before the show and at intermission.

Wayne has wisely chosen Nathan Sanders’ Southern Gothic tale The Sugar Witch as this season’s opening production. With Halloween just weeks away, the spooky tone of the play—featuring ghosts, witches, murder and eerie music—seems just right.

The story is set in the fictitious swampland town of Sugar Bean, Fla. A curse has been placed on the Bean family, stemming from a deadly flood in 1928. (The incident has overtones similar to some recent natural disasters.) Residing in the modern-day ramshackle Bean home are Sisser (Leanna Rodgers), her younger brother Moses (Jacob Samples) and Annabelle (Kimberly Cole), the last of the sugar witches, a surrogate mother to the Bean siblings.

Sisser has eaten herself into morbid obesity and is now confined to a wheelchair. She is also clearly mentally ill. When one of her beloved pet palmetto bugs dies, she demands that her brother bury it in the front yard with great ceremony.

Nice-guy Moses is a car mechanic who tries to keep things under control in the midst of his sister’s craziness and Annabelle’s talk of curses. Moses is being pursued romantically by local girl Ruth Ann Meeks (April Mejia), who pesters him at his auto shop, trying desperately to get his attention. Another customer, funeral-home manager Hank Hartley (Kelly Peak), has also set his sights on Moses, though in a much subtler way.

As the play opens, Ruth Ann has braved the nearby swamp to arrive at the Bean house and is looking for Moses, who is not there. She tangles verbally with Sisser, who is sitting on the front porch in her wheelchair, eating sweets. Convinced that Sisser is lying about Moses not being around, Ruth Ann barges into the house in search of him. It is a big mistake. To give away more of the plot would spoil the chilling effect for the theater-goer.

The performances here are all top-notch. Wayne has cast The Sugar Witch quite well, which is half the battle for a director.

Last seen in Desert Rose’s Women Behind Bars, Cole is riveting as Annabelle. Her affection for Sisser and Moses is clear, as is her loyalty to “her people” and her respect for the powers she apparently possesses as the last of the sugar witches. Her attempts to lift the curse her grandmother placed on the Beans are heartfelt. Her performance combines the perfect mix of creepiness, wit and humor. When showing off a mummified creature she keeps in a glass box to the visiting Hank, she laments, “People just ain’t interested in flyin’ cats the way they used to be.”

Samples is affable and sympathetic as Moses. He’s the younger brother we’d all like to have. His devotion to Sisser, his frustration over being stuck in a small swamp town, and his attraction to Hank all ring true.

Rodgers is terrific as the bloated and dangerously demented Sisser. Though she is clearly engulfed in a fat suit, after a while, we accept that the excess is flesh is all really hers. Sometimes quietly staring off into the distance, sometimes emitting blood-curdling screams, Rodgers leaves no doubt that Sisser is deeply disturbed.

As the spoiled, pushy Ruth Ann, April Mejia is quite good. She has a great stage presence and imbues her character with such impertinence that it almost feels as if she brings her violent come-uppance on herself.

Kelly Peak’s Hank is extraordinarily likable. When his lust for Moses gets him roped into the insanity of the Bean family curse, the audience is rooting for him to somehow come out of it unscathed.

In the small role of Ruth Ann’s brother, Tim McIntosh is quite effective.

There were a few minor line flubs (not unexpected on opening night), but the actors quickly recovered. Robbie Wayne coaxes strong performances from each cast member. Toby Griffin’s set, Phil Murphy’s lighting and Wayne’s sound are all perfect.

The Sugar Witch is spooky, dramatic, scary, sometimes funny … and fabulous. Wayne has hit it out of the park with his debut production as the new artistic director at Desert Rose Playhouse. Bravo! I can’t wait for the next one …

The Sugar Witch is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Oct. 28, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is just less than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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