CVIndependent

Thu06042020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

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.

Thanksgiving is less than a week away, and I was hopeful as I settled into my seat at the Desert Rose Playhouse on opening night of The Santaland Diaries.

I wanted to like it—and indeed, I did. However, I wish I’d liked it a little bit more.

David Sedaris first presented his essay about working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s on National Public Radio in 1992. The piece was adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello in 1996, and the one-man show debuted at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York in November that year.

The play, which runs not quite 90 minutes with no intermission, details Sedaris’ trials and tribulations as he first interviews for—and then lands—a position at Santaland as an assistant to the big man in red. 

The elf selection process has 30-something out-of-work actor David (played by Chris Clonts) on edge: “If you can’t even find work as an elf, that’s when you KNOW you’re a failure.” Luckily, he makes it through, and chooses “Crumpet” as his elf name.

Crumpet lets us in on the daily grind of elf training, and introduces us to some of his colorful co-workers—including the Santa who never breaks character, insisting that he really does live at the North Pole. We also learn that the really bitter elves include people like former ad executives who were hit by the recession and “never saw a velvet costume in their futures.”

Life as an elf is rarely glamorous. Duties include wiping up the vomit of nervous children and trying to explain to the little ones why Mr. Claus sometimes accidentally spits on them while promising to bring shiny new toys on Christmas morning.

Then there is the sea of humanity lined up for a chance to spend a few moments with Santa: “I could not tell where the retarded people ended and the regular New Yorkers began.” Crumpet laments that dealing with difficult parents is also part of an elf’s job description—including some parents who demand a Santa of a particular race. Then there was the time a mother asked for help getting her misbehaving son under control. All she wants is for Crumpet to echo her warning that if the boy does not shape up, Santa will bring him coal for Christmas. Alas, the elf goes a bit overboard, terrifying the child by telling him Santa will actually come to his house and steal everything.

Alone on the stage for the entire play, Chris Clonts does an admirable job as David/Crumpet. One-person shows are not easy; for starters, there are no other actors onstage to save you if you forget your lines. Clonts fell victim to this early on during the opening-night performance, and stage manager Steve Fisher had to prompt him from the sound booth. First-night jitters aside, Clonts has some very nice moments, including a fabulous Billie Holiday-esque version of “Away in a Manger.”

Charisma, confidence and good pacing are vital when a single actor must carry an entire show, and I’d like to see Clonts ratchet up the latter two items just a bit. There were times when he seemed somewhat tentative—again, that may just be a case of opening-night jitters. Though the brief blackouts between vignettes, accompanied by upbeat holiday music, were effective, a couple of them felt too long.

The festive set, designed by director Jim Strait, is superb. Santa’s “throne” is dead center. Large Christmas packages wrapped in shiny red and green abound; a reindeer and columns adorned with tinsel add the perfect finishing touches. The adorably tacky elf costume created by Robbie Wayne is terrific as well. Kudos go to Phil Murphy for his lighting, and Steve Fisher for both stage direction and sound.

Strait elicits a good performance from Clonts, but I think there’s some untapped potential there. A faster pace, a slightly stronger entrance and maybe even some ad-libbing or bantering with the audience here and there would enhance the evening.

Get yourself in the holiday spirit by going to see Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of The Santaland Diaries. It’s fun, entertaining and sometimes touching, even if the opening-night show left me wanting just a little but more.

The Santaland Diaries is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35. For tickets or more information, go to www.desertroseplayhouse.org or call 760-202-3000.

How far should spousal loyalty go when your mate’s creative expression causes you emotional pain? When does a risqué hobby become deviancy—and who decides what’s deviant, anyway?

These are the questions examined in Dezart Performs’ production of Casa Valentina. Harvey Fierstein’s provocative play earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best New Play, in 2014. The time in Casa Valentina is 1962—a more innocent yet much less tolerant era. A group of professional heterosexual men gather at a bungalow in the Catskills to relax and blow off steam. They eat, drink, dance and laugh—all while dressed as women.

This haven for transvestites really existed, at a resort called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th-century cross-dresser. The story was revealed when antiques dealer Robert Swopes stumbled across a box of pictures at a Manhattan flea market. Each photo captured these men in all their feminine glory: Bewigged and clad in dresses, heels and pearls, group members were shown doing mundane things like sipping coffee and playing cards. Intrigued, Swopes purchased the photos and put them together in a book called Café Susanna in 2005.

In the play, the establishment (here called “Casa Valentina”) is run by George (aka Valentina), played by Scott Smith, and his long-suffering wife, Rita (Tammy Hubler). As the show opens, they are preparing for yet another weekend of hosting men who relax by taking on their female personas for a few days. The couple is anticipating the arrival of a new guest, Jonathan (Cameron Shingler), also known as Miranda.

The strong bond between Rita and George is apparent. They banter back and forth while she lovingly pins on his wig cap as he begins his transformation into Valentina. It’s clear that Rita long ago accepted her husband’s predilection, and adores him in spite of it. “There’s no secret to being popular with men … just never say no,” she says. Smith is excellent as Valentina. You can feel both his devotion to Rita and his compulsion to express his feminine side.

Soon we meet Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Norman), resplendent in an over-sized housecoat and hot pink turban. A plus-sized cross-dresser, Bessie relishes every moment as a woman. Norman is a hoot as he tosses off some of the best lines in the show. When someone brings up the inadequacies of the male form, Bessie quips, “I once had a male form; I filled it out and mailed it back!”

A pivotal character in the play is the judge (the exceptional Bruce Cronander), who strides in with a shotgun. His professional position and penchant for firearms are irrelevant when he slips off his robe to reveal a floral satin dress and coos, “Hello, Amy, I’ve missed you!”

When Theodore/Terry (the fabulous Garnett Smith) must jump up shortly after perching on a chair, he complains, “Just when I got my skirt to lay right on the first try.”

Cameron Shingler ably captures the awkwardness and insecurity young Jonathan feels as the newcomer to the group. Getting settled in his room, he clutches a flowered frock, seemingly not knowing what to do with it. The other “girls” soon rally around him, giving him a proper makeover, complete with phony breasts and hips, cosmetics and jewelry. Their enthusiastic efforts to transform him into Miranda are touching.

The cast is excellent across the board, but San Diego resident Dale Morris as Isadore/Charlotte deserves special mention. Looking stunning in his gold lame blouse, designer suite and heels, he clearly revels in the freedom to express his inner diva. But he also knows the risk involved in theses activities, and chafes at society’s disapproval. As he admonishes one of the group’s younger members, “I’ve gone to jail so you don’t have to!”

Kevin Coubal (Michael/Gloria) is the most traditionally attractive woman of the group, by far. Statuesque in his heels, he flips his long auburn curls constantly and really works it. He is the standout when the girls perform a cute lip-synced version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with the jukebox.

Louise Ross appears briefly toward the end of the play as Eleanor, the judge’s daughter. The always-dependable Ross ably conveys the pain, anger and resentment as she deals with her cross-dressing family member.

Things turn serious when Charlotte announces that the “sorority” has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and needs to appoint officers. Some members aren’t thrilled about that, preferring to just keep things as they are. Their weekend escapades are harmless, they say, and the fewer people who know about them, the better. But Charlotte argues that secrecy is the enemy. Then things really get crazy when Charlotte asks each member to sign a document barring homosexuals from joining the group. In 1962, it seems, cross-dressers believed that putting on a dress was OK, but actually having sex with a man was true deviancy. The guests at Casa Valentina are divided on the issue. Since the gay community often accepted “the girls” when no on else would, they feel the need to return that loyalty. The booze-fueled tension finally explodes in an act of violence.

The costumes, makeup, wigs and lighting are all right on the money. There was only one problem with Dezart’s Casa Valentina on opening night, but it was distracting: There were many occasions when some of the actors could not be heard. In a theater the size of the Pearl McManus, one would not think that body microphones should be necessary. The hum of the building’s air conditioning unit was a factor, but it really comes down to projecting: Actors of this caliber know how to project, and did so during much of the show. But at several dramatic moments, the actors were inaudible. It was particularly annoying when much of the audience could not hear the last two or three lines of the play, delivered by the otherwise-superb Tammy Huber.

This an important play and a terrific production. Michael Shaw’s direction is spot-on. I only hope he corrects the sound issue so valley audiences can enjoy Casa Valentina in its entirety.

Casa Valentina, 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. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater (inside the historic Palm Springs Woman’s Club), 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in downtown Palm Springs. Tickets run $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Dezart Performs has developed a reputation for presenting bold and avant-garde theatrical productions—so it means something when artistic director Michael Shaw says that the 2016-2017 season is Dezart’s boldest yet.

Shaw says he has a fondness socially relevant yet “wacky” plays. Casa Valentina, Dezart’s season-opener, certainly fits that bill.

Written by Harvey Fierstein, Casa Valentina received four 2014 Tony Award nominations, including a nomination for Best Play. Set in the Catskills in 1962, the play offers a peek into the lives of heterosexual men who enjoy dressing up and behaving like women. During the week, they pursue respectable careers as ad execs, lawyers and sales reps—but when the weekend rolls around, they cut loose and take on their female personas. Casa Valentina is owned and operated by George—whose alter ego is Valentina—as well as George’s wife, Rita.

The play is based on a real-life haven for heterosexual transvestites that was originally called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th century cross-dresser and spy. The story of the place, later named Casa Susanna, came to light when antiques dealer Robert Swope bought a box of 100 photographs at a Manhattan flea market; the pictures all depict men dressed as women watering the lawn, playing bridge, etc. In 2005, Swope published the pictures in a book, Café Susanna.

Shaw says the play intrigues him, because he learned a lot from it—especially about transvestites.

“It’s a community that I am totally naïve about,” Shaw says. “I think there’s a perception that transvestites usually relate as gay. That’s not the truth.”

Shaw says authentic, realistic hair, makeup and costumes are crucial to the play. He cites a quote from the character of Bessie, talking to newbie Jonathon/Miranda: “… Our goal is to assimilate. The more you look as if you just stepped away from a bridge table, the higher we grade you. Passing undetected is our zenith.”

There’s no dress or makeup in the play that’s over the top. Wig and costume fittings were done early in the rehearsal process, and the actors have been working in high heels and skirts since the rehearsals began. The male cast members got lessons in how to apply makeup with a softer touch—the way real women do.

Dezart Performs received a huge assist from the Pasadena Playhouse, which produced Casa Valentina earlier this year: The renowned company is lending Dezart all of the costumes and jewelry used in the play.

Shaw says that due to the show’s rich dialogue and well-written characters, Casa Valentina is one of the strongest season openers Dezart has ever produced.

“It teaches us that it’s very important to learn about those around you,” he says. “The transvestite group saw themselves as normal while viewing the gay community as deviants. They saw what they were doing as simply creative expression; they were fulfilling a desire to show their feminine sides. The crux of the play is the conflict between two factions of the transvestite society—one sympathetic to the gay community, and one most definitely not.

“One of (character) Charlotte’s lines is quite telling: ‘Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as every-day as cigarette-smoking.’”

Casa Valentina also marks another first for Dezart: The nine cast members make up the largest cast the company has ever had. Shaw also says the cast is one of the best.

The second he saw San Diego resident Dale Morris, Shaw says, he knew Morris would be perfect as Charlotte; Shaw even applauded after Morris’ audition, he said.

Morris says that being cast in the play is a blessing—although he added that playing an unlikable character can be challenging. A theater veteran, Morris lists performing in His Girl Friday at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and playing George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as two of his career highlights.

Though Morris claims there has been no competition among the male cast members as to who is the best-looking “woman” onstage, he admits he wanted to look pretty when he first got the gig.

For what it’s worth, he apparently pulled it off: Shaw says that when Morris first walked across the stage in high heels, he was impressed with the actor’s calves, and notes that Morris is “stunning” in his gold lame blouse.

Shaw says there are two good reasons Palm Springs theater-goers should see Dezart’s production of Casa Valentina. One is the superb cast. The other?

“If you think you’ve seen cross dressing before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” he said.

Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, from Friday, Nov. 4, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org. Below: Actors in Casa Valentina pose for a photo in a rehearsal scene that includes Garnett Smith, Kevin Coubal, Dale Morris, Scott Smith, Jeffrey Norman and Tammy Hubler. Photo courtesy of Clark Dugger.

The Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has built an excellent reputation as a place to see thought-provoking theater since it was founded in 2008.

But this summer, as CV Rep takes its annual seasonal break from plays, founder and artistic director Ron Celona decided to try something new: a summer jazz series, in association with world-class bassist Bill Saitta.

It all began when Saitta was hired as part of the band for CV Rep’s production of A Class Act early this year. (Ron first met Saitta through a common friend, Yve Evans, herself an amazing local jazz musician.) One day during rehearsals, as the story goes, Saitta suggested a summer jazz series.

Celona had already incorporated cabaret shows into the theater’s summer offerings, but CV Rep was looking for a way to increase revenues to cover rent for recently acquired additional space.

Thus, the Summer Jazz Series was born.

The two men hammered out the details during several brainstorming lunches. The concept was inspired by Fitz’s Jazz Café at the McCallum Theatre, which is curated by local musician and longtime radio personality Jimi “Fitz” Fitzgerald. This prompted Celona to tell Saitta: “I want you to be my Fitz!”

Celona said his appreciation of jazz—one of his favorite singers is Dinah Washington—began as a child. His father played the tenor saxophone, but gave it up to get a “regular” job to support his family. Celona himself—a talented singer, actor, dancer and director—studied piano briefly as a child.

“It didn’t stick,” he said.

Saitta began playing piano at the age of 7 and added the Fender bass at age 14. He studied bass and guitar with Carol Kaye and earned a degree in instrumental performance from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. During the season, Saitta is featured every Tuesday night at Backstreet Bistro in Palm Desert, jamming with great talents like Yve Evans, Doug MacDonald and Deanna Bogart. He’s also the staff bassist for the Jazz in the Pines Festival in Idyllwild every August.

Saitta will be featured on bass throughout the jazz series, with Tim Pleasant on drums. Saitta compared the process of collaboration between singers and musicians to the collaboration within an a capella group.

“Everybody’s pitching in and contributing to the harmonic sound,” Saitta said. “The conversation should reach out into the audience, yet I’m always striving for intimacy.”

Celona said he has “absolutely” achieved the goals he set for himself when he founded CV Rep back in 2008. He predicts that by this coming October, the theater’s season-ticket subscriber base will reach 1,400. CV Rep is also the only Equity theater in the valley.

Next season’s CV Rep lineup will feature guest directors, larger casts and extended runs—each show will be performed for a full four weeks.

As for rumors that CV Rep is moving to a new location, Celona would only confirm that the theater will definitely be in its current location, inside The Atrium in Rancho Mirage, during the upcoming season. (Watch for a mid-summer news release regarding the theater’s future.)

What makes CV Rep different from other live theaters in the valley?

“I try to choose plays that will challenge the audience—educational, thought-provoking fare that is not being offered elsewhere locally,” Celona said. His goal is to tap the passions of audience members, and perhaps have them look at the play’s subject matter from a different angle. 

Both Celona and Saitta hope the Summer Jazz Series will be a rousing success. If it is, Celona said he’ll bring in similar artists throughout the season in between plays.

The lineup:

  • The Sherry Williams Quartet: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, June 23-25.
  • Peter Sprague and Leonard Patton: 7 p.m., Thursday, July 21.
  • Josh Nelson: 7 p.m., Friday, July 22.
  • Carl Saunders and his quartet: 7 p.m., Saturday, July 23.
  • Jennifer Leitham Trio: 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 25-27.

CV Rep’s Summer Jazz Series takes place at 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for each show plus a post-show reception sponsored by Gelson’s Market. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit cvrep.org.

When the opening of a play is postponed a week, apparently because the cast is not quite ready, it tends to make reviewers a bit nervous.

What if the cast is still not ready? What if the show’s just a bomb?

Thankfully, my worries about the world premiere of Junk at the Desert Rose Playhouse were unfounded: Other than a few opening night jitters, it was quite an enjoyable production.

The musical is based on the real-life experience of writer/composer Michael Penny. While helping clean out a dead man’s home, two friends find the place chock-full of porn and other indications of the late resident’s loneliness and quirks.

So begins the plot of Junk. Two gay men—60ish Miss Lily (Jim Strait) and his “student,” 35-year-old Chris (Robbie Wayne)—arrive to dispose of the contents of a recently deceased man’s North Carolina cottage. The dearly departed has left behind a huge collection of homosexual porn, piles of cigarette butts, and an unmistakable aura of isolation and melancholy.

While sorting through the mess, Miss Lily and Chris explore the different ways in which they have experienced life as gay men. They bicker and snipe at one another; they laugh and cry; they commiserate; and ultimately, they strengthen the bond of their 20-year-old friendship.

The aforementioned opening-night jitters occurred very early on, as the pair launched into the first musical number, “A Man Needs a Hobby.” The actors seemed a tad uncertain as to where to come in, and slightly tentative with the first few lyrics—but they hit their stride quickly. Both Strait and Wayne have nice singing voices (particularly the latter), although there were a few occasions (especially on the very low notes) when they were difficult to hear. More vocal projection was also needed once or twice during spoken lines while accompanist/musical director Joel Baker was providing lovely background music. The versatile Baker, who tickles the ivories all over the desert, is fabulous, as always.

The word “intimate” kept popping into my mind throughout the evening. The Desert Rose Playhouse is an intimate theater; Junk is an intimate play; and the two actors and director Steve Fisher successfully create a warm, intimate world onstage.

Some of the musical numbers are quite memorable, including Chris’ touching musings about his mother, “She Loves Me” and the hilarious duet “She Believes in Bran.”

One of the big debates between the two men is whether or not prospective lovers should remove their pubic hair. Chris votes yes, in the risqué “I Like ’Em Smooth,” while Miss Lily equates the clean-shaven to “those cats who are bred to have no fuzz—it’s creepy!”

Aging—particularly the inevitability of losing one’s looks and sex appeal—is one of the show’s major themes. On the subject of turning 50, Miss Lily says, “You’re no longer a butterfly, but a gross, stinking wasp that no one wants to be with.” Though to a certain degree, Miss Lily has resigned himself to the fact he’s no longer a young stud, he does fondly remember his past sexual conquests. He brags about how gorgeous he was back then, and makes comparisons to what he considers Chris’ inadequacies in that department: “I wonder what’s going to happen when YOUR small store of looks runs out and no one wants you any more?”

Chris quickly fires back: “And what’s that like, Miss Lily?”

Both Strait and Wayne deliver strong, nuanced performances. Their chemistry is terrific. We really believe these two have been friends and “student-teacher” for a couple of decades. Always charismatic onstage, Strait does not disappoint here. His Miss Lily is witty, acerbic, hilarious and sometimes heart-breaking. One of Strait’s best moments is his rhapsodic description of seeing the movie The Sound of Music at age 9. It is priceless.

Wayne, whose work I had not seen before, is tremendous. It’s hard to take your eyes off him as his struts around the stage. He’s a triple threat: a strong actor, singer and dancer. (He created the show’s fun choreography as well.) His “I Hate Musicals” is one of the evening’s highlights.

The play’s double-entendre title, Junk, could of course refer to either the jumble of possessions the late homeowner has left behind, or a man’s genitals (which are often discussed throughout the show). While Desert Rose often pushes the envelope, and Junk does not shy away from the subject of gay sex, its themes are universal. We all, regardless of our sexual orientation, grow old, lose our sexual attractiveness and need to face our own mortality. Strait’s moving rendition of the closing song, “No One Wants to Leave the Party,” drives that home.

Desert Rose’s resident stage manager Steve Fisher once again proves his talent as a director. Phil Murphy’s lights and Thomas L. Valach’s set are spot-on.

Junk was worth waiting an extra week to see. It’s a memorable experience I would encourage all valley theater-goers to try.

Junk is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to $33, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

A number of plays have moved me while I’ve been doing theater reviews in the Coachella Valley—but none have pierced my heart and shaken me to the core the way Dezart Performs’ The Outgoing Tide did.

That’s due, in large part, to its subject matter: Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a hideous, devastating illness—one which took my mother’s life nearly five years ago. She spent her final years in an assisted-living facility on the East Coast, so I was spared the daily trauma of seeing my mother wither into a mere shadow of who she once was. That pain fell to my dear, devoted father, who drove to the facility and fed her lunch every day for years. When I did visit, it was deeply painful to observe this once-vibrant, articulate woman rendered nearly speechless following two strokes and the dementia. Nothing scared her more … the thought of ending life in an institution, incapacitated and in a wheelchair, feeling helpless and alone.

It’s something we all fear. Many of us studiously avoid talking about the possibility that it could happen to us. But talk about it, we must.

Written by Bruce Graham, The Outgoing Tide tackles this tough subject matter head-on. The play centers around Gunner (Michael Fairman), who is battling the scourge of Alzheimer’s; his wife of 50 years, Peg (Judith Chapman); and their son, Jack (Scott Smith). Gunner is aware that his disease is rapidly progressing, which makes him grumpy and fearful. The situation is often humiliating, as when, after a tirade over a broken television, Peg points out that Gunner is trying to watch Cops on the microwave.

Things are really going downhill: Peg has begun securing the gates at night so her husband can’t wander, and he almost burned up his newspapers after placing them on the stove. Peg is considering an assisted-living facility where both she and Gunner can take up residence; they can be together, and she can still care for him as long as possible.

Both Peg and Jack (visiting at his father’s request) think it’s a good idea—but Gunner won’t hear of it. After touring the place and noting the condition of some of the current residents, Gunner quips, “It’s like a roach motel. You check in, but you don’t check out.” Gunner adamantly refuses to consider selling his house and moving to such a place, even though he admits to Jack that his condition is worsening: “I feel like it’s starting to show.”

Instead, Gunner has an alternative plan—one that would end his suffering and set up his family financially. It’s radical and controversial, and Peg is totally against it. Jack (currently going through a divorce) is often stuck in between his two strong-willed parents, and doesn’t know what to do. When Jack asks Peg if she really wants to spend the rest of her life taking care of her husband, she responds: “What else am I good at?”

Though the play’s theme is gut-wrenching, there’s plenty of humor as well. Peg dismisses the possibility of a suicide pact with Gunner: “He’d probably shoot me and then forget to shoot himself!”

The acting is absolutely superb across the board. As Gunner, Michael Fairman is flawless. We feel every bit of the fear, anger and frustration his deteriorating mental condition triggers. Though he’s made some mistakes as a father, he’s funny, charismatic and lovable, yet ultimately tragic. His Gunner makes us wonder about our fathers, grandfathers or uncles…what would they do in this situation? Could we support their choice, even if it meant we’d lose them?

The amazing Judith Chapman does not disappoint. As the long-suffering Peg, she is the glue that keeps the family together. She’s strong and level-headed, and seems to be able to keep it all together despite the gradual loss of her husband. But Chapman lets us see the heartbreak just beneath the surface. Does she love her husband enough to let him do what’s right for him … or will her fear of being alone stand in the way? There is not one false note in her performance.

Scott Smith is terrific as the returning son who loves his parents, but feels he’s in a no-win situation. Beyond the drama of Gunner’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease, Jack’s visit home reveals some long-held family secrets.

Once again, artistic director Michael Shaw proves his mettle as a director. He moves his cast members around ably on Thomas L. Valach’s outstanding set, and draws out award-worthy performances from each of them. Clark Duggar’s sound was spot-on, as was Phil Murphy’s lighting (after a couple of brief glitches early in the play).

I have seen a number of very good plays from Dezart Performs, but The Outgoing Tide is in a league of its own. The opening-night audience gave the show a well-deserved standing ovation. The play forces us to think about end-of-life issues and personal choice. Most of us, at one point or another, will be touched by the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease. A parent, a spouse, a friend or even we ourselves will experience the mind slowly slipping away. What would you do?

The Outgoing Tide is the most profound theater experience I have had in quite a long time.

The Outgoing Tide, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $24 to $28, and the show is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, 760-322-1079, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Squabbles over family heirlooms following the death of the patriarch are not new—but they are taken to a whole new level in the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s latest production, Bad Jews.

Written by Joshua Harmon, the play received an Outer Critic’s Circle nomination for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play in 2012-2013. It’s set in a New York City apartment the evening after the funeral of Poppy, the aforementioned patriarch. His three grandchildren—Diana (she prefers her Hebrew name, Daphna), her cousin Jonah, and his brother Liam (who does NOT like his Hebrew moniker, Schlomo)—are spending the night, as is Liam’s girlfriend, Melody.

The word “dysfunctional” does not even begin to describe the dynamics of this group. Things start out tense and deteriorate steadily from there. Diana is angry at Liam because he and Melody (a shiksa!) missed the funeral after Liam dropped his iPhone from an Aspen ski lift. But the bad blood between the two cousins goes way back: Diana professes deep devotion to her Jewish faith, while Liam takes a much more casual approach. His propensity to date non-Jewish women really sticks in Diana’s craw; she thinks they’re “beneath him.” Liam, on the other hand, mocks what he calls Diana’s temporary religious fanaticism, and does not believe that her Israeli fiancé truly exists.

But the real drama of the play centers around a piece of jewelry Poppy wore for most of his life. It’s a chain with the Hebrew word “chai” (living) spelled out in gold. He kept it safe from the Nazis while in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. He later proposed to his wife with it, because he could not afford a ring. Diana desperately wants this memento of her grandfather, and feels that it’s rightfully hers—especially since she’s always been a devout Jew. What Diana doesn’t know is that the chain has already been passed down to Liam (sent to him by his mother), and that he intends to give it to Melody this very evening when he proposes.

Each member of the four person cast is terrific. Though he does not have many lines, Cameron Shingler skillfully portrays Jonah’s anguish and discomfort at being thrust into the middle of his family members’ battles. He sits quietly absorbed in his iPhone or with his head in his hands as the verbal artillery flies around him. You get the sense he’d rather the floor open up and swallow him. Actively listening onstage and believably reacting (or NOT reacting as appropriate) requires great acting skill. Shingler pulls it off.

Kyrsten Watt is equally as good as Melody, the meek, squeaky-voiced former opera student. After just two professional auditions, Melody bagged a classical music career and is now working for a nonprofit—but she sports a tattoo of a treble clef on her calf (which Diana describes as “the size of a tumor”) as a sentimental reminder of her former life. Like Jonah, Melody tries valiantly to avoid being drawn into the Diana-Liam war. In an attempt to relax everyone when the yelling gets too intense, Melody sings an absolutely hilarious, off-pitch version of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. It’s one of the highlights of the show.

As Liam, Sean Timothy Brown ably captures the character’s shallow, smug and entitled demeanor, and matches Diana insult for insult. Some of their verbal sparring is quite loud and sometimes frightening. Being Jewish does not seem to mean all that much to him. We learn that once during Passover, Liam apparently consumed a forbidden cookie, proclaiming “I’m a bad Jew”—hence the play’s title. But Brown also shows a tender side; he makes Liam’s love for Melody seem quite genuine.

The MVP Award for this production of Bad Jews goes to Jordana Simone Pepper as the verbose, hot-tempered Diana. With the exception of the first 30 seconds or so, when she could have used a little more vocal projection, she’s nearly flawless. Once this girl gets started talking, it’s hard to get her to stop. (You know the type.) Whether she’s shouting at Liam over their religious differences, chastising Jonah for not taking her side, or grilling poor Melody about where her people were from “before Delaware,” Pepper makes every note ring true. She’s often a hoot, sometimes irritating, occasionally touching, and always real.

Rosemary Mallett’s direction is spot-on. She gets strong performances from everyone, while a terrific set and great costumes, sound and lighting all help bring this thought-provoking play to life.

Kudos to Desert Ensemble Theatre’s founding director Tony Padilla and executive director Shawn Abramowitz for another excellent production. (Full disclosure: I acted in Desert Ensemble’s previous show.) Bad Jews is not bad; it’s damn good.

Bad Jews, produced by the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 17, at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20, and the running time is just more than 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets, call 760-565-2476 or go to www.detctheatre.org.

I’m now in my third season as one of the Independent’s theater reviewers. I have seen many excellent productions here in the valley, and some … well … that were not so good. But I don’t know if I have ever been as emotionally affected by a play as I was by Dezart Performs’ world premiere of Suicide Dogs.

Jess Honovich’s play, which won the theater’s 2015 Play Reading Festival, chronicles how one family deals with the aftermath of a suicide of a man named Barry. Chief among the loose ends which must be tied up is what to do with Barry’s ailing dog, Driver.

Barry (Michael Shaw, who also directs), who was gay, was a successful golf pro—hence the dog’s name. In flashbacks, we learn that in his youth, Barry was insecure and a bit melancholy; he also had a somewhat difficult relationship with his mother. Perhaps the thing that brings him the greatest pleasure in lifeother than golfis the deep bond he has with his dog, which he adopted from a shelter.

As the play opens, Barry’s sister Amelia (Yo Younger); her husband, Dave (Rob Hubler); and their daughter, Frankie (Rachel Silverman) arrive at Barry’s home to prepare for his funeral. Soon after, Barry’s pushy neighbor, Podgy (Stan Jenson), drops in; not long after, Barry’s other sister, Dori (a very well-cast Denise Strand), unexpectedly shows up.

Shaken that her only brother has taken his own life with a bullet, Amelia valiantly tries to organize the funeral service while dealing with the media throng desperate for more details on the tragedy. Then there’s Driver, who is howling nonstop and puking all over the neighbor’s yard.

The always-stellar Yo Younger does not disappoint as Amelia. We feel her shock and grief at the loss of her brother. “Sometimes I feel like Barry’s playing some kind of joke on us—like he’s really in the hall closet or watching us on some computer somewhere,” she notes. She’s the anchor who holds the hold family—and the play—together.

Some of the strongest scenes are those featuring Amelia and the uptight, overly religious Dori. Dori, who has spent the last three years in rabbinical school, feels suicide is a sin, and announces that she will not be attending the funeral. Stunned, Amelia tries to understand Dori’s mindset while throwing a few barbs her way: “Everything you say sounds like it’s written on a pillow somewhere.”

Though it focuses on suicide, the play is billed as a “dramedy,” and it does have some very funny moments. Much of the humor is provided by Ron Huber, who is quite entertaining as Amelia’s harried husband, Dave.

Stan Jenson’s Podgy also gets a number of laughs. He’s nearly perfect as the nosy guy next door who good-naturedly insinuates himself into the drama a bit too often. He and Barry were clearly close friends—at the very least.

Rachel Silverman is a real find as Frankie, a precocious 16-year-old who swears a blue streak and often disrespects her parents. In an exchange with her self-centered Aunt Dori, Frankie boldly blurts out: “So … what’s wrong with you?” It’s a question everybody else in the family must also be thinking.

Doing double-duty, Michael Shaw succeeds admirably. He appears often in flashback as the likable but troubled Barry. We want to call out to him: “Things will look better tomorrow, Barry. Don’t do anything rash!” As the director, Shaw brings out strong performances from his cast.

Thomas L. Valach’s set, the lights (Phil Murphy) and sound (Clark Dugger) are all top-notch. Stage manager Blanche Mickelson also deserves a mention.

Suicide Dogs hit close to home. I’m in the midst of packing up the house of my ex-husband—a retired golf pro—who recently passed away. My partner and I had to put down a beloved, aging dog not long ago, and depression and suicide have touched me personally.

I’m certainly not the only person who will be moved: Everyone will find something to relate to in this play, which will have you laughing through your tears. It just may make you pick up the phone and call that family member you haven’t spoken to in years. It will certainly remind you that, as Podgy says: “Happiness is fleeting. Hang on to what you’ve got.”

Dezart Performs’ Suicide Dogs is being performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 31, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28 for evening shows, and $24 for matinees. The running time is just less than 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

It’s a very good thing that the latest production by Desert Rose Playhouse, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, has settled in for a six-week run. That gives a large percentage of valley theater-lovers the chance to see it.

And they should.

The play, which won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, is an ambitious undertaking. The only way to do Kushner’s powerful script justice is with amazing acting—and director Jim Strait’s cast delivers.

The story is set in 1985. Ronald Reagan is president, and AIDS has begun ravaging the gay population. We meet two couples: Prior Walter (Nick Edwards), who is battling the disease, and his lover, Louis Ironson (Daniel Gutierrez); and Joe Porter Pitt (Alex Updike), a devout Mormon lawyer in denial about his homosexuality, and his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Allison Feist).

Joe has gone to work for gruff, conservative Roy Cohn (Eliott Goretsky), who is also closeted and battling AIDS, but refuses to accept the diagnosis. Cohn believes gay men are weak and powerless; he refers to his illness as cancer instead. Meanwhile, Louis cannot handle the realities of the disease, and cruelly abandons Prior when the first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions appear.

Interfacing with both patients is AIDS hospital-ward nurse Belize (the superb Robert Ramirez). Doing double duty as the fur-coat-wearing Mr. Lies, Ramirez is caring, campy, hilarious and viciously witty all at the same time.

When Joe finally comes out of the closet, his mother, Hannah (Adina Lawson), travels from Salt Lake City to try to push him back in.

Director Jim Strait (who also designed the set, sound and projections) brings out the best in each member of his stellar cast. Each actor is a standout.

Nick Edwards rips your heart out as the dying Prior. His depiction of what AIDS does to the body is wrenching. This is an award-winning performance. As his Jewish lover, Louis, Daniel Gutierrez ably portrays a mix of guilt and callousness. His performance occasionally seemed to lack just a bit of energy, but that may have been an artistic choice for the character.

Goretsky’s Roy Cohn (based on the real political figure) is fabulous: dark, cynical, condescending and yet charismatic as he spews profanity at clients and barks orders at underlings over the phone. Just as strong is Alex Updike as the conflicted Joe. Talk about issues: He has the ultimate glass-half-empty guy, Roy Cohn, for a boss; a pill-popping, delusional wife; and a sexual attraction to men that he refuses to acknowledge. Updike’s emotional pain is palpable.

As Joe’s beleaguered wife, Harper, Allison Feist is impressive. I’ve seen this young actress in a number of productions now, and she never disappoints. She’s got a long career ahead of her.

Loren Freeman—a standout in the recent A Queer Carol—is terrific here as well in several cameos (The Angel, Nurse, Sister Ella Chapter, A Homeless Woman in the Bronx). He exudes presence, which is something you cannot teach.

Rounding out the cast is the amazingly versatile Adina Lawson. She also plays multiple parts, hitting each one out of the ballpark. Unrecognizable as a rabbi in the show’s opening, she is also notable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman executed for being a Soviet spy. I can’t help but grin each time I go to a show and see her name in the program; I know the audience is in for a treat.

This play is challenging technically, and Desert Rose rises to the occasion. There are lots of quick scene changes, and they are executed quite well. Phil Murphy should take a bow for his prism lightning design during those changes; it is beautiful and quite effective. Designer Tom Valach creates just the right dramatic tone with the angel costume, and the other costumes, hair and makeup are spot on.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is producing Angels in America as its annual Gay Heritage Production. Desert Rose is the Coachella Valley’s only LGBT and gay-positive stage company, and most everything the playhouse does is edgy and often pushes the envelope. So be warned: This show does contain brief full frontal nudity and a fairly graphic depiction of gay sex. Also keep in mind the show is 3 1/2 hours long—although the time whizzes by.

This play is not for the faint of heart; it touches on love, sex, death, betrayal, greed, bigotry, addiction and the afterlife. It will shake you to your core—and might make you look at what you’re doing with the time you have left on this Earth.

It’s damn good theater. Don’t miss it.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Evening tickets are $33; matinee tickets are $30. Running time is 3 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

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