CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

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.

When Rent opened off-Broadway in February 1996, it rocked the theater world and won instant acclaim. The death of 35-year-old composer-lyricist Jonathan Larson from an aortic aneurysm just before the show’s opening certainly added to the show’s impact, but the musical’s stark depiction of life and death in New York City in the late 1980s stands on its own.

Based on Puccini’s La Bohème, Rent—now getting an excellent production complements of College of the Desert—chronicles one year in the life of a group of poor artists living in the East Village of Manhattan. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Shafik Wahab) searches for professional recognition, while his HIV-positive songwriter-roommate, Roger (Christian Quevedo), longs to pen a hit tune before succumbing to his illness (“One Song Glory”). Soon, Roger meets Mimi (Allegra Angelo), also HIV-positive, and the two fall in love after she seduces him (“Light My Candle”).

Mark is pining for his ex-lover, Maureen (Meagan Van Dyke), a highly sexed performance artist who has left him for a woman, Joanne (Alisha Bates). Mark and Joanne sing of their mutual obsession with Maureen in “Tango: Maureen.”

Computer whiz Tom Collins (Anthony Martinez) falls for Angel (Aaron Anzaldua), an adorable transvestite inflicted with AIDS. Rounding out the principal cast is Benny (Dion Khan), Mark and Roger’s former roommate and current landlord, who is pressuring them for past-due rent.

The score is terrific, but certain numbers really stand out, including Mimi’s steamy “Out Tonight,” the tender Tom/Angel duet “I’ll Cover You,” and the best-known tune in the show—“Seasons of Love.”

I cannot say enough great things about this cast: The leads are all outstanding. I would not be at all surprised to see some of their names in lights on Broadway down the road. However, the glue that holds the show together is Wahab as Mark. His stage presence, strong voice and acting chops are perfectly suited to the role. As the tragic lovers Roger and Mimi, Quevedo and Angelo are marvelous. Their voices are terrific, and both dig down deep to bring true emotion to the stage. Their passion is palpable; both are guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye at some point.

With a cast this strong, it’s hard to do, but Anzaldua nearly steals the show as the doomed Angel. His slight build and outrageous costumes complement his superb performance. He is clearly having a blast onstage … but when the darkness sets in, the audience wants to wrap him in our arms and comfort him.

As Angel’s lover Tom, Martinez is stupendous. When he reprises “I’ll Cover You” after losing Angel, his voice soars up to the rafters. I defy any audience member with a pulse not to have chills after hearing that number.

Khan’s Benny is also fantastic. He handles his featured song “You’ll See” with great aplomb.

The chemistry between Van Dyke and Bates as lesbian lovers Maureen and Joanne is sizzling. Even women who’ve never had the slightest interest in switching teams might consider it after their erotic duet “Take Me or Leave Me.” Van Dyke has a huge future ahead of her in musical theater.

The members of the ensemble hold their own with the principals—there is not a weak link.

A lot goes on in this show—there’s a large cast, a band onstage, lots of dancing, heavy emotion, sexual themes—all of which require a director with great skill. Mark Almy has that skill; everything flows just as it should. Major kudos also go to musical director Scott Smith and choreographer Shea New. Joseph Layne’s set and lighting, and Jack Ramoran’s sound, are right on the money, as are the costumes (Rick Doerfler, Kathy Smith, Courtney Ohnstad).

The only flaw in this production is an occasional volume imbalance between the band (the excellent Scott Smith, Anthony Arizaga, Mikael Jacobson and Brad Vaughn) and the singers. There are times when the lyrics are difficult to understand—partly because the band’s a bit too loud, and partly because the singers’ diction is a bit unclear. A slight adjustment in the musicians’ volume would make a big difference.

The show is long—about 2 1/2 hours, but well worth it.

This was the first time I have seen a production of Rent. It won’t be my last.

College of the Desert’s Rent will be performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 3 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 29, at the Pollock Theatre on the COD campus, 43500 Monterey Ave., in Palm Desert. Tickets are $25 for general admission, and $20 for students. The run time is 2 1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-773-2574, or visit collegeofthedesert.ticketleap.com.

Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off the holiday season with A Queer Carol, billed as the first gay version of Charles Dickens’ classic story; it premiered in New York in 2001.

I really wanted to like this show. Given the excellent quality of previous productions I’ve seen at Desert Rose, I expected to like it. Sadly, it was a little like anticipating a stocking full of Christmas goodies and instead finding an empty sock.

The story here is set in modern day New York, where Ebenezer “Ben” Scrooge (Steve Fisher) is a Manhattan interior designer who makes life miserable for his loyal right-hand man, Bob Cratchit (David Brooks). Scrooge barks and snaps at Cratchit, pays him a meager salary and refuses to provide him with health insurance. The lack of insurance is especially problematic, since Tiny Tim here is an adult—Cratchit’s HIV-positive partner.

It is Christmas Eve, and as Scrooge does his best to put a damper on everyone’s holiday spirit, fabric-salesman Fred (Jayson Kraid) stops by to invite Ben to his annual Christmas party. Also paying a call to the shop is charity-worker (Terry Huber), looking for a donation to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. True to form, Scrooge declines to give, because there are already hospices and shelters to handle the problem. And if those infected should die, then “let them do it and decrease the surplus population.”

We also learn that Scrooge’s former business partner, the late Jacob “Jake” Marley (Aaron Zontek), was his ex-lover. As Scrooge’s night of terror and forced self-examination begins, the ghost of Marley appears in full S&M regalia—leather, chains and a bare tuckus.

This Scrooge has a lot more emotional baggage than Dickens’ version. In a flashback, we see young Ben’s father express rage and disgust that his son is turning into “a goddamn fairy.” The boy then suffers homophobic taunting when he’s shipped off to boarding school. At age 21, Ben meets Jake Markowitz (he later changes his name to Marley for business purposes) at a Christmas party, and the two become lovers. The relationship is problematic, because Jake can’t bring himself to say “I love you,” and Ben is conflicted about his homosexuality. After the pair take over Fezziwig’s Fabrics, Ben concentrates on making money, while Jake’s promiscuity results in him contracting the HIV virus.

In Desert Rose’s production, things start to pick up when The Ghost of Christmas Past (Cat Lyn Day) shows up in the form of Marilyn Monroe. As she guides Scrooge through the review of his life, references to the blonde bombshell’s movies abound. (“Every seven years, I get this itch.”) Day delivers a strong performance. She is flirty, vampy and fun to watch.

But the true high point of the evening is the entrance of The Ghost of Christmas Present (Loren Freeman), who shows up as an outrageous drag queen. She gives Ben a glimpse of the private world of Bob Cratchit and Tim, where money is scarce, but love is abundant. Dressed like a sparkling Christmas tree in boots—with red and green fringe, and tree ornaments for earrings—Freeman lights up the stage with camp and energy. We never want him to leave.

Fisher is well-cast as the world-weary, bitter Scrooge. He’s just the right age and has the proper physical type; his gruff, cold demeanor rings true. He’s most effective in the later scenes, when the Ghost of Christmas Future terrifies him with what might be if he does not change his ways.

Zontek (Jake Marley, Blake) comes across as a bit stiff and tentative throughout much of the show. With more passion and commitment, his Marley could be a tour de force.

David Brooks’ Cratchit is appropriately endearing and likable; we are rooting for him and Tim to prevail in the end. Alex Enriquez does a decent job as Young Scrooge and Tim, but as with much of the cast, he sometimes seems to hold back—we want more from him.

Always a pro, V.J. Hume (a frequent Independent contributor) handles multiple roles (Scrooge’s Mother, Jean, Nurse, Maria), and she handles them pretty well. Pulling off more than one role in a play is not easy. Hume and Day both succeed—although there were times when their accents (Russian and Latina) seemed inconsistent.

Kraid (Fred, Fezziwig, Pytor) and Huber (Nick, Scrooge’s Father, Noel, Fence) are pleasant enough, but could both use an infusion of energy.

The multiple sets functioned fairly well, although the blocking seemed awkward at times. Phil Murphy’s lighting was quite effective. Kudos to Allan H. Jensen for costumes and wigs.

Alas, there are several problems with this production. The script could use some tweaks; there’s a distinct a lack of energy from much of the cast, as well as slow pacing here and there, and some fumbling with lines (which could have been opening-night jitters).

Jim Strait is normally a strong director, as evidenced by his long list of excellent productions at Desert Rose. I’m not sure what happened here. Perhaps another week of work and some coaching from Freeman on stage presence would help.

Desert Rose Playhouse has brought some fabulous theater to the valley. Here’s hoping the show improves throughout the run.

A Queer Carol is being performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 20, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 to 33, and the running time is about 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Anyone who’s worked as an office receptionist knows it can be a thankless job, but it’s not normally all that dangerous.

Well, danger certainly lurks in Dezart Performs’ current production, The Receptionist, a dark comedy by Adam Bock.

In the first part of the play, the title character, Beverly (Deborah Harmon), goes about her daily duties with great efficiency. It’s a seemingly normal day at the North East Office, as Beverly cheerfully handles the phones, relegating unwanted callers to the voicemails of co-workers. She sorts mail, tidies her desk and dishes out romantic advice to officemate Lorraine (Theresa Jewett). Beverly’s maternal warmth is clear as she calms her upset daughter over the phone—as is her irritation when her husband announces he has spent the money allocated for the family phone bill on yet another collectible teacup. It’s the boss’ birthday, so Beverly takes on the job of ordering a cake, and proudly shows Lorraine the card she’s purchased, which features a pony smoking a pipe.

Everything seems to be running smoothly until Martin Dart from the Central Office arrives to see the boss. Dart (Lou Galvan) appears to be a likable guy. He chats amiably with Beverly and responds to Lorraine’s blatant flirting with gusto. When the boss, Mr. Raymond (Hal O’Connell), finally shows up, the two men disappear into his office. After several minutes of shouting behind a closed door, the grim-faced pair emerges—and Dart escorts Mr. Raymond out of the building.

Apparently Mr. Raymond did not follow proper procedure when torturing and interrogating a client. He’s now facing the consequences.

As Act I ends, the audience is left wondering whether Beverly and Lorraine might also be marched down to the Central Office for questioning. And just what does this company do? It certainly seems ominous. Given the threat of worldwide terrorism (especially with opening night coming on the same day as the horrific attacks in Paris), this play seems quite timely.

Under the masterful direction of Dezart’s artistic director, Michael Shaw, the cast is uniformly excellent. Like an evenly matched tennis foursome, they volley the dramatic ball back and forth with great skill. As Beverly, Deborah Harmon is perfect. There is not one false note in her performance. Early on, she’s funny, witty and totally in control of the kingdom that is her reception desk. Later, as the reality of what her fate might be sets in, we see her composure melt away into a puddle of fear.

Theresa Jewett is fabulous as Lorraine. Vampy and flirty, yet insecure, she reminds us of that one woman we’ve all worked with who just can’t get it together in the romance department.

Lou Galvan is spot-on as the mysterious Martin Dart. After initially coming across as a friendly guy, he sends a chill up our spines when his menacing side emerges. Equally as good is Hal O’Connell as the beleaguered Mr. Raymond. He also strikes us as a nice guy who got caught up in his company’s dark business, and is ultimately resigned to his fate.

Thomas L. Valach’s set is superb, while Phil Murphy’s lighting and Clark Dugger’s sound are just right.

The Receptionist is a relatively short play—just 75 minutes—but it will keep you pondering its themes for days.

The Receptionist, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28, or $24 for matinees. The show runs just less than 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre has added yet another feather to its impressive artistic cap with its first world premiere, Happy Hour, by George Eastman. The play tells the story of Harry Townsend, a wise-cracking, 80-something widower, and his son, Alan, as both come to grips with the reality that Harry can no longer live on his own.

When Alan (John Hawkinson) comes to Vermont for the weekend to visit Harry (Gavin MacLeod), Alan’s goal is to convince his father to move into an assisted-living community. Since his wife’s death, Harry’s physical health and mental health have been slowly declining. He tends to put the coffee filters in the freezer and the coffee pot in the oven … and his falls after tripping over the rug are becoming more and more frequent. Alan’s twin sister, Sara, lives close by and takes good care of their father—but her husband has landed a job in New York, and the couple is planning to relocate. Sara cannot bring herself to break the news to Harry, so Alan decides to take on the task.

Father and son have always had an amicable, if not particularly close, relationship. They have never really had a fight, but they don’t seem to have really gotten to know each other, either. They never had the father-son talk about “the birds and the bees” … Alan got that information from his sister. Harry attempts to make up for that with a bit too much information about his sex life with Alan’s mother. While recalling a tryst they once had in a pottery store, Harry quips, “Risk always hardens a boner, my son.” Turns out the green carpeting on the boat dock (about which Alan was teased by his friends as a youngster) was installed to make romance for his parents more comfortable.

Alan’s busy real estate career in California has cost him his marriage and kept him from visiting his father very often, which Harry resents. Following an argument, Harry storms out and vanishes for several hours. When a worried Alan shouts, “You’ve been gone since breakfast!” Harry shoots back: “You’ve been gone since December!” The play’s title refers to the shots of Scotch consumed during each father-son debate.

It’s a classic case of a senior citizen desperately fighting against the ravages of age and the inevitable loss of independence. Harry absolutely refuses to consider leaving the home he shared with his wife for decades. His solution is for Alan to move to Vermont with his girlfriend, and to replace Sara as his caretaker. That, his son says, is just not feasible. The elder Townsend “feels violated” at the suggestion he move into a senior community. He still feels his wife’s presence in the house, and tells his son, “This is all I have, and you want to take it away from me.”

Harry is played to perfection by Gavin MacLeod, best known for his Golden Globe-nominated work as Captain Stubing on The Love Boat and as acerbic newswriter Murray Slaughter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. MacLeod, 84 himself, is just right for the part. At times, I wondered how much of the slow shuffling with the cane and difficulty getting up from a chair was Gavin, and how much was the character.

A mutual friend of MacLeod and playwright George Eastman sent MacLeod the script for Happy Hour five years ago. He kept hoping to bring it to the stage, and eventually brought it to CV Rep’s artistic director, Ron Celona, after seeing the quality of work at the theater. (The theater held a couple successful staged readings of the play before mounting this full production.)

MacLeod says he considers the play to be a gift. I’d say his performance is truly the gift. When he’s onstage, it’s difficult to take your eyes off him. His Harry is funny, bawdy, sometimes gruff, sometimes angry and occasionally heartbreaking. You want to go up onstage and throw your arms around him and tell him it’s all going to be OK. There’s not one false note in MacLeod’s performance.

L.A.-based actor John Hawkinson holds his own as Alan. In the opening scene, he seemed a tiny bit stiff, but once he got rolling, it was smooth sailing. He captures the conflict of a son who needs to live his own life, but also wants the best for his father. The audience is with Hawkinson all the way as he walks on eggshells, trying to treat his dad with respect and love while forcing him to face the realities of his age. The rapport between the two actors is excellent.

As always, director Ron Celona does an excellent job. Kudos also go to set designer Jimmy Cuomo, costume designer Aalsa Lee, stage manager Louise Ross and the entire production crew.

Go see CV Rep’s production of Happy Hour; it officially opens tonight. (I arranged to review the second preview performance, with CV Rep’s blessing, due to schedule conflicts.) It’s nearly impossible not to be moved by this play, especially if you—like many of us—are dealing with aging parents. I went with my significant other, who recently spent two weeks in Indiana packing up the family home (and 50 years of memories) following the death of his father. My own 87-year-old dad is looking into assisted-living facilities, having realized he just can’t do it on his own any longer.

Happy Hour will make you laugh … and cry … and think. If your parents are still living, it might just inspire you to give them a call.

Happy Hour is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 22. (There is not a 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Oct. 31.) Coachella Valley Repertory is located at 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48; opening-night tickets are $58. Running time is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Winds may blow, o’er the icy sea

I’ll take with me the warmth of thee

A taste of honey, a taste much sweeter than wine.

Music aficionados 40 and older are probably familiar with the haunting, Grammy-winning tune “A Taste of Honey,” made famous by Barbra Streisand, Herb Alpert, and The Beatles, among others.

However, those music aficionados may not know the guy who penned it: desert resident Ric Marlow. He recently released a compilation of poetry and song lyrics, with a theme of love, called Tastes of Honey.

Born in the Bronx on Dec. 21, 1925, Marlow grew up on Long Island. As he sang, Marlow took other jobs to survive, including hauling cement, building tennis courts and driving a cab. He says his best non-musical job was demonstrating pogo sticks in the toy department at Macy’s. He claims he once sold $17,000 of pogo sticks in one month. Amazingly, Marlow still keeps in touch with the guy who worked next to him on stilts more than 50 years ago.

However, Marlow has always been, first and foremost, a singer.

“It’s an easy gig,” he said.

He was lucky: His musical ambitions were helped along by an aunt who was the secretary to the president of Chappell Music. Through her, he met some big names of the era, including Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.

After high school, Marlow attended New York University, and then joined the Army; his stint lasted a total of seven months. Upon reviewing Marlow’s application for officer candidate school, the Army decided the fractured skull he suffered in a childhood diving accident made him unsuitable.

His vocal talents later took him to Florida, where he married and had a daughter, who is now 68. Then he went back to New York. In between singing gigs, he worked in the garment industry, selling fabric to design houses. After divorcing, Marlow headed to L.A. in 1951. He was entertainment director at an uncle’s dude ranch.

Marlow joined the Screen Actors Guild in 1959, and carved out a successful TV career, with appearances on 46 television shows. He was always robbing someone, killing someone—or being bumped off himself. He appeared on Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges on five separate occasions.

However, his career-defining moment came in 1960. Marlow’s former pianist, Bobby Scott (who many call a genius), had been hired to write incidental music for a new play in New York called A Taste of Honey. The play was written by a young Irish girl named Shelagh Delaney, and the original Broadway version starred Angela Lansbury, Joan Plowright and a very young Billy Dee Williams.

As Marlow puts it, a week before the opening, Scott called Marlow from rehearsal and said: “Marlow, we’re in trouble.” Marlow responded: “What do you mean WE are in trouble?”

Scott explained that the director, Tony Richardson, wanted a ballad at the end of the second act, when the sailor leaves. Scott was stuck, and felt that since Marlow had been at all of the rehearsals, he knew the play well enough to come up with something. That something became “A Taste of Honey.”

The song later became a hit on the radio. It’s been recorded by many great vocalists, including Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mathis and Andy Williams.

It was the version recorded by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass that won the most awards. When the Grammys rolled around in 1966, “A Taste of Honey” won the award for Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Instrumental Performance.

Not bad, especially considering it’s the first song Marlow ever wrote. He said he does not feel it’s even close to being the best song he’s written—but he still smiles when he takes those royalty checks to the bank. In fact, those royalties have allowed him to stop working. Marlow’s last musical show here in the desert was in 2011. He only works with the best local musicians, and says most venues here these days are not willing to pay what they are worth.

His new book, Tastes of Honey, has been a 53-year labor of love, he said. (Fun fact: The title was changed from Come With Me, which the publisher deemed pornographic.) The compilation of poetry and song lyrics focuses on love—wondering about it, finding it, enjoying it, losing it and then dealing with the loss.

I first met Ric Marlow at the Melvyn’s Sunday Jazz Jam, 16 years ago. I had arrived in the desert from Washington, D.C., just two days before. After singing a few tunes with the late, great pianist Andy Fraga, I was heading out the door when this guy came running up behind me with his business card. When he told me he had written “A Taste of Honey,” I was a tad skeptical. I went straight home and searched through my piles of sheet music to check out his story. There it was, in a compilation of pop tunes: “A Taste of Honey,” words by Ric Marlow, music by Bobby Scott.

Ric Marlow and I have been dear friends ever since. A true Sagittarian, he’s blunt, witty and hilarious. One of his pearls of wisdom: “Not everyone’s going to love you. That’s OK—just don’t cater to the assholes.” And at age 89, he can still sing. Friends are planning a big 90th birthday celebration for him in December.

Marlow has been married five times, and widowed once. When asked about his philosophy of life, Ric paused a moment, then recited one of the poems included in the book:

I think I’ve lost my place in time

For here I am, a man of rhyme

Who wiles away the idle hours

Spouting lyrics to the flowers

Thinking thoughts of love, not hate

Not too stupid, not too great

Not too skilled at magic art

Playing life as just a part

Spinning through each lifetime’s maze

In search of purple passion days.

Many Republicans predicted that the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare,” would send this country into utter chaos.

Of course, this didn’t happen. Nonetheless, there is murmuring among a few 2016 Republican presidential candidates that repealing the ACA would be one of the first things they’d do if elected. But in reality, the plan is working so well that it would be political suicide to try to repeal it at this point—and I am one of the millions of Americans who have benefited from the plan.

On July 3, 2014, I was diagnosed with a detached retina. A blow to the back of the head a week earlier and two subsequent airplane rides caused the injury. I was in South Bend, Ind., meeting my partner’s family for the first time, when I got the news. I was given a choice: I could have surgery in Indiana, and be forbidden to fly for six weeks (not an option), or fly home to Palm Springs as soon as possible and have surgery there. A detached retina is a serious situation, and time is of the essence, but since my retina was already completely detached, the doctor said a few days would not make much of a difference.

I was barely absorbing this information, since I was pretty much hysterical. Thank God for my partner, Eric, who calmly took control of the situation. It was after 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 3, the day before a major holiday. The office was closing up, and the janitor was vacuuming the carpet. Luckily, the ophthalmologist I had seen was kind enough to stay until we could make the arrangements. I will never forget the sight of Eric sitting on the floor, urgently trying to get through to someone in the Inland Empire Health Plan office in Palm Springs to set up an appointment ASAP. Fortunately, he got through.

We flew back to the desert on Saturday night, saw the IEHP folks on Sunday, and met with the surgeon on Monday; I had the surgery on Thursday, July 10. A series of miracles, to be sure.

My surgery—a vitrectomy—involved removing the liquid from the eye and inserting a gas bubble in the eyeball, which then pressed the retina back into place. The rehab is ghastly—six weeks of sleeping face-down on a special cut-out pillow—and keeping your head down at all times. Yes, at all times. That includes sitting, standing, walking, showering—everything, so that gravity can do its work.

I was a dutiful patient, and followed directions to the letter. Thankfully, the outcome was good: The vision in my left eye is at 99.9 percent, and will likely keep improving. Another miracle.

None of this would have happened if Eric and I had not received health insurance coverage from the Affordable Care Act, just two months before all this occurred. Eric and I are both professional performers, but we also have “job jobs” to pay the bills. He had just been hired to sell Steinways for SoCal Pianos in San Marcos, and I work part-time as the activities assistant at a local senior health care facility. Neither of us could afford health insurance before the advent of “Obamacare.”

In addition to my surgery, I had to fill five or six different prescriptions for eye drops (some of which I am still using more than a year later); go through cataract surgery the following January; and endure many, many follow-up appointments. My total out-of-pocket expense has been $30—to rush some lab work. Had I not had “Obamacare,” there is no question I would now be blind in my left eye. A friend of mine has a cousin who suffered a detached retina and did not have insurance. He lost his sight.

Of course, there are thousands of people like me who made it through catastrophic injury or illness because of the Affordable Care Act. Like 58-year-old Kathy Bentzoni of Slatington, Pa., who got a life-saving transfusion after being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. Her previous insurance company called it a pre-existing condition and denied her coverage. Or 41-year-old Mike O’Dell of Kansas, who received a new heart after his heart developed an infection. His old health plan would not cover the $4,000 a month for anti-rejection medicine following the transplant.

Those who still disparage the ACA are ignoring the facts. According to a 2014 article in the Los Angeles Times, nearly 10 million previously uninsured people now have health care coverage because of the ACA. The nonprofit Rand Corp. indicates that fewer than a million people who had health plans in 2013 are now uninsured—and that’s because their plans were canceled for not meeting new standards set by the law. Fox News personality Juan Williams says half of those people can get better coverage for a lower price, and some will even get subsidies to help them pay for it. What the ACA basically did was put in place consumer protection so that health insurance companies could no longer take advantage of people by giving them crappy coverage.

It’s important to remember what insurance companies can no longer do because of the ACA: They can no longer cancel your policy if you get sick, deny you coverage or charge you more for a pre-existing condition, or impose lifelong caps on your health coverage. The ACA also mandates that your insurance company must pay for the ambulance ride if you are rushed to the hospital. Those are long-overdue, positive changes—so what’s all the fuss about?

So the next time you hear someone railing against “Obamacare,” think about the millions of people who now have access to healthcare who once did not. Think about Kathy Bentzoni and Mike O’Dell.

I will. And I will be filled with gratitude that I can today see a beautiful desert sunrise—with both eyes.

As a child, my older sister was scared to death of the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. My sister would flee the room in terror when the old green hag appeared onscreen. Sis is not alone: The witch, and her alter ego, the bicycle-riding, dog-hating Almira Gulch, have been feared and reviled by scores of little ones for years.

But what if Miss Gulch had a softer, more vulnerable side? The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company explores that possibility in its latest production, Miss Gulch Returns, a one-man show featuring local cabaret performer Jerome Elliott in a delightful performance.

The show, written by New York singer/pianist Fred Barton, became a hit 20 years ago, and holds up well. The premise is that Miss Gulch feels disrespected after her big musical number was cut from The Wizard of Oz movie, so she hits the cabaret circuit in search of showbiz success—and love.

The show opens with Elliott, looking quite dapper in a black tux, detailing in the first musical number how he met Miss Gulch in a bar (“You’re The Woman I’d Wanna Be”). Moments later, he morphs into Miss Gulch herself, losing the tux and appearing in a long black dress and a black hat adorned with a large bow. (Elliott pulls off drag quite well.)

He warns us that if we’re not careful, “Miss Gulch is what every one of us is going to become”—old, bitter and frustrated (“I’m a Bitch”).

There are lots of laughs and plenty of suggestive lyrics (“Pour Me a Man”) as Miss Gulch struggles valiantly to find true love, singing torch songs for a living and hitting the bottle a bit too much. One of the highlights of the evening is one of the few ballads, the poignant “Everyone Worth Taking’s Been Taken.”

Elliott is a solid, seasoned performer with a strong voice. He seems right at home onstage and is reminiscent of an old song-and-dance man like Donald O’Connor. He possesses great comic timing and can really throw out a zinger, as he does to a lover who’s just dumped him: “One look at you, and I knew you were one of those guys who thinks monogamy is a game put out by Parker Brothers.” Later, he compares lovers to dentures: “You don’t want them in your mouth all night, but you do want them within arm’s reach first thing in the morning.”

This material isn’t earthshaking—there are no big show-stopping numbers, and there are slow moments here and there—but the lyrics are clever, and there’s just the right amount of raunchiness to keep us entertained. The piano-bar set is simple and just right, and musical director Charlie Creasy provides excellent keyboard accompaniment. The production runs just about 90 minutes, which is perfect for a one-man musical show.

Desert Ensemble Theatre’s production of Miss Gulch Returns is funny, bawdy, touching and worth seeing. Kudos to director Tony Padilla, who has helped Elliott create a believable, three-dimensional character in Almira Gulch. Even my sister would like her.

Miss Gulch Returns, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 16, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Running time is about 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $22; and $18 for students, seniors and military. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

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