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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

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.

There’s an old Japanese proverb, “Deru kugi wa utareru.” It basically means: “The nail that sticks up is the one that gets hit.” It represents Japan’s conformist tendencies, and the long-held belief that an individual should never rock the boat.

It’s also the underlying theme of the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre’s season-ending production, Hold These Truths, written by Jeanne Sakata and starring Blake Kushi. Originally staged in 2007 as Dawn’s Light: The Journey of Gordon Hirabayashi, it chronicles the true story of Hirabayashi, a second-generation Japanese American who had the guts to rock the boat by resisting the legally mandated internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.

The oldest son of a truck driver, Gordon learns about discrimination early on. As a young boy, after he tries to come to the aid of an injured dog in the street, a white man screams at him and his mother: “Get out of our country, you fucking Japs!” Local businesses hang signs warning, “Japs, go home!” During his first trip to New York, Gordon is relieved at the lack of such signs, and his ability to eat at a restaurant without being thrown out.

Hirabayashi is studying at the University of Washington in 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066, which requires that all West Coast residents of Japanese descent be sent to internment camps. Hirabayashi refuses to join the ranks of the hundreds who obeyed, in the process losing their homes, businesses and self-respect.

He writes a letter to the government explaining his actions—but he’s arrested for refusing the evacuation order. The legal defense group that takes up Hirabayashi’s cause claims the 1942 executive order violated the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits the seizure of property and rights without due process of law.

Hirabayashi’s case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943, where he eloquently argues that ancestry is not a crime, and passionately declares: “I am an American.” However, he ultimately loses. After requesting a 90-day sentence rather than a 60-day sentence (it’s the only way he can serve it outdoors), Hirabayashi hitchhikes all the way to Tucson, Ariz., to serve his prison time in a labor camp.

The play depicts Hirabayashi’s subsequent marriage to his college sweetheart, the births of his children and his successful teaching career. Forty years later, he gets a phone call from a law professor who has unearthed old evidence that there was no military necessity for the mass incarceration. In 1987, Hirabayashi’s conviction was overturned, and in 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, just a couple of months after his death.

Not bad for a nail that stuck up.

Carrying a show alone that’s nearly two hours long is not easy, especially when the show deals with such heavy duty issues. Thankfully, both Jeanne Sakata’s writing and Blake Kushi’s performance are excellent. The script has many upbeat—and some downright funny—moments. Kushi has a great stage presence, and is very likable, which this role requires. Throughout the play, Kushi also portrays Hirabayashi’s father, mother, college friends and lawyer, as well as several other characters, all with great skill.

As always, Ron Celona’s direction is quite good. The simple set is effective, and the use of newsreel photos (flashed on downstage screens) and radio broadcasts from the era take the audience back in time.

Hold These Truths is a fabulous choice to end CV Rep’s season, which carried the theme “The American Melting Pot.” Don’t miss it. It will make you laugh, think and perhaps shed a tear or two. And it reminds us all that rocking the boat is sometimes necessary—in fact, it can change history.

Hold These Truths is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 3, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. (There is now show at 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 18.) The running time is just less than two hours, including a 10-minute intermission. Tickets are $45, with a special rate of $15 for children and college students with an I.D. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

It all started because Michael Shaw and Dezart Performs co-founder Daniela Ryan wanted to bring more new live theater to the Coachella Valley.

In those first days of what would become the Play Reading Festival, performances were held in a small art gallery. Shaw and Ryan would solicit new scripts from friends and colleagues, and once a month, they would choose one play, cast it, find a director, and present a staged reading—charging just $5 a head. So attendees remained invested in the whole process, each audience member was given ballots to grade each play. After seven months, Dezart tallied up the grades, and the play receiving the highest score was produced as the company’s first show the following season.

Fast-forward to today, and the procedure for the Seventh Annual Play Reading Festival, which takes place April 3-11, is much more formalized: Every fall, Dezart puts out a national call for submissions, and receives between 110 and 125 scripts; last year, Dezart even received entries from Australia and Canada. The scripts get divvied up among a team of 15 readers; they go through several rounds of scoring, and the number of scripts is narrowed down to about 25, which Shaw himself reads. Shaw then passes them on to a colleague, and the two of them choose the five to seven finalists.

With both the Play Reading Festival and Dezart Performs’ other productions, Shaw is not willing to settle when it comes to quality, he said. He admitted that he occasionally ruffles feathers—like, for example, when he refuses to cast friends in parts for which they are not right.

“Here in the valley, just like with theater in Los Angeles, there’s some really good stuff, and there’s some really bad stuff,” Shaw said. “But the passion’s always there. You can walk into any theater in the valley and see the passion. That’s fabulous, but passion can only take you so far.”

Other important factors in Dezart’s success include selecting only special material, and knowing the Dezart Performs audience. Some audience members have been shocked or offended by some of Dezart’s more controversial offerings, he said, including the recent 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Shaw doesn’t mind that, as long as each play gets people thinking and talking.

Shaw believes the five plays in this year’s Play Reading Festival will do just that:

Miss Prindle’s Summer Session (Friday, April 3) is a 10-minute comedy by John Lordan. In it, a mother sends her middle-age son back to summer school to study with his retired grammar-school teacher. It’s one of three plays in the festival that Shaw is directing.

The Golden Boots (Friday, April 3) is a one-act comedy by James Rosenfield, based on a true story. A few hours before a reception for Joseph II of Austria, Catherine the Great learns that her lover, the adjutant general, has seduced her best friend. The empress demands that a new adjutant general be chosen in time for the reception.

Suicide Dogs (Saturday, April 4), by Jess Honovich, is a comedy-drama. Also directed by Shaw, the play’s story revolves around Amelia, who flies her family to Florida to prepare for her brother’s funeral after his suicide. What she’s not expecting is that she will now be responsible for her late brother’s famous and sick dog.

Above Water (Friday, April 10) is a drama by Bob Clyman. It’s the story of two middle-age couples who have vacationed together for years. The play begins as the group is on vacation for the first time since one of the wives has died of cancer. The husband has brought along his much younger girlfriend—to the chagrin of the other wife, who was very close to the cancer victim.

• The final play in the festival is drama Cat and Mouse (Saturday, April 11), by Michael E. Wolfson, and also directed by Michael Shaw. Stan and Larry, who have known each other since elementary school, re-connect at a dinner party. One of them ropes the other into a life gamble; the third character in the play is a woman who’s the object of the competition.

This year’s playwrights hail from New Jersey, Chicago, Sacramento and Los Angeles.

The festival features local actors Yo Younger, Garnett Smith, Daniela Ryan, Adina Lawson, Valerie Armstrong, Blanche Mickelson and Scott Smith. Adina Lawson and Joan McGillis each direct one play. As always, the audience will get a chance to vote on which play gets a full production next season.

Like all Dezart shows, the Play Reading Festival takes place at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club. It has been a great home for Dezart Performs for the past few years, but Shaw said the company is growing out of it. One of Shaw’s dreams is to renovate an old church and transform it into a theater; another is to create a performing arts center in Palm Springs that several groups could utilize.

Whatever happens, the area’s theater community is better off thanks to Dezart Performs and its annual festival.

Dezart Performs’ Seventh Annual Play Reading Festival takes place at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, April 3 through 11, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $10, or $34 for all four nights. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

For many years, Coachella Valley audiences have enjoyed the works of award-winning playwright Tony Padilla. He was co-founder of the Playwright’s Circle with Marilee Warner, and is now enjoying success with his own company, Desert Ensemble Theatre.

A member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Tony has won many local awards, including the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing for his play Becoming Ava. Knowing his impressive background, I always look forward to seeing a new play by Tony with great anticipation. His latest offering, Two by Tony, is a couple of one-act plays now on stage at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.

The first is Family Meeting, directed by Desert Ensemble Theatre Company’s artistic director, Rosemary Mallett. It’s a drama peppered with dark comedy which takes place in the home of Daniel Mann (Alan Berry), a bitter, washed-up playwright now reduced to writing B-movie scripts. He’s planning to relocate to New York to get back into the live-theater scene, where he feels he belongs. Daniel’s 20-something grandson, Jason (Shawn Abramowitz), has stopped by to ask if he can move in for a while. Armed with an Internet law degree, Jason is also planning a long-distance move to get his career rolling. He’s anxious to move out of his parents’ home, because their constant bickering is driving him crazy.

Soon, his father, Ed (Rob Hubler), shows up, looking for advice from Daniel on whether or not to divorce his wife, Karen (Denise Strand). Ed calls Karen to join them, and the whole clan is soon gathered in Daniel’s study, swigging red wine and trading barbs. The marriage between Karen and Ed is beyond strained—he’s got an Internet porn addiction, and she’s banging the contractor. Everyone has buried resentments and baggage, but the animosity between Karen and her father-in-law is particularly intense.

The acting is uniformly strong, though there were some volume issues at the top of the show. At first, I thought Berry seemed a tad too young to be cast as Ed’s father, but that reservation faded eventually away. Berry’s Daniel clearly bears the scars of having been beaten up by life over the years. Abramowitz is quite likable as Jason; he spends a lot of time engrossed in computer games on his cell phone, partly to drown out the sound of his battling parents. As Ed, Hubler ably communicates the disappointment and frustration many of us face in middle age. Nothing’s going right—and now his son wants to get away from him. Denise Strand is terrific as Karen. The energy picks up noticeably when she enters the scene. She has fabulous mother-son chemistry with Abramowitz in some of the play’s few tender moments. Occasionally uncomfortable because it mirrors some of our own dysfunctional families (this group sure does drink a lot!), Family Meeting is thought-provoking and worth seeing.

If I had to pick a favorite, though, the second play, The Comeback, would get my vote. A farce directed by Padilla set in the mid 1950s, it’s reminiscent of 1940s films like Blithe Spirit and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. The play tells the story of Nora Raymond (Lee Rice), a Norma Desmond-esque, aging film actress attempting a comeback with the help of her loyal assistant, Thelma (Theresa Jewett). Nora receives a mysterious message urging her to contact a Count Orca (Theo Nowicki). The count later arrives at her home to conduct a séance in hopes of contacting Johnny Bellini (Stephen McMillen), Nora’s long-missing and presumed-dead husband. When Johnny appears, much hilarity ensues. There’s lust, greed, schemes-within-schemes and characters who are not who they seem to be. Everything’s a bit over the top, and laughs abound. The cast is uniformly terrific.

As the dramatic, self-important Nora, Rice is perfect. Cute and petite, but exuding the egomania typical of Hollywood, Rice has the audience routing for Nora’s success, both in the movies and in love. Jewett is a scream as Thelma. Wise, wry and wary, she trusts almost no one, and does not suffer fools gladly. At one point, she advises Nora’s man-servant, Morgan (Nowicki, in a dual role), “Don’t try to be mysterious; you’re no good at it.” Jewett is known to many as an amazing singer; she’s one hell of an actress as well. This is an award-winning performance.

Equally as funny is Nowicki, particularly as Count Orca. Sporting a heavy accent and an obviously fake mustache, Nowicki romps through the role, having a great time onstage, and tickling the audience’s funny bone nonstop. McMillen is quite good as Johnny; he has just the right mix of good looks and comic acting chops.

Kudos to director Tony Padilla … and to playwright Padilla, for a nice evening of theater.

Two by Tony, a production of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, takes place at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, March 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22, or $18 for students, seniors and members of the military. The running time is just more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

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