CVIndependent

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Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

Bonnie Gilgallon

Les Miserables is now the world’s longest-running musical, having been seen by an estimated 65 million people in 42 countries.

Given the show’s many years of stage success and the recent hit movie, audiences have high expectations when they go to see Les Miserables—and on many levels, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s current production succeeds. However, the show is far from seamless.

By now, almost everyone knows the basic plot. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel set among the poor in 19th-century France, it chronicles the determination of Inspector Javert to capture escaped convict Jean Valjean, who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving family. Released after 20 years of hard labor, Valjean stops by a bishop’s house. Though treated with kindness, Valjean steals silverware and flees. When he’s apprehended and brought back to answer for his crime, the bishop says the silverware was a gift. The price for Valjean’s freedom: The expectation that he will treat others with kindness. He eventually develops a relationship with Fantine, a starving prostitute desperate to save her illegitimate daughter, Cosette. As Fantine dies, Valjean promises to raise Cosette as his own. Later, Cosette falls in love with a militant student, Marius; finally, Valjean and Javert have their final confrontation on the banks of the Seine.

At the top of the list of Palm Canyon’s successes is Raymond B. Johnson’s performance as Jean Valjean: He is simply flawless. He has the physical presence and the acting chops for the part, and his voice is exquisite. Anyone who knows the score waits for the moment when night falls on a battle, and Valjean sings the spine-tingling “Bring Him Home.” Johnson delivers: You can hear a pin drop as he hits the final high note; his paternal love for Marius feels authentic. Unfortunately, in the opening scenes, he is burdened by an ill-fitting wig, which covers his face far too often.

Valley favorite Mark Almy, as Inspector Javert, is also impressive. Thanks to his powerful pipes, he handles the difficult score with ease; his Javert is cold, stern and relentless. However, when folding the hands of a young boy killed in battle, you can see the softening of the inspector’s heart all over Almy’s face.

Se Layne Tethal (who is not credited in the program) is not bad as Fantine, even though she’s not age-appropriate for the part. She has a pretty voice, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” doesn’t hit the viewer in the gut; sneaking in a breath on the rising scale on the word “shame” diminishes the song. (Granted, playing Fantine these days is a thankless task, seeing as it would be nearly impossible to top Anne Hathaway’s now-famous performance in the film.)

Layne’s daughter Ava Tethal is touching as little Cosette, and her son Wyatt is adorable Gavroche. Husband Rodney Tethal ably directs, making this truly a family affair.

Jamie Leigh Walker is perfectly cast as Cosette. Her soaring soprano meshes well with the equally talented Shafik Wahhab, who plays Marius. Together, they make the young couple’s love totally believable.

Alisha Bates stands out as the tragic Eponine; unfortunately, her gut-wrenching “On My Own” was marred by a brief sharp note and too much noise behind the drop as fellow cast members stacked chairs to create the battle barricade. Also worth mentioning are Charles Harvey as The Bishop of Digne and Nicholas Sloan as Enjolras.

As for those seams: The raucous “Master of the House,” a number which normally stops the show, was lackluster. That was, in large part, because Tom Warrick (Thenardier) did not know his lyrics. Morgana Corelli (Madame Thenardier) also dropped a line or two, but Warrick was either having a really bad night, or needs another week of rehearsal. The pair have the appropriate buffoonish look (great costuming and makeup), and there are glimpses of good comic timing, but if the opening-night show was any indication, they may need to go over their songs. The same problem occurs when they reappear in the wedding scene near the end of the show.

Other issues include the overuse of onstage smoke during the battle scenes and Javert’s suicide. Several audience members were coughing and waving programs in front of their faces to clear the air—and creating a mood onstage is not more important than the safety and comfort of the audience. There were also occasional sound and microphone issues, though they were not as noticeable as in previous Palm Canyon shows. The volume level of cast members’ microphones should be consistent, but that was not the case here; some performers could be heard clearly, while others could not. Some ensemble members also need a bit of work on their diction.

The choice to use a prerecorded background track rather than live musicians in an intimate theater like the Palm Canyon is the only way to go. The recorded music worked well for the most part, though there was a glitch at the top of Act 2. The chorus could use a bit more direction during the crowd scenes—at times, they seemed to be just standing there waiting for their cue to sing.

With a few exceptions, these problems are relative nitpicks. Kudos go to musical director Charles Britt Endsley; costumers Se Layne and Jennifer Stowe; and lighting/sound director J.W. Layne. The set, also designed by J.W. Layne, is superb.

If you’re in the mood for a moving, sweeping historical epic, the Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Les Miserables is not a bad choice. The music is great, and most of the cast is strong; in fact, it’s worth going just to see Raymond B. Johnson’s performance. Let’s just hope the Thenardiers learn their songs, and the powers that be cut back on the smoke.

Les Miserables is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $32, or $10 for students. The running time is three hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

The Desert Rose Playhouse has scored a home run with Dennis Deal’s Nite Club Confidential, a “midcentury modern” film-noir-style musical that’s thoroughly entertaining and features a star turn by valley favorite Joey English.

Set in the 1950s, the show offers a look at the somewhat sleazy nightclub circuit of the day, complete with singing drama, a love triangle—and, of course, lots of booze. 

As the show opens in New York, we meet handsome crooner Buck Holden (the spot-on John Ferrare), who serves as both narrator and emcee. Speaking directly to the audience, he recounts the sordid tale of Nite Club Confidential in flashback. Blessed with good looks but merely moderate talent, Buck must rely on the largesse of maturing stars like Kay Goodman (English) to survive.

Buck is part of a vocal quartet called The High Hopes, also featuring Sal (Mark Ziemann), Mitch (Ryan Dominguez) and Dorothy Flynn (the lovely Katie Pavao). Kay gets a movie offer in Hollywood and wants Buck—her younger lover and agent—to accompany her. He initially declines, since he’s now busy romancing the more appropriately aged Dorothy, emerging as a star in her own right. The plot moves across both coasts, and to Paris and back, as we experience all the glamour, heartache, jealousy and humor of the 1950s nightclub scene. English and Pavao perfectly capture the legendary rivalry between aging female star and upcoming ingénue, especially in “All Man” (dressed in identical green gowns).

The cast is superb, with each member enjoying at least one starring number. Ferrare is charming and easy on the eyes; he keeps the show moving. His rendition of the jazz standard “I Thought About You” particularly stands out. It’s impossible not to smile watching Ryan Dominguez as Mitch, who captures the beatnik era in “Crazy New Words.” Special kudos go to Mark Ziemann as Sal, who stepped into the role with only about a week of rehearsal. Those of us who are performers know how tough that is to pull off—and he did not miss a beat. In fact, his solo number “Black Slacks” is one of the show’s highlights. 

Katie Pavao, as Dorothy, is truly a find. With her raven hair and peaches-and-cream complexion, she looks like she stepped out of a 1950s time machine. The girl has strong acting chops and a voice ideally suited to the musical style of the day; she knocks “He Never Leaves His Love Behind” out of the ballpark.

That leaves the show’s star, Joey English. Perfectly cast as the fading, somewhat insecure nightclub headliner “of a certain age,” English touchingly conveys the angst and jealousy Kay feels over watching her career and her love life crumble. English stays in her lower range and doesn’t push too hard vocally, lending a vulnerability to the character. I’ve seen her in other productions, and this may be the best thing she’s done in the valley.

The musical numbers—a mix of old standards (“Something’s Gotta Give,” “That Old Black Magic”), more obscure numbers (“Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made” by Arthur Schwartz and Frank Loesser) and originals by Deal and Albert Evans (“The Canarsie Diner”)—are all terrific, aside from an occasional off note here and there. Special mention should be made of how well the trio (Pavao, Dominguez and Ziemann) handles tight, difficult harmonies. The singers are ably backed up by percussionist Douglas Dean, bassist Eric Lindstrom and pianist/musical director Steven Smith, positioned just off stage.

The costumes by Valentine Hooven and Mark Demry are excellent, as is the simple set. Previous issues with a creaky stage have vanished. Jim Strait’s direction, the lighting and the sound are all splendid.

Now in its second full season, the intimate Desert Rose Playhouse is filing the void left when Palm Springs’ Thorny Theatre closed a few years ago. If Nite Club Confidential is a hint of what’s to come, Desert Rose’s future is quite rosy indeed.

Nite Club Confidential is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $30 for Friday and Saturday shows, and $28 for Sunday matinees; the running time is just more than two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org. Below: John Ferrare and Katie Pavao.

So you need a break from the endless search for the perfect holiday gifts, and the kids need a distraction from Santa’s impending arrival. What to do?

My suggestion: Head over to the Palm Canyon Theatre, and take in a performance of Shrek the Musical.

The show, of course, is based on the 2001 blockbuster DreamWorks film, and the book and lyrics are by David-Lindsay Abaire, with music by Jeanine Tesori. It tells the story of an ogre named Shrek, who is sent out into the world by his parents at the age of 7. His parents warn him that because of his odd appearance, life will be difficult for him. Shrek is living alone in a swamp when all sorts of fairy-tale creatures show up, having been banished from the Kingdom of Duloc by the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad (who belts out “Story of My Life” to explain).

Shrek sets off to see Farquaad in an effort to get his privacy back, and runs into an annoyingly chatty donkey along the way. Meanwhile, Farquaad is making plans to marry Princess Fiona, who’s been locked up in a tower for years; meanwhile, she’s waiting for a brave knight to rescue her with a kiss. Like Shrek, she’s been on her own since the age of 7. Farquaad agrees to give Shrek the deed to the swamp in exchange for rescuing Fiona—a task which includes dealing with a fire-breathing dragon and a moat of lava.

Fiona is initially shocked by Shrek’s looks, but we later learn that she’s hiding a secret. Shrek assures her that it’s Lord Farquaad she is to marry, and wedding plans are made. But affection grows between the princess and the ogre.

Does the wedding occur? Or does Fiona’s friendship with Shrek blossom into romance? Do Pinocchio, Peter Pan and the other the fairy-tale creatures move out of the swamp? If you are one of the few people who haven’t watched the movie, see Palm Canyon’s production to find out.

This Shrek gets off to a slow start. The actors lack a bit of energy, but that all changes when the Donkey (Shafik Wahhab) enters the picture. Wahhab nearly steals the show, thanks to his physical antics and Eddie Murphy-esque repartee. He provides much of the humor, and it’s hard to keep your eyes off him.

Kelly Peak is quite good as Shrek. He has a strong singing voice and allows us to see the ogre’s vulnerability; after all, ogres need love, too. Also notable is Anne Schroeder as Fiona, whose comic timing and strong voice are reminiscent of a young Carol Burnett, in “Once Upon a Mattress.” Nicholas Sloan’s Lord Farquaad is hilarious; his performance (delivered entirely on his knees) deserves a Supporting Actor nomination of some sort. The always-dependable Julie Rosser is fabulous as the voice of the Dragon.

The ensemble—which includes many children—is adorable, but some of the group numbers seem a tad under-rehearsed. Director William Layne keeps things moving along, and the relationships between the main characters are well-developed and believable.

Once the cast’s energy level picks up, it stays up, and everyone onstage seems to be having a blast. The music is catchy; the costumes are colorful; and the large dragon puppet is terrific and manipulated with great skill. (During the matinee I saw, there were microphone glitches in the first five minutes, but I’m sure those will be worked out.)

The underlying message—love and happiness is possible for all of us, no matter what we look like or how rocky of a start we had in life—is one we can’t hear often enough. Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Shrek the Musical is uplifting and fun, and a great addition to the valley’s holiday entertainment. The closing number, Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer,” will have you humming and tapping your toes all the way home.

Shrek the Musical is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at the Palm Canyon Theatre, 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. Running time is about 2 1/2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123, or go to www.palmcanyontheatre.org.

We all secretly hope that people say nice things about us after we die. In The Story of My Life, currently playing at Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, it’s a promise 12-year-old Alvin and Thomas make to each other (heard in voiceover) as the play opens.

Fast-forward 23 years: Tom, now a professional writer, is struggling to come up with an appropriate eulogy for Alvin, who has committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. It might seem daunting to base an entire holiday-related musical around a eulogy, but it actually works quite well.

Tom begins sharing anecdotes about his lifelong buddy, who now appears as a ghost. We learn that the friendship began thanks to Tom’s fascination with the bookstore run by Alvin’s father. Brian Hill’s book includes several references to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (a movie the boys watch often), including a flashback with the two friends making snow angels. Some manly roughhousing takes place as Tom heads off to college, leading to Alvin kissing Tom on the neck—a major turning point. Has Alvin always had romantic feelings for Tom? Young Alvin’s decision to wear his mother’s robe to school every Halloween following her death on his sixth birthday might have been a clue. 

The friends grow apart as Alvin stays behind in their small town to take over the bookstore after his father’s death; meanwhile, Tom seeks his fortune in the literary world. It’s natural for childhood friendships to diminish in intensity and sometimes fade away as we reach adulthood. Happy with his career and his girlfriend, Tom accepts this turn of events, while Alvin can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s unclear how much this factored into Alvin’s tragic demise.

As Tom finally stops looking for the “why” of Alvin’s death and instead focuses on celebrating the joy of their long friendship, his writer’s block begins to melt away—and the eulogy takes form.

Though it earned four 2009 Drama Desk Award nominations—Outstanding Music (Neil Bartram), Outstanding Lyrics (Bartram), Outstanding Book (Hill) and Outstanding Musical—The Story of My Life closed on Broadway after just five regular performances. Perhaps New York audiences used to theatrical extravaganzas could not appreciate its minimalism.

The actors in CV Rep’s production, Chris Daniel (Alvin) and Craig McEldowney (Tom), deliver superb, emotionally nuanced performances. Both handle the demanding score and intricate lyrics with great skill. McEldowney’s soaring tenor is particularly impressive. Kudos go to musical director Scott Storr for his orchestration with piano, cello and percussion. It works perfectly in CV Rep’s intimate theater. The only downside: While Bartram’s songs are very pretty, they occasionally sound a bit repetitive.

The simple, all-white set works quite well, with the library behind Tom representing the thousands of stories in his mind. Director Ron Celona succeeds in keeping the two actors moving around just enough to keep things interesting.

As another year comes to an end, we often become nostalgic for the old days and for friendships that have become only memories. CV Rep’s touching production of The Story of My Life reminds us that as we get swept up in the holiday hustle and bustle, it may be more important than we realize to take a moment to answer those Christmas cards from old friends.

The Story of My Life is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 22, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 69930 Highway 111, No. 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $40. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Imagine that you’re a young Jewish mother, about to give birth to your second child, a girl. You’re in the rabbi’s office discussing the naming ceremony, when out of the blue, your husband announces that your 3-year-old son is the Messiah. He’s come to that conclusion based on a long list of “miracles” the child has supposedly performed.

How does one react to a bombshell like that? That’s the dilemma presented in the opening scene of Stephen Kaplan’s Exquisite Potential, now being produced by Dezart Performs.

It is the West Coast premiere of the comedy/drama by Stephen Kaplan. Sobering at times but loaded with laughs, Exquisite Potential explores the expectations parents put on their children—as well as those we burden ourselves with.

The young mother, Laura Zuckerman, is played to near-perfection by Adina Lawson. Her comic timing is fabulous, and she skillfully captures her character’s shock, embarrassment and confusion. Has her husband completely lost his mind? Or could he be right? Michael Shaw (Dezart’s artistic director) brings great humanity and depth to the role of Alan Zuckerman. Though his assertion seems ludicrous at first, his conviction and earnestness begin to make it all seem possible.

As the rabbi who Alan turns to for advice on what to do now that he’s sure his son, David, is the Messiah, Scott Smith delivers a solid performance. In Act 2, as the group reconvenes 30 years later to determine whether David has proved his “Messiah-hood,” valley favorite Garnett Smith adds charm and humor as the older rabbi. In a brief walk-on, young Makai Armstrong Ross is adorable and clearly enjoys being onstage. (Ross rotates the role throughout the run with Sawyer Lanterman.)

The only flaws in the production were slow pacing and a few opening-night jitters early in the first act, and a long delay in what should have been an instantaneous blackout at the end of Act 2.

It’s often said that expectations are “the building blocks of resentment.” Are they? What would it be like growing up as the sibling of the Messiah? Aren’t we all capable of amazing deeds? What constitutes a miracle, anyway? What is our purpose in life? Exquisite Potential will have you debating these questions and more—long after you leave the theater.

Exquisite Potential, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 1, at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22 general; and $18 for students, seniors and members of the military. For tickets or more information, call 800-838-3006 (tickets) or 760-322-0179 (info), or go to www.dezartperforms.com.

Yes, Palm Canyon Theatre’s production of Avenue Q is a musical with puppets—but this is definitely not a show geared toward children. Instead, it’s a show with substance (and, it should be noted, decidedly adult themes).

The show, conceived by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who also wrote the music and lyrics), with a book by Jeff Whitty, was originally meant to be a television series. In 2002, it was developed as a stage production at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center for the National Musical Theatre Conference. It hit Broadway in 2003—and went on to win three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Avenue Q addresses the issues we all face while becoming adults. Its characters (some of whom are puppets animated and voiced by unconcealed actors onstage) hit bumps in the road as they try to make their way in the world. The show opens as recent college graduate Princeton (Nicholas Sloan) is looking for his purpose in life. He has just moved to Avenue Q, a fictional street in New York, where he meets his neighbors: kindergarten teaching assistant Kate Monster (the fabulous Sarah Noe); uptight banker Rod (Hanz Enyeart) and his roommate, Nicky (Kelly Peak, who also directs); and Brian, an aspiring comedian (the always-dependable Cliff Plummer) and his Japanese fiancée, Christmas Eve (Carissa Dizon), a therapist with no clients. Rounding out the cast are Nicole Tillman as Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), the building superintendent; and Stephen Blackwell and Jennifer Stowe as the Bad Idea Bears.

Debate begins over who has things the toughest with the song “It Sucks to Be Me.” Tough subjects including racism, porn, angst over one’s sexual orientation, homelessness and infidelity are all touched on in the musical numbers, with understanding and great humor. The biggest laughs come during “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love),” as Kate Monster and Princeton have raunchy puppet sex.

Trials and tribulations ensue, but eventually, most of the characters make progress in their life’s journeys. In the closing number, “For Now,” the cast reminds that it’s OK that some people never find their life’s purpose—since everything is only temporary, anyway.

The Palm Canyon’s production is well-paced; J.W. Layne’s set is spot-on; and the lighting and sound are great (other than a common Palm Canyon Theatre problem: body-mic feedback when the actors/puppets have physical contact).

The cast is strong overall, but special kudos go to Noe, double-cast as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut, who closes Act 1 with Kate singing the superb “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”; and Dizon, who shines in the duet “The More Yu Ruv Someone.”

But the highlight of Avenue Q is the masterful puppeteering. The cast manages to make the audience forget about the humans behind the foam-rubber heads with the painted-on faces; in the end, the audience sees only each puppet’s individual character—which is no small feat.

Yes, this puppet play requires more suspension of disbelief than usual—but Palm Canyon’s production succeeds beautifully.

Avenue Q, presented by Palm Canyon Theatre, is performed at 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 17. The theater is located at 538 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $32. The show runs about two hours, with one 15-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-323-5123 or visit www.palmcanyontheatre.com.

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