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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Loren Freeman is one of the best actors in our valley—and now he’s making his directorial debut with the Desert Rose Playhouse’s summer production of Ruthless! The Musical.

So here’s what is wrong with the show: Absolutely nothing! This is a not-to-be-missed romp, with a high energy level that will leave you wrung out from laughing, music that will delight you, and extreme hilarity.

I asked Freeman how he felt about directing his first show. “It’s a great excuse to boss everybody around,” he confided, “if you’re that kind of person.” Well, that is beyond modesty, because everyone in the cast clearly wears the stamp of his famous style. He has a matchless gift for over-the-top work, and has uniformly inspired these actors with his special comedic flair.

It is a show about obsessive showbiz ambition; can there be any juicier topic? The original Los Angeles production of Ruthless! ran for an extraordinary eight months back in 1993, and guess who starred in it? You got it: Loren Freeman himself. Voila!

The open set that greets the audience, designed by Bruce Weber, is a living room done in mid-century modernism classic, with crisp whites, cool blues and minty greens—a classic home of the ’50s. The lady of the house—in pearls, apron and a baby-blue polka dot shirtdress—is bizarrely Stepford Wife-like. This is Christine Tringali Nunes, perfectly playing the role of Judy Denmark with a brainwashed or maybe tranquilizer-addled sweetness—but this actress cleverly slips us a hint of other moods to come.

Her darling daughter, Tina, brilliantly played by Elizabeth Schmelling, wears identical polka dots, a crinoline and tap shoes; she introduces herself in a number that reveals a confident soprano voice, fine dance skills and the palest sky-blue eyes ever. Her heart-shaped face can instantly transmogrify from child-like sweetness into that of a devilish brat or a sullen rebellious youth; it’s a fabulous face that bears watching in the future.

The kid has talent—and she’s ambitious! Although still in school, Tina aspires to greatness. And that’s where Sylvia St. Croix—extravagantly and fabulously played by the theater’s artistic director, Robbie Wayne, in drag—comes in. Her amazing wardrobe, also courtesy of Bruce Weber, echoes Hedda and Louella and those overdressed Hollywood ladies of the ’50s. You can’t take your eyes off her. She is the self-appointed agent/guardian/manager of little Tina, swaggering around under gigantic hats, huge diamonds worn in the daytime, and wild colors in animal patterns. Her lipstick alone is terrifying.

Oh! This show is a musical, and the multitalented Steven Smith once again provides flawless music direction … plus he accompanies each performance as a one-person orchestra on keyboard. The songs are very funny, and the sound is beautifully balanced thanks to Adrian Niculescu and Miguel Gomez. There is no choreographer listed; evidently, the dance steps are the self-invented brainchild of the actors and/or Loren Freeman.

This show being a musical explains the presence of musician/vocalist Dana Adkins in the cast. A longtime Valley fave, she plays Miss Thorn, Tina’s teacher—everyone’s worst nightmare of a schoolmarm, with the nose-perched reading glasses, pencils poked into her beehive hairdo, ghastly sensible shoes, lips pursed in perennial disapproval, and the pointiest eyebrows imaginable. Her vocal range takes her from a hilarious falsetto to low growls—dangerous voice use for anyone except an experienced singer like Adkins, who manages it breezily.

Jaci Davis plays the theater critic (ahem!) Lita Encore with jaw-dropping gusto. She serves up a fascinating silver-haired character who sports one of the most powerful singing voices anywhere, demonstrating a masterful vibrato and an edgy style that appears effortless. Her energy is incandescent, and she simmers with a stunning stage presence.

One of the greatest challenges (and most fun) in acting is playing multiple roles in a production, and this play gives Leanna Rogers an opportunity to showcase her impressive chops with two wildly different characters. First, Louise is a peculiar schoolgirl aspiring to grab the lead in Pippi Longstocking, and then Rogers switches to play Eve, a jealousy-consumed secretary/assistant to a successful Broadway star. She changes everything from posture to hair, makeup and vocal choices between the characters, and yet manages to bring a tinge of brief sadness to both roles.

But there are laughs everywhere in this production. Our audience applauded frequently and enthusiastically, and roared at the punchlines. (Actually, a couple of people nearly lost it, so be warned.) The second-act set takes us to a Manhattan apartment, featuring the glitziest of multihued drapes, the purplest possible shade of settee cushions, and the fanciest telephone that ever rang.

This show involves several different styles of comedy, meaning the range for each of these actors can be fully explored. It is rare to find material that provides this kind of opportunity, and these six talented thespians are no doubt grateful for the chance to show us what they can do with the music of Marvin Laird and a book by Joel Paley. Yet the evenness of the production has to be credited to Freeman’s eagle eyes and his sense of timing.

Enormous kudos to whoever did the casting for this play; the selection of these players is flawless. The lighting is designed by the incomparable Phil Murphy, and it can’t get better than that, thanks also to lighting tech Duke Core. The temperature in the Desert Rose Playhouse is very comfortable (not like certain movie theaters determined to freeze us out with running noses). What a joy to see a live show in the summertime—and you are absolutely guaranteed to enjoy this one. It has some really great moments and truly unforgettable lines.

This is a directorial debut that was evidently long overdue. Not only has Freeman pulled hilarious and layered performances out of his actors, but the stage blocking is beautifully balanced; the tension continues to mount through surprising plot twists right to the outrageous endings; and the overall atmosphere of silliness and send-up never stops tickling the audience. The only way this show could possibly be improved would be to see Loren Freeman himself back up on the stage along with his fabulous cast!

Ruthless! The Musical is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 14, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Admit it: You think it’s funny when a man puts on a dress.

Well, you’ve got company—and Desert Rose Playhouse is smart enough to know that. Hence, Pageant, the company’s final show of the 2018-2019 season. It’s guys in drag competing to win the title of “Miss Glamouresse”—and the hilarity builds right up to the final scene, which contains more belly laughs than any show in recent years. It only runs until May 12, so we strongly suggest that you run, not walk, to see this show—whether you’re in high heels or not. The packed house at our presentation—containing way more ladies than we’ve ever seen in a DRP audience—would agree.

The open stage that greets you—designed by Bruce Weber—is pink, pink, pink. This is the signature color of the “Glamouresse” brand, and your eyes will water from 50 shades of pink during the nearly two-hour show (with no intermission!). Pale pink ostrich feathers, Elsa Schiaparelli shocking-pink costumes, Pepto-Bismol pink—it’s everywhere. Brace yourself. Phil Murphy has even used pink lighting on the filmy curtains.

Robbie Wayne, the show’s director and Desert Rose’s producing artistic director, leaps onto the stage to welcome you—and joyously admits that this show has no “message.” It was just chosen because of its laughs. How wonderful!

So, bring on the girls. This pageant presents six semifinal competitors from various regions of the USA, such as Miss West Coast, Miss Industrial Northeast and Miss Bible Belt. Can you imagine such titles? Well, why am I surprised? In my home town there was a contest for Miss Potash, for heaven’s sake …

The competition’s emcee is Frankie Cavalier, played by Michael Pacas, who strides onto the stage wearing what might be the most frightening toupee in all of show biz. He fabulously combines the smarm of so many professional emcees with flawless timing and relentless cheeriness in the face of imminent disaster. Just keeping the names and titles straight must be exhausting, but Pacas’ energy never flags. He introduces the girls, who appear in all shapes and sizes, proudly wearing their title banners. Our judges, chosen from the audience, sit alertly up front. Consulting your program will only confuse you, as the actors’ headshots bear zero resemblance to the female flamboyance that you see on the stage.

Miss Great Plains, for example, is played by Larry Martin. Miss Industrial Northeast is created by Noah Arce. Timm McBride plays Miss Texas. Miss Bible Belt is Ben Reece. Miss Deep South is played by Miss Rusty Waters, and Miss West Coast is played by Jersey Shore, aka Brian Keith Scott.

Three shades of blonde, two shades of brunette, one auburn—and there they are.

Through the competitions, we get to know them personally. The emcee rattles off their qualifications and qualities (Miss West Coast, for example, is “Karma,” a double Gemini with a past including self-improvement techniques and tie-dying) throughout the various contests, such as evening gown, spokesmodel, fitness, talent cavalcade, philosophy, and—brace yourself—swimsuit.

You can instantly see the opportunities for merriment. My favorite part was the talent competition, during which these hugely talented actors toiled with their extremely creative director to create a jaw-dropping segment. Wait until you see what stuff they strut … and there are some extraordinary moments, such as Miss Bible Belt, wearing a flaming-red choir robe over a gold sequined gown, wailing a song called “I’m Bankin’ on Jesus,” or Miss Industrial Northeast on roller skates playing an accordion. Seriously!

There is no program credit given for costumes, but they are many and varied, and all are fantastic. Perhaps they came from the actors’ own closets. Some quick changes are required—another opportunity for laughs. There is no choreography credit, either, though there is dance aplenty, with some cute routines. One change suggestion: From most of the seats, when an actor lies down on the stage, he becomes invisible. It makes the neck-craning audience—except those in the front row—feel as if they are missing something, possibly important. The only real criticism is that the music, directed by Jaci Davis, was too loud, and drowned out the actors at times.

The competitors themselves select a “Girlfriend” award, like Miss Congeniality in most beauty pageants. A running gag throughout is their “spokesmodel” competition, in which the girls are forced to shamelessly shill for “Glamouresse,” which turns out to be a big-business brand in the field of beauty products, by creating a commercial. And the surprise guest who arrives at the end—well, let’s not ruin it for you.

The comedy here varies from slapstick to intellectual to tricky, so there is literally something for everyone in this play. Although I have had to stop slapping language warnings on reviews since four-letter words in theater have become so ubiquitous, we must compliment this show on not taking the cheap shots—there isn’t one objectionable word in the script. Amazing! It CAN be done. There are a couple of (terribly funny) adult-humor sexual references, but you could basically take anyone to see this show.

With drag queens, it’s all about nuance. It’s not just popping on a wig and makeup and a dress. To really be a standout requires infinite subtlety and much careful study. Drag is an art form dear to my heart, because when I was starting my performing career, I was invited to be in several shows at a drag club (they introduced me as “a real girl”)—and I learned a LOT from the queens of drag. This show reveals incredibly varied, individualized and thoughtful performances by all these entertainers, and it is a play I would love to see again.

So, who wins the crown? That rollicking finale alone is worth the price of admission.

Pageant is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 12, with a special show at 7 p.m., Thursday, May 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Theater and Dance

Ah, yes, Christmas With the Crawfords … could the title sound any more Norman Rockwell-idyllic? But the very fact that Desert Rose Playhouse has chosen this play as its annual Christmas show should immediately arouse deep suspicion, because this theater has become known for twisting one’s head.

This offering, from producer and artistic director Robbie Wayne, was created by Richard Winchester and written by Mark Sargent. It’s directed by Kam Sisco, Desert Rose’s managing director—and it is a romp. It turns out “The Crawfords” means the cobbled-together family of Hollywood actress Joan Crawford, so we are catapulted back to the early days of the movies. The play gives actors multiple opportunities for outrageous costumes and imitations of famous entertainers—all them happily in drag, flashing around in festively colored feathers, jewels, capes and some unusual accessories.

The more you know about those days of film and the fashions of the time, the more you’ll get out of the show. Oh … did I mention it’s a musical? All those familiar seasonal songs are trotted out for the cast members to belt out solos and combos and even harmonies with gusto. The costumes are wayyyyyyy over the top, with Joan Crawford sporting the most astonishing shoulder pads you’ll ever see—not to mention her red platform high heels, for which even a word like “awesome” fails. Toni Molano’s wigs give the actors opportunities for lots of delightful variety, and add extra fashion statements to the comedy. Phil Murphy’s lighting, as always, creates the proper pace and the mood changes. Kudos to the music director Jaci Davis, choreographer Daryl J. Roth and everyone who added their various and considerable talents.

The play opens in the living room Chez Crawford. Not only does Kam Sisco direct the show; he’s onstage for nearly all of it, playing Joan Crawford—a dual job he pulls off with impressive aplomb. He gives us a Crawford with layers of interpretation, from the frustrated and fearful actress whose career is skidding toward its end (fired by MGM Studio!), to the bizarre and sometimes even abusive mother we learned about in the tell-all book Mommie Dearest, to a suggestion of maybe a little alcohol abuse. She’s certainly feeling some pressure, as she is anxiously awaiting an interview with Jack Warner of Warner Bros., which she hopes will revive her flagging career, as she is now reduced to playing an extra, sneaking in at rival RKO Studio.

Since it’s Christmas Eve, gossip-queen journalist Hedda Hopper (played with relish by Jacob Samples) has decided to broadcast live on the radio from the Crawford home. The children, Christina (Larry Martin) and Christopher (Ruth Braun), are expected to be charming and well-behaved under Crawford’s harsh rule. Joan’s sister Jane Hudson, also played by Samples, has shown up like a bad penny to help fry everyone’s minds—yet she vanishes just in time to reappear as Hopper before you can even say “quick change.”

But the neighbors next door are hosting a high-profile party, and many of Hollywood’s brightest stars wander into the Crawford domicile by mistake. Judy Garland, played by Anthony Nannini, drops in and stays, giving us a skillful interpretation of the singer in a mellower mood than usual—with terrific fishnet-clad gams and that man’s-suit-jacket look which became one of her most memorable outfits. Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell played by Ed Lefkowitz, shows up with Samba-dancing feet and a hilarious accent. He also shows up as slacks-clad and lock-jawed Katharine Hepburn, and can you possibly imagine two more different ladies? It’s a great stretch for any actor to tackle.

Sex-symbol Mae West briefly slithers in, played by Stan Jenson—and he, too, pulls off an impressive transformation, because we next see him as the dynamic and powerful Broadway/film star Ethel Merman. We would have loved to have seen more use made of Jensen’s amazing bass-toned voice. Tim McIntosh very nearly steals the show as the weird and intensely self-obsessed Gloria Swanson, whom you’ll remember from her dramatic and unforgettable Sunset Boulevard, spouting those immortal lines you will recognize. Then there are the three singing sisters you’ll know, LaVerne, Patty and Maxene, lost en route to perform at a USO show in their cute little faux uniforms and with their hairdos tucked into snoods … courtesy of Jenson, McIntosh and a very flirty-eyed Nannini.

Chaos ensues. But the music never stops, despite being punctuated by some delicious cattiness and misbehaving. The comedy styles juggle between parody, irony, drag humor and some good-old hamming. There’s even a salute to Hanukkah, with a dreidel song bearing the unforgettable title “I’m Spending Hanukkah in Santa Monica.” It kind of turns into a revue with all of these performances … plus the fact that there is precious little plot in this script. (“Surviving the day” seems to be at the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list, giving the wacko proceedings a very subtle undercurrent of desperation.)

This show is shorter than usual for Desert Rose—just about 70 minutes, with no intermission, and it moves along quickly. The producer has now added Thursday shows to the lineup, at 7 p.m. It’s a great idea to spread the Christmas cheer with the choice of an early show. I guess we should also give Christmas With the Crawfords a language warning, but few plays these days can escape having one, so I’m not going to bother with it any more unless the vocabulary is particularly vile—and here, it is not.

Enjoy this fun play—and, hey, Merry Christmas!

Christmas With the Crawfords is performed at 7 p.m., Thursday; 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 23, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is 70 minutes with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Theater and Dance

Believe it or not, I have 10 years of experience with female incarceration! Yes, me!

OK … it was as a weekly volunteer at the Riverside County Jail in Indio. But still …

For most of us, there is something fascinating about the behind-locked-doors aspect of prisons, as many movies and TV shows have found. Think Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Cool Hand Luke, Orange Is the New Black, etc. But theater about women’s prisons? There’s not much.

So it was interesting that Desert Rose Playhouse producer Paul Taylor would choose Women Behind Bars as the company’s season closer. It is advertised as a satire of the B movies of the 1950s. They are now sometimes considered “exploitation” films, but here, it is the simple story of the innocent Mary Eleanor, who has been duped into taking the fall for a crime and who lands in the Greenwich Village House of Detention in 1952.

If you are the kind of person who likes getting offended, and who enjoys being all bent out of shape when faced with four-letter words, bizarre sexual situations and some very strange people, then run, do not walk, to see this play. You’ll have the most wonderful time. For those who do have a sense of humor and will relish the exquisite timing, over-the-top melodrama and hilarious stereotypes, you will also have a wonderful time. The equal-opportunity offenses include racial epithets, abuse of all kinds, extreme cussing and vicious power struggles. So enjoy! (The program puts it more pleasantly: “Recommended for mature audiences due to language, adult situations and sexual content.”)

Playwright Tom Eyen has crafted this 90-minute (no intermission!) work as a fast-paced trip through the 1950s, ending on the New Year’s Eve that brings in 1960. The play has earned great success, running “somewhere” since 1974, continuously, including New York and Los Angeles.

The tiny stage and the enormous cast, under the directorial expertise of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, serve as a textbook example of clever stage blocking. They combine to convey the sense of claustrophobic communal living. The credits run on the back wall, just like a black-and-white movie (the ’50s, get it?), as the show opens. The scenery, by Toby Griffin, is all basic gray gray gray—a plain rocking chair and blocky benches. Costume designer Jennifer Stowe made the girls’ prison dresses all grey. However, the ladies accessorize with high heels of all kinds—and jewelry! Also, Toni Molano’s wigs provide individualization so each character stands out. Needless to say, Phil Murphy’s lighting as always creates flawless mood and scene changes. Stage manager Ben Cole wrangles the mob efficiently--and working the props in this play is no small feat, either, as you will come to appreciate, with some peculiar additions from the barnyard and the nursery.

You meet the cellmates right at the start of the show, when they are ordered to line up and identify themselves, their booking number and their crime. Here is the entire 11-member cast, alphabetically by surname:

Francesca Amari plays Ada, a complex character long departed from reality. Her basic sweetness peeks through her winged alternate life, in a multi-layered portrayal that you will not forget.

Miguel Arballo plays multiple roles, from a psychiatrist to a dream lover (nude scene alert!) to a dumb husband. His portrayals are always solid.

Melanie Blue is Guadalupe, a Puerto Rican, played with a convincing accent and attitude. She beautifully imbues her character with passion, vanity and tragedy.

Ruth Braun plays Louise, the servile matron’s assistant who grows up to surprise us with a huge turnaround arc that takes her from cringing slave to triumph.

Kimberly Cole is Jo-Jo, the only black inmate, a sweet-faced girl who unflinchingly faces her attackers, and bums cigarettes with aplomb, creating a very special and sympathetic character.

Loren Freeman owns the juicy role of the dreaded matron, Pauline. He uses his extraordinary voice and lithe physique (including lots of unusual arm work) to dominate the stage just as his cruel character dominates the convicts. A heavy, in every sense.

Deborah Harmon is Blanche, an aging Southern beauty stuck in Streetcar mode in her flight from reality, but the actress shows that Blanche’s mannered flutterings occasionally slip to reveal a bit of a dangerous and weird underside.

Adina Lawson devours the role of Granny, who has already lived in the big house for 42 years. This tiny, Bible-spouting creature mixes scripture with gutter language, creating shock and awe. She, too, deals us an unexpected surprise.

Phylicia Mason plays Mary Eleanor, a sweet flower tossed into prison who changes enormously as a result of incarceration and exposure to her cellmates. She carries the play’s theme: Locking people up creates a whole new problem.

Kam Sisco is Cheri, a wannabe Marilyn Monroe type with amazing legs, a whispery voice and a perennial pout, all useful in her career as a Hollywood-bound hooker.

Yo Younger glitters as a hard-edged, hard-voiced chain smoker with a cynical view of life. But her tight-lipped, eye-rolling character eventually reveals a soft spot.

There is a huge amount of screaming in this play, and one worries for the throats of the cast during their six-week run. This show is among the most high-energy productions ever, with constant movement, surprises and plot twists, so it will consume your attention and provide plenty of outrageous laughs. The characters are fully realized, and the plot shakeups just keep coming. The casting is just perfect, and the mix of personalities is classic.

If this show is a hit, it’ll run all summer, which has happened before at the Desert Rose Playhouse. The company’s next season opens in October, with many changes taking place—as Paul Taylor and Jim Strait ease into retirement through the next year, with Robbie Wayne taking over the company. They’ve presented the Coachella Valley with some wonderful theater.

Women Behind Bars is a play you will remember—and hopefully it’s as close as you’ll ever get to landing in the hoosegow.

Women Behind Bars is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 29, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Artistic director Jim Strait has never played it safe when choosing material to produce at the Desert Rose Playhouse. Local audiences have come to expect edgy fare from the valley’s only LGBT theater company—and Desert Rose’s current production, the world premiere of Allan Baker’s Dare, does not disappoint.

The play won New York’s 2017 Mario Fratti-Fred Newman Award for Best Political Play, beating out 299 other submissions. The contest encourages the writing of plays that focus on social, cultural and political issues—and Baker, who hails from Austin, has been an LGBT advocate in Texas for many years. Since 2004, he has penned 13 plays, most with gay characters and themes.

Dare introduces us to 82-year-old Jack (Richard Marlow), who lives in a nursing home in California’s Central Valley. Tired of living, Jack has decided to end it all by starving himself to death. Nursing-home administrators send in gerontology consultant Josh (Matthew Hocutt) to find out why Jack has made such a rash decision. Though both Jack and Josh are gay, their life experiences have been quite different, due to the disparity in their ages.

Jack regales Josh with tales of his past as an activist in the early days of LGBT liberation. In flashback scenes, we go along on the journey from San Francisco in the 1970s to Fire Island in ’78, then on to New York City in both 1987 and 1990.

We see a young Jack struggle to maintain his buttoned-up banker image by day while letting loose with wild experimentation in the bathhouses of New York at night. He meets the love of this life, young David (Noah Arce), who helps him loosen up and embrace his true identity. The relationship is intense, but not monogamous, because “commitment wasn’t the engine that drove that train.”

Then the scourge of AIDS rears its ugly head. “You could feel the fear growing in the village … and then people started dying,” Jack says, while railing against those who would pass judgment: “It just happened—don’t give it a moral spin!”

As Jack’s story unfolds, Josh comes to understand the older man’s end-of-life choice. Jack has his reasons, including the fact that “there’s a great quiet now that all my friends and family are gone.” As a theater veteran, he feels the dramatic arc of his life is complete.

The cast of five is strong. As the nursing-home attendant, Robbie Wayne makes quite an impression in two brief scenes at the beginning and end of the play. His character’s animosity towards homosexuals is palpable and disturbing.

Terry Huber’s portrayal of the younger, conflicted Jack is right on the money. His reluctant willingness to dress in drag and learn the movements to Madonna’s “Vogue” are fun to watch.

As Jack’s young lover, David, Noah Arce is quite a find. Stunning and androgynous, Arce perfectly embodies the free-spirited innocence, enthusiasm, determination and sensuality of young gay men at the time. It’s easy to see why Jack would fall for him.

Matthew Hocutt is terrific as Josh. With his clipboard, glasses and lab coat, he’s all business, yet kind and understanding as he absorbs Jack’s story. The audience can see his growing affection for the old man. It all rings true.

But the clear standout is Richard Marlow as Jack. This character is a huge part for any actor, including several long monologues and a wide range of emotion; there are times when it almost seems like a one man show. Marlow is absolutely up to the task. We feel his physical pain and weakness, his lust and love for David, his anger and frustration over widespread homophobia, and the peace he seems to have found at the end of his life. There is not one false note. It is truly an acting tour de force; if Marlow does not win an award for this performance, there is no justice in the world.

Once again, director Strait deserves great credit for eliciting strong performances from his cast. Material like this needs a director with sensitivity and passion, and Strait’s work exhibits both.

The set, costumes, sound and lighting all work well. Kudos to Steve Fisher, the stage manager, who helps keep the whole production running smoothly.

Dare is a gay-themed show, but there are lessons here for everyone. We all feel “different” from time to time. That’s when we should remember Jack’s advice: “You’re not like them … remember that. It’s the source of your strength.”

Desert Rose Playhouse’s Dare is terrific theater. Go see it.

Dare is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, May 13, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37, and the running time is about one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

With Thanksgiving and Black Friday out of the way, our thoughts turn to the Christmas season—and one of the special seasonal events in our valley is always Desert Rose Playhouse’s ever-innovative holiday production. This year, the choice is Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel.

Set in New York (and heaven, do you mind), it visits Manhattan in 1948—a wild postwar world of swinging nightclubs, famous restaurants, jazz and a night life that goes on until dawn. The underbelly of the town contains a second world of mobsters and molls, gambling and gunplay, cheesy shows and characters … and that’s where we find ourselves, with everyone speaking thick Manhattan-ese.

Understand that everything in this light-hearted comedy is over the top—you will find no subtle gritty-realism method acting here. It’s all for fun and for the effect, and producer Paul Taylor has assembled a cast that fully comprehends this.

The show stars the extraordinary Loren Freeman as Irish O’Flanagan, a carrot-topped nightclub singer whose miserly, selfish and mean-spirited ways earn her some flashback visits to the past, plus a glimpse of her destined future, courtesy of a guardian angel. (I know, I know—you’re already seeing the parallels with Scrooge.) The angel, Albert, is played by Robbie Wayne, who has been named a “DRP artistic associate” for his ever-growing and varied list of jobs with the group, including creating the choreography for this “musical pastiche.” As Albert, he’s a slick, pinstripe-suited and smart-mouthed former performer in trouble with God for a batch of heavenly infractions who is facing expulsion to Hades. He bargains to get back into God’s Good Books by agreeing to go down to Earth and trying to convert Irish into a being who is also worthy of admission to heaven. Which, as you’ve guessed, she currently is not.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the lead actor in this show. Everything turns on Irish O’Flanagan’s magnetism and believability, as she is in almost every scene. Loren Freeman, with his astonishing aquamarine eyes, resonant foghorn bass voice and shapely legs, brings an arsenal of skills and talents more than equal to this task. (In fact, this entire show features many great gams, both male and female—if the Desert Theatre League ever creates a category for Best Legs, this show is the, umm, hands-down winner.) A consummate professional, Freeman actually takes a pass on opportunities to react when another actor is speaking, knowing that if he does, it would draw the audience’s eye away to him … yet when he does react, it’s flawless. His New York accent is perfect, and in that whisky-baritone voice, he relishes rolling his mouth around the script’s 1940s street-slang—like “a clop on the chops,” “doll,” “jawboning” and “stooge.” Even as Irish blusters and struts, we see the vulnerability beneath the surface, and when she sings, it can break your heart. It’s a case of absolutely perfect casting.

DRP seems close to forming its own repertory company with the return to the boards of such favorite actors as Terry Huber, Cat Lyn Day, Michael Pacas, Melanie Blue and Kam Sisco. Also included are some welcome new faces: Ruth Braun, James Owens and Karen Schmitt. A growing company is a healthy company, and they all get to fill the stage and show off their versatility by playing a delicious variety of multiple roles. Parker Tenney plays The Voice of God, which might surprise you.

There were a couple of understandable first-night fumbles and misfortunes, and in some places, the timing was a little bit off, but knowing Jim Strait, this will be fixed by the time you see the show. And some of the accents need work—they’re a little muddy. There were a couple of bewildering moments, possibly because of some anachronisms in the costumes and the music, but for “heaven’s” sake, who cares?

Among my favorite moments were Huber’s touching solo; some of the terrific quick changes; Sisco’s hilarious portrait of a drunken former Vaudeville star from back when drunks were still funny; extra touches like the antlers; some lovely harmonies; several moments of exquisite timing; and the expression “a case of the dismals,” which will promptly be absorbed into everyone’s current vocab. The first-night audience must have agreed, because they broke into spontaneous applause during and between the scenes. The 95-minute play is performed without an intermission, just in case your kidneys might want to know in advance.

The production is designed and directed by DRP’s founding artistic director, Jim Strait. He and Paul Taylor unabashedly adore Christmas, wearing outrageous Yuletide garb to welcome the playgoers. How refreshing is this? It makes you want to rush home and get out your Christmas decorations.

Playwright Charles Busch—whose name you will remember from other DRP productions including Vampire Lesbians of Sodom/Coma—frankly admits A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life as inspirations for Times Square Angel, along with the gangster movies of the ’40s, with those tough-talking chorus girls and thugs found in places like this show’s gaudy Club Intime.

Musical director Joel Baker has pre-recorded the accompaniment music, which mixes styles such as doo-wop, blues, gospel and, of course, some good old Christmas songs everyone knows. (You DO know “Mele Kalikimaka” in Hawaiian, right? Because they sing it here.)

Regarding the aforementioned repertory, returning costume director Mark Demry (who delights us with two-tone spectator shoes, perky hats and nostalgic fur stoles) and hair stylist Toni Molano (the wigs are hugely important in this show … though some are a bit weird) are again joined by the incomparable Phil Murphy as lighting director, whose contribution makes this his 49th show for DRP. Steve Fisher is the stage manager once again. How pleasant for this company to be able to rely on the same tried-and-true talents for every production!

This play is fun. It will make you feel good. It will infuse you with Christmas spirit. You will want to immediately rush home and dust off the Christmas tree lights—and maybe it will even inspire you to give Christmas gifts of theater tickets or even season subscriptions, thereby giving ideal presents to everyone!

Times Square Angel is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Dec. 17, at Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The Desert Rose Playhouse is kicking off its sixth season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Christopher Durang’s witty look at lost dreams and family dysfunction. The production is almost home run … almost.

The show opens as middle-aged siblings Sonia (Adina Lawson) and Vanya (Jim Strait) bemoan their uneventful lives over a cup of coffee in their Bucks County, Penn., house. Neither has moved out of their childhood home. It’s where they cared for their aging parents (now both deceased), and where they enjoy refuge from the trials and tribulations of life, subsidized by their movie-star sister, Masha (Heather Brendel). Vanya is a gay, mild-mannered, aspiring playwright, while 52-year-old Sonia (adopted into the family at age 8) is unmarried and bipolar.

Soon, their voodoo-practicing, fortune-telling cleaning lady, Cassandra (Alma Lacy), arrives, bringing with her predictions of doom and gloom. Things really get intense when Masha shows up unexpectedly, with her new young boy toy, Spike (Cody Frank), in tow.

Arrogant and demanding, Masha is tormented by the fact that her ingenue days are long gone. She needs the spotlight like the rest of us need oxygen, and must always be the center of attention. She looks down on Sonia and has little sympathy for her sister’s frequent emotional outbursts. Sonia, meanwhile, resents having sacrificed years of her life caring for their late parents while Masha was jet-setting around the world.

In the midst of the bickering, Masha makes two big announcements. First, she’s decided to sell the house, forcing her siblings to find more modest accommodations; second, they’ve all been invited to a costume party down the street. It’s all been planned out, and Masha has brought costumes for everyone. She will be attending as Snow White; Spike will be the Prince; and Sonia and Vanya are relegated to the roles of dwarfs. Sonia refuses, instead stealing her sister’s thunder as the Evil Queen (as interpreted by Maggie Smith).

Soon, the lovely Nina (April Mejia) is added to the mix; she’s an aspiring actress who lives next door. Masha is flattered by Nina’s admiration, yet angered that the young girl has captured Spike’s interest.

Everyone in the cast has memorable moments in this production, but the acting is uneven at times. The amazing Adina Lawson is unquestionably the standout. Her Sonia is riveting, hilarious, pitiful, poignant and wise, all at once. She has some of the best lines in the play. While extolling the virtues of her late father, she adds, “And he never molested me,” to which her brother replies “That’s nice.” Later, when someone suggests she could get a job at CVS, she shoots back: “I’d prefer death.”

Jim Strait’s Vanya seems a bit too subdued early on, but he has some great comic moments as he attempts to hide his sexual attraction to Spike. He definitely rises to the occasion in a passionate monologue near the end of the play during which he rails against the losses of his life, including black-and-white TV, and postage stamps you had to lick.

Alma Lacy’s Cassandra is a real hoot. Her blustering entrance—she’s clad in a billowing caftan and a curly red wig—really makes an impression. She throws herself into the voodoo sequences wholeheartedly, and makes the audience believe she really does have supernatural powers.

Heather Brendel is cast well as B-movie queen Masha. Her comedic acting chops are evident during her spats with Sonia, and her futile efforts to keep Spike from stripping down to his skivvies. Her performance seemed a bit one-note in the early scenes, but the character became fleshed out later on. Some of Brendel’s best moments are as Snow White (the Disney version), a persona she really makes her own.

As vapid sex-object Spike, Cody Frank holds his own, but he could use a little more swagger. This is not the first character Frank has played which called for him to show some skin. He has the body for it and is certainly is easy on the eyes. But parading around onstage in your underwear takes a lot of self-confidence—and that is sometimes missing in this performance.

Rounding out the cast as Nina, April Mejia does a fine job. Wide-eyed and innocent, she is the quintessential sweet ingénue. She’s absolutely adorable when she reluctantly appears in her dwarf costume, as mandated by the jealous Masha.

Special mention needs to be made about the sound design and exquisite original music by Mark Bennett. It adds just the right touch to the play.

Robbie Wayne wears several hats regarding the production. His set design and costumes are terrific. As the director, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast. The main problem here is pacing: Timing is everything in comedy. Perhaps it was a case of opening-night jitters, but there were occasions when you could drive a train through the pauses between the actors’ lines. I think a couple of speed-read run-throughs might do the trick. There were also a couple of dead spots during costume changes, during nothing was happening onstage, that went on too long.

Despite these minor flaws, I recommend seeing Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. It’s funny, sad and thought-provoking—and a good way to kick off the Coachella Valley theater season.

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

Published in Theater and Dance

When Desert Rose Playhouse opened David Dillon’s Party last year on June 24 for a six-week run, the circumstances surrounding Desert Rose—the valley’s only LGBT theater company—and the LGBT community as a whole were rather bleak.

Desert Rose’s future was up in the air, thanks to a substantial financial loss caused by the company’s critically lauded yet poorly attended production of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches earlier in the year. Meanwhile, the LGBT community was reeling from the Pulse Nightclub massacre, which had taken place just 12 days before.

Party turned out to be just what Desert Rose needed: The raucous comedy, about a “Truth or Dare”-style game played by seven gay friends at a house party, was such a box-office smash that the production was extended from six weeks to nine, returning Desert Rose to firm financial footing. The playhouse also took up a collection for Pulse Nightclub-related charities at each show—and raised more than $7,000 during the run.

Therefore, it’s no surprise that Desert Rose is reprising Party for a six-week, non-extendable run this summer, opening Friday, June 23. The playhouse will again be passing the hat to raise money for various charities at each show.

Artistic director Jim Strait, who directs the play, said the show was written by David Dillon in the early 1990s because the playwright couldn’t find a positive, uplifting gay play.

“Everything was about AIDS or coming out,” Strait said. “He thought of a party he was once at where everyone at the end of the night ended up naked and dancing. So he wrote the play, and it had this wonderful, positive message.”

Take note: Everyone onstage indeed winds up naked by the end of Party. In other words, the play is meant only for mature audiences.

Robbie Wayne played James, a butch, leather-wearing party attendee, in last year’s show—and he jumped at the chance to play the role again this year, he said. In fact, five of the seven actors from last year’s production returned to their roles.

“We were pressing Jim: ‘Please, we hope we can do it again,’” Wayne said.

Acting is a hard enough thing to do while fully clothed, so I had to ask: How difficult is it to perform while buck-naked in front of a room full of strangers?

“Being in front of strangers is actually the easy part,” Wayne said. “The hard part is when your neighbors come to see the show, or your best friend’s mom is there. The people we knew in the audience made it scary—not the people we didn’t.”

The LGBT community was still in shock following the Pulse shooting when Party opened last year. This year, circumstances are different—but still disconcerting, given the less-than-LGBT-friendly presidential administration now in place. Strait promised that Party will make attendees feel better about things, if only for a couple of hours.

“We are, first off, having a good time and selling tickets,” Strait said. “But we are also spreading the gospel of a positive gay lifestyle. It’s such a wonderful bonding experience (for the characters), and the audience feels that, too.”

Wayne said that for a lighthearted play, Party has a surprising amount of depth.

“There are a lot of layers to this play,” he said. “There are some punch lines that are a lot more meaningful this year.”

Party will be performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, July 30, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $34 to $37. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

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