Sunday, July 1, 2018

“WOMEN BEHIND BARS” IS A NAUGHTY NOIR-COMEDY HOOT AT DESERT ROSE PLAYHOUSE


The cast of "Women Behind Bars" at Desert Rose Playhouse. All photos by Mike Thomas Photography.
Co-founders Jim Strait and Paul Taylor of the Valley’s only LBTGQ live theatre company has a winning production on their hands making it a great way to announce their mutual retirement from the award-winning Desert Rose Playhouse (DRP), in Cathedral City. When the time comes, everyone would like to hang out his or her ‘Gone Fishin’ sign and leave their creative endeavors on a high note.

Mr. Strait and Mr. Taylor have done precisely that.  After six years of serving the valley’s LBTGQ community with ‘its ‘blood, sweat, tears, as well as the ecstasy and adrenaline high that only comes with another opening night in a theatre.  They deserve our Mahalo’s for six wonderful seasons of a job well done. Please note: Desert Rose Playhouse will still be producing plays for the LBTGQ audiences of the Coachella Valley.  Messrs. Strait and Taylor have been practicing their Hawaiian Island dialects which, no doubt, will come in handy in their retirement years.

The changing of the guard at the Desert Rose Playhouse, so to speak, comes after the closing night performance of DRP’s current ‘Hot Summer Nights’ annual production series with “Women Behind Bars,” written by Tom Eyre, and co-directed by Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, and produced by Paul Taylor.

Louise (Ruth Braun) and
Matron (Loren Freeman)
 in 'Women Behind Bars"
Director Strait has assembled a cast of actors that the writers and directors of those 1930’ and 40’s Noir dramas about femme fatales and life in prisons (a staple of Warner Bros. movies back then) would be proud to cast in their films.

The story is a simple ‘boilerplate’ script. In short, it’s all about women in prison sniping at one another and complaining about everyone and everything behind bars, as well as those who are living on the outside.  Most claim to be innocent, btw. The Matron mockingly says they all say that; and what the Matron says goes!  ll the ladies are serving time and just waiting to get out.

The meat and beauty of this over-the-top comedy lies in the sensational performances of the actors.  Comedy-farce productions always walk a very narrow line between being true to script/story, but, still staying within the zip code of reality or believability.

This production is a hoot of a comedy about serious subject matters inherent in their situations and reasons for being in prison. Set in 1950’s when America’s female population couldn’t possibly be anything but the sweet, wives, mothers, and in-laws, and/or our next door neighbors (or so Hollywood would have us believe).

Playwright Eyen, sort of tosses that “Father Knows Best” dialogue out the window with “Women Behind Bars.” The movie version played it as far more believable due to the time setting of the 50’s. This DRP version is a heck of lot funnier in 2018. It was a kinder and gentler America back then, not now, however, There is nothing actors like to do better than to chew the heck out of the scenery.  This talented cast does exactly that to the delight of the audience. “Women Behind Bars,” is chock full of sexual double-entendres, double-takes, and asides to the audience in language that would make a stevedore blush. A word to the uninitiated: there is nudity, and very strong vernacular-of-the-streets language being hurled from the stage. So leave the kiddies and grandma at home.

Adina Lawson as Granny in "Women Behind Bars"
Each cast member brings their special talent and acting gift to the production. They are all a delight to watch and enjoy.  They include are in alphabetical order: Francesca Amari as Ada; Melanie Blue as Guadalupe; Ruth Braun as Louise; Kimberly Cole as Jo-Jo; Loren Freeman as The Matron; Deborah Harmon as Blanche; Adina Lawson as Granny/Warden; Phylicia Mason as Mary-Eleanor; Kam Sisco as Cheri; and Yo Younger as Gloria.

“Women Behind Bars” is a true acting ensemble effort. Individually they’re very talented, but as an acting ensemble unit, they’re a well-oiled, comedy performing machine.

The technical credit for “Women Behind Bars” boasts some of the best techies in the Valley. The Set Design is by Toby Griffin, Lighting Design by Phil Murphy, Sound Design by Jim Strait, Costumes by Jennifer Stowe, and Wigs by Toni Milano.

“Women Behind Bars” is performed without an intermission at Desert Rose Playhouse in Cathedral City, CA. and runs through July 29th.

For reservations and ticket information call 760-202-3000 or go online to desertroseplayhouse.org

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A GLITTERING TRIUMPHANT “TEMPEST” ONSTAGE AT SAN DIEGO’S OLD GLOBE THEATRE

Philippe Bowgen as Ariel and Kate Burton as Prospera in the
Old Globe production of "The Tempest" All photos by Jim Cox.
June marks the month the Old Globe Theatre of San Diego launches its internationally famous Summer Shakespeare Festival in the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Outdoor Theatre.

Opening Nights at the Globe are always eagerly anticipated.  But I feel there is a special sort of electricity that runs through the audience for an opening which debuts in a fitting setting that recreates the outdoor venue of Shakespeare’s Old England, with Arden Forest, a favorite location of the Bard for several of his plays.

Nora Carroll as Miranda and Kate Burton as Prospera in
the Old Globe production of "The Tempest"
This time the play’s setting is wherever our imaginations believe it is.  For me, it was about 600 miles from London on an imaginary island somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea.  In short (which Shakespeare’s plays are not), “The Tempest,” centers around Prospera, the Duke of Milan, who has been thrown out of power by her wicked brother forcing her to live in exile on a desert island.

For company, she has only her daughter Miranda, spirits who are native to the island, along with her beloved books.  The books are the source of her dark magic, which she uses to lure her enemies to the island so she can exact revenge.  But her plot could destroy Miranda’s happiness, so Prospera must choose between her own anger and that of daughter’s future.

It’s a Hobson’s choice and dilemma that resonates today in America’s polarizing political machinations of our body politic.  For those who think Shakespeare and his plays are outdated, perhaps it’s time to think again as to their relevancy.

The Old Globe’s prescient Erna Finci Artiti Viterbi Artistic Director Barry Edelstein, himself a Shakespeare scholar, understands how the hidden magic in Shakespeare’s plays can still inspire and entertain.  His tapping of Irish director Joe Dowling to helm the technically challenging Old Globe production of “The Tempest,” is both a stroke of genius and of timing.

Robert Foxworth as Alonso, Jared Van Heel as Adrian,
Yadira Correa as Francisca, and Lizan Mitchell
as Gonzala in "The Tempest"
Dowling ran the famous Guthrie Theatre of Minneapolis for 20 years and is an experienced stage director of some 50 plays who brings a wealth of theatrical riches and experience to the Old Globe’s production of Shakespeare’s last great play; underscoring the importance of forgiveness and redemption.

There are twenty-two performers in the 2018 company of players.  Led by the wonderful Kate Burton as Prospera, in a cross-gender performance with several other male characters that are also played by females.  Burton is a classically trained actor who commands the stage when she’s upon it. In today’s theatre, actors of color play all characters, and some in cross-gender performances which is becoming more the norm rather than the exception. Remember, in Shakespeare’s day all the characters were performed by men. We bought the premise then, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for us accept it now.

Sam Avishay as Ferdinand and Nora Carroll
as Miranda in "The Tempest"  


In director Dowling’s splendid production Ms. Burton reigns over her island and those who step upon it.  It’s a bravura performance.  She is both strong and bitter with her existence.  However, in portraying Miranda’s (an appealing Nora Carroll) mother, Burton adds another dimension to her performance: making the resolution of forgiveness and redemption at the end of the play make more sense.

Offering solid support to this glittering, technically brilliant, production is Philippe Bowgen as Ariel, Prospera’s loyal island spirit.  I remember his highly nuanced comedy performance as Pablo Picasso, in the Globe production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”; also Sam Avishay as Miranda's love interest Ferdinand; Lizan Mitchell as Gonzala, Robert Foxworth as Alonso, Manoel Feliciano as the wonderfully evil Caliban, Rene Thornton, Jr. as Antonio, Eric Weiman as the Shipmaster; Renardo Charles Pringle Jr. as the Boatswain and Daniel Ian Joeck as Sebastian, the scheming brother of Alonso.

Andrew Weems as Trinculo, Philippe Bowgen as Ariel,
Robert Dorfman as Stephano, and Manoel Felciano
as Caliban in "The Tempest"
The character of Sir John Falstaff and his bumbling mates, Shakespeare’s favorite comic foils, are usually inserted into the action of his plays whenever possible.  In this “Tempest” production that ploy falls to the comic characters of the drunk Stephano, and his bumbling, whining friend Trinculo, who play the characters to the hilt by Robert Dorfman, and Andrew Weems, respectively. This stellar production is also blessed with an ensemble cast to die for.

The production under the seamless direction of Joe Dowling is a visual feast for the eyes, and not be missed.  The Old Globe is without equal when it comes, to technical credits for their productions.  Set Designer Alexander Dodge, renders a performance space that is filled with eye-popping glittering, sparkling, and breathtaking costumes designed by David Israel Reynoso.  Philip Rosenberg provides the nuanced, mood-inducing, Lighting Design. Jonathan Deans, Sound Design is appropriate, and the storm scene that envelopes the characters at the beginning sets the tone for what is to follow technically.

The Old Globe’s presentation of “The Tempest” is an impressive production to kick off the Globe’s 2018 season of its Shakespeare Summer Festival in the Lowell Davies outdoor theatre. The production runs through July 22nd. “Much Ado About Nothing,” follows and runs from August 12th through September 16th.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

WEST COAST PREMIERE OF “THE FATHER” AT NORTH COAST REP THEATRE IN SOLANA BEACH A WINNER

In the world of theatre and its artistic kissing-cousins cinema and television, everything begins with “the word” (both Biblically and artistically).  Good creative writing can elevate performances to greater moments on stage when those words rest in the creative hands of gifted trained actors.

North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) Artistic Director David Ellenstein, has a penchant for selecting plays that challenge, yet still entertain, his savvy, sophisticated audiences, donors, and supporters.  Case in point is the West Coast Premiere production of “The Father”, from the pen of French writer and playwright Florian Zeller now on stage at NCRT that is skillfully directed by Ellenstein.

Zeller’s latest play, a tragic/comedy with a translation from multi-award winning Tony and Oscar playwright/translator Christopher Hampton, practically guarantee’s one an evening of stimulating quality theatre. Hampton does all the translations for French/Iranian playwright Yasmina Reza of “Art” and “God of Carnage” fame, as well as Zeller’s plays.

Director Ellenstein has gathered a wonderful cast that breathes life into Zeller’s on-the-nose play of a subject matter that has been vexing societies for millennia:  Dementia and now, how we as a 21st century society, are beginning to come to grips with end-of-life issues; that ultimately come to everyone on the planet.

Now before you turn the page and tune out. Wait.  You will be depriving yourself of a life-affirming opportunity to not only to learn, but to enjoy as well from this splendid production and cast. There is humor in all of life’s endeavors. It’s hiding in plain sight.  We just need to confront and embrace life in all its binary forms, ie, happy and sad. Good and bad, right and wrong, love and loss; after all we’re only alive for nanoseconds on this turbulent blue orb spinning away toward the never ending expanding universe.

Broadway and film star Frank Langella won his third Tony playing Andre, the father of the play’s title.  His take was to play him as a man dealing with anger management issues trying to beat the rap, so to speak.  That’s merely one actor’s darker vision.  It’s not thankfully, the only way to tell Andre’s story of what’s going on in this non-linear, flash forward; flash backward, comic-tragedy play on stage at NCRT.

Audiences of NCRT’s production catch on quickly to the reason of Andre’s behavior.  His speech is peppered, mainly with bewilderment, not anger, which to me is part of the beauty of live theatre. Not only is every production new or fresh.  No two performances are exactly the same every night.  Actors tend to be constantly peeling the onion to its core as a way of finding the hidden character barriers and nuances in their performances as they search for that perfect theatrical moment.

The performance by journeyman actor James Sutorius, is a triumph of timing, introspective analysis, and a delivery that rings true, as well as poignant.  It’s a star-turn performance richly nuanced and deserving of the standing ovation that he and the entire cast received on opening night.

The story in short, set in Paris, in the present, centers around Andre (Sotorious) who is sliding ever so quickly into his dementia, to the concern of his daughter Anne (a caring but frustrated Robyn Cohen), who realizes that her father can’t be left alone to live by himself any longer.  He accuses his visiting health-care worker of stealing his watch, which Anne always finds in his secret hiding place where he keeps his valuables. He doesn’t recognize his son-in-law Pierre (Mathew Salazar-Thompson), anymore and repeatedly asks Anne what is this man doing in his apartment? Dementia patients can’t grasp the reasons why they’re in a strange situation in the first place.  To them everyone else is confused.

These are poignant trip-wire moments and behavior that some members of the audience will no doubt recall in their own families and those of relatives and friends.  I can attest to that on a personal basis.  Solid support from Jacque Wilke as Laura, Shana Wride as The Woman, and Richard Baird as The Man, is the icing on the cake of this stellar production.

As usual, resident set designer Marty Burnett, and resident lighting designer Matt Novotny provide a sleek, beautiful Paris apartment set, which magically become different rooms and a hospital room which is then splashed with lights of muted white and hues of blue; very Parisan. The costume designs of Elisa Benzoni, are appropriate and functional.  The sound design by Melanie Chen Cole is spot-on. Kudos for selecting chello music, which is so appropriate.  Prop designs by Holly Gillard complete the creative team led by director Ellenstein.  Aaron Rumley stages manages this excellent production.

“The Father”, performs without an intermission at about 95 minutes, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, in Solana Beach, CA and runs through June 24, 2018.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

POWERFUL DRAMA “DISOBEDIENCE” ON SCREEN AT CAMELOT THEATRES PALM SPRINGS

Alessandro Nivola and Rachel McAdams star in "Disobedience"
Movies have come a long way since 1934 when it comes to the subject matter of ‘forbidden fruit’ as depicted in Lillian Hellman’s muted, but daring play and film, “We Three”, was produced in the heyday of the Hays Office, when movie censors reigned supreme as to what American audiences could or not see In the cinema.   The ‘no-no’ subject matter in the legitimate theatre was breached by Tennessee Williams when he referred to sexual subject matters in his plays as “that of which we dare not speak”. That was in the 50’s.

It’s now almost the second decade of the 21st Century, where filmic boundaries, stories, and audiences, now accept homoerotic love; which if, tastefully and honestly done, keeps forbidden sexual love as a legitimate subject-matter category and one that reflects and recognizes all aspects of human relationships. In most western societies we now live as a true global community free to live as one chooses.

The 2017 Oscar-winning Argentina-born, now a Chilean citizen, film director, Sebastain Lelio of “A Fantastic Woman”, fame is once more in 2018 Oscar Nomination territory with his riveting, deeply emotional, romantic new drama “Disobedience”, starring Rachel Mc Adams,  Rachel Weisz, and Alessandro Nivola.

The story set in England is adapted from the novel “Disobedience” by Naomi Alderman and the screenplay, sensitively written by Sabastian Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, centers around now New York-based photographer Ronit Kruska (a sensational, smoky, alluring, introspective Rachel Weisz), who flies home to London after learning about the death of her estranged, charismatic, Rabbi father Rav Kruska (Anton Lesser), the Spiritual leader of a highly Orthodox temple where traditions run deep.

Ronit returns to the same Orthodox Jewish community in North London’s Hendon district, that shunned her years earlier for her childhood attraction to Esti Kuperman, a close female friend brilliantly portrayed by a conflicted Rachel McAdams, who is now married to Rabbi Dovid Kuperman, a childhood friend of both women; now sets in motion a series of internalized emotions that soon reignites their burning attraction and passion as the two women explore boundaries of faith and adult sexuality. England only rewrote its sexuality laws in 1967, changing their penal law system concerning mutual consent age between adults, which now avoids the “gross indecency” laws that ensnared Oscar Wilde at the turn of the 20th century.



“Disobedience” is a mesmerizing, interior, fascinating, and affecting screenplay that carefully structures the movie to squeeze maximum emotional impact from its two stars, which it does in spades.   It’s a bold and daring film even by today’s standards.   The power and fascination of its subject matter is what propels the human story that director Lelio wants to tell and that cinematographer Danny Cohen wonderfully captures.

Jewish life in England is somewhat different than here in America.  The closest link to English Jewry for American Orthodox Jews are the Orthodox Hasidic communities of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Also, there are many background story points and echoes that one will find in the stage-play “The Wanderers”, written last year by playwright Anna Zeigler, who set her powerful play within New York’s Satmar Hasidic Judaism sect in Brooklyn.

In fleshing out his screenplay director Lelio, delivers a richly textured small story with large implications and ramifications.  One doesn’t have to be Jewish to appreciate and understand the character dilemmas facing actors Ms. Weisz and Ms. McAdams.  The journey of life presents everyone with critical agonizing choices. “Disobedience” allows us a peek into the lives of a small insular community that grapples everyday with making choices hoping to make the right choices, be they life altering or not.

Rachel McAdams and Alessandro Nivola
Alessandro Nivola as Rabbi Dovid, delivers a finely nuanced, pivotal and potent performance as the helpless husband caught between his emotional pain and his faith, and the passion of two women who make him feel as if he is an interloper is this conflicted threesome, where all are spinning around the traditions that bind yet separate them at the same time.  I dare say, that some women who see this film will secretly relate, despite its slow glacial pacing.  There are a lot of moments where Ms. Weisz and Ms. McAdams stare at each other communicating from a deep emotional center within.  We men, may be hard-wired differently in our relationships, but, ultimately, I feel audiences will make up their own minds as to the truthfulness and honesty of “Disobedience”.

There are strong key scenes where nudity and sexual situations take place in the story.  These scenes are not gratuitously filmed to arouse.  They are integral to the story and are filmed in such a manner that the emotional depth felt by the characters and performed by two Hollywood stars, doesn’t become a seat-squirming experience but rather, as a catharsis for both the characters and the audience.

“Disobedience”, is now in wide release and currently screens at the Camelot Theatre in the Palm Springs Cultural Center.



Saturday, May 26, 2018

WORLD PREMIERE OF DAVID HENRY HWANG’S “SOFT POWER” A TRIUMPH AT LA’S AHMANSON THEATRE

Conrad Ricamora, Austin Ku, Francis Jue, Raymond J. Lee in "Soft Power" a new musical by David Henry Hwang
and Jeanine Tesori at the Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theater. All photos by Craig Schwartz
The American Theatre is in a state of flux and has been since the millennium arrived. Satisfaction is the enemy of innovation, growth, and thinking outside the box. America for all its creativity, eagerness for new shiny objects and ideas, however, is quite comfortable in its various creative arts ruts.

According to German writer and dramatist Bertolt Brecht, “The role of the arts should not be limited to just holding up a mirror to society, but be a hammer with which to shape it”. Controversial? Yes. Today’s playwrights and writers are churning out creative work that your fathers and grandfathers would not necessarily approve. This is the internet/digital age. Communications and information comes to the creative table quickly and changes just as quickly. One has to be constantly plugged in to be relevant.

Playwright David Henry Hwang’s newest musical play “Soft Power”, now enjoying its world premiere on the stage of The Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, is an excellent example of readdressing the domination of White culture of the West to the rising prominence and influence of Asian societies along the ‘silk roads’ of the East. Hwang is a prolific American-born playwright of Chinese ethnicity.

Trying to explain the two act plot of Hwang’s brilliant comedic and insightful, think-piece is complicated but not inscrutable. It’s a little akin to Winston Churchill’s famous quote of trying to untangle the philosophy and the politics of the Russian government to a fellow politician. “Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It’s complicated, but there is a key.” One ‘key’ is the collaboration of Jeanine Tesori and Mr. Hwang as co-creators, with Ms. Tesori’s wonderfully evocative musical score and additional lyrics that so beautifully captures the spirit of the East and then blends it with the culture of the West.

Conrad Ricamora and Kendyl Ito in "Soft Power"
Playwright Hwang, who penned the Tony-winning production “M. Butterfly” (1988) and Drama Desk nominated “Yellow Face” (2007) and the delightful comedy “Chinglish” (2011), among others, challenges his audience to confront and accept the idea that the planet has more than one alpha-male dominating culture and society. In many ways, the musical goes against a self-image that most Americans hold dear: rugged individualism and American exceptionalism.

“Soft Power” is a deliciously directed musical by Leigh Silverman, who infuses her mainly Asian cast with high energy performances, especially from the ensemble performers. For those who follow Mr. Hwang’s career arc, they will note the echoes in this stellar production reminiscent of his delightful 2011 comedy “Chinglish”. That story featured a love affair between an American business executive and a female Chinese government official while he was on a business trip in China. Ms. Silverman directed “Chinglish”, as well.

Conrad Ricamore and the Ensemble in "Soft Power"
Both plays explore the language and cultural gaps between Chinese and Americans; a frequent theme in Mr. Hwang’s body of work, however, this time the romantic algorithmic connection deals with Zoe, an American woman (Alyse Alan Louis) and a Chinese gentleman (Conrad Ricamora), both of whom are the possessors of wonderful singing voices. Ms. Louis belts with high energy in in Act One leading the ensemble in a series of hilarious musical numbers that allude to America’s current political machinations and explanations without ever referring directly to the current inhabitant in charge. The name is self-evident based on the hoops and hollers, and the laughter emanating from the audience. Remember, it’s a musical comedy – depending, however, on one’s political leaning.

Conrad Ricamora and Alyse Alan Louis play
unlikely lovers in "Soft Power"
Conrad Ricamora as Xue Xing, reflects not only his personal philosophy, but that of China’s aspiring new role in global politics. In the play, they eschew raw military or hard power, preferring the label of practitioners of ‘soft power’. They prefer to influence world opinions with trade, political ideas, and peaceful non-military solutions as a way of becoming the new world leader. Mr. Ricamora , renders a terrifically polished, stylish, understated performance, as the avatar of Chinese ambitions in the future.

Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue
There is a third major character in this highly entertaining production: None other than that of David Henry Hwang himself. The actor who portrays Mr. Hwang on stage is Francis Jue who delivers a solid, empathetic, portrayal as the quasi-narrator of the musical. I would humbly submit that perhaps, Mr. Hwang is a fan of the great movie director Alfred Hitchcock, who always inserted an image of himself as character into every film he made. However, it’s not that unusual in Mr. Hwang’s case. He was a character in his 2007 play “Yellow Face”, playing himself.


Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton in "Soft Power"
In Act Two, the stage heats up again with the performance of Ms. Louis. This time she’s playing Hillary Clinton. Yes, that Hillary Clinton! It’s a dynamite performance by a consummate singer/ actor/ dancer at the top her game. No more spoiler alerts from me, but remember it is a political comedy/parody production and should be experienced in person. Director Silverman gives her skilled cast the green light to go full speed ahead, which they do in spades. The standing ovation at the curtain call lasted for over a minute. I checked my watch. It was richly deserved.

On the reality check aspect of the overall production, I would submit that the political comedy lacked subtlety at times, and had a tendency to hit one over the head with a hammer, making sure we got the bit and the metaphor. It may be a bit sophisticated or too on-the-nosey for some, but the audience on opening night definitely got it.

The Ahmanson Theatre is the proper sized house and stage that gives Scenic Designer David Zinn plenty of leeway in delivering a performing space for this excellent production to breathe. Supporting cast members include: Billy Bustamonte; Jon Hoche, Kendyl Ito; Austin Ku; Raymond J. Lee; Jaygee Macapugay; Daniel May; Paul Heesang Miller; Kristen Faith Oei; Maria-Christina Oliveras; and Geena Quintos. Well done all.

Jon Hoche and the Ensemble in "Soft Power"
In the technical department led by director Silverman whose impeccable timing throughout the evening keeps the audience riveted and fully engaged. The costume designs of Anita Yavich, and the lighting design by Mark Barton flood the Ahmanson stage with color and light becoming a visual feast for the eyes and the ears, along with the Sound Design of Kai Harada. The high-octane choreography of Sam Pinkleton keeps everyone on their toes under the musical baton of Music Supervisor Chris Fenwick.

‘Soft Power” makes for a splendid evening of music, dance, and comedy at the Ahmanson Theatre and runs through June 10, 2018.

Friday, May 18, 2018

PALM CANYON THEATRE REVIVAL OF THE MUSICAL “GYPSY” IS A GLITTERING TRIUMPH


Elizabeth Schmelling as Louise, Elissa Landi as Tessie Tura and
Jaci Davis as "Mama" Rose in "Gypsy" at Palm Canyon Theatre.
All Photos by Paul Hayashi
The American musical has gone through many iterations, and changes in structure and content over the last one hundred years.

In the 1940’s the American musical created a unique American art form – known as the ‘book musical’ which combined the acting, singing, and a narrative storyline resulting in a blended, linear, modern, vernacular, script and a presentation style that had reigned supreme for almost 75 years. When “Oklahoma”, the first book musical burst on the stage, it blew everyone away with the new performing style that we still see today… until “Hamilton”, that is.  But that’s another review for another day.

In 1959 the creative and most successful musical writing team of Rodgers and Hammerstein we’re gathering the best of Broadway writers, directors, choreographers, to produce a musical about the early days of show business on Broadway and the various touring “road show” companies that were then in vogue.

Initially, no one wanted to sign on to a new show called “Gypsy: A Musical Fable”.  Ultimately, the musical did come together under the music of Jule Styne, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the libretto written by Arthur Laurents going on to have six different revivals of touring companies worldwide over the years. “Gypsy”, would win tons of Tony Awards, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Awards, and Obies, and Academy Awards for the movie version.  The musical is now considered to be the gold standard when it comes to structure in creating the American musical play. It’s pure musical theatre at its best with songs that resonate with millions of audiences that are funny, poignant, uplifting, and flat-out entertaining.

The Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) has a successful track record of presenting quality performances, colorful sets, gorgeous costumes, and talented singers and actors for over 20 years.  “Gypsy”, is directed and choreographed by Derik Shopinski, who brings his many theatrical skills to the production. Boasting a cast of 30 performers, Shopinski, who also costumed the production along with his team of costume magicians that include: Kathryn Ferguson, Virginia Sulick, and Char Childs, and an army of seamstresses that fill the stage with colorful and glittering costumes that are a visual feast for the eyes.

The story of Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the country’s most famous striptease artists, is loosely based on Ms. Lee’s 1957 memoirs and on focuses on Gypsy’s quintessential Show Biz stage mother Mama Rose Hovick played by a sensational Jaci Davis, in a tour de force star turn.  Rose is determined to raise her two daughters June (Allegra Angelo) and Louise (Elizabeth Schmelling) to become performers on the road trip vaudeville circuits and then to Broadway. She lives vicariously in show business through June and Louise.

One day, while attending auditions for a local comic who is looking for kid acts to join his troupe, Rose meets salesman Herbie (Tom Warrick).  Herbie is intrigued by Rose’s energy and force nature personality.  Rose quickly recruits him into becoming the Act’s manager. From this point we follow the kids through songs and skits during their growing years; even into their late teens.  Regardless, the act always performs the same – as kid performers despite their obvious older ages. 

To borrow the song lyric from “Damn Yankees” “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets”; applies to the demands of Mama Rose when it comes to June and Louise and the Act, making Herbie’s job as Manager, all the more difficult when trying to book a kid’s show performed by teenagers.

In Act Two, June has eloped with Tulsa (Mat Tucker), (a male dancer from the act), leaving Rose devastated and heartbroken.  June, as the baby in the act, was always Rose’s favorite. Now she must figure out their next move. In the meantime, Herbie, inadvertently books the act into a Burlesque house, setting off Rose and putting Herbie and Rose at odds on what to do about the act and about their own future plans as a married couple.

Louise settles the issue by declaring that she will honor the booking and go on stage herself.  After much discussion Rose agrees to allow Louise to perform… but with no stripping. “Remember, you’re a lady dancing on a stage.”  This launches the career of Gypsy Rose Lee who goes on to stardom at Minsky’s on Broadway in New York City, becoming a star and a celebrity in the process.

The real beauty of this stellar production lies in the performances of the entire cast. But the heavy lifting by the principal performers gives this splendid production an extra boost and it’s exciting to watch.  Jaci Davis as Rose brings down the house in the terrific musical number called “Rose’s Turn”.  It’s an explosive, high octane performance riff on driving out Rose’s jealousy demons and her life’s disappointments.

Louise, now known as Gypsy Rose Lee, is brilliantly portrayed by Elizabeth Schmelling.   From shy, introverted Louise, Ms. Schmelling turns Gypsy into an icon of American show business.  Her stage chemistry with Rose and her sister Baby June is palpable.  June, vivaciously played by Allegra Angelo, shines in the musical numbers when June and Louise talk about the day Rose and Herbie tie the knot, in a sweetly sung, two-part harmony number called “If Mama Was Married”. There’s a lot of good work taking place on the PCT stage in this production.

There are so many wonderful songs and numbers that it’s impossible to leave the theatre without humming, at least some of the 17 terrific songs, most of which became platinum in the 60’s  Tom Warrick as Herbie, one of the Valley’s finest character actors, delivers a solid, sympathetic performance as the love interest of Rose.  With a cast of 30 performers it’s difficult to list everyone, but there always standouts, and they include:  The Specialty Act of strippers consisting of Morgana Corelli as Mezzepa, Elissa Landi as Tessie Tura, and Denise Carey as Electra. Mat Tucker as dancer Tulsa, Alan Berry as theatre cigar smoking producer Weber, Natalia Fernandez as loyal Agnes, Frank Catale as Uncle Jocko.


If not a first, then it’s a rarely seen on stage performance by Palm Canyon Theatre Founding Director, Dr. William Layne as Pop, Rose’s father.  Special kudos also go the youngsters who portray the kid actors. They help in making the audience harken back to their own childhood experiences in school plays when some were first bitten by the acting bug.  “Gypsy” is a show that resonates with everyone on some level.

The musical accompaniment is under the baton of Musical Director and pianist Steven Smith, with Larry Holloway on Bass, and David Bronson on Drums.  The Set Design and Lighting Designers J.W. Layne and Kay Van Zandt provide the right amount of mood lighting that does justice to the wonderful costumes of director Shopinski and his staff.

“Gypsy: A Musical Fable” performs at the Palm Canyon Theatre and runs through May 20, 2018.  Don’t Miss It!.

-- Jack Lyons

Thursday, May 3, 2018

CROSSWORD PUZZLE FANS WILL ENJOY CV REP’S LATEST COMEDY 2 ACROSS

Joel Bryant and Andrea Gwynnel in CV Rep's "2 Across"

The impact that crossword puzzles play around the world obviously is unknown, despite the fact that millions indulge themselves every day solving or at least, trying to solve these literary challenges known as the ‘war of the words’.
What is known, however, is the role that one particular New York Times puzzle plays, in the current CV REP stage production, “2 Across” in Rancho Mirage. This delightful comedy of words and puzzles, and conversation, written by prolific comedy TV writer/producer Jerry Mayer, is seamlessly and creatively directed by Deborah Harmon.

Audiences can always rely on the technical/creative team credits at CV REP as being first rate. Theatrical productions often win over the hearts and minds of their patrons when they walk into the auditorium. CV REP is blessed with the creativity and artistry of its resident Set Designer and Emmy Award winner Jimmy Cuomo, who never fails to impress his audience. In “2 Across”, two stars perform their magic on a BART train set that feels so visually real, that we’re ready to exit when we hear our station being called by the car’s recorded conductor’s voice. Now, that’s an almost virtual reality experience.

The story hook, in short, that brings two strangers aboard a San Francisco BART train at 4:30 AM is a pesky NY Times crossword puzzle, and how each reacts to it and their personal situations.  They’re alone in the car, each is married, and both are silently challenging the crossword author. When Josh (a terrific Joel Bryant), tosses his puzzle away in frustration.  Janet (a lovely and prim Andrea Gwynnel) snaps, “Crosswords are a metaphor for life, those who finish, succeed; those who don’t, fail.”  Thus, setting up a witty, hilarious ‘He said. She said.’ dialogue and at times, delivering many poignant moments of personal revelations, by Josh and Janet in the bargain.

Although the play is performed without an intermission, running about 85 minutes, we’re quickly drawn into the play’s narrative thanks to the wonderful on-stage chemistry of Mr. Bryant and Ms. Gwynnel.   As many airline travelers can attest, when traveling alone, seatmates frequently get chatty, especially on non-stop, coast to coast flights.  English travelers are amazed at how most Americans when traveling reveal so many bits of information about themselves to strangers.  The American rationale is: it’s such a huge country and the odds of ever seeing one other again is highly remote. So what’s the risk?

Joel Bryant and Andrea Gwynnel in CV Rep's "2 Across"
The dialogue between Janet and Josh says a lot about our civic discourse, social mores, our working lives, and our frustrations in dealing with our families and friends.  Janet, is sharp-tongued because she’s dealing with a ‘flight from the nest’ syndrome.  Her young 18-year old son has just enlisted in the Marine Corps, and is now on his on his way to Parris Island boot camp. She feels that her world is falling apart.

Josh, an outgoing, social guy now begins to ease Janet’s anxiety by acting as a volunteer advisor.  It’s his way of paying life’s benefits forward.  He left his family’s button factory business seeking new and exciting opportunities.  Although, he’s currently between jobs, Josh is always upbeat; but no more spoiler alerts from me.  You will just have to see for yourself how Mr. Bryant and Ms. Gwynnel, in highly nuanced performances, resolve their character’s situations.  A great deal of the success of this entertaining comedy rests with director Harmon whose light touch brings out the best in her two stars.  Their comedy timing is impeccable and a joy to watch.

Helping to make the stage magic we see on Designer Cuomo’s set, is a pitch-perfect lighting design by technical manager Moira Wilkie Whitaker that allows the audience to appreciate the costumes designed by Julie Onken; with Hair and Makeup designs by Lynda Shaeps, along with an excellent spot-on sound design by Kate Fechtig.  Louise Ross stage manages.

“2 Across”, performs at CV REP theatre in Rancho Mirage and runs through May 20, 2018.  Don’t Miss It!