As you may (or may not) know, the Desert Rose Playhouse is the only theatre in the Coachella Valley dedicated to plays about and of interest to the LGBTQ+ community. Since the gay- friendly atmosphere is why so many of us settled here, the Desert Rose Playhouse deserves the support of those here who identify as LGBTQ+. In recent years, under the artistic direction of Robbie Wayne, the theatre has reinforced its heritage and refocused its programming to once again reflect its uniqueness here in the Coachella Valley not only with established plays but with new works fitting the playhouse’s charter.
Their latest production, PALM SPRINGS THE MUSICAL: BORN TO SPARKLE is a new musical created by Robbie Moss Manning and Alyce Haskell Berard and directed by Robbie Wayne with songs by Jonathan Baer, John Manning, John Baer and Nick Wass. While there are many moments that do indeed sparkle, the musical feels like a work in progress. The style of the play shifts several times from a semi-serious take on relationships of both friends and family to a totally over the top campy mystery musical involving a nursing home where the patients are dying at a faster than usual pace.
The plot is that Diane Robbins (Robbie Wayne), is dying. Her one request is that El Tanner (Jo Younger) and her daughter Jewel Robbins (Kitty Murray) join forces and work together. She dies and the two women do their best to try and revive the Palm Springs Follies. But an unknown villain keeps trying to stop them with denied permits and court orders. Who would do such a thing? It’s none other than El’s stepdad, who runs the nursing home with the rapidly dwindling population. Afraid they will discover that he and his insane nurse, Nurse Parker (Denise Carey), are poisoning their patients after they sign over everything to the facility he tries to get them to go back to L.A. by eliminating the reason they are in Palm Springs…..the theatre. But musicals will have their way and the villains get their just desserts and the show will go on! What then follows is a mini-version of the Follies with everyone in the cast getting to do a solo.
The good news is that the musical has some strong performers amongst the cast. Yo Younger, always great to watch, does the most possible with the role of El. Her character is like a cross between Nancy Drew sleuthing and Judy Garland’s enthusiasm saying, “Hey kids! We can put on a show in the barn!!!” Robbie Wayne gives a very funny straight-faced performance as the dying matriarch Dianne Robbins who only wants to see El and Jewel sparkle by teaming up and taking the town by storm! Kitty Murray has some fun moments as Jewel Robbins who arrives in Palm Springs complete with outfits that would be envied by Ginger from Gilligan’s island, Dan Westfall and Denise Carey get to chew some scenery while singing about their crimes. As the overall hostess of the evening Brian Wanzek as his alter-ego Bella Da Ball plays a role no one could play better -Bella Da Ball; perfect casting!
Like the script, the score is a mixed bag of styles ranging from a torch song ballad to a comedic duet. It would help the entire evening if the play was more sure of itself and stayed with one style instead of jumping from farce to camp to earnestness and back again. Another big help for Act I would be to set up the plot sooner and be clearer about it. Right now, the first few scenes all seem disjointed. It really isn’t until Act II that the real plot comes to light. Another big problem for me was the last half of Act II which is supposed to be a condensed version of the Palm Springs Follies. What we get is each member of the cast coming onstage to do a solo spot, usually singing an abridged version of a well-known song. I know there are budgetary concerns to any production but instead of giving us a dozen or so solo spots, it would have made great sense in the context of the show to create one big finale number reminiscent of the Palm Springs Follies finales. By putting a bit more glitz into the end, it would put a strong button onto the end of the show as well as making perfect sense within the context of the musical. Any new play when first presented is often subject to rewrites and retooling. So hopefully, the authors will use this opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t and make their musical sparkle.
PALM SPRINGS THE MUSICAL: BORN TO SPARKLE is at the Desert Rose Playhouse through April 10, 2022. For tickets and further information go to www.DesertRosePlayhouse.org or call the box office at 760-202-3000.