Reviewed by Stephen Radosh
Jim Strait, who is retiring after nearly a decade as the Artistic Director of The Desert Rose Playhouse, is going out with a bang!  He and his co-director Robbie Wayne, who will take over as Artistic Director this fall, have assembled some of the Valley’s best actresses for this laugh-out-loud production of Tom Eyen’s camp classic WOMEN BEHIND BARS.
Written in 1974, Tom Eyen, who later wrote the book for DREAMGIRLS, set his sights on the 1950’s B-Movie staple of women in prison films.  The result was this hilarious and totally non-PC spoof of a genre which was not far from spoof itself.  Filled with stereotypes and caricatures of the ‘ladies’ found in these films, the cast of WOMEN BEHIND BARS, under the sharp and fast-paced direction of Jim Strait and Robbie Wayne, provides 90 minutes of solid laughs. 
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the inmates in a cell block at the Women’s House of Detention in Greenwich Village.  Mary-Eleanor (Phylicia Mason), an innocent girl framed by her husband (Miguel Arballo who plays all the male roles) for a robbery he committed, arrives in the cell block in 1952.   It doesn’t take long for her to lose her naïve innocence.  By the time she leaves on New Year’s Eve 1959, she has become another tough cookie created by the system. Taking a ‘special interest’ in the new arrival are the hard-as-nails and sadistic dyke Matron (Loren Freeman) and cellmate Gloria (Yo Younger) who is in for life and is tough on the outside but with a heart of gold buried somewhere inside.  The members of the cell block are a clichéd group of misfits.  There’s Cheri (Kam Sisco), a hooker and wannabe Marilyn Monroe, Blanche (Deborah Harmon) who is like a character that has wandered out of a Tennessee Williams play, Guadalupe (Melanie Blue) a Puerto Rican chatterbox who longs for her very extended family, Granny (Adina Lawson) another lifer in for multiple counts of ‘husbandcide’, Ada (Francesca Amari) an arsonist who also happens to be totally mad, and Jo-Jo (Kimberly Cole) an inner city tough girl.  Also on hand is Louise (Ruth Braun) who grovels, I mean assists, the Matron in keeping those bad girls in line.
Before I go any further, I want to give special kudos to all the designers involved in bringing this show to life.  The excellent set by Toby Griffin, Jim Strait’s perfectly evocative sound design complete with music by Elmer Bernstein, the effective lighting by Phil Murphy and the amazing costumes by Jennifer Stowe, all work together in perfect harmony to bring the era of the fifties to life.  An extra loud bravo goes to Toni Molano for the wigs she designed.  Teased and tacky to perfection, they would be right at home in any of the films this play spoofs.  And wait ‘til you get a gander at the Matron’s do.  Words cannot do it justice.  It’s spot on and hilarious.
Everyone in the cast has a moment or two to shine and deliver solidly comedic turns.  But even in a strong ensemble production like this, a few actresses stand out.  Always delivering great performances, Yo Younger scores again as the tough talking, chain smoking, alpha cell leader, Gloria.  Phylicia Mason’s Mary-Eleanor is totally believable as she transforms over her 8 year sentence from totally innocent to a hardened soon-to-be drug dealer.  She is constantly funny and at times even touching, no easy feat in a spoof like this.  But it is Loren Freeman’s Matron that is the biggest laugh getter of them all.  Blessed with a face of a million expressions and with flawless timing, every take and joke he delivers lands exactly as it should to produce the evening’s comic jewel in the crown.  It is a performance and a production not to be missed!
WOMEN BEHIND BARS runs through July 29, 2018.  For further information go to WWW.DESERTROSEPLAYHOUSE.ORG.  While you’re there, check out the exciting new season starting in October.