BWW Review: Both Provocative And Poignant — And All Played In Pumps! CASA VALENTINA Engages, Educates And Delights At Dezart Performs In Palm Springs

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I had the absolute pleasure of seeing two things last night that I had never seen before. A production of Harvey Fierstein's CASA VALENTINA and a sold out, standing room only crowd at The Pearl McManus Theatre. Brava to Dezart Performs on both counts!! CASA VALENTINA is the premiere performance of Dezart's ninth season in Palm Springs and sets a high barre for the season to come. Based on real events, Casa Valentina (or The Chevalier d'Eon) is a resort in The Catskills in the early 1960's whose guests are heterosexual men who dress and act as women. It is the story of gender identity and self acceptance and a close-knit group of men who never feel more "themselves" than when dressed as the women who live somewhere deep inside them.

Harvey Fierstein's play is witty and warm and highly intellectual. At times the dialogue is borderline "preachy" but, at its core, appeals to both the head and the heart. And, as can be expected, there is no shortage of funny.

Michael Shaw proves himself, once again, to be a highly skilled director whose deft hand draws thoughtfully nuanced performances from his ensemble and who more than capably maneuvers them around the McManus Theatre's greatest obstacle - a postage stamp-sized playing area. (To that end, he is assisted by the well-crafted scenic design of Thomas L. Valach who makes full, and intelligent, use of every inch of space.) Shaw is deliberately restrained in his direction which effectively strikes the necessary balance between the high camp and the serious content of the piece. His use of concurrent playing areas gives the play a wonderful fluidity. It is a device that could easily be distracting in a small theatre but, in his hands, it is not.

The performances are all relatively strong. Jeffrey Norman as Bessie, the decorated Army Veteran with a penchant for quoting Oscar Wilde at every turn, displays an innate sense of comic timing and adeptly delivers some of Fierstein's strongest "punchlines" with a knowing and natural sarcasm. Scott Smith as Valentina provides a sold, albeit unremarkable, anchor to the show. His performance, for me, is uneven - there are moments where "being" George/Valentina slips into "acting" George/Valentina, thereby robbing me of my emotional investment - but only from time to time.

I was quite taken with Bruce Cronander's layered portrayal of the strong, yet surprisingly fragile, Judge (Amy) who is confronted with a closet full of secrets that threaten to expose and ruin him, personally and professionally. Dale Morris is superb as Fierstein's "villain" Charlotte, whose vitriol and intolerance of homosexuals develops into rather McCarthy-like machinations to reach his end-game, and Tammy Hubler is exceedingly effective and endearing as George's accommodating wife, Rita. As an actress, she is quite masterful at slowly peeling away the onion-like layers of her perky and ever-positive demeanor to reveal the fear, anxiety and turmoil brewing within her. Perhaps the strongest and most deliciously nimble performance belongs to Garnett Smith. His Terry is subtle, wry and highly textured throughout. The balance of the ensemble handle their roles with great aplomb and compliment each other quite well - a credit to Shaw's deliberate casting.

Phil Murphy's lighting design is quite effective and supports Shaw's vision at every turn, and Kate Bergh's costume design (the costumes are from the West Coast Premiere at The Pasadena Playhouse ) provides a firm foundation (no pun intended) to the ultimate development of each of the "ladies" characterizations. Kudos also to Producer/Sound Designer Clark Dugger and Production/Stage Manager Diane McClure. It all works!

CASA VALENTINA is insightful, engaging and quietly moving. It is playing through November 13 at The Pearl McManus Theatre at The Historic Palm Springs Women's Club and is a theatrical evening well spent. Dezart Performs has really hit its' stride in producing consistent, quality theatre for the desert cities and truly demands an audience.

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From This Author David Green