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BWW Review: DTW's ITW Merits an A++

BWW Review: DTW's ITW Merits an A++
Cinderella (Leslye Martinez) tries to escape from
the prince in Desert Theatreworks' INTO THE WOODS.

One goal of a community theatre, in my view, should be to mature into a company with enough depth to present complex, large cast musicals with difficult scores, without any of the performers being weak links. Desert Theatreworks (DTW) accomplishes this purpose with its must-see production of Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's INTO THE WOODS.

INTO THE WOODS garnered three 1988 Tony awards, including for best book and best score. It probably would have won more, except that it had the misfortune to be competing against THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. For those unfamiliar with the show, the story knits together Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstick, and Rapunzel through a baker and his wife whom a witch has cursed with infertility. The show asks what happens after happily ever after. It is a dark comedy, with a tragic moment. It is oriented towards those with a sophisticated sense of humor; in other words, leave the kids at home.

BWW Review: DTW's ITW Merits an A++
The Hungry Wolf (Cameron Merrihew) and Little Red
Riding Hood (Victoria Mendoza)

The acting and singing are obviously the backbone of any community theatre musical, and these are superb; this cast has such depth that well-known Coachella Valley performers such as Karen Schmitt, Michelle Mendoza, and Lee Padick are relegated to relatively small roles (Jack's mother, Rapunzel, and the Prince's steward, respectively), which they perform hilariously, as usual. Cameron Merrihew and John Helms, both of whom have fabulous voices, are the two handsome but shallow princes in their DTW debuts. Their renditions of "Agony" and its reprise are priceless, and I dare anyone to keep a straight face when they ride away on their horses. Mr. Merrihew also generates laughs in his dual role as the Big Bad Wolf, with his creepily smarmy interaction with snarky Little Red Riding Hood (Victoria Mendoza in a top-notch performance).

BWW Review: DTW's ITW Merits an A++
The Baker (Alden Dickey) and His Wife (Alisha Bates

Alisha Bates, who plays the baker's wife, is a genuine triple-threat, with her extraordinary acting, singing, and dancing. I expect to see her on Broadway some day. Ms. Bates is paired with Alden Dickey, as the baker, whose lovely baritone voice and wry comedic style perfectly complement his on-stage wife's bravado. Leslye Martinez is charismatic in her feisty portrayal of Cinderella. She successfully brings out the character's ambivalence about whether or not she really wants to live "happily ever after" with a handsome prince. Rebecca Havely is delectable as the witch who turns out to be primarily an overbearing mother. I haven't yet decided which of her two personas is more odious. Stan Jenson, my Broadway World colleague, brings his gorgeous, radio announcer's baritone and priceless comedy to a dual role with minimal singing (the evil-looking mysterious man and the narrator).

BWW Review: DTW's ITW Merits an A++
The Witch (Rebecca Havely) & Rapunzel (Michelle Mendoza)

In a large cast, it is difficult to laud everyone individually; all the cast members deserve kudos, whether I have singled them out or not. I do want to call attention specifically, however, to the other children and teens who make up the youth ensemble. Director Lance Phillips-Martinez wisely eschews Broadway-style special effects, except for a smoke machine. The talented Arik Alvidrez play Jack's cow instead of using a prop, creating additional comedic and dramatic moments. The other kids (Adah Burgen, Violet Feath, Laura Martinez, and Tess Phillips-Martinez) operate the low-tech effects, such as the birds who befriend Cinderella, and play small roles.

BWW Review: DTW's ITW Merits an A++
(L-R) Jack's Cow (Arik Alvidrez), the Mysterious Man
(Stan Jenson), and Beanstalk Jack (Ryan Holmes)

The rest of the creative and technical design is also top-notch. Choreographer Heidi Hapner has developed dance routines that are simple enough for all the cast members to execute with precision, but which nonetheless impress the audience. The staging is also clever, with some of the action taking place in front of the first row of seats, or in the aisles, effectively expanding the small stage.

Mr. Phillips-Martinez has opted for a clever, mostly stationary set, which he personally designed - he mentioned that it "made sense to have a unit set that served many different functions," and went for what he referred to as the "fractured look." The wooden boards, poles, and tools nailed together seemingly haphazardly brilliantly conjure up the woods in Picasso style, at least if Picasso had gotten into 3-D. Audience members should look for the kitchen stool and other hidden objects among the wooden boards. Phil Murphy's lighting design and Billy Franco's and Miguel Arballo's sound are superb; the only glitch was the occasional screech in the equipment, a recurring problem at DTW, which I suspect that only a new sound system would cure.

BWW Review: DTW's ITW Merits an A++
Rapunzel's Prince (John Helms)

The rest of the cast consists of Kaylyn Bernal and Christine Carter (Cinderella's stepsisters), Art Healey (Cinderella's father), Ryan Holmes (Beanstalk Jack), Stephanie Jauregui (Cinderella's stepmother), and Celia Salazar (Cinderella's deceased mother and Little Red Riding Hood's granny). The rest of the crew consists of Ron Phillips-Martinez (producer), Jennifer Stowe (music director), Mark Demry (assistant director), Billy Franco (stage manager), Heidi Hapner (makeup), Arissa Avila (assistant stage manager), Trevin Ortega (light operator), Dean George (follow spot), and Joseph Portoles (sound assistant).

Mr. Phillips-Martinez told me that he chose to rehearse for six weeks, instead of the usual five, because of the complexity of the production. The extra work has certainly paid off. Do not miss this show!

Disclosure: I know many cast members personally, and have performed or attended classes with several. Additionally, Stan Jenson is a Broadway World colleague.

INTO THE WOODS will run for two more weekends, through October 21st. All performances take place at the Indio Performing Arts Center, 45175 Fargo Street, Indio, CA 92201. Desert Theatreworks' individual ticket prices are $30.00 (general admission-musicals), $28.00 (general admission-plays), $20.00 (ages 13-18), and $16.00 (ages 12 and under). Flexible season packages and group rates are available. Seating is reserved.

Evening shows are at 7:30. Matinees are Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Most shows include at least one weeknight performance. Some run for three weekends, and others for two. Check the ticket purchase information for specific schedules. For tickets and further information, go to the Web site at or call (760)980-1455.

The rest of the 2018-19 season consists of:

By Agatha Christie
November 2-18, 2018
Adapted for the stage by Agatha Christie herself from her similarly-named novel, MURDER ON THE NILE whisks the audience away aboard a luxury steamer as it travels up the Nile River. What a lovely setting for a honeymoon cruise ... at least until the bride turns up dead! RATED PG

Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.
December 7-23, 2018
Featuring classic favorites like "My Favorite Things," "Edelweiss," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" and "Do-Re-Mi," the story is based on the actual life of Maria von Trapp, who leaves an Austrian convent to serve as governess to the children of a widowed naval officer. The final collaboration between Rodgers and Hammerstein, THE SOUND OF MUSIC won 10 Tony Awards in its original Broadway run, and inspired the Academy Award-winning film starring Julie Andrews. RATED G

By Neil Simon
January 11-27, 2019
Puberty is confusing enough without having a Great Depression and a cramped Brooklyn apartment full of family members to worry about. But those are the turbulent waters Eugene finds himself navigating in Neil Simon's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age comedy BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. The first play of his Tony Award-winning Eugene Trilogy, this classic redefined the late master of comedy's career as he mined his own past growing up Jewish during the Depression. RATED PG-13

SOME ENCHANTED EVENING: THE SONGS OF RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, concept by Jeffery B Moss.
February 8-17, 2019
The legendary musical theater duo Rodgers and Hammerstein provide the inspiration for this intimate night of beautiful songs. You'll hear more than 30 tunes created by the 20th century Broadway icons, including numbers from CAROUSEL, THE KING AND I, OKLAHOMA, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, CINDERELLA, and more. RATED G

Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman/Marc Shaiman, Book by Thomas Meehan/Mark O'Donnell Music.
March 8-24, 2019
Set in 1960s Baltimore, this Tony-award winning smash musical tells the story of lovable plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad, a misfit who becomes a local celebrity by dancing on TV's Corny Collins Show, and whose passion for justice transforms her into an unlikely heroine, triumphing over snotty teen queens and racial segregation. And she does it all without denting her 'do. RATED PG-13

By Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore
April 5-14
Back by audience demand! A comedy of mistaken identities and hilariously tangled subplots, LOVE, SEX, AND THE IRS centers on Jon and Leslie, two heterosexual roommates. In an attempt to save money, Jon has filed income tax returns for years listing the pair as married - but men cannot yet legally marry other men. When the IRS comes to investigate, Leslie must pretend to be Jon's wife. Meanwhile, Jon's mother comes to meet her son's fiancée, and the landlord objects to the idea of an unwed couple living in the apartment. LOVE, SEX, AND THE IRS is a guaranteed laugh-fest! RATED PG-13

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Hayashi

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From This Author Audrey Liebross