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BWW Review: THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST Lights Up at Desert Rose Playhouse

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Celebrate July 4th and the Coachella Valley's Theatre Return with a Stellar Cast.

BWW Review: THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST Lights Up at Desert Rose Playhouse

Indoor live theatre is back in the Coachella Valley. One of the first community theatre companies to close for the pandemic, Desert Rose Playhouse, is also among the first to reopen, in its new location at 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. (More about the new location later). Its first production, THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST, a serio-comedy that features fabulous acting and direction, is very much worth seeing, although Beth Henley's script is, in my opinion, thoroughly meh.

Desert Rose's primary audience is the Coachella Valley's LGBT+ community, but THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST is a story about heterosexuals and issues primarily of interest to straight, cis people. Unlike some of the company's zanier comedies, there is no cross-gender casting or dressing, and no inside jokes directed towards its niche community - at least none that I noticed. As a result, straight, cisgender theatregoers will be able to understand all the references, at least if they are familiar with 1980's Southernisms. And people of all orientations and genders are sure to appreciate how director Robbie Wayne (Desert Rose's artistic director) and the cast turn a verbose, weird play into a fast-paced, amusing show, complete with terrific visual designs.

The story is thoroughly Southern, dealing with public censure, s-e-x, drinking, beautiful women, and tall tales. There is even a mention or two about race, with a former pageant winner sniffing that the contest has gone downhill now that it has integrated. Although I have seen the play described as "Southern Gothic," it does not seem grim enough to merit that label. Yet, there is too much tragedy in the characters' lives for the show to be a comedy, even though Ms. Henley clearly intends to evoke laughter.

BWW Review: THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST Lights Up at Desert Rose Playhouse
Drinking after Delmont's (Robby Wayne) hot oil treatment is
interrupted. Other characters (L-R): Popeye (Rebecca
Rodriguez), Carnelle (Phylicia Mason), and Elain (Yo Younger).

Most of the characters are either coming into the small Southern town where the action takes place or leaving, or sometimes coming for just a short while until they can arrange to go. Carnelle (Phylicia Mason), who has been living in her late aunt's house, has developed the wrong kind of reputation among the community's blue-nosed gossips after catching syphilis and passing it on. She resolves to repair her name by winning the Miss Firecracker beauty pageant, which her cousin, Elain (Yo Younger), won many years before. Elain has gone on to lead the kind of life that Carnelle envies, so it is quite a shock when Elain returns and announces she's leaving her wealthy husband and two teenaged boys. Into the mix comes Elain's unbalanced brother, Delmont (director Robbie Wayne), newly released from a mental institution, who despises Elain. He has inherited the house and plans to sell it as well as the contents, before he moves on. Add to the mix a few even more quirky characters, and you have the makings of an entertaining evening, which the playwright achieves with the help of the great director and cast.

Although some of Ms. Henley's lines are truly hilarious, in my opinion, she squanders much of the amusing situations that she sets up. For example, upon hearing Popeye (Rebecca Rodriguez) describe a boyfriend who used to rub her head as if she were a cat, sarcastic Elain asks, "What did he get you for Christmas - catnip?" I can think of several lines that could have generated a second laugh, such as "How did you guess?" or "No, a keychain flashlight." Instead, Popeye answers that he didn't give her anything for Christmas. Yet despite the disappointments in the writing, Robbie Wayne and his accomplished cast generate much additional humor through their movements and facial expressions, and more than make up for the script's deficiencies.

BWW Review: THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST Lights Up at Desert Rose Playhouse
L-R: Christine Michele, Robbie Wayne, Phylicia Mason,
Yo Younger, Rebecca Rodriguez, and John Corr

Award-winning actors Yo Younger and Phylicia Mason are well-known to Coachella Valley theatregoers. In MISS FIRECRACKER, they play off each other perfectly, moving seamlessly from serious bits to comedy, in which Yo Younger plays the "straight" role, tossing out sarcasms with impeccable facial expressions and timing. Phylicia Mason, in a very physical role, plays a goofball whose comic facial expressions complement the character's serious moments elsewhere in the play. Channeling Edith Bunker, Ms. Mason delivers straight-faced incomprehensible lines, such as "Everyone's gonna be dying someday. I believe it." It is difficult to imagine that someone can steal scenes away from these two accomplished performers, but Robbie Wayne manages to do that. He brilliantly interprets Delmont as a deep thinker who nonetheless doesn't understand much about life. When he is on stage, his stream of hilarious facial expressions and movements keep the attention focused on him. I especially enjoyed his mimicry of Carnelle's dancing and his objection to his hot oil treatment's interruption.

The supporting cast also does a fabulous job with their screwball roles. Rebecca Rodriguez, as Popeye, and Christine Michele, as Tessy, generate many laughs with their meshuggeh stage business, although I thought Tessy's makeup and hair were a bit overdone. Palm Springs newcomer John Corr, who plays Mac Sam, another bizarre character, walks the perfect line between poking harmless fun and being mean-spirited to the ignorant, pathetic man he plays.

Matthew McLean, Desert Rose's managing director, designed the two sets. I especially adored the set for Act I, the house Delmont has inherited. Mr. McLean perfectly captures the overdone decorating of the Victorian home that, like the town in which it is located, is down on its luck. The costume designer, Jen Stowe, also shines, with a pink feathered robe and a creative hoop skirt that looks like nothing Scarlett O'Hara or Mary Todd Lincoln would recognize.

BWW Review: THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST Lights Up at Desert Rose Playhouse
The new theater, located at 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs.

The rest of the equally successful creatives and crew are Phil Murphy, lighting designer; Duke Core, assistant managing director and lighting technician; Rebecca Rodriguez, props; Nick Wass, sound and projection tech; Geo Niki, stage manager; Justin Barsness, assistant stage manager; and Melanie Blue, front of house manager.

As I indicated above, Desert Rose Playhouse has moved from its Rancho Mirage location to 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs, in the same shopping center where the Palm Springs Revivals is located. The old theater, which had room for only 75 seats, had a serious problem with sight lines, but the new location, in a former nightclub, is a far superior facility, consisting of 7000 square feet. The stage has a curtain, enabling scenery changes at the intermission, without ruining the second act reveal for the audience. Although there is no slant in the audience, there are platforms in the back with banquette seating and barstool seating at high tables towards the sides. Anyone who has attended a performance at the old venue will undoubtedly respond favorably upon seeing the new facility.

A word of caution is in order, however, to those unfamiliar with the shopping center. I missed the first show I tried to attend because I didn't know that the Desert Rose Playhouse was a few doors down from Revivals, where I have shopped numerous times. I drove back and forth and around the block for forty minutes, thoroughly confused. There is not yet a large sign on the facade (only a poster for the current production), and I actually parked in the lot almost in front of the theater trying to figure out where to go. It didn't help that my two GPS's contradicted each other. If you're unsure where Revivals is, or, like me, are perpetually confused by the South Palm Canyon/Indian Canyon Drive Y-shaped intersection read on.

Heading west into Palm Springs from Rancho Mirage on Route 111 (which is South Palm Canyon Drive at that point), westbound traffic continues on Indian Canyon Drive, immediately past Camino Parocela. A left into the shopping center as you approach Parocela will get you to the theater.

Heading east from downtown Palm Springs on South Palm Canyon, pass the Wells Fargo on the right. As you approach the Bank of America on the left, you will see Camino Parocela. Turning right on Parocela gets you into the parking lot.

Despite these intimidating driving directions, I urge you to attend THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST. Enjoy the wonderful acting, directing, and visuals, and take time to appreciate the fabulous new facility, which has its own bar.

THE MISS FIRECRACKER CONTEST will run for four more performances, Thursday, July 1 @ 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, July 2-3 @ 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 4 @ 2 p.m. Tickets are available at www.DesertRosePlayhouse.org, or by calling the box office at 760-202-3000. Individual seats are $34-$37. High-top tables (which seat four people) and VIP couches (which seat two to three) are $175.

Desert Rose's schedule for the rest of the year consists of:

A Night On Broadway, A Broadway Revue Show, July 9 @ 8pm, July 10 @ 2pm, and July 10 @ 8pm (online stream available).

An Evening of Comedy with Jason Stuart, featuring Shann Carr and Selene Luna, July 17th @ 8pm.

The Great American Trailer Park Musical, July 22-August 8, 2021.

The Rocky Horror Show, August 26-September 12, 2021.

Xanadu, September 30-October 17, 2021.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, November 4-November 21, 2021.

Christmas with the Crawfords, December 9-December 26, 2021 (return engagement).


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