The fun and personal triumph takes center stage in Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production of Mid-Century Modern. Great writing, amazing voices, terrific acting, and beloved songs all combine to make this one of the most enjoyable visits to the theater I’ve had in a very long time. I saw the world premiere last night and am already looking forward to my next visit during the show’s short five week run!
As the play begins, it’s 1966 and Maryanne Popkecke (Christine Tringali Nunes) is at the grave of her recently deceased husband, Ernie (Gary Powers). She decides to take her life insurance money and her car and leave Minnesota for the glamor of being a secretary in Santa Monica, a city she fantasizes about after seeing pictures of herself in a magazine.
When she reaches Tulsa, she meets a man named Tom (James Owens) who sings like Tom Jones and exudes the singer’s sexuality. She immediately goes for the carnal joys that she has been missing for most of her marriage. The next morning, he joins her on her road trip west, but their car breaks down in Palm Springs. While the car is being fixed, she meets some very nice people from the desert community. She wonders if she could actually stay there when Tom steals her car and her insurance money, thus making her decision for her.
She finds accommodation with a helpful landlady (the very humorous Dana Adkins) and meets a homosexual couple (Owens again and an amazing young actor named Carlos Garcia). The boys make a project out of her heavy shell. Along with a stunning physical transition, much of it created by Ms. Nunes facing the stage in a large chair, the actress undergoes an attitude transition as she sings “You Don’t Own Me” – a song that absolutely sparked enthusiastic cheers from the opening night audience. Maryanne gets (well, demands) a job at a mid-century design firm and finds out she belongs to the hot architect (Robbie Wayne) whose magazine photos she drooled over. At the end of the show, it appears to be one of the prizes she won on her journey to triumph over her married self.
I said the play started with Maryanne in a graveyard. It actually begins with a solo of a hunter singing “Palm Springs Jump” in a high-energy performance that includes dancing with and on top of a pair of suitcases. The young actor, Carlos Garcia, won the love of the public with this number, and I suspect it was added for that reason. He is a graduate of the prestigious The Valley Musical Theater College, a PSUSD after-school program that takes the most promising high school performers and turns them into stars. Most of them will leave town for college or even New York, but if some of them stick around, they’ll improve the quality of valley musicals by miles, judging by the performance of Mr. Garcia.
All six actors have terrific voices and acting skills, which made Mark Christopher’s original screenplay a delightful experience. Maryanne does the heavy lifting, never leaving the stage except for the quickest costume changes. In a word, she is AMAZING! The ghost of Maryanne’s deceased husband continues to visit her, at one point talking to her as he sat on the toilet! His rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers” was so enjoyable that he became the villain we loved to hate. He also does a delightful turn as another character that I won’t reveal. In fact, all but Nunes and Wayne play two or more characters, and the intimacy of a musical with just six actors is one of my favorite modes (Charlie Brown, Insane). Instead of a dancing chorus, a few solos were backed by two or three of the principals singing doo-wops and the musical sound and emphasis on the lead vocalist was excellent.
Perhaps the biggest round of applause should be reserved for Mark Christopher, an established writer/director/producer of film and TV – and now stage! He worked on the writing of Mid-Century Modern for five years, and has directed two previous stage readings as well as the current production at the Desert Rose Playhouse. He’s a master of TV sit-com repartee and knows how to make the most of beloved songs like “How Can I Be Sure?”, “Incense and Peppermints”, “Windy”, “I’m a Believer”. “, and 16 others. There are several times that the characters break the fourth wall and comment to the audience on how things are going like “Oh, was that picture too dark for a happy musical?”. They got eaten the public in their hands.
Sets by Matthew McLean, projections by Nick Wass, and lighting design by Maria Pryor all came together to keep us in touch with where we were, and the vibrant colors of Palm Springs were especially pleasing. Changes of scenery on a dark stage are unfortunate, but seemingly unavoidable and done as quickly as possible. In the early parts of the show, I thought the lighting was a bit murky, but later realized it was a choice to make Palm Springs look more vibrant and inviting once there. The Iconic Atomic costumes were a hoot, and the Miss DD Star choreography was energetic and one more element of ensuring we knew we were in the 60s, including a hilarious acid trip.
The current production of Mid-Century Modern plays at Desert Rose Playhouse, 611 S. Palm Canyon Drive, Palm Springs (the old Zelda nightclub in the Revivals mall). It runs until May 8, though producers are hoping it could eventually find a permanent home in Palm Springs. Tickets and more information are available at www.DesertRosePlayhouse.org. Be aware that this theater always requires proof of vaccination at the door.