By Matt King
The pandemic upended so much that a lot of us changed our ways of thinking.
Michael Shaw, the artistic director of the Dezart Performs theater company, said many times over the years that Dezart would never produce a musical. Well … Shaw changed his ways of thinking—and the company’s first in-person show since the arrival of COVID-19 will be rock-musical Girlfriend, taking place at the Rancho Mirage Amphitheater October 27 through 30.
Shaw explained his previous stance.
“A few years into our company, we were trying to build an audience, and my board and various people in the communities all said, ‘You should do musicals. They’re great crowd-pleasers, and you’ll build an audience that way,’” Shaw said. “But we’re not that kind of theater. We don’t do musicals. There are plenty of theaters in town who do musicals, and they do them well, so we don’t need another theater company doing musicals. I don’t dislike musicals at all. I actually love them. I just saw Hamilton for the third time in Los Angeles, and I’ve performed in, like, 30 musicals as a singer and a dancer. It’s not an aversion to them, other than they’re really challenging to produce; I just have never had a burning desire to produce them.
“But every so often, something comes across my desk.”
Actually, Girlfriend was not the first musical Shaw considered producing.
“What got me going was a little play called The View UpStairs, a brilliant story about a gay bar in the ’70s that burned down due to arson,” Shaw said. “It was a tragic story in the gay community. It’s a beautiful musical; the score is incredible, and I think it’s a really great story, which is what always attracts me to pieces. I applied for a license to do it, because it was unusual; it wasn’t well-known; and there was a dramatic twist to it that was really compelling. But another (local) theater company had applied for it, unbeknownst to me, and they got the rights.”
“I’m glad they got the rights, quite honestly, because their venue was much more suited for it, and they are an LGBT house theater, so it was much more appropriate in their space,” Shaw said. “What it did was put me on this journey to start finding little-known, special-tidbit musicals that have great stories.”
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Shaw then came across Girlfriend, a musical with just two cast members.
“It’s a love story, but the twist is that it’s set to the music of Matthew Sweet’s album Girlfriend, that he wrote in the early ’90s after his breakup with his lover, who was a woman. Todd Almond approached Matthew Sweet and said, ‘Hey, I want to tell a love story, but I want it to be a love story about two young men in the Midwest, growing up in the ’90s, who fall in love with the love of music.’ It’s a gay love story about two high school graduates, the summer after they graduate, and their initial attraction to each other is through shared music interests.
“Over the course of the play, they fall in love and go on a journey which most gay men, including myself, have traveled. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, and when I was in high school in the ’70s, you couldn’t come out, so that first summer out of high school is always the most treacherous and enticing. … That’s what this story is, and it just struck a really strong chord with me.”
Shaw planned to add Girlfriend to the 2020-2021 Dezart Performs season—but, of course, the entire season was wiped out due to COVID-19. Therefore, Shaw decided to make Girlfriend the first show of the 2021-2022 season—and for this one show, Dezart will depart from its usual home, the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club.
“When it looked like we could actually get back to doing live theater in person, I felt like we needed to have a safe environment, and I wasn’t sure if we would be able to go back inside the theater (yet),” Shaw said. “Last fall, I started exploring the options of doing something outdoors, because if we were going to open up, it should be outdoors. It just so happened that the Rancho Mirage Amphitheater was available, and it was the perfect venue for us to reopen. It just kind of fell into place. and here we are.”
Shaw had nothing but praise for the two members of his cast, Kyle T. Hester and Eddie Vona.
“One of the cast members, Eddie, is a dear friend who has worked with us before, and his partner in true life, his husband, Kyle, is playing opposite him, so that’s a nice little twist to the story,” Shaw said. “That wasn’t the original plan—but it just ended up working out.”
Dezart Performs will be offering dinner packages along with the show, another first for the company.
“Patrons have the option to buy a table serving a three-course dinner, catered by Lulu Catering and Events, and that starts off the evening,” Shaw said. “I wanted to put together this welcome back, because our patrons have supported us this entire year and a half. People continue to send us checks. So aside from government assistance—which has been incredibly helpful—our patrons and our donors have come through and have really stepped up. We wouldn’t be able to do it without them, so this is our way of saying that we want to come back big, and we want to come back celebratory.”
Dezart Performs will return to the Woman’s Club in January for the rest of its season. As an Equity-sanctioned professional theater, the company has a lot of COVID-19 safety mandates that must be followed.
“We’re an entirely vaccinated company, but with a bigger cast, there’s an added expense to make sure that everybody stays safe,” Shaw said. “We have to pay for testing. We have to supply each venue with everything to make sure that everybody’s safe, like masks and sanitizing solutions. One of the biggest requirements is that we’re required to have a COVID safety officer onsite at all times, so that is a paid position that we have implemented to make sure during rehearsals and production that the company is kept safe. Knowing all of these things going into the season, I had to pick small casts.”
Despite the limitations, Shaw expressed excitement over the other three shows he has on the schedule.
“We open The Mountaintop the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and it’s a story of the last night before he was assassinated. It’s a retelling of that evening, so it’s a fictional story,” Shaw said. “He’s visited by a stranger, this female person who comes to him as housekeeping at the hotel—and she’s not who she says she is. It’s very funny. It’s a brilliantly written piece.”
Next up, in March, is Grand Concourse, by Heidi Schreck.
“It’s a four-person play about a nun who runs a soup kitchen in the Bronx, and her relationship with one of her volunteers. This nun has basically lost her faith in God,” Shaw said. “We have this picture of what nuns should be, and this woman is everything but that, so it’s very funny, but tragic at the same time.”
The season will conclude with one-man-show Every Brilliant Thing, in April.
“It was actually supposed to close our season before we locked down,” Shaw said. “We were actually two weeks into rehearsal a year and a half ago, and then we had to close down. We spent the last year trying to figure out how to bring it online and do it virtually—and it just doesn’t work, because it really needs to be in person.”
Girlfriend, a production of Dezart Performs, will be performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, October 27 through Saturday October 30, at the Rancho Mirage Amphitheater, 71560 San Jacinto Dr., in Rancho Mirage. General admission is $45 in advance; tables for 6 p.m. dinner seatings are also available. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit dezartperforms.org.