Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Other Regions

Coachella Valley Repertory, Cathedral City, California
Review by Bill Eadie

Bill Nolte and Melodie Wolford
Photo by Jim Cox
The Broadway musical Ballroom was based on Jerome Kass's script for the 1975 television special, "The Queen of the Stardust Ballroom." Music for the broadcast was written by Billy Goldenberg, with Alan and Marilyn Bergman penning the lyrics. This team turned its television work into the 1978 musical, which was heralded as Michael Bennett's follow-up to A Chorus Line. Mr. Bennett directed the musical and, with Bob Avian, choreographed and produced it.

Unfortunately, Ballroom ran a little short of four months, closing prior the end of the 1978-79 Broadway season. It was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece, Sweeney Todd, overwhelmed the competition, leaving two of the four Best Musical nominees, Ballroom and They're Playing Our Song, confined to the category of "forgotten musicals" (the fourth Best Musical nominee was The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Indeed, Ballroom has languished most.

And now, in steps Ron Celona, artistic director of Coachella Valley Repertory, a professional theatre company performing in a recently remodeled movie theatre in the Palm Springs area. Diagnosing the problem as modifications that were made to Mr. Kass's book, Mr. Celona received permission to return to the original. Then, working with Mr. Goldenberg and the Bergmans, three new songs were written and songs written for "The Queen of the Stardust Ballroom" were also added.

So, how does this ambitious project work? Well enough, assuming that you can embrace the basic melancholy of the story.

Bea Asher (Melodie Wolford) is a widow living alone about a year after her husband's sudden death. She has comforted herself with family: children Diane (Aviva Pressman) and David (Sean Timothy Brown); sister Helen (Marcia Rodd); and brother-in-law Jack (Bill Lewis). Truth be told, they are starting to get on her nerves by urging her to sell her house in the Bronx and move to Long Island to live near them. After one of these family discussions in which only David took her part, Helen decided to take some action. She opened a "junk store," with the initial goal of selling things that had accumulated in her house. The store was a modest success, and Bea started to make friends with the women who shopped there.

One of the women, a waitress named Angie (Teri Ralston) convinces Bea to come with her to the Stardust Ballroom, a place where the regulars are older adults who enjoy ballroom dancing. At the ballroom, Bea soon meets Alfred Rossi (Bill Nolte), a shy man who hasn't danced much with other women at the club. Al and Bea turn out to dance well together, and while she holds Al at a distance initially, Bea finds herself in love.

But Al has a secret, and once Bea learned it, she is faced with having to decide how to handle her feelings and the relationship she nevertheless want to have with Al.

Bea's story is a melancholy one with some bright moments: she's a widow who has only started to be on her own and she has a loving family, but it's one in which several think they know what's best for her. She's pleased by the success of her business and the women friends she's made, but she misses her late husband and misses being married.

The score is also a melancholy one. Even the happier numbers have a tinge of sadness in them. The dancers at the ballroom may be enjoying the variety of different dances they can try (choreography by Jose De La Cuesta), but there's always the danger that someone will fall or overexert themselves. Even the best-known song, the eleven o'clock number titled "Fifty Percent," moves from joy to anger and ends with determination.

The story itself is well constructed, but once the basic relationships have been established, it's pretty easy to figure out where Bea will turn and what will happen when she does so.

What's special are Alan and Marilyn Bergman's lyrics, pleasantly surprising, wistfully clever, rarely overcooked. They make ordinary-sounding songs into something wonderful.

Mr. Celona is proud of the reimagining work he has led and wants to show it off to advantage. He has cast the twenty-four performers carefully and well, and put an eight-piece band on stage (Scott Storr is the music director) as the ballroom's house combo. There's a lot to look at on stage, especially Frank Cazares' costumes for the women, which cleverly represent the varying tastes in dress for a night out on the town. I wish that scenic designer Jimmy Cuomo had settled for less detail and more easily shifted set pieces, though. There are a lot of such shifts, and they slow down the pace of a show that already doesn't move quickly.

Of the principals, Ms. Wolford moves Bea ever forward from her timidity to independence and strength. Mr. Nolte's Al gains confidence and nicely builds toward the reveal of Al's secret and its aftermath. Bea's family responds positively to the changes she is making, some responding more quickly than others. It's too bad that Ms. Rodd is hamstrung by the role of Helen, who is written as a relentless scold. Ms. Ralston's Angie, on the other hand, is allowed to sparkle—and she does.

It's great that Mr. Celona and his company enjoy an excellent measure of support from the community and that several area celebrities turned out for opening night, including Lucie Arnaz, who made her Broadway debut in They're Playing Our Song, the other "forgotten" Tony-nominated musical of 1979.

Coachella Valley Repertory's Ballroom is an ambitious production of a small, relationship-oriented musical, a Bronx tale in the mold of Bock and Harnick's She Loves Me. It's a don't-miss if you love to see forgotten Broadway musicals leap to new life. It's a short run, though, only running through February 16. Better hurry.

Ballroom runs through February 16, 2020, at Coachella Valley Repertory, 68510 E. Palm Canyon Drive, Cathedral City CA. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. with matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the box office, by calling 760-296-2966, or by visiting .

Cast members include Lois Bondurich, Randy Brenner, Alessandra Di Pierro, Mary Ewing, Douglas Graham, Nathan Holland, Wayne Hundley, Juliet Lapointe, Corinne Levy, Anthony Marciona, Terry "T-Mac" Mclemore, Joe Mitchell, Olga Morales, Lindsay Ouellette, Glenn Rosenblum, Robin Somes, and Leslie Tinnaro. Creative team members include Lighting Designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker, Sound Designer Ryan Ford, and Orchestrators Jonathan Tunick and Richard Bronskill.