A sad spectre haunts Desert Rose Theatre’s winter play, “Joyful Noise,” though it’s probably not apparent to anyone making a first foray to the 55-seat strip mall playhouse in west Mesa.
We die-hard devotees of Katherine Stewart’s plucky classics troupe — those of us who’ve come to love the impoverished but clever productions inside Stewart’s gritty, slathered-black storefront space — sense it all too clearly: A prohibitive rent hike, due next month, is sending the company into the streets after nearly three years there.
And so, come closing night of “Joyful Noise,” a behind-the-music drama about composer George Frideric Handel’s famed religious oratorio, “Messiah,” Desert Rose will go on homeless hiatus.
You can’t ask for a more triumphal swan song, if it truly becomes such, than the choral blast of “Hallelujah!” that punctuates the final moments of an otherwise uneven play. Utah playwright Tim Slover keeps a light, comic touch over what’s otherwise a poor man’s “Amadeus”: Handel (played by Garry Myers) cranks out “Messiah” only after his last opera flopped royally — thus prompting one of Slover’s characters to comment, “You’re so unpopular, you couldn’t get the clap.”
“Joyful Noise” — like Myers’ performance, veiled in the honking German accent of Peter Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove — is at its best when droll. (Wild-eyed Gary Helmbold, too, is at his funniest as Handel’s unwitting valet.) Slover’s script tends to strike weak dramatic chords with seemingly more modern influences: At times, one is reminded either of “Footloose” — Handel’s “Messiah,” playing on stage rather than in church in the early 1740s, runs afoul of the headstrong Bishop Henry Egerton (John Caswell Jr., sharp here) — or, stranger yet, the musical “42nd Street.”
Desert Rose’s strength, its quixotic charm, comes when director Stewart and her band of community actors, possessing wildly varying degrees of talent, valiantly charge through great works of Shakespeare, Wilde and the like. Here, though, the script is too flimsy for the effort. (Another first: Stewart, casting herself as soprano Kitty Clive, overpowers her cast mates, vocally and actorly.)
Here’s wishing that this unsatisfying coda isn’t the final note from Desert Rose — that Stewart and company find a replacement venue pronto. “We’re convinced that this little stumbling block in our history,” Stewart writes in the playbill, “will prove to be a stepping stone to bigger and better things.”
It had better. I’m at least keeping a hopeful space on the calendar for what’s supposed to be the real season-ender, Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” in April.
THEATER REVIEW | "Joyful Noise"
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, closing Dec. 29
Where: Desert Rose Theatre, 1320 W. University Dr., Mesa
Cost: $15, $12 for students and senior citizens
Information: (480) 452-9649 or www.desertrosetheatre.com