Theater 29 is a Desert Gem

By Lisa Lynn Morgan

There is a general assumption that local theater is a few bars above a high school production, and therefore rarely competes with the many other entertainment options available to communities. With limited budgets, casting limitations, and productions that depend on a large, invested crew of volunteers, it is by no means an easy task for any theater house to produce the kind of buzz larger theaters enjoy in the metro.

I am proud to say that Theater 29, in 29 Palms, is a wonderful antithesis to this scenario, and is absolutely one hundred percent buzz-worthy.

Having recently experienced the two-actor performance of Daddy Long Legs, Theater 29 is the little theater that could, does, and will deeply inspire our community with our support.

From Our Partners

Led by award-winning director, Ian Ferris, the musical play, based on the book by John Caird, Daddy Long Legs, was an unforgettable indelibly inspiring production. Set in the early 1900s, it tells the heartwarming story of Jerusha Abbott, the “Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home,” as she receives an unexpected opportunity to attend college thanks to a mysterious benefactor and embarks on an extraordinary adventure that will change her life forever. The catch? Jerusha must correspond with her unnamed benefactor through monthly letters without any expectation of a response. In a whimsical twist based on the only characteristic she glimpsed; she invents a persona for him – Daddy Long Legs. However, an unforeseen revelation awaits her, promising an extra layer of intrigue to her already captivating journey.

This charming 2-person show was double cast, with Eliana Hicks and Liyan McNeltier bringing their talents to the role of Jerusha Abbott. Graham Cooley and Jericho McNeltier take on the character of Jervis Pendleton (Daddy Long Legs).

Let me preface my review of this lovely experience with a little bit of my background. I am by no means a “critic” or expert in the field worthy of judging anything or anyone. However, being blessed with the good fortune of a benevolent “aunt” who would take me to the Dorthy Chandler and Pantages Theaters in Los Angeles often, my pallet for theater is fairly well developed. We enjoyed everything from Sweeny Todd, The Sound of Music, Annie, Elephant Man, Pirates of Penzance, Phantom of the Opera, and more. These experiences led to my role as a professional musician, and a unique lens from which performances like this are viewed. Having seen and heard some of the best, these performers had me rivetted to the palm of their hand minutes into the first scene. It transported me out of my head and caused me to be deeply invested in the story and its characters. From the comedic timing, the vocal prowess, the lighting touches, the movement and placements on stage, the music flow, and the ownership of the characters with an incredibly extensive script, the entire audience was enraptured. There were belly laughs, soft sobs, and angst; it had it all. By intermission, I could not wait to get back to the characters that I knew and loved.

The little girl in me who found awe and wonder in theater was revived, and I could not be more grateful – or astonished. How, in our little hi-desert world, was this possible?

Double casting this production was an intelligent move. The physical feat of two people carrying an entire show’s worth of dialogue on multiple nights would be taxing on the voice, but they also sang beautiful and challenging pieces. Sitting next to a friend who had seen both teams of actors, I asked if there was a difference between the casts – if she favored one over the other. She shook her said, “No. Each of them have their own ways of delivering the lines and songs, but I absolutely love them both!” That left me scratching my head; clearly, we are a small community by comparison, but we are drenched with talent. It was if the actors were made for these characters.

Though the characters’ strong performances were pivotal in making this show a wonderful success, there were many others behind the scenes making the magic happen. The music, for lack of a full orchestra, was perfectly streamed behind the actors without a single hiccup. For much of it, I wondered if they didn’t have a couple of live musicians tucked backstage. The lighting crew, flawless as well – they accentuated warmth and feel as well as deepen the story line. For example, as Jerusha looks through the window and sees a car pull up, you literally see lights move through the window perfectly immolating a car coming into the driveway at night. It was an effect that laid the foundation for the moment Jerusha sees the silhouette of “Daddy Long Legs” for the first time. There in that moment, you catch yourself leaning in to see who was coming.

The artistic direction was on point, to say the least. The small set was adorned with a tall bookcase that helped add to the “tallness” of Daddy Long Legs, and it was adorned with items from cast and crew that had deep meaning to them. For instance, an antique Singer Featherweight sewing machine belonged to costume designer, Tera Bottorff. It was handed down to her by her Grandma Jo who taught her to sew, and who, like Jerusha, was a young lady in the early 1900s. The idea born from director Ferris underscored the warmth and sense of unity that this crew’s energy flowed with.

This is just one of the many plays and performances that Theater 29 has provided for our community. I strongly urge any of you who have yet to see or support the efforts of this brilliant little theater group to charge yourself to do so.

Considering that many of our programs for kids in our schools have not returned since the Covid-19 lockdowns, they need this opportunity more than ever. The theater offers a summer program for kids and workshops for all ages.

Like this play, this little theater that could, can, and does, deserves our enthusiastic support so they may continued to thrive.

To learn more and contribute to this wonderful institution of the arts, go to https://theatre29.org/

Photo by Ian Ferris

From Our Partners