You Say You Want a Musical Revolution

Tony and Maria are in love, but their love faces numerous obstacles.  Her brother and his best friend are the leaders of rival gangs that refuse to let them be together.  The world also tries to keep them apart due to its racism as they come from different cultures.  When they try to rise above these problems, they get dragged back down and crash to a hideous reality.  This is West Side Story based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  It is currently playing at Springfield Little Theatre.

It isn’t often that I find myself tongue-tied when I start to write a review, but I am still in a state of glorious shock at what I just saw.  Prior to tonight, I had never seen West Side Story in any capacity though I had read that the original mounting of the show revolutionized what could be done with choreography.  While I have no real comment to make on that, I can say that SLT’s take on this show completely revolutionized what I considered possible with musical theatre.  This was, by far, the single best musical I have seen mounted on any community theatre stage.

Lorianne Dunn does double duty as both director and choreographer and excels in both aspects.  As director, she has put together an absolute masterpiece of a production.  Her direction is certain as she expertly maneuvers her actors through the emotional beats of the stories and songs and leads them to sterling performances.  Her staging is impeccable.  It makes full use of the performance space and none of her actors upstaged themselves or others.

Her choreography is genius.  Never have I seen such lavish dance numbers especially standouts such as “America”, the prologue, and “The Rumble”.  Her work is all the more impressive given the youth of her cast who absolutely nail their performances with a polish and poise that experienced veterans would envy.

This cast is just amazing.  Their energy (and fitness levels) was off the charts.  They were clearly having fun and that added further fuel to nearly flawless performances.  The chorus remained in each and every moment adding vital life and reality to this staged world.  Exceptional supporting performances were supplied by Richard Bogue as the racist and thuggish Lt. Schrank; Lysander Abadia as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks; Robert Hazlette as the always angry Action and he also gets the lead on the night’s funniest number, “Gee, Officer Krupke”; and Miriam Stein as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend.  Ms Stein especially shines with a velvet lower soprano in “America” and “A Boy Like That”.

Asa Charles Leininger stuns as Riff, the leader of the Jets.  Leininger makes Riff far more than a brainless brute with his multilayered take on the character.  His Riff started the Jets to have a sense of belonging.  He’s proud of his gang because of the support they provide.  He’s tough.  He’s loyal, remaining friends with Tony despite his walking away from the gang.  His Riff even has a code of honor as he’s willing to settle his issues with the Sharks with one fistfight.  He even has some common sense as he refuses to react to those that call him and his gang hoodlums and prefers to stay cool.  Leininger’s New York accent is spot on and he retains it as his lower tenor entertains us with “Jet Song” and “Cool”.

Tanner Johnson is scary smooth as Tony.  Johnson takes the audience by the hand and gracefully leads it through Tony’s emotional journey.  He’s got the perfect personality for the likable Tony who is trying to escape his former world of violence by holding down a job and finding love.  You will be swept along with him as he experiences the highs of love, the horror at his violent actions when he gets dragged back into the gang world, and his heartbreak when he thinks he has lost Maria.

Johnson also has a gorgeous tenor voice.  More importantly, he knows how to act through the songs, striking each emotional beat with unerring accuracy.  Some of his best moments were his joyous “Maria” and his beautiful take on “Somewhere”.

Genevieve Fulks is a powerhouse of talent and will steal your hearts as Maria.  She has such innocence and sweetness in the role and you can believe she has the power to evolve Tony into a better person.  But she just as easily handles anger and pain when her world begins to fall apart due to the lifestyle of violence lived by her loved ones.  And, my word, what a heavenly voice she has.  Ms Fulks’ operatic soprano gave a performance for the angels with showstopping turns in “I Feel Pretty”, “I Have Love”, and “Tonight”.

Susan Gravatt and her orchestra perfectly play the score of this musical.  John R. “Chuck” Rogers has designed a magnificent set of fences, crumbling tenements, and fire escapes.  Jamie Bowers’ lights and sounds enhance the story.  Kris Haik and Ginny Herfkens are winners with their precise costuming with the t-shirts, jackets, and jeans of the gangs and the elegant dresses for the ladies.

As I said earlier, this is the best community theatre musical I have ever seen staged in nearly a quarter century of theatre involvement. I have seen professional productions that couldn’t hold a stick to this show.  It’s just a blitzkrieg of perfection from the fantastic story to grade A direction to stunning choreography to flawless acting and entrancing singing.  If you love theatre and live in or near the Springfield, MO area, buy a ticket to see this show.  You will be blown away.

West Side Story plays at Springfield Little Theatre through Feb 4.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets range from $16-$36.  For tickets visit http://www.springfieldlittletheatre.org or call the Box Office at 417-869-1334.  Parental discretion is advised for coarse language and gestures and some scenes of violence.  Springfield Little Theatre is located at 311 E Walnut St in Springfield, MO.

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Age in the Cage

Ladies and gentlemen!  This is it.  The battle for the heavyweight championship of the room.  In the house right corner, wearing the muted colors, she is known as the Brooding Brawler. . Abby!!!!  Her opponent, fighting out of house left, wearing the light, bright colors, she is called Sinfully Sweet. . .Marilyn!!!  And now. . .LET’S GET READY TO RIPCORD!!!!!!!! at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Ripcord tells the story of two senior home roommates who mix about as well as oil and water.  Curmudgeonly Abby is used to having the room to herself and cannot stand her new perky roommate, Marilyn.  When Marilyn claims never to get angry and Abby claims never to get scared, the two ladies make a bet.  If Abby angers Marilyn, then Marilyn will move to a different room.  If Marilyn scares Abby, she gets Abby’s bed by the window.  The result is an escalating war of pranks between the two women as they pull out all the stops to win the bet.

Lindsay-Abaire has written a clever script reminiscent of The Odd Couple with the exception that the two main characters are not friends, giving their interactions a bit more of an edge.  The script moves quite fast and is seasoned with hot zingers, sautéed with some well placed over the top moments, has a dash of drama and sensitivity, but has a peculiar palate cleanser of an ending.

Kimberly Faith Hickman has gathered a gaggle of comedic talent which she leads to solid and uproarious performances.  Ms Hickman has mastery of the beats as she knows when to let her performers go huge, be normal, or pluck the heartstrings.  The staging of the show is quite strong as, even in the slower moments, there is always a bit of movement from the actors to keep the scenes animated.

Three character actors playing multiple roles support the action of the play, but each also has a particular role that allows them their best moment in the spotlight.  Matt Tarr’s towering presence and rich voice serve him best as a zombie butler in a haunted house.  Kaitlyn McClincy serves up some laughs as Marilyn’s somewhat devious daughter who gleefully assists her mother in winning the bet.  Kevin Goshorn shines in the show’s most poignant scene as the estranged, recovering addict son of Abby who visits her for the first time in years.

For a debut performance, Sahil Khullar is quite capable in the role of Scotty, the aide at the senior living center.  Khullar definitely has the personality for the kindly Scotty who is implied to be a struggling actor.  He also has a good instinct for timing, though his gestures need to be a bit more economical and precise.

But this show does indeed rest on the shoulders of its leading ladies.  Rest assured that Charleen Willoughby and Judy Radcliff are more than up to the task as the pair deliver gutbusting performances and have a chemistry and repartee bordering on the symbiotic.

Charleen Willoughby is a bitter delight as Abby.  Ms Willoughby well communicates Abby’s cynicism with a stony, stoic expression and bearing that says, “Just let me read and leave me alone”.  She always has a quiet sense of mourning about her, lamenting the things she either lost or never had.  Despite this downer description, Ms Willoughby does make this stick in the mud quite entertaining as her sense of delivery always makes Abby’s retorts and put-downs funny.  Ms Willoughby also allows Abby’s long buried decent heart peek out from time to time with her love of her plants and the wistfulness of wanting grandchildren.

Judy Radcliff is a darling scream as Marilyn.  Ms Radcliff makes Marilyn so sweet and sunshiney that one could probably spit in her face and she would laugh it off.  Ms Radcliff brings an incredible sense of fun and kindness to the chatty Marilyn who just wants to bring a little brightness to the days of others.  But a bit of orneriness lies beneath the sweetness as Marilyn dreams up the more dangerous pranks played in her war of oneupmanshp with Abby and the fact that she does it with a smile on her face makes it all the funnier.

Paul Pape has designed a fluid, open set bordered by ropes that easily transforms into the bedroom at the senior living facility to an airplane and to the airiness of a haunted house and the outside.  Jim Othuse’s lights are some of the best I’ve seen in a Playhouse show as they really help define the scenes with the eerie greens and reds of the haunted house to the shadows of trees and sunlight outside of Abby’s window.  John Gibilisco delivers on sound once again, especially with an impressive propeller sound effect in the skydiving scene.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes well define the personalities of the leading ladies with Marilyn’s bright, pretty dresses and Abby’s muted, sedate pantsuits.  I also was quite pleased with the original score composed by Timothy Vallier.

There were a few blips in this preview night performance.  Actors broke character on a few occasions with some of the jokes.  There also seemed to be a bit of a dead spot on house left as microphones didn’t seem to work quite as well there as they did on house right.  But these are easily fixable items.

I also thought the leading ladies were a little young to be in a senior living facility, but I also recognize the tough balancing act as I’m not certain older ladies would have been capable of handling the needed physicality for the roles.

This show has all the right ingredients for a most amusing night of theatre.  It’s got laughs.  It’s got heart.  It’s got sensitivity.  Get a ringside seat and watch the comedy brawl to win it all.

Ripcord plays at the Omaha Playhouse from Jan 19-Feb 11.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  A little discretion is advised due to some coarse language and inappropriate gestures.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

It’s a Wonderful Play

George Bailey is a good man who has been pushed to his breaking point.  Deciding that the world would be better off without him, George contemplates suicide.  But a kindly angel trying to earn his wings is about to show George the difference one person can make.  This is It’s a Wonderful Life by Phillip Grecian and it is currently playing at the Grand Opera House.

It’s rare, but once in a great while I actually get to attend a show purely as a patron.  However, I was so touched and impressed by this production that I felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard and share its wonderfulness.  This is a terrific show for the holidays and Grecian has written a beautiful script that is full of warmth, sensitivity, strong dialogue, a bit of melancholy, and is so full of hope.  His words are brought to incredible life by a powerhouse cast that maximizes the fullest potential of the script.

Michelle Blanchard deserves the highest, possible praise for her direction of this story.  It is so strong and confident.  She knows exactly where this story is going and knows how to get her cast to that destination.  Every beat is a bullseye.  Every emotional shift is spot on.  Ms Blanchard has coached her cast to superb performances and this cast, without question, projected better than any I have previously heard.

With a cast of excellent actors, it’s very hard to limit myself to just a few choice performances.  But some of the quality performances you will see in this show come from Helen Waldmeier who brings a sweetness and fun to her portrayal of Mary Hatch-Bailey; Trenton Sanchez who ably plays the younger version of George Bailey with his integrity and gentleness; and John Gunther whose rich baritone voice rings with a kindly authority as Joseph, God’s right hand angel.

Stephen Green is all aces as George Bailey.  Green’s Bailey is so full of decency and goodness that you feel better about yourself for having met him.  Green is so, so convincing as a man who has constantly sacrificed his dreams and desires in order to fulfill a greater good.  He also wisely adds just the right touch of sadness to Bailey to show that he often muses about what might have been which makes his joy when he realizes his true value all the more moving.  The only slight difficulty with his performance is that Green seems to suffer from the same issue as Gregory Peck.  He’s so good at being good that his rare moments of anger and frustration seem a pinch off the target.

Robert Armstrong brings a quiet strength to his take on Clarence.  He’s a simple angel second class who has been trying to earn his wings for 200 years.  He’s a good listener and has genuine empathy for people.  Armstrong also gives his Clarence the ability to think fast on his feet as his idea of jumping into the river to get George to save him seems very extemporaneous. He also injects a bit of playfulness into the role with his confrontation with the play’s de facto villain, Mr. Potter.

Danny Fairchild’s Henry Potter is the guy you love to hate.  Fairchild steals his scenes with a Potter who is oily, manipulative, curmudgeonly, and vengeful.  Fairchild is an amazing actor with a grand gift for a turn of the phrase.  His sense of timing was deadly accurate and, son of a gun, he managed to be humorous in his unlikability as well.  It is a well constructed and crowd pleasing performance.

Frank McClain’s sounds were some of the best I’ve heard in a production, especially the twinkling sound effects when Clarence was communicating with Heaven.  Jan LaVacek has made a nearly bare bones set with the bridge over Bedford Falls being the only constant.  I liked the efficiency of his set which could rapidly change into Ma Bailey’s home to the Bailey home to the Bailey Building and Loan to Potter’s office.  Gloria Fitzpatrick’s costumes were so natural and suitable that I thought the cast was wearing their own clothes.

As I earlier stated, this is the perfect show for the holiday season.  It’s sweet.  It’s funny.  It’s hopeful.  It also show us just what great gifts we can be and that we all have the power to be that force for good in the lives of others.  There are only 2 performances left.  Don’t miss out on this touching show.

It’s a Wonderful Life continues at the Grand Opera House until Dec 3.  There is a performance tonight at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2pm.  For tickets, contact the theatre at 563-588-1305 or visit www.thegrandoperahouse.com.  Tickets cost $20 for adults and $12 for 17 and younger.  The Grand Opera House is located at 135 W 8th St in Dubuque, IA.

The McGuigans Shine On (Like the Moons, and the Stars, and the Sun)

It was ten years ago this day

That these boys got the chance to play

Some great music that will make you smile

And forget about life for a while.

So may I introduce to you

The act you’ve known for ten great years?

The McGuigans and their rockin’ Beatles band!!!!!

It’s the tenth anniversary run of Yesterday and Today and it’s playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Now it’s possible that there are some reading this review and wondering, “What is Yesterday and Today?”  Well, allow me to enlighten you.  Yesterday and Today is the tribute of three brothers (Billy, Ryan, and Matthew) to the music of the Beatles and to their late father who passed on his love of the Fab Four to his sons.

There’s no gimmickry with this band.  They don’t ape the Beatles.  They just play the music of rock’s greatest group, but fuel it with their own special energy for one amazing night of entertainment.

It’s also never the same show twice.  This is a request show where the audience chooses the night’s numbers.  Pick anything you like because this band can play them all from their biggest hits to their obscurest tunes.

Two years ago, I had the honor of reviewing this show and I felt privileged to come back and review its 10th anniversary run.  As a writer, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What new insights might I glean to share with the public?”  As it turns out, I had very little to fear because, as the Beatles did, this show just continues to evolve and grow with each passing year.

Not only did the audience get a new, simplified two tiered stage from Jim Othuse, but a slight change in the formatting of the show put more control in the hands of the audience than ever before.  As Billy correctly states, “If you’re not having fun, it’s your own fault.”

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This band plays the music of this legendary group with a reverence and passion no mere tribute band could ever hope to match.  I have seen this show in many, many incarnations over the years and I assure you, tonight’s performance was the best I have seen yet.  Not only were the performers beyond on, but this audience picked some of my all time favorite Beatles tunes.

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Billy McGuigan

Billy McGuigan is your Sgt. Pepper of the evening.  Using his magical wit and charm, Billy serves as the band’s spokesperson as he banters with the audience and shares a few heartfelt stories along the way.  He also dazzled the crowd with his skill on guitar and keyboard.  He got the night off to a fiery start with “Get Back”, sang a catchy cover of “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and paid heartfelt tribute to his father with his favorite Beatles song, “Let it Be”.

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Ryan McGuigan

Ryan McGuigan was a force to be reckoned with in tonight’s show.  Proving he may well be the second coming of John Lennon as he possesses the same beautiful, raw tenor singing voice; Ryan sang lead on quite a few numbers, blasting all of them out of the park.  Some of his standout performances were his harmony part on “It Won’t Be Long”, his haunting rendition of “A Day in the Life”, and an unbelievably nuanced take on the ethereal and stream of consciousness “Across the Universe”.

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Matthew McGuigan

Matthew McGuigan lent a hand with his top notch bass playing and own formidable tenor.  He got the crowd rocking with “Hey Bulldog”, took us back to yesteryear with “Eight Days a Week”, and poured his heart into “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”.

And let us not forget the rest of the talented group.  Jay “Superman” Hanson blew the crowd away with his fluid and difficult guitar work and got a moment in the spotlight with the sweet “Here Comes the Sun”.  Rich Miller’s drumming kept a steady beat and his own baritone voice was put to good use in “Yellow Submarine”.  Tara Vaughan had great presence with her animated tambourine and keyboard playing and was splendid with a solo in “Oh, Darling!”.  Aaron Slagle satisfied the audience’s need for more cowbell in “A Hard Day’s Night”.

This show is fantastic for any Beatles fan from the casual to the ultrafan and from the young to the young at heart.  I defy anyone who watches it not to feel like they’re flying ten feet off the ground when the night is over.  My only disappointment is that two hours feels like two minutes and I (and the rest of the crowd) could have easily spent all night rocking out with the band.

The opening night production was completely sold out, so if you’ve never seen this show, get a ticket right away.  And if you are a fan, you better have a ticket because I don’t see them lasting very long.  Find out why Yesterday and Today is the hottest show this holiday season.  A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

They’re the McGuigans and their Beatles band,

You’re going to enjoy the show.

The McGuigans and their Beatles band,

You’ll be sorry when it’s time to go.

The McGuigans and their

The McGuigans and their

The McGuigans and their rockin’ Beatles band!!!!

Yesterday and Today plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Dec 31.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Thurs-Sat and 6:30pm on Sundays.  There will be an extra performance at 2pm on Nov 26 and no performances on Nov 30 and Dec 24.  Tickets cost $40 a person.  On Dec 31, there will be performances at 7pm ($50 tickets) and 10pm ($75 tickets).  For tickets, contact the Omaha Playhouse at 402-554-553-0800 or visit www.TicketOmaha.com or www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

(Photography provided by Sonia Keffer)

The Death of Innocence

A group of youths in provincial Germany experience the thrill of their emerging adulthood and the pain of losing their childhood innocence.  This is Spring Awakening with book and lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik based off of Frank Wedekind’s original play of the same name.  It is currently playing at the UNO Theatre.

I’m not familiar with Wedekind’s original play, but have read praise for Sater remaining reasonably faithful to the original work.  Wedekind’s tale poses some very challenging ideas and themes that still resonate today.  The theme of emerging adulthood takes the form of their sexual awakening and the youths are thrilled and unnerved by the changes taking place within them.  However, this awakening comes at a price.

The change into adulthood comes at the cost of their innocence and hope.  Even worse, they are ill equipped to handle these changes due to a society of adults which refuses to educate and help them cope with these changes.  Instead they label the youths’ burgeoning desires as evil and hypocritically hide their own evil and cruelty to maintain a world that suits their vision.

Sater does a fine job updating Wedekind’s work for a modern audience and Sheik has written a punchy score full of catchy, memorable tunes.

It’s unusual to see two directors at the helm of a show, but Doran Schmidt and Wai Yim do quality work in guiding this musical.  Clearly both are on the exact same page with their vision, fusing their unique talents to create a strong show.  Their performers know what they are doing with their roles and where they are going.  Ms Schmidt’s musical direction is spot on and Yim’s gift for designing movement keeps this story going as there is never a static movement.  The actors make full use of the performance space in an effortless and unceasing flow of movement and action.

The supporting cast is skilled and unified.  They harmonize well.  They play well off each other.  All manage to find the ebbs and flows and the humorous and serious moments of the production.  But I’d like to single out Bethany Bresnahan for a memorable cameo performance as Ilse.  Ms Bresnahan’s Ilse is the lone character who seems to retain her childhood innocence as she transitions into adulthood.  She had a dynamic presence, beautiful animation, and a haunting sequence in “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind”.

Ryan McCann is wonderful as Melchior.  McCann well plays the duality of this character as Melchior is both the angel and the devil.  He is a playful, intelligent wit and loyal friend.  But he also has the makings of a fiend within him with his whipping (albeit requested) and possible raping of a childhood friend.  Truly, he seems to be the character in the most danger of becoming part of the cruel, hypocritical society he lives in until he finds the strength to overcome it with a little help from his spiritual friends.

McCann’s tenor was in fine form all night.  His voice captured all of the important nuances both musically and orally.  He especially shone in “The Guilty Ones”, “Those You’ve Known”, and the night’s best number, “Totally F@!#ed”.

Seldom have I felt the kind of empathy for a character as I did for Nick Jansen’s Moritz.  Moritz has pressures on him that few adults could be expected to handle, let alone a child.  His parents demand perfection from him.  He studies beyond the point of exhaustion.  He’s uncomfortable with his new “sticky dreams”.  Jansen does superior work in communicating the ever mounting weight on Moritz’s shoulders until he collapses under the pressure.  Jansen also has a fine tenor and falsetto best utilized in “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” and “And Then There Were None”.

Roni Shelley-Perez soars as Wendla.  Wendla may be the show’s most tragic character as her innocence makes her truly childlike.  An overprotective mother refuses to help her understand her transition into adulthood.  Her safe lifestyle has rendered her unable to feel, pushing her to request to get whipped by Melchior so she can empathize with a classmate who is routinely beaten by her father.  Due to her safety and immaturity, Wendla simply does not know how to protect herself and those who should protect her fail utterly.

Ms Shelley-Perez brilliantly essays the confusion and innocence of Wendla.  I was especially impressed with her facial expressions during her moment of intimacy with Melchior which left it beautifully ambiguous as to whether or not it was rape.

Ms Shelley-Perez can also belt out a tune with a monstrously strong soprano in “Mama Who Bore Me” and “The Word of Your Body”.

Steven Williams has designed a simple, yet imposing set of black pillars and balcony with chalk drawings all over it.  Audrey Wardian’s lights were incredible with strobe flashes and emotional colors which were all variations of the rainbow leading to subtler shades of meaning.  Valerie St Pierre Smith’s costumes invoked the sedate elegance of 19th century school uniforms and clothing.

At this preview night performance, the cast started off a bit hesitantly and quietly.  Once they reached “Totally F@!#ed” they were firing on all cylinders and the theatre was overflowing with their confidence and I do believe they are on to something quite magical.  Sound also suffered a touch from either microphone issues or dead spots on the stage.

Growing up is hard to do, especially when there isn’t an instruction book or a person with experience to lend a helping hand.  Spring Awakening does a dandy job in sharing the difficulty and pain of growing up, but it also leaves a glimmer of hope that the current generation will fix the mistakes of the previous.

Spring Awakening plays at the UNO Theatre in the Weber Fine Arts Building through Dec 2.  Showtimes are 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays.  Tickets cost $16 (a 2nd preview night performance on Nov 16 will be $6).  UNO students can attend the show for free.  For tickets, call 402-554-PLAY or visit www.unomaha.edu/unotheatre.  Due to strong language and sensitive themes, Spring Awakening is not suitable for children.  The UNO Theatre is located at 6001 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.

The Bird is the Word!

Conrad loves Nina who is smitten with Trigorin who is the boyfriend of Emma.  Mash adores Conrad, but is pursued by Dev and Dr. Sorn just wants a hug.  This is Stupid F@#!ing Bird, a sort of adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull written by Aaron Posner and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is one of the smartest, cleverest, funniest scripts I have ever seen produced.  Posner has a great gift for wordplay and his writing shows a love for and a frustration with the work of Chekhov.  A sort of adaptation is the best way to describe this piece as it is not a complete parody of The Seagull.  It mostly retains its story, but modernizes the language and peppers it with light-hearted comedy and fourth wallbreaking self-awareness.  But it also has its fair share of deep and serious moments as well.

Suzanne Withem deserves high praise for her direction of the play.  Her direction has a decisive energy which emerges in the constant movements of the actors, preventing the show from ever being static.  Her staging is precise and utilizes the full space with the actors even getting up into the stands with the audience.  Ms Withem has also done a sterling job leading her actors through this play as there isn’t a weak link in the lot.

Beau Fisher is quickly becoming one of my favorite performers to watch due to his naturalness and boisterous energy.  He scores another hit with his take on Conrad.  Fisher easily comes off as an innovator seeking to create new forms of artistic expression.  He is also the tortured artist who loves Nina too much and is frustrated by the fact the Nina does not love him back to the same degree.  Fisher skillfully vacillates between the emotional highs and lows of Conrad while deftly handling the character’s difficult wordplay.  While his love for Nina is a bit smothering, it does pull at your heart as it is a genuine love from a man who has never really known love himself.

Raydell Cordell III anchors the show as Conrad’s best friend, Dev.  Dev is the only truly likable character in the show.  He’s also one of two characters who end up truly happy at the show’s end.  Cordell brings a cute awkwardness to Dev with his pursuit of Mash and inability to say the right thing in a group setting.  Yet, in one on one conversations, he proves himself to be an able listener, a wise advisor, and a rock of support.

Sonia Keffer gives an eye opening performance as Emma Arkadina, Conrad’s mother.  Ms Keffer’s Emma is a slightly boozy, extremely cynical and successful actress who, like her son, doesn’t really understand love and happiness and readily admits to it.  She is content to live a life being hated quietly and filling it with money and men.  Emma does have a kind of caring for her son, but it never really germinated into love.  Instead it takes the form of a territoriality as she will fiercely protect what belongs to her when she sees it threatened or hurt.

Alissa Hanish cuts a very pitiable figure as Nina, the seagull of the play.  Hanish gives us a Nina who is a lost child who thinks she knows what she wants out of life, but when she gets what she thinks she wants, she learns that it was just poisoned fruit.  She is easily swayed by the illusion of the surface and cannot see the truth below.  Ms Hanish conveys these ideas not only through her delivery of the dialogue, but through her superior sense of movement.  Through movement, Ms Hanish displays comedy with her moves during the performance event “We.  Are.  Here.”; confusion, love, and a desperate search in a prolonged sequence when she constantly kisses Conrad, but blindly searches for something greater; and a descent into madness when she collapses into hysterics at the play’s climax.

Potent supporting performances are also given by Michael Markey as the lonely Dr. Sorn; Aanya Sagheer as Mash who sings depressing songs inspired by her unrequited love for Conrad; and Kevin Anderson as the pretentious genius writer, Doyle Trigorin.

The sounds of John Gibilisco and the lights of Darrin Golden become supporting characters in the play as they had a crucial extra dimension.   This is especially noticeable with the shadowy lights of Golden when the play veers into experimental performance art and Gibilisco’s mystical sound of the seagull.

The movement direction of Wai Yim adds a beautiful bit of art to the production while Lindsey Pape’s costumes suit the cotemporary feel of the show as the performers really seem as if they’re wearing their own clothes.

A couple of the actors needed to pump up the volume a bit, but all voices carried well and Jim Othuse’s simple set of a curtain and small stage lent itself well to the inherent creativity of the show.

In closing, all I can say is now you’ve heard about the bird and I’m telling you, man, that this bird is the word!

Stupid F@#!ing Bird plays at the Omaha Playhouse through Nov 12 at the Omaha Playhouse. Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to strong language and some mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

It is a Brilliant Thing

After his mother attempts suicide, a little boy decides to write a list covering every brilliant thing in life.  This list follows the boy as he grows into a man and experiences the highs and lows of life.  This is Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan MacMillan and it kicks off the Blue Barn Theatre’s 29th season:  Connect.

MacMillan has written a pretty potent script “based on true and untrue stories” and it has a little bit of something for everyone.  It’s funny.  It’s poignant.  It’s thoughtful.  It’s relevant.  The play centers around the theme of suicide and provides a hopeful message:  things will get better.  This message is laid out with facts, stories, and audience participation.  I thought the audience participation element was positively inspired because this is a story that we are all part of as all of us have felt down in life and needed a little picking up.

An interesting thing about casts is that the smaller they are, the stronger they have to be.  When dealing with a one person show, not only does the actor’s talent have to be of phenomenal quality but he or she needs an almost symbiotic relationship with an equally talented director in order to find, develop, and relate the innumerable beats of the story.  Fortunately this show illustrates just such a relationship as the impeccable direction of Susan Clement-Toberer combined with the acting chops of Hughston Walkinshaw result in a night of theatre that is somber, moving, light, funny, and strong.

Ms Clement-Toberer’s staging is of superior quality as she breaks down the barriers between actor and audience.  Walkinshaw performs in the round and is centimeters away from the audience. Never is there a static moment as Walkinshaw constantly moves around the room and engages the audience, bringing them deeper into the world of this tale.

So natural and extemporaneous is Walkinshaw that it almost doesn’t seem like he’s acting.  It’s almost as if he’s telling his own life story.  But it is an arduous and triumphant performance as Walkinshaw has to constantly be on his toes and be aware of every moment as he may have to fill in the blanks or gently move things along during the audience participation moments.

Walkinshaw’s interpretations are so spot on and precise.  At one moment, he is an innocent little boy facing death for the first time when his beloved dog is put to sleep.  In a flash, he’s a college student finding love for the first time.  In the blink of an eye, he’s a jaded adult facing his own battle with depression which causes his marriage to crumble while he deals with the hideous reality of suicide in his own family.  Yet, through it all, he maintains his grip on hope with the ever growing list of brilliant things.

Shea Saladee softly lights the performance space with a series of vintage chandeliers.  Craig Marsh’s sounds take the form of music which plays an important emotional role in this show.  And the final number will be the “happiest sad song” you ever heard.  Amy Reiner’s properties of bits of the list truly enhance the spontaneous nature of the unnamed character’s writings.

This is theatre at its purest.  At its most intimate.  At its most beautiful.  At its peak.  It’s a masterful opening for the Blue Barn and you will regret it if you miss this one.

Every Brilliant Thing plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through Oct 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm (The Oct 8 show will be at 2pm.).  Tickets cost $35 for adults and $30 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.