Charming ‘Catch’ Could Use a Charge

At sixteen, Frank Abagnale, Jr. began the path to becoming one of the greatest con men of all time.  Posing as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, he bilked the country out of nearly $2,000,000.  Finally cornered by the dogged FBI agent determined to capture him, Abagnale decides to tell (and sing) his story in Catch Me If You Can:  The Musical by Terrence McNally with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.  It is currently playing at the Bellevue Little Theatre.

McNally’s script is a mixed bag.  It does a fine job of highlighting Abagnale’s life and his most notable impostures and I think sharing this might have been enough as his life had enough drama and natural humor for a great story.  Where the script falters is when it tries to needlessly force humor into the story such as making the FBI agents with the exception of Hanratty seem like inept fools.  Kudos to Matt Karasek, Randy Wallace, and Jackson Hal Cottrell for a superb job of playing the characters as written.

D. Laureen Pickle does an admirable job of directing this piece. The staging is well done, seeming more like a sixties sitcom and full performance space is used in telling this story. She found some great beats to add some heart to this story especially in the conversations between Abagnale and his father and she has guided her actors to solid and moving performances.

The ensemble does fine work supporting this story as they were clearly enjoying themselves and really helped to flesh out crowd scenes and provide some snappy dancing courtesy of inventive choreography provided by Kerri Jo Watts and Eastin Yates.  That being said, I did note a couple of points where the execution of the dancing needed to be a bit cleaner.

Some great supporting performances are provided by Kevin Olsen as Frank Abagnale, Sr. who was a minor league con man that taught Junior everything he needed to know about running a scam.  Olsen’s Abagnale, Sr. is quite pitiable as the purpose for his cons is simply to provide a better life for his family, though he does seem to derive a pleasure out of outsmarting the government.  Heather Wilhem is marvelously entertaining as an Atlanta housewife who is quite taken with the smooth Abagnale, Jr. who wishes to marry her daughter.

Thomas Stoysich gives a rather entertaining performance as Frank Abagnale, Jr.  He is a very likable and charming person and these traits are crucial to being a good con artist.  Stoysich is so darn likable that you don’t want to believe that he’s really a crook.  Stoysich also adds a remarkable emotional depth to the performance as he portrays Abagnale’s con artistry as a compulsion.  He can’t seem to help himself.  Stoysich does good work in showing the three reasons why Abagnale does what he does:  1.  He’s trying to survive.  2.  He hopes to earn enough to reunite his broken family.  3.  It’s fun.

Stoysich also has a very pleasant tenor voice which was well utilized in “Live in Living Color” and his attempt to end Abagnale’s story prematurely in “Goodbye”.

Eric Micks is rock solid as Carl Hanratty, Abagnale’s determined pursuer.  This is a man who is completely dedicated to his job and that came at the cost of his own family.  Micks gives Hanratty intelligence and tenacity, but he also gives him a haunting loneliness.  The job is all he has, even spending the holidays by himself except for an annual phone call from Abagnale with whom he shares a sort of friendship in spite of their adversarial relationship.  Micks also possesses a fine baritone shown when he tries to discover “The Man Inside the Clues” as he investigates the crimes of Abagnale.

Chris Ebke and his orchestra do justice to the score of the show with an energetic performance.  Nancy Buennemeyer’s costumes suit the sixties settings especially with the pilot and flight attendant uniforms of the time as well as the elegant clothes for Abagnale and the rumpled suit for Hanratty.  Joey Lorincz does it again with another stellar set with a stairway lit by runner lights and a pair of revolving doors for speedy entrances and exits while locales are projected behind the stairs.

This show badly needed doses of energy and volume last night.  The volume was especially important with the orchestra situated behind the cast as I lost bits of dialogue at various points.  There also seemed to be something up with the microphones as they didn’t seem to work except for a brief burst towards the end of Act I.  Part of the energy issue came from an audience not giving the cast much to work with.  In a show like this, the cast needs the fuel supplied by a lively crowd to further heighten their own performances.  Cue pickups could also be tightened to help the energy.

When all is said and done Catch Me If You Can is a slightly surreal telling of Abagnale’s story.  It’s got the potential to be a great crowd pleaser thanks to a talented crew and a spritely orchestra and a “Strange But True” story.

Catch Me If You Can:  The Musical plays at Bellevue Little Theatre through Sept 29.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors, and $10 for students.  Tickets can be obtained at bellevuelittletheatre.weebly.com or calling 402-291-1554.  Some discretion is advised due to some strong language and suggestive moments.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.

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‘Sweat’ing Bullets

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From left to right, Laura Leininger-Campbell as Tracey. Brandon Williams as Chris. Josh Peyton as Jason. Kathy Tyree as Cynthia.

A steel mill in Reading, PA begins to shut down.  Suddenly lifelong employees set to retire on fat pensions are facing joblessness with no nest egg and no hope.  As their very survival is threatened, friends become enemies, latent racist and xenophobic tendencies take over minds, and a mountain of emotional kindling is laid that only needs one small spark to set off a raging conflagration.  This is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and it has kicked off the latest season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

There is certainly nothing subtle about Nottage’s script.  From the very beginning, it grabs the viewer by the throat and gleefully paintbrushes her or him for the better part of 2 ½ hours.  The play is chock full of devastating themes such as betrayal, racism, xenophobia, entitlement, corporate greed, depression, and the danger of having one’s sense of self defined solely by a job.  It also skillfully presents a mindset that demonstrates just how our political climate might have reached its current volatile state without making any judgment calls.

From an actor’s perspective, this show is a treasure trove.  Every character is unique and well-defined.  It is truly an ensemble piece with each character getting a moment in the sun and no true leading role.  With a perfectly cast group of magnificent talent, OCP’s season gets an explosive start with a drama for our time.

Susan Baer-Collins returns to the Playhouse to direct this powerful piece.  Her knowledge of the story is deep and certain which allows her to fully explore every beat and help each performer realize his or her fullest potential and become fully formed and realistic persons.  The staging is pretty strong for the most part with the actors making full use of the performance space and constant movement to animate the dialogue.  However, the performance space of the Howard Drew is a bit of a mixed blessing as its intimacy is crucial to pulling the audience in, but the way the characters have to interact makes it difficult to play to the entire audience at various points.

In a night of outstanding interpretations, a stellar performance is provided by Emmanuel Oñate who makes an excellent debut as Oscar, a likable young man trying to make his way in the world who draws the ire of locked out steel mill workers due to the double whammy of his crossing the picket line and the perception that he is stealing work from “real” Americans due to his Hispanic heritage.  Thomas Becker also shines as Stan, the manager of the local bar who serves as a sounding board to everyone’s issues and also acts as a voice of reason to the burgeoning turmoil bubbling up from the plant’s lockout.  L. “James” Wright gives a tragic performance as Brucie whose sense of identity was completely wrapped up in his job.  Robbed of his ability to provide, he sinks into a deep abyss of depression and addiction.

Kathy Tyree is a geyser of talent with her rendition of Cynthia.  Tyree’s Cynthia is a rock and tough as nails.  She is the friend who will have your back no matter what, but also knows when to draw the line as she has to keep her husband, Brucie, at arm’s length while he battles his personal demons and refuses to take any garbage from her friends after winning a promotion to warehouse supervisor that has her perceived as one of “them” due to a combination of jealousy and things going south at the mill.  What I liked best about Tyree’s take is that she never made an obvious choice or reaction.  She was so extemporaneous, it was almost as if she was writing her own dialogue on the spot as opposed to reciting learned lines.

Laura Leininger-Campbell is a firecracker as Tracey.  Tracey strikes me as a person who isn’t easy to friend, but, if you manage to do so, you have a friend for life.  She is brusque, mouthy, and has a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush.  She can also be fiercely loyal, but watch out if you cross her as she holds grudges.  Leininger-Campbell is incredibly effective as this complex character.  She well communicates Tracey’s latent racism that gains strength when she loses a promotion and is further fueled by Oscar’s crossing of the picket line.  Leininger-Campbell is particularly mesmerizing in two scenes.  One where she is arguing with Cynthia and manages to convey the sense that she loves and hates her simultaneously with her on the dime emotional beat changes.  And a second where the show leaps into the future and she is having a conversation with her estranged son, Jason, and seems to age years before your eyes with pure body language that seems to bow her back, make lines appear on her face, and add a few pounds.

Josh Peyton succeeds with his handling of the role of Jason.  Arguably, this may be the show’s most difficult character to play due to the two widely different personalities he has depending on when the show is in the past or the present.  Peyton gives past Jason a happy go lucky personality.  He’s a pretty decent guy who doesn’t give much thought to tomorrow and just likes having fun, though he does exhibit some of the personality traits and thinking of his mother, Tracey.  Present Jason is an angry, bitter, potentially violent man whose facial tattoos suggest that he might have been part of a white supremacist group.  Peyton not only does good work in playing the two variations of his character, but he also succeeds in showing the transition from one to the other and planting the seed that past Jason’s good qualities may overpower his present’s darkness.

Brandon Williams has a dandy debut as Chris.  This is the play’s most positive character as he is a good man in both past and present.  Williams has a great likability as Chris who is good to his parents, a hard worker, and has a plan for his life all mapped out.  His one weakness is that he might be too loyal to Jason as that loyalty leads him into a truly bad moment in the past.  In the present, Chris is an even better man who has found Jesus and now shares that faith to bolster others and gives him the strength to right some past wrongs and to try to have closure with Jason.  In the present, Williams exudes a confidence granted by faith and well executes the determination to correct a past error even while he clearly feels guilt and embarrassment over it.

Jim Othuse has designed a nice little local bar that is clean, welcoming, and comfy and is further enhanced by the properties of Darin Kuehler whose bottles of liquor and hanging chips make it feel like a real hangout.  Othuse has also well lit the production especially with his use of darkness and light.  The past was always bright and got a little darker as things went bad and the present is shrouded in darkness until a literal light of hope at the end.  John Gibilisco brings some great sounds especially the creepy effect as present transitions to past and the use of a TV showing news footage of the day when our country slid into the Great Recession.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are quite realistic with the work overalls, the everyman clothes of the working class, and the somewhat poorer garb of the present version of some of the characters.  Timothy Vallier provides a sad and moving score.  I did think a fight scene could have used a bit more speed and a crucial moment needs to be cleaner as I wasn’t sure exactly what happened until the final moments of the show.

Sweat is definitely a play for our time.  You won’t be able to turn your eyes away from it and it might give you a better idea of how we reached our present state of affairs.  And understanding the past is always the first step to making a better tomorrow.

Sweat plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

A Melange of McGuigan

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He’s been thrilling crowds since 2002.  Now the master maestro of Omaha, Billy McGuigan, is set to make his 500th performance at the Omaha Community Playhouse and it will happen during his latest run of Billy McGuigan’s Rock Twist.

Billy McGuigan was ready to rock tonight and, believe me, that’s really saying something.  Attacking the music with a thunderous energy that never let up and actually increased to something cataclysmic, McGuigan and his Pop Rock Orchestra delivered a fiercely awesome 2+ hour concert that had the audience in the palm of their hands from the first note to the last clap.

If you have never seen Billy McGuigan’s Rock Twist before (and if you haven’t, what’s wrong with you?) what you get is a show that offers classic rock songs done with a big band flair.  Even if you have seen this show, you really need to see this incarnation as Billy and company have completely revamped the show with a new set, lights, set up, and an almost completely new set list.  Truthfully, I rank this as one of McGuigan’s best performances to date and I have seen plenty of them over the years.

Few connect with an audience the way McGuigan can with his charming wit and storytelling abilities and when you add in his phenomenal musical abilities, you’re really in for something special.

Versatile seems almost too small a word for a guy who makes everything he plays sound like his own creation.  McGuigan hit the ground running with ELO’s “Evil Woman” and ran through rockers such as The Doors’ “Touch Me” and Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” with his pulse pounding tenor and killed it in a guitar duel with Omaha’s personal Pete Townshend, Max Meyer, in the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”.

McGuigan also slowed it down a notch with the Beatles’ beautiful “Yesterday” backed by the string trio of Melissa Holtmeier, Axelle Verboon, and Mindy Zimmerman.  And tears were a flowing when he teamed up with Tara Vaughan to perform an epic take on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”.

Speaking of Tara Vaughan, the mistress of the keyboards also got a fair chance to shine throughout the night with her one of a kind tickling of the ivories and that dreamy alto serenading the crowd with Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking”, the Supremes’ “Stop!  In the Name of Love”, and Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love”.

Featured performances were supplied by Natalie Thomas who practically had the audience purring with a throaty, sultry interpretation of Ike and Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary” that was further bolstered with the almighty tenor of Ryan McGuigan; Steve Gomez made his singing debut with The Champs’ “Tequila” which featured his singular bass playing and a stellar solo from Stan Harper on saxophone; Matthew McGuigan took a moment in the sun with The Temptations’ “My Girl”; Omaha’s legendary jazz musician, Doyle Tipler, soloed on his trademark trumpet as only he could; Patrick Peters and Willie Karpf solidly rounded out the horns while the Doctor, Tomm Roland, kept the beat going on his drums.

The volume of the microphones could have used some slight boosting on a couple of occasions, but the only real disappointment of the night was that it had to end at all.

If you haven’t had a chance to see a show with Billy McGuigan and his band, this is the one to see.  You’ll feel like a million bucks before the night is through and if you strike fast you may be able to snatch up a ticket to see that magical 500th performance on August 17.  But any night of this run is going to be smoking good.

Billy McGuigan’s Rock Twist runs through August 18 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $42 and can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com, by calling 402-553-0800, or visiting the Box Office.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Omaha Community Playhouse.

The Night the Music Lived

Buddy Holly Story

Michael Perrie, Jr. as Buddy Holly

His career spanned a year and a half, but in that time he revolutionized rock and roll and left an indelible fingerprint that would inspire some of the greatest performers of all time.  His story is the focus of Buddy:  The Buddy Holly Story by Alan Janes and currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

Janes’ script falls somewhere between a play and a jukebox musical.  Precious little of Holly’s life is covered in the show.  The play part focuses on certain key points in his life from his struggles as a teenager trying to become a rock star in the country music meccas of Texas and Nashville to his nabbing a recording contract with an open minded producer to his legendary Apollo performance to his whirlwind marriage to his break-up with the Crickets and, finally, to his final concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, IA.  Needless to say, the jukebox part focuses on Holly’s hits as well as numerous other hits of the day.

Tim Seib masterfully handles the dual direction required of the production.  He musters every ounce of story, nuance, and emotion from the story portion of the production.  In fact, I was incredibly impressed with his work for the romance between Holly and his wife, Maria Elena Santiago, which is the richest part of the story from an acting perspective.  Seib nabs an easy A+ directing the action of the musical part of the show which is good, old fashioned, pulse pounding rock and roll.

Some wonderful featured performances were supplied by Alan Gillespie as Norman Petty, the producer willing to allow Holly the chance to record music his way, but also lives up to his last name by attempting to screw Holly over by keeping the Crickets and taking the band name when Holly decides to change labels; Garrick Vaughan and Nissi Shalome as a pair of Apollo performers who give a rousing rendition of “Shout” and mercilessly heckle Holly and his band before their performance; Mike Brennan is an indefatigable cauldron of energy as J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and excels with his solo in “Chantilly Lace”.

I’d also like to give some special notice to Alix Rhode who gives a subtle and moving performance as Maria Elena Santiago.  She is strong, bold, and so loving and supportive of Buddy and your heart breaks as you know her fears for Holly’s safety are all too true.

This show lives or dies by the performer playing Buddy Holly and Michael Perrie, Jr. admirably carries the load of this show on his shoulders.

Perrie IS Buddy Holly and practically reincarnates him in front of the eyes of the audience.  Not only does Perrie bear a remarkable physical similarity to the late singer, but he also effortlessly emulates his look, assumes his accent and speech cadences, and even gets that unique hiccup in his voice when he sings.

Perrie brings some serious acting chops to the role.  He manages to show Holly’s politeness and decency, but also his toughness as Holly wouldn’t back down from anyone when it came to his music.  He also well plays Holly’s free-spirited nature.  This was a man who always marched to his own beat no matter what anyone thought about his choices.  He also expertly handles the heartache of Buddy’s life, shedding real tears when the Crickets abandon him and, more or less, yank the band name from him.

Musically, Perrie is also outstanding.  He’s a guitar player par excellence and easily handled rock numbers such as “Not Fade Away”, “Oh, Boy!”, and “That’ll Be the Day”, but he was just as nimble and moving on the softer numbers such as “True Love Ways”, “Words of Love”, and “Heartbeat”.

Cullen Law’s musical direction was exceptional as he and his performers made these classic tunes their own.  Jack Smith’s costumes were superb, from the elegant suits for the men to the pretty gowns for the ladies. Ali Strelchun has created a nice three sided set with a massive band area at center stage, a small radio station at house left, and Petty’s tiny recording studio at house right.  Jess Fialko’s lights are spot on with colors and intensity matching the energy and emotions of the songs and an incredibly poignant blackout for The Day the Music Died.

I want to take a moment and applaud all of the actors for showing great poise under pressure as they battled microphone issues throughout the night, but steamrolled right over them.

Some music experts have argued that, had Holly’s life not been cut short, Buddymania may have ruled the world due to the breakthroughs he was making with music.  Though his life was tragically short, he left behind an amazing legacy that is still inspiring musicians today.  And if you want a taste of musical history and a fun filled time, go see this show.

Music Lived

The Day the Music Died (Left to right: Mike Brennan as the Big Bopper, Michael Perrie, Jr. as Buddy Holly, & Chase Tucker as Ritchie Valens)

Buddy:  The Buddy Holly Story plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through August 11.  Performances are at 2pm on July 28, 31 and August 2-4, 6, 10, 11 and 7:30pm on July 31, August 2, 4, 7, 9-10.  Tickets start at $24 and can be obtained at www.maplesrep.com or contacting the Box Office at 660-385-2924.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Pictures supplied through courtesy of Maples Repertory Theatre

This review is dedicated to the memory of Kay McGuigan.  We miss you, friend!

Bare Pride

Six laid off steel mill workers decide to become strippers in hopes of a big payday.  This is the thrust of The Full Monty by Terrance McNally with music and lyrics by David Yazbeck and is currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

After reading my opening paragraph, you might be asking yourself, “Is this show raunchy?”  And the answer is “Yes, a little.”  When a story is about a group of mostly blue-collar guys deciding to strip, I would have been quite surprised if there had been no crudity.  But that isn’t the real story of the show.

The show is about WHY these men decide to become strippers.  That turns it into a story about pride.  You see the good side of pride because these men have stopped feeling like men due to their long unemployment.  They simply want to be good providers for their families again.  You also see the negative side of pride due to their unwillingness to take lesser jobs until something better comes along.  There’s even a bit of nobility to their decision to strip as all are extremely uncomfortable at the thought of baring it all, but are willing to make a sacrifice to their pride in this respect in order to put food on the table.

Brandon McShaffrey provides some top quality direction and choreography to this musical.  He has an iron grip on the true themes of this show and helps his cast make nuanced, multilayered people out of their characters.  The staging is impeccable, utilizing the entire theatre to tell this story.  His choreography is also a great deal of fun with my personal favorite dance numbers being “Big Black Man” and “Michael Jordan’s Ball”.

As for the cast. . .my, my, my.  There isn’t a bum in the lot.  Some of the 5 star performances you’ll see come from Nancy Marcy as an acerbic former entertainer (maybe?) who just randomly shows up with a piano to provide musical accompaniment for the would-be strippers; Garrick Vaughan as Noah “Horse” T. Simmons who dances like Fred Astaire in spite of a dodgy hip; Todd J. Davison as the buttoned down Harold Nichols who reluctantly teaches the troupe how to do a strip tease; Matthew Sather as the dumb as a post Ethan Girard who makes em laugh with his repeated failures to complete Donald O’Connor’s wall flip from “Make Em Laugh”; and last, but certainly not least, Madison Kauffman and Kyrstin Skidmore as Georgie Bukatinsky and Pam Lukowski, the wife and ex-wife of the two leading characters.  Both are rocks in their relationships with their husband and ex-husband.

I also want to take a moment to note the powerful performance of Michael Perrie, Jr. as Malcolm McGregor.  This is a sublime performance as Perrie captures the essence of a somewhat nerdy, lonely, repressed man who is dominated by his mother.  His decision to strip actually raises him up as he finally has friends and is able to embrace his own sexual identity.  Perrie has a stunning tenor and has the night’s most moving number, “You Walk with Me”.

Alan Gillespie plays Jerry Lukowski and is brilliant.  Gillespie’s Lukowski is about as blue-collar as you get.  He swears.  He’s opinionated.  He’s even a bit of a hustler who has clearly talked his best friend into a lot of hare-brained schemes in the past.  But he’s also a bit of a sensitive soul and some of his braggadocio is a cover for how scared he truly feels at the moment.  He wants to work and provide and he’s truly fearful about losing custody rights to his son due to being unable to pay child support.  Jerry’s decision to strip is not a get rich quick scheme.  It’s a desperate attempt to obtain enough money quickly enough so he can still be a dad to his son.

Gillespie has flawless delivery and can snap off a bon mot in one moment and be staggeringly tender in the next.  His singing voice is fantastic and can be snarkingly amusing such as “Big-Ass Rock” where he sings about helping a friend commit suicide or heartbreakingly loving such as singing to his sleeping son in “Breeze Off the River”.

My hat is off to Bobby Montaniz with his performance as Dave Bukatinsky.  Due to the loss of a performer, Montaniz only had 4 days to learn his part, but you’d think he’d had 4 months with the confidence of his performance.  To be honest, Montaniz is confidently unconfident with his take on Dave.  Unemployment has broken Dave.  He no longer feels like a man and makes the mistake of carrying the burden by himself instead of sharing it with his wife.  He is extremely self-conscious about stripping due to being overweight and takes a job he hates because he loves his wife.  But when he finally opens up to Georgie, it’s the play’s most satisfying moment as he finally gains the courage he needs to let it all hang out.

Yvonne Johnson’s costumes do the trick from the very casual wear of most of the steel mill workers to the breakaway costumes of the strippers.  My favorite bit of costuming is from the number “The Goods” when the women are dressed in the working gear of stereotypically masculine jobs to ogle/deride our wannabe strippers.  P. Bernard Killian has designed a series of set pieces that encourage the imagination to complete the picture such as the wall and large picture window of Harold’s house to the glittery curtains used for the strip shows.  Jess Fialko does fine work with the lights from the colorful flashes on the performance curtain to the darkening of the theatre for the strippers to the soft lights for the play’s more tender moments.  Sky Aguilar has some great sounds for the show from the engine of a car running when one of the characters tries to monoxide himself to the crashes and thuds of Ethan trying to flip around backstage.  Patrick Summers and his orchestra really play up the fun of the amusing and sometimes sensitive score.

This show is a lot of fun and is far more than a tale about male strippers.  It’s about pride.  It’s about friendship.  It’s about the real meaning of being a man.  It’s about family.  And it is definitely a good time.

The Full Monty plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 7.  Showtimes are at 2pm June 23, 28, July 2-3, 7 and at 7:30pm June 23, 26, 29, July 5-6.  Tickets begin at $24 and be obtained by calling the Box Office at 660-385-3924 or visiting www.maplesrep.com.  Due to strong language and sensitive subject matter, this show is for mature audiences.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Drunk with Laughter

A chance meeting between four middle aged women results in the formation of a weekly happy hour society.  As their bonds of friendship grow, each begins to rediscover herself in a new phase of life.  This is The Savannah Sipping Society by Jamie Wooten, Jessie Jones, and Nicholas Hope and is currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

This is a truly funny slice of life story.  The dialogue sparks and crackles with witty repartee and deadly sharp one liners.  Even more impressive is the fact that Wooten, Jones, and Hope have written a show that manages to keep an audience’s attention without benefit of a centralizing story.  This show is truly just a show about friendship and how these friends support each other through their individual arcs.  Each character is going through a major life change that can be universally understood by an audience:  divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, and finding one’s self.  As a unit, these four women work through these life changes and buoy each other as they become better versions of themselves due to the power of their friendship which enables them to overcome the obstacles in their paths to become more than they thought possible.

Talky shows are a difficult sell.  Talky comedies are even more difficult because it requires a masterful handling of the dialogue to sell it without benefit of sight gags and hijinks and a minute understanding of characters and their interactions to get the show where it needs to be.  Thanks to Peter Reynolds’ top notch direction, I have seen the best talky comedy ever.

Reynolds coaches a high caliber cast who keep the energy high and know just what words to hit to pick every piece of delectable fruit from the verbal tree of this comedy.  His understanding of the characters and how they interact is spot on as I fully believed in the friendship of this foursome in spite of their individual quirks.

As played by Erin Kelley, Randa Covington is a stick in the mud’s stick in the mud.  Randa has no life outside of her career and tries to live life logically which goes to pot after she is fired from her job.  Ms Kelley is wonderful as the overly serious and cautious Randa who is too focused on material success due to a desire to stick it to her dysfunctional family and too stiff to enjoy life. Seeing her loosen up and realize that life is an adventure to be experienced and learning what makes for a true family is one of the highlights of the production.

Nancy Marcy almost steals the show as Marlafaye Mosley.  Ms Marcy’s Marlafaye is the group friend whom you always feel will embarrass the group.  She has no internal filter or tact and says whatever she is thinking whenever she feels like it.  On the other hand, if you have a friend in her, you’ll have a friend for life and one who would walk into the depths of hell with you to watch your back.  Rare is the performer who can deliver a punchline like Ms Marcy who throws off acid tongue zingers as if they’re second nature.  Her performance is worth the price of a ticket by itself.

Donna M. Parrone is sweet as Dot Haigler.  Her interpretation of Dot will remind you of your own mother due to her kindliness and supportiveness and her occasional half step off attempts to fit in to the group activities.  Dot is definitely the most sympathetic character as life seems to beat her up a bit more than the others.  But Ms Parrone brings real strength to the character and shows it’s not about how hard you hit, but by how hard you get hit and yet keep moving forward.

Megan Opalinski is a riot as Jinx Jenkins.  Ms Opalinski’s Jinx is the friend who always manages to talk you into doing something against your better judgment.  She’s brassy, confident, stylish, and always looking for the next adventure.  But Ms Opalinski also brings a real dramatic heft to the character as she is on the search for an unknown something that keeps her from settling down in one place.  From her lovely performance, we learn the best meaning of the word family in both contexts, i.e.  the ones you choose and the ones you get.

P. Bernard Killian’s set is a beaut with the large veranda of the yellow house with the stunning Georgian columns and the glass French doors. Yvonne Johnson expertly costumes her performers appropriate to their personalities from the subdued, business garments of Randa, to the white trash garb of Marlafaye, to the motherly wear of Dot, and the stylish clothes of Jinx. Also impressive were some medieval gowns for a Renaissance fair scene, especially Marlafaye’s jester costume.

There were a few minor blips in lines and cue pickups, but this show is going to make you laugh yourself hoarse and It just might pull a tear from your eye along the way.

The Savannah Sipping Society plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 27 at Maples Repertory Theatre.  Showtimes are 2pm on June 22, 25-26, 29-30, July 5, 9-10, 12-14, 21, and 27 and at 7:30pm on July 3, 12, 20, 24, 26.  Tickets begin at $24 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 660-385-2924 or visiting www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

American Dreams & Nightmares

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A housewife and mother of her time.  A Latvian immigrant struggling to realize the American Dream.  A ragtime musician about to have his life torn asunder by the blight of racism.  These are three people living life in America at the turn of the 20th century and their stories and the intersecting of their lives forms the plot of Ragtime by Terrence McNally with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and based off the novel by E.L. Doctorow. It is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This has been one of the more uniquely crafted musicals I’ve seen.  Usually, it seems like the songs are worked around the story of the show.  This production goes the opposite direction.  Due to the sheer size of the score, Ragtime is more like an opera and the story is worked between the songs.  And it works because the story part of the show is actually three meticulously crafted short stories which are skillfully woven together with a blend of fictional and real-life characters.

I can see why the score won a Tony Award as Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens crafted a doozy which has something for everyone.  There’s some foot stomping fun, tender love songs, and haunting numbers that will reach right in and squeeze the emotion out of your heart.  I was particularly impressed by the constant use of a singular ragtime number which either served as a springboard from which other songs would emerge or be changed up emotionally to suit the particular moment of the show.

Kimberly Faith Hickman supplies a devastating bit of direction to the production.  Hitting the beats of this show is quite tricky due to the multiple storylines which constantly trade places, but Ms Hickman manages to do so with an effortless ease.  The staging is precisely on point as it utilizes the entire stage and never is there a point where I wasn’t seeing the face of an actor.  The work of her performers is deadly accurate as they never miss a trick.

The night was loaded with sterling performances such as those provided by Jon Flower as Younger Brother, a carefree young man who transforms into a fighter for equal rights, though he doesn’t go about it in the best way.  Flower is particularly moving with his singing in “He Wanted to Say” as he tries to support Coalhouse Walker.  Joey Hartshorn is gripping as the anarchist Emma Goldman who wants to better the lives of the poor workers and bring down the rich and powerful.  Dara Hogan is going to make you cry with her turn as Sarah, the lover of Coalhouse Walker.  Ms Hogan begins as a broken, mute mother whose life has fallen apart along with her relationship with Walker.  She blooms to life as she and Walker rekindle their love before tragedy blows their lives apart due to racism’s malevolent hand.  Ms Hogan has a wonderful upper alto which shines in “New Music” and “Wheels of a Dream”.

Jodi Vaccaro is stunning as Mother.  Ms Vaccaro’s Mother is the nexus character as her life intersects with those of Coalhouse Walker and Tateh and her experiences with them change and deepen her.  When the show starts, Mother is very much a woman of her era.  She takes care of the home and raises the children and her husband is the boss.  But that begins to change when she takes in the homeless Sarah and her illegitimate child.  This breaking of the social and racial barriers of her time opens her eyes to how things are in their world and begin her journey of personal growth as she stomps those barriers flat.

Ms Vaccaro brings a genuine warmth and kindness to the role of Mother and I loved her slow and steady realization to the hardness of life outside of her upper-class walls as it made her character arc truly satisfying.  Ms Vaccaro also has a sweet and beautiful singing voice with shining moments in the touching “Our Children” and the revelatory “Back to Before”.

Mike Palmreuter gives an amazingly realistic performance as Tateh.  Palmreuter’s Tateh provides a very frank look at the plight of immigrants who came to America for the promise of the streets paved with gold only to discover a very different reality.  Palmreuter is brilliant as he plays a man struggling to realize the American Dream.  He begins as bright eyed and determined to reap the promises of the New World only to be beaten down by its harsh realities where the only thing that keeps him going is his daughter’s survival.  But it’s all worth it as his struggles do yield the promised fruit due to his perseverance.  Palmreuter has a great lower tenor and he knows how to use it emotionally from the hopeful “Success” to the bittersweet “Nothing Like the City” to the triumphant “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”

Over the past few seasons, J. Isaiah Smith has evolved into one of the city’s most dynamic talents.  He can sing, dance, and act and his performance as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. allows him to excel at all three at once as well as turn in a performance that puts him in the running for a second straight Fonda-McGuire Award.

In many ways, Smith’s Walker is already living the American Dream.  He’s a successful musician, a new father, his relationship with his lover is on the mend, and he can even afford a Model T Ford.  But he realizes the American Nightmare when racism not only takes away all that he’s worked for, but also denies him an avenue to justice until he feels compelled to take matters into his own hands.

Smith’s interpretation of Walker is a bit of elegant mastery.  Before his life is blasted, he’s a sweet, sensitive, happy go lucky man determined to fix his broken relationship with his lover and be a father.  After the fall, he becomes a smoldering cauldron of anger whose rampage is still tempered by a bit of honor as he’s limiting it to the bigot and the entity that bigot represents and will gladly stop once he metes out justice.  What I liked best was that he doesn’t completely lose his humanity and still makes the right choice in the end.

Smith has a mighty vocal range that soars between deeply baritone notes to high tenor ones.  Some of his best numbers were the raucous “Getting’ Ready Rag”, “Justice”, and the determined “Make Them Hear You”.

Lindsay Pape’s costumes provided an accurate depiction of life at the turn of the century with the short pants of the boys, the double- breasted suits, hats and bowlers, and the almost Victorian gowns of the wealthy women.  Jim Othuse has designed a series of set bits that could easily be moved in and out from the burgundy sitting room of Mother’s home to Coalhouse Walker’s nightclub to the posters and seaside of Atlantic City.  Michelle Garrity provides some scintillating choreography especially with “Getting’ Ready Rag”.  Tim Burkhart and John Gibilisco have cooked up some crucial sounds from the lolling waves outside Atlantic City to the puttering of Walker’s Model T to the gunshots and explosions of Walker’s rampage.  Jim Boggess and his orchestra never miss a note with their fun and energetic take on this show’s score.

In the end, Ragtime not only provides a great night of entertainment, but it also provides an honest look at the lives of all classes of people at turn of the century America and I think it serves as a potent reminder that we have come a long way as a people, but there’s still a bit of road left to travel.

Ragtime plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through June 30.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $32 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800, or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Some parental discretion is advised due to racial epithets and a little strong language.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

(Photo supplied by Robertson Photgraphy)