A Story of Survival

Living as a transgender woman during the nightmarish regimes of the Third Reich and the Soviets who ruled East Germany after World War II should have doomed Charlotte von Mahlsdorf to a tragic, possibly even short, life.  But she managed to not only survive, but thrive as an antiquarian with an amazing life story to tell.  But was her story simply a story to cover a more tragic reality?  Judge for yourself by watching I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright and playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Doug Wright has not written a biographical play.  This is a spoken biography with snatches of an autobiography tossed in as Wright, himself, is one of the 35 characters in the production.  Wright has a phenomenal gift for voice.  The conversations and monologues all sound completely natural and believable.  Unsurprising, as a great deal of them were culled from actual interviews he conducted with von Mahlsdorf.  But there’s a richness and power to the words that go beyond a mere interview and they suck the viewer in as von Mahlsdorf shares her fascinating life story.

Kimberly Faith Hickman provides yet another top of the line piece of direction with this play.  In the hands of a less capable director, the biographical nature of the show could cause it to become a little dry and draggy, but Faith Hickman keeps the pace brisk and knows how to strike the beats so the interviews and anecdotes pop and burst with a vibrant life of their own.  Her guidance of the play’s sole performer is entrancing as each character played by the actress is unique and well defined and helps pull the audience deeper into the tale.

I was particularly excited to see this show as I always relish the opportunity to see a new talent on the stage.  That being said, Natalie Weiss makes an epic debut at the Playhouse and does it, not with a bang, but with a whisper.

Weiss brings a quiet energy to her performance which is crucial for the primary character of von Mahlsdorf.  As von Mahlsdorf, Weiss is soft-spoken and unassuming, almost mesmeric.  Listening to von Mahlsdorf is like listening to your own grandmother as she has a warm and welcoming presence that can’t help but hook you in as she shares the story of her survival during one of history’s most horrific periods.  So closely do you identify with von Mahlsdorf that a lump may appear in your throat when the possibility that parts, perhaps all, of von Mahlsdorf’s life story could be works of fiction when official evidence from the Soviet regime of East Germany contradicts some of her personal story.

But Weiss’ skill isn’t limited to her handling of von Mahlsdorf.  Weiss proves herself a performer of great range and versatility as she assumes another 34 characters throughout the night.  Her changes are achieved effortlessly and subtly and accomplished through slight changes in posture, vocal timbre, accent, and energy focus.  The changes are also quite fluid as one character flows naturally into the next without smacking the audience over the head with the changeover.

Some of my favorite characters in Weiss’ repertoire were an intense Nazi commander who managed to retain a degree of humanity and spared von Mahlsdorf’s life from an execution squad; her depiction of von Mahlsdorf’s brutish father; her calm, no-nonsense aunt; Wright, himself, with a youthful exuberance and excitement at turning von Mahlsdorf’s life into a play; Wright’s very Southern friend, John; and a gregarious German TV talk show host who interviewed von Mahlsdorf when the controversy of her cooperation with East Germany’s Russian regime was national news.

Jim Othuse’s lights add so much to this play.  He utilizes an almost sepia effect with the lights so that one feels he or she is looking at a living, old time photograph, though he also achieves a nice disco effect when von Mahlsdorf visits a homosexual nightclub and achieves a TV studio lighting effect for the talk show scene.  Darin Kuehler’s properties accentuate the production with the period correct, antique models, pictures, and phonograph that make up von Mahlsdorf’s museum.  Amanda Fehlner’s simple black dress gives von Mahlsdorf that grandmotherly feel.  John Gibilisco’s ambient sounds always enhance von Mahlsdorf’s recollections from the fighter planes of WW II to gunshots to the disco beat of the nightclub.

Ultimately this story is an incredible tale of survival, but the question the show asks is how did von Mahlsdorf survive?  Was her personal story the truth of her survival or were her stories her means of surviving awful personal choices she was forced to make?  Or is the truth somewhere in between?  That answer is left to you.

I Am My Own Wife plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Nov 15. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 and may be purchased at www.omahaplayhouse.com or by calling the Box Office at 402-553-0800.  Due to mature themes and some strong language, this show is not suitable for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Into the Gray

A hotshot fighter pilot is grounded after she becomes pregnant.  After several years, she is ready to be “in the blue” again, but finds herself still on the ground as she will now pilot a drone.  Her relegation to the “Chair” Force and finally witnessing the real horrors of war cause her to slowly lose her sense of identity and her mind won’t be far behind if the spiral can’t be stopped.  This is Grounded by George Brant and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Brant’s script displays a minute understanding of what being in the military means to somebody completely dedicated to the military.  Brant’s unnamed pilot exudes that unbreakable sense of brotherhood with the constant camaraderie which includes not only hanging out together, but the blue language one often finds in the barracks.  But Brant’s pilot also shows the danger of one’s identity being wrapped up in what he or she does as opposed to who she or he is as the changes to warfare and inability to fly slowly rob the pilot of her sense of self.  Brant’s play title actually holds a number of meanings within the context of the show.  The pilot is grounded in the sense that she is not permitted to fly.  In her own mind, she is grounded in the sense of punishment when she is forced to pilot a drone.  As she loses herself, she loses the things that kept her grounded. 

Kimberly Faith-Hickman keeps all of these ideas and a great deal more in mind with her direction of this play.  The staging is absolutely impeccable as she uses a plexiglass cell designed by Jim Othuse which serves the double purpose of keeping the actor socially distant from the audience, but also represents the cell that slowly builds around the Pilot over the course of the show.  Her managing of the play’s numerous beats is precisely on point and the changes always ring true.  Faith-Hickman’s guidance of her sole performer is a work of art as she lets the story build slowly and organically before reaching its tense climax and crushing resolution.

Leanne Hill-Carlson’s rendition of the Pilot is splendid and nearly flawless.  Her Pilot is definitely a tomboy as she curses at a PhD level, enjoys a beer and burger with her brothers-in-arms, and has a real sense of swagger and machismo.  The Pilot has a confidence that often bleeds over into arrogance with her enjoyment of being the lone wolf and her constant referencing to herself as a god.

But this is no 2D character.  The Pilot is a multifaceted character with a constantly evolving emotional arc that Hill-Carlson rides the same way a champion jockey rides a prime thoroughbred.  One actually feels Hill-Carlson’s disappointment with being grounded, her anger and frustration at not getting to fly a proper jet when reactivated to combat duty, her arrogant sense of superiority when hunting the enemy, her shock at seeing dead bodies for the first time, and her slowly eroding sense of identity when the ease and more personal nature of modern warfare conflict with the way things were.

Not only does Hill-Carlson masterfully play the Pilot, but she presents it beautifully as well.  She’s always aware of her positioning and plays to all sides of the theatre and punctuates her monologues with just the right reactions and gestures.

Jim Othuse’s lights bolster the story as he gives us a desert sun and shades of gray as the Pilot loses her sense of emotional color and the ability to see anything as black or white.  Lindsay Pape has Hill-Carlson properly attired in an Air Force jumpsuit.  John Gibilisco provides always appropriate sounds especially in a small running gag of radio static always changing into AC/DC songs.  Jay Hanson has also composed an original score that well supports this story’s emotional trek.

In the end, this is a tragic tale of someone who enjoyed being in the clouds in more ways than one being brought to earth in a most decisive fashion and makes for a gripping night of storytelling.

Grounded plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through October 18.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 and may be purchased at www.omahaplayhouse.com or by calling the Box Office at 402-553-0800.  Due to strong language, this show is not suitable for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Don’t Stop Them Now

From L to R: Jonathan Berger, Evelyn Hill, Jesse White (back row), Eric Perlstein, Brittney Thompson, Ejanae Hume

Look!  Up on the stage!  It’s a chord!  It’s a bard!  No, it’s Don’t Stop Me Now!  A Celebration of Rock Musicals.  This joint production between Rave On Productions and the Omaha Community Playhouse is currently playing in the Storz Parking Lot at OCP.

This rollicking revue of rock musicals is a rather ambitious production and hits the right notes (pun intended) for the most part.  Rave On and OCP give the audience a potpourri of tunes ranging from hard rockers to soft ballads to some pretty emotional works.  I especially enjoyed the fact that not only were classic well-known numbers and shows utilized, but they also selected songs from lesser known productions which really spiced up the evening.

Kimberly Faith Hickman’s direction brought some fun theatricality to the night while Matthew McGuigan’s musical direction was utterly flawless.  He and his band were in fine fettle as they played with a rich gusto and energy that gave the songs a familiar feel, but imbued them with a unique vibrancy.

The show is blessed with a talented troupe of troubadours who each get their moments in the sun and occasionally blend in glorious harmony.  Some shining moments were Brittney Thompson’s rendition of the power ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls and Ejanae Hume’s killer take on “Take Me or Leave Me” from Rent.  Eric Perlstein kicked things off with the sonorous “Heaven On Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar, gave us a little Four Seasons with “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night), but his shining moment was his interpretation of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” from American Idiot with his sensational, soulful emoting.  Jonathan Berger’s lower tenor got to glow with Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” and “Tear Me Down” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

But in a group of standout performers, Evelyn Hill and Jesse White really stole the show.  Hill is a worthy successor to Brenda Lee’s moniker of Little Miss Dynamite as her talent is explosive.  Hill threw herself into her numbers and stunned with performances including a high powered rendition of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” and her half of “Suddenly, Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors

White is a performer’s performer with his own animated performances.  His tenor is both soaring and searing as he tore through the night outdoing Frankie Valli’s falsetto in “Sherry”, was shyly comforting in his half of “Suddenly, Seymour”, nailed David Bowie’s “Changes” from Lazarus to the floor, and capped the night with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”.

But the night’s capstone number came from Ryan McGuigan with his tragically haunting version of “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar.  Aside from his formidable musical chops, McGuigan brought a little top notch acting as he was shedding real tears by the end of the song and if you can listen to it without your soul stirring, then you probably don’t have one.

But I can’t end this review without mentioning the splendid work of Jim Boggess who hosted the festivities.  His wit, warmth, and humor really enhanced the night and his introduction of each number was a real aid for those who may not be familiar with each song and show.

There were some moments of singers not having enough breath for certain notes and numbers that were fine technically, but needed a bit more commitment to bring them to that next level, but these were minor quibbles in a thoroughly entertaining night.

It’s a rocking good time and a pleasant, and socially distant, way to get out and have some fun.  Take a break from these strange times and get a ticket to see this one before it’s too late.

Don’t Stop Me Now! A Celebration of Rock Musicals plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 20. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 6pm. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased online at www.omahaplayhouse.com or by phone at 402-553-0800.  This is a cashless event and reservations are required.  CDC guidelines are being followed and parking spaces will be assigned upon arrival.  Please do not arrive earlier than 60 minutes before showtime.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Zach Wagner Photography

The Eve the Music Returned

IMG_0133

In a time when the world has begun to take the tiniest of steps back to normalcy, it’s a relief to know that there are still some constants in the world.  And one of those constants is the awesomeness of a live show with Billy McGuigan and his band.  That awesomeness is available for your enjoyment again as Billy and his band bring you Rave On:  The Music of Buddy Holly in the parking lot of the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This time around the show is not about Billy being Buddy or his extemporaneous wit and humor.  This time, it’s all about a band playing non-stop, untarnished, unvarnished, old-fashioned rock and roll with a 50s drive-in flair on an unseasonably perfect night for an outdoor concert.

It wouldn’t be a Billy McGuigan show without some of his classic storytelling, but the tales were kept to a minimum as he and his band were clearly hungry for a live audience and gave us their all in a 90 minute rockfest that featured the hits and obscurities of the late, great Buddy Holly along with a few other surprises as well.

McGuigan was in rare form tonight as he fueled himself on the applause and horn honks of an energetic audience and fired that energy right back at us with takes on “Maybe Baby”, “That’ll Be the Day”, “Handsome Brown Eyed Man”, a rare performance of one of Holly’s earliest recordings, “Midnight Shift”, and a 15 minute medley framed by “Oh, Boy!”.  Occasionally Billy would slow things down a few notches with his mellifluous tenor serenading the crowd with Richie Valens’ “Donna” and Holly’s own legendary soft song “True Love Ways” before ramping it back up a bit with “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and the Everly Brothers hits, “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Suzie” and closing things out with “Rave On” and an original rocker of his own creation, “Me and Peggy Sue”.

McGuigan was excellently supported by his band as we were treated to numerous saxophone solos from Darren Pettit and nearly as many guitar solos from Max Meyer, a phenom with chops to rival Jimi Hendrix.  Ryan McGuigan rocked out on rhythm guitar and provided a nifty little solo with Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” while Matthew McGuigan’s bass playing drove the beat and he got his own little chance to shine with Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes”.  Newcomer Larell Ware dazzled on the drums as he supported the night’s numbers with a thunderous backbeat.

If you want to enjoy one of the simple pleasures of life, then you need to get a ticket to see our local master musician as he interprets the classics of a legendary artist as only he can.

Rave On:  The Music of Buddy Holly runs through June 28 in the parking lot of the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6:30pm. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased online at www.omahaplayhouse.com or by phone at 402-553-0800.  This is a cashless event and reservations are required.  CDC guidelines are being followed and parking spaces will be assigned upon arrival.  Please do not arrive earlier than 90 minutes before showtime.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

DSC02398

Top photo provided by Analisa Swerczek

Something More Than Love

DSC_1054

Girl (Melissa King) encourages Guy (Jay Hanson) to sing in “Once” at Omaha Community Playhouse.

Girl finds Guy singing on the street and is impressed with his talent.  An instant friendship blossoms between them and Girl decides to help Guy record a demo and go to New York to fulfill his potential and possibly to avoid the love that is beginning to bloom between them.  This is Once with book by Enda Walsh and music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.  It is based off the film of the same name and is playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is definitely an original musical.  It’s a shockingly simple tale that does have a bit of a twist on the usual love story.  There’s no sense of history to the two unnamed characters.  It’s as if the play knows it’s a play and the existence of these 2 people is limited solely to the duration of the show.  The music is the real centerpiece of the show as the songs often tell the story and reveal the emotions of the characters in lieu of dialogue which is surprisingly scant.  The music also has a power of its own as it brings the characters in this show closer together and breaks down barriers between them.  I thought not naming the two leads was a clever touch as it can either transmit a universal message or simply allow the audience to place himself or herself in the roles.

Kimberly Faith Hickman’s directing is quite lovely.  There’s a purity to the staging as it takes place in a bare bones stage designed by Jim Othuse.  It’s literally bare, dilapidated walls with a window looking out at a building.  Hickman makes good use of the performance space, well placing the actors so all can be seen even when the focus is on particular characters.  I also liked how she used placement to further the story.  For example, at one point when a wedge is driven between the two leads, they are literally separated as they take positions on opposite sides of the stage with the rest of the cast standing between them.  I also thought she charmed some sweet performances out of her leads and strong supporting performances from the ensemble.

The cast for this show is unique as they are also the orchestra.  This leads to an interesting casting challenge as one needs to find performers who can act, sing and play musical instruments.  That challenge is met fairly well in this production.  Under Jim Boggess’ direction, the orchestra provides a very moving score which is absolutely critical for this show as nearly every song carries a somber, emotional tone that needs to grab the viewer by the throat.  Boggess also has a very fine cameo performance as Eamo who runs the local recording studio.  Other strong supporting performances come from Joey Hartshorn, who has the most drawn out wishing of good luck imaginable in “Baruska’s Story”, and Thomas Gjere as an overly serious bank manager who secretly wishes to be a singer and gets his chance in the terrifically awful “Abandoned in Bandon”.

Melissa King is truly a triple threat in this show.  Her piano playing is heavenly.  Her alto is superb.  Her acting is spot on.  Heck, she even throws in a little impressive hoofing in “Ej Pada Pada”.  King’s performance as the serious Czech (because Czechs are always serious) Girl is simply a triumph and will assuredly make her a contender for some awards.  She’s got a vital spark of humor and playfulness about her as well as a very nurturing nature as she encourages Guy’s music.  This is a character who understands the meaning of sacrifice as she’s willing to give up a blossoming love with Guy to repair her own fractured family unit.  King will also melt the coldest of hearts with her singing, especially with her rendering of “Falling Slowly” and “The Hill”.

Jay Hanson acquits himself rather admirably in the role of Guy.  For a performer with no prior stage credits, Hanson has some excellent instincts.  He reacts very well and knows how to be in the moment.  Musically, he’s unbeatable.  Hanson is a top flight guitar player and singer who effortlessly picks apart the emotional beats of a song.  Whether he’s singing about a failed relationship in “Leave”, providing a bit of humor in “Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy” or just dazzling you with “Gold” and “Sleeping”, Hanson provides an Epicurean delight for the ears.

Hanson did need to tighten his cues up and rushed his dialogue on some occasions.  You also felt his grip on the role tightening over the course of the play and he was finding some real gems in the words by the end.

Jim Othuse’s lights were simple, but effective as he used a spotlight to highlight the featured characters of a scene.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes suited the characters from the inexpensive clothing of most of the poorer characters to the snazzy suit of the well to do bank manager.  Tim Burkhart and John Gibilisco provide some nice ambient sounds.  My personal favorite was a moment when Guy and Girl are at the docks and you hear the rolling waves and the call of seagulls.

Ultimately this is a story about pure love.  The love that is principle over passion.  The love that is unbreakable and forever.  The love that can say, “I let you go.”

Once plays at Omaha Community Playhouse through March 22.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $24 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Due to the use of strong language, parental discretion is advised.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Robertson Photography

Rebel’s Heart

Rebel Randle P. McMurphy accepts a commitment to a mental ward to avoid a sentence to a work farm.  The charming ne’er-do-well quickly comes into conflict with Nurse Ratched, the dominating ruler of the ward.  His victories over the cold-hearted nurse begin to breathe new life into the ward, but when he learns his stay in the institution can be extended indefinitely, his personal war with Ratched takes on dire stakes where it becomes clear only one of them will be left standing.  This is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman and based off Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name.  It is currently playing at Florence Community Theater.

I’ve always been a big admirer of this show, not only for the strong story and compelling characters, but for its themes of societal views on mental illness, what it means to really live life, the triumph of the underdog and the corruption of power, just to name a few.  The themes and characters of this show are brought to vibrant life by a colorful, energetic and mighty cast that came out with all guns a blazing with some storytelling that does extreme justice to this tale.

Neal Herring provides some superlative direction for this piece.  Doing double duty with set design, Herring stages the story in the unfriendly, starched white walls of the mental institution where the patients live a monotonous and controlled existence under the thumb of Nurse Ratched.  Herring utilizes the space quite well as each patient carves out his own little nook in the ward.  He’s also led his thespians to well-developed performances as all characters have their quirks and tics which wonderfully create this little slice of purgatory.

I applaud the ensemble for giving its all to the show.  Each and every one remained involved in the story and had mannerisms and/or reactions that told me something about them which helped to build this little world.  Some notable performances in the ensemble came from JJ Davis who seems to have had one shock treatment too many with his take on the hallucinating Martini and Jim Watson who gives a very empathetic performance as Dale Harding, the patient ward’s president who is wrestling with his own sexual identity.

Brian Henning gives quite a moving performance as Chief Bromden, the show’s narrator.  Henning has a wonderful gift for pantomime and some of the most expressive eyes I’ve ever seen on a performer.  His eyes often let me read his thoughts as Chief has buried his sense of identity so deeply that he rarely speaks (the narration is done via voiceover) and pretends to be deaf and dumb so he won’t have to react to anything around him.  It’s a joy to watch Henning’s Chief slowly blossom to life under the encouragement of McMurphy and his antics and his emotional breakdown during the play’s resolution is one of the finest heartbreaking moments I’ve seen in Omaha theatre.

I can’t say enough good things about David Frolio’s performance as Randle P. McMurphy.  It is a truly a nuanced, spellbinding interpretation and I foresee Frolio being in the running for some Best Actor prizes come awards season.  Frolio is just a force of nature.  He comes blowing into the asylum like a storm and is so animated and fun to watch.  His McMurphy is truly a rebel.  He cares little for rules and authority and loves to fight and f—k.  But he also has a heart of gold as he truly befriends the patients and fights for them even when he’s causing trouble for his own amusement.  Frolio carefully walks the line with McMurphy’s battles with Ratched as he expertly acts as the burr under her saddle while tempering his behavior so she is unable to counterattack with the resources at her disposal.  Frolio steadily builds and builds the tension until his McMurphy is finally forced to take drastic action when a beloved comrade falls victim in the war between he and Ratched.

Shelly Gushard gets an awful lot right with her take on Nurse Ratched.  Gushard’s Ratched is the god of this little world and woe betide any who thwart her commandments.  She’s also clearly the yang to McMurphy’s yin, not just in personality, but physicality as she is clearly the stronger of the two which added to her aura of power.

I liked how controlled she was and never allowed Ratched to get overly emotional.  With a look and a glare, Ratched is even able to cow and bend the asylum’s doctor to her steely will.  I also enjoyed how she would take little moments to exert control over her emotions when McMurphy pushed her buttons.  But I think she’s got the room to be even colder, downright frigid I dare say, which would well suit the machinelike Ratched who genuinely believes her routines and rules and morality will help cure the patients.

Tim Mantil gives an extremely moving performance as Billy Bibbit.  Mantil nails Billy’s shy nature with his soft-spokenness and believable, naturalistic stuttering.  He also brilliantly communicates Billy’s constant thoughts of suicide with his twitchy movements, distressed expressions and persistent touching of his bandaged wrists.  He just needs to be a little careful with his voice as it sometimes went into too high a register which made Billy seem more childish instead of childlike.

Cecelia Sass and Syrian Black did a pretty good job with the costumes from the classic nurse’s outfits to the T-shirts and dark sweats of the patients to McMurphy’s leather jacket and trademark hat.  I did think the costumes for McMurphy’s female friends could be a bit trashier as they seemed a little too elegantly garbed for the crowd he’d likely run with.  Derek Kowal and Stuart Anderson provided some lovely sounds for the show with ducks quacking during a morning sunrise to the ominous sounds of electro shock therapy when McMurphy and Chief are dragged away for treatment after a brawl with the orderlies.

It is a story of a battle of wills and this cast takes you on the emotional roller coaster ride of this slugfest with a strong, measured hand.  You’ll laugh.  You’ll cry.  You may even be in stunned silence at some moments.  But you’ll definitely be hooked from beginning to end.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs at Florence Community Theater through Feb 23.  Showtimes will be Fri-Sat at 7pm and Sunday at 2pm.  Tickets cost $12 ($10 for TAG members/60+/groups of 8 or more).  For reservations, call 531-600-8634 or visit www.florencetheater.org.  Due to some strong language and sensitive subject matter, this show is not recommended for children.  Florence Community Theatre is located inside of Florence City Hall at 2864 State St in Omaha, NE.

Turf War

Native_9

From left to right: Giovanni Quezada, Alyssa Gonzalez, Dennis Collins and Mary Kelly

A property line dispute between an older white couple and a young Hispanic couple gets blown grossly out of proportion.  The feud between the neighbors unleashes a barrage of pent up frustrations, perceptions, and biases in Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias which is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Zacarias has written what I shall dub an intellectual comedy.  It’s not only funny, but it gives the viewer quite a bit of food for thought.  It’s certainly a play for the current political climate and makes reference to walls and illegal immigration.  But it also focuses on negative isms like racism and ageism as well as white privilege, perception and entitlement.  However, it often does this by turning a lot of these negative themes on their heads as it is the Hispanic couple operating from a position of power in this show.

I was especially impressed as to how the two couples are presented as mirror images of each other.  Given the similarities in terms of personality, desires and even who wears the pants in the two units, the couples should get along famously.  However, their world views are what ultimately bring them into conflict.  This makes for a very interesting story as both sides have valid viewpoints for their skirmish.

Ablan Roblin supplies a commendable piece of direction for this comedy.  The staging is admirable and reflects the mirror image of the couples with the rather luxurious home of the Butleys and the somewhat ramshackle house (it was derelict for years) of the Del Valles.  He keeps the pace brisk and animated with his actors constantly moving about which was actually a bit of a feat due to the actors having to be confined to their yards.  He’s coached his thespians to effective and potent performances and knows how to hit the funny even when it touches upon sensitive subject matter.

It was truly a treat to watch the performance of Giovanni Quezada who makes quite the splash with his Playhouse debut.  Quezada is one of the most naturalistic actors I’ve ever seen.  So credible and believable.  And his gestures are fluid and effortless.  He brings a real intelligence to his portrayal of Pablo Del Valle.  He’s young and hungry and determined to be the best lawyer possible.  But his confidence can sometimes border on arrogance and he shows a bit of immaturity by focusing on what’s legal instead of what’s fair.

Mary Kelly’s take on Virginia Butley can best be described as a rock-hard center covered in a sweet candy shell.  She’s kind and neighborly, but not someone you’d want to cross as she’s tough as nails, having been a success as a defense contractor during a time when women in that position were few.  She’s considerably more level headed than her husband and certainly the dominant spouse as she leads the charge against the Del Valles when their garden is threatened.

Dennis Collins is a scream as Frank Butley.  Frank is definitely the most childish of the four adults.  All he cares about is his yard and garden and obsesses about winning a gardening competition and finally besting a perpetual rival.  Collins’ phrasing is so strong and allows him to maximize his punchlines.  His whining and tantrums are truly a joy to watch and his meek delivery of “Why are you yelling at me?” managed to get a loud, hearty guffaw out of a chuckler like me.

Alyssa Isabel Gonzalez is very solid in the role of Tania Del Valle.  Tania is the most mature of the adults as she initially wants to handle the property line dispute diplomatically, but even she has her foibles with her snooty views on native gardens and can be quite immature when she allows her emotions to get the better of her.  Gonzalez’s Tania is also the rock in her relationship as she comes from a poor family which helped her to be strong as she is a step away from earning her PhD and has taught her husband not to run away from a fight. I did think Gonzalez could play with her words a bit more as her delivery seemed a touch too controlled and cadenced at some points.

Jim Othuse’s set was one of my favorites with the elegant home and lovingly maintained yard of the Butleys juxtaposed with the grassless lawn and worn-down house of the Del Valles though they do have a mighty oak tree.  I liked Aja Jackson’s use of shadows and the glow of rear porch lights to emphasize the nighttime scenes.  Jenn Sheshko’s costumes well suit the characters especially with the elegant suits for Pablo and the frumpy polos and shorts for Frank.  John Gibilisco’s sounds enhance the neighborhood whether it be the song of birds or the roar of chainsaws.  Timothy Vallier has composed a nice score for the show and I very much enjoyed the opening theme with its driving bass and backbeat of bongos.

There were some minor blips in the preview night performance with some line bobbles, stepping on cues and lack of projection at some moments.  That being said, with the combination of a well-thought out script and humorous, skilled storytelling from the actors, Native Gardens can teach us all a lesson that a lot of difficulties can be solved when people talk to each other instead of at each other.

Native Gardens plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 ($18 for students) and vary by performance. Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com, calling 402-553-0800, or visiting the box office. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

That Meddlesome, Magical Matchmaker

Matchmaker (and jane of all trades) Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi schemes to marry half a millionaire Horace Vandergelder and make a few more happy couples while she’s at it.  This is Hello, Dolly! with book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and it is currently playing at Springfield Little Theatre.

If I ever relocate, I’m going to make certain Springfield is one of the cities I consider due to the sheer quality of entertainment available here.  I heard Broadway grinding its teeth as SLT’s production of Hello, Dolly! blows away anything currently playing on The Great White Way.  If you want a great night of theatre, catch a showing of this production.  Costumes?  Gorgeous!  Set?  Fabulous!  Orchestra?  Pluperfect!!  Singing?  Phenomenal!!!  Acting?  Superlative!!

Chyrel Love Miller takes on the grueling double role of director and choreographer for this production and comes up aces on both counts.  Miller’s direction is of shining quality.  She knows every beat of the show, both musically and theatrically and nuances the tar out of it while keeping a brisk pace.  Her staging is top of the line and makes maximum use of the space which was doubly impressive in this case as the actors had to navigate around the orchestra pit for a great many of the musical’s showstopping numbers.  Her actors are all sublime and have crafted well-developed characters from the leading performers to the ensemble roles.

The only word I can think of to describe her choreography is epic.  This show has huge, flashy numbers and a lot of them.  But each is an original delight and the performers nail the dancing with nary a mistake.  Some especially impressive numbers include “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “Dancing”, “Hello, Dolly”, and “Polka”.

I give a standing ovation to the ensemble of the show.  I can never stress enough how a committed ensemble adds so much life and vitality to a production and they helped this show blossom.  All were having a good time and that sense of fun really communicates itself well to an audience.  They harmonized perfectly on the numbers and their dancing was entrancing.

Some especially strong supporting performances were provided by Heath Hillhouse who makes a stellar debut at SLT with his potentially tyrannical take on Rudolph Reisenweber, the head waiter at Harmonia Gardens; Hayden Gish as Minnie Fay, the milliner’s assistant whose nosiness clashes with her attempts to be proper; and Wyatt Munsey whose energy as Barnaby Tucker could light up a city.

Kim Crosby IS Dolly Levi!  I don’t mean she plays the role.  She IS the role.  Crosby had the audience in the palm of her hand from her first word and didn’t let go for one nanosecond.  Crosby’s delivery is satin smooth which is essential to the silver and glib tongued matchmaker who has a positive genius for meddling, but always uses it as a force for good with her heart of gold.  Crosby uses stage space like few performers I’ve seen and it always gives her Dolly an animated, realistic feel.  She also has a lovely alto which she modulates according to number from her confidence in her abilities to do just about anything in “I Put My Hand In” to her determination to start living life again in “Before the Parade Passes By” to her joy at returning to Harmonia Gardens in “Hello, Dolly”.

Eric Eichenberger is a likable grump as Horace Vandergelder.  He claims that 99% of society is foolish, but does have a soft spot once you peel away enough layers.  Eichenberger does superb work walking the fine line of keeping Vandergelder a curmudgeon while also showing that he’s still decent even if he is a bit rough around the edges.  Eichenberger also has a fine upper baritone which he utilizes to explain why he needs a wife in “It Takes a Woman”.

Gene Kelly once described the role of Cornelius Hackl as an attractive idiot and I believe that description suits Clayton Avery’s interpretation of the role.  Avery’s Hackl is a bit repressed and has lived a sheltered life.  At 33, he’s never even talked to a girl.  Avery does superior work communicating Hackl’s inexperience around women and has a remarkably sincere delivery.  He also well displays Hackl’s lack of mental swiftness.  It’s not that Cornelius is dumb.  He just improvises poorly when the pressure is on.

Avery has a dandy, crystal clear tenor which was quite entertaining with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and genuinely moving in “It Only Takes a Moment”.

Kassandra Wright is both sweet and tart as Irene Molloy.  At one moment, she’s delighting in a potential bit of devilry as she plans to flirt with Cornelius before dropping him cold and then wistfully remembering the real love she shared with her late husband, Peter, in “Ribbons Down My Back”.  This song is sung with a heavenly soprano that nearly brought me to tears.

John R. “Chuck” Rogers has designed a winning set with backdrops that bring one to the cobblestoned streets of turn of the century New York and drills the sheer elegance of Harmonia Gardens with a massive staircase and a pair of curtained, private dining rooms.  Ginny Herfkens and Sandy Balsters designed some brightly colored, period appropriate costumes sometimes bordering on the pastel.  The elegant gowns of the ladies and snappy suits of the men evoke memories of a long ago era.   Parker Payne and his orchestra provide a night of musical ambrosia and I’d like to note Lysander Abadia’s particularly meticulous work in his choreography of “Waiters’ Gallop”.

As I said earlier, if you’re looking for a musical that ticks all the boxes for a great night of entertainment, then this is the one for you.  And as much as we hope, “Dolly’ll never go away”, you’d best grab a ticket before she does.

Hello, Dolly! plays at Springfield Little Theatre in the historic Landers Theatre through Feb 23.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets range from $16-$32.   For tickets visit http://www.springfieldlittletheatre.org or call the Box Office at 417-869-1334.  Springfield Little Theatre is located at 311 E Walnut St in Springfield, MO.

Mamma Mia, Here I Go Again

Harry Bright, Sam Carmichael and Bill Austin are invited to the wedding of the daughter of their former paramour, Donna.  The trouble is that the invitations came from Donna’s daughter, Sophie, who is bound and determined to find out which of these men is her father.  This is Mamma Mia! and it is currently playing at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre.

This is my third go-around reviewing this show and this, hands down, was the best version I’ve seen.  I’ve always considered this show to be kitschy fun due to its near lack of a story which is solely meant to serve as a backdrop to ABBA songs.  But, this time, I had an absolute blast due to the complete commitment of the cast, precision direction and a band that nailed the music to the floor.

Gordon Cantiello’s direction couldn’t be any more on target.  The staging is right on the mark with the little seaside hotel/tavern and makes use of the entire theatre.  His pacing is precisely on point.  Not only has he guided his actors to pitch perfect performances, but he also found beats which I didn’t think existed in this show and were believably played by a stellar cast.

The ensemble was one of the best I’ve seen.  Each was thoroughly committed to the show and it added such a wonderful, vital dimension to it. And many added little bits of business that made the show just that much more realistic. Strong supporting performances were supplied by Marcus Benzel and Analisa Peyton.  Benzel shines as the uber macho travel writer, Bill Austin, and he plays him with maximum gusto.  Peyton is equally mighty as the no-nonsense chef, Rosie Mulligan.

I admit I was blown away by Evelyn Hill’s performance as Sophie, even more so when I learned she was only a high school junior because she has a natural talent that can go toe to toe with actors who have many years of experience.  Her Sophie is an energetic innocent.  You completely buy into her joy of getting married, her love of her mother and her determination to discover the identity of her father.  Hill has amazing facial expressions and I was utterly enthralled by her reactions to others and the events swirling about her.

Hill also has, as a Southern friend of mine would say, “a high roof to her mouth” (big vocal range).  Her high alto powered through such numbers as “Honey, Honey”, “The Name of the Game”, and “Under Attack” where she shows that not only can she sing, but also knows how to emote through a song.

Chris Berger is right on the money with his take on Sam Carmichael.  Berger strikes just the right balance of kindness, nervousness, sadness and courage.  Indeed, this blend is crucial for dealing with the volatile Donna and showing the regret of not staying with her when he originally had the chance.  Berger also is in fine fettle as a singer as he nails the show’s saddest number, “SOS” and is equally as good when he tries to advise Sophie on the bumps and trials of marriage in “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.

Mackenzie Dehmer is a pistol as Donna.  She hooks in the audience from the beginning with her independent, blue collar nature and her initial animosity at Sam returning is so palpable it can be cut with a knife.  And such lovely expressions of her own.  She can shoot a glare or sneer that shouts volumes and sheds some real tears during the show’s more serious moments.  Dehmer also has her own powerful alto which will thrill the audience with renditions of “One of Us”, “Slipping Through My Fingers”, “Mamma Mia” and “Our Last Summer”.

Jennifer Novak Haar and her band might as well be ABBA as they played the numbers so perfectly.  Tom Bertino designed a simple set of boxes and turquoise shutters which make for a quite convincing hotel.  Amber Wilson’s choreography is snappy and fun and immaculately executed by the cast.  I truly loved each and every one of the group numbers.  Ernie Gubbles’ lights add just the right bit of panache to the production.

The show well and truly got its hooks into me this time around and it gets my highest recommendation.  It truly is one of the season’s best productions and is a treat for all who watch it.

Mamma Mia! runs at Performing Artists Repertory Theatre through Feb 16.  Showtimes are 7pm Thurs-Sat and 2pm Sat-Sun.  Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors and $25 for students).  For ticket information, contact 402-706-0778.  PART Theatre is located inside Crossroads Mall at 7400 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.

Being Alive

“You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”—Paul McCartney

I think this quotation best sums up Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey which is currently playing at the BlueBarn Theatre.

Normally, I open my reviews with a brief synopsis of the play’s story.  This time I’m going to wait until the end as this particular show completely eschews the normal narrative style.  From my experience, Eno seems to have a knack for creating an everyman character to communicate with the audience.  Perhaps this everyman is the audience or at least its conscience.  Ostensibly the play’s unnamed central character is here to say good-bye, but shares a far more powerful message in a story that truly fits BlueBarn’s season-long theme of memory.

Barry Carman offers up a stunning piece of direction in this show.  Every single word.  Every single pause.  Every single look.  Every single breath.  Every single move has purpose.  Seldom have I seen such a meticulous piece of direction or staging.  Carman has also led his two performers to extraordinary performances and I was particularly keen on his “less than more” animation of his actors.  They neither move a lot nor need to.  As I said earlier, when a movement is made, a definite purpose is behind it.

Aaron Zavitz plays the unnamed central character (listed simply as Guy).  Who is Guy?  Unknown.  But tonight he is apparently a talk show host as that’s the vibe he gives out, further bolstered by a hanging “No Applause” sign and a reference to a special guest.  From the get-go, Guy seems to be marking time to an ending and is talking with the audience solely to pass that time.

Zavitz is a marvel in the role.  His rich, mellow baritone filling the theatre as he talks with us about anything and everything, but mostly about life.  Zavitz’s delivery is exceptionally extemporaneous.  He truly sounded like he was making everything up as he went and this is well-suited for his character who seems a trifle disorganized with his out of order note cards and his unseen help who sometimes goof up his audio and visual cues, if not outright pranking him on word jumbles.

Zavitz is quite likable and is, at turns, funny, nervous, serious, happy, melancholic, even slightly desperate as he tries to teach the audience about being alive.  Most impressive is his character’s deterioration over the course of the show.  Guy is sick and weak and gets progressively more so over the course of the show as Zavitz’s chest begins to collapse in on itself, his mobility decreases, and his mental focus falters.

Echelle Childers is equally wonderful as the mysterious helper, Lisa.  There is something otherworldly, dare I say, angelic about this character.  Childers is so gentle and loving as Lisa as she carefully massages and soothes the wearied Guy, offers him hibiscus juice, and tidies him up before wheeling him offstage and she does it all with a beatific smile on her face.  I was moved by her soft-spoken nature which permeated her entire being up to and including a little dance she performs while Guy takes a brief catnap.  Her character seems to hold a vast store of wisdom as she shares a few of her own stories and outlooks with the audience.

Craig Lee’s set adds to the ethereal nature of the show with a seemingly abandoned room save for a few boxes that is dominated by a large screen, massive windows in the rear, and never used door on house left.  Lights and sounds are absolutely critical to this piece and Bill Kirby rises to the occasion with his lights suddenly clicking on and off, soft music, flashy disco lights, and a moment simulating sunrise.  Kirby is also responsible for the projections which ranged from the sweet to the amusing.  Susan Clement-Toberer has costumed the actors well with the ordinary shirt and jeans for Lisa and the bedrobe and rumpled clothes/pajamas for Guy.

So what is the story of Wakey, Wakey?  It’s simply YOUR story.

Wakey, Wakey plays at BlueBarn Theatre through Feb 23.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm except for a 6pm show on Feb 16.  Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors) and can be obtained at www.bluebarn.org or by calling 402-345-1576.  The BlueBarn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.