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.

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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)

A Love Cursed

Out of tragedy is born love.  And out of that love arises another tragedy. . .and a bit of hope.  Come discover the story of the Tin Woodsman of Oz before he became the Tin Woodsman in the Strangemen Theatre Company’s production of The Woodsman by James Ortiz with music by Edward W. Hardy and lyrics by Claire Karpen.  It is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

The hardest thing about writing an article is coming up with a good conclusion.  This time, it’s a piece of cake.  Go see this show.

OK, now let’s get to that analytical stuff.

I knew I was going to see something different when I saw this show, but what I didn’t know was just how good it was going to be.  Ortiz has written a sensational tale about the pre-metal life of the Tin Woodsman.  It’s sweet.  It’s moving.  It’s even a little spooky at times and you’ll likely shed a tear or two before it’s all through.  For the purists, the transformation to the Tin Woodsman is very faithful to L Frank Baum’s description from the original Oz novels.  For those thinking of bringing kids, it means it’s a little grim, but not overly violent.

Ortiz draws from a wide variety of performance styles such as straight dialogue, pantomime, puppetry, and musical.  Outside of a prologue, a song, and a rare word here and there, this show is done with no dialogue and I think that’s where its real power lies.  The actors have to tell a highly nuanced tale with naught but facial expressions, body language, and little expostulations of sound.  The result is a production that ranks as one of my favorite shows of the season.

James Ortiz and Claire Karpen co-direct this singular tale and their control and execution of the story is like watching a master painter create a masterpiece from scratch.  Finding beats in dialogue is tricky enough, but finding beats without the spoken word is another beast all together and the two directors expertly strike each and every one without effort.  Under their coaching, the performers “tell” this story with crystal clear expressions and body language that let me “read” this story just as easily as I read novels.  Their direction combined with movement direction from William Gallacher creates a story that really invokes all of your senses.  You can almost smell the campfire, hear the pounding of a panicked heart, and feel the texture of a warm hand on a body that no longer has sensation.

The ensemble is a critical part of this production as they literally become the world.  They are the trees of the forest.  Their whistles are the songs of birds.  Their snaps are the pop of a fire.  Their slaps are the blows of an ax.  They also play a variety of supporting parts and I was especially impressed by the work of Barry Carman and Stephanie Jacobson as Pa and Ma Chopper as they tell an excellent story about their courtship and their life together complete with posture changes to signify their aging.  I was also floored by the work of Michael Burns, Caulene Hudson, and Be Louis with their puppetry of the Wicked Witch of the East.  Their skilled manipulations made the Witch seem like an otherworldly force of nature and a truly vile villain.

The beauty of Anna Jordan’s performance as Nimmee made me want to weep.  She has an absolutely phenomenal physicality that makes for great pantomime.  You can feel and see the fear in her tense body whenever the Witch is around.  Her selling of the routine physical abuse dealt to her by the Witch is spot on.  The slow opening of her heart to Nick Chopper is wondrous to behold.  And a bit where she and Nick try to subtly cozy up to each other by a fire is sweet and funny.

Matthew Olsen’s portrayal of Nick Chopper (the flesh and blood version of the Tin Woodsman) is equally powerful.  His love for his family is palpable and it was a joy watching his childish antics as he grew up especially as he learns to fight from his father and properly wield an ax.  His courage is inspiring as he battles a forest monster to protect Nimmee.  And his anguish is haunting as he slowly loses his human nature.

Never before have I seen a show where light was so crucial to its telling and Jamie Roderick’s work is of superior quality.  His lighting is so atmospheric as he takes you to the depths of a pitch black forest with just a wisp of sunlight peeking through to the magical charges of Nick Chopper’s amulet to the dankness of the Witch’s lair.  Jenny Pool’s costumes had a nice old fashioned flair of a long forgotten time.  The set was pretty much bare bones though I thought the tree branches hanging about the theatre and the old fashioned lights set above the stage (and a bit out into the seating area) was a very nice touch.  And the violin score provided by Samantha Perkins was heavenly especially with the haunting song of the Tin Woodsman at the end.

This is storytelling at its finest.  It’s an achingly beautiful and well told love story guaranteed to melt the coldest of hearts.  At the risk of repeating myself, go see this show.

The Woodsman plays at the Blue Barn Theatre through June 16.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  On June 9, there will be an additional 2pm matinee and Jun 16 will have only a 2pm matinee.  Tickets are $35 ($30 for seniors) and can be obtained at www.bluebarn.org or by calling at 402-345-1576.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

The Game is Askew

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called in to investigate the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville and to protect his heir, Henry Baskerville, when he receives an ominous warning to stay away from the moor.  Is there a human hand guiding this evil or is there truth to the curse of the Hound of the Baskervilles?  Find out when you watch Baskerville by Ken Ludwig and currently playing at Bellevue Little Theatre.

I had been looking forward to this show all season.  Hearing the name “Sherlock Holmes” is like ringing the chow bell as I’ve been an avid reader of these mysteries since childhood.  As a result of this, I admit to being a bit biased when it comes to Holmesian entertainment.  But that bias takes the form of having rigorous standards whenever I watch a Holmesian production or read a Holmesian story.  With that being said, I am pleased to say that Ludwig’s take on this classic tale more than meets my standards.  It’s almost completely faithful to the original story and manages to add its own unique flavor with a high dose of farcical humor well executed by a contingent of comedic clowns.

Suzanne Withem is the ringmaster of this circus and she stages it as a classic Vaudeville production with a bare-bones set.  Her direction is sterling as she never allows the energy to wane and she knows how to mine the funny out of the production with a series of well-timed jokes and fourth wall breaking moments.  Ms Withem leads her actors to strong, brilliant performances with a pell mell telling of this mystery.

I salute the superhuman efforts of the 3 actors of the play (Kevin Goshorn, Sara Scheidies, and Guillermo Joseph Rosas) as they rotate between playing nearly 20 different characters requiring complete shifts in costume, body language, accents, and voice to portray the numerous roles.  Some examples of their stellar work are Goshorn’s highly Texan Henry Baskerville, his obnoxiously crude Inspector Lestrade who constantly hocks loogies and scratches his behind, and a hilarious cameo as a charwoman cleaning 221B Baker St; Ms Scheidies’ overwrought Mrs. Barrymore who overgestures and oddly shuffles her feet, her busybodying Mrs. Hudson, or her energetic Cartwright, one of Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars; Rosas shines as the Baskerville butler, Barrymore who has a permanently stooped posture and a wonky back; the giddy naturalist, Stapleton who has an affinity for butterflies, and a proud Castillian concierge of the Northumberland Hotel.

I’d also like to applaud the work of the roustabouts, Kaitlin Maher and Gillian Pearson, who add their own humorous touches as they bring on props, make sound effects, and sometimes are the props.

Catherine Vazquez’s Dr. Watson is the show’s straight man and narrator.  She does a wonderful job exhibiting Watson’s stalwart loyalty to Holmes, his courage under fire, and his own keen intellect, though his powers of observation and deduction are far less pronounced than those of Holmes.  She does need to project a bit more to overcome BLT’s backbox nature.  Unlike the other characters, Watson needs to be the most grounded, which Ms Vazquez certainly was, but I think she still had some leeway to elevate his energy a bit.

Ben Beck is a pitch perfect Sherlock Holmes.  Not only does he well exude Holmes’ rude, unfriendly nature, but he also well communicates Holmes’ manic energy when the thrill of an investigation is on him.  Beck well handles Holmes’ complex dialogue as he often speaks in almost stream of consciousness cadences as he makes his rapid-fire deductions. And I was particularly impressed with how quickly he was able to transition from being Holmes to being the actor playing Holmes when miscues and other errors sprang up to throw off the Vaudeville troupe.

Brendan Greene-Wash has skillfully designed a cheap looking set of cutout woods and boxes that look like they could be packed up and whisked to the next town on a moment’s notice.  Zachary Kloppenborg’s costumes are spot-on and quite elegant from Holmes’ dressing gown, to Watson’s sharp suits, to the Texan garb of Henry Baskerville, the buttling suit of Barrymore, and the raggedy clothes of the Irregulars.  Joshua Mullady’s lights always enhance any production with the eerie ghostly lights used in the story of the curse of the Baskervilles to the shadowy night scenes in Baskerville Hall.

I thought I saw a few blips such as fading or dropped accents and the mixing of pronouns in regards to Watson, but as the show is presented as a troupe doing a production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, I can’t help but wonder if these “blips” were more subtle jokes to tie into the show’s running gag of little things going wrong here and there.  In any case, Baskerville is an extremely satisfying romp that does justice to a classic Holmes mystery while making bellies jiggle with laughter.

Baskerville plays at Bellevue Little Theatre through May 19.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Fri-Sat and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students.  Reservations can be made by calling 402-291-1554 or visiting the web page at bellevuelittletheatre.weebly.com.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.

Floating Follies

You’ve never met a crew like this one.  In the late middle 1800s, ten men begin an exploration of the Green and Colorado Rivers.  Come join in their adventures and shenanigans in Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This script is certainly. . .different.  It actually centers around an interesting concept by taking the real life explorations of ten white men and shaking it up with the conceit of all of the characters being played by a diverse group of women.  Unfortunately, the script doesn’t quite measure up to the concept as the story lacks a needed centrality and the characters are not given any arcs.  There are a few howlingly funny moments, but, on the whole, the script felt more like a rough draft than a fully polished work.  Luckily, the efforts and skill of a mighty cast combined with some skillful direction help to make the most out of this show.

Amy Lane’s direction expertly navigates the peculiarities of this story.  The play flies back and forth between period language and considerably more modern vernacular and behaviors which gives the play a real/unreal feeling and playing the truth of that dichotomy is an exceptional challenge.  Ms Lane manages to play that duality by knowing when to go over the top and when to be a bit grounded.  She also has a firm understanding of the interrelationships of these characters and that understanding leads her cast to form the powerful bonds needed to make this show fly.

Some rather entertaining performances are given by Breanna Carodine as a plucky, exuberant Union Army lieutenant who’s happy to serve and by Yone Edegbele and Esther Aruguete who have a shining moment as a pair of snarky Utes who provide food and transportation to the explorers after some of their harrowing adventures.

Teri Fender leads the crew as Major John Wesley Powell.  Ms Fender’s Powell is unflappable in the face of certain danger, pontificates like Captain Kirk, and has a sanity be damned personality.  Indeed, his willingness to jump into the arms of certain death with a smile and a maniacal gleam in his eyes makes one wonder if his sanity is just as absent as his right arm.

Daena Schweiger owns this show with her rendition of Old Shady, the brother of Major Powell, and she does it with nary a word of dialogue.  She was the most convincing man of the lot, utilizing a stooped posture which gave her movements more of a masculine feel and a sandpapery, guttural voice on her rare occasions of speaking helped to complete the illusion.  Ms Schweiger gets the show’s best moment when she launches into an impromptu song about Old Shady’s fish dinner which had audience members practically falling out of their chairs.

Allexys Johnson’s rendition of William Dunn serves as a fine counterbalance to the possibly crazed leader.  Ms Johnson’s Dunn is the most level-headed member of the group who coolly analyzes situations and takes more calculated risks in an attempt to get this team through this expedition alive.  Her yang melds well with Ms Fender’s yin to really make the debates and arguments of their characters spark and pop.

Jim Othuse’s set services the show well with a literally mapped floor and the high, towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains.  John Gibilisco’s sounds ably support the production with the blast of shotguns, the creepy rattling of a rattlesnake, and the thunderous run of the water of a raging river.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are period appropriate with the Civil War military garb of the soldiers, the coonskin caps and buckskins of the frontiersmen and hunters, the pith helmet and proper exploratory garments of Goodman, the expedition’s British member, and the southwestern, cowboyesque clothes of the remaining team members.

The first act was hampered a bit by lack of volume and some mushy diction, but the cast mostly rectified this in Act II.

While the story may be a bit lacking, this talented troupe of performers does provide a fine night of characterizations and their zany antics will give audience members quite a bit of amusement.

Men on Boats plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through May 26.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $30 for adults and $18 for students with prices varying by performance and seating zone.  Tickets may be purchased at OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Due to strong language, the show is recommended for mature audiences.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Bitter Fruit

A mother and her genius, but ill-mannered, son relocate to Crested Butte, CO to begin a new life.  Running parallel paths, the mother begins to find happiness once again while the son takes a step towards living life for the very first time.  But an insatiable need to know may tear both of their lives asunder.  This is Wildflower by Lila Rose Kaplan and is currently playing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

While Ms Kaplan’s script is interesting in some respects, it suffers from the flaw of not being a strong narrative.  By that I mean there really isn’t an arc to this play.  It’s really vignettes of the lives of the characters of this show.

Where the writing excels is in the characters themselves.  Not only are the characters fully formed people, but they have distinctive and well developed arcs with plenty of meat in which actors can sink their teeth.  The powerful characters help to cover the fact that the overall story lacks a unifying core.

Lara Marsh is a bit of auteur with this production as she not only directs, but also designed the set and helped to design the sounds.  Her direction is tight and sure.  Each character gets its fair due and chance to shine and Ms Marsh knows how to maximize each climax and resolution in the interrelationships of these characters.  Her staging is admirable with the entire blackbox being utilized and her mastery in crafting emotional moments cannot be argued.  She also gets thoroughly capable performances out of her cast.

Solid supporting performances are supplied by Francisco Franco and Jarod Cernousek.  As Mitchell, Franco plays a former burlesque performer turned hotel owner/chef who dispenses wise advice and has found peace in his life in the most extraordinary way.  Cernousek’s James is a forest ranger with a power complex and the rod up his back has a rod up its back which I’m pretty certain has a rod up its back.

Aaron Sorilla is exceptional in his performance as Randolph.  Randolph is a high functioning autistic and Sorilla does truly wonderful work in communicating the aspects of autism such as his focus on self, rudeness, fixations, and a bit of a sing-song cadence to his speaking patterns.  His timing is excellent and he knows how to elicit a good laugh from a line.  But he also handles the drama side of the role equally well.  There is a real tragedy to his character as he is unable to understand emotion and his literal nature means everything needs to be spelled out to him in excruciating detail.  And that need to know leads him down a treacherous path.

Jocelyn Reed plays Erica, Randolph’s mother.  Ms Reed does a good job of encasing Erica’s core of sadness in a bubbly personality.  The bubblyness is not a put on.  It’s more like if Erica focuses on being happy, then she’ll forget the sadness which is always threatening to rear its ugly face.  This is a person who has had a rough go of things.  It’s implied she was in an emotionally abusive marriage from which she is trying to recover and while she loves her son, Ms Reed’s body language conveys the sense that she sometimes feels chained to him due to his special needs.  Indeed, as a loving mother, she makes sacrifices to her own happiness for the sake of her son.  But her shining moment is when we get to see her exude utter joy when her son forms a special friendship with a girl.  Not only is she happy for him, but she is happy for herself as she sees the possibilities that each of them can live their own life.

Hannah Davis makes her acting debut as Astor and does quite well in her first outing.  There’s a lot of fun to this character.  One is never certain if she is also a high functioning autistic or just very immature due to a combination of an odd upbringing and her own exceptional intelligence.  She comes off as much younger than 16 especially when she’s bossing Erica around in the visitor’s center and engaging in childish arguments with Randolph.  Yet she has startling moments of pseudo-sophistication and clearly has the longings of a young girl coming of age due to her wanting intimacy so she isn’t inexperienced when she shortly heads off to college.  While Ms Davis’ character foundation is rock solid, I think she has the leeway to amp up what’s she’s doing a notch or two.

Lara Marsh has provided a simple, but effective set for the production with a counter full of brochures, seeds, and flowers for the visitor’s center and a rolling counter for Mitchell’s kitchen.  Kendra Newby’s costumes well suit the personalities of the characters from the perfectly pressed forest ranger’s uniform of James to the too big sports coat (it’s his father’s) of Randolph to the childlike clothing of Astor as well as her beautiful sundress as she comes of age.  Riley Campbell and Craig & Lara Marsh team up for some fantastic sounds such as the hotline’s ringing telephone and the blast of fireworks.  Rebecca Roth’s lights are top of the line especially with the stars of the outdoors and the flash and colors of exploding fireworks.

In spite of a missing centrality to the story, this show is a strong showcase in character work aided by surefire direction.  It’ll make you laugh.  It’ll make you wonder.  It’ll even tug at your heartstrings a little.

Wildflower plays in the Weber Fine Arts Building in Room 006 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha through April 28.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.  Tickets are free.  Due to adult subject matter and language, this show is recommended for mature audiences.  The University of Nebraska-Omaha is located at 6001 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.