In the Garden of Evil

One girl’s lie to avoid trouble for dabbling in a voodoo ceremony unleashes a swathe of evil upon the city of Salem.  Under the hysteria of witchcraft, secret hatreds and jealousies are vented through baseless accusations sending innocent victims to the gallows.  Will a farmer burdened by his own secret sin be able to halt the onslaught?  Find out in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently playing at the Barn Players.

I have been involved with theatre for nearly 22 years.  I’ve acted, directed, stage managed, worked on crew, run lights and sounds, and reviewed shows.  Having experienced all of these different aspects of theatre has helped me to develop a sixth sense about plays and I’ve usually got a good feel for the quality of a show as I head into it.  As I walked into the theatre for tonight’s production of The Crucible, I had a feeling that this was going to be a pretty good show.  However, I must admit that my sixth sense was wrong.

This show wasn’t “pretty good”.  It was beyond amazing!!  It may very well be the very best drama I’ve ever seen staged.

Few writers could pen a tragedy as well as Arthur Miller due to his understanding of the human condition.  In The Crucible, he presents humanity at its basest and its stupidest.  It’s hard to fathom people being depraved enough to lie about their neighbors in order to steal their property or to satisfy a hidden grudge.  But it’s even harder to realize that supposedly intellectual judges could fail to see through such a farrago of nonsense and deception and forget that justice means innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The Barn Players was fortunate to have David Martin helming this show because his direction was transcendent.  He brought Miller’s story to life in its full glory.  He not only understood the story’s darkness, but he also found the glimmers of hope and humor buried in the tale and brought them to light as well.  His staging was impeccable and made full use of the entire theatre.  You couldn’t punch a hole in the quality of his cast’s acting.  He also did double duty on sound design which was so apropos from the creepy, haunting music heading into the first scene to the relentless drumbeat to close out the show.

This is one of those shows where I’d like to do a write up on every single actor, but, for the sake of brevity, let me assure you that there wasn’t a weak link in the lot.  Each and every one was fully immersed in the story which only brought the audience deeper and deeper into it.  But I want to especially note the work of Charles Christesson who brought intelligence, levity, and heartbreak into the character of Giles Corey; Scott Shaw’s Rev. Samuel Parris, the “man of God” more concerned with power and reputation than faith; and Emma Cook’s portrayal of Mary Warren, a servant stretched to the edge of sanity due to being the rope in a spiritual tug of war between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

I was particularly impressed with what Michael Juncker dug out of the role of Deputy Governor Danforth.  He plays Danforth as a man of strong, if misguided, character.  He truly believes in the cause of justice and honestly believes he is doing his part to rid Salem of witchcraft.  Yet his appalling cluelessness is sickening as he can’t see through the histrionics of the accusers, puts the letter of the law above its spirit, and claims to be doing the will of God, yet ignores the undisputed expert on witchcraft and true man of faith, John Hale.

Jessica Franz’s take on Elizabeth Proctor is as strong as it is tragic.  Ms Franz well communicates the sickliness of the recovering Elizabeth and ably portrays the duality of warmth and iciness in the character.  Elizabeth wants to love and trust her husband, but has difficulty doing so due to an infidelity on his part.  When her warmth finally wins out, it makes her horror at dooming John Proctor due to a lie she concocts to protect his honor all the more believable and heartrending.

I loved Phil Howard’s take on Rev. John Hale.  Howard’s Hale is a good man.  He is a decent man.  Sadly, when all is said and done, he is also a broken man.  Howard presents Hale as a truly devout man dedicated to God and ending the scourge of witchcraft.  But he is also an intelligent and just man who is dedicated to discovering the truth more than anything.   Howard’s anguish is palpable when he realizes the truth behind the Salem witch trials and tries to mitigate the damage by persuading accused witches to give false confessions which will preserve their lives, but excommunicate them.

Abigail Williams truly is a witch, but not in the magical sense.  In Lauren Hambleton’s capable hands, you will experience one of the greatest villains I have seen on stage.  Ms Hambleton’s Abigail is unspeakably disgusting and diabolically clever.  What begins as a simple lie to avoid punishment for participating in a voodoo ceremony evolves into a cunning plan to rid herself of her perceived rival in Elizabeth Proctor for the love of John Proctor, with whom she had an affair, and a chance to revenge herself on the “hypocrites” (though some truly are) of the town.  Evil just oozes from Ms Hambleton’s pores and I really appeciated the smarts she brought to Abigail who enhances her lies through information she gleans from Rev. Hale’s questions and books.

Andy Penn’s work as John Proctor is a tour de force performance.  Penn brilliantly essays the walking paradox that is Proctor.  He is a good man, but is bowed by the guilt of his infidelity with Abigail Williams.  He believes in God, but hates the hypocrisy of his church.  He is willing to make a false confession to save his life partially because he doesn’t want to have his death be a lie about him being a saint.  Penn provides a clinic in acting as he finds beats within beats within beats as he creates a man you will admire for his strength and pity for his weakness.

Steven Ansel James has prepared a wonderful bare bones set with its extended stage, docks, and chalk drawings of trees, heretical words, and occult symbols.  Chuck Cline’s lights gorgeously animate all of the emotional moments of the show.  Jenny Knecht’s costumes perfectly reflected the Puritan time period.

At one point, Rev. Hale wonders if the devil has come to Salem.  The sad truth is that he did because the people of Salem opened the doors and invited him in by succumbing to their own evil desires.  But even in all the darkness and mayhem, Arthur Miller still manages to show where there is a kernel of faith, hope, and decency, the devil can still be overcome.

This play is storytelling at its zenith.  If you want to see compelling, powerful, thought provoking drama, then you need to buy a ticket and see The Crucible.  It’s the best thing going in theatre this summer.

The Crucible plays at the Barn Players through July 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 ($15 for seniors 65+ & $12 for students with ID and groups of 10 or more).  There will be an Industry Night performance on July 24 at 7:30pm.  All tickets for this performance will be $12 at the door.  For tickets, visit the Barn Players at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

Rock Twist and Shout

It’s rock numbers done with a big band flair.  It’s big band numbers done rock style.  It’s Billy McGuigan’s Rock Twist and it is rocking out at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

If there is anyone out there who harbors any doubts about the talent of Billy McGuigan, they will surely be dispelled after watching this show.  Putting it simply, this man is a musical and performing savant.  There isn’t a genre of music he can’t play.  He has stage presence for which directors would kill.  He has a charming affability which makes you feel like an old friend spending an evening at his house.

Even I, who has had the pleasure of listening to Billy’s shows pretty regularly over the past 15 years, was completely blown away by this production.  It has something for everyone.  Do you like rock?  Well, you’ll get to hear the Beatles, the Who, the Beach Boys, Elvis, and Billy Joel.  Is adult contemporary/jazz your bag?  You’ll hear some Frank Sinatra and Harry Connick, Jr.  And each song has a unique arrangement that will make it seem like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again.

From the opening number of Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, Billy had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.  His pure tenor soared throughout the night as he sang renditions of “Yesterday”, “Luck be a Lady”, “God Only Knows”, “Time Won’t Let Me”, “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Pinball Wizard” and a cover of “Here, There, and Everywhere” supported only by bass and percussion that was so moving that I started to tear up a bit.

Billy was just as adept keeping the audience’s attention between numbers with a low key storytelling style as he shared stories behind the numbers, regaled us with some humorous anecdotes, and told a couple of tender tales about his career and life.

Every good front man needs an excellent band and McGuigan’s band brought it and then some.  Steve Gomez’s bass hummed all night long and his musical direction was so precise and on target.  Andrew Janak stunned on the tenor saxophone and I tip my hat to him for arranging all of these sensational numbers.  Max Meyer’s lead guitar work was the feat of a prodigy.  Tomm Roland’s drum work never missed a beat.  Omaha legend, Doyle Tipler, never fell flat with his trumpeting.  Patrick Brown shined on the alto sax and Patrick Peters’ trombone playing couldn’t have been any tighter.  Tara Vaughan’s piano playing is always a treat for the ears and her rich alto got its own moment to shine with a medley of “Downtown” and “To Sir, With Love”.  Backup vocals were supplied by the multitalented trio of Matthew and Ryan McGuigan and Jessica Errett who dazzled in their own featured songs, “634-5789” and “We’re Going to a Go-Go”.  And I’d like to give special notice to Steve Wheeldon whose lighting was so atmospheric and enhanced every song.

To be frank, when I first heard about Billy’s new show I thought he had taken on a real challenge for himself by putting new twists on old classics.  But he proved why he is Omaha’s premiere entertainer with this brand new show that will undoubtedly be another roaring success.  My only disappointment was that there wasn’t another hour to this show.  Or two.  Perhaps five.  Well, you get the idea.  This show only has a limited run, so get your tickets fast and prepare yourselves for an amazing time.

Billy McGuigan’s Rock Twist plays at the Omaha Playhouse from July 12-23.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $40 or $35 for groups of 12 or more.  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

This Quartet is Worth Far More than a Million

On December 4, 1956, the first supergroup of rock and roll appeared at Sun Records.  On that day, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Carl Perkins all happened to be at Sun Records at the same time and had an impromptu jam session recorded by Sun’s owner, Sam Phillips.  Inspired by that day, Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux wrote a little show about what might have gone on in the studio.  They called it Million Dollar Quartet and it is playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

To be honest, I was expecting a jukebox musical when I sat down to review this show, but Escott and Mutrux actually wrote a nifty little story that segues nicely into the evening’s showstopping numbers.  It’s fun, actually delves a bit into the characters of Phillips and the Million Dollar Quartet, and is even a little sad and haunting at certain points.  This strong tale is strengthened by the legendary hits as performed by a powerhouse cast who hit all the right notes musically and acting-wise.

Paul Kerr has directed a real winner with this production.  He sets a snappy pace, wonderfully stages the show, and pulls some exceptionally strong performances out of his actors.  Kerr has a good grip on the true depth of this story and hits all of its emotional beats with maximum impact.

Kerr’s cast is stellar from top to bottom.  Each fully understands his or her character and each also happens to be a darn good singer and instrumentalist.

I’d like to give special notice to the unsung heroes of this show:  Sean Powell and Darren Johnston.  Powell does double duty as the show’s musical director and in the small role of Jay Perkins.  As musical director, Powell’s work is superb as he and the cast don’t miss a trick in any of the night’s numbers.  He also does well in the role of Jay, Carl Perkins’ older brother.  Powell brings a real presence to the role and brings a natural flamboyance to it, not to mention some dynamite strumming on and skillful acrobatics with his stand up bass.  Johnston fuels all of the numbers with a deadly accurate backbeat as the session drummer, Fluke.

While all of the actors are great, Billy Rude may be the one to keep your eye on with his frenzied performance as Jerry Lee Lewis.  Rude’s Lewis has a natural gift for rubbing people the wrong way and has a self-confidence bordering on arrogance as he struggles to achieve stardom as Sun Record’s newest artist.  Rude’s ability with the piano borders on the superhuman as I had difficulty following his fingers as they blitzed across the keys.  He didn’t just play the singer known as “The Killer”, he became him as he perfectly emulated his over the top piano playing right down to kicking away the piano bench and having that hairstyle that gets just as wild as his performances in “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’”.

Sean Riley brings a surprising amount of pathos to the role of Carl Perkins.  Perkins was the first breakout star of Sun Records, but has hit a bit of a slump and is feeling overlooked by Sam Phillips.  Riley brings a bit of bitter frustration to the role as he is a bit of a curmudgeon who is only really close with Johnny Cash.  Lewis irritates him and he harbors a lot of resentment and jealousy towards Elvis who not only supplanted him on the charts, but became better known for Perkins’ hit song “Blue Suede Shoes” more than Perkins himself.  Riley is also a master guitarist and singer who flies high in “Matchbox” and his sections in “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man”.

You may think Johnny Cash has been reborn when you see Christopher Essex’s take on the Man in Black.  He bears a remarkable physical similarity to the singer, effortlessly duplicates his unique style of guitar playing, and has a similar bass voice.  Essex ably plays Cash as a gentle man of faith wrestling with the problem of telling Phillips he’s leaving the label.  He also shines in classic Cash numbers such as “I Walk the Line” and “Down By the Riverside”.

I really liked Courtney Crouse’s take on Elvis Presley.  He managed to show Elvis’ congeniality which people often forget about.  By displaying this side of Elvis’ personality, he shows us that the King was actually too nice for the cutthroat world of show business as he is often pushed around by Colonel Parker and his new record label, RCA.  But Crouse also reminds us that Elvis was a versatile performer almost without peer as he rocks out with “Hound Dog” then just as easily goes Gospel with “Peace in the Valley”.

After Bradley Farmer, as Elvis’ girlfriend, Dyanne, belted out “Fever” with that sultry alto, I needed to go soak my head in a bucket of ice water to cool off.  Ms Farmer gets a lot of mileage out of this small role who ends up serving as the confidante of nearly every character in the show.  Ms Farmer adds that extra something to the show whether it be singing or dancing to the numerous numbers or boosting the beat with her tambourine.

Last and certainly not least is Eddie Urish’s beautiful turn as Sam Phillips.  As the narrator of this tale, Urish presents Phillips as the grizzled record producer who built tiny Sun Records into a starmaking factory by recognizing rock and roll for the revolution it was and seeing the talent in future stars that other labels wouldn’t glance twice at.  I loved the loyalty that Urish gives to Phillips because it made his pain at watching the Quartet dissolve around him all the more believable and moving.

Todd Davison’s set is phenomenal as it has the perfect flavor of the former auto parts store now turned into a hitmaking machine.  Reymundo Montoya’s properties complete the picture of Davison’s set.  Shon Causer’s lighting adds a je ne sais quoi to the story as it changes from the brightness of the jam session to the dark blue of Phillips’ narration.

Believe me when I say you’re going to get more than a million bucks worth of entertainment out of this show.  The story is strong.  The performances are terrific.  The music is legendary.  Buckle up and enjoy the ride of this show.

Million Dollar Quartet plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 9.  Showtimes are at 7:30pm on June 28 and July 7-8; 2pm on June 25, 27, 30 and July 5 and 9.  Tickets cost $29 for the Main Floor and $22 for the balcony.  For tickets contact the box office at 660-385-2924 or visit the website at www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

‘Ladies’ Leave ‘Em Laughing in the Aisles

Meet Leo Cark and Jack Gable.  They are 2 struggling Shakespearian actors of dubious talent and meager means.  When they stumble onto a chance to steal 2/3 of a multimillion dollar fortune by posing as the long lost relatives of a dying woman, they throw caution to the wind and put their acting skills to the test.  And it is a mighty difficult test as the missing relatives happen to be women.  This is Leading Ladies by Ken Ludwig and currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

A big part of the magic of theatre is that if you change a few elements of a production it becomes brand new all over again.  Just a few months ago I reviewed this show for the Omaha Community Playhouse.  With that performance still fresh in my memory, I got to see an exciting, rib tickling new take on it due to a simple change of director and cast and crew.  This is why one can see the same show over and over and over again and it is still something unique and original.

Brandon McShaffrey truly knows what makes for good farce.  His direction of tonight’s show was genius as he not only knew where and when to add the ludicrous elements, but he also managed to add a sizable amount of realism to the production.  His actors were honest to goodness people as opposed to caricature and he led the lot of them to sterling performances that left the audience rolling in the aisles.

This show is truly an ensemble piece with every actor getting a chance to shine.  Madeline Thomas is simply cute as a button and deliriously ditzy as Audrey.  She may not be too bright, but she’s building her brain one complex word at a time.  Todd Davison and Sean Powell make for a great father/son act as the talentless physician, Doc Myers, and his nerdy, willowy son, Butch.  Andy Brown provides some laughs as Rev. Duncan Wooley, the cheapskate, milquetoast fiancée of the play’s leading lady.  But watch out for Jonna Wiseman as barbed tongued Aunt Florence as she steals every scene she’s in with her acidic antics.

With the supporting cast providing such a strong foundation, it would be nearly impossible for this show to fail and it gets a further boost from its three leads, Michael McIntire, Sean Riley, and Kara Overlien, who admirably carry the bulk of the show on their formidably talented shoulders.

I was extraordinarily impressed with Kara Overlien’s portrayal of Meg.  Ms Overlien is just so. . .genuine as the young heiress.  She plays Meg as a decent woman with a strong streak of integrity as she plans to marry Rev. Wooley for taking care of her after the death of her parents.  But she also gets a lot of joy out of life.  She has passion for the theatre and has a surprising amount of potential as a performer.  She loves music and is a skilled dancer.  In fact, her solo dance number to a radio song is one of the best moments of the night.  Ms Overlien also has incredible facial animation as her reactions to the events swirling about her were always extemporaneous and spot-on.

Sean Riley does so much with so little in his interpretation of Jack Gable.  A slight grin here and a little gesture there had the crowd eating out of Riley’s hand.  Riley’s Gable may be the less talented member of the acting duo, but he might be the mentally swifter of the two.  Riley comes up with absurd sign language as the deaf and dumb “Stephanie” and also knows how to sneak hugs out of Audrey.  He’s also got a bit of the devil in him as he makes Leo’s wooing of Meg more difficult with his insinuations about why we never seem to see Leo and “Maxine” together as well as messing with Leo during their performance at the Moose Lodge.  Riley clearly had a ball with the role and it showed with a stellar performance.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a skilled blending of over the topness and realism as the one provided by Michael McIntire’s rendition of Leo Clark.  McIntire’s Clark is truly a good actor, but can’t seem to catch a break.  When he hatches the plan of stealing the fortune he throws, and I mean THROWS, himself in the role of “Maxine”.  McIntire is larger than life as Clark playing Maxine and he dazzlingly moves between the over the top “Maxine” to the natural Leo without missing a beat.  His howlingly funny reactions and expression asides to the audience only further fueled his dynamic performance.

Outstanding technical elements further helped create the world of this show including Charles Johnson’s set which creates the illusion of a well to do home without being ostentatious.  Jack Smith’s costumes were snappy and elegant from the suits and tuxes for the men and the gowns and dresses for the ladies and the “leading ladies”.

Tighter cue pickups and a faster pace would have further bolstered tonight’s production, but it is still one terrific night of comedy.  The best stamp of approval I can give is that this show caused me to laugh myself into a coughing fit at several points and I saw many members of the audience doubled over in hysterics at numerous moments.  But, hey, don’t take our words for it.  Buy a ticket and experience the mirth for yourself.

Leading Ladies plays at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 22.  Showtimes are 7:30pm on July 1, 5, 15, and the 21 and at 2pm on June 24, 28, July 2, 7, 16, 18, 21-22.  Tickets cost $29 for the Main Floor and $22 for the balcony.  For tickets contact the box office at 660-385-2924 or visit the website at www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

A Telekinetic, Teenage Tragedy

Carrie White is a special girl.  Sure she’s bullied and ostracized by her classmates, but she is a special girl.  And maybe her mother abuses her psychologically and emotionally, but she really is a special girl.  Do you want to know how special?  Just make her angry.  But I wouldn’t advise it.  For, if you do, you won’t live long enough to regret it.  Find out how special Carrie White is in Carrie:  The Musical adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen from a novel by Stephen King with music composed by Michael Gore and lyrics written by Dean Pitchford and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

I admit to not being much of a fan of Stephen King’s horror works.  I’ve only read one of his books and have seen roughly six of his macabre tales. Now I have watched the film version of Carrie and I consider it to be the deepest of his horror novels.  Let me correct that.  It isn’t a horror novel.  Carrie is a tragedy with some undertones of horror.  It is actually an eye opening look at the evil of bullying.  I also admit that I was glad to review this show because I found it to be one of the top productions of the theatre season.

I congratulate Todd Brooks for a truly impressive piece of stage and music direction.  He treated the subject matter with respect and did fine work leading the score.  I also thought he told the story exceptionally well as he and his troupe of actors led us through the pain of Carrie’s existence, yet managed to drop little nuggets of hope for her before epically yanking the rug out from under her feet.  Brooks also drew very good performances out of his thespians who provided a well acted, well sung tale.

I always appreciate choruses who understand the vital part they play in shows.  Each and every member of this chorus stay involved with every moment of the show, providing fresh and strong characterizations that really livened things up.  This particular chorus also had the best harmonization I have ever heard, best exemplified in “A Night We’ll Never Forget”.

Notable performances were supplied by Josh Polack as Billy Nolan, the dimwitted and mean-spirited boyfriend of Carrie’s nemesis and Mike Burns’ portrayal of Tommy Ross, one of the few decent students at Carrie’s school.  Burns had one of the night’s best numbers as his pleasant tenor touched hearts with “Tommy’s Poem (Dreamer in Disguise)”.

Gigi Hausman really shines in the title role of Carrie White in her SNAP! debut.  Ms Hausman has incredible body language as the put upon Carrie as she closes herself off from the rest of her classmates with her clasped hands, slumped shoulders, and downward gaze.  My heart truly ached from the loneliness and sadness she communicated and she nicely evolves Carrie from mousey to somewhat confident and hopeful when Tommy asks her to the prom and she learns how to control her telekinesis to her final snapping after a cruel prank causes her to unleash the full fury of her power on the school.

Ms Hausman was equally moving on the singing side as her soprano pleaded for God’s help in “Evening Prayers” and was quietly optimistic in “Why Not Me?”

Sara Planck is scary in her role of Margaret White.  And what really sells it is how real and normal she appears.  Ms Planck’s Margaret seems like a regular mom, if a little overprotective, until she starts spouting the drivel that Carrie’s first period was a sign of sin.  Then you realize that she’s a neurotic with a religious mania who crooks scripture to satisfy her warped view of God and locks Carrie in an underground cell to pray for forgiveness due to her own guilt of having conceived of a child outside of wedlock.

Ms Planck’s alto nearly stole the night as she tells Carrie “And Eve Was Weak”, confesses about the night she succumbed to temptation in “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance”, and goes soprano when she laments “When There’s No One” after she calmly decides to sacrifice Carrie, mistaking her telekinesis for demonic power.

Paloma Power also makes a fine debut with SNAP! as Sue Snell, the play’s narrator.  Ms Power’s Sue bullies Carrie at the start of the show, but genuinely regrets her actions and tries to makes amends through apology and then by getting her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom.  Ms Power brings a real goodness and decency to the role and she also understands Carrie better than anyone, sharing how she sees the burning cauldron of pain beneath the quiet shell when she beautifully sings “Once You See”.

I was thoroughly repulsed by Chris Hargensen as played by Laurel Rothamel.  And, yes, that is a very high compliment.  I cannot recall a character that I detested as much as I did Chris.  Ms Rothamel’s interpretation is astonishing.  She is so cruel, so nasty, so slutty, so spoiled, and so vindictive that I found myself wishing someone would slap the taste out of her mouth and I’m a pretty peaceful, easy-going guy.  Even more amazing, she actually made me feel a tiny bit of sympathy for her when she implied that her bullying nature is the by-product of being beaten by her father, a ruthless attorney, in the night’s most fun number, “The World According to Chris”.

Jason DeLong deserves extremely high praise for his choreography which was not only fun and creative, but managed to be flowing and big despite the confines of the small theatre.  Megan Bollanger’s set invoked memories of high school dances from yesteryear.  Leah Skorupa’s costumes were pitch perfect from Carrie’s frumpy outfit to Chris’ vampy clothes to the elegant prom gear.  Joshua Mullady proves that he may be the city’s best lighting designer as his lights once more become extra characters in the show as they enhanced scenes with evil reds, hopeful glows, and soft romance.  Daena Schweiger’s sound and visuals really added that something extra to the show.

There were a few missed notes during some of the songs and some of the cast needed to speak up and project more, but this is a quality production.  The numbers are catchy, the story is surprisingly profound, and the acting is quite powerful.  Get yourself a ticket to see this as, as the cast sings, it’ll be a night you’ll never forget.

Carrie:  The Musical continues at SNAP! Productions through June 25.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The June 25 show and an additional matinee on June 17 will be at 2pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students, TAG members, Military, and seniors (55+) and all Thursday shows).  For tickets, call 402-341-2757 or visit www.snapproductions.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, Carrie:  The Musical is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California Street in Omaha, NE.

A Belle of a Good Time

Beauty and the Beast_4

Timothy Vallier as Beast & Leanne Hill Carlson as Belle

A classic fairy tale comes to life.  A vain and cold hearted prince is transformed into a hideous beast by an enchantress when he fails to show her hospitality.  The only way to break the curse is for him to finally love and be loved in return before the enchantress’ rose sheds its last petal.  When circumstances bring the lovely Belle to the castle of the Beast, will the curse finally be brought to an end or is the afflicted prince doomed to his fearsome shape for all time?  Find out in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by Linda Woolverton with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice, closing the season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I’m going to make a confession. . .I have never seen any version of Beauty and the Beast nor have I ever read the fairy tale.  I share that confession with you because I want you to understand that I walked into this show with a completely unbiased pair of eyes and no influences to alter my expectations.  Having said that, I now need to tell you that this was an entrancing and beautiful production, one worthy to be viewed by every man, woman, and child in this city.

Kimberly Faith Hickman works an incredible bit of magic with her direction.  Not only did she lead her actors to a string of dynamite performances, but she also flawlessly paced the show.  So smooth was its running that I was honestly taken aback when it came to an end for it only felt like a few minutes had passed.  Her staging is pluperfect and makes use of the entire theatre and the scene changes were satin slick.

From a technical standpoint this was, bar none, the finest show I have ever seen.  The costumes of Georgiann Regan, Travis Halsey, and Amanda Fehlner are so elegant and eye catching from Belle’s simple blue dress to her opulent yellow gown to the rich oddity of the servants’ garments (they are humans transforming into household objects) to the make-up of the Beast.

Jim Othuse continues to pull from his neverending bag of tricks with his sets, lights, and special effects for this show.  You will travel from a simple, homey village to a dark and foreboding forest to a sprawling, cavernous castle.  John Gibilisco’s sounds help animate every moment and Darin Kuehler’s properties give life to the audience’s imaginations.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra never miss a note of the epic score and Michelle Garrity nails the choreography with lavish dance numbers and I must say that “Be Our Guest” is the single best bit of dancing I have seen in nearly 21 years of theatre.

And the acting?  Well, where does one begin?  Such a universally marvelous cast makes it very, very difficult for me to center on select performances.  But kudos go out to Kyle Wright who is delightfully dorky as Gaston’s lackey, Lefou and Brian Priesman as Belle’s eccentric father, Maurice, and he especially shines with his melodic tenor in “No Matter What”.

However, I would be sorely remiss if I failed to mention the fantastic work done by the actors playing the Beast’s servants.  These include Bob Gilmore as the too tightly wound Cogsworth, the castle’s major-domo; Steve Krambeck as Lumiere, the charming candelabra with an eye for the ladies; Dawn Buller-Kirke as Mrs. Potts, the castle’s cook who also dazzles with her sweet and moving rendition of the title song; and Joey Galda as Madame De La Grande Bouche, the diva wardrobe.

The role of Belle seemed to be tailor made for Leanne Hill Carlson.  She brings intelligence, warmth, sensitivity, and strength to the part.  Ms Hill Carlson well communicates Belle’s outsider status due to her peculiar pater and her love of reading while also bringing nobility when she selflessly volunteers to take Maurice’s place as the Beast’s prisoner.  With expert ease, she carefully undergoes the transformation from fearing and detesting the Beast to falling in love with him.  Her beautiful soprano will keep you mesmerized all evening with such numbers as “A Change in Me”, “Belle”, “Is this Home?”, and “No Matter What”.

Timothy Vallier makes a triumphant debut at the Playhouse with his interpretation of the Beast.  Vallier has a phenomenally well modulated voice, capable of a wide range of nuances ranging from animalistic snorting to cold anger to desperate loneliness to tender love.  He excellently executes Beast’s transformation from his temperamental, arrogant old self to his emergence as a kind and loving man.  Vallier also has a honey sweet tenor which is well utilized in “If I Can’t Love Her” and “How Long Must this Go On?”

Ryan Pivonka rounds out the three leads with his own worthy performance as Gaston.  Gaston isn’t your typical villain as he really isn’t evil.  He’s simply full of himself and his need to win Belle’s heart does drive him to a few dirty deeds.  Pivonka brings a macho swagger to Gaston who routinely roughs up the sycophantic Lefou while singing his own praises in “Gaston”.  He also manages to bring a small touch of sympathy to the role as he does genuinely love Belle, it’s just become twisted due to his overwhelming arrogance and selfishness.

I thought the pratfalls and violence could be smoothed out and punched up a bit, but that did little to dampen a magical night of theatre.  There are tickets still available, but I highly suggest ordering yours right away as I’ve heard they are rapidly dwindling.  Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is fun for the whole family and I promise you a Belle of a good time.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through June 25.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Wednesday night shows are $32 for adults and $20 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Sioux Empire’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Explodes with Awesomeness

His best friend betrayed him.  His followers can’t understand his message.  His Father needs him to die to fulfill his mission.  This is Jesus and this is the story of his last week of life in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, currently playing at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.

There are certain shows that I hold to higher standards due to my affinity for them.  Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those shows and after the first act, the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s production had eclipsed nearly all of my standards.  This show is incredible!!  It’s got tip top acting, stellar singing, inventive choreography, outstanding technical elements, and spot on direction.  This particular production has entered my top 10 of the best shows I’ve seen and my top 3 of the best out of state shows I have reviewed.

Eric Parrish takes on the demanding task of serving as both director and musical director of this show and is superb in both roles.  Parrish’s band (Garret Hansen, Tyson Conn, Trace Mahoney, Royce Kuenzli, and Rod Jerke) starts off red hot and just gets hotter as the night goes on as they never miss a trick or note of this legendary score.  Parrish’s direction is simply a thing of beauty.  He has set the show in a post-apocalyptic society where Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees, and the Romans are depicted as rival gangs which I found positively inspired.  His staging is phenomenal and exhausting.  Static this show is not as his actors hurtle about the stage non-stop.  He also knows how to pull the very best out of his actors as I couldn’t find a weak link in the lot.

The supporting cast does excellent work as they enhance the show with their reactions, but they also acted through the scene changes which was crucial to keeping the show’s energy up.  Standout performances include Dennis Berger as Peter and Devin Basart as Annas.  Berger has a bright, light tenor that I could listen to all day and really shone in “Could We Start Again, Please?”.  Basart is a wonderful bootlicking lackey to the high priest whose operatic tenor soared in “This Jesus Must Die” and “Blood Money”.

Darren Lee’s take on Judas Iscariot has to be seen to be believed.  He presents Judas as a man whose relationship with Jesus has been frayed to the final thread.  He still respects Jesus, but he thinks Jesus is leading them all to their deaths due to his delusions of grandeur of being God’s son.  I loved how he skulked about in the darkness, glaring at Jesus whenever he did something with which Judas disagreed.  So realistic was the tension that I almost thought that Judas was going to slug Jesus at a couple of points.  Lee also ably portrays the regret and guilt of Judas after he betrays Jesus.

Lee also has a monstrously powerful tenor.  His voice is reminiscent of a young Meat Loaf as he belts out power numbers with “Heaven On Their Minds”, “Damned for All Time”, and “Superstar”.

What words could I use to describe Raine Jerke’s rendition of Jesus?  Mind blowing.  Staggering.  Powerful.  Haunting.  Good words to be certain, but they seem to fall short of the true awesomeness of his work.  I was gobsmacked to find out that Jerke has very little acting experience as he has an ease and naturalness equivalent to an actor with years of experience.  His expressions are pitch perfect.  His reactions deadly accurate.  His acting so nuanced as he swings between love for his followers in “Poor Jerusalem” to boiling frustration with them in “The Last Supper” and the extreme agony and fear of his death in “Gethsemane”.  So moving was that last number, that tears welled up in my eyes.

Jerke’s singing voice is astonishing.  His soaring tenor captured every tiny emotional beat of every number and managed to hit the nearly inhuman falsettos required of the role without popping a sweat.

Jenn Evanson Lee is wonderfully sweet as Mary Magdalene.  Her work is admirable as she portrays Mary as Jesus’ most loyal disciple.  Indeed she is the only one who actually tries to give Jesus the comfort and support he needs instead of just taking from him.  She also has a fabulous soprano which ranged from soothingly calm in “Everything’s Alright” to emotionally puzzled as she wrestles with her own feelings for Jesus in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”.

James Van Oort radiates menace and authority as the high priest, Caiaphas.  This is truly a dangerous man and not someone you want as an enemy.  His deep and mighty bass driving home those points in “This Jesus Must Die”, “Hosanna”, and “Trial Before Pilate”.

I rather liked Rick Weiland’s original take on Pontius Pilate.  His first appearance is the only time we see him without his mask and he is a decent and just man puzzling over his dream about the Nazorean (“Pilate’s Dream).  In all of his other appearances, it’s clear that his authority is in his position as he lacks the confidence to withstand the extreme pressure the Pharisees are putting on him to crucify Jesus.

Neil Simons’ lights were the best I have ever seen in a show.  His lights were almost separate characters enhancing every moment of the show.  I was especially impressed with how they would go red or dark whenever evil seemed to be getting the best of Jesus.  Kathryn Pope’s costumes were amazing.  Keeping with the gang mentality, you had the leather jackets of Jesus’s crew and the suits and sunglasses of the Pharisees.  What I found most intriguing was that every character wore black to symbolize the darkness they were in while Jesus wore an off white shirt showing him as the light of the world.  Tiffany Koppes’ choreography was highly entertaining and inventive, especially her hilarious routine for “King Herod’s Song”.  I also adored Brad Waltman’s crumbling Colosseum set.

There were a few minor glitches in the show.  Some microphone issues cropped up in Act II and a little of the dancing could have been smoother, but these tiny things pale in comparison to the sheer magnificence of the show.  As the house was nearly full, I suspect a monster hit is on the hands of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.  I heartily recommend getting a ticket before it’s too late.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre through May 21.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com.  The Sioux Empire Community Theatre is located at 315 N Phillips Ave in Sioux Falls, SD.