Opening the Windows to the Soul

Painter Jamie Wyeth decides to paint a portrait of famed ballet dancer, Rudolf Nureyev.  What begins as an opportunity for both men to obtain what benefits he can from the other evolves into a lifetime friendship.  If only Wyeth can unlock the means of painting Nureyev’s Eyes by David Rush and currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Rush has written an elegant script that is beautiful in its simplicity.  This is a story of friendship.  But the simple story contains profound depth as the friendship between Wyeth and Nureyev grows.  Over the course of the play both men slowly peel off their layers, revealing more and more of themselves to the other.  Rush’s words perfectly capture the essence of the mercurial Nureyev and the more laid back Wyeth with a real and natural conversational tone.  It’s sad.  It’s charming.  It’s witty.  It’s dark.  It’s light.  In short, it has all of the elements for a strong and compelling story.

Darin Anthony unlocks the full potential of Rush’s words with a stunning piece of direction.  I often forgot I was watching a play as the conversation between his two actors was so believable.  The conversations sparked with a vitality as the two performers run the whole gamut of friendship when butting heads due to each being “artist mad”, sharing meaningful talks over brandy, and revealing parts of themselves that they would prefer to remain hidden.  The staging is absolutely magnificent especially with the constant motion of Nureyev who said he could not sit still for a portrait.  Anthony leads his actors to pristine performances chock full of nuance and skill.

Sam Woods excels as Jamie Wyeth.  What I found especially compelling about Woods’ performance is that he portrays Wyeth as an everyman.  Despite being a descendant of a successful line of artists, Wyeth is still a regular guy, comfortable in torn jeans and a blue work shirt.  That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t take immense pride in his work.  He is fully aware of his talent and refuses to let the legendary Nureyev intrude on his domain.  Woods’ Wyeth is also more than up to the challenge of keeping up with Nureyev’s intellect as he matches him riddle for riddle with a sly smile.

Woods’ calmness as Wyeth serves as a good counterbalance to the fiery Nureyev as he is able to shrug off his temper tantrums and earn his respect to even begin this project, let alone keep it alive for so many years.  Some of the show’s best scenes include their ordinary conversations which serve the dual purpose of helping Wyeth get an idea as to how to paint Nureyev as well as expanding their bonds of friendship.

How do I best describe Jed Peterson’s turn as Rudolf Nureyev?  I think the closest analogy I can find is to imagine putting a cork into Old Faithful and then watch as that mighty geyser surges against the cork, threatening to blow at any moment.  Peterson has an energy that you can almost see and feel and it seems like he is barely able to keep it contained.  Indeed, without the occasional release of a tantrum, a riddle, apple pie and ice cream, or dance, it would seem that Peterson’s Nureyev would literally blow up.

Peterson doesn’t play Nureyev.  He IS Nureyev.  Peterson perfectly captures the force of nature that was Nureyev.  He is temperamental.  He is fierce.  He is cultured.  He is smart.  He is witty.  He is driven.  But in just the right moments, he can also be soft and peaceful.  He’s also an amazing dancer.

Peterson paints a portrait of a man who is never truly happy due to his never being able to fully trust anyone and only truly feels free when he dances.  Still his Nureyev opens up to Wyeth more than he has any other person, yet still doesn’t reveal all.  Peterson’s best moments occur when his Nureyev lets down some of his guard and reveals some of his true self.  His fears.  His loves.  His humanity.

The technical elements of the show were just as strong as the storytelling.  Kathy Voecks has designed a wonderful set consisting of pillars of sketches, charcoal drawings, and paintings.  Craig Marsh’s sound design was top notch, especially his use of 70s rock numbers.  Jill Anderson’s costuming was more than up to the task especially with the 70s mod fashion worn by Nureyev.  Ernie Gubbels’ lighting was impressive.  Most notable was his use of shadows which often made the two actors look like living Wyeth paintings and his use of disco lights during the first meeting between Wyeth and Nureyev.

This show is the essence of theatre.  It’s just real.  And it tells a touching story of friendship between two men from different cultures bound by the brotherhood of mad artistry.

Nureyev’s Eyes plays at the Blue Barn through April 15.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Thurs-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  There are no performances on March 25 or April 1.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for seniors (65+), students, and TAG members.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10 St in Omaha, NE.

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Grave Injustice

On the morning of April 27, 1913 in Atlanta, GA, the body of a 13 year old girl named Mary Phagan was found brutally murdered in the basement of the pencil factory where she had recently been laid off.  In a desperate attempt to close the books on the crime, her boss, Leo Frank, was indicted and convicted for the crime.  Frank was an ideal fall guy due to his being Jewish and a northerner.  This outsider status triggered a bloodlust and savagery in the community of Atlanta that led to the most devastating and tragic results.  This is the story of Parade written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  It opens tonight at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I’ve seen and been involved with good shows, bad shows, and great shows.  Above these categories lies a fourth category.  To be in this category, the show must transcend the normal theatregoing experience with a uniqueness that can’t be defined.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  But when it’s there, it transforms the show into something truly magical.  After last night’s show, I have added Parade to that fourth category.

Alfred Uhry has written an eminently tragic tale about the trial of Leo Frank.  It is unafraid; boldly tackling ideas such as social justice, racism, anti-Semitism, and blind vengeance.  While it is clearly a drama, it’s also a very realistic show as there are moments of happiness, fun, and laughter mixed in with the grief and tragedy.  Uhry’s script is infinitely strengthened by the score of Jason Robert Brown who has infused the musical with some of the most haunting melodies I have ever heard.

Jeff Horger has helmed what might be the season’s best production with second to none direction and a nearly flawless cast.  What I especially appreciated about Horger’s direction is that the focus is on the community.  Yes, this is Leo Frank’s story, but the community is the central character as it’s the mentality and reactions of the citizenry that drives this series of events.  The audience becomes part of this community through Horger’s staging which has the characters of the play sitting with them, melding them into one unit.

This cast is so loaded with talent that I would like nothing more than to write a 10 page review extolling all of their virtues.  With that being said, some of the remarkable performances you’ll see are Adam Hogston as Brit Craig, a boozy, slimy reporter who sensationalizes the murder to the point where Frank would be unable to get a fair trial; Chloe Irwin who gives a spot on performance as Mary Phagan.  Ms Irwin has an impressive range for one so young as she can be such a kid at one moment and move you to tears with her reactions during Mary’s funeral in the next.

Other mighty performances come from Melissa King as Mrs. Phagan who gives a tortured performance as the grieving mother highlighted by an incredible solo with “My Child Will Forgive Me”; Grant Mannschreck as Frankie Epps, Mary’s friend and suitor.  Mannschreck has a strong, bright tenor that brought tears to my eyes with “It Don’t Make Sense”.  Mike Palmreuter also shines as John Slaton, the governor who sets the chain of events into motion for political reasons, but tries to do the right thing in the end.  Brian Priesman is menacing as Tom Watson, a hypocritical Bible thumper who knows how to stir up the masses.

One of the actors to watch out for is J. Isaiah Smith as Jim Conley.  Smith just bleeds talent and charisma with his take on Conley.  Smith’s Conley is a snarky, conniving piece of human garbage whose testimony is crucial to the conviction of Frank, but he just might be hiding secrets of his own.  Smith darn near steals the show with two showstopping numbers:  “That’s What He Said” and “Blues:  Feel the Rain Fall’”.  The latter song allows Smith to hit some searing and awesome falsettos.

Michael Markey gives a multilayered performance as Hugh Dorsey, Atlanta’s D.A. and prosecutor for Frank’s trial.  Markey gives you the sense that he does want to see justice done, but he’s more worried about the political ramifications should he fail to find and convict a killer.  When Frank is served up to him, he has absolutely no qualms about using coached testimony and suborned perjury to doom him.  Markey also has a facile baritone well used in “Twenty Miles from Marietta” and “The Glory”.

Megan Kelly blew me away as Lucille Frank.  Aptly described as “Jewish and southern”, Ms Kelly is every bit the Southern belle, but with a devout faith as well.  She is also very real as her reactions and fears about Frank’s trial and the public’s reactions to her are dead on the mark.  Ms Kelly also gets to show real strength as she overcomes those fears to stand by her husband’s side, best shown with her lovely alto in “You Don’t Know This Man”.  Not only does she overcome her own fears, but she also overcomes Frank’s pigheadedness which she wonderfully describes in “Do It Alone” to give him the help he so desperately needs to obtain his freedom.

And in midst of all of this chaos is Leo Frank, incredibly essayed by James Verderamo.  Verderamo is uncanny as Frank as he walks that line of making him a decent man, but not a likable man.  Verderamo’s Frank is definitely a square peg in a round hole.  He’s unhappy in Atlanta and would rather be back home in Brooklyn, NY.  He’s a workaholic, anal, a bit arrogant, and easily flustered and frustrated.  He is also smart, a gentleman, and well-mannered.

Verderamo depicts Frank’s high strung nature with a perpetual hunch in his shoulders and a constant massaging of his hands.  He also has a scintillating tenor voice best used in “All The Wasted Time” and “Sh’ma”.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra find gold once more with a brilliant rendering of the score, not to mention the clever staging of their being on a balcony over the town to make them a band in the parade.  Tim Burkhart & John Giblisco score with their sounds especially the wavy sound effects of an era microphone.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes evoke the memories of early 1900s southern gear with the long dresses, three piece suits, and old time prison garb.  Jim Othuse has designed a simple town square with lamps, crumbling wall, and balcony.  And his lights suit the play’s emotions down to the ground with sad blues, angry reds, and dark shadows.  Melanie Walters’ choreography shines especially in “Pretty Music” and “That’s What He Said”.

This is what theatre is all about.  When it operates at its pinnacle, theatre is a galvanizing force for action.  In his notes, Jeff Horger called this a historical piece and that is absolutely correct.  For what is history, but a chance to learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them.

Parade plays at the Omaha Playhouse from Feb 9-Mar 11.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Due to mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  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.

Life Imitates Art Imitates Life

Thomas is a playwright/director who is holding auditions for his adaptation of the erotic novel, Venus in Furs.  As he is about to leave for the night, Vanda bursts into his auditions, pleading for a chance to read for the show.  Impressed by her choice of costume, he auditions her and then the life of the play begins to bleed into the real world. . .or is it the other way around??  This is Venus in Fur by David Ives and playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

The best way to describe this play is that it’s a simple story wrapped up in a web of complexity.  On the surface, it seems to be a story of an audition that segues back and forth from the world of the play to the real world, but it is so much more than that as it touches on themes of lust, sensuality, domination, and control.  I actually rank it as one of the most brilliant scripts I’ve seen as Ives has intimate knowledge of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s controversial novel and expertly weaves it into his own tale.  By doing so, he not only pays homage to the original work, but manages to give it a bit of a twist as well.

Guest director Ablan Roblin has sculpted a show that is surely going to be one of the most talked about of the season.  His staging is sensational as his two performers constantly glide about the stage as the layers of the story are peeled off.  His direction is deep and nuanced which results in powerful performances from the actors who bring the audience deeper and deeper into this rabbit hole of a show.

Matthew Olsen makes an incredible debut at the Blue Barn with his rendition of Thomas.  He begins the show as the elitist writer/director lamenting that he hasn’t been able to find a suitable actress for his show, enumerating all the things the actresses lacked or did wrong.  Then he meets Vanda, his frustration palpable as she is the epitome of all the things he disdained in the other performers.  Once she shows him a proper costume, he gives her a chance and then Thomas’ transformation begins.

Olsen finds dynamic balances in the role of Thomas.  He is the snooty intellectual, but an underconfident actor.  He’s engaged, but doesn’t want to be tied down.  He wants to be in charge, but ends up being led by the nose.  What I found most engaging was that the stronger the character Thomas was playing became, the weaker Thomas became.  Or was Thomas always weak and his character now reveals the truth?  It’s a stimulating and intelligent performance that will leave you enthralled and guessing.

Sarah Carlson-Brown will have you hooked from the moment she enters the room with her Vonda.  Inappropriately dressed as a dominatrix (complete with impressive tattoos) due to a perceived misunderstanding of the story, Ms Carlson-Brown also finds those crucial balances that make her character so compelling.

Though she looks like a dominatrix, she is, in fact, the dominated to start.  She is under the influence of the director who tells her where to stand and how to read.  But as she effortlessly becomes the character she’s reading for, suddenly she’s in control and calling the shots and soon takes over the position of power.  Or was she really in control the whole time?  Ms Carlson-Brown finds wonderful mixtures of sass and submission; strength and begging; power and weakness until her final form thunders in at the finale.

Sound, lights, and set are more crucial to this story than any other I’ve seen.  And the combination of Steven Williams and William Kirby is truly a winning one for this production.  Williams has constructed a fairly simple set of a raised platform with some stage lights, a divan.  But the pieces de resistance are his towering windows complete with the effect of pouring rain.  His lights are also stunning with the complete blackness of brief power outages to soft fluorescent to sensual (and hostile) reds.  Kirby’s sounds go hand in hand with the set and lights with the gentle patter of rain, the booming claps of thunder, and the intense and creepy music as the show heads into the climax.

Georgiann Regan’s costumes are a perfect fit (pun intended).  Most striking are Ms Carlson-Brown’s leather and lace outfit for Vonda and her elegant dress as Wanda.  Olsen is costumed in the elegant rich as the character Kusiemski, but later switches to a footmen’s coat as  Kusiemski falls into servitude.  Or does he??

This play is going to get people talking as I heard numerous conversations taking place after the opening night performance.  The play is a dandy little mindbender anchored by stellar direction and a pair of stellar performances from its two actors.

Venus in Fur plays at the Blue Barn through Feb 25.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6:30pm (the Feb 18 show will be a 2pm matinee).  There is no performance on Feb 4.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for seniors (65+), students, and TAG members.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Due to strong language and mature themes, this show is not suitable for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10 St in Omaha, NE.

The Spirits are Restless

In an attempt to learn “the tricks of the trade” for a new book, novelist Charles Condomine takes part in a séance conducted by the eccentric Madame Arcati who inadvertently summons the spirit of Charles’ late wife, Elvira.  The trouble is that Charles has remarried and now he’s literally caught between two worlds as each wife wants him for herself.  This is Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward and currently playing at the Bellevue Little Theatre.

I was a little surprised to learn that this play was actually written in the early 1940s because it has the feel of a 1920s play with its drawing room style of writing.  While Coward’s idea is a gem, this play was definitely a play for its time or earlier due to its incredibly talky nature.  Plays of this type require colossal amounts of energy to keep the interest of today’s audiences and credit is due to the cast of BLT’s production for mustering all of the positives possible out of the show.

Todd Uhrmacher provides a solid bit of direction for this show.  He has a good instinct for movement and has his performers continually animate the scenes which helps liven up the massive amount of dialogue supplied by the characters.  He’s also coached his actors well.  Each and all give well defined, focused performances.

Strong supporting performances are provided by Sherry Fletcher as Edith, a maid who has to physically keep herself from rushing throughout the house and who is more than she seems and by Ruth Rath as the daffy Madame Arcati.  Ms Rath has definitely picked up on Madame Arcati’s weirdness and I think she has a bit of room to make her peculiarities even more pronounced.

Gene Hinkle is very, very British as Charles Condomine.  Epitomizing the British ideal of having a stiff, upper lip, Hinkle’s Charles could teach a masterclass in patience and control as he always has a tight grip on his emotions even when his world gets turned upside down by Elvira’s return.  Hinkle cuts a very elegant figure with a strong well modulated voice that makes for an ideal Charles.  But I thought his performance could have been even funnier if he would have lost some of that incredible control when his world began falling to pieces.

Therese Rennels makes for a beautifully understated shrew as Elvira.  Ms Rennels strikes the perfect tone of snide with Elvira’s interactions with Charles and blithely snaps off verbal ripostes in her “conversations” (only Charles can actually see or hear her) with other characters.  Her Elvira is an incredibly selfish individual.  It’s always about her and her wants even when what she wants isn’t really what she wants.  Ms Rennels also has a good sense of pantomime as she rattles off a series of amusing gestures to the characters that can’t see or hear her.

I found Marti Carrington to be the most amusing character of the night with her rendition of Ruth, Charles’ current wife.  Like her husband, Ms Carrington’s Ruth is the very, very proper and stoic British woman, but Ms Carrington brings a vital and needed energy when Ruth begins to collapse in the second act due to Elvira’s machinations and disruptions.  Ms Carrington melts into a hysterical, weeping mess while never letting Ruth’s disintegration go overboard.

Energy is truly what the show needed last night as the sheer bulk of dialogue can be wearying to both cast and audience alike.  A brisker pace and tighter cue pickups would greatly aid in maximizing the show’s comedy.

The technical elements were quite strong.  A Joey Lorincz set is always one of the highlights of a BLT production and this is no exception with the gorgeous sitting room of the Condomine estate with its massive crackling fireplace, wood bookcase, and understated elegance of the furniture.  Todd Uhrmacher’s costumes evoke wealth and class.  I also thought the special effects of spectral paintings and flying knick knacks were exceptional.

This show’s style is going to require a bit of patience on the part of the audience.  The idea is genuinely humorous, the script does have some good zingers and a few twists and surprises, but it takes its time getting there.  But a strong group of performers (with a splash of more energy) will help audiences reach the payoff.

Blithe Spirit continues at Bellevue Little Theatre until Feb 4.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets prices are $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students with valid ID.  For tickets, contact 402-291-1554 between 10am-4pm, Mon-Fri.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.

You Say You Want a Musical Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age in the Cage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a Wonderful Play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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