From Them to You

From L to R (Ryan, Billy, and Matthew McGuigan rock out with Jay “Superman” Hanson in ‘Yesterday and Today’

It all began with one man’s love for the Beatles.  He passed that love to his children who gift countless people around the country with the music of the greatest group in rock, sharpened and honed with their own unique energy and delivery.  And now they’re doing it again in their own hometown at their new home at The Slowdown.  It’s Rave On Productions’ Christmas present to Omaha:  Yesterday & Today:  The Interactive Beatles Experience.

Yes, the McGuigans (Billy, Ryan, and Matthew) and their band are once again blessing the city with their gift of Beatles music for the holiday season.  This year marks the 15th anniversary of Yesterday & Today and it truly is the gift that keeps on giving.  This is actually Y & T’s second year at their new digs and the move to The Slowdown has actually helped make this show better than ever.

Having seen this show in multiple venues I can tell you that the band sometimes has to adapt their show to suit the environment.  But The Slowdown allows them to adapt the environment to suit the show as they have the best sound equipment, lights, and effects available so musicians can mold a top flight concert.  Billy McGuigan has also been able to add horns and strings which allows the McGuigans and their band to get the maximum potential out of each and every number.  Toss in the most varied set list I’ve ever heard (kudos to the audience), a supercharged band, an audience ravenous for entertainment, and the longest set of encores I’ve heard from the band and you’ve got the greatest rendition of Y & T that I’ve seen to date.

Billy McGuigan

Once more, Billy McGuigan acts as your master of ceremonies and tonight he was especially up for the game.  You could see the joy just radiating from his eyes as he soaked in the crowd’s energy and funneled it into his playing and singing throughout the night.  Billy got the night started off fast and right with a high powered take on “Got to Get You Into My Life” and barely paused for a breath from thenceforth.  If he wasn’t rocking out on early tunes like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “From Me to You” then he was leading the crowd to gentle waters with a trilogy including “Yesterday”, “Let it Be”, and “Here, There, and Everywhere”.  Billy clearly had the gasoline to go all night, but had to leave the audience immensely satisfied with merely a dozen encore tunes including the classic “Hey Jude” to close out the night.

Ryan McGuigan

No performer fuses theatricality and singing quite like Ryan McGuigan.  His numbers aren’t just songs.  They’re performance pieces.  Add that tenor that makes him sound like John Lennon reborn into the mix and you will simply be agog at his musical might.  Ryan kicked things into high gear right out of the gate with the acid trippy “She Said, She Said” and kept his foot on the accelerator with “Revolution”, “Come Together”, and “I Am the Walrus” though he did slow things down with a beautiful take on “All You Need is Love”.

Matthew McGuigan

Matthew McGuigan flexed his musical majesty in the first act especially with his bass work in “From Me to You” and brought his musical chops to bear in the second act.  Highlights of his singing included the ethereal “Strawberry Fields Forever” and somewhere I can hear John Lennon asking himself why he didn’t think to end the song on the same plaintive note that Matthew does.  McGuigan also soars with a peppy version of “All My Loving” and indulges in a bit of hard psychedelia with “Hey, Bulldog”.

Ciaran McGuigan

Lead guitarist Jay “Superman” Hanson not only knocked things out of the park with his skilled guitar playing, but he got multiple chances to shine with takes on George Harrison classics such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”, and “Here Comes the Sun”.  Ciaran McGuigan has blossomed into a fine guitarist and his sweet, almost shy, take on “With a Little Help From My Friends” shows he will carry the legacy of Y & T into the future.

Jay “Superman” Hanson

Billy McGuigan often says the show is not about him and his band, but about the music from four guys from Liverpool and the audience’s connection with that music.  There’s an element of truth to that, but that connection would mean nothing without the interpretation of this music by three guys from Omaha inspired by a father who left this world much too soon.  Yesterday & Today has truly become a family affair and it’s a comforting feeling to know these treasures of Omaha will continue to share this gift with our town and the rest of the country for a long time to come.

Yesterday and Today:  The Interactive Beatles Experience runs at The Slowdown through Dec 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sun at 7:30pm through Dec 11 and Wed-Fri at 7:30pm Dec 21-30.  There are no shows from Dec 12-20 and the performance on Dec 4 is at 6:30pm.  Tickets range from $20-$50 and can be purchased here.  The Slowdown is located at 729 N 14th St in Omaha, NE.

Tears of Christmas

It’s the story of one man’s salvation through the saving power of Christmas.  It’s A Christmas Carol and it is playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

OCP’s classic tradition is back on stage for the 47th time and this marks my third year in a row reviewing it and, I believe, my fifth time reviewing a version of this show.  I’m sometimes asked why I would review a show I’ve reviewed before and the answer is simple.

It’s never quite the same show.

Actors change.  Directors change.  Crew members change.  And with every change comes a new bit of insight.  A different way of doing things that makes the show original unto itself.  Even if everything were identical from the previous year, it would still be different because new and fresh inspirations would be infused into the show.  As it happens this show had a number of changes this year beginning with a blend of the new and classic as Susie Baer-Collins returns to direct the holiday tradition along with OCP Artistic Director, Stephen Santa, and Jim McKain who were making their directing debuts with this show.  The end result was the most moving rendition of A Christmas Carol I have witnessed at OCP.

With the fusion of the three directors, you assuredly see elements and moments from past productions of the show, but you also see new and original ones as well.  You also get a crucial new element that I had never seen in any previous production:  somberness.  This show began with a very sad feeling, almost as if Scrooge’s essence was infused into every jot and tittle of this world.  I admit I was hooked and I shed a few tears along the way.  Baer-Collins, Santa, and McKain guided their performers to solid performances and had me believing in Christmas’ power.

I always enjoy watching the ensemble, especially when they’re really into their performances.  As I gazed about and saw the smiling faces and lights in the eyes of the actors, I was well and truly sucked into their world.  Some stellar performances in the supporting cast came from Cullen Wiley as Topper who is truly amusing when he gives clues as he plays Yes and No at Fred’s party.  Jacob Roman brings a real meekness to Bob Cratchit whose strong heart allows him to work with the miserly and unkind Scrooge.  Christina Rohling is a loving mother and the rock supporting her husband as Mrs. Cratchit.

Don Keelan-White unlocked the full potential of Jacob Marley with his attack on the role this season.  There was something truly haunting (no pun intended) in both the supernatural and the emotional senses of the word with his performance.  He seemed otherworldly and very human at the same time.  His regret at his failure to help his fellow man during his lifetime was palpable and sincere and I loved his scaring the bejeepers out of Scrooge as he smacked his chains against the floor and pointedly warned Scrooge about the length and weight of his own invisible chains.

DJ Tyree was the Ghost of Christmas Present I had long envisioned.  Tyree just bled majesty and regality and basked in the essence of this spirit.  He had the jovial nature needed for this generous ghost, but also gave Scrooge a pointed verbal jab or two as he threw Scrooge’s cruel words back in his face when discussing the potential fate of Tiny Tim.

For the 17th and final time, Jerry Longe takes the reins of this show as Ebenezer Scrooge.  Indeed, I think the knowledge that this is his last go around added to some of the somber feeling of the show and certainly lent it an additional power.  Longe’s take on Scrooge this time was an angle I’ve never seen played before in any version and I really loved it.  Longe made Scrooge spiritually dead.  By that I mean, he was utterly emotionless.  Life held no joy for him and his accumulation of wealth was just something he did as it certainly brought him no happiness or comfort.  So convincing was Longe in this spiritual death that it made his Scrooge seem very old and frail.  It also had me riding along on Scrooge’s salvation train in a way I had never experienced it before.  Longe was shedding real tears at some points as Scrooge’s dead heart was slowly resurrected and I was searching for my own tissue right along with him.  His redemption had a purity I had never seen before and left me with a sense of divine satisfaction.

Longe seemed to improv asides a bit more this year, but they were fun and one aside had me doubled over with laughter. You’ll know it when you hear it. Truly, it is a fine finale for this treasure of local theatre.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra perfectly played the Christmas carols and hymns and there was an x factor this year that gave it that extra emotional punch.  Michelle Garrity’s choreography was always charming especially in the party scenes.  Linsday Pape’s costumes transport you to the Victorian era of Charles Dickens.  Jim Othuse’s set helps add to that feeling of a bygone era with the old-fashioned buildings and his lights add emotional depths with stars, the pale green of Jacob Marley, and the near total blackness while Scrooge waits for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  Tim Burkhart and John Gibilisco’s sounds always enhance things with the ghostly voice modifications for the spirits, the gentle tolling of a clock tower bell, and the tinkling sound hearkening the appearance of Ghost of Christmas Past.  Andrew Morgan’s properties add so much with the sight of feasts, toys, and Christmas items.  Darrin Golden’s technical direction makes the supernatural realistic and Janet Morr’s artistry enhances the sets.

I think you’re truly in for a Christmas treat this year as this incarnation of A Christmas Carol is going to hit you in a way you’ve never been hit before.  You’ll truly marvel at the power of Christmas.

A Christmas Carol runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Dec 23.  Showtimes are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6:30pm.  Tickets start at $40 and may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at (402) 553-0800, or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Omaha Community Playhouse

Family Drama

Lon Smith has been offered a promotion that requires him to relocate himself and his family to New York.  Lon’s family, especially his headstrong and troublemaking daughters, are dead set against the move.  In trying to derail the move, Lon’s eldest child, Rose, ends up derailing his job.  To find out how the family copes with this turn of events, watch Meet Me in St. Louis currently playing at Bellevue Little Theatre.

This show is unusual in that it first began life as a series of short stories by Sally Benson called The Kensington Stories in 1942 and these stories were later novelized under the title of Meet Me in St. Louis. Arthur Freed would convince Louis B. Mayer to buy the film rights and the stories were turned into a musical starring Judy Garland in 1944. Later, Christopher Sergel would turn the stories into a straight play. This production happens to be the straight play and it is very much a period piece.  It does seem a bit stronger than others of its ilk as it isn’t quite so draggy as its counterparts.  This production was also aided by a cast who were able to infuse the words and characters with some whimsy and charm.

Newcomer Jackson Newman really does get all that he can out of the script and any director that can manage to keep vibrancy with incredibly talky dialogue is clearly doing something right.  Newman strikes the right emotional beats with his control of the dialogue and gets his cast to project a strong sense of family.  He’s also led his cast to some effective performances and makes good use of the massive living room set.  It never feels empty in any spot and actors are well staged and blocked and can be seen at all points.

There were some exceptional performances in the supporting cast.  Chris Latta is an insufferable toady as Duffy.  Dannika Rees just bleeds snobbery as Lucille Pentard.  Randy Wallace amuses in the dual roles of the eccentric grandfather who claims he was once a king and as Lon’s blustering boss, Mr. Dodge.

This show had a real find in the form of Amy Wagner as Agnes.  Wagner struck all the right notes as the bratty and defiant tomboy who plays some pretty dangerous and mean-spirited pranks.  Wagner’s voice was clear and strong and could be heard throughout the theatre and her articulation was clear as a bell.

Francisco Franco is very sweet and fatherly as the family patriarch, Lon Smith.  Franco brings a real gentleness to Smith who is fully aware that he doesn’t have much control over the behavior of his children.  As such he uses persuasion and reason to convince his children of the soundness of his judgments as opposed to ordering them about.  What I truly admired about his performance was that he didn’t get angry when his kids screwed things up, he got hurt.  And his agony was more of a punishment to his children than his anger ever could hope to be.

Charity Williams imbues her Rose with the right blend of youth and nobility.  Rose has many positive qualities such as determination and forthrightness.  However, due to her youth, she can misuse these positive traits and can act with great idiocy.  Her mouth tends to run away with her and she often acts before she thinks which can lead to a world of trouble.  But sometimes her blitheness can save the day, too.

Joey Lorincz conjures yet another piece of theatrical magic with his gorgeous living room set that looks like it stepped right out of the early 1900s with its red patterned wallpaper and he closes the show with a colorful fireworks display shining through the living room window.  Rebecca Krause has the living room filled with period correct furniture.  Francisco Franco doubles up with sound design work with my favorite being a yowling cat used in a few gags.  Todd Uhrmacher’s costumes suit the period with dapper vests and suits for the men and fancy dresses, hats, and gowns for the ladies.

There were a few squeaks in today’s performance.  Pacing needed to be much quicker and cue pickups were lax.  Some of the movements seemed a little too staged and needed to be more natural.  Still, if you like a good vintage piece, then Meet Me in St. Louis will be right up your alley.

Meet Me in St. Louis runs through Nov 20. Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased at the Box Office, at blt.simpletix.com, or calling 402-413-8945.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.

Who Am I?

It’s a most unique love triangle.  Alice is in a relationship with Fiona who informs her that she now wants to live as a man and be called Adrian.  Leilani is attracted to Alice.  And Alice is trying to summon the courage to come out to her parents, but all the while is trying to figure out who she truly is.  This is Rotterdam and it is the debut production for Voices in Alliance and is playing at the Flixx Show Bar.

I was honored to be asked to review the inaugural show for this new theatre and I can certainly say that if the quality of future productions matches this one, this theatre will be very successful.

Jon Brittain has written a fascinating script.  It’s completely dialogue driven, yet never drags or becomes a sitting room piece.  Every conversation sparks and crackles with tension, love, questions, philosophy, and emotion.  The play’s dominant theme is searching for that sense of identity and being true to one’s self.  Sometimes that search is much harder than it seems.

Randall T. Stevens provides a top flight piece of direction.  Not only has he led his thespians to shining performances, but he has them use the dialogue with a brutal efficiency.  There’s no lag between the words.  Cue pickups were tight as a drum.  In some of the more intense scenes, words are flung like daggers between characters.  His staging is fairly effective as he uses the lounge’s own bar tables for bar scenes and utilizes spots other than the stage to perform some moments.  The layout is almost like theatre in the round and he may want to adjust some of the blocking to prevent actors from upstaging themselves at certain points, if possible.

Analisa Swerczek has her finest performance to date with her rendition of Alice.  As Alice, Swerczek is skittish and hides that skittishness beneath a veneer of perfectionism.  She’s written 15 drafts to come out to her parents, but can never pull the trigger.  In some ways, she’s very cowardly and Swerczek always has that sense of being hunted about her, never realizing that she is also the hunter that hounds her.  Alice is a lost soul searching for her true self while simultaneously running from it.  And her first brave steps towards claiming her own identity is simplistically and beautifully handled in the finale.

Ang Bennett has a moving performance as Fiona/Adrian.  Unlike Alice, Fiona always had confidence and certainness in who she was and seems to maintain that confidence when she decides to make the transition to Adrian.  Ironically, as Adrian, he begins to lose some of that confidence as he overreacts to not being accepted as a man immediately.  And Alice’s seeming rejection of Adrian causes him to nearly sacrifice his identity out of love.  Bennett handles some difficult scenes gracefully, especially one where Adrian practically begs his brother to physically fight him to feel like a man.  Bennett does need to keep their projection up as certain moments of dialogue were a little faint.

Nick LeMay and Xena Broaden sparkle in the supporting roles of Josh and Leilani.  LeMay’s Josh is in an original situation as he once dated Alice before Alice left him for his sister, Fiona.  Still, he has remained a staunch friend to both and serves as a bedrock for them to lean on as their relationship starts becoming tumultuous.  LeMay brings a genuine kindness and sensitivity to the role and provides some levity in lighter moments.  Broaden’s Leilani is a live life to the fullest kind of girl and wants to drag Alice kicking and screaming into the adventure of life.  But she also gives Leilani an innocent obtuseness as she is sometimes unable to recognize the seriousness of a situation and unwisely inserts herself into deeply personal moments.

Shannon Smay’s sounds really keep the production clipping along, especially his use of the song “Rotterdam”.

It’s a stellar first production for Voices in Alliance and a deep look into that personal sense of identity that’s going to have you really thinking before the night is done.

Rotterdam runs at Flixx Show Bar under the auspices of Voices in Alliance through Nov 19.  Showtimes are 7pm Thurs-Sat.  Tickets cost $25 and can be obtained here. For more information, please call 402-208-0150.  Due to mature language and themes, this show is not suitable for children.  Flixx Show Bar is located at 1019 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

One Man’s Truth

Adam Richardson stars as Malcolm X in Opera Omaha’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X

Hardened by anger at racism, personal tragedy, and a criminal lifestyle in his youth, Malcolm Little loses his sense of self and purpose.  He discovers the Nation of Islam while serving a prison sentence and emerges as Malcolm X with an inner fire and a sense of purpose that took the world by storm.  Come discover his life and times in X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X which is playing at the Orpheum Theater under the auspices of Opera Omaha.

While I’ve seen a few rock operas, this was my first experience at watching a true opera and it is definitely a very different style of performing.  It’s a bit more stoic and less animated than traditional theatre.  There’s definitely an element of acting, but it gets a bit trickier as nuancing a song is a touch harder than nuancing dialogue due to having to be able to do it on key.  But there’s nothing like music to sweep you away to another world and this cast does a phenomenal job in taking you through the complex life of Malcolm X.

It assuredly takes a village to create an opera and that starts with getting the right music, words, and story together.  This show has a mighty triumvirate in the forms of Anthony Davis, Thulani Davis, and Christopher Davis.  Anthony Davis’ music crackles with an intensity and has the feel of traditional opera from the times of Wagner and Mozart, yet he can also contemporize it when it segues into a light, jazzy feel.  Thulani Davis (librettist) and Christopher Davis (story author) create the structure and words of the tale and I admired the truly honest way they portrayed Malcolm X.  They don’t try to romanticize him.  They paint a realistic picture of who he was and the influences that shaped him.  They even use actual quotations from Malcolm X to paint that real and true portrait.

Robert O’Hara does some amazing direction with the piece.  His staging is so skillful and has some of the most precise placement of performers I have ever come across.  Never was there a moment when I couldn’t see the face of each and every performer.  He makes an opening meeting in the house of the Littles seem relaxed and welcoming.  A scene in prison feels controlled and regimented, especially with the vision of iron bars separating the prisoners.  O’Hara makes certain his actors are fueled with an intensity that just leaps out and grabs you by the throat and hits the emotional beats of the story with deadeye accuracy.

In opera, as in theatre, the value of an ensemble is key as they form the backbone of the staged world.  Each was always in the moment and their beautiful voices added some heavenly harmonies to the show.  But I’d like to especially cite the work of Charles Dennis whose presence is always felt as Young Malcolm Little.  Outside from having to get the show up and running, Dennis also often pops up in scenes with his adult self as a reminder of innocence lost and, perhaps, regained after Malcolm X’s hajj.  Dorse Brown, Christopher Jackson, Corde Young, Jay Staten, and Mikhail Calliste also form a Greek chorus to help move the story along with their lithe and exemplary dancing which was stunningly choreographed by Rickey Tripp.  Whitney Morrison gives a haunting portrayal of Louise Little, Malcolm’s mother, who succumbs to madness after the untimely death of her husband.  You can just see her sense of life and self fade from her body as it sags and goes limp after the news of her husband’s passing.

I was blown away by the work and voice of Victor Robertson.  Robertson shows some true versatility with his disparate performances of Street and Elijah Muhammad.  As Street, Robertson oozes an oily charm as he takes Malcolm under his wing, but leads him down an ill path of drugs and crime.  As Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, he exudes authority and an iron fist and woe betide any who disobey his orders.  Robertson is blessed with an otherworldly tenor that can hit and sustain sonic high notes with an effortless ease.

Adam Richardson is a force to be reckoned with as Malcolm X.  His powerful baritone is well suited to the serious and driven Muslim minister and activist.  Richardson captures the intensity of Malcolm X well as he never smiles and rarely reacts to outside stimuli.  By that I mean he never swallowed bait designed to get him angry.  Malcolm X always believed in preaching the truth as he saw it and didn’t shy away from the consequences of doing so.  Richardson presents a man truly committed to his cause and his ability to act with his eyes gives you a glimpse into Malcolm’s thought processes and feelings.  You can see and feel his hurt when he is silenced by the Nation of Islam after speaking on JFK’s assassination.  You understand his disillusionment with Elijah Muhammad when he learns of his less than strict adherence to the Law.  And you can see his inner transformation and sense of peace after his hajj where he comes to believe that Sunni Islam is the key to true brotherhood.

Gil Rose’s conducting is right on the mark and his musicians are always precisely on point with the notes and power of the score.  Clint Ramos has designed a seemingly simple set, yet there’s such detail about it.  He uses a background stage for public talks, battered walls for street corners, and has a banner running across the top of the stage on which Yee Eun Nam is able to project images of the KKK, the names of racism victims, and flashes of lightning.  Dede Ayite’s costumes are elegant and eye-catching from the zoot suits of Malcolm’s younger days to the simple dark suit he often wore to the suit, bowtie, and distinctive hat of Elijah Muhammad.  Alex Jainchill’s lighting added that emotional je ne sais quoi to the opera especially with the softer focus on Malcolm X in his more contemplative moments.

Omaha was fortunate to host the Midwest premiere of this opera and the New York Met better ready itself because this opera is going to go nova and have people coming in droves.  You still have one last chance to see it locally before it heads out, but act fast as the Sunday show is nearly sold out.

The final show of Opera Omaha’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X takes place on Nov 6 at 2pm at the Orpheum Theater.  Tickets range from $19-$99 and can be purchased at Ticket Omaha or by calling the Box Office 90 minutes before showtime at 402-345-0606 or 866-434-8587.  The Orpheum Theatre is located at 409 S 16th St in Omaha, NE.

Photo by Opera Omaha-Tom Grady

And Then There Was Fun

Six people are invited to the retreat of Col. Rancour with a request for the Colonel to visit each of them individually.  However, when a storm washes out the bridge to freedom and guests start dropping dead, it becomes clear that among the guests, help, and trapped college student lies a murderer.  This is Something’s Afoot and it is currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

It is really difficult to engage in an analysis of the script without revealing a salient plot point of this mystery, so I’m just going to leave things lie with my opening paragraph and you’ll just have to come watch.  What I can say is that James McDonald, David Vos, and Robert Gerlach definitely did a deep dive into detective fiction in general and Agathe Christie mysteries in particular to come up with the plot of this story.  In fact, it’s a good combination of the plotting of Agatha Christie and the presentation of Rex Stout (in the sense that the solution to the mystery is secondary to the colorful characters).  Wrapped in the stylings of an old-time British music hall performance, this show provides a unique twist to the musical genre and a fun night of theatre.

Colton Pometta gets this show.  This show is a very satirical poke at mysteries and Pometta rides that wave for all it’s worth.  He lets his characters go over the top just enough so that they’re larger than life and amusing, but keeps them away from the point where it would become farcical and gauche.  Pometta’s timing is spot on as his performers picked up cues like lightning and kept driving this show along.  His staging is strong with full use of the space and ratcheting up the tension once it’s clear the murderer is somewhere in the house.  Pometta has also led his actors to well-defined characters and tight performances.

There isn’t a weak link in the cast and each is a vital part of the machine.  Roger Williams has a very stiff upper lip as the very proper butler, Clive.  Justin Barron is a solid caretaker and a bit of a lech with his pinching of ladies’ glutes.  Deanna Mazdra is humorous as the very Cockney maid whose sense of self-preservation is exceeded only by her greed.  Bob Wearing invokes the spirit of Terry Thomas with his take on the slimy, money-grubbing nephew of Col Rancour.  Todd Davison is clinical as the family doctor.  Mike Ott is a scream as the blustering Col. Gillweather with some of the best extemporaneous asides I’ve ever heard and the funniest death scene I’ve ever seen.  Kim Braun is appropriately snooty as the grand dame, Lady Grace Manley-Prowe.

Licia Watson tickles the funny bone as Miss Tweed, the artist/amateur sleuth.  Clearly she is meant to be a combination of Agatha Christie and her creation, Miss Marple.  Most of her humor comes from the fact that she lacks the deductive prowess of Christie’s famed sleuth, though the dimes do eventually drop.  Watson’s Tweed definitely isn’t lacking in courage as she confidently stumbles her way through the investigation.  Watson also has a potent singing voice as she invokes British fortitude in “Carry On” and explains the secret to her deductive “brilliance” in “I Owe It All”.

Jacob Sefcak’s take on Geoffrey reminded me of a young Michael Crawford as Geoffrey definitely has that charming idiot vibe.  Sefcak nails the puppy dog loyalty and looks of young love and is clearly not the brightest of bulbs.  Sefcak also has a dandy tenor that captures every ounce of sap needed for “I Don’t Know Why I Trust You (But I Do)” and “New Day”.

Abigail Becker is darling as Hope Langdon.  Becker’s Langdon operates on the same intellectual plane as Geoffrey, but is such a ray of sunshine.  She is exactly what she appears to be (or is she?) and has a crystal clear soprano that joyously welcomes the guests in “A Marvelous Weekend” or moons over Geoffrey in “You Fell Out of the Sky”.

I was particularly impressed with the sound work of this production as Madison Phillips’ thunderclaps, creaks, and sounds of death traps add the proper atmosphere to the story.  Todd Davison has designed an elegant retreat for the wealthy Rancour with its purple walls and use of outlines and light to depict a large window.  Jenna Alley’s props help to flesh out the world, especially with the large portrait of Rancour.  Kelby King’s costumes suit the class statuses of the characters as well as the time period with accurate dresses and suits.  I also tip my hat to the lights which were suitably eerie when power was knocked out or the chandeliers were lit.  The band also effortlessly handled the music hall score.

Trust me, you don’t need to be a fan of murder mysteries to enjoy this show.  If you like comedy and some old-fashioned tunes, then you’ll like this show, too.  But accept the challenge of trying to solve the mystery and you’ll find yourself most thoroughly engaged.

Something’s Afoot runs at Maples Repertory Theatre through Nov 6.  Showtimes are 2pm on Oct 22-23, 25-26, 29-30 and Nov 1-2 and 4-6 and at 7:30pm Oct 23, 28, 30, and Nov 2. Tickets cost $33 for the Main Floor and $26 for the balcony and can be obtained at the Box Office or by visiting www.maplesrep.com or calling 660-385-2924. Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

A Comedy of Calamitous Proportions

It’s the actor’s nightmare come to life and put on full display.  Join a sub-sub-subpar acting troupe as they flail and flop their way through a rehearsal and a couple of performances of the farce, Nothing On, in Noises Off! currently playing at Lofte Community Theatre.

Michael Frayn’s farce within a farce has often been called the funniest play ever written.  I find it hard to disagree with that statement as it has all the elements which make for great hilarity:  slamming doors, breakneck pace, mistaken situations, and over the top characters.  This play is also one of the most technically difficult plays ever written as most of the script’s pages are split in two (half dialogue/half stage directions) and its second act is mostly a silent film brought to life as it is sight gag placed upon sight gag with nary a bit of dialogue outside of the show in the show.  In fact, the play’s lone weakness is that it fails to complete the story arcs of the “real” people that get set up during the story.

Kevin Colbert has a real flair for comedy.  He truly understands bits and beats and his direction especially shines in the nearly silent second act when countless sight gags and moments battle for your attention. The jokes are executed with military precision and are so funny, even Buster Keaton would crack a smile.  Colbert’s staging is right on the money as Act I feels like an exhausting late night tech rehearsal that we actors know so well while Act II gives a farcical, yet surprisingly truthful look at what actors do while waiting for their cues and Act III is the legendary actor’s nightmare where everything that can go wrong does.  Colbert also has some nice meta moments such as showing a supposedly botched scene change when Act II segues into Act III and malfunctions such as actors being on the wrong side of the curtain when it closes.  Colbert has also crafted sterling performances from his actors, creating well defined and unique characters.

This play is an ensemble in the truest sense of the word.  There is no leading role.  The weight of this show is evenly distributed on the shoulders of each cast member who all get moments in the spotlight as their personal relationships shift and fray resulting in the riotous dismantling of their performances.

This review would form a novella if I waxed poetic on every cast member, but golden performances are given by one and all.  Nathan Wilson is a riot as the put upon set designer/understudy/gofer who is always either a half step behind or ahead of the others depending on the crisis.  Adam Kovar is a master of physical comedy as the hot-tempered Garry Lejeune with falls so believable I actually thought he had hurt himself on a few occasions.  Anne Pope is a steady hand as the troupe’s most level headed performer, Belinda Blair, who is overly optimistic and a bit of a gossip.  Alyssa Rosecrans is hysterical as the stupider than a brick, Brooke Ashton, who constantly loses her contact lenses, meditates and practices yoga when stressed out, and obliviously continues with her role despite it not making sense as things fall apart around her.  Deanna Walz is hilarious as the actor/producer who can never remember her stage actions and lights the fire that is Act II with her relationship troubles with Garry.  Natalie McGovern is wonderful as the stage manager/understudy, Poppy, whose sweetness is matched only by her poor acting.

I was particularly taken in by Jon Kruse’s interpretation of Selsdon Mowbray.  Kruse underplays the role beautifully and I envision his Selsdon as a once capable actor who has been betrayed by age and his addiction to the bottle.  Kruse is very convincing as the nearly deaf thespian who can’t remember his lines and can’t recite them properly when prompted and never met a bottle of booze he didn’t like.

Mick Kovar spins some theatrical gossamer with his take on Frederick Fellowes.  Kovar’s Fellowes is a likable guy, but, man, he can also get on your nerves in a hurry as his obtuseness about motivations and plot prevent him from simply acting.  Kovar is a hoot as the hapless sad sack who spontaneously bleeds from the nose when violence occurs or at the sight of blood.  He is an impressive physical comic in his own right as he gets tangled in sheets and waddles around with his pants around his ankles.

Somewhere I imagine Kermit the Frog is pointing at Lloyd Dallas and laughing his head off as he handles his Muppets far better than Dallas manages his.  Neal Herring gives his Dallas a certain air of superiority because he seems more concerned with directing Richard III than he does about getting Nothing On off the ground.  He’s also a bit of a cad as he sleeps with a couple members of the cast and crew.  However, he’s also a shrewd master of diplomacy as he knows how to navigate the relationships and shortcomings of his actors even if the massive stress of doing so causes him to force a grin so tense I thought his teeth would shatter.

Kevin Colbert and Don Larew at Scenographics team up to design the massive great room of a mansion with a circular couch at the center and 8 doors and a set of windows suitable for slamming and frenetic entrances and exits.  Tim Sorenson’s sounds enhance the comedy especially with the delayed window breaking cues of the third act when too many actors try to play the same part.  Janet Sorenson’s costumes are realistic and natural.

Act I could have used a snappier pace, but I believe it was slowed by a quieter audience not giving the cast the needed fuel.  But once the pantomime started in Act II. . .whoa Nellie!!!  The cast just poured gasoline on the fire and their energy and animation would have lit Las Vegas and it didn’t wane until the final curtain fell.

There’s no depth to this show.  It’s just an unbridled, free for all of fun.  A viewing of this show will take care of your ab exercises for a week, so get a ticket and ready yourself to howl yourself hoarse.

Noises Off! runs at Lofte Community Theatre through October 30. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets cost $24 and can be purchased at www.lofte.org or by calling the box office at 402-234-2553. Lofte Community Theatre is located at 15841 Manley Road in Manley, NE.

It Came Upon a Midnight Drear

Schoolmaster Ichabod Crane arrives in the village of Sleepy Hollow to instruct students and direct the church choir.  While there, he sets his eyes on the fortune of Baltus Van Tassel and his beautiful daughter, Katrina.  In his path lay a formidable rival and the headless ghost of a Hessian soldier.  This is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and it is currently playing at BlueBarn Theatre.

As normalcy continues to return to the world, I’ve found myself returning to a lot of things that I did before the pandemic.  So it seems apropos that I get another chance at reviewing a version of this story.  Washington Irving’s gothic tale is one of my favorite short stories.  Both times I heard about a production of this story I had the same question, “How does one take a 20-30 minute tale and spin it into a full length production?”  The first version I saw went wide of the mark.

Ben Beck and Jill Anderson hit a dead center bullseye.

Beck and Anderson’s version of the classic ghost story is completely faithful to the original even to the point of using Irving’s own lines.  How did they expand it into a full show?  Not by adding unnecessary scenes, but by expanding Irving’s references.  When Ichabod is invited to a fall harvest at the Van Tassel’s, they do a formal invitation scene.  When they say they’re going to tell ghost stories at the party, they tell some ghost stories.  Thus, Beck and Anderson retain the story’s original intention and are able to present its full power to the public, greatly boosted by top of the line direction and acting.

Jill Anderson has taken on a very unique challenge with her direction of this production.  This is not a regular play.  Rather it blends several styles of performing.  There most assuredly is acting, but there is also puppetry, pantomime, and storytelling.  That final point is crucial because there is a difference between acting and storytelling.  Acting is presenting the truth of a character, but storytelling is exactly what it sounds like and provides a certain leeway in being a bit bigger and over the top.  Anderson effortlessly fuses the multiple styles of performing to create a gripping tale, adds some icing with her coaching of the cast, and tops it with the cherry of her staging which uses the whole theatre and I mean the WHOLE theatre.  Watch out when Ichabod starts wandering through the woods.

This show is primarily narration with the actors occasionally becoming characters (with the exception of Ichabod) to help propel the story along.  As such it eschews normal analysis, but the ensemble does excellent work in presenting the story.  Where needed, they give it humor, drama, and even chilling tension.  Each performer gets a chance to shine such as Abz Cameron’s take on the coquettish (I say shallow and manipulative) Katrina Van Tassel.  Raydell Cordell III generates some of the show’s biggest laughs as an uneducated, uncouth farmer plus Crane’s housing host, Hans Van Ripper.  Rodger Gerberding makes for a surprisingly convincing mistress as Van Tassel’s wife.  Roderick Hickman has a voice made for narration.  Theresa Sindelar provides laughs as a bratty student in Ichabod’s class and exudes authority as Baltus Van Tassel. 

Brandon Williams is a standout with his key role of Ichabod’s rival, Brom Bones.  Williams’ powerful baritone perfectly suits the athletic and confident Brom and he gives Brom that important quality of likability.  Sure, he’s a bit of a rowdy, but has “more mischief than ill-will in his composition”.  And I like how his facial expressions and snarling make clear he’d like to drive his fist into Ichabod’s beaked nose, but settles for juvenile pranks and perhaps one not quite so juvenile.

Josh Peyton is perfect as Ichabod Crane.  Peyton gets Ichabod and realizes he’s no hero.  Crane is actually a very unlikable person.  He’s smug.  He’s vain.  He’s superstitious.  He’s a craven coward.  He flaunts his education.  He ingratiates himself to the local women to share gossip and to feed his face (and he’s a gluttonous pig) and, while he may truly be smitten with Katrina, is more attracted to her father’s wealth.  Peyton embodies all of these traits and enhances them with a loose-limbed walk and dilletante voice to emphasize Crane’s reediness.

This particular show relies on its technical aspects more than most shows I’ve seen and their support is solid as an oak.  Olga Smola has composed an original score that can spook you or make you feel like you’re in a frolic and done solely with her fierce violin playing and Julia Williams’ dandy accordion work.  Sarah Rowe has designed a set of cardboard trees and fanciful overhang with a horse’s head and crescent moon suitable for a bit of storytelling and fleshed out by Craig Lee’s artistry and Amy Reiner’s properties.  Bill Kirby’s lights really pump up the story with some of my favorite moments being when Ichabod is riding through the woods alone in the deep, dark night and the final lighting effect of the Headless Horseman’s pursuit of Crane.  Jill Anderson’s knowledge of period accurate costumes is second to none as all of the characters look like they stepped out of the late 1700s with frock coats, three pointed hats, and frilled shirts.

This is a show made for the Halloween season and is a faithful rendition of one of the all-time classic gothic tales in American history.  Sellouts have already begun so grab a ticket before they’re just a wisp of a memory.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow plays at BlueBarn Theatre through Oct 31.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Thurs-Sat and Sundays at 6pm (no show on Oct 9 and 2pm matinee on Oct 23 in lieu of 6pm show).  The show will close on Monday, Oct 31 with a 7:30pm show.  Tickets cost $37 and can be purchased by calling 402-345-1576 or visiting www.bluebarn.org. BlueBarn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

Bitter Sweets

Kathleen Combs (L) and Roz Parr (R) star in “The Cake” at Omaha Community Playhouse

A baker getting ready to appear on a competition reality show offers to bake the wedding cake for the daughter of her best friend.  Then she finds out that the daughter is marrying a woman.  Her subsequent reluctance to make the cake and the fallout from that reluctance forms the story of The Cake which is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Inspired by a real-life news story, Bekah Brunstetter’s script has its ups and downs.  I thought the story took a little too long to get where it was going especially with a lengthy opening sequence that could have been much more economical.  But past that point, the story begins to cook as Brunstetter has a real gift for creating authentic people and shines in intimate scenes that ask the hard questions.  Ultimately the story is about acceptance as that is what each character seeks, but it also pursues themes of bigotry, judging others (which flows both ways), family, and seeing things from another’s POV.

Kim Clark-Kaczmarek’s direction adds some serious muscle to the production as her guidance of the intimate scenes truly sing and help to overpower the script’s early shortcomings.  Clark-Kaczmarek imbues a tremendous sense of presence on her performers.  By that I mean, the actors are always aware of themselves on stage and constantly move or animate which prevents the talky script from becoming static.  Her staging is phenomenal as scenes in the bakery use the full space and scenes in the bedroom feel close and snug.  Clark-Kaczmarek has also coached her performers to rock solid performances that will hold your attention and get you thinking.

Although a disembodied voice, Brady Patsy generates some guffaws as the host of the baking competition used in interstitials to reflect Della’s inner feelings and turmoil especially when he starts politely insulting her and cheerfully using vulgarities.  Doug Rothgeb brings a nice everyman quality to Della’s husband, Tim, who is facing his own perceived failings as a man which has tanked his love life with Della.

I was extraordinarily glad to see Roz Parr finally get a role with some serious meat with which to exercise her prodigious talent.  Parr brings an amazing conflicted innocence to the role of Jen.  Jen is always of two minds as she tries to balance her orientation with her upbringing and you can see the strain wrought by this internal tug of war written all over her thanks to Parr’s crystal-clear facial expressions and body language.  Parr gives Jen a powerful selflessness that manages to override her inner struggles until she realizes that a little selfishness is sometimes needed which allows her to voice her truth and wishes.

Delaney Jackson brings some serious depth to the role of Macy.  Macy is one wounded woman.  Clearly, she’s fought emotional battles all of her life due to her race and orientation and this has eroded her sense of trust and nurtured an instinctive tendency to strike first and strike hard.  Jackson’s Macy has no qualms in cutting to the heart of a matter and calling things exactly as she sees them.  But I also found it interesting that she, herself, is guilty of the same judging attitude that she perceives in others.

And in the center of all the chaos is Della, beautifully essayed by Kathleen Combs.  Combs plays Della as the sweet Southern woman who is thrown into a tornado of confusion about baking the cake for Macy and Jen’s wedding.  Interestingly, she never actually says no.  Della’s whole arc is based on her wanting to do the right thing, but not knowing what is the right thing.  Combs wonderfully plays up Della’s confusion and angst as her love for Jen battles her personal belief system, but this forces her to confront her darker aspects and come out with a heightened sense of tolerance.

I can’t explain it, but Sophie Knauss’ set is one of my favorites.  It just had an x factor that gave the bakery a warm, homey feel while the retractable walls with the slide in beds helped transform the spacious bakery into the intimate bedrooms.  The set is further bolstered by Andrew Morgan’s properties as his cakes and signs make the bakery feel so real.  Erica Maholmes’ lights add even more with the warm, welcoming pink of the bakery to the colorful bouncing lights for the game show interstitials.  Jocelyn Reed’s costumes suit the characters perfectly with the overalls and work shirt of Tim to the formal, business-like clothes of the serious as a heart attack Macy to the suitable to her generation dress of Della and the almost childlike, carefree clothing of the innocent Jen.  John Giblisco’s sounds add that extra dash of seasoning especially the fun game show sounds in the interstitials and it’s all wrapped in a subtle, original score written by Stacey Barelos.

The Cake does provide some serious food for thought and asks a lot of hard questions with no easy answers, but its ending provides just the right cherry of hope to show that change and acceptance is possible even if people may not always see eye to eye.

The Cake runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Nov 6.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are on sale now, starting at $36 and may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, 6915 Cass St., Omaha, NE 68132, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com. Due to strong language and some mature themes, this show is not suitable for children. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Robertson Photography

That Little Town Hurt

Chicagoan, Ren McCormack, relocates to the small town of Bomont after his parents separate.  His normal teen lifestyle and love of dancing quickly bring him into conflict with the town’s uber conservative adults and the local minister who holds the true power. Adding to the conflict is the fact that Ren is smitten with the Reverend’s wild daughter, Ariel.  This is Footloose:  The Musical and it is currently playing at Bellevue Little Theatre.

As I said when I reviewed this show earlier this summer, this show truly benefits from the fact that the film’s original scriptwriter, Dean Pitchford, also helped to write the musical.  This allowed the movie’s intended story to make a smooth and faithful transition to the stage.  Blend it with some original tunes, add some 80s hits, and throw in some energetic and raucous dancing and you’ve got the formula for a pretty good night of theatre and the best show I’ve seen mounted at Bellevue Little Theatre.

Joey Hartshorn provides a pretty deep piece of direction for the production.  One of the dominant themes of the show is personal pain and the show’s three leading characters are just buried in their personal woes.  This provides a rich field for nuanced and subtle acting and Hartshorn probes those levels to their depths and gets some truly dynamic performances out of her leads.  Hartshorn also knows how to have a bit of fun where needed as the kids clown about in the right moments.  The staging is wonderful and makes full use of the theatre space (both stage and the theatre).

The ensemble is solid and some excellent supporting performances come from Cynthia Jones who has a quiet strength as Vi Moore, the wife of Rev. Shaw Moore, and serves as his bedrock as he poorly copes with his own pain.  Donovan Carr is a base thug as Chuck Cranston and one of my true regrets of the script is that he never gets the comeuppance he’s got coming to him.  Madison Becker Is stalwart and loyal as Ariel’s best friend, Rusty.  Becker also knows how to be present in a scene and I chuckled at some of her reactions to the goings-on about her.  Becker also has a dynamite singing voice shining in “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” and “Somebody’s Eyes”.  The only small note I have is that Rusty is supposed to be a motormouth so Becker can speak much faster.

Will Hastreiter dominates as Ren.  He’s a touch too old to be playing the teenaged Ren, but summons such youthful energy and angst that one tends to be sucked into the illusion.  Hastreiter brings the proper blend of decency and bravado to Ren and well communicates the fact that Ren’s bravado is a defense mechanism to assuage his own unhappiness at having to leave Chicago and his anger at being abandoned by his father.  Still, this is a guy who I’d want as a friend as he’d march with you to the gates of hell.  Hastreiter has a potent tenor which takes center stage in “I Can’t Stand Still”, “I’m Free”, and raps a bit in “Dancing is Not a Crime”.  He is also an impressive hoofer as he flips, slides, and glides around the stage.

Aimee Correa explores every crevice of Ariel’s character.  Initially, Ariel comes off as, well, slutty.  True, her morals are a little lax, but it’s her defense against the stifling imprisonment of her home life.  Ariel is also a poet, intelligent, good-hearted, and just looking to escape from her unhappy life.  Correa shows all of these facets and then some at the proper moments.  She also has a wonderfully powerful singing voice whether she’s “Holding Out For a Hero”, “Learning to Be Silent”, or thinking her time with Ren is “Almost Paradise”.

Nick Knipe is the show’s breakout performer as Willard.  Knipe nearly steals the show as the hot-tempered hick.  Knipe’s Willard always seems to be looking for a fight, but he will fight to the death in support of a friend or a just cause.  Knipe also has amazing coordination as he is able to fake lack of coordination like a champ when he is attempting to dance for the first time.  Knipe also has a real flair for comedy as he shares the unique philosophy of Willard’s mother in “Mama Says”.

Justin Dehmer gives a very complex performance as Rev. Shaw Moore.  Something in the Reverend died when 4 teens died in a tragic car accident.  That event triggered an intense anger in Moore that manifests as extreme control.  Control over the town with morality laws and control over his emotions as he attempts to suppress them.  But the anger leaks out in cutting remarks and emotional outbursts.  It’s important to remember that Moore isn’t a bad person.  He’s wounded and actually motivated to protect the town’s youth.  He just goes about it wrong.  His realization of this and subsequent confession to his congregation is one of the most beautifully real moments I’ve ever seen acted on stage.

Todd Brooks’ musical direction is very good though the volume of the music needed to be increased at a few points.  I loved Dale Hartshorn’s set with the train bridge of the city, the exterior of the Moore home and their dining room, the lockers of the school, and the burger joint.  Best of all was the cross shining in center stage as the beacon of hope needed by Bomont.  Joey Lorincz’s sounds enhance the show’s moments, especially the roaring train and its whistle that Ariel likes to answer back at the top of her lungs.  Jacy Rook’s lights are clean and clear and her use of spotlights really enhance emotional moments.  Kerri Jo Richardson-Watts’ choreography is right on the money and the best I’ve seen at BLT especially in the monstrous opening and closing numbers.  The costumes of Nancy Buennemeyer and Marya Lucca-Thyberg will take you right back to the 1980s.

This show took a little bit to get going.  I could see the nerves going at the top of the show and it felt like the cast was holding back a bit.  But, by Act II, the switch had been flipped and the now relaxed performers were tapping the full potential of the show.  I’d like to go back again and see that same relaxation in the first act so the show can bask in its full glory.

BLT definitely has a hit on its hands and I would advise you to order tickets, pronto, as last night’s nearly full house makes me think they’re going to be very hard to come by.

Footloose:  The Musical plays at Bellevue Little Theatre through Oct 2.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased at the Box Office, at blt.simpletix.com, or calling 402-413-8945.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 W Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.