A Belle of a Good Time

Beauty and the Beast_4

Timothy Vallier as Beast & Leanne Hill Carlson as Belle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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These Sisters Got Soul

Struggling singer Deloris Van Cartier witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit murder.  To protect her until the trial, Deloris is placed in a convent under the guise of Sister Mary Clarence.  Her antics and personality bring her into conflict with the staid, old school Mother Superior as well as inspires the other nuns to get their Jesus on by jazzing up their lousy and archaic singing.  This is Sister Act written by Cheri & Bill Steinkellner with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  It is inspired by the hit comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg.

The singing and dancing are worth the price of admission on their own.  Menken’s peppy music is enhanced by another stellar performance from Jim Boggess (who also has a nice cameo as Pope Paul VI) and his orchestra who deftly handle the 70s style soul and gospel rock score.  Melanie Walters surpasses herself with choreography that was original, perfectly precise for the show’s era, and utterly flawless.  No dancer missed a step and they were so skillful and smooth, you’d think you were watching a professional troupe.

Kimberly Faith Hickman nails her debut as the Playhouse’s Artistic Director to the floor with her directorial work for this piece.  Scene changes were smooth as silk.  The energy of the cast was sky high.  She managed to cull the very best work out of her performers from the experienced veterans to the fresh newbies and misses nary a beat in her coaching.

Ms Hickman’s directing is especially impressive as the script did not give her a lot to work with.  I’m not sure what the Steinkellners were thinking when they wrote this show, but they took the story of the movie and shaved it to its barest bones.  Important supporting characters had their roles cut to next to nothing and so much of the story was stripped away that the show’s second act is, more or less, a sung through musical with just a touch of dialogue here and there.  For those who know the movie and are expecting rocked up hymns, expel that notion.  None of those songs are in the play.

Zhomontee Watson stuns as Deloris Van Cartier/Sister Mary Clarence.  In Act II, she is everything that you’d expect Deloris to be.  She’s got sass, swagger, and razzmatazz.  She also does a nice job showing Deloris’ transformation from diva loner to soul sister.  Ms Watson has a really strong alto voice which she uses well in “Take Me to Heaven” and in a fine dramatic turn in “Sister Act”.  Now Ms Watson just needs to do all the things she did in Act II and move it to Act I.

Likely due to opening night nerves, Ms Watson was a little slow getting out of the gate.  Her diction was a bit mushy and she needed to project more.  But that improved markedly as her confidence grew and had mostly vanished by Act II.  I’d also suggest for her to be even bigger and take things just a little bit farther in her interpretation of the role.

Even with some time to think, I’m not sure how I feel about Judy Anderson as the Mother Superior.  Not that she was weak.  From a technical standpoint, her work was quite solid.  Her own alto voice did justice to showing Mother Superior’s fears about the world in “Here Within these Walls” and her frustration with Deloris shaking up the convent in “Haven’t Got a Prayer”.  But something about her character seemed off.  As an old schooI nun, I thought the role needed to be more of a straight man and it seemed too jokey and I’m not sure if the problem lies in the writing or the acting choices, but I tend to lean towards the former.

Brian Priesman milks the role of Curtis for everything that it’s worth.  As Deloris’ gangster boyfriend, Priesman is a bullying brute who easily cows his underlings.  Priesman’s diction and projection are of excellent quality and his light tenor easily handled the show’s best number “When I Find My Baby” with just the right touch of grim humor.

Marcel Daly does a pretty serviceable job as Eddie, the police officer who protects Deloris.  He needs to loosen up a bit as some of his dialogue sounded stiff and memorized, but he did have a nice meekness to him.  He also fakes bad dancing really well in “I Could Be That Guy” which is also strengthened by his beautiful tenor.

The supporting cast does terrific work in bolstering the story by always staying within the thick of the action.  Special notice goes to Sally Neumann Scamfer who is delightfully acidic and acerbic as Sister Mary Lazarus and Sara Mattix who is just so sweet and innocent as Sister Mary Patrick.  But I want to stand up and bow to Justin Eller, Jonathan Smith, and Adam Fulbright who steal every scene that they are in as Curtis’ lackeys Joey, TJ, and Pablo.  Their comedic timing is spot on.  Their dancing is so effortless.  And I was extremely pleased by the falsetto work of Smith and Fulbright.

I think the light and scenic work of Jim Othuse for this show ranks among his best.  I loved the gorgeous church interiors with its wood textures and the red light district of Philadelphia.  Georgiann Regan should be proud of her costumes especially the performing habits of the nuns.

I’d highly recommend getting a ticket as quick as you can because the Playhouse has another hit on its hands as evidenced by a nearly full house for this preview night performance.  Any shortcomings in the story are more than overcome by the songs and presentation and you’ll want to get your praise on before the night is done.

Sister Act plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through October 16.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Wednesday night shows are $32 for adults and $20 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Soulful Show Launches OCP’s Mainstage Season

SISTER ACT

Opens Sept. 16, 2016 at the Omaha Community Playhouse

Omaha, Neb.Sister Act, running September 16 – October 16, 2016 in the Hawks Mainstage Theatre at Omaha Community Playhouse, is Broadway’s smash musical comedy based on the 1992 blockbuster movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. The musical features all original music by eight-time Oscar winner Alan Menken (Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid, Newsies) and is filled with toe-tapping songs, show-stopping dance numbers and a truly touching story. After witnessing her mafia boyfriend commit a crime, night club singer Deloris Van Cartier seeks help from the local police. She is placed in the witness protection program in the last spot her boyfriend would think to find her—a convent! Struggling to fit in with a group of nuns, Deloris finds her calling working with the convent choir. As she helps her fellow sisters find their voices, she unexpectedly rediscovers her own. Nominated for five Tony Awards, Sister Act is a reason to rejoice!

Oscar- and Tony-winning composer Alan Menken wanted to inspire his score off of 1970s music, specifically disco and gospel. As a result, the setting was changed from the original in the movie (Reno and San Francisco in the 1990s) to Philadelphia in the 1970s. USA Today proclaims, “Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater provide original tunes that nod cheekily, but with genuine affection, to that pop era while also propelling the story with a style and exuberance specific to well-crafted musical theater. Librettists Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, enlisting additional material from Douglas Carter Beane, adapt the screenplay with disarming wryness.”

Production:        Sister Act

Music by Alan Menken | Lyrics by Glenn Slater | Book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner | Additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane | Based on the Touchstone Pictures Motion Picture, Sister Act, written by Joseph Howard

Director:              Kimberly Faith Hickman

Cast

Zhomontee Wilson as Deloris Van Cartier

Marcel Daly as Eddie

Daron Tyree as Curtis

Justin Eller as Joey

Jonathan Smith as TJ

Adam Fulbright as Pablo

Brendan Brown as Ernie

Cork Ramer as Monsignor O’Hara

Judy Anderson as Mother Superior

Melissa King as Sister Mary Robert

Sara Mattix as Sister Mary Patrick

Sally Neumann Scamfer as Sister Mary Lazarus

Marguerite Bennett as Sister Mary Martin-of-Tours

Kim Alger as Sister Mary Theresa

Lauren Johnson as Michelle

Rachel Busse as Tina

Ensemble:  Lauren Anderson, Jennifer Ettinger, Janet Goodman, Jessie Kellerman, Caitlin Mabon, and Megan Morrisey

Show Dates:  Sept. 16 – Oct. 16, 2016 (Wed-Sat at 7:30pm.  Sundays at 2pm)

Tickets: At the OCP Box Office at 69th & Cass, by calling (402) 553-0800 or online at www.OmahaPlayhouse.com or http://www.TicketOmaha.com. Single tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for students (Thursdays – Sundays) and $32 for adults and $20 for students (Wednesdays). Tickets for groups of 12 or more are $30 for adults and $20 for students (Thursdays – Sundays) and $24 for adults and $16 for students (Wednesdays).

Twilight Tickets – A limited number of tickets are available at half price after noon the day of the performance at the Box Office. Cash or check only. Subject to availability. Wednesday Performances – Discounted tickets are available for Wednesday performances only at $32 for adults and $20 for students.

Whatta Deal Wednesday – Discounted tickets for $10 will be available for the first Wednesday performance on Wednesday, September 21. $10 tickets will be available in person at the box office starting at 4:00 p.m. the day of the show