The Tracks of Death

A murderer is lurking aboard the famed Orient Express.  Unfortunately for the fiend, the world’s greatest detective is also riding the train.  Will Hercule Poirot be able to solve the baffling killing of a shady businessman?  Find out in Murder on the Orient Express currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

As I stated in a previous review of this production, I’m not going to delve into plot details as I want the audience to experience the story fresh so they get maximum enjoyment out of it.  However, I can say that Ken Ludwig does an admirable job adapting Agatha Christie’s classic novel.  Ludwig stays fairly close to the source material though he does eliminate several characters which is a salient plot point and clue in the novel, but works around it pretty well.  Though known for farce, Ludwig plays this show pretty straight, yet manages to work a little humor into the story with his vaunted wordplay.

Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek’s direction is, on the whole, very accurate and precise.  He cuts a brutally brisk pace which keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as Poirot peels back the layers of the case.  His staging is spot on, making us feel the enclosed nature of the train and always well placing his performers so you can see their reactions to the goings-on at any given moment.  Clark-Kaczmarek also proves adept at pulling out some truly masterful performances from his thespians.  That being said, it also seemed like he tried to force a little comedy into the production as several of his actors were a little over the top which made them feel like caricatures instead of characters and didn’t always gel with the more grounded performances.

Some of the highlights of the night were Brennan Thomas who is a pretty mean S.O.B. as the murder victim, Samuel Ratchett.  Olivia Howard gives a beautiful, underplayed performance as the governess, Mary Debenham.  Ethan Dragon gives a master class in animation as the affable, and theatrical, Monsieur Bouc.

Connie Lee dominates her scenes as the obnoxious Helen Hubbard.  When Hubbard starts talking, one starts looking for her off switch as she never shuts up and has a grating personality that would even rub Mr. Rogers the wrong way.  Whether she’s frustrating passengers with late night singing and dancing or flirting with the conductor in an attempt to nab a new husband, Lee simply lights up the stage with her effervescent presence.

Daena Schweiger displays a superior dry wit as Princess Dragomiroff.  Seldom have I seen such potent hilarity come from such monotone delivery.  Schweiger knows just what words to emphasize or phrasing to utilize to get the fullest effect from Dragomiroff’s lines and her verbal sparring with Lee’s Hubbard was one of the show’s shining moments.

Seth Maisel wows in his Playhouse debut with a superb turn as Hercule Poirot.  Maisel easily conveys Poirot’s uber fastidious (bordering on OCD) personality with his hyper attention to details and the wiping of his hands after shaking with an old friend.  He also well communicates his genius with his rapid-fire deductions and ability to see through red herrings.  Maisel also brought a fantastic intensity to the role which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Maisel’s Poirot kowtows to nobody and has a highly developed sense of justice which is put to the test when that sense of justice is challenged by his dedication to the law.  His realization that, for once, justice and the law may not be one and the same leads to a haunting monologue excellently and subtly delivered by Maisel.

Justin Payne’s score had me ready for a night of mystery with its relentless eeriness.  Jim Othuse surpassed himself with this set as the Orient Express became another character with its luxurious sleeping compartments, elegant dining room, and imposing edifice during a scene done on the back of the train.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes were right on the money with the elegant suit of the impeccably dressed Poirot, the doughty dress of the uber religious Greta Ohlsson, or the spiffy uniform of Michel, the conductor highlighting some of her costuming prowess.  John Gibilisco and Tim Burkhart impressed with their sounds whether it be a gunshot, a chugging and braking train, or the flashback effect used on voices during the denouement.

The show will assuredly hold your attention and perhaps even have you white knuckling your armrests at points.  With its blitzkrieg pace, strong writing, assured direction, and solid performances, Murder on the Orient Express does provide a gripping night of mystery.

Murder on the Orient Express runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Oct 10.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $25 with prices varying by performance. Tickets 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 St in Omaha, NE.

Maples Repertory Theatre Announces 2021 Season: Looking Forward

I Love a Piano

June 16 – July 11

This celebration of music and lyrics of Irving Berlin follows the journey of a piano as it moves in and out of American lives from the turn of the century to the present. Along the way, the story comes to vibrant life as the cast sings and dances over sixty of Irving Berlin’s most beloved songs including “Blue Skies”, “There’s No Business Like Show Business”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “Always”, “White Christmas”, and, of course, “I Love a Piano”.

Greater Tuna

June 23 – August 1

Two men play the entire cast of over twenty eccentric characters of both genders and various ages who live in the second smallest town in Texas. It’s an affectionate comment on small-town life and attitudes. Two of Maples Rep’s favorite comedic actors, Michael McIntire and Sean Riley, are slated to star.

Annie

July 16 – August 8

Everyone’s favorite orphan takes the Maples Rep stage to remind us all that optimism and hope will win the day.  Featuring a Tony Award-winning score including “Tomorrow” “Maybe” “It’s the Hard Knock Life” and “Little Girls”.  Annie is a lively, exuberant show loved by all ages.

Church Basement Ladies: You Smell Barn

September 29 – October  17

The ladies of the East Cornucopia Lutheran Church are famous for keeping the church running and meeting every hilarious challenge head on.  The new musical follows them home to see how chores family life test their mettle.  It’s nothing a hot dish can’t cure.

Ripcord

October 27 – November 7

Abby has always had a quiet room to herself at the Bristol Place Senior Living Facility. If a new roommate was assigned to the second bed, Abby – cantankerous and private – quickly got them out. That is until enthusiastic, optimistic Marilyn arrives. Soon Abby realizes that unseating Marilyn is going to take something special. A high-stakes bet quickly leads to an all-out war of comic proportions. Ripcord is an often slapstick, always surprising comedy about enemies who may or may not become friends.

Tis The Season: A Maples Rep Holiday Celebration

December 1-12

Christmas traditions come to life on stage in the all new, singing and dancing extravaganza.  Your favorite holiday songs and characters will delight the whole family.  It’s the perfect way to celebrate the season with your family and friends.

For tickets, visit http://maplesrep.com/tickets/. Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

OCP Needs Some Sleuths to Solve a Murder

Omaha Community Playhouse Announces Auditions for:

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express
Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig


Directed by Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek


Production Dates: Feb. 26–March 21, 2021 | Hawks Mainstage
Rehearsals: Begin Jan. 17, 2021

In-Person, by appointment only Auditions
Sunday, Nov. 29 | 2 p.m. in Dance Studio at OCP (6915 Cass St, Omaha, NE)

To schedule an audition time and to receive paperwork, email Becky Deiber at bdeiber@omahaplayhouse.com

Enter through the Stage Door on the West side of the building. For those auditioning in person: Temperatures of auditioners will be taken upon arrival. Auditioners will be required to wear a facemask. Auditions will be held individually. Callbacks may include small groups. Provided seating will be plastic or metal chairs only, no fabric upholstery. The audition space will be appropriately sanitized. When arriving to audition, please enter through the Stage Door entrance on the West side of the building.

Virtual Auditions via Zoom
Monday, Nov. 30 | 6 p.m.
—Email Becky Deiber at bdeiber@omahaplayhouse.com to schedule a virtual audition via Zoom. Video Submission Auditions being accepted now through Nov 29. You can also submit a vocal audition video to Becky Deiber.


The Sun Will Come Out. . .Sept 13. . . at OCP

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Stella Clark-Kaczmarek as Annie and Toby as Sandy

Omaha, NE–Heartwarming musical Annie will open Friday, Sept 13 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  The show will run in the Hawks Mainstage Theatre from Sept 13 through Oct 13.  Performances will be held Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.

Annie is the beloved tale of a young girl who never gives up hope of one day reuniting with her parents.  After enlisting the help of Depression-era billionaire Oliver Warbucks, Annie finds herself in a tangled web of con artists, kidnappers, and–worst of all–Miss Hananigan!  With a little help from her orphan friends and her dog, Sandy, Annie ultimately finds a place where she belongs in this heartwarming classic.  Featuring timeless songs like “Tomorrow” and “It’s the Hard Knock Life”, Annie has been delighting audiences of all ages for decades.

Tickets are on sale now starting at $32 for adults and $20 for students with prices varying by performance.  Tickets may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, located at 6915 Cass Street, by phone at 402-553-0800, or online at http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.

Directed by:  Kimberly Faith Hickman

Cast

Stella Clark-Kaczmarek as Annie

Jay Srygley as Daddy Warbucks

Angela Jenson Frey as Grace Ferrell

Allison Wissman as Miss Hannigan

Christopher Violett as Rooster

Cathy Hirsch as Lily

Brinlee Roeder as Molly

Olivia Bryant as Pepper

Cleo Washington as Tessie

Pieper Roeder as Kate

Amina Teri as July

Madalynn Johnson as Duffy

And an ensemble featuring Marcus Benzel, Mark Haufle, Peter Barrett, Jared Dominguez, Sadie Langemo, Mary Trecek, Isabelle Rangel, Serena Johnson, Brittney Thompson, Carrie Trecek, Aidan Schmidtke, Andrew Schnitker, Sheldon Ledbetter, Judson Cloudt, Otto Fox, Meghan Essner, Anina Frey, Annabella Mosher, Lily Sanow, Sophia Srygley, Madison White, Andrew Karolski, Camden Park, Will Seim.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

 

Forget About Tomorrow, “Annie” Shines Today

At the height of the Great Depression, Little Orphan Annie is giving hope to the populace one song and optimistic outlook at a time as she searches for her own parents.  When she meets crusty billionaire Oliver Warbucks, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. . .for both of them.  This is Annie:  The Musical by Thomas Meehan with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin.  It is currently playing at the Rochester Civic Theatre.

The script and score of this show almost feel like a draft as opposed to a final product.  The script is definitely cute and has several amusing, breaking the fourth wall moments.  Likewise, most of the songs are catchy and memorable, if reprised a bit much.  With that being said, the script also lacks a little in character development and fails to further several ideas it introduces.  For example, it’s clear that Annie has a transformative effect on the lives of the people she meets, but we only get to see the aftermath of her charm on people and never the transformative process itself.

Fortunately, the cast and crew are able to perform a bit of Annie magic on the script’s shortcomings.

Under the steady direction of Lee Gundersheimer, this show assuredly becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Gundersheimer guided his troupe to solid, effective performances.  He also has a sure sense of staging with good utilization of the theatre space.  One of the strongest staging moments was the orphans entering Warbucks’ house for Christmas.  Every possible entrance point was used including the auditorium and orchestra pit.

I salute the chorus of this production as they helped to animate the group scenes with the little bits of business crucial to creating this world.  Some standout performances came from Alyssa Keller who shines in a solo (and demonstrates unbelievable breath control) in “N.Y.C.”; Chad Campbell and Gabrielle Hensrud as the slimy, swindling couple, Rooster and Lilly St Regis; Rocco Ruggeri is spot on as the puppeteer for Sandy the dog; and I was especially impressed with Jessica Carey’s performance as Molly.  Though she be tiny, she is fierce as she has an exceptional sense of comedic timing and a larger than life presence.

Shea Morrey makes for an utterly natural Annie.  She’s adventurous.  She’s friendly.  She’s gutsy.  She’s feisty.  She’s determined.  She’s sweet.  I couldn’t help but smile at her nearly limitless optimism and she has a deadly accurate singing voice which soared in “Tomorrow” and “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here”.  She just needs to be certain to keep up the breath support in some of her higher registers.

Mark Morrey is pretty darn good as Oliver Warbucks.  I liked his firm, but fair take on the character.  Arguably, Warbucks is the most developed character in the show as he begins as being focused solely on his business, but peels off the layers to show a terribly lonely man who has a lot more in common with Annie than one would think.  Morrey is permitted to give Warbucks some surprisingly deep moments with “Something Was Missing”.  I also liked how he adapted his singing to the character voice he used for Warbucks, managing to be on key, yet sound as if he were off key at the same time.

Emily Watkins very nearly steals the show as Miss Hannigan.  Ms Watkins clearly had a ball with the role as the drunken, cruel head of the orphanage who forces her wards to clean the orphanage every single day, works them in a sweatshop, and shamelessly throws herself at any man with a pulse who walks through the door.  Ms Watkins skillfully takes this role right to the very brim to the cup, but never goes over the top.

Ellen Huston has supplied a pretty nifty piece of choreography, especially in two show stopping numbers with the children, “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and “Fully Dressed”.  Sarah Wood Lieske and her orchestra provided a spritely night of music.  Kevin Dobbe and Doug Sween make for a good tandem with the set.  Dobbe’s projections of NYC, alleys, and bridges melded well with Sween’s bunk beds, lavish Warbucks mansion, and conference table of FDR’s Cabinet room.  Marco Magno’s costumes were of excellent quality with the rags of the homeless, the cheap clothes of the orphans, and the elegance of the Warbucks household.  Paul Sund’s lights were exceptional and well suited to each scene and emotional beat of the play.

The show definitely needed much tighter cue pickups last night, but the warm and winning cast has provided a real crowd pleaser for the holiday season.

Annie:  The Musical plays at the Rochester Civic Theatre through December 16.  The show is sold out for the remainder of the run.  Rochester Civic Theatre is located at 3773, 20 Civic Center Dr in Rochester, MN.

“A Christmas Carol” is Sleeker, But Chipped Around the Edges

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Greedy miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, is given one chance to redeem his soul.  Will a visit by the three spirits of Christmas be enough to gain salvation?  This is the story of A Christmas Carol adapted by Charles Jones from the classic novel by Charles Dickens and celebrating its 40th anniversary at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Question:  How do you breathe new life into a 40 year old tradition?

Answer:  You put Hilary Adams at the helm.

Ms Adams’ direction gives A Christmas Carol a new lease on life.  More importantly, her direction went a long way in giving me the A Christmas Carol that I’ve long wanted to see.  Ms Adams accomplished this task by trimming a lot of unnecessary fat from the play, cutting a whiplash pace, and, for the most part, guiding her actors to natural, realistic performances.  I applaud Ms Adams for her staging of the story and she and the stage crew deserve especially high praise for the seamless and effortless scene changes.  The only critiques of her direction are that she needed to rein in some of the more cartoony performances that weakened this incredibly realistic production and to slow down the pace just a little bit.  Some of the actors were talking so fast that diction suffered and some important beats got glossed over.

I was extraordinarily pleased with Jerry Longe’s performance as Scrooge.  This was actually my third go-around in watching this play and the two previous times I thought Scrooge was missing something crucial.  This time I got a pitch-perfect Scrooge.  Longe’s Scrooge is cold-hearted, mean, greedy, selfish, and those are his better points.  This is a man that needs redemption.  I thought Longe was especially effective in making Scrooge’s salvation a drawn out process.  He fights changing tooth and nail and changes just a little with each interaction with the spirits until he finally sees the error of his ways.  That slow process makes the light-hearted, giddy Scrooge utterly believable when he is, at long last, redeemed.

Longe does need to slow down his delivery.  I lost some of his dialogue in Act I because he was speaking so quickly, though his speed was much more controlled in Act II.

David Krenkel was a wonderful surprise as he made his Playhouse debut as Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s long-suffering clerk.  Krenkel was utterly natural as Cratchit.  He imbued a wonderful fatherliness and goodness into his role which had me believing him from start to finish.

I was underwhelmed by Don Keelan-White’s portrayal of Jacob Marley.  Keelan-White’s rushed line delivery resulted in the loss of character and made it feel like he was simply going through the motions.  Marley should exude a sense of otherworldliness and he seemed all too human to me.  Instead of speaking faster, Keelan-White just needs to close up the spaces between his words.  This will allow him to retain nuance without sacrificing pace.

Bridget Robbins strikes all the right notes as the Ghost of Christmas Present.  Ms Robbins found quite a few nice character moments in her role.  I was especially impressed with how her Spirit was concerned about Scrooge’s welfare, yet had no qualms about giving him a metaphorical shot to the mouth by using his own cruel words against him.

I am not quite certain what Michael Farrell was trying to accomplish with his interpretation of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  His phrasing was rather odd which made it difficult for me to understand what he was saying.  Farrell’s vocal quality also made it seem like he was trying to be jolly (which did come through) and magisterial (which did not quite hit the mark).

The ensemble was always engaged in the action, but there were several notable performances in smaller roles.  Don Harris impressed as Jake, especially in a scene where he tries to stand up to the usurious Scrooge before caving into him.  Emily Mokrycki is splendid as Mrs. Cratchit and strikes the perfect balance between love for her family and disdain for Scrooge.  Megan Friend excels with a sweet turn as Belle Fezziwig, the one-time fiancée of Scrooge, and a hilarious turn as the thieving Mrs. Dilber.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra add to the feeling of Christmas with bright and spritely renditions of Christmas carols.  Georgiann Regan’s costumes perfectly fit the Victorian tale.  Jim Othuse’s sets, lighting, and special effects are absolutely marvelous.

I understand that over 70% of the cast was appearing in this play for the first time.  That much new blood combined with opening night jitters may account for some of the bumps I saw tonight with diction, volume, and interpretation, especially in Act I.  The cast seemed to find their groove in Act II which is a good sign that they will reach their full potential for this 40th anniversary run.  All quibbles aside, I still consider this to be the best version of A Christmas Carol that I’ve seen at the Playhouse in the nearly 19 years I’ve lived in Omaha.  Even if you have seen the play before, I promise you surprises that will make it new all over again.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Omaha Playhouse through December 23.  Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm, and Sundays at 2pm and 6:30pm.  There are no performances on Nov 25 or 26, but two additional performances will be held on Dec 22 and 23 at 7:30pm.  Before Dec 15, tickets are $36 for adults and $25 for students.  Tickets for the Dec 15-23 performances are $40 for adults and $29 for students.  For reservations contact the OCP box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.TicketOmaha.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.