Have Yourself a Plaidful Little Christmas

A musical group returns to life. . .again. . . to spread some holiday cheer.  This is Plaid Tidings by Stuart Ross and is currently playing at the PART Theatre.

This show is less musical and more musical revue as the group, Forever Plaid, spend the evening entertaining the audience (sometimes even involving the audience) with a series of Christmas songs, standards, and pop tunes.  The revue is tied together by the story that Forever Plaid was a musical group that died en route to their big break.  They got to come back once to do the show they never got to do and now have mysteriously returned again for a new mission:  spreading the joy of Christmas.

Since this show doesn’t have the traditional narrative track, there isn’t much acting in the sense of storytelling though those playing Forever Plaid are truly characters with delightful idiosyncrasies and quirks.  Smooth, this group is not.  Forever Plaid definitely has a raw talent musically, but they lack polish which leads to much of the show’s humor.  But this show also has some deeply sensitive, bittersweet, and sad moments that will give your heartstrings a little tug.

Gordon Cantiello provides admirable direction with the piece.  He has staged the production almost as a tiny club or lounge performance and well utilizes the theatre space as Forever Plaid engages with the audience and sings throughout the performance area.  He well defines each member of the group as each person has a distinct and unique personality and history.  Cantiello has also created some of the most amusing choreography I have ever seen with some of the dance moves of Forever Plaid.

The key to this show is casting as those playing Forever Plaid need a vibrant chemistry plus be able to powerfully play off each other along with performing well musically.  Well, this cast certainly has that in spades as I genuinely believed this group had been together for years due to how well they bantered with each other.

In a group of sad sacks, Justin Dehmer’s Smudge was definitely the saddest sack of all.  Projecting the image of a high-strung nerd with his taped-up glasses and complaints about his ulcer.  Dehmer has good vocal range and usually sang the deeper parts of the harmony on the night’s many numbers.  Dehmer also has the acting moment of the night as his Smudge shares the tearjerking story of why Christmas was his favorite time of the year.  The centerpiece of his story is his using the emotion of it to turn one of the most jubilant Christmas songs, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”, into a moving heartbreaker.

Jon Hickerson’s Frankie struck me as the de facto leader of the group as he was the one pushing the team to keep focus on their mission.  He has an excellent 2nd tenor voice and a good grip on humor as he had the most amusing monologue of the night with his psychological and emotional observations on Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman.  Hickerson also led the night’s most entertaining number, “Matilda”.

Roger Bunnell’s Jinx just might have the potential to be the breakout member of Forever Plaid.  Jinx is the shyest member of the group with a propensity for nose bleeds, but once he gets into the music, his is a rare talent.  Bunnell’s singing voice evokes images of Gene Pitney in natural setting and range, Michael Crawford in timbre, and Lou Christie for sheer falsetto power.  Some of his standout moments are his solo scene when he busts out “Besame Mucho” and “Kiss of Fire” and shows some Gene Kellyish dancing skill when he hoofs it up with “Singin’ in the Snow”.

Josh Dewberry’s Sparky is a human joke machine.  Dewberry has a superior sense of comedic timing and knows how to be physical with his comedy, especially with his rendition of “Fever”.  His lovely tenor was also featured well in “We Wish You a Perry Christmas” which was a segue from the story Sparky shared about the night Forever Plaid met Perry Como.  He does need to be careful with his diction on that lengthy story as it got a bit mushy at some points.

Peggy Holloway’s musical direction is top of line and she does excellent song interpretation on the piano and is ably supported by Bud Phillips on bass.  Mary Mullen Ferzely and Rob Lohman did a wonderful job decorating the theatre and making it feel like the perfect setting for a festive holiday show.  Jackson Hatcher’s sound effects were spot on, especially his ominous claps of thunder.  Josh Dewberry pulled double duty with a nifty bit of lighting design.  Lee Meyer and Gentleman’s Choice teamed up to properly costume Forever Plaid with tastefully gaudy plaid tuxedos and Comoish Christmas sweaters.

If you are a fan of standards and pop tunes, you are going to enjoy this show.  And if you’re a fan of Christmas songs (and I know I am) you are REALLY going to enjoy this show.  Spend a bit of the Yuletide season with Forever Plaid.

Plaid Tidings runs at the PART Theatre through Dec 15.  Showtimes are 7pm Thurs-Sat and 2pm Sat-Sun.  Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors and $25 for students).  For ticket information, contact 402-706-0778.  PART Theatre is located inside Crossroads Mall at 7400 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.

Masterful Musicians Make Magnificent Music

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Billy McGuigan and the Downliners (From left to right: Tara Vaughan, Ryan McGuigan, Matthew McGuigan, Billy McGuigan, Adam Stoltenberg, and Max Meyer)

Take a tour through the history of classic rock and roll as Billy McGuigan and his band play the hits from the 50s through the 70s in Rock Legends.  Last night Billy and his band, the Downliners, played a sold out, tour de force performance at the Davies Amphitheater in Glenwood, IA.

The show was actually billed as Rock Show, but was a variation of McGuigan’s Rock Legends production.  Billy McGuigan once more demonstrated his seemingly limitless musical talent with a pulse pounding, non-stop 90 minute ride that displays an encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock.  Billy and the Downliners played some of the biggest hits of the best known bands of the 50s-70s, but also included several one hit wonders and hits that simply don’t get much airplay nowadays.  Imbued with that inimitable McGuigan energy, one would swear that Billy and the band wrote all of these tunes themselves as the music seems so fresh and extemporaneous.

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Mark Irvin

The night’s entertainment opened up with Omaha singer/songwriter, Mark Irvin.  Irvin has a voice reminiscent of Bryan Adams and a stage presence similar to Roy Orbison.  It’s just a man, his guitar, and his music.  Irvin is a powerhouse talent whose warm tenor haunted the audience with original numbers such as “I Will Surrender to You”, “I Finally Got it Right”, and “Fly With Me”.  He also did an impressive cover of Kenny Loggins’ “Danny’s Song” that had the audience singing right along with him.  If you want to get a taste of Irvin’s talent, his music is available on Spotify, iTunes, and Amazon.

Then it was time for the featured act and Billy and company hit the ground running and never let up.

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Billy McGuigan

Billy McGuigan drove the night with his trademark wit and indefatigable energy.  He and his potent tenor went through an impressive range of high octane songs from “Bye, Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers to “Good Lovin’” by the Rascals to the first rock song, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”.  How he does this without wearing out, I’ll never know, but he did give himself a bit of a breather with a small set of slower songs capped with a particularly touching rendition of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” by Gerry and the Pacemakers.

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Tara Vaughan

It’s as much fun to watch Tara Vaughan perform as it is to listen to her sing.  Performance wise, she reminds me of Bob Marley in the sense that, like him, she is totally immersed in the music.  She doesn’t just play the keyboards with her fingers, she plays with her whole body, heart, and soul.  And that sultry alto had me looking for a cold drink after some of her numbers.  Notable turns from her came with Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love”, a rocking rendition of the Gene Pitney penned Crystals hit, “He’s a Rebel”, and a dazzling take on “A Little Piece of My Heart” that would have made Janis Joplin proud.

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Ryan & Matthew McGuigan

Ryan & Matthew McGuigan nailed it in their time in the spotlight.  Ryan paid homage to John Lennon and the Beatles with his takes on “I Feel Fine” and the Lennon solo in “This Boy”.  Matthew got a chance to show some impressive versatility as he did The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” before segueing into Elvis soundalike Terry Stafford’s one hit wonder, “Suspicions”.

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Adam Stoltenberg & Max Meyer

Solid support was provided in the forms of Max Meyer and Adam Stoltenberg.  Meyer provided a series of superb solos on lead guitar while Stoltenberg’s drum work set a crucial backbeat.  Both also got a moment to sing when they each took some verses in The Band’s “The Weight” which was sung by the entire band.

When people hear the name Billy McGuigan, some think Buddy Holly while others may think the Beatles.  When I hear the name, I think he’s one of the best musicians Omaha has ever produced.  Normally, this is the point where I encourage you to get a ticket.  Sadly this was a one night only concert, but fear not.  You have another chance to catch Bily and company in action when Billy McGuigan’s Rock Twist opens at the Omaha Playhouse on August 1.  The show runs through August 12 with performances running Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Contact OCP at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com for tickets.

But take my advice, when Rock Legends performs again, don’t miss it.  It’s awesome!

Breaking the Law of the Gun

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“. . .from the moment a girl gets to be full grown the very first thing she learns, when two men go out to face each other only one returns.”—Gene Pitney

One man represents civilization, order, justice.  The other represents violence, repression, darkness.  The one who stands is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by Jethro Compton and based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson and is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

If you have ever seen the film version of this story, blank it from your mind.  While a few elements from the original story made it into the movie, it took many liberties in terms of names, characters, and characterizations.  Compton’s script certainly is not without merit.  It has a methodical build to a climax in each act and some compelling interactions.  But it’s also very talky with little action and takes too long to get where it’s going.  Fortunately, on the whole, this cast is able to make the most out of the script’s strengths.

Jeff Horger’s direction is pretty admirable.  His actors give solid to strong performances, the beats are well developed, and he crafts two decidedly chilling scenes with the malevolent Valance.

The supporting cast does a workmanlike job in the performance, bolstered by an especially strong effort from Chris Berger who has quiet dignity as the Narrator and a good turn from Christopher Scott as the useless, but calculating, Marshal Johnson.

Dennis Stessman’s take on Ransome Foster is a rather far cry from the clean-cut hero.  He does have a good heart and courage with his teaching the townspeople how to read and his willingness to stand up to Valance, but he’s actually an unlikable prick on the whole.  It’s obvious he considers himself smarter than the rest of the citizenry of TwoTrees and considers the town dull and backwoodsy.  This duality in nature makes for a rather interesting character study, but I thought Stessman was a little too controlled in his take on Foster.  He did a good job showing Foster’s intelligence and spine, but he had a very tight rein on Foster’s emotions and there were moments that could have been made stronger with some bolder emotional choices.

There’s no subtlety to Sydney Readman’s portrayal of Hallie Jackson, the saloon owner, and that is just right for the character.  Hallie is a no-nonsense, blunt, in your face type of gal in order to survive in the harsh environment of the West and Ms Readman communicates that attitude by getting in the face of people who annoy her and her sharp speech.  But she is also capable of presenting Hallie’s softer emotions and her mourning of the death of a dear friend is one of the play’s most touching moments.

Isaac Reilly fully embodies the role of Bert Barricune.  You can’t help but be charmed by his laconic speech and respect his toughness.  Reilly brings fantastic swagger and confidence to the role and he is every bit the cowboy.  Reilly also has superior comedic timing as he gets some of the play’s best zingers.

Chad Cunningham darn near steals the show as Jim Mosten, Hallie’s jack of all trades.  Nicknamed the Reverend due to his ability to quote the Bible, chapter and verse, Mosten is the illiterate with the photographic memory as he hears something once and never forgets.  Cunningham brings a gregariousness and openness to Mosten that makes him feel like your best friend.  He also brings great bravery to the role as he calmly faces down Liberty Valance in a game of Liar’s Dice at the climax of Act I.

If I had been casting this show I might have overlooked Brennan Thomas for the role of Liberty Valance due to his elegance and I would have been an idiot for doing so.  Thomas brings a calm savagery to the well-read and well-spoken villain, always managing to let just enough of the animal peek through to leave no doubt that anyone he’s talking with is in deadly peril.  Though he only appears in two scenes, the wait is well worth it as the Valance scenes are the best in the show.

I give this play high marks on the technical aspects.  Jim Othuse does it again with his saloon set from the old fashioned wood building to the swinging doors on the center aisle.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are just right from the classy garb of the gentleman Foster to the tomboy working clothes of Hallie to the riverboat gambler look of Valance.  John Gibilisco’s sounds are truly well done, especially the evil music that plays whenever Valance appears.

I thought the energy and cue pickups were lacking a bit in the play’s first act, but this picked up in the second act.  Projection was also an issue, but the cast also managed to largely overcome this difficulty in Act II.

Due to its talky nature, this isn’t your typical western, but it does bring new depth to the battle of good vs evil.  It’s far more than a tale about the hero battling the villain.  It’s a story of civility breaking the law of the gun.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 12.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Parental discretion is advised due to some rough language.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Dodge Street in Omaha, NE.

OCP Goes to the Wild West with ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

Omaha, Neb.The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, running at the Omaha Community Playhouse February 10 – March 12, 2017 in the Howard Drew Theatre, is a classic western story of good versus bad and the law versus the gun. Made popular by the 1962 film version starring John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is set in 1890 in the Wild West and tells the tale of a young scholar from New York City who travels west in search of a new life, but arrives badly beaten in the town of Twotrees. After being rescued from the plains, the town soon becomes his home. A local girl gives him purpose, but a fierce outlaw wants him dead. He must make a choice: to turn and run or to stand for what he believes; to live or to fight; whether or not to become the man who shot Liberty Valance.

Omaha Community Playhouse’s production of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has been named an official event of the Nebraska 150 Celebration, which is a yearlong celebration across the state of Nebraska in 2017 marking the 150th year of statehood. The Sesquicentennial is a strategic initiative that promotes a spirit of pride, growth, engagement and connection within our state by bridging Nebraskans across different communities, perspectives and cultures. For more information, visit https://ne150.org/calendar/man-shot-liberty-valance-play/

Production:        The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Credits:                Book by Jethro Compton; Based on the short story by Dorothy M. Johnson

Director:              Jeff Horger

Cast

Dennis Stessman as Ransome Foster

Sydney Readman as Hallie Jackson

Isaac Reilly as Bert Barricune

Chad Cunningham as Jim Mosten

Christopher Scott as Marshal Johnson

Brennan Thomas as Liberty Valance

Chris Berger as The Narrator

Ensemble roles filled by Aubrey Fleming & Gary Williams

Show Dates:       February 10 – March 12, 2017 (Thurs – Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2pm)

Tickets:                At the OCP Box Office, by calling (402) 553-0800 or online at www.OmahaPlayhouse.com or http://www.TicketOmaha.com. Single tickets are $36 for adults and $22 for students. Tickets for groups of 12 or more are $24 for adults and $16 for students.

Discounts:           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.

Sponsored by:   2016-2017 Pegasus Travel Tours and Cox (media sponsor)

Location:             Howard Drew Theatre | Omaha Community Playhouse (6915 Cass Street Omaha, NE 68132)