Don’t Stop Them Now

From L to R: Jonathan Berger, Evelyn Hill, Jesse White (back row), Eric Perlstein, Brittney Thompson, Ejanae Hume

Look!  Up on the stage!  It’s a chord!  It’s a bard!  No, it’s Don’t Stop Me Now!  A Celebration of Rock Musicals.  This joint production between Rave On Productions and the Omaha Community Playhouse is currently playing in the Storz Parking Lot at OCP.

This rollicking revue of rock musicals is a rather ambitious production and hits the right notes (pun intended) for the most part.  Rave On and OCP give the audience a potpourri of tunes ranging from hard rockers to soft ballads to some pretty emotional works.  I especially enjoyed the fact that not only were classic well-known numbers and shows utilized, but they also selected songs from lesser known productions which really spiced up the evening.

Kimberly Faith Hickman’s direction brought some fun theatricality to the night while Matthew McGuigan’s musical direction was utterly flawless.  He and his band were in fine fettle as they played with a rich gusto and energy that gave the songs a familiar feel, but imbued them with a unique vibrancy.

The show is blessed with a talented troupe of troubadours who each get their moments in the sun and occasionally blend in glorious harmony.  Some shining moments were Brittney Thompson’s rendition of the power ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls and Ejanae Hume’s killer take on “Take Me or Leave Me” from Rent.  Eric Perlstein kicked things off with the sonorous “Heaven On Their Minds” from Jesus Christ Superstar, gave us a little Four Seasons with “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night), but his shining moment was his interpretation of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” from American Idiot with his sensational, soulful emoting.  Jonathan Berger’s lower tenor got to glow with Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out” and “Tear Me Down” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

But in a group of standout performers, Evelyn Hill and Jesse White really stole the show.  Hill is a worthy successor to Brenda Lee’s moniker of Little Miss Dynamite as her talent is explosive.  Hill threw herself into her numbers and stunned with performances including a high powered rendition of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia” and her half of “Suddenly, Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors

White is a performer’s performer with his own animated performances.  His tenor is both soaring and searing as he tore through the night outdoing Frankie Valli’s falsetto in “Sherry”, was shyly comforting in his half of “Suddenly, Seymour”, nailed David Bowie’s “Changes” from Lazarus to the floor, and capped the night with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”.

But the night’s capstone number came from Ryan McGuigan with his tragically haunting version of “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar.  Aside from his formidable musical chops, McGuigan brought a little top notch acting as he was shedding real tears by the end of the song and if you can listen to it without your soul stirring, then you probably don’t have one.

But I can’t end this review without mentioning the splendid work of Jim Boggess who hosted the festivities.  His wit, warmth, and humor really enhanced the night and his introduction of each number was a real aid for those who may not be familiar with each song and show.

There were some moments of singers not having enough breath for certain notes and numbers that were fine technically, but needed a bit more commitment to bring them to that next level, but these were minor quibbles in a thoroughly entertaining night.

It’s a rocking good time and a pleasant, and socially distant, way to get out and have some fun.  Take a break from these strange times and get a ticket to see this one before it’s too late.

Don’t Stop Me Now! A Celebration of Rock Musicals plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 20. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 6pm. Tickets cost $35 and can be purchased online at www.omahaplayhouse.com or by phone at 402-553-0800.  This is a cashless event and reservations are required.  CDC guidelines are being followed and parking spaces will be assigned upon arrival.  Please do not arrive earlier than 60 minutes before showtime.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Zach Wagner Photography

To Live Again

Elliott Liteman is in a state of living death.  Stricken with Lazarus Syndrome (a type of survivor’s guilt which afflicts some people who are resuscitated after clinical death), Elliott doesn’t want to die, but is afraid to live.  During a horrific blizzard, his family comes to visit and he learns the importance of forgiveness and embracing life.   This is Lazarus Syndrome by Bruce Ward and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

First and foremost, let me assure you that this isn’t a doom and gloom story.  True, there are moments of weightiness, but this is an excellent slice of life tale full of humor, hope, and even mystery.  Ward’s script focuses on themes such as family, regret, ennui, aging, self-loathing, forgiveness, mortality, and what it means to be alive.  I found myself spellbound by the tale as Elliott’s internal struggle is outwardly manifested as he spars and engages with his family.

M. Michele Phillips has provided a superlative piece of direction to this story as well as an inspired bit of casting. She understands the path of the story well, skillfully navigating the many turns of the tale and capitalizing on every beat. Ms Phillips guides her actors to rock solid performances and you’ll never doubt for an instant that this group is a family.

Brett Foster gives a powerful and poignant performance as Elliott Liteman.  Living death well describes Foster’s essaying of Elliott as he merely goes through the motions of living.  Foster gives a wonderful weariness to Elliott whose guilt and depression are so great that he’s turned away from almost everything that made him happy and lives a life that’s a mundane routine of taking medicine to combat his HIV and wandering around his apartment in his bathrobe.  You can’t help but root for the guy when he finds small bits of happiness and vitality whether it’s through a sweet early morning conversation with his lover or a vigorous debate with his family.

Foster makes you feel the pain of a man who has lost his sense of self and is just seeking a way to end his cycle of nothingness.

Thomas Lowe plays the small, but crucial role of Stephen Bliss, Elliott’s young lover.  Lowe brings a sweetness and innocence to Stephen who has enough energy to live life for the both of them.  Your heartstrings will be tugged as Stephen’s love for Elliott allows Elliott to reclaim small sparks of himself and Stephen’s honesty and plain-spokenness may be the key to Elliott finally living his own life again.

Matt Allen is awesome as Elliott’s younger brother, Neil.  Invoking the essence of younger brothers everywhere, Allen’s Neil is a bit of a thorn in Elliott’s side as he drips melted snow onto Elliott’s floor and scarfs down Elliott’s food while making wry observations on his unique tastes in edibles.  Allen brings an incredible extemporaneousness to Neil’s dialogue as well as a snarky attitude which he carefully modulates to be a pest to Elliott, but not obnoxious or mean, especially when they start having suffering battles or discussing their somewhat fractious relationship.

Brent Spencer is the ideal Jewish father as Jake.  He believes a good meal can solve all ills and that the three things Jewish people do best are eat, suffer, and fight.  He is also clearly a man of his generation as he was brought up to believe that men didn’t show emotions and foul language is inappropriate in polite conversation.  But he also shows that an old dog can learn new tricks as his own losses have taught him the value of emotions and he tries to instill that lesson into Elliott.

Ben Adams has designed a cozy little apartment that feels like a real home.  Taelore Stearns’ lights pack an emotional punch.  They actually feel just as sad as Elliott.  Fred Goodhew’s sounds buoy the show’s emotional beats.  Leah Skorupa’s costuming is just right with the suits worn by Neil and Jake and the hum-drum look of Elliott with muted t-shirt, boxers, and a somewhat colorful bathrobe to offset the drabness of his other garb.

In the end, this is a story of life overcoming death and that it can still be lived and enjoyed despite great tragedy if one is only willing to take that chance.

Lazarus Syndrome plays at SNAP! Productions through June 24.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The final show on June 24 will be at 2pm.  Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students, seniors (55+), TAG members, and military, and for all Thursday shows.   For tickets, call 402-341-2757 or visit www.snapproductions.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, Lazarus Syndrome is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California Street in Omaha, NE.

Eureka, Ho!!, Day 3: The Faith Spelunker

After sipping my sherry, I made use of the Jacuzzi tub and enjoyed a long hot bath before turning in for the night.  It was one of the most comfortable sleeps I have ever enjoyed.  The mattress almost seemed to consist of memory foam and perhaps it did.  All I know is that the combination of comfy mattress and lull of my trusty fan put my lights out good and proper.

When I awoke the next morning, I did a quick news check to find out who won at the Omaha Playhouse’s Awards Night and did a brief write-up for the theatre news part of my website.  I had a shave and then went downstairs to breakfast.

A glass of water and a carafe of orange-cranberry juice waited on my table.  Zoie placed a small dish of grapes and cream in front of me along with my massage certificate and tickets for a few events I had paid for online.  After the fruit had been eaten, Zoie presented me with 3 sausage links nestled on a bed of Mexican eggs.  A little dash of hot sauce made this meal a delicious and zesty affair.

A dish of grapes and cream to start the day.

A dish of grapes and cream to start the day.

Sausage links on a bed of Mexican eggs.

Sausage links on a bed of Mexican eggs.

I went back to my room and finished my Cannon novel.  Then I grabbed my keys and headed to Focus Massage for a one hour massage at the hands of Mimi Vail who bore a strong resemblance to the actress, Linda Hunt.  Her ministrations brought full mobility to my shoulders and energized me for the rest of the day.

From there, I drove to Berryville, AR so I could experience the Cosmic Caverns.  I was part of a small tour group led by Griffin (a surprisingly mature looking 17 year old) who spent the better part of an hour showing us the myriad rock formations, pure natural onyx (he flashed a light through it to show the translucence), and the two bottomless lakes (no, not literally, they’re just very deep).

The OMG room.

The OMG room.

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Would you believe this guy is only 17?

Would you believe this guy is only 17?

On the drive back to Eureka Springs, I made a quick pullover to enjoy the view of a scenic outlook.  After snapping some quick photos I made my way to Thorncrown Chapel.

Scenic overlook

Scenic overlook

Called “one of the finest religious spaces of modern times” by critics and ranked fourth on the list of the top buildings of the twentieth century by the AIA, Thorncrown Chapel is a awe-inspiring structure of wood and glass.  So skillfully designed, you may, like I did, make the mistake of assuming that the clear space is merely “open” space.  In reality it is 6,000 feet of glass divided into 425 windows.

Thorncrown Chapel

Thorncrown Chapel

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Thorncrown Chapel’s construction also had an interesting story behind it.  In 1971, Jim Reed purchased the land where Thorncrown Chapel would eventually be built.  People often stopped by to admire the property and the view of the Ozark hills, so Jim decided to build a glass chapel so visitors would have a place to relax in an inspiring way.

On March 23, 1979, work began on the chapel.  But halfway through construction the money ran out and, despite his best efforts, Jim was unable to gain more funding.  One night, Jim took what he thought would be his last walk to look at his half-finished chapel and then had an experience.  As Jim said, “I am not proud of the fact, but the first time I ever got down on my knees was on the chapel floor.  I prayed more seriously than ever before.  All the trials and tribulations gave me the humility to get on my knees.”  A few days later, a miracle occurred when a generous woman from Illinois loaned Jim the money to complete construction.  On July 10, 1980, Thorncrown Chapel was open to the public.

Thorncrown Chapel is dedicated to Jesus’ words that all would be welcome at His Father’s table.  The chapel actually does hold 2 worship services on Sunday and stresses that all are invited to attend.  An attendant is present during visiting hours to pray with those who wish to accept Jesus’ gift of salvation.

Visiting this chapel had a profound effect on me.  My faith has always been an important part of my life and I can honestly say I felt the presence of God clearly as I sat in that chapel.  I just felt such a feeling of peace and warmth that tears began to fill my eyes.  If you’re in Eureka Springs, you must visit this chapel.  For those who believe, you’ll feel closer to the Lord.  For those who don’t or simply aren’t sure, well, you just might before your visit is over.

I returned to the inn for a few hours of relaxation and compiling my notes.  Then it was time for my big event of the evening:  watching The Great Passion Play.

Originally, I had intended to actually review the show.  However, I ended up deciding against it for two very important reasons:

  1. There was no program, so writing a proper review would have been very difficult.
  2. This wasn’t a typical play as its purpose was to tell the story of Jesus’ redeeming of humanity as opposed to being an ordinary play.

The play is held in an outdoor amphitheatre and the grounds also contain a Bible museum, a replica of the Holy Land, as well as the famous Christ of the Ozarks statue (the biggest in the United States).  The play is world famous having been seen by 7.8 million people since it began in 1968.

Christ of the Ozarks

Christ of the Ozarks

The set is the most impressive I have ever seen.  It really gives one the feeling of being in Jerusalem back in the time of Christ.  The costumes are also well suited to the show and there are some pretty nifty special and lighting effects to the production.  It features a cast of over 140 actors and a menagerie of live animals.

Set of The Great Passion Play

Set of The Great Passion Play

The dialogue for the show is pre-recorded so the performers pantomime over the dialogue and the mimed performances were quite good.  Putting on my critic’s hat for a moment, the interpretation of the dialogue was mediocre and sounded like the records I liked to listen to as a child.  Then again, this play was meant to share a message as opposed to being a proper production.

All in all, it was a memorable and moving show and I would highly recommend watching it if you find yourself in Eureka Springs.  As for myself, I was whipped after the day’s shenanigans and have returned wearily to the inn to climb into bed.

Until the next time. . .