Sing a Song of Death

This is the story of Sara.  Sara was kind of a wild child who dated a bad boy bartender named Tom.  One day, Sara tires of Tom and meets Michael who is kind, stable, and safe.  Sara and Michael marry.  After a few years, Sara yearns for her former life and contacts Tom and that’s when things take a turn.  This is Murder Ballad, a rock opera written and with lyrics by Julia Jordan with music and lyrics by Juliana Nash and currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I could make this the quickest review in history and just say it’s phenomenal.  Go see it.

But you’d probably like to know a little more.

While I was intrigued by the plot of this play, little did I know I would end up watching one of the 5 best shows ever produced at the Playhouse.  Ms Jordan has written a tight, crisp story full of little twists and tragedies and Ms Nash’s music is one of the best musical soundtracks I have ever had the pleasure to hear.

The direction of Jeff Horger is utterly beyond reproach.  The energy of his actors never wanes and his staging is impeccable with his performers never taking a static moment and making use of the entire theatre for their movements.  Horger has also guided his thespians to universally marvelous performances with each actor not only being a top flight singer, but possessed of the ability to act through the songs of this opera.

The highest compliment I can pay to Leanne Hill Carlson’s portrayal of Sara is that I felt not one ounce of sympathy for her.  Zip.  Nada.  Zero.  Ms Hill Carlson has complete mastery of her character as she neatly travels the labyrinth of Sara’s arc.

She begins as the party girl living a vapid existence of partying and sex with Tom.  Then she longs for something of substance and meets Michael.  She seems quite content with a life of domesticity, but still has the appetites of her previous life to which she all too readily succumbs. The guilt of her poor choices clearly weighs on her shoulders, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her with her tendency to jerk around both men in her life.

Ms Hill Carlson also has a terrific higher alto/lower soprano voice with which she emotes the heck out of her songs.  From a bit of sultriness when she tries to seduce Michael when she first meets him, to her boredom of family life, to her regrets at her lousy decisions, Ms Hill Carlson was just a joy to listen to.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character I wanted to put my arm around and buck up more than John E. Jones’ Michael.  Jones has a sweet and haunting tenor voice that added such an emotional purity to his characterization of Michael.  His portrayal of Michael was so full of decency and goodness that I felt my heart drop when Sara began cheating on him and he still sang about how much he loved her and wanted to fix whatever was wrong with their marriage.

But watch out when he learns the truth of his wife’s liaisons.  Then Jones is perfectly believable with his righteous anger at being cuckolded and his determination for vengeance against Tom.

Thomas Gjere’s Tom is a most complex character, indeed.  What I liked most about Tom was that he truly was the reverse of Michael.  Where Michael was all about stability, Tom is instability at its peak.  He begins as being not too bad of a person except for his lust for Sara and I actually felt sympathy for him when he was still toiling away as a bartender regretting not fighting for Sara when she left him.

But that decency rapidly vanishes when he engages in a tawdry affair with a now married Sara and becomes quite the obsessed stalker oozing danger and menace as he darkly tells Sara she belongs to him.  Like Jones, Gjere also has a fantastic tenor voice but he makes certain to mine it for all the malevolence of which it’s capable.

Last, but certainly not least, is Mackenzie Dehmer who makes a stunning debut at the Playhouse with her role of the Narrator.  Trust me, Ms Dehmer is no mere storyteller.  Her Narrator is an integral part of this play as she involves herself in the lives of these characters.  I found myself often watching her just to see her reactions to the events swirling around her.  Ms Dehmer’s Narrator is a pretty dark character, often seeming to enjoy the chaos going on around her, yet seems to have a soft spot for Michael’s plight.  Ms Dehmer also has a powerful alto as she belted out her numbers and her movements were so lithe and smooth.

Technically this show was also a perfect ten.  Jim Othuse has turned the Howard Drew into a perfect dive bar while Darin Kuehler’s properties complete the picture.  And, believe it or not, the audience can order drinks from the bar and play billiards and pinball before the show starts.  Chris Wood’s lighting design was brilliant as his lights transformed with the emotional beats ranging from a sad blue to a hostile red.  Amanda Fehlner costumed her actors precisely to their personalities from Michael’s white collar nature to Tom’s blue collar dangerousness to Sara’s seductiveness and finally to the Narrator’s fun, but dark essence.  Doran Schmidt and her house band rocked all night long.

This is a truly can’t miss spectacle.  In fact, I liked it so much I just may go see it again.  If you want to see a well sung story with compelling characters, you must see Murder Ballad.  It’s the most original and rewarding play produced in years.

Murder Ballad plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through November 20.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $42 for adults and $25 for students.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to some strong language and adult situations, Murder Ballad is not suitable for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

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This ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Needs More Spirit

A disfigured genius falls in love with a chorus girl.  Taking her under his wing, he trains her voice so she can become the leading lady of the Opera Populaire.  When she falls in love with a childhood friend, the genius plots to keep her for himself at any cost.  This is the plot of The Phantom of the Opera, currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre.  It is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart, and based off of a novel by Gaston LeRoux.

Phantom has long been my favorite musical.  Its moving story and haunting music never fail to sweep me into another world.  Even after 8 viewings of this show, it has not lost a bit of its magic.  Cameron Mackintosh’s reimagined production helps breathe a bit of new wonder into the 30 year old show with new sets and a few surprises.

With that being said, it also breaks my heart to admit that this was also the weakest rendition of the show I have seen to date.

Not that the show is bad.  The music, singing, and choreography were as strong as ever.  But there was a lack of connection between many of the primary performers and their words making it feel like they were simply going through the motions.  The end result being that a show where every prior production ranked a superior from me gets a mere OK on this go-around.

Part of this problem is not the fault of the actors.  While the Orpheum is a beautiful, archaic theatre well suited to a play like Phantom, its acoustics are a black hole for sound.  Many of the performers did what they could to overcome this problem, but their efforts could only go so far.  Others needed to do a better job of projecting.

Laurence Connor’s direction is passable.  The scene changes are excellently executed and some of the staging is truly magical.  However, he failed to get the best performances out of his cast and his staging of the play’s climactic final scene utterly robbed it of its tragic beauty.

The Really Useful Theatre Group took a big risk in casting Chris Mann in the title role.  Best known for being a finalist on The Voice, Mann, if the program is correct, has no prior acting credits.  Mann truly makes an effort and, for an inexperienced actor, has a truly potent sense of body language.  But his inexperience shows in his inability to capture many of the subtle nuances of the character, though he does show a brilliant flash or two throughout the night.

His singing is absolutely fantastic and he clearly knows how to interpret a song.  His beautiful tenor nailed the emotional beats of The Music of the Night and he was utterly mesmerizing as he entranced Christine during his solo in Wandering Child.

Katie Travis was one of the few performers equally as strong on the acting side as on the singing side.  She understood that a musical is more than just the singing.  It’s about being able to act through the songs, as well.  Ms Travis has a very young look which lent itself well to the role of Christine Daae.  She is utterly believable as the young girl torn between her mysterious benefactor and her young lover.  Her simple hugging of the Phantom at the play’s climax nearly broke me in two.

Ms Travis also has a glorious soprano that is so pure and clean.  She nearly brought down the house in her first solo, Think of Me, and proceeded to do so in Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.  Ms Travis’ singing and accurate acting choices made for a well rounded performance.

Jordan Craig played Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, Christine’s love interest.  Craig is a very, very good singer.  His powerful, well measured baritone was a pleasure to listen to in his signature solo, All I Ask of You.  But his acting was almost non-existent.  I didn’t get the sense of any true emotional commitment to the role as Craig would appear on stage, sing, and then not have any sort of reactions to the events swirling around him, even in scenes where Raoul was in mortal peril.

David Foley and Edward Staudenmayer brought some welcome comedy relief in the roles of Firmin and Andre, the new owners of the Opera Populaire.  The roles are not huge, but each managed to create well developed characters with Foley’s business minded Firmin and Staudenmayer’s more artsy Andre.  These two men were arguably the strongest performers of the night with their deft comic timing and ability to overcome the difficulties of the Orpheum’s acoustics.  Staudenmayer does need to be careful with his humor as he went slightly over the top on a couple of occasions.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention several outstanding cameo performances in the evening’s production.  Victor Wallace stole his scenes as the uncouth Joseph Buquet who makes the fatal mistake of poking fun at the Phantom.  Morgan Cowling is a charmer as Christine’s loyal and gutsy friend, Meg Giry.  Michael Thomas Holmes was hysterical as the ill-tempered musical director, Monsieur Reyer.

Scott Ambler’s choreography was always a joy to watch especially in Masquerade.  Dale Rieling’s musical direction never failed to impress in a night of flawless instrumentation from his orchestra.  Paul Brown’s sets were pieces of artistic majesty from the stage of the Opera Populaire, to the graveyard where Christine’s father was buried, to the dank lair of the Phantom.  Maria Bjornsen’s costumes were extremely elegant with the flowing gowns for the ladies and the fine evening wear for the men.

There is a reason why The Phantom of the Opera still holds audiences in the palm of its hand even after 30 years.  The music and story are timeless with rich roles in which actors can sink their teeth.  While the night’s entertainment was pleasant enough, I have seen and will see better productions than this current run.  Ultimately, the failure to connect with their roles by many of the actors made this simply an average show.

The Phantom of the Opera plays at the Orpheum Theatre through May 1.  Performances are Tues-Thurs at 7:30pm.  Fri-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  There are also matinees at 2pm on Sat and 1:30pm on Sunday.  Tickets range from $150 to $50 and can be obtained at TicketOmaha or by visiting the box office at 13th and Douglas Streets M-F from 10am-5pm and Sat from Noon-5pm.  The Orpheum Theatre is located at 409 S 16th St in Omaha, NE.

Auditions for “A Stranger from Paradise”

Opera Omaha will hold workshop auditions on April 23, 2016 for “A Stranger from Paradise,” a new musical work by librettist Kevin Lawler and composer Nevada Jones to be premiered at the 2017 Great Plains Theatre Conference. The workshop will take place early July 2016.

Director: Kevin Lawler
Composer: Nevada Jones
Librettist: Kevin Lawler

Auditions:
Time: noon-3:15 p.m.
Requirements: Men and women auditioning for the workshop must be at least 18 years of age and able to read music. Those auditioning are asked to prepare one English song of their own choosing, not to exceed 3 minutes in length. Arias, art songs, oratorio and musical numbers are all acceptable audition selections. Please provide a printed copy of all music, as an accompanist will be available at no cost.

Call Backs:
Call Backs for men and women will take place immediately following the first round of auditions. All singers are asked to remain on-site until Call Backs have been announced.
Time: 3:45-5:00 p.m.

Location: Auditions will be held at the Opera Omaha Rehearsal Hall, located on 1850 Farnam Street in Omaha.

Contact: Advance reservations are required. To RSVP or for more information, contact Stella Fritzell at sfritzell@operaomaha.org or (402) 346-4398, ext. 106. Reservations will be accepted no later than April 20, 2016.

Opera Omaha Auditions

Opera Omaha is holding auditions for its 2016-17 season.

April 19, 2016, 6:30–8 p.m.
April 21, 2016, 6:30–8 p.m.

Opera Omaha Rehearsal Hall
1850 Farnam Street (Omaha, NE)

Requirements: Singers auditioning for the Chorus must be at least 18 years of age and be able to read music. Singers are asked to prepare two vocal selections, one in English and one in a foreign language, not to exceed a total of 5 minutes per audition. Arias, art songs or church solos are all acceptable audition selections. Please provide printed music as an accompanist will be available at no cost.

Contact: Advance reservations are required. To RSVP or for more information, contact Stella Fritzell at sfritzell@operaomaha.org or (402) 346-4398, ext. 106.

Opera Omaha is holding auditions for the Ragazzi Chorus (Children’s Chorus).

April 19, 2016, 3:30-5:30 p.m.
April 21, 2016, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

Opera Omaha Rehearsal Hall
1850 Farnam Street (Omaha, NE)

Children with unchanged voices between the ages of 10 and 16 are invited to audition. Children are asked to prepare 1 selection with piano accompaniment (this selection may be in English).

Please provide printed music as an accompanist will be available at no cost.

RESERVATIONS REQUIRED. Contact Stella Fritzell at sfritzell@operaomaha.org or 402-346-4398 x 106 to RSVP or for more information.

Phenomenal “Phantom” Will Haunt Your Soul

Words nearly fail me as I attempt to describe the impressiveness of Phantom currently playing at Creighton University.  Simply put, this is the best play I have seen this season and this show will stand, at the very least, shoulder to shoulder with anything produced on the community theatre circuit this year.

Based off of Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, this musical tells the story of a disfigured musical genius who falls in love with a farm girl (Christine Daee) now living in Paris.  So enthralled is he with her voice, that he trains her to become the leading performer at the Paris Opera House.  When Christine is sabotaged by a jealous rival and recoils from the hideous face of her anonymous mentor, the deformed man resorts to vengeance.

Though this play is a musical, do not confuse it with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of this tale.  This musical was written by Arthur Kopit with music and lyrics by Maury Yeston around the same time as Lloyd Webber’s take.  Once Lloyd Webber’s musical exploded onto the scene, this show lost all of its financial backing and seemed doomed never to see the light of day.  It eventually was produced in 1991 and has been steadily produced since that time.

This show takes a number of liberties with the source material, but this, in no way, weakens the power of the story.  Thanks to expert direction from Alan Klem, what we get is a show that is guaranteed to move you to the depths of your soul.

Kudos need to be given to this entire cast.  Experienced performers could take a lesson from this troupe of college students as each and every individual always plays the moment and stays involved in the action of the story.  That being said, this show also contained a number of standout performances.

Ryan Malone is exceptionally well cast as Erik, the titular Phantom.  His Phantom is far more sympathetic than ones from the novel and other versions of the tale.  Malone imbues his Erik with an almost childlike quality.  He is darkly innocent in the sense that he has known nothing, but the bowels of the Opera House and the music that has salved his soul.  But he does rule the Opera and woe to anyone who violates his rules or his desires.  Malone smoothly reveals this menace early on when he justifies his killing of an intruder into his domain with a simple, “He broke the rules.”  Malone also has mastered the fine art of body language, using it to communicate his emotions such as anguish when Christine flees from his hideous face.  Malone possesses a fine baritone voice, excelling in such numbers as “Paris is a Tomb”, “You are Music” and “You are My Own”.

Chelsey Hill is astonishingly amazing as Christine Daee.  With a crystal clear soprano voice, Ms Hill delights the crowd with such tunes as “Melodie de Paris” and “My True Love”.  Her Christine has a beautiful sweetness and innocence about her.  Ms Hill also does a tremendous job handling the conflicted feelings of love she has for both The Count de Chandon, who helps get her into the Paris Opera House and the Phantom who develops the potential of her voice.  Her reaction at seeing the unmasked Erik says more than words ever will.

Colleen Kilcoyne sparkles in a delightfully hammy performance as Carlotta, one of the new owners of the Opera House and its leading lady.  Carlotta is a diva in every sense of the word and Ms Kilcoyne plays it to the hilt, exemplified in the song “This Place is Mine”.  She rules with an iron fist and fancies herself the world’s greatest singer when, in reality, she is a loud screecher.  She is also cold blooded and callous, cruelly sabotaging Christine to retain her bought position as the ingénue of the Opera.

Patrick Kilcoyne gives a haunting performance as Gerard Carriere, the former managing director of the Opera House who is forced out by Carlotta and her husband near the start of the play.  Carriere has a mysterious connection with the Phantom whom he has tried to protect over the years.  Blessed with a powerful and rich bass voice, Kilcoyne brilliantly essays emotions such as frustration, anger, tenderness, and love.  His duet with Erik, “You Are My Own”, nearly brought me to tears.

Also good were Matt Karasek as Philippe, the Count de Chandon and Michael Conroy as Inspector Ledoux.  Karasek has a natural charm well suited to Philippe who initially appears as a gadabout, but displays genuine love for Christine.  Conroy provided some terrific comedic moments as the chief of the Parisian police force.

Bill Van Deest is to be commended for his amazing set.  Taking us from the streets of Paris to the catacombs of the Phantom, I often forgot this was not a professional production.  Stephen Sheftz and his orchestra also deserve praise for their stellar musicianship.

Phantom plays for one more weekend at Creighton University’s Lied Education Center for the Arts (Mar 27-30).  Showtimes are 7:30 pm Mar 27-29 and 2pm on Mar 30.  Tickets are $5, $15, or $18.  Reservations can be made at boxoffice.creighton.edu or at 402-280-1448.  Creighton University is located at 2500 California Plaza, Omaha, NE  68178.