Mamma Mia, Here I Go Again

Harry Bright, Sam Carmichael and Bill Austin are invited to the wedding of the daughter of their former paramour, Donna.  The trouble is that the invitations came from Donna’s daughter, Sophie, who is bound and determined to find out which of these men is her father.  This is Mamma Mia! and it is currently playing at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre.

This is my third go-around reviewing this show and this, hands down, was the best version I’ve seen.  I’ve always considered this show to be kitschy fun due to its near lack of a story which is solely meant to serve as a backdrop to ABBA songs.  But, this time, I had an absolute blast due to the complete commitment of the cast, precision direction and a band that nailed the music to the floor.

Gordon Cantiello’s direction couldn’t be any more on target.  The staging is right on the mark with the little seaside hotel/tavern and makes use of the entire theatre.  His pacing is precisely on point.  Not only has he guided his actors to pitch perfect performances, but he also found beats which I didn’t think existed in this show and were believably played by a stellar cast.

The ensemble was one of the best I’ve seen.  Each was thoroughly committed to the show and it added such a wonderful, vital dimension to it. And many added little bits of business that made the show just that much more realistic. Strong supporting performances were supplied by Marcus Benzel and Analisa Peyton.  Benzel shines as the uber macho travel writer, Bill Austin, and he plays him with maximum gusto.  Peyton is equally mighty as the no-nonsense chef, Rosie Mulligan.

I admit I was blown away by Evelyn Hill’s performance as Sophie, even more so when I learned she was only a high school junior because she has a natural talent that can go toe to toe with actors who have many years of experience.  Her Sophie is an energetic innocent.  You completely buy into her joy of getting married, her love of her mother and her determination to discover the identity of her father.  Hill has amazing facial expressions and I was utterly enthralled by her reactions to others and the events swirling about her.

Hill also has, as a Southern friend of mine would say, “a high roof to her mouth” (big vocal range).  Her high alto powered through such numbers as “Honey, Honey”, “The Name of the Game”, and “Under Attack” where she shows that not only can she sing, but also knows how to emote through a song.

Chris Berger is right on the money with his take on Sam Carmichael.  Berger strikes just the right balance of kindness, nervousness, sadness and courage.  Indeed, this blend is crucial for dealing with the volatile Donna and showing the regret of not staying with her when he originally had the chance.  Berger also is in fine fettle as a singer as he nails the show’s saddest number, “SOS” and is equally as good when he tries to advise Sophie on the bumps and trials of marriage in “Knowing Me, Knowing You”.

Mackenzie Dehmer is a pistol as Donna.  She hooks in the audience from the beginning with her independent, blue collar nature and her initial animosity at Sam returning is so palpable it can be cut with a knife.  And such lovely expressions of her own.  She can shoot a glare or sneer that shouts volumes and sheds some real tears during the show’s more serious moments.  Dehmer also has her own powerful alto which will thrill the audience with renditions of “One of Us”, “Slipping Through My Fingers”, “Mamma Mia” and “Our Last Summer”.

Jennifer Novak Haar and her band might as well be ABBA as they played the numbers so perfectly.  Tom Bertino designed a simple set of boxes and turquoise shutters which make for a quite convincing hotel.  Amber Wilson’s choreography is snappy and fun and immaculately executed by the cast.  I truly loved each and every one of the group numbers.  Ernie Gubbles’ lights add just the right bit of panache to the production.

The show well and truly got its hooks into me this time around and it gets my highest recommendation.  It truly is one of the season’s best productions and is a treat for all who watch it.

Mamma Mia! runs at Performing Artists Repertory Theatre through Feb 16.  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.

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.

Fall Into a Ring of Fire

Performing Artists Repertory Theatre is happy to announce auditions for Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash created by Richard Maltby Jr, conceived by William Meade, and orchestration by Steven Bishop and Jeff Lisenby. All roles are open. Seeking 2 females and 3 males. Auditions are scheduled for Sunday, July 7 from 6:30pm to 8:30pm and Monday, July 8 from 6:30p to 8:30pm. Please bring a headshot, resume and prepare a short monologue and sing one verse from a country song. An accompanist will be provided. Auditions are by appointment only. Please call 402-706-0778 for an appointment. The show will open August 9-18, 2019 at the PART Theatre at the Crossroads.  The theatre is located in Crossroads Mall at 72nd and Dodge Streets in Omaha, NE.

The Big Bad Woolf

A late night party between a pair of couples begins civilly.  As the couples continue to imbibe, old wounds and frustrations begin to manifest, resulting in a hideous game of oneupsmanship between the older couple that threatens to tear both pairs apart.  This is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? currently playing at the Performing Artists Repertory Theatre.

Edward Albee had a real talent for revealing the unsavory underbelly of humanity.  And he does it so subtly and with a tragic poetic beauty.  What starts out as good natured jabbing between an older couple while hosting a young couple transforms into something much darker as the ripostes and reactions become a little more cutting and a bit more brutal.  Suddenly the younger couple gets dragged into the tidal wave of verbal sewage until the disaster hits its peak.  Then it drains slowly away and under all the bilge is still a touch of hope and beauty.

Gordon Cantiello does quite superlative work with his direction.  He makes wonderful use of the theatre in the round space with highly animated staging which allows the actors to keep up the energy of the show and play to all sides of the theatre.  He also thoroughly did his homework on this piece as he understands the numerous twists, beats, and climaxes of each scene and has his insanely talented cast play them to perfection.

Delaney Driscoll rules the stage as Martha.  Ms Driscoll’s Martha is truly a vile piece of humanity.  At one point she says she wears the pants in the family and that’s certainly true as she rules with a iron fist.  She derives a sadistic pleasure out of torturing her husband with vicious comments about his failures and embarrassments or just simply ogling and seducing the young new faculty member visiting their home while guzzling booze and snacking on liquor soaked ice cubes.

Ms Driscoll’s presence defies belief and fills the entire theatre as she charmingly essays a bag of human misery.  And yet, she still is able to make you feel a bit of sympathy towards her when you finally understand what fuels her vicious behavior.

Brent Spencer gives a nuanced, well-balanced performance as George, Martha’s husband.  The best way to describe Spencer’s George is if Machiavelli were a spineless weakling.  Nobody with an ounce of self-respect would put up with the abuse with which Martha subjects George.  Not that he’s a wimp.  He can give as good as he gets with his verbal shots and Spencer’s understated delivery allows him to spout insults that leave people wondering if they have just been zinged.  But when he’s pushed too far, watch out!

When this worm finally turns, he does so with devastating effect.  Spencer’s George gleefully develops horrific games such as “Get the Guests” and “Bringing Up Baby” to inflict maximum punishment on his wife and guests.

Mark Booker underplays Nick so beautifully.  He is clearly the parallel to Martha as he is the boss of his family unit and also trapped in a unsuccessful marriage.  Unlike Martha, he can be kind as he does defend his wife, Honey, from some of the verbal fusillade spewing from George’s mouth.  My favorite part of Booker’s interpretation was how he slowly revealed the spiteful, vengeful side of his personality as he got further into his cups.  This is not a man I would want to cross as he delivers double the punishment for every blow he gets.  Not only can he stand toe to toe verbally with George, he unabashedly makes love to Martha just to twist the knife a bit further.

Katie Otten broke my heart with her take on Honey.  She is the lone, wholly sympathetic character in the piece.  Her ramrod posture indicates the constant level of tension she lives with and is only able to cope with copious amounts of alcohol.  When she’s blitzed her real personality of a fun-loving, uneducated party girl shines through. Miss Otten’s Honey seems a poor match for her genius husband until the truth of their relationship is revealed.

One of my friends once described watching this show as the verbal equivalent of having the skin flayed off his body.  That seems a rather apt description as the power of Albee’s words combined with a superior cast will take the audience along on a bitter, intense roller coaster ride that will leave you feeling beaten and wearied by the end.  That feeling is further enhanced by the skillful sound effects of Doug Huggins as his noises buoy the show’s most powerful and key moments.  It is not an easy show to watch, but it is enthralling.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? continues at the PART through Feb 17.  Showtimes are 7pm Fri-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $35 ($30 for seniors (60+) and $25 students.  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-706-0778.  Due to mature themes, the show is not recommended for children.  The PART is located inside of Crossroads Mall next to Target at 7400 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.

 

PART to Present ‘The Last Five Years’

Performing Artists Repertory Theatre presents
The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown

Location:  7400 Dodge Street, Omaha, NE 68114

Curtain Times: Friday and Saturdays, March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 at 7pm; Sundays, March 26 and April 2 at 2pm.

Ticket Costs: $35 Regular Admission, $30 Seniors, $25 Students and Military

Theatre/Box Office contact info: 402-706-0778

Summary

The Last Five Years tells the powerful story of Cathy and Jamie, two twenty-something New Yorkers who dive headfirst into a marriage fueled by the optimism that comes from finding “the one.” But in a city where professional and personal passions collide and only the strongest relationships survive, Cathy’s journey is told from ending to beginning, and Jamie’s from beginning to end. Funny, honest, and intimate, and with an exuberantly romantic The Last Five Years takes a bold look at one young couple’s hope that love endures the test of time.

Cast: Leanne Hill Carlson and John Jones.

Musical Direction by Doran Schmidt

Directed by Gordon P. Cantiello

Lighting by Sandy Hatcher

Production Stage Manager:  John Flemming

Sound by Doug Huggins

House Manager:  Erron Antisdel.