The Golden Review: Valparaiso, IN and Songbird Prairie

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Songbird Prairie Bed & Breakfast

Today the road has brought me to Valparaiso, IN.

Welcome to my 50th B & B review.  Having reached this magic number, I wanted this review to be something special.  I needed a destination with lots to do, a top of the line inn, and I wanted it to feel like a bit of a road trip.  I pored over my spreadsheet of inns to find something to fit the bill and as I perused the Indiana section it hit me right between the eyes.  I found Songbird Prairie Bed and Breakfast, a luxury inn which has won numerous “best of” and hospitality awards over the years.  I booked a room and eagerly looked forward to a grand adventure.

Friday evening found me making the trek to Indiana.  I had decided to split up the drive over 2 days so I would have energy for activities once I arrived in Valparaiso so I made an overnight stop at a Travelodge in Iowa City, IA.

 

It had been a fairly pleasant day when the drive started, but by the time I had rolled into Iowa City, it had become a hazy gray and the humidity had shot past the roof.  So humid was it, that I actually saw steam rising from pools of water from a storm that must have dumped on the city before my arrival.  The conditions felt perfect for a tornado and I later learned that one had touched down just outside the city, but nothing came of it.

The hotel was serviceable and even had a swimming pool.  I deposited my luggage in my room and cast a grateful eye on my king-sized bed.  The smell of a Domino’s Pizza down the hall reminded me that I should probably do something about my own hunger.

A restaurant called Los Agaves Mexican Grill was attached to the hotel and solved my problem of finding a place to eat.  My waiter, Jose, brought me a bowl of chips and salsa while I looked over the menu. I opted to try the Chiles Colorado.  Shortly after my order, a plate of grilled beef tips in a spicy red mole sauce with Spanish rice and refried beans appeared before me.  With the use of warm corn tortillas, I made several “tacos” to enjoy the meal.  It plugged the spot dead center and I went back to my room and laid down to sleep.

The bed was quite comfortable as I slept the sleep of the dead.  I’m talking limbs splayed out, slack jawed sleep.  After waking up, I got cleaned up and had the hotel’s deluxe continental breakfast which meant some hot items were available.  I had a biscuit with some sausage gravy and a bowl of Frosted Flakes with a cup of orange juice to wash it down and was back on the road about 90 minutes later.

I enjoyed a very peaceful drive as I listened to the tunes of my MP3 player and wondered if Indiana had finally completed the construction which had bedeviled me several times over the years.

They had.

But it didn’t make much difference as traffic still slowed to a snail’s pace after I crossed over.  However, as I only had to travel about 11 miles to reach my exit, the slower pace didn’t cause me any duress.

So it was that I found myself in Valparaiso, hometown of popcorn magnate, Orville Redenbacher.  The town of Valparaiso is also nearby the Indiana Dunes for those who like the outdoors, Chicago for those seeking big city fun, and South Bend, IN if you’d like to visit Notre Dame.

Songbird Prairie, owned and operated by Barbara and Efrain Rivera, is nestled out on a wooded acreage just outside of Valparaiso.  The large, red mansion is at the end of a long gravel road.  I was met at the door by Barbara who gave me a tour of the home.

Luxurious is indeed the word to describe this inn as it not only boasts very fancy and comfortable rooms, but it also has a spa room and gift shop.

Barbara led me to the Robin Suite, the inn’s best room.  This elegant room had a king-sized Ethan Allen bed, carpet so soft that my feet practically sank in the fibers, brownish-green walls with an outdoor mural of blue sky and clouds painted on the ceiling, a fireplace (only operable during colder months), and a huge bathroom which featured a chromotherapy Jacuzzi.

 

After getting settled, I headed off to services at St Elizabeth Ann Seton.  Due to the size of the parking lot, I thought this would be a good sized church, but it was actually quite small.  The service was quite energetic and you could see that Father was full of the Spirit as he talked about the glory of the Resurrection and even used the traditional Protestant greeting of “He is risen” and the congregation actually responded with “Indeed He is risen.”

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St Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church

After a vigorous service, I was ready for dinner and I decided to try the Industrial Revolution.  This restaurant  celebrates America’s technological advancements and each week a different pioneer is featured.  This week, it was the man who brought Atari to America.  For dinner, I decided to try the Garlic Parmesan Burger with a side of garlic potato wedges.  The burger was actually quite tasty, but could have benefited from some more vegetables.

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Industrial Revolution

The day started to catch up with me, so I went back to the inn to give the Jacuzzi a spin.  This was a smart bathtub.  A light goes on when the tub has reached the proper level of water.  You can set the duration and intensity of the jets which are pinpoint and built into the walls of the tub.  The tub even uses chromotherapy which means that the tub cycles through a series of colored lights to help bring you into a deeper state of relaxation.  I stayed in the tub for nearly 45 minutes soaking up every joule of heat.  From there, I crawled into bed and set a white noise machine to the sound of rainfall to fall into the blissful arms of slumber.

I awoke the next morning to see that real rain had actually fallen during the night.  A light sprinkle was still falling, but it wouldn’t derail any of the day’s plans.  But, first, I needed some breakfast.

Breakfast is held in the sun room which is miked so guests will be serenaded with the music of songbirds.  Now I have had the privilege of enjoying some very fine dining in my travels, but this had to be the best presented meal I had ever had.  Each course was a piece of artistry in how it was framed on the plate.  The artistic description especially suited the first course as Barbara had carved watermelon into the shape of birds and served them with a cranberry scone.

The main entrée was French Toast souffle with sausage patties and the souffle was incredibly on point especially with the wonderful aftertaste of cinnamon.  For dessert there was strawberry sorbet and beverages were orange juice and water served with lemon and a bit of mint, I believe.

 

I had a big day planned and got started immediately.  I headed to the nearby town of St John to visit The Shrine of Christ’s Passion.

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The Shrine of Christ’s Passion

The Shrine is a walking version of Christ’s Passion or The Stations of the Cross as they are known in Catholicism.  Members of all branches of Christianity visit every year and it is a profound experience.  If you’re a believer, you must experience this place.  If you’re not, you just might become one after visiting.

The Shrine is absolutely free and survives solely on donations and sales from the gift shop.  The gift shop is pretty impressive and has a wide variety of Christian gifts, literature, and a second floor where it’s Christmas year-round.

The walking area contains 40 life sized bronze statues that feature the Stations with a few extras such as the Agony in the Garden, the Last Supper, Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene after His Resurrection, the Ascension, and Moses on Mt Sinai.  The detail of the statues is incredible, especially with the eyes which brilliantly communicate the emotions of the various moments.  I was transformed as I walked the path and truly felt like I was watching my Savior walk the path of the cross.

 

I spent nearly 2 hours at the Shrine and bought a meditational called Jesus Today by Sarah Young on my way out.

I reflected on the experience as I drove back to Valparaiso where I would visit Zao Island.

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The dragon of Zao Island

Zao Island is a little fun park that features batting cages, an arcade, laser tag, go-karts, a super slide, a small gator farm, and two mini-golf courses that USA Today called the most interesting in the country.

That last part is what really caught my attention.  I wouldn’t normally play mini-golf by myself, but I wanted to experience this one given the newspaper’s statement.  The course didn’t quite meet my standards.  For me, the fun in mini-golf is gimmickry and challenging holes.  While there were a few complex holes, they were pretty much straightforward putting greens and failed to scratch my itch.  My own personal tastes aside, the park has more than enough to do for an afternoon of family fun.

I returned to the inn to begin a bit of writing and headed out to dinner at about 5:30.

I decided to try Yats Cajun Creole.  This is a small eatery near Valparaiso University with a daily changing menu.  I decided to have some gumbo and this time it truly was a stew as it was served on a plate.  The stew part of the gumbo was tasty, but I would have preferred a little more of the stew and a little less rice.

From there, it was back to the inn for a quiet evening of writing and reading before another Jacuzzi bath and setting the white noise machine to waterfall to help put me out.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of water with lemon and mint, orange juice, a fruit cocktail of apples, kiwi, grapes, strawberries, and oranges, lemon poppy and banana nut muffins, bacon, herb baked potatoes, omelet stuffed with cheese, peppers, and ham, croissant, with a choice of several small cheesecakes for dessert.  I had just enough room to sample the lemon cheesecake with edible butterfly.

 

And that, my friends, brings an end to the Golden Review.  I will actually be slowing down the B & B portion of this blog for a bit to focus on some other things.  I still fully intend to continue with an annual Christmas review, but other reviews will be sporadic for a little while.

But, if you find yourselves in the Valparaiso area, enjoy a bit of luxury at Songbird Prairie while you’re exploring.  You may find it hard to tear yourself away after having a taste, both literal and metaphorical, of its elegance.

Until the next time. . .happy travels.

Sioux Empire Community Theatre Presents ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Jesus Christ Superstar

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

Location:  Sioux Empire Community Theatre (315 N Phillips Ave, Sioux Falls, SD)

Performance Dates:  May 5-21 (Showtimes are 7pm Thurs-Sat, 2pm on Sun)

Ticket Prices:  $30

Box Office:  605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com

Description

It seems especially fitting that the first rock opera, created as a concept album at the end of the turbulent ’60s, should have at its center a social and political rebel. Jesus’ meteor-like rise in renown provides, as the title suggests, a parallel to contemporary celebrity worship. As his radical teachings are evermore embraced, Judas increasingly questions the enlightened motives of this new prophet, resulting in betrayal. Christ’s final days are dramatized with emotional intensity, thought-provoking edge and explosive theatricality. Propelled by a stirring score, by turns driving and majestic, satirical and tender, Jesus Christ Superstar illuminates the transcendent power of the human spirit with a passion that goes straight to the heart.

Cast

Raine Jerke as Jesus

Ryan Harr as Judas

Jenn Lee as Mary Magdalene

Rick Weiland as Pilate

James C. Van Oort as Caiaphas

Devin Basart as Annas

Darren Lee as Peter

Paul Ridgway as Simon

Robin Byrne as Herod

Abigail Chapdelaine and Lenora Hintze as the Soul Girls

Ensemble features Tyler Johnson, Dennis H. Berger, Landon Javers, Brandon Tople, Megan Davis, and Cecily Fogarty

Cotton Patch is Fun, but Flawed

It’s the Gospel of Matthew told Southern style.  This is Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key & Russel Treyz with music by Harry Chapin and inspired by a novel from Clarence Jordan.  This musical will have your feet tapping, your hands clapping, and your fingers snapping throughout the night and is currently playing at the Howmet Playhouse.

This musical has long been a personal favorite of mine, though I imagine many have not heard of it.  It was a big hit when it first came out in 1982 and even netted a Los Angeles Dramalogue nomination for Best Actor for Tom Key (who also co-wrote the script).  From an epic score by Harry Chapin to the vibrant, colorful characters created by Key and Treyz, Cotton Patch Gospel has all of the elements for a hit show.  I had long hoped for the opportunity to see this play and when I discovered it would be produced at the Howmet Playhouse, I drove 16 ½ hours to see it live.

No, that was not a misprint.

I drove 16 ½ hours to watch this show and it was well worth the drive.  Backed by a powerful quartet of musicians, the 5 person cast, under the direction of Debra Freeberg, provided a very entertaining night of theatre.  Ms Freeburg is to be complimented for some very creative and inventive directing, though there were beats that could have been delved into more deeply.  She also coached solid to excellent performances from her cast.  I was also intrigued by the use of a small cast.  Tom Key wrote the play so it could be performed as a one man show or a full scale production, but this is the first time I have seen a small cast used and that decision worked very well indeed.

Steven Barre was one of the two standout performers of the night.  Barre has a good sense of body language and voice as he easily switched between the humble, but harried, Joe (Jesus’ stepfather), the arrogant and dangerous, Governor Herod, and the conflicted Jud, who ultimately betrays Jesus.  Barre is a very animated actor and his energy and enthusiasm added greatly to his work which was a treat for the eyes and ears.  My only criticism is that Barre’s take on John the Baptizer was too restrained and he needs to let loose and go full force with the zealous preacher.

Barre also has a wonderful 2nd tenor singing voice which was capable of subtle and rich nuances.  From the cold-blooded gloating of Herod’s arranging the murder of innocent children (I Did It) to the sad Joe wondering why Jesus won’t see him (You Are Still My Boy) to a jubilant Apostle (Jubilation), Barre proved himself to be a well rounded performer and a great asset for the show.

Brianna June Clark was the other standout performer of the night.  Ms June Clark had a beautiful, clear soprano singing voice and she knows how to find the emotional beats of a song.  From a soulful, haunting number from a mother who cannot accept the death of her child (Mama is Here) to a wistful dream that Jesus wasn’t dead (One More Tomorrow), Ms June Clark knocked one musical pitch after another out of the park.

She was also just as adept on the acting side of things.  Ms June Clark has an incredible presence and excellent facial expressions along with a good sense of improv.  Whether she was the slightly befuddled Andy, the menacing Governor Pilate, or the Virgin Mary, Ms June Clark was, quite simply, an utter delight.  She also had the funniest moment of the night with her audible nausea at the sight of the victim when Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan.

I wish the show had more than a one weekend run as I sensed a great deal of potential in the performances of Alex Cooke and Annie Bulthuis which could be realized with a longer run.  Both gave solid performances, but they needed a bit of fine tuning.

Both (and the rest of the cast at various points) needed to project more and talk louder to overcome the nearly black box nature of the theatre’s acoustics.  They also need to slow down their delivery a bit and focus a bit more on the beats and nuances of their dialogue.  A lot of humorous lines and dramatic moments didn’t get the emphasis they needed due to their rushing the lines.  I understand that the entire rehearsal process only lasted two weeks which isn’t enough time to get into the grit and gristle of a script.  So they deserve kudos for the solid foundation they developed with their limited preparation time.

Ms Bulthuis has a skillful alto voice which she put to good use in numbers such as “Love the Lord Your God” and “We Gotta Get Organized”.  She also has one of the most expressive faces I have ever seen.  With a slight cock of her eyebrow or a tiny purse of her lips, I was able to follow the thoughts of Ms Bulthuis’ characters without her uttering a single word.  I also thought her interpretation of Rock as slightly less than intelligent to be a very fine and funny bit of acting.

Cooke’s 2nd tenor voice also demonstrated a knack for subtle shades of emotion.  His primary role was that of Jesus and his portrayal of Jesus’ fears and sadness at his imminent lynching in “Goin’ to Atlanta” was not only spot on, but had me shedding a few tears as well.

Though he has no lines, Tim Todd does have a good grasp of pantomime which allowed him to tell his own story and kept him involved in each moment of the show.

There were a few technical flaws during the night.  There was some wicked feedback coming from a speaker at a few points and the actors’ microphones were either failing or their volume was constantly adjusted throughout the show.

Musical Director, Karen Burek, and her Band (Josh Bourdon, Alex Johnson, David Russell, and Lare Williams) do superior work with their stellar musicianship and flawless playing.  Tom Klonowski’s light design was award worthy and Jessica Reilly’s bare bones set was a thing of beauty.

In spite of a few flaws which I believe could be easily overcome with a longer run, Cotton Patch Gospel was an inspiring, moving, and entertaining night of theatre and I want to thank the cast and crew of this show for making my epic journey to see it a worthwhile one.

Cotton Patch Gospel has one final performance on Saturday, August 8 at 7:30pm.  Tickets range from $16 to $20 and can be obtained in person at the Box Office or by calling them at 231-894-2540 one hour before showtime.  They can also be obtained at their website, www.howmetplayhouse.org.  The Howmet Playhouse is located at 304 S Mears Ave in Whitehall, MI.

2015 Playhouse Awards Night

Last night the Omaha Playhouse held its annual Awards Night to honor the contributions of its numerous volunteers on all sides of the stage.

Volunteer Awards

PRESIDENT’S AWARD:  Trish Liakos and Steph Gould, Act II

EDWARD F. OWEN AWARD:  Carter and Vernie Jones

TRUSTEES’ AWARD:  Mary Dew and Bob Fischbach

Acting Awards

FONDA-MCGURE AWARD (Best Actor)

Brennan Thomas for his performance as George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Melanie Walters for her performance as The Lady of the Lake in Spamalot

MARY PECKHAM AWARD (Best Featured Actor)

Musical

Dave Wingert for his performance as Man in Chair in The Drowsy Chaperone

(Tie)  Megan McGuire for her performance as the Drowsy Chaperone in The Drowsy Chaperone and Molly McGuire as Janet Van De Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone

Play

Matthew Pyle for his performance as Jeffrey Skilling in Enron

Charleen Willoughby for her performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?

BARBARA FORD AWARD (Best Supporting Actor)

Musical

Brian Priesman for his performance as Patsy in Spamalot

Rebecca Noble for her performance as Norma Valverde in Hands On a Hardbody

Play

Andrew Prescott for his performance as Caleb DeLeon in The Whipping Man

Megan Friend for her performance as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

ELAINE JABENIS CAMEO AWARD (Best Cameo Performance)

Musical

Matthias Jeske for multiple roles in Spamalot

Roni Shelley Perez for her performance as Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar

Play

Paul Schnieder for his performance as Kenneth Lay in Enron

Julie Fitzgerald Ryan for her performance as Felicia Dantine in I Hate Hamlet

BILL BAILEY DEBUT AWARD (Best Debut Performance

Nick Albrecht for his performance as King Arthur in Spamalot

Sarah Query for her performance as Cindy Barnes in Hands On a Hardbody

Superstar Soars

From the first notes of Jim Boggess and his superlative orchestra, you will be catapulted on an amazing journey for the eyes, ears, and heart as you experience the last week of Jesus’ life told in the style of a rock opera.  This is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is, by far, the best musical ever mounted on an Omaha stage and Kimberly Faith Hickman deserves a standing ovation of her own for an extraordinary display of direction and choreography.  Never is there a wasted beat, nuance, or moment and you will be riveted to this incredibly powerful story from beginning to end.  It has been updated so that the tale now takes place in modern times which I believe strengthens its relevance.  Jesus and his followers are now street people living in a derelict shantytown while Pilate and the high priests are well dressed businessmen.  Lydia Dawson’s masterful costuming and Jim Othuse’s deceptively simple set perfectly catch the mood of this update.

This is one of those shows where I truly wish I’d be able to single out every performer individually in a review, but for the sake of brevity, let me say that this cast is phenomenal.  Each and every one is always in the moment and exudes an incredible amount of energy that helps propel the show to unimaginable heights.  Among the talented ensemble were a few standout performances that deserve special notice such as Zach Kloppenborg’s portrayal of the obsequious, irritating suck up Annas.   His whining tenor wonderfully grates on your nerves throughout the night.  Jimmy Nguyen’s Peter was a surprising delight as his strong, supple singing voice completely belies his slight frame.  Jerry Van Horn rules the stage as King Herod as he smarmily tries to get Jesus to prove his divinity in “Herod’s Song”.

Roderick Cotton is a marvel as Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot.  Oddly enough, he is actually the centerpiece of this story as it is told from his point of view.  Cotton makes for a surprisingly sympathetic Judas as he is Jesus’ right hand man, but fears things are getting out of control now that people believe that Jesus is the son of God (Heaven on Their Minds) while he is convinced Jesus is just a wise teacher.  Cotton’s powerful tenor is capable of capturing a wide range of emotion from sneering superiority as he blasts Mary Magdalene for anointing Jesus with expensive ointment in “Everything’s Alright” to desperation as he feels compelled to betray Jesus for his own good in “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” to anger as he confronts Jesus at “The Last Supper”.

Cotton is also a treat to watch in his silent moments as his expressions are crystal clear and tell a story all of their own.  Not only is it a striking performance, I believe it has the potential to be an award winning one at the end of the season.

John Gajewski handles the role of Jesus with grace and aplomb.  His dynamite tenor reaches searing and soaring falsettos that would make Ted Neeley proud.  Gajewski’s Jesus really emphasizes his human nature and reminds us that Jesus felt the same emotions as every other person.  Rarely have I heard such subtle, outstanding nuance in a voice as Gajewski glides from tender love and hope for his followers to understand the truth of his mission in “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”, to supreme confidence in his message in “Hosanna”, to fury at the desecration of his Father’s house in “The Temple”, to frustration with his followers not getting it in “The Last Supper”, and caps it off with a haunting acceptance of his death in “Gethsemane”.

Gajewski’s expressions and body language are just as subtle.  Particularly telling were the weariness in his face when he accepts his destiny in “Gethsemane” and his pained suffering as he is scourged in “Trial by Pilate”.  Both moments had me searching for a tissue.

Many experienced performers would be envious of the stage presence and confidence possessed by young Roni Shelley Perez who plays Mary Magdalene.  Her sweet soprano captures utter devotion to Jesus as she comforts him in “Everything’s Alright”, a perplexed confusion in her dominating solo “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, and a slow understanding of the truth of Jesus in “Could We Start Again, Please?”  Her performance was one of the night’s many highlights.

Also spectacular were Cork Ramer as the high priest, Caiphas, and Michael Markey as Pontius Pilate.  Ramer’s flawless bass exudes a dark menace as he plots to eliminate Jesus in “Jesus Must Die” and a mocking congratulations and thank you to Judas in “Judas’ Death”.  Markey’s facile baritone paints a picture of a man reluctant to execute the innocent Jesus, but who finally buckles under the extreme pressure in “Trial by Pilate”.

A few minor missteps in diction, projection, and dancing did not distract from this entrancing, beautiful, and moving night of theatre.  As Saturday’s sellout crowd indicates, this show is already morphing into a massive success.  Get a ticket before it’s too late to see this epic hit and potential awards season darling.

Jesus Christ Superstar runs until April 4 at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Wed-Sat and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets cost $40 for adults and $25 for students.  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.