Omaha Playhouse Announces 96th Season

Omaha, NE.–The Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) has announced the titles to be produced during their 96th season, which will run from August 2020 through June 2021. Subscriptions for OCP’s 2020/21 season are now available for purchase through the OCP Box Office at 6915 Cass Street, Omaha, NE 68132, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com.

OMAHA COMMUNITY PLAYHOUSE 2020/21 SEASON PRODUCTIONS

*Billy McGuigan’s Pop Rock Orchestra

Aug. 7–16, 2020

Hawks Mainstage Theatre

Featuring Billy McGuigan | Music Director Steve Gomez | ©2007 by Rave On Productions

Billy McGuigan’s Pop Rock Orchestra is a high-energy concert experience packed with rock ‘n’ roll mega hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Led by international touring artist Billy McGuigan and backed by the 14-piece Pop Rock Orchestra, these all-star musicians serve up fresh, original arrangements covering everything from the Beach Boys to Billy Joel, and everything in between.

*Special Event—Not part of the regular season series.

Clybourne Park

Aug. 21–Sept. 20, 2020

Howard Drew Theatre

By Bruce Norris

Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning comedy Clybourne Park serves as prequel and sequel to A Raisin in the Sun. A 1950s couple faces sharp backlash from neighbors for selling their home in the all-white Clybourne Park to a black family. Fifty years later, a white couple attempts to purchase the same home in the now predominantly black neighborhood, igniting fears of gentrification.

Disclaimer: Contains adult language and themes of racial tension.

Kinky Boots

Sept. 25–Oct. 25, 2020

Hawks Mainstage Theatre

Book by Harvey Fierstein | Music and Lyrics by Cyndi Lauper

Original Broadway Production Directed and Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell

Based on the Miramax motion picture Kinky Boots

Written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth

Flashy, inspiring and downright fun, Kinky Boots is the Tony Award®-winning musical warming hearts around the world. After returning to his hometown to manage his late father’s failing shoe factory, Charlie meets Lola, an outspoken and unapologetic drag queen in need of a sturdy pair of exotic boots. Together, the unlikely pair cobble a heartwarming tale of acceptance and friendship.

Orchestra Sponsor: Woodmen Life

Hawks Series Sponsor: Immanuel Communities

Water by the Spoonful

Oct. 16–Nov. 8, 2020

Howard Drew Theatre

By Quiara Alegría Hudes

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Water by the Spoonful follows Elliott, an Iraq war vet struggling to care for his dying aunt, and Odessa, a recovering drug addict fighting to stay sober with the support of her online companions. When their two worlds unexpectedly collide, everyone’s progress comes crashing down in this thought-provoking and beautifully human tale.

Disclaimer: Contains adult themes and language.

Presenting Sponsor: Conagra Brands Foundation

*A Christmas Carol

Nov. 20–Dec. 23, 2020

Hawks Mainstage Theatre

Written by Charles Dickens | Adapted by Charles Jones

Musical Orchestration by John J. Bennett

It just isn’t Christmas without A Christmas Carol! Experience Omaha’s favorite holiday tradition as Ebenezer Scrooge takes us on a life-changing journey to discover the true meaning of Christmas. Filled with stunning Victorian costumes, festive music and crisp, wintry sets, A Christmas Carol is a beautiful reminder that love and generosity are the heart of the Christmas holiday.

*Special Event—Not part of the regular season series.

Presenting Sponsor: First National Bank

Artistic Team Sponsor: Omaha Steaks

Orchestra Sponsor: KPMG

Bakery Shoppe/Special Effects Sponsor: Rotella’s Bakery

*Yesterday and Today:  An Interactive Beatles Experience

Nov. 27–Dec. 31, 2020

Howard Drew Theatre

Featuring Billy McGuigan | Music Director Matthew McGuigan | ©2007 by Rave On Productions

Cap off 2020 with a shot of Beatlemania! Yesterday and Today is the smash hit, all-request Beatles show controlled by the audience. Share your favorite stories and relive your fondest memories with the songs that defined a generation. With no two shows the same, fans will be dancing in the aisles and singing along to all their favorite hits.

*Special Event—Not part of the regular season series.

The Miracle Worker

Jan. 15–Feb. 7, 2021

Hawks Mainstage Theatre

By William Gibson

The Miracle Worker is the incredible true story of Helen Keller, deaf and blind since age one, and the extraordinary woman who changed her life. Unable to communicate with their daughter, the Keller family enlists the help of Annie Sullivan, a woman determined to rescue Helen from the dark, tortured silence imprisoning her mind. A story that has inspired audiences for generations.

Hawks Series Sponsor: Immanuel Communities

The Scottsboro Boys

Feb. 12–March 14, 2021

Howard Drew Theatre

Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb

Book by David Thompson

Original Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman

The Scottsboro Boys follows the wrongful conviction of nine black teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama in the 1930s—an infamous case that helped ignite the modern civil rights movement. From the composers of Chicago and Cabaret, this 12-time Tony® Award nominee alternates toe-tapping musical numbers with heart-wrenching ballads to tell a harrowing tale of bravery and strength in the face of great adversity.

Disclaimer: Contains themes and language related to racial tension.

In the Heights

Feb. 26–March 21, 2021

Hawks Mainstage Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Before there was Hamilton, there was In the Heights. From the revolutionary musical mind of Lin-Manuel Miranda, this Tony® Award-winning musical recounts three days in the vibrant Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights, NYC, where the Spanish-speaking residents chase American dreams. This bubbly fusion of rap, salsa, Latin pop and soul music boasts an infectious enthusiasm from beginning to end.

Presenting Sponsor: Heider Family Foundation

Producing Partner: Physicians Mutual

Hawks Series Sponsor: Immanuel Communities

*THE CANDY PROJECT PRESENTS:

Gutenberg!  The Musical!

March 18–21, 2021

Howard Drew Theatre

By Anthony King and Scott Brown

Starring Steve Krambeck and Dan Chevalier

Join The Candy Project, friends of OCP, for a special presentation of Gutenberg! The Musical! A pair of aspiring playwrights audition their newest work—a big, splashy musical about the inventor of the printing press—for an audience of potential investors. This two-man musical spoof offers an unending supply of enthusiasm and laughs.

*Special Event—Not part of the regular season series.

Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express

April 16–May 9, 2021

Hawks Mainstage Theatre

Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig

A thrilling whodunit set aboard the world’s most famous luxury locomotive, Murder on the Orient Express will keep you guessing until the very end. When the Orient Express becomes stranded by a snow storm, a passenger is found stabbed to death in his private room. With the murderer still on board, a detective must solve the crime before the train reaches its destination.

Producing Partner: UNMC

Hawks Series Sponsor: Immanuel Communities

Outside Mullingar

May 7–30, 2021

Howard Drew Theatre

By John Patrick Shanley

This charming romantic comedy follows Anthony and Rosemary, two introverts who grew up on neighboring farms in rural Ireland. Rosemary secretly fell in love with Anthony at age six, but after a bought with heartbreak, Anthony swore off women forever. The now middle-aged pair must overcome their own aloofness—as well as a family property dispute—to find their way to one another.

Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka

May 28–June 27, 2021

Hawks Mainstage Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley

Adapted for the Stage by Leslie Bricusse and Timothy Allen McDonald

Based on the Book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Oompa-Loompa-Doom-Pa-Dee-Doo! We’ve got a family favorite for you! Grab your golden ticket as Willy Wonka takes your family on a whimsical tour of the chocolate factory—with Charlie Bucket, Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, and all of your favorite characters. Featuring songs from the hit film, Willy Wonka will open up a world of pure imagination.

Presenting Sponsor: Mutual of Omaha

Orchestra Sponsor: Kiewit

Hawks Series Sponsor: Immanuel Communities

Turf War

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From left to right: Giovanni Quezada, Alyssa Gonzalez, Dennis Collins and Mary Kelly

A property line dispute between an older white couple and a young Hispanic couple gets blown grossly out of proportion.  The feud between the neighbors unleashes a barrage of pent up frustrations, perceptions, and biases in Native Gardens by Karen Zacarias which is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Zacarias has written what I shall dub an intellectual comedy.  It’s not only funny, but it gives the viewer quite a bit of food for thought.  It’s certainly a play for the current political climate and makes reference to walls and illegal immigration.  But it also focuses on negative isms like racism and ageism as well as white privilege, perception and entitlement.  However, it often does this by turning a lot of these negative themes on their heads as it is the Hispanic couple operating from a position of power in this show.

I was especially impressed as to how the two couples are presented as mirror images of each other.  Given the similarities in terms of personality, desires and even who wears the pants in the two units, the couples should get along famously.  However, their world views are what ultimately bring them into conflict.  This makes for a very interesting story as both sides have valid viewpoints for their skirmish.

Ablan Roblin supplies a commendable piece of direction for this comedy.  The staging is admirable and reflects the mirror image of the couples with the rather luxurious home of the Butleys and the somewhat ramshackle house (it was derelict for years) of the Del Valles.  He keeps the pace brisk and animated with his actors constantly moving about which was actually a bit of a feat due to the actors having to be confined to their yards.  He’s coached his thespians to effective and potent performances and knows how to hit the funny even when it touches upon sensitive subject matter.

It was truly a treat to watch the performance of Giovanni Quezada who makes quite the splash with his Playhouse debut.  Quezada is one of the most naturalistic actors I’ve ever seen.  So credible and believable.  And his gestures are fluid and effortless.  He brings a real intelligence to his portrayal of Pablo Del Valle.  He’s young and hungry and determined to be the best lawyer possible.  But his confidence can sometimes border on arrogance and he shows a bit of immaturity by focusing on what’s legal instead of what’s fair.

Mary Kelly’s take on Virginia Butley can best be described as a rock-hard center covered in a sweet candy shell.  She’s kind and neighborly, but not someone you’d want to cross as she’s tough as nails, having been a success as a defense contractor during a time when women in that position were few.  She’s considerably more level headed than her husband and certainly the dominant spouse as she leads the charge against the Del Valles when their garden is threatened.

Dennis Collins is a scream as Frank Butley.  Frank is definitely the most childish of the four adults.  All he cares about is his yard and garden and obsesses about winning a gardening competition and finally besting a perpetual rival.  Collins’ phrasing is so strong and allows him to maximize his punchlines.  His whining and tantrums are truly a joy to watch and his meek delivery of “Why are you yelling at me?” managed to get a loud, hearty guffaw out of a chuckler like me.

Alyssa Isabel Gonzalez is very solid in the role of Tania Del Valle.  Tania is the most mature of the adults as she initially wants to handle the property line dispute diplomatically, but even she has her foibles with her snooty views on native gardens and can be quite immature when she allows her emotions to get the better of her.  Gonzalez’s Tania is also the rock in her relationship as she comes from a poor family which helped her to be strong as she is a step away from earning her PhD and has taught her husband not to run away from a fight. I did think Gonzalez could play with her words a bit more as her delivery seemed a touch too controlled and cadenced at some points.

Jim Othuse’s set was one of my favorites with the elegant home and lovingly maintained yard of the Butleys juxtaposed with the grassless lawn and worn-down house of the Del Valles though they do have a mighty oak tree.  I liked Aja Jackson’s use of shadows and the glow of rear porch lights to emphasize the nighttime scenes.  Jenn Sheshko’s costumes well suit the characters especially with the elegant suits for Pablo and the frumpy polos and shorts for Frank.  John Gibilisco’s sounds enhance the neighborhood whether it be the song of birds or the roar of chainsaws.  Timothy Vallier has composed a nice score for the show and I very much enjoyed the opening theme with its driving bass and backbeat of bongos.

There were some minor blips in the preview night performance with some line bobbles, stepping on cues and lack of projection at some moments.  That being said, with the combination of a well-thought out script and humorous, skilled storytelling from the actors, Native Gardens can teach us all a lesson that a lot of difficulties can be solved when people talk to each other instead of at each other.

Native Gardens plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through March 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 ($18 for students) and vary by performance. Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com, calling 402-553-0800, or visiting the box office. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

‘Native Gardens’ Set to Open at OCP on Valentine’s Day

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From left to right: Giovanni Quezada, Alyssa Gonzalez, Dennis Collins and Mary Kelly

Omaha, Neb.–Native Gardens will open Friday, Feb. 14, 2020 at the Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP). The show will run in the Howard Drew Theatre from Feb. 14 through March 15. Performances will be held Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets are on sale now starting at $36 for adults and $18 for students, with ticket prices varying by performance. Tickets may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, located at 6915 Cass Street, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com.

SHOW SYNOPSIS

When Pablo and Tania purchase a new home in a well-to-do white neighborhood, the couple next door initially offer a friendly welcome. But when a laughable property line disagreement dissolves into an all-out turf war, the dirt begins to fly. Packed with witty quips—and plenty of back-and-forth mudslinging—Native Gardens is a side-splitting reminder that, despite our differences, we all share a much larger common ground.

Director:  Ablan Roblin

Cast

Alyssa Gonzalez as Tania Del Valle

Giovanni Quezada as Pablo Del Valle

Mary Kelly as Virginia Butley

Dennis Collins as Frank Butley

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

The Price of Family

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Upper row from L to R: Faushia R. Weeden, David Terrell Green, and Olivia Howard. Lower row from L to R: Karen S. Fox and Brodhi McClymont

A poor family in Chicago’s South Side gains a windfall of $10,000.  Amidst thoughts of dreams granted and a happier life, the money serves to deepen cracks in an already fractured unit and prove that the love of money is the root of all evil.  But the love of family still has the power to conquer all.  This is A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and it is playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Hansberry’s script has its ups and downs.  It introduces powerful themes of family, racism, poverty, generational changes, personal identity, perseverance, hope, and self-respect, but also has some structural weaknesses.  The first act introduces several storylines for the show, but moves terribly slowly and doesn’t provide adequate build for the stories.  By the second act, the primary story of the money gains center stage, a potentially interesting subplot about a surprise, possibly unwanted, pregnancy is all, but forgotten, and a story about a young woman seeking her own identity gets a bit of short shrift.  On the other hand, the second act does provide some incredibly strong monologues and conversational moments that are a treasure trove for performers.

Tyrone Beasley’s direction is quite effective.  This show is driven solely by dialogue which can become quite dry, if not handled just right.  Beasley handles it well by having his actors make natural movements that animate the, often lengthy, conversations.  He understands the emotional beats and his actors always hit those moments subtly and organically.  He’s coached his actors to performances ranging from solid to deeply adept and I tip my hat to his superior guidance of the debuting Karen S. Fox.  That being said, I also thought the show could have benefited from a brisker pace.

Good supporting performances are given by Faushia R. Weeden who projects a spiritual weariness as Ruth Younger as she goes through the motions of life with a crumbling marriage and a hopeless future until the promise of a new home in a better neighborhood relights her candle.  Brodhi McClymont has a real naturalness for this work and provides some lighthearted moments as Travis Younger.  Christopher Scott provides a suitably subtle, polite, and slimy performance as a racist trying to engineer a buyout of the Younger’s new home in Clybourne Park so “those people” won’t move in.

David Terrell Green gives a gripping performance in his Playhouse debut as Walter Lee Younger.  At his core, Walter Lee is a good man.  He wants nothing more than to provide the best, possible life for his family, but has been so beaten down by life that he copes with his perceived failures with alcohol and sometimes takes reckless gambles in an attempt to provide that better life.  Green is dead on target with Walter Lee’s brokenness, but still shows that inner decency and drive to do better for his family.  He really sizzles in the second act when he makes an awful mistake in attempting to grab the brass ring and shows the depths of his love for his family with a performance demonstrating the utter humiliation he’s willing to undergo to rectify that error.

Karen S. Fox really dove into the deep end as she makes her acting debut with the heavy role of the Younger matriarch, Lena.  For someone who’s never performed before, Fox did an exceptional job.  She portrayed a good, Southern woman with strong faith in God and desperately fighting to hold her family together as it falls apart.  She hits the emotional beats well, reaching just the right level of anger when the bulk of her money is misused and being a bulwark for her son as she understands the impact of the blows life has dealt him.  Fox does need to make some minor fixes in volume, projection, and not upstaging herself.

Steven Williams has designed a dilapidated apartment whose spaces between the boards help to communicate the poverty in which the Youngers live.  Tim Vallier has composed a haunting score for the show which is sure to stir your heart.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes well display the social status of the various characters from the cheaper quality clothes of the Youngers to the more elegant wear of the wealthier Karl Lindner and the more educated Joseph Asagai and George Murchison.

This preview night performance did have some difficulties.  Pacing was quite slow.  Pickups for internal and regular cues needed to be much, much quicker.  Energy was sorely lacking for stretches, but when it was there, the dialogue sparkled and popped.  There was also an x factor missing from the performance.  Actors know that feeling.  It’s that magical something that causes the show to take on the fullness of its own life and it is an intangible.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  When it’s not there, the show feels like a rehearsal.  When it’s there, that’s when the show reaches maximum potential.

At the end, this is a story about family.  Its highs and lows.  Its joys and trials.  Its hopes and dreams.  A night with the Youngers just may give you a new perspective on life.

A Raisin in the Sun plays at the Omaha Playhouse through Feb 9.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $24 ($16 for students) and vary by performance.  Tickets can be obtained at www.omahaplayhouse.com, calling 402-553-0800, or visiting the box office. Due to some adult language, parental discretion is advised.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Launches 2nd Half of OCP Season

Omaha, NE.–The Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP) production of A Raisin in the Sun will open Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. The show will run in the Hawks Mainstage Theatre at OCP from Jan. 17 through Feb. 9. Performances will be held Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Tickets are on sale now starting at $24 for adults and $16 for students, with ticket prices varying by performance. Tickets may be purchased at the OCP Box Office, located at 6915 Cass Street, by phone at (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com.

SHOW SYNOPSIS

Winner of five Tony Awards®, A Raisin in the Sun confronts life in South Side Chicago through the eyes of the Younger family. After years of battling poverty and racism, the Youngers hope an unexpected insurance check will be their ticket to a better life. With the looming fear that this may be their only chance, the family is torn apart as they struggle to agree on the most effective way to use the money.

Directed By:  Tyrone Beasley

Cast

Brandon Williams as George Murchison

Brodhi McClymont as Travis Younger

Chris Scott as Karl Lindner

Darcell Trotter as Bobo

David Terrell Green as Walter Lee Younger

Donté Lee Plunkett as Joseph Asagai

Faushia Weeden as Ruth Younger

Karen Fox as Lena Younger

Olivia Howard as Beneatha Younger

Richard Borg as Moving Man

 

World Premiere of ‘Red Summer’ Kicks Off Blue Barn Season


BLUEBARN THEATRE presents:

The World Premiere Production of

RED SUMMER

By Beaufield Berry

September 26th – October 21, 2019

Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm

Sunday 10/6 & 10/20 at 2:00pm | Sunday 10/13 at 6pm

About the play:  In commemoration of the centenary of the Omaha race riots of 1919, BLUEBARN presents the world premiere of Beaufield Berry’s evocative account of our city’s past centered on the story of William Brown. Accused of a crime he couldn’t physically have committed, the infamous torture and lynching of this 40 yr old factory worker is a stain on America’s heartland. Red Summer presents a compelling portrait of the black migrant experience, grounded by a deeply affecting vision of Will’s life and relationships before he became a tragic headline.

About the production:. Red Summer features Antonio Duke, Xena Broaden, Brendan Brown, Raydell Cordell III, Devel Crisp, Haley Haas, Dara Hogan, Regina Palmer, and Brandi Smith. Directed by Susan Clement-Toberer. Assistant Directed by Barry Carman. Sound and Projection Design by Bill Kirby. Properties by Amy Reiner. Dramaturgy by Denise Chapman. Set Design by Marty Marchitto. Lighting Design by Jamie Roderick. Costume Design by Kendra Newby.

This production is generously sponsored by

Vernie and Carter Jones

Jannette Davis

Tickets:  General Admission ($35) and Senior ($30) tickets are available at bluebarn.org. Educator, Military, and BLUCrew tickets are available through the box office (402) 345-1576.

Blue Barn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

‘Sweat’ing Bullets

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From left to right, Laura Leininger-Campbell as Tracey. Brandon Williams as Chris. Josh Peyton as Jason. Kathy Tyree as Cynthia.

A steel mill in Reading, PA begins to shut down.  Suddenly lifelong employees set to retire on fat pensions are facing joblessness with no nest egg and no hope.  As their very survival is threatened, friends become enemies, latent racist and xenophobic tendencies take over minds, and a mountain of emotional kindling is laid that only needs one small spark to set off a raging conflagration.  This is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat and it has kicked off the latest season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

There is certainly nothing subtle about Nottage’s script.  From the very beginning, it grabs the viewer by the throat and gleefully paintbrushes her or him for the better part of 2 ½ hours.  The play is chock full of devastating themes such as betrayal, racism, xenophobia, entitlement, corporate greed, depression, and the danger of having one’s sense of self defined solely by a job.  It also skillfully presents a mindset that demonstrates just how our political climate might have reached its current volatile state without making any judgment calls.

From an actor’s perspective, this show is a treasure trove.  Every character is unique and well-defined.  It is truly an ensemble piece with each character getting a moment in the sun and no true leading role.  With a perfectly cast group of magnificent talent, OCP’s season gets an explosive start with a drama for our time.

Susan Baer-Collins returns to the Playhouse to direct this powerful piece.  Her knowledge of the story is deep and certain which allows her to fully explore every beat and help each performer realize his or her fullest potential and become fully formed and realistic persons.  The staging is pretty strong for the most part with the actors making full use of the performance space and constant movement to animate the dialogue.  However, the performance space of the Howard Drew is a bit of a mixed blessing as its intimacy is crucial to pulling the audience in, but the way the characters have to interact makes it difficult to play to the entire audience at various points.

In a night of outstanding interpretations, a stellar performance is provided by Emmanuel Oñate who makes an excellent debut as Oscar, a likable young man trying to make his way in the world who draws the ire of locked out steel mill workers due to the double whammy of his crossing the picket line and the perception that he is stealing work from “real” Americans due to his Hispanic heritage.  Thomas Becker also shines as Stan, the manager of the local bar who serves as a sounding board to everyone’s issues and also acts as a voice of reason to the burgeoning turmoil bubbling up from the plant’s lockout.  L. “James” Wright gives a tragic performance as Brucie whose sense of identity was completely wrapped up in his job.  Robbed of his ability to provide, he sinks into a deep abyss of depression and addiction.

Kathy Tyree is a geyser of talent with her rendition of Cynthia.  Tyree’s Cynthia is a rock and tough as nails.  She is the friend who will have your back no matter what, but also knows when to draw the line as she has to keep her husband, Brucie, at arm’s length while he battles his personal demons and refuses to take any garbage from her friends after winning a promotion to warehouse supervisor that has her perceived as one of “them” due to a combination of jealousy and things going south at the mill.  What I liked best about Tyree’s take is that she never made an obvious choice or reaction.  She was so extemporaneous, it was almost as if she was writing her own dialogue on the spot as opposed to reciting learned lines.

Laura Leininger-Campbell is a firecracker as Tracey.  Tracey strikes me as a person who isn’t easy to friend, but, if you manage to do so, you have a friend for life.  She is brusque, mouthy, and has a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush.  She can also be fiercely loyal, but watch out if you cross her as she holds grudges.  Leininger-Campbell is incredibly effective as this complex character.  She well communicates Tracey’s latent racism that gains strength when she loses a promotion and is further fueled by Oscar’s crossing of the picket line.  Leininger-Campbell is particularly mesmerizing in two scenes.  One where she is arguing with Cynthia and manages to convey the sense that she loves and hates her simultaneously with her on the dime emotional beat changes.  And a second where the show leaps into the future and she is having a conversation with her estranged son, Jason, and seems to age years before your eyes with pure body language that seems to bow her back, make lines appear on her face, and add a few pounds.

Josh Peyton succeeds with his handling of the role of Jason.  Arguably, this may be the show’s most difficult character to play due to the two widely different personalities he has depending on when the show is in the past or the present.  Peyton gives past Jason a happy go lucky personality.  He’s a pretty decent guy who doesn’t give much thought to tomorrow and just likes having fun, though he does exhibit some of the personality traits and thinking of his mother, Tracey.  Present Jason is an angry, bitter, potentially violent man whose facial tattoos suggest that he might have been part of a white supremacist group.  Peyton not only does good work in playing the two variations of his character, but he also succeeds in showing the transition from one to the other and planting the seed that past Jason’s good qualities may overpower his present’s darkness.

Brandon Williams has a dandy debut as Chris.  This is the play’s most positive character as he is a good man in both past and present.  Williams has a great likability as Chris who is good to his parents, a hard worker, and has a plan for his life all mapped out.  His one weakness is that he might be too loyal to Jason as that loyalty leads him into a truly bad moment in the past.  In the present, Chris is an even better man who has found Jesus and now shares that faith to bolster others and gives him the strength to right some past wrongs and to try to have closure with Jason.  In the present, Williams exudes a confidence granted by faith and well executes the determination to correct a past error even while he clearly feels guilt and embarrassment over it.

Jim Othuse has designed a nice little local bar that is clean, welcoming, and comfy and is further enhanced by the properties of Darin Kuehler whose bottles of liquor and hanging chips make it feel like a real hangout.  Othuse has also well lit the production especially with his use of darkness and light.  The past was always bright and got a little darker as things went bad and the present is shrouded in darkness until a literal light of hope at the end.  John Gibilisco brings some great sounds especially the creepy effect as present transitions to past and the use of a TV showing news footage of the day when our country slid into the Great Recession.  Amanda Fehlner’s costumes are quite realistic with the work overalls, the everyman clothes of the working class, and the somewhat poorer garb of the present version of some of the characters.  Timothy Vallier provides a sad and moving score.  I did think a fight scene could have used a bit more speed and a crucial moment needs to be cleaner as I wasn’t sure exactly what happened until the final moments of the show.

Sweat is definitely a play for our time.  You won’t be able to turn your eyes away from it and it might give you a better idea of how we reached our present state of affairs.  And understanding the past is always the first step to making a better tomorrow.

Sweat plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Sept 15.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Photo provided by Colin Conces Photography

American Dreams & Nightmares

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A housewife and mother of her time.  A Latvian immigrant struggling to realize the American Dream.  A ragtime musician about to have his life torn asunder by the blight of racism.  These are three people living life in America at the turn of the 20th century and their stories and the intersecting of their lives forms the plot of Ragtime by Terrence McNally with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and based off the novel by E.L. Doctorow. It is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This has been one of the more uniquely crafted musicals I’ve seen.  Usually, it seems like the songs are worked around the story of the show.  This production goes the opposite direction.  Due to the sheer size of the score, Ragtime is more like an opera and the story is worked between the songs.  And it works because the story part of the show is actually three meticulously crafted short stories which are skillfully woven together with a blend of fictional and real-life characters.

I can see why the score won a Tony Award as Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens crafted a doozy which has something for everyone.  There’s some foot stomping fun, tender love songs, and haunting numbers that will reach right in and squeeze the emotion out of your heart.  I was particularly impressed by the constant use of a singular ragtime number which either served as a springboard from which other songs would emerge or be changed up emotionally to suit the particular moment of the show.

Kimberly Faith Hickman supplies a devastating bit of direction to the production.  Hitting the beats of this show is quite tricky due to the multiple storylines which constantly trade places, but Ms Hickman manages to do so with an effortless ease.  The staging is precisely on point as it utilizes the entire stage and never is there a point where I wasn’t seeing the face of an actor.  The work of her performers is deadly accurate as they never miss a trick.

The night was loaded with sterling performances such as those provided by Jon Flower as Younger Brother, a carefree young man who transforms into a fighter for equal rights, though he doesn’t go about it in the best way.  Flower is particularly moving with his singing in “He Wanted to Say” as he tries to support Coalhouse Walker.  Joey Hartshorn is gripping as the anarchist Emma Goldman who wants to better the lives of the poor workers and bring down the rich and powerful.  Dara Hogan is going to make you cry with her turn as Sarah, the lover of Coalhouse Walker.  Ms Hogan begins as a broken, mute mother whose life has fallen apart along with her relationship with Walker.  She blooms to life as she and Walker rekindle their love before tragedy blows their lives apart due to racism’s malevolent hand.  Ms Hogan has a wonderful upper alto which shines in “New Music” and “Wheels of a Dream”.

Jodi Vaccaro is stunning as Mother.  Ms Vaccaro’s Mother is the nexus character as her life intersects with those of Coalhouse Walker and Tateh and her experiences with them change and deepen her.  When the show starts, Mother is very much a woman of her era.  She takes care of the home and raises the children and her husband is the boss.  But that begins to change when she takes in the homeless Sarah and her illegitimate child.  This breaking of the social and racial barriers of her time opens her eyes to how things are in their world and begin her journey of personal growth as she stomps those barriers flat.

Ms Vaccaro brings a genuine warmth and kindness to the role of Mother and I loved her slow and steady realization to the hardness of life outside of her upper-class walls as it made her character arc truly satisfying.  Ms Vaccaro also has a sweet and beautiful singing voice with shining moments in the touching “Our Children” and the revelatory “Back to Before”.

Mike Palmreuter gives an amazingly realistic performance as Tateh.  Palmreuter’s Tateh provides a very frank look at the plight of immigrants who came to America for the promise of the streets paved with gold only to discover a very different reality.  Palmreuter is brilliant as he plays a man struggling to realize the American Dream.  He begins as bright eyed and determined to reap the promises of the New World only to be beaten down by its harsh realities where the only thing that keeps him going is his daughter’s survival.  But it’s all worth it as his struggles do yield the promised fruit due to his perseverance.  Palmreuter has a great lower tenor and he knows how to use it emotionally from the hopeful “Success” to the bittersweet “Nothing Like the City” to the triumphant “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”

Over the past few seasons, J. Isaiah Smith has evolved into one of the city’s most dynamic talents.  He can sing, dance, and act and his performance as Coalhouse Walker, Jr. allows him to excel at all three at once as well as turn in a performance that puts him in the running for a second straight Fonda-McGuire Award.

In many ways, Smith’s Walker is already living the American Dream.  He’s a successful musician, a new father, his relationship with his lover is on the mend, and he can even afford a Model T Ford.  But he realizes the American Nightmare when racism not only takes away all that he’s worked for, but also denies him an avenue to justice until he feels compelled to take matters into his own hands.

Smith’s interpretation of Walker is a bit of elegant mastery.  Before his life is blasted, he’s a sweet, sensitive, happy go lucky man determined to fix his broken relationship with his lover and be a father.  After the fall, he becomes a smoldering cauldron of anger whose rampage is still tempered by a bit of honor as he’s limiting it to the bigot and the entity that bigot represents and will gladly stop once he metes out justice.  What I liked best was that he doesn’t completely lose his humanity and still makes the right choice in the end.

Smith has a mighty vocal range that soars between deeply baritone notes to high tenor ones.  Some of his best numbers were the raucous “Getting’ Ready Rag”, “Justice”, and the determined “Make Them Hear You”.

Lindsay Pape’s costumes provided an accurate depiction of life at the turn of the century with the short pants of the boys, the double- breasted suits, hats and bowlers, and the almost Victorian gowns of the wealthy women.  Jim Othuse has designed a series of set bits that could easily be moved in and out from the burgundy sitting room of Mother’s home to Coalhouse Walker’s nightclub to the posters and seaside of Atlantic City.  Michelle Garrity provides some scintillating choreography especially with “Getting’ Ready Rag”.  Tim Burkhart and John Gibilisco have cooked up some crucial sounds from the lolling waves outside Atlantic City to the puttering of Walker’s Model T to the gunshots and explosions of Walker’s rampage.  Jim Boggess and his orchestra never miss a note with their fun and energetic take on this show’s score.

In the end, Ragtime not only provides a great night of entertainment, but it also provides an honest look at the lives of all classes of people at turn of the century America and I think it serves as a potent reminder that we have come a long way as a people, but there’s still a bit of road left to travel.

Ragtime plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through June 30.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $32 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by phone at 402-553-0800, or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  Some parental discretion is advised due to racial epithets and a little strong language.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.

(Photo supplied by Robertson Photgraphy)

There’s Hope on ‘The Mountaintop’

The Mountaintop_4

Donte Plunkett as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Catie Zaleski as Camae

On the night before his death, a mysterious woman helps Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. face his mortality and the future of his cause.  This is The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Ms Hall has written one of the most uniquely constructed scripts I have seen in quite a spell.  Whether by coincidence or design, the script is actually built as if it is a trek up and down a mountain.  It is a long, sometimes laborious, climb to the summit.  But once the peak is reached, the play really begins to pop and rapidly races down to the finale.  While the first half of the play could be a little dry, the second half provides some compelling viewpoints on racial harmony, faith, mortality, how far we’ve come as a people in overcoming our hatred and biases, and how much further we still have to climb.

Denise Chapman has provided an admirable and nuanced piece of direction to the production.  She has staged the play well, keeping her 2 actors animated with a constant moving about of King’s hotel room.  She also has a good instinct for maximizing the play’s twists and surprises and really makes those moments stand out and sing.  Ms Chapman has also guided her thespians to a pair of solid performances.

Donte Plunkett gives a worthy performance as Martin Luther King, Jr.  His features not only bear a remarkable similarity to the real King, but he also managed to tap into a great deal of his essence.  Plunkett exudes a confidence, authority, and gentleness suiting the great Civil Rights leader.  But he also shows a quiet sense of humor and a tragic vulnerability especially when he has a conversation with God about his mortality.  I was also impressed with how well Plunkett carried off a less than savory aspect of King’s personality, his reported weakness for women, with his charming and eyeballing of Camae.

Catie Zaleski’s take on Camae is a master class in putting on faces.  It’s hard to know what to make of Camae at first.  She seems to be so many things.  She readily flirts with Dr. King.  She curses like a sailor and then apologizes for cursing in front of the famed Baptist minister.  She can be very blue collar and seemingly uneducated in one moment, then start spitting out college level words and improvising a Kingesque speech in the next.  At one moment, she seems fully aligned with King’s mission, then diametrically opposed in the next.

When the truth behind this chameleon like behavior is revealed, Ms Zaleski nails the tragic hopefulness of a character who is looking to expiate her own sins.

I thought the performances could be further enhanced with a brisker pace and a bit more energy to kick off the show.  Volume and diction were also off at a couple of early points in the show.

I was exceptionally impressed with the show’s technical elements.  Jim Othuse has designed a clean and comfortable motel room at the Lorraine Motel.  John Gibilisco’s constant claps of thunder well communicated the oncoming storm in King’s life.  I loved Herman Montero’s use of lighting, especially the starlight at the play’s conclusion.  Amanda Fehlner’s costuming captured the essence of the well-dressed man of God and the blue collar housekeeper.

It takes a little patience to get to the play’s core, but it is worth the wait as it touches on themes of race and equality that are still important today.  We have grown quite a bit as a people, but there is still a lot of growing to do.

The Mountaintop plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through May 27.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $36 for adults and $22 for students.  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  Due to strong language and some mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

Grave Injustice

On the morning of April 27, 1913 in Atlanta, GA, the body of a 13 year old girl named Mary Phagan was found brutally murdered in the basement of the pencil factory where she had recently been laid off.  In a desperate attempt to close the books on the crime, her boss, Leo Frank, was indicted and convicted for the crime.  Frank was an ideal fall guy due to his being Jewish and a northerner.  This outsider status triggered a bloodlust and savagery in the community of Atlanta that led to the most devastating and tragic results.  This is the story of Parade written by Alfred Uhry with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  It opens tonight at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I’ve seen and been involved with good shows, bad shows, and great shows.  Above these categories lies a fourth category.  To be in this category, the show must transcend the normal theatregoing experience with a uniqueness that can’t be defined.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  But when it’s there, it transforms the show into something truly magical.  After last night’s show, I have added Parade to that fourth category.

Alfred Uhry has written an eminently tragic tale about the trial of Leo Frank.  It is unafraid; boldly tackling ideas such as social justice, racism, anti-Semitism, and blind vengeance.  While it is clearly a drama, it’s also a very realistic show as there are moments of happiness, fun, and laughter mixed in with the grief and tragedy.  Uhry’s script is infinitely strengthened by the score of Jason Robert Brown who has infused the musical with some of the most haunting melodies I have ever heard.

Jeff Horger has helmed what might be the season’s best production with second to none direction and a nearly flawless cast.  What I especially appreciated about Horger’s direction is that the focus is on the community.  Yes, this is Leo Frank’s story, but the community is the central character as it’s the mentality and reactions of the citizenry that drives this series of events.  The audience becomes part of this community through Horger’s staging which has the characters of the play sitting with them, melding them into one unit.

This cast is so loaded with talent that I would like nothing more than to write a 10 page review extolling all of their virtues.  With that being said, some of the remarkable performances you’ll see are Adam Hogston as Brit Craig, a boozy, slimy reporter who sensationalizes the murder to the point where Frank would be unable to get a fair trial; Chloe Irwin who gives a spot on performance as Mary Phagan.  Ms Irwin has an impressive range for one so young as she can be such a kid at one moment and move you to tears with her reactions during Mary’s funeral in the next.

Other mighty performances come from Melissa King as Mrs. Phagan who gives a tortured performance as the grieving mother highlighted by an incredible solo with “My Child Will Forgive Me”; Grant Mannschreck as Frankie Epps, Mary’s friend and suitor.  Mannschreck has a strong, bright tenor that brought tears to my eyes with “It Don’t Make Sense”.  Mike Palmreuter also shines as John Slaton, the governor who sets the chain of events into motion for political reasons, but tries to do the right thing in the end.  Brian Priesman is menacing as Tom Watson, a hypocritical Bible thumper who knows how to stir up the masses.

One of the actors to watch out for is J. Isaiah Smith as Jim Conley.  Smith just bleeds talent and charisma with his take on Conley.  Smith’s Conley is a snarky, conniving piece of human garbage whose testimony is crucial to the conviction of Frank, but he just might be hiding secrets of his own.  Smith darn near steals the show with two showstopping numbers:  “That’s What He Said” and “Blues:  Feel the Rain Fall’”.  The latter song allows Smith to hit some searing and awesome falsettos.

Michael Markey gives a multilayered performance as Hugh Dorsey, Atlanta’s D.A. and prosecutor for Frank’s trial.  Markey gives you the sense that he does want to see justice done, but he’s more worried about the political ramifications should he fail to find and convict a killer.  When Frank is served up to him, he has absolutely no qualms about using coached testimony and suborned perjury to doom him.  Markey also has a facile baritone well used in “Twenty Miles from Marietta” and “The Glory”.

Megan Kelly blew me away as Lucille Frank.  Aptly described as “Jewish and southern”, Ms Kelly is every bit the Southern belle, but with a devout faith as well.  She is also very real as her reactions and fears about Frank’s trial and the public’s reactions to her are dead on the mark.  Ms Kelly also gets to show real strength as she overcomes those fears to stand by her husband’s side, best shown with her lovely alto in “You Don’t Know This Man”.  Not only does she overcome her own fears, but she also overcomes Frank’s pigheadedness which she wonderfully describes in “Do It Alone” to give him the help he so desperately needs to obtain his freedom.

And in midst of all of this chaos is Leo Frank, incredibly essayed by James Verderamo.  Verderamo is uncanny as Frank as he walks that line of making him a decent man, but not a likable man.  Verderamo’s Frank is definitely a square peg in a round hole.  He’s unhappy in Atlanta and would rather be back home in Brooklyn, NY.  He’s a workaholic, anal, a bit arrogant, and easily flustered and frustrated.  He is also smart, a gentleman, and well-mannered.

Verderamo depicts Frank’s high strung nature with a perpetual hunch in his shoulders and a constant massaging of his hands.  He also has a scintillating tenor voice best used in “All The Wasted Time” and “Sh’ma”.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra find gold once more with a brilliant rendering of the score, not to mention the clever staging of their being on a balcony over the town to make them a band in the parade.  Tim Burkhart & John Giblisco score with their sounds especially the wavy sound effects of an era microphone.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes evoke the memories of early 1900s southern gear with the long dresses, three piece suits, and old time prison garb.  Jim Othuse has designed a simple town square with lamps, crumbling wall, and balcony.  And his lights suit the play’s emotions down to the ground with sad blues, angry reds, and dark shadows.  Melanie Walters’ choreography shines especially in “Pretty Music” and “That’s What He Said”.

This is what theatre is all about.  When it operates at its pinnacle, theatre is a galvanizing force for action.  In his notes, Jeff Horger called this a historical piece and that is absolutely correct.  For what is history, but a chance to learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them.

Parade plays at the Omaha Playhouse from Feb 9-Mar 11.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Due to mature themes, this show is not recommended for children.  For tickets call 402-553-0800 or visit www.omahaplayhouse.com or www.ticketomaha.com.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.