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.

A Cavalcade of Christmas, Part I: Storm Front in Storm Lake

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The Gables on Geneseo

Today the road has brought me to Storm Lake, IA.

December has arrived and that’s my favorite time of year because it means that Christmas is just around the corner.  It also means it’s time for my favorite B & B review as I pick an inn just to find out how it does Christmas.

This year I decided to do something a bit different.  I’ve packed my month, weather permitting, with a series of Christmas activities so I welcome you to the first part of the Cavalcade of Christmas.

As I just stated my Christmas reviews always do depend on the weather and I’ve been fortunate to have reasonably good weather except for that blizzard that chased me from Des Moines to Decorah a few years back.  I thought I would be fortunate again this year as weather seemed reasonably decent heading into this first inn, but at the 11th hour, the Storm Lake area was hit with a Winter Storm Warning.

Now the real issue of a storm is simply driving in it.  But if I could beat the storm then I could simply watch it from the comfort of the inn.  This, of course, meant heading down to Storm Lake a night early which would mean having to spend an extra night in a comfortable bed & breakfast.  Oh, me.  Oh, my.  What a horrible fate.

So I dashed home late Friday afternoon and threw a bag together and began the drive to Storm Lake.  It was a very pleasant drive, though I could feel the temperature plummet from the lower 40s of Omaha to the chillier temps of the small Northwest Iowa town.

Storm Lake has a lot of personal sentiment for me.  My grandparents lived here for many, many years.  My parents, older brother, and most of my aunts and uncles were born here and one of my cousins is the current county sheriff.  I spent a great deal of time in this town in my childhood, but haven’t been back much since I moved to Omaha in 1993 as my grandparents relocated to Papillion in 2000.

A lot of feelings and memories washed over me as I drove down the main drag on a frosty Friday.  The streetlights were decked out in Christmas lights and decorations.  Though not the same as the old-fashioned decorations I enjoyed in my childhood, they still retained that special small town quality.  Unlike many of the small towns I’ve passed through on my journeys, Storm Lake has managed to maintain a pretty vibrant economy and even build on it with the addition of a water park.

I pulled over just past the main drag to call The Gables on Geneseo to see if I could extend my stay from one to two nights and was relieved and delighted to find that I could do just that.  I pulled into the driveway, walked to the porch, rang the bell, and was greeted by Pat and Chris Mullaney, the owners of The Gables on Geneseo.

The Gables on Geneseo is an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian mansion built by Lewis Metcalf, who made his fortune in gold and livestock.  For a man of his success and wealth, his home actually had a mortgage of $5,000 on it at the time of his death.  It is believed that he may have refinanced the mortgage on several occasions to fund other business ventures.  The house went through a long period of abandonment before being turned into apartments, then dorms for Buena Vista University students, then was sold to a couple in 1974 who turned it into a B & B.

When I first heard of the inn, it was known as Metcalf House, but the owner ended up selling and relocating.  Then the Mullaneys purchased the property and spent the next 4 years restoring it to its original splendor and it is a beauty.

The house is full of fine oakwork, stained glass and beveled windows, and possesses a large foyer with a comfortable living room with soft leather chairs and a fireplace and a massive wraparound porch around the front of the house.  But it also had a special feeling for me when I entered.  It was just like being back at Grandma’s house.

 

Chris led me to my room, the Vista Suite.  This is the inn’s largest room and is considered the honeymoon suite.  This is the biggest and most comfortable room I have enjoyed yet and at a great value.  It’s a 4 room suite with a sitting room that has a mini-fridge and Keurig, a bathroom with a 2 person jacuzzi tub, a comfy living room with cable TV and some movies, and a master bedroom with a private balcony and an oh so soft bed.

 

Once I got my personal items stowed away, I headed out to visit Santa’s Castle.

 

Santa’s Castle is THE Christmas event in Storm Lake.  Housed in a former Carnegie library, it has entertained thousands of visitors since its creation back in 1962.  It was the brainchild of Bob Laird, the director of the Chamber of Commerce, who bought a set of animated elves and, with the help of Chamber members, displayed them in a vacant building.

Since then Santa’s Castle has grown to include over 70 finely detailed animatronics, some from as far back as the early 1900s and valued at $300,000 which makes it the most extensive and valuable collection of vintage animation in the Midwest.  It is also the home to two highly detailed model train sets.  The Castle also has Santa tracking maps, a scavenger hunt, and children can even write letters to old St Nick who will write back.  The jolly old elf himself is even on hand to visit. This is a wonderful family event that can be enjoyed by the young as well as the young at heart.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Castle.  The detail of the animations is astonishing and I marveled at the beautiful winter scenes as well as the amusing animations as I watched kids (as in young goats) anxiously await Santa, dogs baking in a kitchen, Santa’s reindeer bobbing their heads in time to great Christmas music, and families (real ones) enjoying that special sensation that can only be caused by Christmas.  I even took part in the scavenger hunt which involved finding a series of stuffed elephants.  I’ve always been pretty good at finding Waldo and hidden pictures, but they were really creative with where they hid their elephants.  If you find yourself in or near Storm Lake this holiday season, visit Santa’s Castle.

 

After my visit to Father Christmas’ abode, I returned to the inn where I enjoyed a long hot soak in the jacuzzi tub before climbing into bed for the night.

I can’t remember the last time that I slept so well.  I didn’t wake up until 7:20am and that is late for me.  I puttered around until 8:30am before going down to the dining room for an amazing breakfast prepared by Pat and Chris.

This is easily one of the top meals I have had with bananas mixed with a bit of cream and brown sugar, sausage links, Kilkenny Eggs, rosemary potatoes, asparagus, and a homemade, fresh out of the oven,  cinnamon pecan roll.

 

With breakfast tucked away, I decided to make a brief visit to the cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents.  Snow and freezing rain had started so I had to make the visit brief as the icedrops stung something fierce.  I returned to the inn and just relaxed the day away with reading, writing, a bit of gaming, and a touch of movie watching.

Periodically I glanced out the window and watched the ice drizzle transform into snowflakes.  When I left for church, I found that it was the heavy, wet kind which makes it easy to clean off the car, but a swamp to drive through.

I had been looking forward to worship tonight as I would be attending St Mary’s for the first time in 25-30 years.  This was the family church for my grandparents, mother, aunts, uncles, et al.  My grandparents had been pillars of the church and one of their closest friends, and frequent dinner guest, was St Mary’s long time pastor, Msg. Ives.  This friendship was created due to the fact that my great aunt, Laura Kacmarynski, was the housekeeper for Msg. Ives for nearly 30 years.  As my uncle, Tom, said, “I remember having holiday dinners over at Msg. Ives’ on many occasions.”

Msg. Ives was once told he had two guardian angels watching over him and he needed it as Msg. Ives, from the stories I heard, was the single worst driver who ever got behind the wheel of a car.  Grandma told some great stories of his wretched driving over the years and I completely believe in his need for the dual angels on his shoulders because it seems only God’s divine protection could protect Msg. Ives from the holy terror of his driving.

More memories washed over me as I attended church this eve.  They still had the Stations of the Cross I remembered from my childhood and they were always my favorites as the paintings depict the Stations as if they were taking place in modern times.  I had forgotten how small the parish was, but it was like coming home as it still had that warm, intimate feel.  I also noted that a tradition begun by my grandparents was still in place and that’s the congregation holding hands for the Our Father.

Father sped through the service due to the weather so I found myself back on the road looking for a bite to eat.  Surprisingly, quite a few businesses were still open and I found a Mexican restaurant called Plaza Mexico to have some supper.

As I walked through the door, I realized this had been the local McDonald’s once upon a time as I would have recognized those doors anywhere.  As I perused the menu, a dish of chips and homemade salsa were brought to the table.  The salsa was nice and chunky and had just the right amount of zip.

I opted for the Burrito de Fajitas.  Now the menu said it was a giant tortilla, but I didn’t stop to think how big that might be.  It was about the size of a footlong Subway sandwich, but stuffed with strips of beef, bell peppers, beans, and rice.  I was not able to finish it, but what I had was mighty tasty.

Then it was back to the inn where I found a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies waiting by my room.  I bit into one.  Mmmm!  Still warm.  Then I went to my room where I gamed, took another long, hot soak, and went to bed.

When I woke up in the morning, I peeked out the window to see that the snow had pretty much stopped, but was being blown a bit, and that the roads had been cleaned.  I went downstairs to breakfast where Pat and Chris had another great meal waiting for me and I also learned that Pat had cleaned off my car which was greatly appreciated.

Today’s meal consisted of a raisin scone, dish of fruit with melon, grapes, and strawberries, Orange French Toast with holibread, bacon, and an apple cider shake (which was awesome).  Another blissful meal and it was time to go.

 

I was truly glad to have come down early for I would have missed out on a lot of memories and fun if I’d been forced to cancel. Storm Lake is definitely worth a visit during the holiday season and Gables on Geneseo is worth a visit any time of the year.  It’s beautiful, spacious, comfortable, and you’ll get to experience some of the finest breakfasts in the whole state of Iowa.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Deck the Halls with Gales of Laughter. Fa La La La La Ha Ha Ha Ha

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

And then everything goes to hell.  This is Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Less a play than a piece of Christmas metafiction, this show features three actors, playing highly exaggerated versions of themselves, who delightfully and hilariously educate the audience on Christmas beliefs and traditions from around the world while lampooning various Christmas tales.  Susan Clement-Toberer’s masterful direction hits all the right notes as her trio of comic geniuses will have your sides splitting by the time the night is over.

Ben Beck plays the leader of the troupe.  A serious actor, he simply wants to share the story of A Christmas Carol.  He is constantly thwarted by his two cohorts who would rather run through every Christmas story know to humanity.  Beck reluctantly goes along for the ride on the condition that A Christmas Carol is performed as part of the anthology.

Beck is a bit of a hapless sad sack as he constantly gets the short end of the stick in this spectacle.  He is forced to play the Grinch, receives impossible questions during a fruitcake quiz show, and is accused of not believing in Santa Claus (which he does not).  Yet he bravely soldiers on in pursuit of performing his beloved story.  When he finally gets his opportunity, he becomes a manic force of energy as he effortlessly and blitzingly changes identities from Scrooge to George Bailey (doing a Jimmy Stewart that Stewart would envy) on the turn of a dime due to his story getting hijacked by one of the other performers.  Beck did trip over his lines on a couple of occasions, but that appeared to be due to the breakneck pace of the show.

Bill Grennan is a riot as he plays a naïve, lovable man-child.  He is truly a wide-eyed innocent who loves the Christmas specials of his childhood and still believes in Santa Claus.  Grennan’s role is arduous as he constantly zips around the stage and theatre, almost warping between various unusual spots.  He’s allowed the chance to do some brilliant character works as he portrays Gustav, the Green-Nosed Reingoat (to avoid copyright infringement), a slightly lascivious Frosty the Snowman (who sounded like Charlie in the Box from Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer), a pirate searching for the white bearded whale, Moby Nick, and a sweet, dramatic turn as Linus Van Pelt delivering the “what Christmas is all about” monologue from A Charlie Brown Christmas.

Grennan also subtly shows that his character may not be as innocent and dimwitted as he appears.  He is determined to get his own way and is the one who actually gets the ball rolling on sharing Christmas tales due to his refusal to do A Christmas Carol.  Grennan’s usurping Beck’s A Christmas Carol with It’s a Wonderful Life is quite a sly move from someone Beck claims “isn’t the brightest bulb on the tree”.

Teresa Sindelar’s comic acumen has never been sharper than with this performance.  Ms Sindelar willingly goes along with Grennan to present all of these Christmas stories, but seems to do it because she simply wants to have fun and not to avoid A Christmas Carol as she willingly assists Beck in his telling of that story in Act II.  Her chameleon-like ability to assume any character is allowed to shine as she transforms herself from a slightly psychotic Yukon Cornelius, to a parody of Barbara Walters commentating (sometimes under her breath) on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come earnestly pantomiming an important message to Beck’s Scrooge that nearly had this writer falling out of his chair.

In the end, words cannot do justice to this show.  It must be experienced.  The sureness of the direction and the devastatingly accurate comic timing of the three performers played out on a stage beautifully designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, painted by Craig Lee, and lit by Carol Wisner makes Every Christmas Ever Told. . .And Then Some a hit for the holidays.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told. . .And Then Some plays at the Blue Barn Theatre though December 21.   Tickets are going fast.  The only shows with tickets remaining are Dec 11 and 18 at 7:30pm and December 21 at 6pm.  Tickets are $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of ten or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576.  The Blue Barn Theatre is located 614 S 11th St in Omaha, NE.