That Meddlesome, Magical Matchmaker

Matchmaker (and jane of all trades) Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi schemes to marry half a millionaire Horace Vandergelder and make a few more happy couples while she’s at it.  This is Hello, Dolly! with book by Michael Stewart and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and it is currently playing at Springfield Little Theatre.

If I ever relocate, I’m going to make certain Springfield is one of the cities I consider due to the sheer quality of entertainment available here.  I heard Broadway grinding its teeth as SLT’s production of Hello, Dolly! blows away anything currently playing on The Great White Way.  If you want a great night of theatre, catch a showing of this production.  Costumes?  Gorgeous!  Set?  Fabulous!  Orchestra?  Pluperfect!!  Singing?  Phenomenal!!!  Acting?  Superlative!!

Chyrel Love Miller takes on the grueling double role of director and choreographer for this production and comes up aces on both counts.  Miller’s direction is of shining quality.  She knows every beat of the show, both musically and theatrically and nuances the tar out of it while keeping a brisk pace.  Her staging is top of the line and makes maximum use of the space which was doubly impressive in this case as the actors had to navigate around the orchestra pit for a great many of the musical’s showstopping numbers.  Her actors are all sublime and have crafted well-developed characters from the leading performers to the ensemble roles.

The only word I can think of to describe her choreography is epic.  This show has huge, flashy numbers and a lot of them.  But each is an original delight and the performers nail the dancing with nary a mistake.  Some especially impressive numbers include “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “Dancing”, “Hello, Dolly”, and “Polka”.

I give a standing ovation to the ensemble of the show.  I can never stress enough how a committed ensemble adds so much life and vitality to a production and they helped this show blossom.  All were having a good time and that sense of fun really communicates itself well to an audience.  They harmonized perfectly on the numbers and their dancing was entrancing.

Some especially strong supporting performances were provided by Heath Hillhouse who makes a stellar debut at SLT with his potentially tyrannical take on Rudolph Reisenweber, the head waiter at Harmonia Gardens; Hayden Gish as Minnie Fay, the milliner’s assistant whose nosiness clashes with her attempts to be proper; and Wyatt Munsey whose energy as Barnaby Tucker could light up a city.

Kim Crosby IS Dolly Levi!  I don’t mean she plays the role.  She IS the role.  Crosby had the audience in the palm of her hand from her first word and didn’t let go for one nanosecond.  Crosby’s delivery is satin smooth which is essential to the silver and glib tongued matchmaker who has a positive genius for meddling, but always uses it as a force for good with her heart of gold.  Crosby uses stage space like few performers I’ve seen and it always gives her Dolly an animated, realistic feel.  She also has a lovely alto which she modulates according to number from her confidence in her abilities to do just about anything in “I Put My Hand In” to her determination to start living life again in “Before the Parade Passes By” to her joy at returning to Harmonia Gardens in “Hello, Dolly”.

Eric Eichenberger is a likable grump as Horace Vandergelder.  He claims that 99% of society is foolish, but does have a soft spot once you peel away enough layers.  Eichenberger does superb work walking the fine line of keeping Vandergelder a curmudgeon while also showing that he’s still decent even if he is a bit rough around the edges.  Eichenberger also has a fine upper baritone which he utilizes to explain why he needs a wife in “It Takes a Woman”.

Gene Kelly once described the role of Cornelius Hackl as an attractive idiot and I believe that description suits Clayton Avery’s interpretation of the role.  Avery’s Hackl is a bit repressed and has lived a sheltered life.  At 33, he’s never even talked to a girl.  Avery does superior work communicating Hackl’s inexperience around women and has a remarkably sincere delivery.  He also well displays Hackl’s lack of mental swiftness.  It’s not that Cornelius is dumb.  He just improvises poorly when the pressure is on.

Avery has a dandy, crystal clear tenor which was quite entertaining with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and genuinely moving in “It Only Takes a Moment”.

Kassandra Wright is both sweet and tart as Irene Molloy.  At one moment, she’s delighting in a potential bit of devilry as she plans to flirt with Cornelius before dropping him cold and then wistfully remembering the real love she shared with her late husband, Peter, in “Ribbons Down My Back”.  This song is sung with a heavenly soprano that nearly brought me to tears.

John R. “Chuck” Rogers has designed a winning set with backdrops that bring one to the cobblestoned streets of turn of the century New York and drills the sheer elegance of Harmonia Gardens with a massive staircase and a pair of curtained, private dining rooms.  Ginny Herfkens and Sandy Balsters designed some brightly colored, period appropriate costumes sometimes bordering on the pastel.  The elegant gowns of the ladies and snappy suits of the men evoke memories of a long ago era.   Parker Payne and his orchestra provide a night of musical ambrosia and I’d like to note Lysander Abadia’s particularly meticulous work in his choreography of “Waiters’ Gallop”.

As I said earlier, if you’re looking for a musical that ticks all the boxes for a great night of entertainment, then this is the one for you.  And as much as we hope, “Dolly’ll never go away”, you’d best grab a ticket before she does.

Hello, Dolly! plays at Springfield Little Theatre in the historic Landers Theatre through Feb 23.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets range from $16-$32.   For tickets visit http://www.springfieldlittletheatre.org or call the Box Office at 417-869-1334.  Springfield Little Theatre is located at 311 E Walnut St in Springfield, MO.

Springfield Little Theatre Invites You to ‘Put On Your Sunday Clothes’ With ‘Hello, Dolly!’

Springfield, MO–Springfield Little Theatre is proud to present Hello, Dolly! at the historic Landers Theatre from Friday, Feb 7 to Sunday, Feb 23, 2020.  Performances are at 7:30pm Thurs-Sat and 2pm on Sundays and on Sat, Feb 22.

Hello, Dolly!, the 14 Tony Award-winning blockbuster Broadway hit, bursts with humor, romance, high-energy dancing, and some of the greatest songs in musical theater history. The romantic and comic exploits of Dolly Gallagher-Levi, played by Broadway actress Kim Crosby, turn-of-the-century matchmaker and “woman who arranges things,” are certain to thrill and entertain audiences again and again.  

Recently revived on Broadway in 2017 with Bette Midler in the title role, Hello, Dolly! originally opened on Broadway in 1964 and was, at the time, the longest running Broadway show with 2,844 performances. 

The show’s memorable songs include “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” “Ribbons Down My Back,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Elegance,” and “It Only Takes a Moment.” 

Hello, Dolly! is rated PG.  Ticket prices range from $16-$32.  Group pricing is available for parties of 10 or more.  Please visit www.springfieldlittletheatre.org to purchase your tickets and select seats 24/7.  You may also call the Box Office at 417-869-1334.

Director & Choreographer:  Chyrel Love Miller

Cast

Kim Crosby as Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi

Hope Horton as Ernestina

Conner Paulson as Ambrose Kemper

Eric Eichenberger as Horace Vandergelder

Rachel Christopherson as Ermengarde

Clayton Avery as Cornelius Hackl

Wyatt Munsley as Barnaby Tucker

Hayden Gish as Minnie Fay

Kassandra Wright as Irene Molloy

Also featuring:  Miriam Stein, Ryan Mattix, Heath Hillhouse, Michael Grover, Seth Walley, Sean Scarborough, Brian Kress, Decker Ames, Derrick DeVonne King, Andy Phinney, Joshua David Smith, Robert Reed, Daniel Bush, Sisilia Shaffer, Millie Wade, Amber Eggimann, Heather Crosby, Emma Elliott, Jennifer Yerganian, Lori Harmon, Sandy Johnson, Seth Dylan Hunt, Kristy Stacy, Natalie Regenold, Sarah Foster and Wesley Brown

 

A Winter’s Respite: Marshfield, MO & Dickey House Bed & Breakfast

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Taking advantage of a freak warm spell, I answered the call of the road once more.  This time the road would be taking me to Marshfield, MO where I would be visiting the Dickey House Bed and Breakfast.

Getting to Marshfield would prove to be. . .interesting.  Having been burned by Mapquest one time too many, I had recently taken to using Google Maps.  That app plotted a route that would take about 6 hours.  I was delayed from leaving by about 20 minutes, but nothing to worry about.

I enjoyed a pleasant, sunny car ride with surprisingly little traffic for a Friday.  About 3:45, I pulled over to a Hardee’s in Clinton, MO for a very late lunch or an early supper depending on one’s point of view.  With my slight delay and a brief stop for gas and to stretch my legs, I estimated that I should arrive at the inn by about 5:30pm.

However, the reality proved to be quite different.  The next road I was looking for was State Highway CC and I found it shortly after leaving town.  I thought it had come up a little too early, but I took the road as I figured 10 miles out of my way was better than 70.

As you may have guessed, it was the wrong CC.

Five miles in I saw a sign saying that the road would end in water so I know I was on the wrong path.  I turned around and drove back to my original road, probably losing another 20 minutes in the process.  I got back on the right road and found the CC highway I needed about 70 miles later.

I still thought I would be fairly on target until I reached State Highway E.  It was a pitch black road full of twists and turns that required constant adjustments of speed, eating up even more of my time.  I finally rolled into Marshfield and had difficulty locating the street I needed as there weren’t street signs on every corner.

Fortunately, I stopped at a Conoco and found Dickey House was a mere few blocks away and arrived at roughly 6:35.  Now at this point, you may be wondering why I was so focused on the time.

I had reached an agreement with the Springfield Little Theatre to review their production of West Side Story and that started at 7:30 and was about a half hour away from the inn.  Needless to say, I was feeling a bit under the gun.

I grabbed my laptop and luggage and rang the doorbell.  I was greeted by Michaelene Stevens, one of the owners of the inn.  She offered to give me a tour of the inn, but I had to decline due to being rushed.  Originally, I was to have stayed in the Fontaine Room, but Michaelene moved me to the Heritage Room which allowed me a connected bathroom.

I quickly put down my bag and laptop and knew I had to skip shaving and changing into my suit in order to reach the theatre.  On my way downstairs, I met Michaelene’s husband, Larry, and their dog, Miss Taylor.  Michaelene showed me how the door lock worked and I dashed off to my car and headed to Springfield.

The theatre is located in the downtown Springfield area which meant parking was not easily available.  Precious time ticked away as I searched for a spot.

At long last I caught a break when I noticed a sign pointing to parking and I found a free parking garage several blocks away from the theatre.  I parked my car and sprinted and I mean, SPRINTED, to the theatre.  I grabbed my tickets and reached my seat with 7 minutes to spare.

The trials and efforts were worth it as I watched the greatest community theatre musical I have ever seen.  You may read the review here.

After the show, I returned to the inn where I quietly began my explorations (I was the only guest) and took pictures.

Dickey House is a 108 year old Greek Revival mansion built for Sam Dickey around 1908.  Dickey was a lawyer who did a lot of pro-bono work for Confederate soldiers whom he thought were getting a bad deal from the government.  Having a massive interest in politics, Dickey hosted seven MO senators and governors during his lifetime.  This would include the governor who brought the World’s Fair to St Louis.  Dickey was also a friend of William Jennings Bryan of the famed Scopes Monkey Trial.

The home remained the family until the 1970s where it passed through several hands and then lay empty for several years.

In 1987 a couple from California bought the home and turned it into an inn before selling out to the Stevens in 1998.  The Stevens restored the house and grounds to its original glory and then some to become the fine inn it is today.

The Heritage Room was quite comfortable with a canopied queen bed, electric fireplace, and reading porch.  I was so exhausted after the day’s adventures I collapsed into bed and slept.

The next morning I banged out my play review, caught a shave and shower and headed down to breakfast.

I had a long conversation with Larry and Michaelene over orange juice, fruit, cookie, and a puff pastry filled with ham, veggies, and other goodies.  I learned that Larry was a talented artist with a studio on the property.  So if you’re an artist or enjoy paintings, this is the inn for you.  And if you ask really nicely, Larry might show you his sanctum sanctorum (his studio).

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After a long drive the previous day, I didn’t feel like running all over Springfield which I had visited on a previous excursion.  I decided to simply take it easy.  I took a long walk about noon.  Finished a novel.  Watched a little educational TV.  I had forgotten the simple pleasure of really doing nothing.

About 5:40, I headed out for the evening.  I started by attending services at Holy Trinity Parish which has to be the smallest church I have ever visited.  From there, I drove back to the downtown Springfield area where I had dinner at Riad.  This is a Mediterranean restaurant and I enjoyed a gyro with a small side of fries.  As I dined I was surprised to notice that I saw far more cars than I had seen on Friday, but I was seeing fewer people and I wondered how that worked.

After my dinner I went around the corner to 1984 where, for $7.50, I could play all the vintage arcade games I wanted.  I certainly got my money’s worth as it took me twice as much as the entry fee to defeat P.O.W. Prisoners of War.  I also played Tron, Marble Madness, Shinobi, Burgertime, Q-Bert, Rampage, Sinistar, and Tapper.  I did get a great deal of fun out of it, but had hoped for a more varied selection of games as most of these games are available in the vintage arcade in my hometown.

From there it was back to Dickey House and a good night’s sleep.

The next morning featured another great conversation with Larry and Michaelene about movies and travels while I enjoyed a fruit parfait and an oven baked German apple pancake along with my orange juice.  Afterwards I got a quick peek at Larry’s studio before settling my tab and making the drive back home.

Larry and Michaelene have been some of my favorite innkeepers and they are great conversationalists and cooks.  Come to Dickey House.  You’ll stay in a beautiful home, visit with some lovely people, have some great food, and have the benefit of a major city nearby for activities.

Until the next time, happy travels.

You Say You Want a Musical Revolution

Tony and Maria are in love, but their love faces numerous obstacles.  Her brother and his best friend are the leaders of rival gangs that refuse to let them be together.  The world also tries to keep them apart due to its racism as they come from different cultures.  When they try to rise above these problems, they get dragged back down and crash to a hideous reality.  This is West Side Story based on a concept by Jerome Robbins, written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  It is currently playing at Springfield Little Theatre.

It isn’t often that I find myself tongue-tied when I start to write a review, but I am still in a state of glorious shock at what I just saw.  Prior to tonight, I had never seen West Side Story in any capacity though I had read that the original mounting of the show revolutionized what could be done with choreography.  While I have no real comment to make on that, I can say that SLT’s take on this show completely revolutionized what I considered possible with musical theatre.  This was, by far, the single best musical I have seen mounted on any community theatre stage.

Lorianne Dunn does double duty as both director and choreographer and excels in both aspects.  As director, she has put together an absolute masterpiece of a production.  Her direction is certain as she expertly maneuvers her actors through the emotional beats of the stories and songs and leads them to sterling performances.  Her staging is impeccable.  It makes full use of the performance space and none of her actors upstaged themselves or others.

Her choreography is genius.  Never have I seen such lavish dance numbers especially standouts such as “America”, the prologue, and “The Rumble”.  Her work is all the more impressive given the youth of her cast who absolutely nail their performances with a polish and poise that experienced veterans would envy.

This cast is just amazing.  Their energy (and fitness levels) was off the charts.  They were clearly having fun and that added further fuel to nearly flawless performances.  The chorus remained in each and every moment adding vital life and reality to this staged world.  Exceptional supporting performances were supplied by Richard Bogue as the racist and thuggish Lt. Schrank; Lysander Abadia as Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks; Robert Hazlette as the always angry Action and he also gets the lead on the night’s funniest number, “Gee, Officer Krupke”; and Miriam Stein as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend and Maria’s best friend.  Ms Stein especially shines with a velvet lower soprano in “America” and “A Boy Like That”.

Asa Charles Leininger stuns as Riff, the leader of the Jets.  Leininger makes Riff far more than a brainless brute with his multilayered take on the character.  His Riff started the Jets to have a sense of belonging.  He’s proud of his gang because of the support they provide.  He’s tough.  He’s loyal, remaining friends with Tony despite his walking away from the gang.  His Riff even has a code of honor as he’s willing to settle his issues with the Sharks with one fistfight.  He even has some common sense as he refuses to react to those that call him and his gang hoodlums and prefers to stay cool.  Leininger’s New York accent is spot on and he retains it as his lower tenor entertains us with “Jet Song” and “Cool”.

Tanner Johnson is scary smooth as Tony.  Johnson takes the audience by the hand and gracefully leads it through Tony’s emotional journey.  He’s got the perfect personality for the likable Tony who is trying to escape his former world of violence by holding down a job and finding love.  You will be swept along with him as he experiences the highs of love, the horror at his violent actions when he gets dragged back into the gang world, and his heartbreak when he thinks he has lost Maria.

Johnson also has a gorgeous tenor voice.  More importantly, he knows how to act through the songs, striking each emotional beat with unerring accuracy.  Some of his best moments were his joyous “Maria” and his beautiful take on “Somewhere”.

Genevieve Fulks is a powerhouse of talent and will steal your hearts as Maria.  She has such innocence and sweetness in the role and you can believe she has the power to evolve Tony into a better person.  But she just as easily handles anger and pain when her world begins to fall apart due to the lifestyle of violence lived by her loved ones.  And, my word, what a heavenly voice she has.  Ms Fulks’ operatic soprano gave a performance for the angels with showstopping turns in “I Feel Pretty”, “I Have Love”, and “Tonight”.

Susan Gravatt and her orchestra perfectly play the score of this musical.  John R. “Chuck” Rogers has designed a magnificent set of fences, crumbling tenements, and fire escapes.  Jamie Bowers’ lights and sounds enhance the story.  Kris Haik and Ginny Herfkens are winners with their precise costuming with the t-shirts, jackets, and jeans of the gangs and the elegant dresses for the ladies.

As I said earlier, this is the best community theatre musical I have ever seen staged in nearly a quarter century of theatre involvement. I have seen professional productions that couldn’t hold a stick to this show.  It’s just a blitzkrieg of perfection from the fantastic story to grade A direction to stunning choreography to flawless acting and entrancing singing.  If you love theatre and live in or near the Springfield, MO area, buy a ticket to see this show.  You will be blown away.

West Side Story plays at Springfield Little Theatre through Feb 4.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets range from $16-$36.  For tickets visit http://www.springfieldlittletheatre.org or call the Box Office at 417-869-1334.  Parental discretion is advised for coarse language and gestures and some scenes of violence.  Springfield Little Theatre is located at 311 E Walnut St in Springfield, MO.

Springfield Little Theatre Kicks Off 2018 with “West Side Story”

Meme - SLT's West Side Story_preview

Springfield, MO–Springfield Little Theatre (SLT) is pleased to present West Side Story at the historic Landers Theatre beginning Friday, January 19 through Sunday, February 4, 2018.  Performances start at 7:30pm on Thusdays-Saturdays and at 2pm on Sundays.

Young lovers are caught between prejudice and warring street gangs in this seminal retelling of Romeo and Juliet written by Arthur Laurent with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

The powerful, poignant, and timely musical explores the rivalry between the “American” Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, two teenage street gangs in New York City.  Tony, best friend to the leader of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, sister to the leader of the Sharks.  Their struggle to survive in a world of hate and violence weaves an innovative, heart-wrenching, and relevant tale.

From the first notes to the final breath, West Side Story is one of the most memorable musicals and greatest love stories of all time.  The score is widely regarded as one of the best ever written.  The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre.

SLT’s West Side Story features a cast of 57 and is directed and choreographed by Lorianne Dunn with music direction by Susan Gravatt.  Performing the iconic roles of star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria, are Tanner Johnson and Genevieve Fulks.  Johnson, a student at Drury University studying Arts Administration and Vocal Performance, is making his Springfield Little Theatre debut.  Fulks was last seen on the Landers stage as Doris Walker in Miracle on 34th Street the Musical.  Since that time, she has performed as Young Maxine in Maxine’s Christmas Carol (Andy Williams Moon River Theatre), Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro (Opera in the Ozarks and Springfield Regional Opera), Zerbina in The Maid Mistress (Classical Arts Inc), and Madame Herz in The Impresario (Ozark Family Opera).  Genevieve is a professional singer and actor and also teaches voice at MSU, Drury, and SLT.

West Side Story is rated PG-13.  Tickets range in price form $16-$36.  Group pricing is available for parties of 10 or more.  Please visit www.springfieldlittletheatre.org to purchase your tickets and select seats 24/7.  You may also call the Box Office at 417-869-1334.

Parents’ Night Out is offered on Saturday, January 20 for only $10 per child.  Drop your kids off at 5:30pm and treat yourself to dinner before watching the performance.  Or drop your kids off at 7:15pm just before you take your seat.  Children will enjoy a full evening of theatre activities and can be picked up in the lobby following the show.  Register when you purchase your tickets or add it on later!

Enjoy a Backstage Pass Experience before any of the performances for only $10.  Observe company warm-ups prior to the show, take a guided tour backstage, and receive a signed poster and photo with the cast.  Register when you purchase your tickets or add it on later!

Final Fridays Improv Night takes place on Friday, February 3 following the performance.  Admission is “pay what you can”.  SLT’s Teen Players present this hilarious, family-friendly program to raise funds for SLT’s education programs.

The Landers Theatre, SLT’s beautiful home, is located in downtown Springfield at 311 East Walnut Street.

Support for West Side Story is provided by Phenix Marble, Lezah & Ron Stenger Family, Mirowski Inspections, KOLR10, 104.1KSGF, and the Missouri Arts Council, a nonprofit state agency.

Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 3-4: Historical Jaunts

When I awoke in the morning, I was ready for some more of Norma’s fine home cooking.  Today’s morning repast was a dish of oranges, blueberries, and strawberries, French Toast, bacon, and scrambled eggs.  Once again I enjoyed a blissful breakfast while continuing to read my Sherlock Holmes mystery and keeping myself up to date with the daily news.

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I was dedicating today to the exploration of several historic sites around the area.  The first two were in or just outside of Petersburg and they were the grave of Ann Rutledge at Oakland Cemetery and Lincoln’s New Salem Historic Site.

Ann Rutledge is widely considered to be the first love of Abraham Lincoln.  Nobody is entirely certain of the extent of their relationship.  What is known is that Lincoln was devastated after her death.  So hard did he take it that a friend of his took away his pocketknife because he was afraid Lincoln would hurt himself.

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Ann Rutledge’s Tombstone

Lincoln had lived in New Salem for about six years.  It was considered a turning point in his life because he was a little lost when he first arrived, but discovered his calling to politics while in this town.  When he left town to pursue this calling, the town folded up shortly afterwards.  It was almost as if it had come into existence solely to inspire the future president.

The site is not without some features of interest with an exhibit hall that tells of Lincoln’s time in New Salem and holding some of his surveying equipment, but the village is a pretty good reproduction of the actual town and a few of the buildings are original.  Still I thought the site lacked a certain oomph and I quickly made my way through it.

From there, I returned to Springfield where I visited the Dana-Thomas House, a construction of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright designed the house for Susan Lawrence Dana.  She had been the daughter of the mayor of Springfield and when her father and husband perished in rapid succession, she opted to use her $3 million inheritance (modern day equivalent nearly $80 million) to have the family home completely redesigned.  She wanted a place that could serve as a home, a place for the arts, and a place for entertaining people.

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Dana-Thomas House

The house is actually a marvel in architecture, but I was disappointed that pictures inside the house were disallowed.  It featured stain glass windows with a butterfly motif, murals with a sumac motif, a bowling alley, a ballroom, an intercom system, and even a doorbell alert system due to the numerous doors of the estate.  It is free (donations encouraged) and certainly worth a look around.

Afterwards I visited the tomb of one of the greatest men in the history of our country (possibly even in general history).  The mausoleum is certainly an awesome sight.  In front is a giant bust of Lincoln and people often touch its nose for good luck.  The path to the tomb is peppered with statues of Lincoln along with various quotations of his.  His tombstone is massive and there was a certain weightiness to knowing that the man who saved our country lay 10 feet under my feet.  Across from Lincoln’s tombstone lay the remains of Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of their sons.  The fourth is buried in Arlington, VA at the request of his wife.

I certainly felt humbled as I left the tomb and returned to Branson House to begin writing my articles.  At 4:10 it was time for church.

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St Peter Catholic Church

I attended services at St Peter Catholic Church and went through a rather speedy service (it was finished in 40 minutes and that included a full contingent of hymns).  Even with the quicker than normal service, I did get a rather fascinating sermon from either a deacon or a visiting priest.  It was a very humble homily talking about how nobodies are still somebodies in the eyes of God.  The speaker was quite honest about feeling like a nobody in his youth until he realized the simple truth.

When services ended, I decided to eat dinner.  I was weary after the multiple round trip visits to Springfield and decided to eat in town.  I visited Los Rancheros which proved to be an excellent choice.  I chose the Rancheros Burrito which came with a side of Spanish rice and refried beans.

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With another relaxing meal under my belt, I decided tonight would be a good night to write, organize photos, and just put my feet up in general.  And I did just that before calling it a night.

After a hot shower and shave, the next morning, I was greeted with a breakfast of cinnamon rolls, oranges and cream, and egg bake filled with cheese, sausages, and onions.  I ended up having a great conversation with John about my adventures and he gave me a little history on the town.

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Alas, the time had come for me to head for home.  But if you’re in the neighborhood, give Branson House Bed and Breakfast a visit.  It’s nice and comfortable in a quiet little town and you can experience a lot of history in the area, especially in Springfield.

Until the next time, happy travels.

Cotton Patch Really Redux, Days 1-2: Experiencing Lincoln & Cotton Patchful

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Sometimes fate gives you a chance at redemption.

As my regular readers may remember, about a year ago I was in Arlington, TX in order to review Cotton Patch Gospel for the Repertory Company Theatre when a series of unfortunate circumstances exploded that attempt.  If you need a refresher or just need to read the story for the first time, click here.  A few months ago I found that the show would be playing in the much, much closer venue of Springfield, IL at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.  I got in touch with their executive and artistic director, Gus Gordon, and arranged a media ticket to review the show and looked forward to a trip to Illinois’ capital city in early March.

My journey did not start with the normal sense of joy that I usually have with these road trips.  Part of it was just general antsyness about wanting to get to Illinois.  The other part was my irritation at being unceremoniously turned away from an event I was asked to be part of on the previous night.

A rest stop in Hannibal, MO served to restore much of my good humor.  After lunching at Wendy’s, I found myself in a decidedly better frame of mind and the rest of the drive felt like my normal road experiences.

A few hours later, I found myself in Petersburg (about 20 miles outside of Springfield) and my home away from home:  Branson House Bed & Breakfast, owned and operated by Norma and John Stiltz.  John also happens to be the mayor of Petersburg.

Branson House is an Eastlake Victorian home built in 1876 by Nathaniel Branson for his wife, Frances.  The house boasts 7 marble fireplaces and, believe it or not, an elevator.  When I rang the doorbell, I was greeted by Norma who gave me the nickel tour of the home before leading me to Uncle Billy’s Retreat, my room for the next few nights.  And, yes, of course I used the elevator.  It would have been impolite not to have used it.

Uncle Billy’s Retreat was a most comfortable room, indeed.  It boasted a large iron framed king bed with an electric fireplace, sitting chair & footstool, and a day bed in the corner.  After doing my usual reconnaissance, I relaxed for a bit before heading over to Springfield to get some dinner and locate the Hoogland.

Downtown Springfield does require a little getting used to as the roads are a criss cross of one way streets, but after I went back and forth a couple of times, I found myself expertly navigating the streets.  Within a short time, I arrived at D & J’s Café for a little old fashioned comfort food.

Any lingering frustrations to the start of my day vanished with that meal.  I enjoyed a patty melt with bacon which was apparently just what the doctor ordered.  A side of crinkle fries and a Mountain Dew helped to complete the cure as I chewed merrily away and completed a rereading of Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery.

Upon returning to the inn, I organized some photos and then hit the sack.

The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed.  I headed to my bathroom and took a long hot shower before heading downstairs to breakfast.  Norma had prepared some wonderfully thick pancakes with a dish of kiwi, blueberries, and strawberries, plus an egg pizza with cheese and chives.  I’m not usually a fan of strawberries, but these were quite delectable and I savored every mouthful of my meal while reading Sherlock Holmes and the Eisendorf Enigma, the latest novel from my favorite Holmesian pastiche writer, Larry Millet.  I also formally met John who graciously brought me the local paper.

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Pancakes, fruit, and egg pizza

With the inner man restored, I headed to Springfield to indulge in a bit of history.  Springfield was the home of our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln and his tomb, museum, and library are all located in downtown Springfield.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum is well worth a visit for a very interactive study of the life of Mr. Lincoln.  I’ve always had a great deal of admiration and respect for Honest Abe, but I was stunned to find out how much I didn’t know about him.

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Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

His formal schooling lasted less than a year and he was a self-taught reader and lawyer.  I was even more shocked to find out that he began his presidency as our most hated leader.  Let that one sink in.  It was a particularly contentious election with 4 candidates.  Lincoln managed to win a decisive Electoral College victory thanks to the northern states (he actually didn’t make the ballot in many southern states), but only had 40% of the popular vote.  Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  It also seemed like he could do no right as anything and everything he did brought hatred and vitriol upon him.  I was genuinely shocked to see the numerous hateful articles and political cartoons written and drawn about Lincoln.  History, of course, has vindicated him.

The museum is split into several sections.  One is dedicated to his life before the White House, another to his presidency and the Civil War, another to the Library next door, another to rare family treasures, but the best section is an interactive movie theatre that briefly describes Lincoln’s life.  The film showed me that Lincoln had an interesting duality in personality.  Despite being a popular wit and storyteller, Lincoln was also plagued by doubt and melancholy.  I also learned that Lincoln may very well have been near death even without the aid of John Wilkes Booth’s bullet.

Two busts of Lincoln done after he won the presidency each time show the ravage that leading during the Civil War wrought on him.  Underweight to begin with, Lincoln was almost skeletal going into his second term.  One noted sculptor thought the second bust was a death mask.  Studies of pictures of Lincoln after his first term seem to support the theory that he may not have been long for the world.

After my moving and enlightening education, I took a walk down to the Hoogland to get a picture of it.  On my walk, I passed the old and current state capitols and also met a homeless guy who needed a sympathetic ear.  He was quite philosophical and well versed on our current state of politics.  I ended up giving him $5 so he could get a sandwich.

I got my picture of the Hoogland, then returned to my car where I drove back to Branson House to relax a bit before dinner.

At 4:30, I got cleaned up and into my suit for the evening’s activities.  I drove back to Springfield, hoping to eat at the Chesapeake Seafood House, but it was jammed to the rafters.  It would have taken 45 minutes just to seat me.  Luckily, I remembered passing a restaurant called Alexander’s Steakhouse as I entered town, so I rushed back then, where I was able to be seated immediately.

I think I ended up getting the better deal as Alexander’s had one of the best salad bars I have enjoyed.  They also brought me a perfectly chargrilled Atlantic salmon with some hand cut Idaho steak fries.  After a tasty dinner, I hopped over to the Hoogland.

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Hoogland Center for the Arts

It was a magical night of theatre.  The Hoogland is actually home to several theatres and I met Gus Gordon who was a warm and friendly guy.  I also met Ken Bradbury, the director of Cotton Patch Gospel whose expression of “I’ll be damned” still brings a smile to my face when he found out I had traveled from Omaha to review his show.  And the show was excellent.  You can read my review here.

With bluegrass music playing in my head, I returned to the inn to write my review and get a good night’s rest.

Wonderfully Worshipful ‘Cotton Patch Gospel’ Flies with the Angels

He was laid in an apple crate in Gainesville, GA, baptized in the Chattahoochee River, and lynched for the sins of humanity.  If you think this story sounds awfully familiar, you’d be right.  It is the story of Jesus presented in a countrified fashion in Cotton Patch Gospel by Tom Key and Russell Treyz based on works by Clarence Jordan with music and lyrics by Harry Chapin.  It is currently playing in the LRS Theatre at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

While lesser known than some of its contemporaries, I’ve long considered Cotton Patch Gospel to be the best of the Gospel musicals.  Tonight’s production only served to strengthen that belief as Ken Bradbury and his cast and musicians came out with all guns a blazing in the best iteration of this show I have seen in a truly magical night of theatre.

Bradbury carries an unusually heavy load in this show as he served as director, musical director, played several instruments, and essayed a couple of roles too.  His direction is exceptionally sharp with strong staging that makes use of the entire performance space, sometimes even the entire theatre.  He has also led his 2 primary actors to unbelievably nuanced and gripping performances.

His musical direction is virtually flawless as he and his band (Carrie Carls, Barry Cloyd, Rob Killam, Mark Mathewson, and Danny McLaughlin) brought Harry Chapin’s score to bright and colorful life.  Bradbury is also an exceptional actor in his own right, projecting subtle menace as Herod as he calmly orders the bombing of an orphanage in an attempt to kill Jesus and milks a pregnant pause to fullest effect as the oily Governor Pilate.

The band not only supplies the music, but they also sing a great deal of the tunes and become characters in the story at various points.  Rob Killam is cool and smooth with the stand up bass while Mark Mathewson brings a lot of fun with the mandolin.  Danny McLaughlin is not only a great guitar player, but is an incredibly energetic performer whether he was hoofing it across the water before nearly drowning as Simon “Rock” Johnson or raining fire and brimstone on sinners as John the Baptizer.  Though his intentions were pretty spot-on, McLaughlin does need to tighten his internal cues a bit.

I thought the work of Carrie Carls and Barry Cloyd was truly something special.  Ms Carls has a very wide singing range, being a natural soprano who can easily go alto on a moment’s notice.  She was quite adept at picking out the emotional beats of a song, particularly shining as a grieving mother who cannot accept the death of her baby in Mama is Here and bringing a soft jubilance in Jubilation.

Cloyd is a master of the banjo and also shows some good comedic chops of his own as he wrestles with a fish when Jesus tells him he’ll catch a big one if he casts with his left hand.  But his lower tenor voice is his greatest asset best utilized in the melancholic Are We Ready? and the wistful You Are Still My Boy.

As essential as the band and music are to the story, this musical also needs top notch actors to drive the narrative and this show has that needed quality in the forms of Nathan Carls and Greg Floyd.  Both men brought a passion, energy, and animation to their roles that kept me hooked from start to finish and made them astoundingly fun to watch.

Nathan Carls is outstanding as Matthew.  As the play’s narrator, Carls carries the bulk of the show’s dialogue, skillfully navigating its numerous beats.  At one moment he does a little soft shoe because he’s excited about going to Atlanta, in the next he’s the rigid taxman meeting Jesus for the first time, the next heartbreakingly devastated as he relates the story of Jesus’ lynching.  And his expressions. . .so clean and clear.  His disgust at singing Spitball and the aching sadness in his face as he slams a chair to the ground to indicate Jesus’ lynching were highlights of the night.  Carls also possesses a fine tenor voice best featured in the hopeful When I Look Up and the spritely We’re Gonna Love it While it Lasts.

Greg Floyd is an absolutely remarkable Jesus.  He brings an innocence and purity crucial for the Son of God to the role and yet he still manages to exude a quiet confidence and authority that shows he is Lord.  Floyd is also able to capture the heavier moments of Jesus’ mission with equal aplomb.  Some of the play’s best moments occur when his beautiful high tenor voice musically asks, “What does Atlanta mean to me?” in Goin to Atlanta and his haunting request to God that he be able to accomplish his Father’s mission without suffering his vicious death during the Agony in the Rock Garden.

This production also rates strong praise for its technical quality.  Steven Varble’s beautifully simple set evokes the sense of a rural setting with its outline of a ranch house, windmill, and crates. Gene Hinckley’s lights greatly added to the emotional tone of the show with their vibrant colors.

I thought a beat here and there could have been struck differently and the pacing needed some fine tuning at a couple of points, but these minor quibbles were easily overlooked in the overall quality of the play.  My biggest disappointment is that a show this good only gets a 2 week run.  With that being said, I would recommend getting a ticket as quick as you can because when the word starts getting out, this show is going to start selling out.

Cotton Patch Gospel runs at the LRS Theatre in the Hoogland Center for the Arts through March 12.  Showtimes are 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays.  Tickets are $18 for adults and $16 for students and seniors and can be obtained by calling 217-523-2787 or visiting www.hcfta.org.  The Hoogland Center for the Arts is located at 420 S 6th St in Springfield, IL.

Meandering in Missouri, Day 3: A Fantastic Tour & Breakfast

I slept like a rock.  I awoke the next morning revitalized, refreshed, and ravenous.

The chef had prepared a sweet potato casserole with homemade sausage, onions, green peppers, and cheese.  On the side was a slice of toast and some fruit.  I munched away as I continued reading the investigations of Nero Wolfe.  During the meal, I met Gary, owner of Walnut Street Inn, and found him to be a most gregarious and gracious host.

Sweet potato casserole, toast, and fruit.

Sweet potato casserole, toast, and fruit.

After my meal, I requested breakfast for the same time on Monday and left for my big event of the day:  a tour of Fantastic Caverns.

Fantastic Caverns is the only driving cave tour in the Americas and one of only ten in the world.  It was discovered in 1862 by a farmer’s dog who found the proverbial needle in the haystack when he clambered through a small hold hidden by an overgrowth of ivy and grass.  The cave did not get a proper exploration until 1867.  Astonishingly, for the time, the explorers were 12 members of a women’s athletics club who answered an ad for explorers.  Their ages ranged from 13-18 and they signed one of the walls.

The first explorers of Fantastic Caverns.  They were 12 women of a local athletics club.

The first explorers of Fantastic Caverns. They were 12 women of a local athletics club.

It was a blisteringly hot day, so the cave, which remains a constant 60 degrees year round, was quite a relief from the heat and humidity.  I’m not partial to puns in my writing, but Fantastic Caverns was, well, cavernous.  I’ve toured several caves, but have not seen anything to compare with the sheer massiveness of Fantastic Caverns.  Descriptions fail me.  It must be experienced, but I hope my pictures do the tour some modicum of justice.

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The tour was helped by our guides, Brandon and Joey.  Joey, in particular, was a very animated talker who gave a lot of zip to the stories of Fantastic Caverns and there were plenty.  One of the most intriguing tales was that Fantastic Caverns was the birthplace of Ozark music.  A radio/stage show called Farmarama took place in the caves from 1961 to 1968 and featured many of the big names of country music.

After 55 minutes, the tour came to an end, but I highly suggest taking some time to experience Fantastic Caverns for yourself and I’d like to thank the staff of Fantastic Caverns for allowing me to tour the caves for free for my article.

The spring of Fantastic Caverns' Spring Trail

The spring of Fantastic Caverns’ Spring Trail

Back in the swelter, I walked a couple of small trails near the caverns before driving back into town.  I wandered around the town a bit and paid a brief visit to Battlefield Mall.  It was too hot for walking around so I returned to Walnut Street Inn where I caught a small nap and finished The League of Frightened Men.

For dinner, I walked down to Ebbets Field for my dinner.  Ebbets Field is a sports bar and several TVs featuring multiple sports played throughout the establishment.  I decided to try the Da Sandy, a cheeseburger basted in Ebbets homemade hot sauce with fresh made fries.  It was quite tasty and actually hit the spot.

Afterwards, it was back to Walnut Street Inn for a quiet and relaxing evening.

I enjoyed a long bath and shave the next morning and was met with a breakfast of scrambled eggs with Tabasco, bacon, fruit, toast, and orange juice.

Scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, and bacon.

Scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, and bacon.

Breakfast was a pleasant affair as I enjoyed a good conversation with Jennifer Wilkinson, the Study Abroad Manager for the University of Roehampton in London and another family visiting Springfield.  I swapped business cards with Jennifer, then returned to my room to begin preparing for my journey home.

I wish I had a few more days to spend in Springfield due to all of the things to do and places to go.  It’s a fine place to visit and if chance or design brings you to the region, get a room for yourself at Walnut Street Inn.  The hospitality is top notch.  The rooms are unique and comfortable.  The food is great and the company cannot be beat.

Meandering in Missouri, Day 2: The Haunted Castle Switcheroo

Walnut Street Inn

Walnut Street Inn

About 2:30 the next day, I found myself in Springfield, MO, the third largest city in Missouri.  During the run of this project, I’ve visited OK inns, decent inns, great inns, and several superior inns.  Walnut Street Inn has been added to the category of superior inns.

This inn is everything that a bed and breakfast should be.  The house has character and history.  The rooms are unique and comfortable.  And it just has that indescribable x quality that pushes it over the line from great to superior.

I began my stay in the Wilder room (named for author, Laura Ingalls Wilder).  Now this was a writer’s room.  It was nice and secluded and had a private balcony suitable for people watching.  Connected to my balcony was a spiral staircase.  I’ve always liked this type of staircase since I was a child, so of course I had to climb up and down.

The Wilder Room.  Originally this was to be my room until I was upgraded due to several soldiers desiring to get blotto.

The Wilder Room. Originally this was to be my room until I was upgraded.

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Private balcony of Wilder Room

Private balcony of Wilder Room

2nd floor commons area

2nd floor commons area

Front desk check in and main staircase

Front desk check in and main staircase

Living room

Living room

Dining room

Dining room

I didn’t have much time to settle in as I planned to attend worship services at St Joseph Catholic Church.  So after chucking my suitcase into a corner and taking some photos of the house, I was off to the house of the Lord.

St Joseph Catholic Church

St Joseph Catholic Church

This was one of the best services I had attended in quite a while.  The sermon was given by a guest speaker, Father Poisson.  He had a warm, welcoming style of speaking and he works for Cross Catholic Outreach.  Father Poisson has worked in many poverty stricken countries and Cross Catholic Outreach is dedicated to feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and rebuilding the homes of the needy in these countries.  He told several stories, but the one that resonated with me was the story he told about meeting a young boy named Jose.

Jose and the other village children were about to receive a rare treat.  They were going to eat fast food for the very first time.  Each child received what was essentially a happy meal.  Jose’s meal consisted of two pieces of chicken (very thin since the chickens of the region were also malnourished) and a small envelope of French fries.  Father Poisson noticed that Jose ate two bites of chicken and just two or three fries before closing up his box.

Concerned, Father Poisson asked the translator to ask Jose if he was ill or had already eaten that day.  The translator said no.  He said Jose was going to take the rest of the meal to this brothers and sisters who had not had anything to eat that day.

That got me.  95 cents out of every dollar donated to Cross Catholic Outreach goes to help the poor which is an incredibly high rate of return for fundraising.  I’m going to donate a little and you can click on this link if you’d like to make a contribution as well.

After that moving service, I returned to the inn where the clerk told me she had not done me any favors.  That caught me up a bit short and I looked at her with a puzzled expression.  She told me she had just booked 3 young soldiers in the room across the hall from me and they were very honest and said they planned to get soused that night.  Normally they would not stay in a B & B, but the hotel they tried to get into was sold out and they referred the soldiers to Walnut Street Inn.

To make certain I would not be disturbed in case the boys got rowdy, the clerk upgraded me to the Carver Room located on the inn’s first floor at no additional charge.

The Carver Room.  This is the room to which I was upgraded.

The Carver Room. This is the room to which I was upgraded.

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This was a good writing room, too.  I especially liked the faux bookcase, fireplace, and Jacuzzi bathtub.  After moving my belongings, I decided it was time to eat.

I walked down the street to Rama Thai Café for my supper.  The restaurant (plus many others in the area) was housed in an old house.  I had chicken with garlic and peppers.  While tasty, it needed to be much spicier for my tastes.  But it filled the cavity.

Rama Thai Cafe.  Many restaurants in area are actually in houses.

Rama Thai Cafe. Many restaurants in area are actually in houses.

After dinner, I traveled to Pythian Castle for its ghost tour.  Pythian Castle was built by the Knights of Pythias which is an organization like the Shriners or Freemasons.  The castle was built to house elderly knights and the children of deceased Knights.  During World War II it served as a military command center, P.O.W. camp, and a place for the soldiers to enjoy some R and R.

Pythian Castle

Pythian Castle

The tour was disappointing.  I suspect there was not much difference between it and the normal history tour except for the heftier price tag.  There were no interesting stories about the castle’s haunted history.  The ghost stories were just tales of odd experiences that were had by staff members of the castle.  I do not recommend it at all.

After the tour, I returned to Walnut Street Inn where I had a long hot soak and shave before passing out in my bed for the night.