A Belle of a Good Time

Beauty and the Beast_4

Timothy Vallier as Beast & Leanne Hill Carlson as Belle

A classic fairy tale comes to life.  A vain and cold hearted prince is transformed into a hideous beast by an enchantress when he fails to show her hospitality.  The only way to break the curse is for him to finally love and be loved in return before the enchantress’ rose sheds its last petal.  When circumstances bring the lovely Belle to the castle of the Beast, will the curse finally be brought to an end or is the afflicted prince doomed to his fearsome shape for all time?  Find out in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by Linda Woolverton with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice, closing the season at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

I’m going to make a confession. . .I have never seen any version of Beauty and the Beast nor have I ever read the fairy tale.  I share that confession with you because I want you to understand that I walked into this show with a completely unbiased pair of eyes and no influences to alter my expectations.  Having said that, I now need to tell you that this was an entrancing and beautiful production, one worthy to be viewed by every man, woman, and child in this city.

Kimberly Faith Hickman works an incredible bit of magic with her direction.  Not only did she lead her actors to a string of dynamite performances, but she also flawlessly paced the show.  So smooth was its running that I was honestly taken aback when it came to an end for it only felt like a few minutes had passed.  Her staging is pluperfect and makes use of the entire theatre and the scene changes were satin slick.

From a technical standpoint this was, bar none, the finest show I have ever seen.  The costumes of Georgiann Regan, Travis Halsey, and Amanda Fehlner are so elegant and eye catching from Belle’s simple blue dress to her opulent yellow gown to the rich oddity of the servants’ garments (they are humans transforming into household objects) to the make-up of the Beast.

Jim Othuse continues to pull from his neverending bag of tricks with his sets, lights, and special effects for this show.  You will travel from a simple, homey village to a dark and foreboding forest to a sprawling, cavernous castle.  John Gibilisco’s sounds help animate every moment and Darin Kuehler’s properties give life to the audience’s imaginations.

Jim Boggess and his orchestra never miss a note of the epic score and Michelle Garrity nails the choreography with lavish dance numbers and I must say that “Be Our Guest” is the single best bit of dancing I have seen in nearly 21 years of theatre.

And the acting?  Well, where does one begin?  Such a universally marvelous cast makes it very, very difficult for me to center on select performances.  But kudos go out to Kyle Wright who is delightfully dorky as Gaston’s lackey, Lefou and Brian Priesman as Belle’s eccentric father, Maurice, and he especially shines with his melodic tenor in “No Matter What”.

However, I would be sorely remiss if I failed to mention the fantastic work done by the actors playing the Beast’s servants.  These include Bob Gilmore as the too tightly wound Cogsworth, the castle’s major-domo; Steve Krambeck as Lumiere, the charming candelabra with an eye for the ladies; Dawn Buller-Kirke as Mrs. Potts, the castle’s cook who also dazzles with her sweet and moving rendition of the title song; and Joey Galda as Madame De La Grande Bouche, the diva wardrobe.

The role of Belle seemed to be tailor made for Leanne Hill Carlson.  She brings intelligence, warmth, sensitivity, and strength to the part.  Ms Hill Carlson well communicates Belle’s outsider status due to her peculiar pater and her love of reading while also bringing nobility when she selflessly volunteers to take Maurice’s place as the Beast’s prisoner.  With expert ease, she carefully undergoes the transformation from fearing and detesting the Beast to falling in love with him.  Her beautiful soprano will keep you mesmerized all evening with such numbers as “A Change in Me”, “Belle”, “Is this Home?”, and “No Matter What”.

Timothy Vallier makes a triumphant debut at the Playhouse with his interpretation of the Beast.  Vallier has a phenomenally well modulated voice, capable of a wide range of nuances ranging from animalistic snorting to cold anger to desperate loneliness to tender love.  He excellently executes Beast’s transformation from his temperamental, arrogant old self to his emergence as a kind and loving man.  Vallier also has a honey sweet tenor which is well utilized in “If I Can’t Love Her” and “How Long Must this Go On?”

Ryan Pivonka rounds out the three leads with his own worthy performance as Gaston.  Gaston isn’t your typical villain as he really isn’t evil.  He’s simply full of himself and his need to win Belle’s heart does drive him to a few dirty deeds.  Pivonka brings a macho swagger to Gaston who routinely roughs up the sycophantic Lefou while singing his own praises in “Gaston”.  He also manages to bring a small touch of sympathy to the role as he does genuinely love Belle, it’s just become twisted due to his overwhelming arrogance and selfishness.

I thought the pratfalls and violence could be smoothed out and punched up a bit, but that did little to dampen a magical night of theatre.  There are tickets still available, but I highly suggest ordering yours right away as I’ve heard they are rapidly dwindling.  Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is fun for the whole family and I promise you a Belle of a good time.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through June 25.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $42 for adults and $25 for students.  Wednesday night shows are $32 for adults and $20 for students.  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.

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Sioux Empire’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Explodes with Awesomeness

His best friend betrayed him.  His followers can’t understand his message.  His Father needs him to die to fulfill his mission.  This is Jesus and this is the story of his last week of life in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, currently playing at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.

There are certain shows that I hold to higher standards due to my affinity for them.  Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those shows and after the first act, the Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s production had eclipsed nearly all of my standards.  This show is incredible!!  It’s got tip top acting, stellar singing, inventive choreography, outstanding technical elements, and spot on direction.  This particular production has entered my top 10 of the best shows I’ve seen and my top 3 of the best out of state shows I have reviewed.

Eric Parrish takes on the demanding task of serving as both director and musical director of this show and is superb in both roles.  Parrish’s band (Garret Hansen, Tyson Conn, Trace Mahoney, Royce Kuenzli, and Rod Jerke) starts off red hot and just gets hotter as the night goes on as they never miss a trick or note of this legendary score.  Parrish’s direction is simply a thing of beauty.  He has set the show in a post-apocalyptic society where Jesus’ disciples, the Pharisees, and the Romans are depicted as rival gangs which I found positively inspired.  His staging is phenomenal and exhausting.  Static this show is not as his actors hurtle about the stage non-stop.  He also knows how to pull the very best out of his actors as I couldn’t find a weak link in the lot.

The supporting cast does excellent work as they enhance the show with their reactions, but they also acted through the scene changes which was crucial to keeping the show’s energy up.  Standout performances include Dennis Berger as Peter and Devin Basart as Annas.  Berger has a bright, light tenor that I could listen to all day and really shone in “Could We Start Again, Please?”.  Basart is a wonderful bootlicking lackey to the high priest whose operatic tenor soared in “This Jesus Must Die” and “Blood Money”.

Darren Lee’s take on Judas Iscariot has to be seen to be believed.  He presents Judas as a man whose relationship with Jesus has been frayed to the final thread.  He still respects Jesus, but he thinks Jesus is leading them all to their deaths due to his delusions of grandeur of being God’s son.  I loved how he skulked about in the darkness, glaring at Jesus whenever he did something with which Judas disagreed.  So realistic was the tension that I almost thought that Judas was going to slug Jesus at a couple of points.  Lee also ably portrays the regret and guilt of Judas after he betrays Jesus.

Lee also has a monstrously powerful tenor.  His voice is reminiscent of a young Meat Loaf as he belts out power numbers with “Heaven On Their Minds”, “Damned for All Time”, and “Superstar”.

What words could I use to describe Raine Jerke’s rendition of Jesus?  Mind blowing.  Staggering.  Powerful.  Haunting.  Good words to be certain, but they seem to fall short of the true awesomeness of his work.  I was gobsmacked to find out that Jerke has very little acting experience as he has an ease and naturalness equivalent to an actor with years of experience.  His expressions are pitch perfect.  His reactions deadly accurate.  His acting so nuanced as he swings between love for his followers in “Poor Jerusalem” to boiling frustration with them in “The Last Supper” and the extreme agony and fear of his death in “Gethsemane”.  So moving was that last number, that tears welled up in my eyes.

Jerke’s singing voice is astonishing.  His soaring tenor captured every tiny emotional beat of every number and managed to hit the nearly inhuman falsettos required of the role without popping a sweat.

Jenn Evanson Lee is wonderfully sweet as Mary Magdalene.  Her work is admirable as she portrays Mary as Jesus’ most loyal disciple.  Indeed she is the only one who actually tries to give Jesus the comfort and support he needs instead of just taking from him.  She also has a fabulous soprano which ranged from soothingly calm in “Everything’s Alright” to emotionally puzzled as she wrestles with her own feelings for Jesus in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”.

James Van Oort radiates menace and authority as the high priest, Caiaphas.  This is truly a dangerous man and not someone you want as an enemy.  His deep and mighty bass driving home those points in “This Jesus Must Die”, “Hosanna”, and “Trial Before Pilate”.

I rather liked Rick Weiland’s original take on Pontius Pilate.  His first appearance is the only time we see him without his mask and he is a decent and just man puzzling over his dream about the Nazorean (“Pilate’s Dream).  In all of his other appearances, it’s clear that his authority is in his position as he lacks the confidence to withstand the extreme pressure the Pharisees are putting on him to crucify Jesus.

Neil Simons’ lights were the best I have ever seen in a show.  His lights were almost separate characters enhancing every moment of the show.  I was especially impressed with how they would go red or dark whenever evil seemed to be getting the best of Jesus.  Kathryn Pope’s costumes were amazing.  Keeping with the gang mentality, you had the leather jackets of Jesus’s crew and the suits and sunglasses of the Pharisees.  What I found most intriguing was that every character wore black to symbolize the darkness they were in while Jesus wore an off white shirt showing him as the light of the world.  Tiffany Koppes’ choreography was highly entertaining and inventive, especially her hilarious routine for “King Herod’s Song”.  I also adored Brad Waltman’s crumbling Colosseum set.

There were a few minor glitches in the show.  Some microphone issues cropped up in Act II and a little of the dancing could have been smoother, but these tiny things pale in comparison to the sheer magnificence of the show.  As the house was nearly full, I suspect a monster hit is on the hands of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.  I heartily recommend getting a ticket before it’s too late.

Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre through May 21.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets are $30 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 605-360-4800 or visit www.siouxfallstheatre.com.  The Sioux Empire Community Theatre is located at 315 N Phillips Ave in Sioux Falls, SD.

Sioux Empire Community Theatre Presents ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Jesus Christ Superstar

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Lyrics by Tim Rice

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

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

Ticket Prices:  $30

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

Description

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

Cast

Raine Jerke as Jesus

Ryan Harr as Judas

Jenn Lee as Mary Magdalene

Rick Weiland as Pilate

James C. Van Oort as Caiaphas

Devin Basart as Annas

Darren Lee as Peter

Paul Ridgway as Simon

Robin Byrne as Herod

Abigail Chapdelaine and Lenora Hintze as the Soul Girls

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

A Season of Heroes

A SEASON OF HEROES AT THE MAPLES REP

Heroes come in many forms. 

            Some are musicians who tell stories with their songs that save people going through hard times.  Some are little old ladies working in the church basement, providing delicious food and uplifting the spirits of their community.  Some criminals can even be heroes when given the right circumstances.  These are just a few examples of the heroes you’ll see during the Maples Rep 2016 season.

 

            Of Mice and Men is a serious play, but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.  Audiences certainly enjoyed Love Story, The Way We Were, Ordinary People, Million Dollar Baby and The Revenant?  So, if you like –admittedly non-traditional– love stories with heroes and villains, you need to see the Maples Rep production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.”  Todd Davison-Artistic Director, Maples Rep.

 

Of Mice and Men opens Friday, June 24th on the main stage at Maples Rep in Macon, MO.  This American classic is a snapshot of Depression-era migrant workers and a tale about a tragic friendship. Two drifters, the opportunistic George and his friend Lenny, the gentle giant, travel the roads of northern California with delusions of living off the “fat of the land.” John Steinbeck wrote the novel and adapted it for the stage in 1937. It was a slice-of-life drama in its time and continues to resonate with students, readers and playgoers as a universal meditation on power, hope and consequences.

 The play shows us real people, good and bad, and this mixture lets the audience know that the world portrayed in Of Mice and Men is real. Steinbeck does not fall into the trap of describing all those with power as evil. He has created characters with serious weaknesses and with great strengths but his real interest is in people who are oppressed and weak, yearning and failing to take control of their lives.

 “The Royal Theatre is a great, intimate space to see such a moving story” says Maples Rep Artistic Director Todd Davison, “even if people are very familiar with this story, they will experience it in a new way.  With actors from New York, Chicago, Orlando, Missouri and Alberta the cast of this production, under the direction of Maples Rep veteran, Brandon McShaffrey, has wide experience to bring to their portrayals.”

 Of Mice and Men runs through July 17 in rotating repertory with Ring of Fire:  The Music of Johnny Cash, a musical about love and faith; struggle and success; rowdiness and redemption; and home and family. On July 15th one of heroes of the Bible–Joseph–takes the stage in the hit show Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The Biblical saga of Joseph and his coat of many colors comes to vibrant life in a delightful musical parable for the whole family.

In between and after the Maples Rep main stage productions are: Afterglows, Sunday Dinners, Cabarets, Kid’s Shows and Kid’s Theatre Camps.  For more information and to order tickets call the Maples Rep Box Office at 660-385-2924, order online at http://www.maplesrep.com/, or go by the theatre located on the corner of Rubey and Vine in Macon, Missouri.

Superstar Soars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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