To Live Again

Elliott Liteman is in a state of living death.  Stricken with Lazarus Syndrome (a type of survivor’s guilt which afflicts some people who are resuscitated after clinical death), Elliott doesn’t want to die, but is afraid to live.  During a horrific blizzard, his family comes to visit and he learns the importance of forgiveness and embracing life.   This is Lazarus Syndrome by Bruce Ward and currently playing at SNAP! Productions.

First and foremost, let me assure you that this isn’t a doom and gloom story.  True, there are moments of weightiness, but this is an excellent slice of life tale full of humor, hope, and even mystery.  Ward’s script focuses on themes such as family, regret, ennui, aging, self-loathing, forgiveness, mortality, and what it means to be alive.  I found myself spellbound by the tale as Elliott’s internal struggle is outwardly manifested as he spars and engages with his family.

M. Michele Phillips has provided a superlative piece of direction to this story as well as an inspired bit of casting. She understands the path of the story well, skillfully navigating the many turns of the tale and capitalizing on every beat. Ms Phillips guides her actors to rock solid performances and you’ll never doubt for an instant that this group is a family.

Brett Foster gives a powerful and poignant performance as Elliott Liteman.  Living death well describes Foster’s essaying of Elliott as he merely goes through the motions of living.  Foster gives a wonderful weariness to Elliott whose guilt and depression are so great that he’s turned away from almost everything that made him happy and lives a life that’s a mundane routine of taking medicine to combat his HIV and wandering around his apartment in his bathrobe.  You can’t help but root for the guy when he finds small bits of happiness and vitality whether it’s through a sweet early morning conversation with his lover or a vigorous debate with his family.

Foster makes you feel the pain of a man who has lost his sense of self and is just seeking a way to end his cycle of nothingness.

Thomas Lowe plays the small, but crucial role of Stephen Bliss, Elliott’s young lover.  Lowe brings a sweetness and innocence to Stephen who has enough energy to live life for the both of them.  Your heartstrings will be tugged as Stephen’s love for Elliott allows Elliott to reclaim small sparks of himself and Stephen’s honesty and plain-spokenness may be the key to Elliott finally living his own life again.

Matt Allen is awesome as Elliott’s younger brother, Neil.  Invoking the essence of younger brothers everywhere, Allen’s Neil is a bit of a thorn in Elliott’s side as he drips melted snow onto Elliott’s floor and scarfs down Elliott’s food while making wry observations on his unique tastes in edibles.  Allen brings an incredible extemporaneousness to Neil’s dialogue as well as a snarky attitude which he carefully modulates to be a pest to Elliott, but not obnoxious or mean, especially when they start having suffering battles or discussing their somewhat fractious relationship.

Brent Spencer is the ideal Jewish father as Jake.  He believes a good meal can solve all ills and that the three things Jewish people do best are eat, suffer, and fight.  He is also clearly a man of his generation as he was brought up to believe that men didn’t show emotions and foul language is inappropriate in polite conversation.  But he also shows that an old dog can learn new tricks as his own losses have taught him the value of emotions and he tries to instill that lesson into Elliott.

Ben Adams has designed a cozy little apartment that feels like a real home.  Taelore Stearns’ lights pack an emotional punch.  They actually feel just as sad as Elliott.  Fred Goodhew’s sounds buoy the show’s emotional beats.  Leah Skorupa’s costuming is just right with the suits worn by Neil and Jake and the hum-drum look of Elliott with muted t-shirt, boxers, and a somewhat colorful bathrobe to offset the drabness of his other garb.

In the end, this is a story of life overcoming death and that it can still be lived and enjoyed despite great tragedy if one is only willing to take that chance.

Lazarus Syndrome plays at SNAP! Productions through June 24.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The final show on June 24 will be at 2pm.  Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for students, seniors (55+), TAG members, and military, and for all Thursday shows.   For tickets, call 402-341-2757 or visit www.snapproductions.com.  Due to strong language and mature themes, Lazarus Syndrome is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California Street in Omaha, NE.

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A Tragic ‘Parade’ Performs at OCP

PARADE

Opens February 9, 2018 at the Omaha Community Playhouse

Omaha, Neb. – Parade, the true story of a Jewish man wrongfully accused of murdering a young girl in a small Southern town, will run at the Omaha Community Playhouse February 9 – March 11, 2018 in the Howard Drew Theatre.

Parade is the Tony Award-winning musical based around the trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish man wrongfully accused of murder in Marietta, Georgia in 1913. Religious intolerance, political injustice and racial tensions are already prevalent in this small Southern town, and when reporters begin to sensationalize the case, the likelihood of a fair trial is put in jeopardy. With a book by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and music by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, The Bridges Of Madison County), this true story reveals the beauty of the human condition, even when faced with tragedy.

Disclaimer: Contains language and situations related to racial tension and mob violence.

The events surrounding the investigation and the trial of Leo Frank led to the birth of the Jewish civil rights organization, the Anti-Defamation League.  Following the Sunday, February 25 performance, staff members from the Omaha chapter of the Anti-Defamation League will participate in a post-show discussion about the history of the ADL. Open to all attendees of that day’s performance

Production:  Parade

Credits:  Book by Alfred Uhry.  Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  Co-conceived and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince.

Director:  Jeff Horger

Cast

Brendan Brown as Riley

Breanna Carodine as Minnie

Brooke Fencl as Essie

Adam Hogston as Brit Craig

Chloe Irwin as Mary Phagan

Megan Kelly as Lucille Frank

Melissa King as Mrs. Phagan

Nelson Lampe as Judge Roan

Grant Mannschreck as Frankie Epps

Michael Markey as Hugh Dorsey

Rebecca Noble as Sally Slaton

Mike Palmreuter as John Slaton

Joshua Lloyd Parker as Ivey

Brian Priesman as Tom Watson

Tony Schneider as Mr. Turner

Christopher Scott as Luther Rosser

Jonathan Smith as Jim Conley

Jill Solano as Lizzie Phagan

Grace Titus as Iola

Scott Van Den Top as Starnes

Catherine Vazquez as Monteen

James Verderamo as Leo Frank

Randy Wallace as Mr. Peavey

L. James Wright as Newt Lee

Show Dates:  Feb 9-Mar 11, 2018; Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm

Tickets:  At the OCP Box Office, by calling (402) 553-0800 or online at OmahaPlayhouse.com or www.TicketOmaha.com. Single tickets start at $42 for adults and $25 for students. Ticket prices are subject to change based on performance date, seat location and ticket demand. Call the OCP box office for current prices. For groups of 12 or more, tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for students.

DiscountsTwilight Tickets – A limited number of tickets are available at half price after noon the day of the performance at the Box Office. Cash or check only. Subject to availability.

Sponsored by:  Carter and Vernie Jones

Location:  Omaha Community Playhouse, Howard Drew Theatre (6915 Cass St, Omaha, NE  68132)

The Night Can be Deadly

BLUEBARN THEATRE’s IMMERSIVE THEATRE SERIES returns with 

Walk the Night: Death Marked Love (based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet)

BLUEBARN‘s Immersive series returns with the ghosts of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, doomed to walk the night until the foul crimes done against them in their days of nature are purged away.

It begins with an invitation.  After buying your ticket, you are emailed a link with driving instructions and a downloadable audio invitation–a radio play to accompany you on your drive to Fontenelle’s Neale Woods, 1/2 north of Omaha.  The mysterious on the other end tells you: You will be attending an event at the summer home of his former enemy, a manor turned into a memorial after tragic events some 100 years ago.  When there, you will make a choice–or perhaps the choice will make you.  It will be the first among many; a choice as instinctive as one between Red and Blue, that will serve as your guide to witness grieving parents retrace the mournful last steps of their children.

Walk the Night founder Spencer Williams adapts & directs with assistance from Walk the Night company members Caulene Hudson and Aaron Ellis; choreography by Stephanie Huettner (TBD Dance Collective), costumes by Jenny Pool, lights by Josh Mullady, site design by Jesse Groff, production management by Homero Vela; original soundtrack by Andrew Heringer, Philip Kolbo, and Joe Mendick (performed live by Kolbo, Mendick and ensemble members); location partner Fontenelle Forest.

Performance dates:

October 5 – 28, 2017 

Shows run Thursday-Sunday at 7 pm; Double shows on Fridays & Saturdays

$25 for adults/$45 for unlimited access (Discounts for students, TRUBLU members & groups of 5 or more)

Location: Neale Woods Nature Center, 14323 Edith Marie Avenue in Omaha, ½ mile north of Hummel Park.

About the BLUEBARN Theatre

The BLUEBARN Theatre has been bringing professionally-produced plays to area audiences since 1989. Since its inception, BLUEBARN has produced over 100 plays and has established itself as Omaha’s professional contemporary theatre company.  Striving to bring artistically significant scripts and professional production values to Omaha and the surrounding region, BLUEBARN is known for high-quality entertainment and the fearless pursuit of stories that challenge both theatre artists and patrons

To provoke thought, emotion, action, and change through daring and innovative theatre

In the Garden of Evil

One girl’s lie to avoid trouble for dabbling in a voodoo ceremony unleashes a swathe of evil upon the city of Salem.  Under the hysteria of witchcraft, secret hatreds and jealousies are vented through baseless accusations sending innocent victims to the gallows.  Will a farmer burdened by his own secret sin be able to halt the onslaught?  Find out in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible currently playing at the Barn Players.

I have been involved with theatre for nearly 22 years.  I’ve acted, directed, stage managed, worked on crew, run lights and sounds, and reviewed shows.  Having experienced all of these different aspects of theatre has helped me to develop a sixth sense about plays and I’ve usually got a good feel for the quality of a show as I head into it.  As I walked into the theatre for tonight’s production of The Crucible, I had a feeling that this was going to be a pretty good show.  However, I must admit that my sixth sense was wrong.

This show wasn’t “pretty good”.  It was beyond amazing!!  It may very well be the very best drama I’ve ever seen staged.

Few writers could pen a tragedy as well as Arthur Miller due to his understanding of the human condition.  In The Crucible, he presents humanity at its basest and its stupidest.  It’s hard to fathom people being depraved enough to lie about their neighbors in order to steal their property or to satisfy a hidden grudge.  But it’s even harder to realize that supposedly intellectual judges could fail to see through such a farrago of nonsense and deception and forget that justice means innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The Barn Players was fortunate to have David Martin helming this show because his direction was transcendent.  He brought Miller’s story to life in its full glory.  He not only understood the story’s darkness, but he also found the glimmers of hope and humor buried in the tale and brought them to light as well.  His staging was impeccable and made full use of the entire theatre.  You couldn’t punch a hole in the quality of his cast’s acting.  He also did double duty on sound design which was so apropos from the creepy, haunting music heading into the first scene to the relentless drumbeat to close out the show.

This is one of those shows where I’d like to do a write up on every single actor, but, for the sake of brevity, let me assure you that there wasn’t a weak link in the lot.  Each and every one was fully immersed in the story which only brought the audience deeper and deeper into it.  But I want to especially note the work of Charles Christesson who brought intelligence, levity, and heartbreak into the character of Giles Corey; Scott Shaw’s Rev. Samuel Parris, the “man of God” more concerned with power and reputation than faith; and Emma Cook’s portrayal of Mary Warren, a servant stretched to the edge of sanity due to being the rope in a spiritual tug of war between John Proctor and Abigail Williams.

I was particularly impressed with what Michael Juncker dug out of the role of Deputy Governor Danforth.  He plays Danforth as a man of strong, if misguided, character.  He truly believes in the cause of justice and honestly believes he is doing his part to rid Salem of witchcraft.  Yet his appalling cluelessness is sickening as he can’t see through the histrionics of the accusers, puts the letter of the law above its spirit, and claims to be doing the will of God, yet ignores the undisputed expert on witchcraft and true man of faith, John Hale.

Jessica Franz’s take on Elizabeth Proctor is as strong as it is tragic.  Ms Franz well communicates the sickliness of the recovering Elizabeth and ably portrays the duality of warmth and iciness in the character.  Elizabeth wants to love and trust her husband, but has difficulty doing so due to an infidelity on his part.  When her warmth finally wins out, it makes her horror at dooming John Proctor due to a lie she concocts to protect his honor all the more believable and heartrending.

I loved Phil Howard’s take on Rev. John Hale.  Howard’s Hale is a good man.  He is a decent man.  Sadly, when all is said and done, he is also a broken man.  Howard presents Hale as a truly devout man dedicated to God and ending the scourge of witchcraft.  But he is also an intelligent and just man who is dedicated to discovering the truth more than anything.   Howard’s anguish is palpable when he realizes the truth behind the Salem witch trials and tries to mitigate the damage by persuading accused witches to give false confessions which will preserve their lives, but excommunicate them.

Abigail Williams truly is a witch, but not in the magical sense.  In Lauren Hambleton’s capable hands, you will experience one of the greatest villains I have seen on stage.  Ms Hambleton’s Abigail is unspeakably disgusting and diabolically clever.  What begins as a simple lie to avoid punishment for participating in a voodoo ceremony evolves into a cunning plan to rid herself of her perceived rival in Elizabeth Proctor for the love of John Proctor, with whom she had an affair, and a chance to revenge herself on the “hypocrites” (though some truly are) of the town.  Evil just oozes from Ms Hambleton’s pores and I really appeciated the smarts she brought to Abigail who enhances her lies through information she gleans from Rev. Hale’s questions and books.

Andy Penn’s work as John Proctor is a tour de force performance.  Penn brilliantly essays the walking paradox that is Proctor.  He is a good man, but is bowed by the guilt of his infidelity with Abigail Williams.  He believes in God, but hates the hypocrisy of his church.  He is willing to make a false confession to save his life partially because he doesn’t want to have his death be a lie about him being a saint.  Penn provides a clinic in acting as he finds beats within beats within beats as he creates a man you will admire for his strength and pity for his weakness.

Steven Ansel James has prepared a wonderful bare bones set with its extended stage, docks, and chalk drawings of trees, heretical words, and occult symbols.  Chuck Cline’s lights gorgeously animate all of the emotional moments of the show.  Jenny Knecht’s costumes perfectly reflected the Puritan time period.

At one point, Rev. Hale wonders if the devil has come to Salem.  The sad truth is that he did because the people of Salem opened the doors and invited him in by succumbing to their own evil desires.  But even in all the darkness and mayhem, Arthur Miller still manages to show where there is a kernel of faith, hope, and decency, the devil can still be overcome.

This play is storytelling at its zenith.  If you want to see compelling, powerful, thought provoking drama, then you need to buy a ticket and see The Crucible.  It’s the best thing going in theatre this summer.

The Crucible plays at the Barn Players through July 30.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 ($15 for seniors 65+ & $12 for students with ID and groups of 10 or more).  There will be an Industry Night performance on July 24 at 7:30pm.  All tickets for this performance will be $12 at the door.  For tickets, visit the Barn Players at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

Hir, Hir

A young soldier returns home to assist his ailing father who has suffered a massive stroke.  When he returns, he finds his world turned upside down as his mother has revolted against the patriarchy and his sister is now becoming his brother.  This is Hir by Taylor Mac, now playing at the Blue Barn.

Mac has certainly crafted one of the most cerebral comedies I have ever seen.  You’ll constantly need to be on your toes as the story winds over many peaks and valleys before reaching its final destination.  It isn’t your typical dark comedy.  Rather it’s more of a tragic comedy with laugh out loud moments and instances where you’ll feel as if you were punched in the gut.  Mac also has a beautiful knack for phrasing as his acrobatic wordplay keeps the play zipping along.

Susan Clement-Toberer scores again with tight, crisp direction as she leads her magnificent cast of 4 through every high and low of this tale.

Few things thrill me more than getting to see new talent on stage and this play comes up big with the debuts of Joe Mendick and Nickolas Butt who are pure magic.

Mendick plays Isaac, the young soldier.  Isaac was clearly a good soldier, but was dishonorably discharged due to drug usage. Shocked at the changes in his family, Isaac mounts a counterrevolution against his mother to restore his family to a more improved version of the way they were before he joined the Marines.

Mendick brings incredible intensity to the role.  His ramrod posture is the perfect choice for Isaac as he is so wound up that he vomits with alarming frequency.  Mendick also has a wonderfully rich voice capable of the subtlest nuances and a face capable of the widest range of emotions.  One of his best moments occurs at the end of Act I where he engages his father in a conversation where his gestures, tones, and expressions show how much he loved and hated his father at the same time.

Nickolas Butt was, quite frankly, a sheer joy to watch.  For someone with very little acting experience, Butt possesses poise and confidence many experienced actors would envy.  Butt stars as Max, Isaac’s transgendered sibling and absolutely nails it.  Max is a rather amusing philosopher with his views on life and his reinterpretation of history (or herstory, as he is so fond of saying).  Max’s wit and wisdom conceal the fact that he doesn’t really know what he wants for himself.  He has a lot of wild dreams and wishes, but lacks follow-through until the very end when he begins to find himself.

Butt excellently communicates all of Max’s intricacies with a fluid body language and clear as crystal facial expressions that always lets one follow his thoughts as he observes his rather dysfunctional family.

“I’ve gone a little batty,” says Paige and this sums up her character well.  Kim Jubenville brilliantly essays this character who has undergone an awakening after her husband, Arnold, suffered his stroke.  Freed from his tyranny, she decides to revolt against Arnold and the patriarchy in general by refusing to clean or cook, keeping the air conditioner on at all times, homeschooling Max, taking trips, and just doing whatever she fancies.

Going over the top would be an easy temptation for this role, but Ms Jubenville always takes it just to the top which keeps Paige’s realism intact.  She also has some of the most difficult dialogue in the play as Paige spouts out a lot of complicated jargon especially when she tries to teach Isaac about the new pronouns of ze and hir which he must use in reference to Max.

But don’t be fooled by Paige’s goofiness.  There is a lot of darkness to her.  Ms Jubenville slowly reveals the nastier aspects of Paige throughout the play with her cruel and callous behavior towards her husband such as keeping him docile by feeding him estrogen, making him wear dresses, and forcing him to sleep in a box.  This darkness finally reaches its crescendo during a climactic confrontation between Paige, Isaac, and Arnold.

Brent Spencer gives what I consider to be his finest performance to date as Arnold.  He is an incredibly convincing stroke victim with his staccato walk and twisted face, barely managing to eke out a few words here and there.  As helpless as he is, Spencer is also able to show the audience glimpses of the fiend that Arnold was before his stroke.  His disdain for Paige is palpable and he doesn’t hesitate to resort to violence against her as feeble as it now is.  You’ll surely feel a strange mixture of pity and disgust at this man.

Martin Scott Marchitto does it again with his design of a pleasant, comfortable starter home.  However you won’t see it in its full glory until Act II as it is hidden by Amy Reiner’s well staged clutter in Act I.  Lora Kaup’s costumes are well suited to the character especially the butch clothing of Max and the humiliating dresses and wigs of Arnold.

Some line bobbles took nothing away from this excellent play which teaches a profound lesson.  The past cannot be obliterated, only learned from and those that fail to learn from it are surely doomed to repeat it.

Hir plays through Feb 26 at the Blue Barn.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The performances for Feb 3 and 4 are sold out and there is no performance on Feb 5.  Tickets cost $30 for adults and $25 for students, seniors (65+), TAG members, and groups of 10 or more.  For reservations, call 402-345-1576 or visit www.bluebarn.org.  Due to strong language and mature subject matter, Hir is not recommended for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

Pretty Powerful Poison

Molina and Valentin are as different as night and day.  Molina is a flamboyant homosexual imprisoned for corrupting a minor.  Valentin is a young revolutionary full of piss and vinegar.  Yet an unlikely friendship grows between them which will be tested by a cruel warden.  And over all of this looms the specter of the Spider Woman in Kiss of the Spider Woman currently playing at the Barn Players.

Turning Manuel Puig’s heavily dramatic novel into a musical is certainly a tall order.  But Terrence McNally’s script combined with the incredible score of John Kander and Fred Ebb and the amazingly talented cast of the production makes for much much more than an effective musical.  It makes for one of the best shows I’ve seen in over 20 years of being involved with theatre.

Eric Magnus doesn’t miss a trick with a masterful piece of direction.  The staging is the strongest I’ve ever seen with Magnus’ cast making full use of Doug Schroeder’s simple and beautiful set of bars and stairs.  Magnus has pulled nearly perfect performances out of his entire cast and decisively navigates the multiple twists and turns of the plot with pinpoint accuracy.

Rarely have I seen a nuanced performance the likes of the one supplied by Joell Ramsdell as Molina.  As Molina, Ramsdell is unabashedly and unashamedly gay.  But his flamboyance covers a desperate loneliness.  All he wants is a friend.  He survives the hell of this prison by escaping into fantasy.  He thinks of his mother.  He fondly recalls the numerous movies he’s seen.  He remembers lavish musical numbers with his favorite actress, Aurora.  But he fears Aurora’s character of the Spider Woman who is Death incarnate and that character he often sees in his daily life.

The depth and range of Ramsdell’s acting is truly astonishing.  Starting off as a coward, he shows small signs of strength as he helps Valentin survive his imprisonment.  A strength that grows as his friendship with Valentin blossoms.  This leads to some of the show’s best scenes as Ramsdell shows the intense agony of a man forced to choose between his friend and his mother before making a choice that shows the meaning of courage.

Ramsdell also has a fabulous tenor which he adapts easily to comedy in “Dressing Them Up” or heart-wrenching drama in “Mama, It’s Me”.

Paul Brennan III matches Ramsdell step for step with his stirring rendering of Valentin.  Valentin is an angry revolutionary who fully believes in his cause and wants nothing to do with his new cellmate at first.  As he slowly accepts Molina’s friendship, Brennan beautifully evolves his character to show him capable of love, humor, and a bit of shocking Machiavellism.  Up until the end of the show, Valentin’s cause and desires still are the most important things in his life and he manipulates Molina’s feelings for him with an act that is both tender and selfish to get him to do what he wants.  But Molina’s choice at the play’s climax finally pushes Valentin to look beyond himself.

Brennan’s tenor will make your insides turn to jelly with a velvet voice that effortlessly knocks emotional pitches out of the park with numbers such as “Marta”, “Anything for Him” and “The Day After That”.

JC Dresslaer gets the show’s most interesting character in the form of Aurora/Spider Woman.  She’s mostly a fictional character in this world whose purpose is to help Molina, later Valentin, maintain sanity in the nightmare world in which they live.  But this allows her to do some brilliant character acting as she portrays Aurora’s various characters.  Most notably a wild rumba number (“Gimme Love”) to close out Act I and a hilarious piece of melodrama complete with over the top Russian accent to open Act II.

But Ms Dresslaer’s character of the Spider Woman haunts the world of the show with a most eerie reality and finality.  Dressed in a simple black dress, the Spider Woman exudes menace and, dare I say, gentleness with every appearance.  Yes, her appearances mean death, but she also wants to show that death is not something to be feared.

Ms Dresslaer’s dancing is so silky smooth, it makes all of her musical numbers showstoppers.  She also has a pitch-perfect alto used to excellent effect in “Come” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman”.

I was extraordinarily impressed with the mileage Emerson Rapp got out of the role of the Warden.  It’s not a big role, but the evil which Rapp imbued into the character made sure the audience was spellbound each time he appeared on stage.  He clearly considers the prisoners animals suitable for torture and murder.  He will do anything and I mean ANYTHING to get what he wants.  Poisonings, beatings, emotional manipulation, bribery. . .it’s all fair game to one of the most insidious characters I’ve seen brought to life on stage.

Paul Secor Morrel and his orchestra deftly handle the varied score with an evening of precise instrumentation.  The costumes of Fran Kapono-Kuzila are well suited to the show from the tattered rags of the prisoners to Molina’s kimono and scarves to Aurora’s numerous costumes for her numbers.  The ensemble cast also stayed in every moment to add crucial life to the story as well as adding strong voices to the chorus.

Musicals often get flak for being shallow on substance, but Kiss of the Spider Woman proves that a musical can be just as challenging and deep as straight theatre if given a chance.  If you love great theatre then you need to go and see this show.  Then you need to tell others to go get a ticket so they can see this show as it deserves a sold out run.

Kiss of the Spider Woman plays at the Barn Players through October 2.  Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sun at 2pm. There will be an Industry Night performance on Sept 26. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID), and groups of 10 or more.  Industry Night tickets will be $12 at the door.  To order tickets, visit the website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100.  Due to sensitive thematic material and some strong language, this show is not suitable for children.  The Barn Players is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.

This ‘Phantom of the Opera’ Needs More Spirit

A disfigured genius falls in love with a chorus girl.  Taking her under his wing, he trains her voice so she can become the leading lady of the Opera Populaire.  When she falls in love with a childhood friend, the genius plots to keep her for himself at any cost.  This is the plot of The Phantom of the Opera, currently playing at the Orpheum Theatre.  It is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Richard Stilgoe, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart, and based off of a novel by Gaston LeRoux.

Phantom has long been my favorite musical.  Its moving story and haunting music never fail to sweep me into another world.  Even after 8 viewings of this show, it has not lost a bit of its magic.  Cameron Mackintosh’s reimagined production helps breathe a bit of new wonder into the 30 year old show with new sets and a few surprises.

With that being said, it also breaks my heart to admit that this was also the weakest rendition of the show I have seen to date.

Not that the show is bad.  The music, singing, and choreography were as strong as ever.  But there was a lack of connection between many of the primary performers and their words making it feel like they were simply going through the motions.  The end result being that a show where every prior production ranked a superior from me gets a mere OK on this go-around.

Part of this problem is not the fault of the actors.  While the Orpheum is a beautiful, archaic theatre well suited to a play like Phantom, its acoustics are a black hole for sound.  Many of the performers did what they could to overcome this problem, but their efforts could only go so far.  Others needed to do a better job of projecting.

Laurence Connor’s direction is passable.  The scene changes are excellently executed and some of the staging is truly magical.  However, he failed to get the best performances out of his cast and his staging of the play’s climactic final scene utterly robbed it of its tragic beauty.

The Really Useful Theatre Group took a big risk in casting Chris Mann in the title role.  Best known for being a finalist on The Voice, Mann, if the program is correct, has no prior acting credits.  Mann truly makes an effort and, for an inexperienced actor, has a truly potent sense of body language.  But his inexperience shows in his inability to capture many of the subtle nuances of the character, though he does show a brilliant flash or two throughout the night.

His singing is absolutely fantastic and he clearly knows how to interpret a song.  His beautiful tenor nailed the emotional beats of The Music of the Night and he was utterly mesmerizing as he entranced Christine during his solo in Wandering Child.

Katie Travis was one of the few performers equally as strong on the acting side as on the singing side.  She understood that a musical is more than just the singing.  It’s about being able to act through the songs, as well.  Ms Travis has a very young look which lent itself well to the role of Christine Daae.  She is utterly believable as the young girl torn between her mysterious benefactor and her young lover.  Her simple hugging of the Phantom at the play’s climax nearly broke me in two.

Ms Travis also has a glorious soprano that is so pure and clean.  She nearly brought down the house in her first solo, Think of Me, and proceeded to do so in Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again.  Ms Travis’ singing and accurate acting choices made for a well rounded performance.

Jordan Craig played Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, Christine’s love interest.  Craig is a very, very good singer.  His powerful, well measured baritone was a pleasure to listen to in his signature solo, All I Ask of You.  But his acting was almost non-existent.  I didn’t get the sense of any true emotional commitment to the role as Craig would appear on stage, sing, and then not have any sort of reactions to the events swirling around him, even in scenes where Raoul was in mortal peril.

David Foley and Edward Staudenmayer brought some welcome comedy relief in the roles of Firmin and Andre, the new owners of the Opera Populaire.  The roles are not huge, but each managed to create well developed characters with Foley’s business minded Firmin and Staudenmayer’s more artsy Andre.  These two men were arguably the strongest performers of the night with their deft comic timing and ability to overcome the difficulties of the Orpheum’s acoustics.  Staudenmayer does need to be careful with his humor as he went slightly over the top on a couple of occasions.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention several outstanding cameo performances in the evening’s production.  Victor Wallace stole his scenes as the uncouth Joseph Buquet who makes the fatal mistake of poking fun at the Phantom.  Morgan Cowling is a charmer as Christine’s loyal and gutsy friend, Meg Giry.  Michael Thomas Holmes was hysterical as the ill-tempered musical director, Monsieur Reyer.

Scott Ambler’s choreography was always a joy to watch especially in Masquerade.  Dale Rieling’s musical direction never failed to impress in a night of flawless instrumentation from his orchestra.  Paul Brown’s sets were pieces of artistic majesty from the stage of the Opera Populaire, to the graveyard where Christine’s father was buried, to the dank lair of the Phantom.  Maria Bjornsen’s costumes were extremely elegant with the flowing gowns for the ladies and the fine evening wear for the men.

There is a reason why The Phantom of the Opera still holds audiences in the palm of its hand even after 30 years.  The music and story are timeless with rich roles in which actors can sink their teeth.  While the night’s entertainment was pleasant enough, I have seen and will see better productions than this current run.  Ultimately, the failure to connect with their roles by many of the actors made this simply an average show.

The Phantom of the Opera plays at the Orpheum Theatre through May 1.  Performances are Tues-Thurs at 7:30pm.  Fri-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  There are also matinees at 2pm on Sat and 1:30pm on Sunday.  Tickets range from $150 to $50 and can be obtained at TicketOmaha or by visiting the box office at 13th and Douglas Streets M-F from 10am-5pm and Sat from Noon-5pm.  The Orpheum Theatre is located at 409 S 16th St in Omaha, NE.