Key of E(xcellent)

From L to R: Cassie Slater, Karl Hamilton, Emily Gardenhire, Andrew Scoggin, Taylor Kraft, and Jacob Barton star in ‘I Love a Piano’

It’s a tribute to the music of Irving Berlin.  It’s I Love a Piano and it’s currently playing at Maples Repertory Theatre.

Yes, the show is a tribute to the works of Berlin, but it’s so much more than that as well.  In many ways, it’s one of the most difficult shows I’ve ever seen staged as it’s, essentially, dozens of mini-plays mashed together.  As, arguably, America’s greatest composer, Berlin was not only extremely prolific over his 50 year career, but he also possessed rare versatility as he could write standards, comic songs, love songs, heartbreakers, and even patriotic songs.  Over 60 of his songs are performed in this production and each is a vignette which requires effective direction and triple threat performers as they need to be able to sing, dance, and, most importantly, act through the songs.  And, trust me, this show has that in spades and then some.

Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley did a stellar job arranging this show as each song flows naturally into the next and essentially tells the story of America from the turn of the century through the 1950s.  I was especially impressed with the framing device of a covered piano and the piano is actually the central character as you follow its journey through the joys and heartaches of America over five decades.

Courtney Crouse’s direction is some of the most nuanced I’ve seen in a show.  As I earlier stated, a director really has to be rock solid to direct this production as he or she is, more or less, directing 60 tiny shows and needs to string it all together logically.  Crouse’s direction has just that assurance.

His staging is impeccable as he makes full use of the stage and I always had a clear line of vision to every performer and there was never a single moment of upstaging.  His knowledge of the beats was dead on target.  Doubly crucial as the beat changes came with lightning speed.  He guided his troupe to utterly flawless performances and they knew how to hit the song points that made them funnier, sadder, more serious, more gleeful, and just more fun.

Jacob Barton and Taylor Kraft have absolutely unmatched stage chemistry.  The real-life couple have the panache and polish of Fred & Ginger combined with the timing of Abbott and Costello.  Each just consistently builds on small things the other does, creating something magnetic and mesmerizing in the process.  Both have the capability to make you cry such as their touching work in “Blue Skies” or can make you laugh such as their battle of one-upsmanship in “Anything You Can Do”. 

Both Barton and Kraft also get their own individual moments to shine.  Barton will tickle your ribs as a draftee in World War I who just wants to sleep in as he sings “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” and brings you home for the holidays with his soaring tenor in “White Christmas”.  Kraft is equally amusing in “Gee, I Wish I was Back in the Army” as she pines for the plethora of available soldiers and will make you swoon with “They Say it’s Wonderful”.

Cassie Slater and Karl Hamilton were the funniest couple of the afternoon.  Both have astonishing comedic chops which they use to fullest potential.  Their shining moment was “Let’s Go Slummin” as they delightfully spy on other classes to get their jollies.  Hamilton also gets to show off his equally potent dramatic chops with my favorite song “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” as he plays an army sergeant trying to help his private get through the fear and loneliness of war.  Likewise, Slater will stir your soul with the moving “Russian Lullaby”.

Last, but certainly not least, is the dynamic duo of Andrew Scoggin and Emily Gardenhire.  Both also possess the grand gift of comedy and are the most symbiotic twosome as their best moments come in their duets as they usually play a couple who are not quite on the same page.  Some of their best moments include the thoroughly entertaining “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” as an arguing couple who literally get caught in the spotlight.  They can also be syrupy sweet as in the duet “Isn’t it a Lovely Day”.  Or downright intimidating as they glare down an overexuberant bell ringer in “Lazy”.

Jennifer Hemphill’s choreography is elegant, expansive, and utterly perfect.  Never is there a wasted bit of energy or step.  Clayton Dornbach’s set gives off the sense of a Broadway theatre with is lighted columns and steps.  Shon Causer’s lights really enhanced the production especially with emotional blues for some of the sadder numbers and the use of spotlights as police officers breaking up a speakeasy.  Darrell Wagner’s costumes will take you on a trip through the decades with coats and tails, three piece suits, lovely dresses, and military fatigues.  Mike Ekelburg’s sounds provided a subtle backdrop for the show and Kevin Casey and his band (Katie Hutton, Sophia Indelicato, Jordan Perry, Nick Welker, Jamie Baker) gave full justice to the score.

It truly is a show that has a little something for everyone (comedy, drama, acting, singing, and dancing) and a dandy kickoff to the MRT season.

I Love a Piano runs at Maples Repertory Theatre through July 11.  Showtimes are at 2pm on June 27, 29-30, July 9 and 11 and at 7:30pm on June 27, July 2, 7, and 10. Tickets begin at $26 and can be obtained by calling the box office at 660-385-2924 or visiting www.maplesrep.com.  Maples Repertory Theatre is located at 102 N Rubey St in Macon, MO.

Photo provided by Maples Repertory Theatre

Unlocking the Painful Past

Morgan and Angus are farmers living their quiet lives until Miles enters the scene.  Miles is an actor wanting to study them in order to write a play about farming.  One night Miles overhears Morgan telling Angus the story of the Drawer Boy which she includes in the play.  When Angus, who can only remember the here and now due to a head injury, sees the play, he begins to remember his past. . .and the painful truths hiding there.  This is The Drawer Boy and it is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

This is what theatre is all about.  A brilliant story shaped by a genius storyteller and told by 3 masters of their crafts.

Michael Healey’s script contains the finest usage of voice I have ever heard in a tale.  The play has to be seen to understand what I mean, but most plays use the characters to tell the story.  Healey uses the characters to create the story.  It’s almost like there was no plot, but the three actors were simply conjuring the entire play out of thin air and it had me enraptured and on the edge of my seat from beginning to end.  The storytelling is meticulous and well-constructed as it builds up steadily and sturdily to a climactic peak and then slowly and surely descends to an epic resolution.

Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek’s direction is the sharpest I’ve seen this season.  His creation of this world is akin to a Bob Ross painting.  It seems so simple and rudimentary at first, but he constantly adds subtle colors and details until a beautiful masterpiece leaps from the canvas.  The staging is absolutely impeccable with the story taking place in a dilapidated farmhouse (another Jim Othuse winner) and he managed to make it feel small and enclosed while still keeping his performers socially distanced.  His control of the pacing was sure and confident and he guided his 3 actors to sterling, immaculate performances.

Olivia Howard has a naturalness and believability to her acting that is astonishing to behold.  Her Miles is a free-spirited, experimental actor with a genuinely good heart and her performance had me hooked from the word go.  Howard’s storytelling just rings with pure honesty.  Some of my favorite moments were her trying to get into the mind of a cow as she struck bovine poses and mooed as well as her telling the story of Hamlet in the first person to an enthralled Angus.  I also admired her drive and determination to helping Angus achieve peace by helping him to remember his forgotten past.

Erik Quam brings a delightful childlike innocence to Angus.  His body language always suggests that he is trying to remember something with the way he stares at a patch on the wall where something once hung or the way he parses out the sky to count stars which clearly brings him joy.  Quam convincingly portrays Angus’ affliction as he visibly winces and groans with the onset of debilitating headaches and is constantly surprised by seeing Miles anew after she briefly leaves his sightline.  His joy and agony as he slowly remembers his hidden past is equal parts wonderful, tragic and right on the money.

When I think of a farmer, Mark Thornburg’s portrayal of Morgan is the image that pops into my head.  Thornburg has a terrific laconic drawl to his delivery and a methodic lope to his movements.  His deep bass voice is perfect for narration especially with his telling of the stories of the Drawer Boy.  And his voice captures amazing nuance.  Morgan has tight control over his emotions and its just little tonal changes Thornburg makes to show when Morgan is happy or when he’s starting to lose his cool.  And Thornburg will make your heart shatter when you learn of the sacrifices Morgan has made to aid his friend.

Aside from his stellar farmhouse, Jim Othuse’s lights flesh out the play with sweet transitions from day to night and back again.  He also uses the lights to match the show’s emotions.  Yellow and bright for fun and happy moments.  Blue for sad and somber moments.  Black for moments of bitterness.  John Gibilisco’s sounds help create the countryside with the tweeting of birds and the roar of a tractor.  J. Isaiah Smith has composed a score that sent me to another world and his use of piano and keyboard sent chills through me.  Lindsay Pape’s costumes breathed life into the characters with the simple and poor clothing of the farmers to the 70s threads worn by Miles.  The properties of Darin Kuehler and Greg Combs gave the farmhouse a long, lived-in quality with its supplies and knick-knacks.

If you appreciate the art of storytelling then this is the play for you.  It’s guaranteed to take you on an emotional roller coaster and make you appreciate the treasure of true friendship.

The Drawer Boy runs at the Omaha Community Playhouse through May 2.  Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets begin at $36 and can be purchased at the OCP Box Office, by calling 402-553-0800 or online at www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The show is also available for streaming at https://www.showtix4u.com/events/ocp. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.

When Irish Eyes are Smiling, Day 6: A Day Full of Blarney

The next morning found us boarding the bus and heading down the Copper Coast which was just a lovely view and a splendid way to pass the time.

At 10am, we rolled into the port town of Youghal (pronounced Ya All) where we took a little break.  Youghal’s claim to fame is that scenes from the original version of Moby Dick were filmed in and around the town.  A pub of the same name opened up especially for us.  The pub has memorabilia from the film and makes a darn good hot chocolate.  One of the owners of the pub dressed up as the character Queequeg complete with harpoon and gave a little speech about hunting the white whale.

After our brief stop, it was back to the bus and more lovely scenery as we made our way to next stop:  Blarney, home of the Blarney Woolen Mills, Blarney Castle, and the Blarney Stone.

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Blarney Woolen Mills

Blarney Woolen Mills is considered to be the best store in Ireland.  I’ve never been much for shopping as I treat any shopping expedition as more of a surgical strike, but I did spend a brief time browsing around the store and seeing the glassware, music, clothes, and other sundry items.  Then I headed away towards Blarney Castle.

That is to say, I headed towards Blarney Castle right after I made a detour to a local grocery store.  Once again my batteries had exhausted their juice and I was forced to buy some more.  Luckily I found an Energizer pack that gave 2 packs for the price of 1 so I was set for batteries for the remainder of the journey.  As it was lunchtime and I was feeling a bit puckish, I bought a chicken and cheese sandwich and managed to score a bottle of Dr. Pepper as well.

Fueled by the sandwich, I made my way over to Blarney Castle.

I wish I had had more time here because one could spend hours visiting Blarney Castle with its caves, trails, and woodlands.  I got a crash course in the legend of Blarney.  As you may or may not know, the term blarney means clever, flattering, or coaxing talk.  According to legend, Queen Elizabeth I tried to get Cormac Teige McCarthy, Lord of Blarney, to give up his traditional land rights.  As he wasn’t a good speaker, he feared he would lose his lands.  On the way to see the queen, he met an old woman who told him kissing a certain stone at Blarney Castle would give him the gift of eloquence.  McCarthy kissed the stone and was able to keep his lands by flattering the queen and never surrendering his rights.  When Queen Elizabeth I realized Lord McCarthy had snookered her, she is reported to have said, “That’s Blarney!!”

I spend quite a bit of time exploring as much of the land as I could before tackling the climb to the Blarney Stone.  It’s a 130 step climb up a very narrow staircase with uneven stairs.  I sprinted my way to the top and enjoyed the view from the top before turning my attention to the stone.

We had been told that the queue (line) for the Blarney Stone can get quite long, but I was fortunate as there were only 2 people in line when I reached the top.  Or, to be more specific, I would have been fortunate if I had wanted to kiss the stone.  Kissing the Blarney Stone is one of the hundred things you should do before you die, but it is the fourth most unhygienic thing you can do on the planet.

I didn’t have much interest in kissing the stone.  I just wanted to look at it.  However, I did learn that kissing the stone requires a certain level of fitness as you have to lean over backwards and arch your back to reach it.

After watching a few people smooch the stone, I went back down the castle and headed back to the Blarney Woolen Mills where I found my pop at a pub smoking a cigarette.  Apparently Dad had ordered a sandwich, but a thieving bird flew down and started chowing down on it.

Mom had bought a few things from the stone, notably a set of Waterford candlesticks and we sat and shot the breeze with some of our fellow tour group members until it was time to head to the bus and head to our final stop:  Kinsale.

In Kinsale we checked into our hotel, the Trident.

The Trident was, easily, the best hotel of our trip.  It was home to the second best hotel room I had ever stayed in.  Tripling up in this room was a boon for my folks and myself as we were given a near suite.  It had a huge king bed for my parents and a large, comfy sofa bed for me.  There was also a 45 inch Plasma mounted on the wall and a luxurious bathroom with a deep bathtub with a waterfall faucet.  Heck, we even had a private balcony.

Dad didn’t want to leave as he liked this hotel so much.  He was so blown away by the opulence of the room that he had to know the retail price.  He went to the front desk and told me that the room retailed for a stiff 300 Euros a night!!

After settling in, we went back outside where we had a Heritage Town Walk and learned a bit more about Kinsale.

The most interesting thing I learned from our guide was that the Lusitania was sunk off the shores of Kinsale.  Like the Titanic, the Lusitania was supposed to be unsinkable, but a torpedo from a German U-Boat ripped right through it.  Now the ship should have sunk slowly, allowing all of the passengers to reach the lifeboats, but a second explosion inside the Lusitania tore the boat in two and it sank in 18 minutes, killing numerous people.

Germany greatly feared the United Sates getting involved in World War I and knew the sinking of the Lusitania would bring the USA into the conflict due to the American passengers who died.  So they tried to pacify the country with an alternative fact.  Germany claimed that, yes, it was their torpedo that hit the Lusitania, but they were not responsible for the ship sinking as the explosion was caused by smuggled arms onboard being sent to England.

One of the pieces of propaganda Germany put out to foster this idea was a two sided medallion.  One side showed Death selling tickets to the passengers of the Lusitania and the other side showed the sinking of the ship, implying that America was really at fault for the deaths of the passengers.

Whether or not arms were really onboard the Lusitania has been debated to this day, but, regardless, Germany’s gambit failed.  America entered World War I and the course of the war changed.

Shortly after our walk, we headed down to the hotel dining room for dinner.  For myself, this was the best hotel meal I ate during the trip.  I started off by having a local delicacy, seafood chowder.  Ireland’s chowder is one of the few soups that isn’t a puree and is loaded with chunks of fresh seafood.  Delicious!  I followed that up with a plate of lamb and cous cous.

That meal hit the spot and it was back to the room to relax and sleep for another day of adventures.

A Dictator Rises at the Blue Barn

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Nils Haaland stars as Arturo Ui in “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” at the Blue Barn Theatre

The BLUEBARN Theatre is proud to open Season 28 with Bertolt Brecht’s compelling and timely drama, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.
BLUEBARN Producing Artistic Director Susan Clement-Toberer directs with Barry Carman serving as Assistant Director with set design by Martin Scott Marchitto, lighting design by Ernie Gubbels, costume design by Lindsay Pape, sound design by Molly Welsh, and properties design by Amy Reiner.
Shows run September 22 – October 16, 2016; Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday October 2nd, 9th, and 16th at 6 p.m. Single tickets for The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui are $30 for adults; and $25 for students, seniors 65+, TAG members, and groups of 10 or more.  For tickets, please visit www.bluebarn.org or call at 402-345-1576 during the hours of 9:30am to 4:30pm (M-F).   The BLUEBARN Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is generously sponsored by Kate and Roger Weitz, Carter and Vernie Jones with additional support from Rich and Fran Juro.

About The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
A Slapstick Tragedy…
Described by Brecht as ‘a gangster play that would recall certain events familiar to us all’, Arturo Ui is a witty and savage satire of the rise of Hitler – recast by Brecht into a fictional, small-time Chicago gangster’s takeover of the city’s greengrocery trade in the 1930s. The satirical allegory combines Brecht’s Epic style of theatre with black comedy and overt moralism. Using a wide range of parody and spoof – from Al Capone to Shakespeare’s Richard III and Goethe’s Faust – Brecht’s compelling parable continues to have relevance wherever totalitarianism appears today.

About the Stars of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
BLUEBARN founding company member Nils Haaland brings Brecht’s title character to comic and menacing life. The acting company consists of many BLUEBARN Theatre veterans including: Paul Boesing (Frost/Nixon), J.J. Davis, Jennifer Gilg, Mary Kelly (33 Variations), Mark Kocsis, Daniel Luethke, Mike Markey (Our Town), Sydney Readman (Bad Jews), John Ryan, Paul Schneider, and Erika Sieff (Bug). Actors making their BLUEBARN debut include Steve Denenberg, Noah Diaz, Jens Rasmussen, Daena Schweiger, and Brennan Thomas.

About the Playwright: Bertolt Brecht
Bertolt Brecht was one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th century. His works include The Threepenny Opera (1928) with composer Kurt Weill, Mother Courage and Her Children (1938), The Good Person of Szechwan (1942), and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941). Brecht began writing plays while working at an Army hospital. Brecht’s work fit nicely with the Dadaist and Marxist movement of the time. The increased dissatisfaction with society after World War I fit Brecht’s anti-bourgeois writing. He fled Nazi Germany and settled in the US, until setting in Berlin following World War II.

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.