How Do I Say Good-Bye?

This Sunday marks the end of an era at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  When the curtain falls after the final production of Young Frankenstein, it not only marks the end of another Playhouse season, it will also be the end of the tenure of the Playhouse’s creative leads, Carl Beck and Susie Baer-Collins.

I’ve had the benefit and pleasure of knowing Carl and Susie for the better part of 15 years.  During that time, I’ve been fortunate enough to grow as a performer under their tutelage and as a person under their friendship.  It’s hard to put into words the impact they’ve had on my life.  How do I say good-bye?

Let’s start with how I said hello. . .

Carl Beck

I met Carl Beck in 1999.  It was my very first audition for the Playhouse and the show was Dracula.  I entered the Playhouse and was hopelessly lost for I had entered through the front door and had no clue where to go.  Fortunately, a kindly person found me walking within the darkened area and led me to Carl.

I said that I was there to audition and Carl responded with an enthusiastic, “Wonderful!”  I was truly struck by the enthusiasm and the sincerity of that greeting.  He was truly glad that I was there to audition.  

I’d like to say I repaid that enthusiasm with a 5 star stellar audition, but that would be a bald faced lie.  It was a pretty poor audition.  Even so, a seed had definitely been planted.

In 2000, I was cast by Carl for the first time when I auditioned for the Sherlock Holmes dramedy, The Mask of Moriarty.  What’s important to note is that Carl cast me in spite of my audition, not because of it.  He gave me a chance at a point where I badly needed one and I’ve always appreciated it.  Later I found out that he cast me that he cast me simply because he thought I was a nice guy and seemed genuinely interested in the show.  Think about that.  Carl could have cast a vastly superior and promising performer, but he gave me the opportunity.

Though it didn’t seem so at the time, I would end up growing a great deal as a performer as I sat under Carl’s learning tree during the run of that show.  Carl even gave me one of my favorite bits as a performer when he gave me a classic trap door bit that I relished doing each and every night.  Truly, it had been a grand experience.

Carl cast me for the second time in 2003 in the farce, No Sex Please, We’re British.  What was more interesting is that I had not even auditioned for this show.  I had planned to audition for the show, but a blizzard bombarded Omaha on the first night and a prior commitment had kept me from auditioning the second night.  I asked Carl if there might still be a chance to read for the show, but he said auditions had been held during the blizzard and that he was able to cast the show from those who had auditioned.  However, there was a supernumerary role of a deliveryman if I wanted it.  I took it.

I cannot express how grateful I was for this chance.  I was recovering from a battle with situational depression and had recently had what precious little confidence I had remaining sorely battered in a particularly devastating audition.  The chance Carl gave me in this show helped keep me in the game at a point when walking away was nearly a dangerous reality.

Regrettably, that was the last time I ever got to work with Carl as a performer.  But in a wonderful twist of irony, I actually gained more from future “defeats”.  In fact, one instance in particular stands out.

Starting in 2006, Carl had taken to writing little inspirational notes on my rejection slips which made me feel like a worthy actor, even though I had “lost”.  But the last inspirational note I ever received came during a period when I needed it the most.

Towards the end of the period I dubbed “the drought” in my blog, I auditioned for A Night with the Family.  It was a very strong audition and I had a lot of hope for it.  Unfortunately, I found out through Facebook that I had not been cast before I received my formal notification.  But when I did get the rejection slip, Carl had written, “You have grown so much as an auditioner—Nice work.”  That note moved me so deeply that I’ve retained it in my scrapbook.  It was so inspiring that I finally managed to end the drought two months later.

Thank you, Carl.  The things you did for me may have seemed small, but they had a massive impact on me as both a person and an actor.

Susie Baer-Collins

I met Susie on opening night of The Mask of Moriarty when I sat with her and her husband, Dennis Collins, at Mama’s Pizza after the show.  At the time, she struck me as a very warm, friendly person.  And while that was true, she was also a wonderful teacher to me as well.

I took an audition workshop offered by Susie in the early 2000s.  At the time, I was at the height of my battle with situational depression and I was trying to do anything to salvage my seemingly dying prospects in theatre.  I learned a great deal from Susie, although it didn’t seem like it at that time.  Due to my depression, I felt like I was screwing up everything she tried to teach me.  To her credit, she was very patient with me.  Susie even gave me a little post-class critique by pointing out the things I did well and the things which needed work.  As I recovered from the depression, Susie’s lessons gained a greater hold in my mind and helped to evolve me into the actor I am today.  Again, it seems so small, but her not giving up on me helped me to not give up on myself.

Although it wasn’t my first audition for Susie, my audition for The Talented Mr. Ripley was certainly my most memorable audition as well as a personal favorite of mine.  I was starting to come into my own as an actor and I credit this audition as a moment that really started to add fuel to the fire.

After I finished the audition, Susie stopped me and told me, “Excellent audition, Chris”.  At the time, it was a rare piece of praise for an audition and I treasured it highly.  Imagine winning the lottery after finding a treasure.  That sums up my feelings when Susie called me two nights later and told me that she wanted to bring me in for a callback, capped off with her line, “I’m considering you for the roles of Tom Ripley and Freddie Miles”.  The title role!!  I wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible.  The callback was a hard fought night of performances and I came up a little short.  But Susie topped off my treasure and my lottery with a little slice of heaven with a novella of a rejection slip that read:

Dear Chris,

Thank you so much for your truly excellent audition for The Talented Mr. Ripley.  You read extremely well and had strong characterizations throughout.  I regret to inform you that I was unable to include you in this cast.  Please know how much I appreciate your time and dedication to this project.

Well done, Chris.

Sincerely,

Susie

That was almost as good as being cast because I felt accepted as a performer and it was a massive boost to my confidence and helped me to make greater strides as a performer.

I finally got to work with Susie when she cast me in Mister Roberts in 2010.  After 2 rounds of auditions, Susie called me on Friday night and told me I was one of the first people she was casting in the show.  That made me feel proud and continued to build my ever growing confidence.  Not only did I grow immensely under Susie’s directing, but she also told me how proud she was for how far I had come as a performer after the show closed.

Thank you, Susie.  Your faith in me nurtured my faith in myself and helped shape me into an actor.

This is the effect that Carl and Susie had on one person.  Over the past 30 years, they’ve touched the lives of countless others.  The theatre community is losing more than two great creative forces.  We’re losing two great people.  We’re all richer for their presence and will be a little poorer for their absence.

Thank you Carl and Susie.

Good-bye. . .

 

Young Frankenstein is a Fiendishly Funny Finale for Beck and Baer-Collins

Take one part classic film comedy, add a musical score, sprinkle with high energy performances, mix liberally with top flight directing, and you’ve got Young Frankenstein.  The Playhouse’s season finale is the funniest comedy of the season as well as a fitting farewell from artistic leaders, Carl Beck and Susie Baer-Collins, who are retiring after the close of this production.

Once the first notes from the talented orchestra, led by the strong conducting of Jim Boggess, are played, you will be whisked into a world straight out of a Universal horror picture illustrated by a haunting and archaic set designed by Jim Othuse, who has really topped himself with this production.  The funny, inventive, and nuanced direction from Baer-Collins and Beck, combined with a superb troupe of performers, and sharp choreography from Melanie Walters will have your ribs aching from laughter when the night is through.

I’m always a bit leery when a show is changed from one medium to another because something is usually lost in the translation.  However, I was quite surprised by how well this show worked as a musical.  The numbers felt natural and I really enjoyed the use of metahumor as the show repeatedly acknowledges the fact that this is a musical.  As good as the show was, I did think the script was a bit weaker than its source material as the musical eliminates some great scenes and jokes from the film version and replaces them with gags that are hit and miss.  But any jokes that miss the mark are quickly forgotten thanks to the talented group of performers gracing the stage.

High praise is due to the talented ensemble which proves the old adage about there being no small roles.  Each member is always fully involved with the show, adding delightful bits of character to their performance which made them a treat to watch.  Especially entertaining were Christopher Work as Ziggy, the town idiot and Steve Krambeck, who owns the stage in a cameo as Victor Frankenstein where he displays an amazing singing voice as he persuades Frederick to “Join the Family Business”.

Ablan Roblin has a heavy load to bear as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein/Fronkunsteen.  Blessed with a fine, tenor voice, Roblin does well with the singing part of the role, but he lacked an x factor that I believe was necessary for the character on the acting side.  Roblin also had a few moments where his projection and diction weakened and he also sped over a couple of lines that would have been hilarious with a slower pace and slight change of delivery.  That being said, he also has some shining moments such as when he meets Igor (“Together Again for the First Time) and when he attempts to persuade the Monster that he is loved (“Man About Town”).

This night belonged to Spencer Williams who seemed to be channeling Marty Feldman in his interpretation of Frankenstein’s servant, Igor/Eyegor.  From the moment Williams makes his first entrance, he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.  With subtle shifts of expression, brilliant phrasing, and a hunched over, rubbery kneed posture, Williams stole every scene he was in and gave one of the three strongest performances seen on a Omaha stage this season.

Equally brilliant was Judy Radcliff as Frau Blucher, the housekeeper and girlfriend of the late Victor Frankenstein.  Matching Williams’ Igor step for step with her impeccable comic timing, Ms Radcliff had the audience rolling in the aisles with her stonefaced, overenunciating, surly antics.  Proving just as effective on the musical side, Ms Radcliff has one of the evening’s best numbers as her powerful alto voice belts out “He Was My Boyfriend”.

Kirstin Kluver has a nice turn as Inga, Dr. Frankenstein’s lab assistant.  Utilizing a flawless Swedish accent, Ms Kluver infuses Inga with a balanced blend of sweetness and sultriness.  Her impressive soprano voice also delighted the audience with renditions of “Roll in the Hay” and “Listen to Your Heart”.

Ryan Pivonka does an exceptional job with the role of the Monster.  Despite being limited to grunts for most of the show, Pivonka manages to put meaning behind those grunts so you always know what the Monster is thinking.  He also has an expertly developed sense of movement as his clunky steps as the Monster still have a type of grace and fluidity about them.

Julia Mackenzie is one of the show’s highlights as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée, Julia.  Though engaged to Frederick, Ms Mackenzie’s Julia is clearly in love with herself.  So vain is she that Frederick is only allowed physical contact with her in his dreams (“Please Don’t Touch Me).  Ms. Mackenzie’s devastating comic acumen and soaring vocals provided some very nice moments in the production.

Joe Dignoti is a hoot in the dual role of Inspector Kemp/the Hermit.  As Inspector Kemp, Dignoti keeps the audience in stitches with his stiff right arm and left leg and a brilliantly over the top accent.  He’s even funnier as the blind hermit who pleads with God to “Please Send Me Someone” with a facile bass.  Dignoti’s accidental torturing of the Monster as the Hermit is one of the funniest scenes in the play.

Ultimately the show is a truly satisfying night of entertainment and a classic example of the void that will be left in the theatre community after Beck and Baer-Collins take their final bows.  Don’t miss the opportunity to see them shine one last time through this production.

Young Frankenstein plays at the Omaha Playhouse until June 29.  Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $40 ($24 for students). Call the theatre for reservations at 402-553-0800.   The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.