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Sweet Opera Treat

Opera Omaha opens “Hansel & Gretel” at the Rose Theater
By Augusta Olsen

Sweet treats and a warm fire are tempting this time of year, but beware of the witch in the wood—so goes the Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel. Opera Omaha has beautifully adapted Englebert Humperdinck’s German opera about the wayward siblings for Omaha audiences of all ages. This weekend, Opera Omaha stages its first production of “Hansel & Gretel” at the Rose Theater, a magical one-hour opera that tells of the pair’s troubles and triumph in the forest.
The story is told in three short acts in the course of an hour, a good amount of time for younger audience members. In the first act, the hungry and poor Hansel and Gretel are sent into the woods by their mother to collect berries after being reprimanded for their naughty behavior. In the second act, the brother and sister spend a magical night in the woods, protected in their sleep by the Sandman and the dew fairy, each played with brilliance by Kirk Vaughn Robinson and Shelby VanNoordstrand. The children awaken to see the witch’s gingerbread house in the third act, and soon meet the frightful hag herself.
Excellent performances were delivered by each member of the relatively small cast. Kristin Behrmann and Maria Lindsey played Hansel and Gretel with childlike zest in the show I saw; Jennifer Berkebile and Alyssa Nance also play the brother and sister at other performances. Behrmann and Lindsey’s voices ring out with youthful energy, filling the Rose Theater and belying their precision and mastery as professional opera singers. Like all operas, this performance is sung with no amplification of the players’ voices, and none is needed. The power of the singers’ voices is perfectly balanced with the orchestra’s live music, which was performed with buoyancy and polish by a selected group of local and national musicians.
The sandman is the most transporting character of the show. Robinson lives up to his fame, making his Opera Omaha debut after touring nationally with “Phantom of the Opera.” Drew Duncan is also wonderful as the witch, playing her with more whimsy and culinary vainglory than horror. The mother, played by Elizabeth Bennett, is effectively shrill when she reprimands the children in song and sends them into the woods. The dew fairy most charmed the children in the audience, but it was the father who most charmed me. Robert McNichols, Jr. brings a special sense of comfort and hope to hard times with his warm baritone and bright stage presence.
It’s exciting that Opera Omaha has developed this opera into a family production. Former Opera Omaha executive director Jane Hill artfully arranged the music to give it a lighter feel than the original opera, writing an entirely new libretto for Opera Omaha’s production. Hill also wrote a storybook telling the story of Hansel and Gretel, complemented by the illustrations of Paula Wallace. The set was locally designed by Omaha Community Playhouse designer James Othuse, and constructed by Heartland Studio. The lighting masterfully enhanced the set, adding stars to the night sky, magic to the witch’s house and fire to the gaping oven. The costumes complete the fanciful staging, with delightful additions from costumer Dwayne Ibsen for the sandman and the witch.
Although appropriate for children, the musical appeals to anyone with a yen for fairy tales. Opera Omaha has installed their superscript screen above the Rose stage, and for the first time, they are including Spanish translation of the lyrics, along with English. Since the opera is sung in English, it is very accessible to Omaha audiences of all ages.
In addition to the five performances this weekend, Opera Omaha is staging ten performances for school children throughout the metro area. A large number of area school districts including OPS, Millard, Westside, Elkhorn, Papillion-La Vista and some Iowa districts have been able to bring approximately 8,000 students to the Rose Theater this week to see the opera. Each student was also given a copy of the book by Hill and Wallace, the first storybook published by Opera Omaha. The field trips are made possible by a number of grants and donations from organizations including Peter Kiewit Foundation, ConAgra Foods, Lincoln Financial Group and Nebraska Arts Council.
“Hansel & Gretel” opens Friday night at 7:30 p.m. The company plays four more shows, at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $19 for adults and $10 for students.
The 1 p.m. performance on Sunday will be a special grandparent performance. Grandparents are encouraged to bring their grandchildren and join Opera Omaha at the Omaha Children’s Museum after the performance for refreshments. The Opera Omaha guild will also host a holiday boutique with sweet treats and ornaments after each performance of “Hansel & Gretel.”

They’re Creepy and They’re Kooky

The Creepy Creeps create fun at Holy Cross
By Paul Heft

“The Creepy Creeps of Pilgrim Road,” put on by Holy Cross Catholic Church, was a stunning take on the zany musical play by Tim Kelly. It’s like “The Addams Family” meets mystery with plenty of hilarity along the way.
The play takes place in Edible Falls, which is basically your generic anywhere-town U.S.A. At the end of their main street is Creeps mansion, which is occupied by Sinbad, his wife Tarantula and their family. It is a withered, spooky looking house with gnarled thorns for grass. The inside speaks to the outside. There are cobwebs everywhere, dim lights and crocodiles in the dungeon-like basement. Neighbor Flora Limetree, portrayed by Jacque Rauth Reisinger, hates the Creeps and their house. Each year she enters Pilgrim Road in the All-American Street Contest. She believes they lose due to Creeps mansion.
Flora schemes to remove the Creeps and their mansion from the town so they can win for once. The Creeps’ troubles don’t stop there. They graciously host travelers in their mansion. Among these is the mysterious Prince Un Ravel from Egypt. Throw in the fact the Creeps have treasure hidden somewhere in their mansion and we have motive. It is from there that this mysterious comedy unravels.
The play featured great humor with line after line of dark comedy. For example, the family had liver for dinner and Sinbad’s grandmother asked, “Whose?!”
The set was perfect. It featured candles, old furniture, velvet drapes, old paintings and a peculiar table where the hand of an unseen child reached out to hand people the phone. It appears a lot of time went into creating the atmosphere of Creeps mansion. The production made it seem more ready for traveling theater than a local church play. Sound effects of screams and creaking floorboards added an unmatched aspect to the set.
The costumes couldn’t have been better. The outfits were ragged and torn and reminiscent of Morticia Addams. The couple was almost always clad in dark purple. Tarantula, played by Ann Downey, wore a sleek dress and a corset-like top.
Finally, the acting and singing was seamless. The Creeps had a smooth sense of humor, often taking every chance to make a joke here and there. It was humor anyone could relate to.
Bunny Jones, played by Dana Donlan, opened the play with energy. Jones set the premise by showing a couple the houses on Pilgrim Road. She scurried along, shuffling her feet with flawless motion. The spunk in Jones was above average for the part, which featured Jones as a home saleswoman and then a maid when she also joined the Creeps in their mansion. Jones’ voice in particular stood out that night. It appears Donlan has a real knack for using her one-of-a-kind voice.
Billy, the house goat and personal clock, cawed whenever the hour changed. It was this sort of craziness that added to the play’s value. The visitor Prince Un Ravel, played by Dave Howard, also added to the chaos when it became evident he was there for the gold. Howard well-represented Prince Un Ravel as a menacing monarch with his accomplices.
“The Creepy Creeps of Pilgrim Road” could surely appeal to a wide range of audiences. It is appropriate and enjoyable for children yet still engaging for adults. Holy Cross did an excellent job with the material and all of the actors’ hard work was evident. The production, as it stood on opening night, could have suited a crowd at the Rose Theater or larger. As it is, Holy Cross makes an excellent venue for this family-friendly show, including a concession stand selling sodas, hot dogs, popcorn, candy, beer and wine. In addition to adult tickets for $10 and $5 tickets for children under 12, a family pass for two adults and up to five children under the age of 18 is available for $35.