Tag Archives: entertainment

Living Large in the Backyard

July 31, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If there were but one thing to consider before building your very own epic backyard party central, equipped with all the essential grilling and barbecue fixtures, it is this: Your guests don’t have to live with whatever outdoor Franken-kitchen you cobble together from your inner Cro-Magnon desire for fired meats.

No, they rub their bellies, hopefully thank their gracious hosts, and go home. It’s you who must live with what remains.

The better approach, it appears, is the path Stephen and Joy Abels took on their West Omaha home.

From left: Stephen, Joy, and Chelsea Abels

“Be patient,” Joy says. “The best design is probably not going to be your first or second design.”

The Abels thought long and hard about what they wanted their backyard to be. They hosted regular gatherings, a tradition they knew would continue. They like pizza about as much as anyone else, but not so much that an outdoor pizza oven made a lot of sense.

And they knew they enjoyed hosting friends and family, but that didn’t mean they wanted to be a caterer—just grill some fine meats, maybe smoke the occasional brisket or prime rib roast. That would be sufficient.

From a practical design perspective, they most desired a space to spend comfortably warm afternoons and evenings with their guests.

But the Abels also knew their kitchen table overlooked the backyard from large facing windows. They didn’t want an expansive gray slab of concrete (with a few deck chairs anchored together by some sort of monstrous outdoor fire pit) to mar their daily view.

So they saved. They scratched out ideas on napkins and random scraps of paper. And they spent countless hours stalking the internet for other inspirations on websites like houzz.com.

They began planning three years ago, when Stephen went for an evening stroll through the neighborhood.

A few doors down, he noticed a neighbor’s impressive backyard fireplace. Stephen had no idea who the neighbor was, but in that moment, he turned up the driveway and knocked on the door.

“I introduced myself, said, ‘Love your fireplace, tell me about it.’ He said, ‘Come on in.’ And he gave me Hugh’s name,” Stephen says, referring to Hugh Morton, co-owner of Sun Valley Landscaping, the company that would eventually redevelop the Abels’ backyard.

The Abels wanted to create a space that felt “like Nebraska.” Morton was happy to listen and accommodate their wishes. The finished product fits perfectly in place.

Morton’s design includes native trees and bushes in the landscaping, brickwork resembling quarried limestone from Ashland, and even the calming white noise of a stepped water feature. Everything seems a natural fit.

Perhaps the neater trick is the elegant flow into the style of the house. Although built years apart, the outside living area transitions seamlessly with the style of the indoors.

“The challenge for Hugh was I wanted it to feel comfortable for four people or 40,” Stephen says. “And I think he did a good job.”

There’s plenty room for the epic backyard barbecue, if the mood strikes; or a tranquil afternoon of quiet study for the family’s four home-schooled children; or just another one of their weekly church group nights of about two dozen people.

It’s exactly what they need it to be, when they need it. As it should be.

They put in the time, making sure the space was just right.

“And whatever you think it’s going to cost,” Stephen says, “round up.”

Visit sunvalleyomaha.com for more information about the company responsible for the Abels’ backyard space.

From left: Christian, Cameron, Stephen, Chelsea, and Joy Abels

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Destinations

May 5, 2017 by

AKSARBEN VILLAGE

Every spring, everyone in Aksarben Village gets a spring in their step. No wonder, given all the walks and runs that take place there in spring and summer. Beginning in May that includes the Aim for the Cure Melanoma Walk (May 6), Great Strides Cystic Fibrosis Walk (May 20), Glow ‘N Go 5K (June 2) and Relay for Life (July 15). Walk—or run—to aksarbenvillage.com for details. Oh, and get ready for lots of fresh veggies. Aksarben hosts its first every-Saturday Omaha Farmers Market of the season May 7.

BENSON

The second annual all-ages Memorial Day Massive music festival will be held May 27 outside The Waiting Room (6212 Maple St.) MDM showcases national acts specializing in danceable, electronic music, ranging from hip-hop to trap to “vomitstep,” an EDM subgenre created by Snails, the headliner of the event, which also features performances by Boombox Cartel, ARMNHMR, and PRXZM. The outdoor show will be followed by after-parties at The Waiting Room and Reverb Lounge (6121 Military Ave.). Space Jesus, a psychedelic hip-hop producer/performer out of Brooklyn, will be at The Waiting Room’s all-ages show. Reverb is 21 and over only. The outdoor show is all-ages, unless you want to be a VIP, then you must be 21 to play. But no matter your age, you’d better bring your dancing shoes, because there’s no messing around here. These acts are here to make you move.

BLACKSTONE DISTRICT

What’s new in Blackstone? What isn’t. There are new hours at the Nite Owl, 3902 Farnam St. (5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday-Thursday; 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday-Sunday ), a new tenant at 3906 Farnam St. (TSP Architects) and a new website for the district (blackstonedistrict.com).

CAPITOL DISTRICT

Shamrock Development is closer to making a reality of the Capitol District, an expanse stretching from the Riverfront west and north-south from NoDo to Leavenworth. The space, anchored by the Omaha Marriott Downtown, will feature mixed-use buildings and lots of open space. It’s a concept similar to Lincoln’s Railyard—including, Shamrock hopes, open-carry alcohol wherever visitors go.

DUNDEE

The future still looks bright for a public-private partnership that will bring the past back to Dundee—a $1.6 million project to restore the historic Sunken Gardens along Happy Hollow Boulevard. What is known to locals as “The Sunks” is envisioned to be a safe community green space with a formal garden in the center, a sledding zone, open sports field, and more. Organizers say they’ve met all their quarterly fundraising goals. See drawings and more at omahasunkengardens.org.

MIDTOWN CROSSING

Nature hates a void—and it didn’t go over so well in Midtown Crossing, either. Fortunately for Midtowners, the void left by the sudden closing of Brix didn’t take long to get filled. Longtime Omaha restaurateur Ron Samuelson indicated the spot will be filled by Della Costa, a seafood-inspired Mediterranean concept featuring dishes from the coasts of Italy, France, Spain, Morocco, and Greece. “It opens up a whole new range of opportunity for oysters, clams, and whole-grilled fish,” Samuelson
told midtowncrossing.com.

NODO

This is Omaha, right? Yup. But soon, a taste of Lincoln is coming NoDo’s way. Lincoln-based Zipline Brewing Co. is expected to open a tap room where the Saddle Creek Shop once was, between Film Streams and Slowdown. And it will be bigger than either of the places they have down in Huskerville. Boo-yah.

OLD MARKET

You know those little baby carrots don’t grow that way, right? Get the good stuff— and gobs of other fresh, locally grown produce — when the 23rd annual Omaha Farmers Market kicks off May 6. Hosted 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every Saturday through Oct. 14, OFM includes baked goods, flowers, and more as nearly 100 vendors fill 11th Street from Jackson to Howard streets. See the lineup at omahafarmersmarket.com/old-market.

SOUTH OMAHA/
VINTON STREET

Project Project might be a nonprofit, but in February it was all about the green stuff for the independent, DIY contemporary arts space in the historic Vinton Street Business District. Green slime, that is. Project Project was host to Omaha Slime Fest, a fundraiser for Omaha Zine Fest. The former featured several unique competitions, the winners of which were dumped with buckets of slime a la Nickelodeon. Find out more about Project Project on Facebook or at projectprojectomaha.com.

NORTH OMAHA/
24TH & LAKE DISTRICT

Many of Nebraska’s best athletes began their dreams in and around “The Street of Dreams,” Omaha’s 24th and Lake Street area. Now, many of those famous athletes can be seen at the Omaha Rockets Kanteen Restaurant, named after a one-time Omaha baseball squad. The eatery (2401 Lizzie Robinson Ave.) pays homage to the Negro Leagues and is home to the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. Owner Donald Curry partnered with Black Hall co-founders Robert Faulkner and Ernest Britt so that the Kanteen now showcases memorabilia of Omaha greats like Bob Gibson and Marlin Briscoe alongside Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Beth Raper

March 30, 2017 by

This sponsored content appears in the Winter 2017 edition of B2B. To view, click here: https://issuu.com/omahapublications/docs/b2b_0217_125/56

From 20 people to 50,000 people. Fun Services provides entertainment for groups of all sizes.

The 50,000 people? That would be the Offutt Open House and Air Show, where Fun Services supplies entertainment.

The company has been around 50 years, says Beth Raper, who runs Fun Services with her husband, Joey. They employ 40 people.

She says not only is Fun Services the oldest firm of its kind in Omaha, it’s the best equipped in all of Nebraska and western Iowa to help customers plan special events offering inflatable rides, concessions, and casino parties, as well as party rentals, tables, chairs, and canopies.

“We have been in the business so long that we have the inventory to accommodate the customer,” Raper says. “We help businesses, churches, and schools plan special events.”

“Some people call to rent a few things. Some call and say, ‘Would you guys help with everything? I’m planning a party for 500 people,’” she says. “People appreciate that we‘re a one-stop shop.”

She and her husband bought the family-owned business five years ago. He was familiar with Fun Services and what it could provide—with good reason, she says. They both were working at Fun Services while in high school, when they met. “That’s everyone’s favorite story about us,” she says.

After college graduation, she worked as a wedding planner for five years.  Of course, she planned her own wedding to Joey. It was a small, quiet wedding with friends and family. No inflatable rides. No concessions. Just fun.

Fun Services is a fun place for the college-age students currently employed. “We provide great part-time jobs for kids. They are part-time in college and work part-time for us. We take care of our employees and have parties throughout the year.”

Approximately 90 percent of her clientele are women. “A lot of women work in an environment where they are responsible for planning a party—perhaps a PTA mother or someone planning a church festival,” she says.

“I want to be known for the fact that I love what I do. Everybody has a great time at events we plan. I try to put my touch on everything I do,” says Raper.  “But when I am at home, I focus my time on family and kids.”

Raper goes from executive boss to mom in seconds when she walks out the Fun Services door.  She has one child and is expecting another baby in time for Christmas.

Separating the two worlds is important, she says. “I think women that are mothers but also have full-time jobs know it’s hard to balance. I try to leave work at work. And make sure when I am at home, I focus my time on family and kids.”

7535 D St.
Omaha, NE 68124
402.393.7397
funservicesneia.com

Obviously Omaha

February 23, 2017 by
Photography by Provided

It’s not mere luck that Omaha was ranked third overall of the nation’s best cities for St. Patrick’s Day celebrations (according to wallethub.com in 2016). If there is one thing our city is known for, it is rallying together to celebrate with friends, both old and new. Omaha has rich Irish heritage, and Omahans are eager to boast their love of the local Irish population. So, of course, the city turns green with pride on St. Paddy’s Day—from east to west. Festivities range from live Irish entertainment and personal pub food tours to black-and-tans and parades of whisky shots. Head to any of these highlighted hot spots to celebrate in local Irish style.

01. Central Omaha
Clancy’s Pub
Clancy’s Pub has a longstanding tradition as a must-stop visit for St. Paddy’s Day. While the Pacific Street location has undergone new ownership within the last few years, it has still proven itself to be full of that Irish spirit patrons have grown to love.
(7120 Pacific St.)

Brazen Head Irish Pub
If you are determined to settle in at the most authentic Irish pub in Omaha, look no further than Brazen Head. Named after the oldest pub in Dublin, this Omaha gem will transport you to the Emerald Isle. The Brazen Head opens its doors at 6 a.m. for a traditional red flannel hash breakfast. The day continues with authentic Irish entertainment and food (including fish and chips as well as corned beef and cabbage).
(319 N. 78th St.)

02. Benson
You’d be remiss not to stop by Benson’s oldest, continuously running bar and only Irish Pub—Burke’s Pub—for drink specials and their famous apple pie shots. While a few bars along the Benson strip (on both sides of Maple Street from 59th to 62nd streets) serve up green pitchers and Jell-O shots, neighborhood staples like Jake’s, Beercade, and St. Andrews (which is Scottish) feature specials on authentic Irish beers, such as Kilkenny, and Irish whiskeys.

03. Leavenworth
The Leavenworth bar crawl has become somewhat of a year-round tradition, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. Locals call it a convenient way to pack in a handful of bars in one strip—beginning at 32nd Street at Bud Olson’s or Alderman’s and continuing on a tour down Leavenworth toward The Neighber’s on Saddle Creek.

Marylebone Tavern
The Marylebone is one of two Irish bars on the tour, recognized by the giant shamrock painted out front on Leavenworth Street. The bar is known for its cheap prices and stiff drinks.
(3710 Leavenworth St.)

Barrett’s Barleycorn Pub & Grille
Barrett’s Barleycorn, the second of the two Irish bars on the tour, opens its doors at 8 a.m., serving sandwiches in the morning followed by a hearty lunch next door at Castle Barrett, with beer and specials flowing all day long. Barrett’s closes the parking lot to create an outdoor beer garden, while inside tables are cleared for what usually turns into a packed wall-to-wall party.
(4322 Leavenworth St.)

04. Old Market
The Dubliner
Toting the tagline, “If you can’t get to Dublin to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a little piece of Ireland nestled underground at 1205 Harney Street in the Old Market,” on the front page of their website, The Dubliner is one of Omaha’s oldest Irish pubs. Pull up a bar stool at this Harney Street haunt for a breakfast of Lucky Charms and Guinness and be sure to stick around for the Irish stew, corned beef sandwiches, and live music.
(1205 Harney St.)

Barry O’s Tavern
Slip onto the patio at Barry O’s to mingle with the regulars and the O’Halloran clan themselves at this family-run bar. Enjoy drink specials and stories from some of the friendliest characters you’ll meet. St. Paddy’s Day usually brings an entertaining mashup of regular patrons and “Irish-for-the-day” amateurs.
(420 S. 10th St.)

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Aloha Bluejays

February 22, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Creighton has long maintained a cross-cultural connection with Hawaii. The university considers the Central Pacific archipelago one of its top-10 recruiting states, and students from Hawaii have been flocking to this “Maui of the Midwest” for nearly a century.

The first Hawaiian student enrolled at Creighton University in 1924, long before the territory became a state (which eventually happened in 1959). Creighton started seeing increased Hawaiian enrollment after World War II in the 1940s, amid heightening racism toward people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent, says Associate Director of Admissions Joe Bezousek.

While resentment lingered from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. military engagements in East Asia, Creighton intentionally rejected riding the wave of then-popular discrimination.

“Creighton has always followed the Jesuit value of being accepting and treating everyone with dignity and respect. So, Creighton kept our doors open and that was a big trigger moment,” Bezousek says.

Current students of Hawaiian heritage say the school does much to foster a culture of inclusion and supply resources necessary for Native and non-indigenous Hawaiians alike to continue being engaged with their culture while thousands of miles from home.

Ku‘uipo Lono is a student at Creighton and a participating member of Hui ‘O Hawai‘i, an on-campus Hawaiian organization. Lono’s favorite part of the Hawaiian club, and the centerpiece of the organization’s calendar, is the annual lu‘au.

According to Lono, lu‘au was first conceptualized in Hawaii as a celebration of life.

“Lu‘au was originally done for a baby’s first birthday,” Lono says. “When Western people came to Hawaii, they brought a lot of diseases with them, and so it was a big deal for a baby to live past one year.”

Today, the number of Native Hawaiians who continue on to post-secondary education remains low, Lono says, so leaving the island for college is a big deal. For Lono, leaving Hawaii was a matter of broadening her horizons, sharing Hawaiian culture, and in some ways, defending her traditional culture.

“There is a big controversial thing happening on the Big Island where the United States wants to build a big telescope on a mountain, and Native Hawaiians are protesting,” she says. “For some people, being Hawaiian is going up on the mountain and protesting—for others, being Hawaiian is getting an education and being part of the committee who decides whether or not to have the telescope built.”

Much like there is a distinction between Native Americans and non-indigenous American people born and raised in America, Lono says there is a cultural difference between Native Hawaiians and people who are simply from Hawaii. Creighton’s Hui ‘O Hawai‘i is inclusive of both groups.

“There are people who are not Hawaiian at all who participate,” Lono says. “A common thing you will hear people say is ‘I am Hawaiian at heart.’”

Sela Vili is a sophomore at Creighton. Although not of indigenous Hawaiian heritage, she is from Hawaii and played a lead role in a play performed at last year’s lu‘au. More than 1,000 people attended the 2016 event, which is inclusive to other Polynesian cultures, too, not just Hawaiian.

Vili says the celebration is different each year, and the food is always authentic.

“We have a food committee, and we bring down a chef from Hawaii,” Vili says. “I love the entertainment in the lu‘au. I love dancing in it, especially given that I have been dancing since the age of 5.”

Vili refers to the Hawaiian community on campus as her family away from home. She says Hawaii is very important to her, which drives a lot of her participation in the club.

“I want to be involved in the lu‘au so I can share my culture with everyone else,” Vili says. “It’s a way for me to keep in touch with home, and also a great way to meet other students that are from Hawaii.”

Hawaiian culture is based on the idea that you live off the land and work in the fields, Lono says, but going to college offers an opportunity for a different type of life. She admits there can be some resentment toward Westerners by Native Hawaiians, especially considering the legacy of colonization and forced acculturation.

“[I used to think] this is not fair. Why do we have to work to pay rent for land we already own,” Lono says. “My perspective changed when I came here. The same thing happened to the Mexicans and the Native Americans, and I think the best thing to do is not really accept it, but to learn about it, make a difference, and move forward from it.”

Lono is thankful for the opportunity to share her culture with the rest of Creighton’s diverse student population, and she praises the club’s approximately 250 members for caring enough about their culture to share with their peers and the general public of Omaha.

“Creighton recruits heavily from Hawaii, and it is nice having so many people from Hawaii so far away from home,” Lono says.

She laments the dearth of Hawaiian food in Omaha; however, the Hui ‘O Hawai‘i organization provides an essential group of friends who get together to cook authentic foods from home, in order to feel a little closer to the Aloha State—right here in Nebraska.

The 2017 Hui ‘O Hawai‘i Lu‘au takes place March 18 at Creighton University’s Kiewit Fitness Center. Doors open at 4 p.m., dinner begins at 5 p.m., and entertainment starts at 6 p.m. Tickets cost $20 general admission, $15 students, $12 children ages 4-12, free to ages 3 and under. Contact Lu‘au Chair Tiffany Lau at tiffanylau1@creighton.edu for more information.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Dave Wingert Walking on Sunshine

December 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

He addresses his fans as “doll,” “girlfriend,” and the occasional, Zsa Zsa Gabor-esque “dahling.” And those are for his male callers.

“C’mon in, pussycat,” the man known as “Wingy” beckons with a broad smile. “We’re on the air!”

It’s a damp, gluey-eyed, pre-dawn hour, but Dave Wingert is already deep in a groove. The perpetually perky Big O 101.9 FM personality effortlessly manipulates a dizzying array of sliding control panel buttons while simultaneously juggling coffee, headphones, mic, and a trio of computer mice below a quartet of monitors. It’s the most improbable of ballets, all perfectly choreographed for the sole purpose of transitioning into the bouncy intro of a Men at Work tune, the one about a man in Brussels who was full of muscles.

Such dexterity is a skill the New York City native honed in a broadcasting career spanning six decades. First coming to Omaha in the ’70s, he had four radio and two television programs before spending the next 20 years in Seattle hosting the nationally syndicated Dave ’Til Dawn show.

LBJ was in the Oval Office when Wingert landed his first gig, an unpaid one on Ohio University’s campus radio station. “I wanted to be an actor,” he explains, “but the radio studio in the basement of the school’s theater building caught my attention. My very Jewish mother had an [insert wagging finger] ‘Over my dead body’ attitude about acting. She insisted I do something that promised a regular paycheck.”

Wingert found that regular paycheck and many more among an alphabet soup of radio station call letters but never abandoned the stage. He has been featured in the footlights of countless community theater, Off-Broadway, and Actors’ Equity stage roles, garnering several awards along the way.

20131112_bs_1751

“I’ve always considered myself an actor who just happens to do radio,” says the member of the Nebraska Broadcasting Association Hall of Fame who now serves on the board of Omaha’s Blue Barn Theatre. “Whether behind the mic or on stage, it’s just like sitting around a campfire telling stories. Storytelling helps us understand how we—all of us—are alike. Storytelling erases our differences.”

The radio celeb known for his conversational, authentic, and hilariously over-the-top banter admits to not always being so comfortably at ease behind the mic.

“Do people like me? Am I doing okay? How did that last show go?” he recalls of his earlier days in radio while, in the background, the Thompson Twins insist, as if on cue, that someone “Hold Me Now.” “I had a million unanswered questions,” says the man who now peppers his program with self-help segments that have a deeply personal meaning for many in his audience. “Now I’m at a place where I no longer question myself; I just enjoy being myself. I’m okay with that.”

It’s a sentiment that also seems to be more than okay with legions of loyal followers.

“What’s big for me now is a sense of belonging, community, the satisfaction of making a difference,” he adds. “My ability to help the Blue Barn raise big money for a new theater, for example, is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my return to Omaha. My role there is to connect with the community just like my role here at the station is to connect with the community. The only way for me to do that is to just be me.”

Wingert reaches for his headphones as the interview closes and he lapses into his best Yiddish to offer a cheerful “Bye-bye bubbe! Come back any time!”

And with that, Wingy was back on the air, this time playing the infectiously upbeat Katrina and the Waves number that could easily pass for his personal theme song—“Walking on Sunshine.”

Dance, Girl, Dance!

September 30, 2013 by
Photography by Ballet Nebraska

Judy Leppek’s performance was this reviewer’s favorite in Ballet Nebraska’s recent production of Snow White at The Rose Theater. Luppek’s regal bearing, perpetually pursed lips, and impossibly long neck made quite an impression. She performed miracles with an arched, cuts-like-a-knife eyebrow in bringing great drama to her character, the deliciously diabolical evil queen.

Which is all well and good, except for the puzzling fact that Leppek—the critic’s fave, mind you—was performing in a non-dancing role. It’s a point that, sadly, doesn’t bode well for a ballet review, where the focus is meant to be…well, ballet.

Sure, Ballet Nebraska founder and artistic director Erika Overturff was terrific in tulle during a memorable solo as the Queen of the Nymphs. And the oft-paired and always resplendent duo of Natasha Grimm-Gregory (the beguiling Snow White) and Sasha York (the charming Prince) provided a couple of magical moments. The problem was that they just weren’t allowed enough dance sequences for them to dish up more than a meager ration of those magical moments.

The second act of Snow White best illustrates this dilemma. Between a septet of darling dwarves and Snow White doing almost everything but dancing, it seemed an eternity before this ballet was allowed to be a ballet.

Guest choreographer Winthrop Corey, artistic director of the Mobile Ballet Company and a summer faculty member for both Joffrey Ballet School and American Ballet Theatre, now has the dubious distinction of being behind my two least favorite Ballet Nebraska works; this one and 2011’s Dracula, which exhibited similar symptoms hinting at a diagnosis of Dance Deprivation Disorder.

Now entering its fourth season, the once fledgling ballet company—the state’s only professional troupe—should be at a certain stage in its maturation. It is to be expected that the early years of any such performance company would be typified by efforts that are building blocks for the future. It should come as no surprise that a company’s initial works could be rather bare-bones-ish. After all, and just as with any launch of a new performance company, Ballet Nebraska started with little more than an artistic vision. Just imagine the tireless organizing, networking, and fundraising that had to unfold before a single dancer could even dream of donning a tutu.

But imagineering has an expiration date. Now is a time when the company should be expected to shine in a fully developed artistic mission, and an ambitious one at that. Snow White didn’t cut any corners when it came to beautiful costumes and sets, but this reviewer felt it did so with dance, the very core of what they do.

Which is all a cryin’ shame. The company has a magnificently talented cadre of artists, but the curiously choreographed Snow White didn’t give audiences much of an opportunity to appreciate their talents.

There’s a classic ballet/burlesque film from the golden age of Hollywood that pits Maureen O’Hara (ballet) against Lucille Ball (burlesque). My wish for Ballet Nebraska is for them to heed the advice from the movie’s title and just Dance, Girl, Dance!

David Williams, the recently named managing editor of Omaha Publications, has written hundreds of performing arts reviews for a number of area publications and formerly served on the board of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

Red-Redder-Reddest

September 26, 2013 by
Photography by Omaha Community Playhouse

Just as in a certain M. Night Shyamalan “I see dead people” film, the color red is used almost as code in the Omaha Community Playhouse blockbuster production of the much-anticipated Les Misérables.

Early scenes are an ocean of jute-hued tatters in the musical based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel—the one about the most famous loaf of bread in all of literature—before a riotous red-redder-reddest bloom of rebellion explodes amid flaming vermillion muzzle flashes against the backdrop of a crimson flag soaked in the blood of martyrs as the curtain comes crashing down on the first act.

It’s enough to leave you breathless, but you won’t have to wait for the penultimate scene before intermission to be awestruck. Timothy Shew has played the can’t-catch-a-break ex-con lead as Jean Valjean 1,600 times, most of them on Broadway, and he knows every nuance of his character. Shew soars in such memorable numbers as “Bring Him Home,” “What Have I Done?”, and “Who Am I?”

Savvy theatregoers may have wondered if casting the seasoned veteran against mere community theatre mortals may have set up a catch-22 situation, where the contrast between talents was simply too great. Hold on a sec. Guilty of employing a non sequitur just now. After all, savvy Omaha theatregoers will not be the least surprised to learn that an Omaha Community Playhouse ensemble can hold their own and so much more on this, the city’s greatest of stages.

To punctuate the point of “top-to-bottom” professionalism, let’s start at…well, not exactly the bottom but a smallish role.

If stealing scenes were a felony, Megan McGuire would be doing a life stretch in Sing Sing Prison. She plays the bosomy, bawdy innkeeper’s wife. When paired against her polar opposite, the reedy and angular—and (sigh) seldom seen—Cork Ramer, their hilariously show-stopping antics of avarice and skullduggery become worth the price of a ticket alone.

Speaking of show-stoppers in this epic that spans three decades of early 19th century Paris, word on the street is that—just as this reviewer found on opening night—one of the loudest ovations in a show chock full of them is directed at Abigael Stewart, whose jilted character, Eponine, resolves herself to a life of being “On My Own.”

Stewart, when joined by Jennifer Tritz’s piercing soprano (the charming adult Cosette) and Joseph O’Connor’s lush tenor (the dashing guerrilla warrior, Marius) you’re in for a romantic, melt-in-your-seat moment, even as you come to realize that “A Heart Full of Love” carries a dread sense of foreboding for one member of this most lilting of romantic triangles.

Other favorites include Joseph Dignoti as Inspector Javert, the tenacious cop with a stomach-rumbling baritone, who obsesses about the aforementioned loaf of bread before making the most dramatic of exits (gravity, the river Seine).

This monumental effort is sure to be remembered as the most fitting of swan songs for outgoing Omaha Community Playhouse legends, associate artistic director Susan Baer Collins, who directs Les Miz, and artistic director Carl Beck, who this time works as assistant director. But it doesn’t mean that this production is not without a couple of curiosities. The turntable installed for this show works to great éclat in many scenes, especially the famous barricade battle. Am I alone in thinking that, in others, it seems to perhaps try a bit too hard in the sense of “We’ve built this darn thing, now how the heck can we use it?”

My biggest pet peeve (my, reviewers can be picky!) centers on that iconic red flag. Perhaps I had set my expectations too high in hoping that the banner would be fashioned from acres of fabric, and that it would consume the entire fiery stage when unfurled, but the scale of the one waved here is just a bit…underwhelming.

No, I didn’t just use the word “underwhelming” in a review of such a wondrous achievement as the Omaha Community Playhouse production of Les Miz, did I? Nothing, even the grating idiosyncrasies of a finicky critic can detract from the magnificence that is Les Misérables.

Les Misérables runs through Oct. 27 at the Omaha Community Playhouse. For tickets and additional information, visit omahaplayhouse.com or call 402-553-0800.

David Williams, the recently named managing editor of Omaha Publications, has written hundreds of performing arts reviews for a number of area publications and formerly served on the board of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.

Michael Lyon

September 20, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

After years singing opera, this transplanted Brit finds a niche in American standards.

He studied with some of the world’s finest opera coaches and vocal teachers; sang the lead in famous operas like Tosca, La Bohéme, Aida, Pagliacci, and Madame Butterfly; performed as soloist for oratorios and masses by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Verdi; and graced the main stage at Carnegie Hall as a featured soloist.

So why is Michael Lyon singing cover songs of Sinatra, Bennett, and Bublé for the Thursday-evening crowd at Ryan’s Bistro? He’s living his dream—a dream he has re-formed many times over.

“It took me until my mid-50s to understand that what I am is a performer,” says the singer in his West Omaha home. And what a performer he is!

Dressed casually in black, Lyon sings the standards with the air and confidence of a seasoned professional. His beautiful tenor voice carries a rich tone, but he holds back on the power his voice can reach. He hits high notes with ease and in tune. He’s smooth but never smarmy and keeps the schmaltz at bay. He doesn’t rely on gimmicks; he has the talent and training to let the music and lyrics do the talking.

 “…I knew down to my very toes that I had to sing opera.”

“We get people in here who think they’re listening to a recording, a sound system,” says Julia Stein, bar manager at Ryan’s. “He’s awesome. We love him here.”

Is this what Lyon envisioned over 30 years ago when he set out to be a great opera singer? No. Is he satisfied with his life as Omaha’s go-to tenor for special events? “Yes,” he says without hesitation. “I have become very adept at surviving in this world.”

Lyon’s world began in England’s county of Cornwall, where he grew up in a small dairy farming community. Neither parent displayed any musical abilities, so when their little son opened his mouth and made a beautiful sound, the only nurturing of his talent came from the school choir…until he got kicked out at age 10 for “goofing around.”

Lyon eventually channeled his feistiness into a single-mindedness that paved the way for his future. When he was about 20, he listened to a recording of an Italian opera “and I knew down to my very toes that I had to sing opera.” And so he did.

With newfound purpose, Lyon won a position with the Bristol Opera Company. Within a year and still without vocal training, he secured the lead in a production—as a baritone. “I then decided that I had to study seriously, which I did, and won several competitions,” explains Lyon.

“A guy was leaving Ryan’s and said…’How come you’re not somebody?’ And I said, ‘I am somebody, just not necessarily the somebody you want me to be.’”

Flush with confidence in his talent, Lyon emigrated in 1981 to Los Angeles, where he continued his vocal studies. He credits opera star Baldo dal Ponte for “giving me my high notes” and transforming him into a tenor. In 1984, Lyon met his future wife at an opera workshop. He and Kristin, an Omaha native, spent the next decade and a half performing in L.A.’s numerous opera and music theatre venues. They were at home on the stage and in demand, but singing didn’t pay the rent. The bottom fell out when both lost their day jobs within a month of each other.

Michael, Kristin, and son Max relocated to Omaha in 2000. With limited opportunities to pursue opera here, Michael and Kristin began a successful real estate career. Michael also teamed up with KIOS-FM as the local host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” from 5-10 a.m.

But Lyon, who retains only a tinge of an accent from his native England, knew his whole identity was wrapped up in singing. After an eight-year hiatus, he bought a sound system and remade himself into “a hip guy.” Word-of-mouth brought success quickly.

“An events planner at Stokes [Grill & Bar] told me about Michael,” says Chris Blumkin, a management consultant and wife of Ron Blumkin, the president of the Nebraska Furniture Mart. “We went to hear him at the Zin Room downtown. He has a genuine, warm way about him. We’ve hired him five times for corporate and family events.”

Lyon has never lost sight of who he is. That’s why sideways compliments from customers don’t faze him.

“A guy was leaving Ryan’s and said, ‘You’re so great. How come you’re not somebody?’ And I said, ‘I am somebody, just not necessarily the somebody you want me to be.’”

Welcome to William’s Nightmare

September 3, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Mystery Manor

The entryway of the 19th-century home is cramped, musty-smelling, and dark. A thunderstorm rolls appropriately in the background. Bloodstains spatter the wallpaper, and the portrait of a resigned-looking woman hangs on the wall.

“This—” Wayne Sealy bangs the head of his ax next to the portrait “—is Greta Hall. Murdered here by her loving husband—” bang! “—William.”

Wayne, the owner of Mystery Manor, warms to his performance in Downtown Omaha’s permanent haunted house at 18th and Burt streets. He spins the house’s official yarn about William Hall, who was later murdered by Greta’s brother. “To this day, William still walks these halls with his ax, looking for a pretty gal to join him in his garden party. FOR WHICH YOU QUALIFY,” Wayne booms impressively. “Please enter through this door right here.”

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The first three rooms of Mystery Manor detail the story of William and Greta Hall, until “William” confronts guests in the flickering light of a parlor. “Dead as dreams, a new nightmare began,” the murderer intones. “Go! Behind you! Enter my nightmare.”

Nine scenes take guests through William’s torment, up and down three stories and across 6,000 square feet. Over the course of about 25 minutes, more than 30 volunteers make it their mission to deliver a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare.

A veteran actor himself, Wayne explains that a good scare consists of three stages. First is the set-up, the actor setting the scene for how guests will encounter him. Second is the approach. “Guests either approach you, or you approach them,” he says (don’t worry, actors never intentionally touch guests at Mystery Manor). The third part is, in his opinion, the most critical element of the scare and one that an inexperienced actor may neglect: the disengagement.

“Once you do what you do, it can go to crap in a second because now you’re just a man in a costume. You have to get out of Dodge,” Wayne explains. “As soon as you turn around to leave, you become eye candy.” The guest’s focus is now on the departing actor, “and now they’re all set for the next guy to come around and nail ’em.” As soon as a second actor has the attention, the first one can double-back for another scare.

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But it’s not just actors in place to bring the fright. Animatronics, projections, monitors, careful lighting, and themed soundtracks round out the experience. For example, an animatronic dog jumps out to within six inches of a tight hallway in a Deliverance-themed zone. His name is Fluffy.

“We try to treat it like a rollercoaster,” says Mark Sealy, Wayne’s son and manager of Mystery Manor. “You need to have peaks and valleys.” He describes a scene with a gypsy fortuneteller. “She calms you down, she takes your hand, and she does a little fortune read. So you’re cresting the rollercoaster before plunging down again.”

“Give credit to the public,” Wayne points out. “If they’re not interacting, we’ve got nothing.” What actors can do, he says, is try to hit phobias, and the house is arrayed to touch on them all. Guests should avert their eyes in the zombie apocalypse room or suffer the consequences. A possessed circus includes a tunnel here and a back door there, enabling clowns and fortune tellers to slink around unseen until the last moment. A 60-foot slide spits guests out into a slaughterhouse. The child’s room is slowly burning. “It’s…pretty creepy,” Mark admits. “We did buy some new props this year for this room.”

Other less commercial elements add to the creepiness of the house, though the paying public may never notice them. “The building has stuff happen all the time,” Mark says as he walks down a behind-the-scenes staircase. “Every once in a while, we’ll find the teddy bears from the child’s room lined up here on the stairs. They just get put here. We think the ghost uses this almost as the house’s lost and found. If someone loses a baseball hat the night before, we’ll find it here.”

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Kind-hearted volunteers?

Mark shakes his head emphatically. “I’ve been here alone, and…that’s not it.”

And the ghost? Who is it? Because William and Greta Hall are fake, right?

Mark shares that in the late 1800s, No. 716 was actually a house of ill repute. “We do know, we have it documented, that one of the women who worked here was murdered along with her kid,” he says. “We don’t normally tell that story because it’s not very family-friendly. So that’s not the story we go off of.”

So. Say hello to “Greta” the next time you visit Mystery Manor.

Mystery Manor opens for the season on Fri., Sept. 13. For more information, visit mysterymanoromaha.org.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

  • Mystery Manor has been running for 30 years.
  • Over 100 volunteers act in the house per season.
  • Some actors have been volunteering for as long as 29 years.
  • The flow of the house hasn’t changed in 27 years.
  • Staff, including volunteers, can empty the house in less than 53 seconds for a fire drill.
  • It takes two hours a night to get all actors in makeup, including
  • prosthetics, latex, special effects makeup, and airbrushing.
  • It takes volunteers a month of bi-weekly training sessions to learn to
  • navigate the house.
  • Each of the house’s nine zones has its own exit. Only nine groups are
  • allowed in the building at a time, enabling each group to have its own exit.
  • Each group consists of no more than six people.
  • Engineers check the house annually for structural soundness. (Still, leave the heels at home. Uneven surfaces abound.)
  • In the Pharaoh’s tomb scene, hieroglyphics actually spell out insults about Mystery Manor actors.