Sing Willa Willa

Out There On The Prairie


Catherland  has landed in Omaha. The musical by Becky Boesen and David von Kampen arrives at Shelterbelt full of surprises. It’s subtitled a “ghost” musical, and, certainly, ghosts materialize, Willa Cather herself being one. This unusual show is bound to keep you trying to sort it out, especially during the second act.

The cast handles the challenges well, as does director Roxanne Wach. The way Wach has capably staged this musical looks deliberate, with minimal changes of scenery or props, suggesting, once each time, a Chicago apartment, the interior of a car, the outside of a convenience store. The main focus is on a house interior.

That look and feel can be justified, given that almost everything that transpires does so in contemporary Red Cloud, a town in south central Nebraska, with slightly more than 1000 residents as of 2010, according to Wikipedia. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Cloud,_Nebraska). That’s a small town. Legitimate simplicity. Moreover, a ghost story need not look realistic.

Boesen’s lyrics and von Kampen’s music sound quite elemental and some of the cast’s singing last Saturday didn’t do enough to get across the best notes. An analogy can be found by thinking of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ songs for The Fantasticks.  Not that any song here comes across to equal them, but rather that this production looks similarly simple regarding how the production looks.

Writer Susan agrees to move from Chicago to husband Jeffrey’s hometown. They rent an older house (the past again) on Cather’s land. Into their emerging new life, a strange, young pregnant woman, Annie, crash-lands on the property. Susan and Jeffrey’s relationship in this setting hits a few snags. Cather emerges to complicate matters, as if she knows something more than Susan and Jeffrey could easily comprehend. In the course of the play, Annie’s mysterious history is revealed.  In addition to these four characters are seemingly kindly Dr. Delmar Ditmar and punk-like Ricky Lee who has had some kind of relationship with Annie.  

It appears that main idea within centers around the idea that, in a place such as Red Cloud, amid the eternal prairies, a sense of time is bound to be different than in more modern, more sophisticated places. Thus, former famed resident Cather may feel more alive to people who now inhabit the area.  And her intersecting with these outsiders may make them more alive than they had been before arriving. 

Boesen says that she has revised this many times. No surprise, given that she has set up a complex concept. Analyzing and explaining what happens presents a problem, so as to not reveal too much. As things progress, you can certainly wonder where this is going and why. The songs complicate matters rather than underscore them, as if this script might stand better alone, and thereby, perhaps be even shorter without a serious loss.

Laurel Rothamel stands out with personality and believability as Annie while Jennifer Gilg as Susan and Sara Planck as Willa sing exceptionally well. And Randy Vest’s version of Dr. Ditmar’s eventually evident complexities becomes quite convincing. Planck’s interpretation makes Cather look as if she takes herself quite seriously, less human than you might hope. But she is a ghost, after all, and her presence could be how she seems in Susan and Jeffrey’s imaginations.

Boesen was honored as an “Individual Playwright of Merit” by the Nebraska Arts Council and is a three-time Mayor’s Arts Award recipient in Lincoln. Her play Snowcatcher  debuted at Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff last month. Other recent works opening in her home state are Bullet,  In My Daughter’s Name  and What the Wind Taught Me. Her scripts have been performed at the New Orleans Fringe Festival and at Trustus Theatre in Columbia, South Carolina. https://www.beckyboesen.com/about

Composer 30-year-old von Kampen, likewise from Lincoln, is a six-time Downbeat Award winner, a three-time winner of the Vancouver Chamber Choir Young Composers Competition, the recipient of a 2015 ASCAP Young Jazz Composer award, winner of the 2014 San Francisco Choral Artists New Voices Project, winner of the  2013 National Band Association’s Young Jazz Composers  Competition, the recipient of a 2015 ASCAP Young Jazz  Composer Award and winner of the 2014  San Francisco Choral Artists New Voices Project.  http://www.davidvonkampen.com/

You may come up with your own interesting conclusions and find that Catherland  turns out to be more complex than you might have at first imagined. Give it time.

Catherland runs through May 14, Shelterbelt Theatre, 3225 California St. Thurs-Sat.: 8 p.m. Sun: 6 p.m. 5/14: 2 p.m.  Tickets: $15-$25 http://www.shelterbelt.org/


Category: Stage

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