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Archive for Friday, August 11, 2006

Theater review: “The Ballad of Black Jack” charming, but not a history lesson.

There certainly are strong performances in this year’s show

August 11, 2006

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There are two distinct ways to look at "The Ballad of Black Jack":

1. It's a campy - and sometimes hokey - view of early Kansas that glosses over an important era in the state's history, often favoring a love story over historical fact.

2. It's a truly local production - written by and starring Douglas Countians - that could be an important tool in telling the Bleeding Kansas story for those who are more inclined to go to the theater than open a history book.

Or, perhaps, it's some of both.

The show, written by Baldwin resident Don Mueller, is quickly becoming a piece of Douglas County history in its own right. It was first performed in 1970 and has been put on intermittently over the years, mostly at the Maple Leaf Festival in Baldwin.

It made its first appearance in Lawrence since 1986 on Thursday night, when it opened a four-show run at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

The good news is this: Douglas County has a stage production based on local history, and most communities can't say that. Sure, it's homey - it's sort of like a high school play that includes some people with gray hair - but that does give it charm.

If Lawrence were Gettysburg, Pa., in terms of Civil War tourism, no doubt a Branson-style theater could stage "The Ballad" every night and draw a crowd. The story of early abolitionist settlers and their struggles with Border Ruffians from Missouri is pretty palatable when done in song and dance.

Unfortunately, the show itself - though streamlined by Mueller to about 2 hours 30 minutes (including intermission) for its 2006 incarnation - lacks focus and still seems a bit long.

There are beautiful moments musically - "Quiet Place" and "You'll Sing His Song" are among the songs with stellar melodies - but, unfortunately, they rarely advance the plot. The first act spends too much time treading water until the final scenes, when it finally starts to build to the Battle of Black Jack climax.

If there's an overall message for the musical, it's tough to tell. John Brown, the much-debated figure of Bleeding Kansas, is painted as both savior and executioner, as he is by historians and others. The last musical line of the show (before the curtain-call) is "The World is a Friend of Mine," which really doesn't relate to the Border War struggle.

But, of course, actors can only work with the script they have. There certainly are strong performances in this year's show.

The lead actors have beautiful voices that blend well on duets. Genee Figuieras, who plays Melinda Werther, has a sweet vocal tone and plays a convincing, loyal character. Jim Tuchscherer, who plays Jay Branson, has a rich baritone voice that gives power to a Quaker character who doesn't believe in carrying a rifle.

Fran Hopkins, who plays Gloomy Aggie, is strong in "God Has a Plan for All Things," and Paul Minor gives his all to play the comic-relief character Zeke, as annoyingly abrasive and over-the-top as the character might be.

Thursday night included a few jitters, but that's to be expected of most community productions. There were a few scenes where actors seemed a little scared, and there were a few flubbed lines. Chances are those will get better as the show continues through Sunday.

There also were a few balance troubles. At times, it's tough to understand characters' speaking and singing lines over the piano, even when the full cast of more than 40 is on stage.

In the end, the musical isn't a history lesson; it's basically a cheerleading session for Kansans over the border-ruffian Missourians. It doesn't paint a complete - or some would argue, fair or balanced - picture of the warfare between the two sides.

But after all, it is a musical and work of fiction, and Kansas does have an abolitionist history to be proud of.

The musical really has been a piece of Baldwin history until now. Whether it becomes a piece of Lawrence theater history remains to be seen.

"The Ballad of Black Jack" is back onstage at 7:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, at the Lawrence Arts Center. Tickets start at $7.

Comments

Shelby 8 years, 4 months ago

This marks another entry in the long list of small communities who think their little scuffle "was what started the civil war"

as_I_live_and_breathe 8 years, 4 months ago

Shelby, the important thing to remember is that it was all caused because Bush lied.....

bd 8 years, 4 months ago

OH! , I thought it was Clinton that lied???, or was that Dick Nixon????

Wilbur_Nether 8 years, 4 months ago

Uh, Shelby, no historian of repute diputes the role of Bleeding Kansas occurrences--from the Marais des Cygnes Massacre to Black Jack--in igniting the American Civil War. Or, as some still refer to it, "The War of Northern Agression."

Black Jack was the first pitched battle between pro- and anti-slavery forces. As a matter of history, this event really was significant even though it did not have the grand scale of the eastern theatre battles. Sometimes I describe the War Between the States as a fire, and although the Missouri-Kansas conflicts weren't the fuel, heat, or oxygen that the fire required to exist, the conflicts were like an accelerant.

Shelby 8 years, 4 months ago

Uh, Wilbur, nowhere in my post did make any claim other than the fact that lots of local halfwits think the "battle" of black jack was what started the civil war, and that lots of small, bored communities throughout the US like Baldwin like to propogate the ill-informed notion that a lame occurrence near their town is what started an event of national significance because it makes them feel more important.

But feel free to take things out of context in the future in an entirely successful attempt to make people think you're a civil war nerd.

Shelby 8 years, 4 months ago

The statement "The Battle of Black Jack started the Civil War" is like saying "The gassing-up of the Flight '93 plane started the War on Terror."

Godot 8 years, 4 months ago

"1. It's a campy - and sometimes hokey - view of early Kansas that glosses over an important era in the state's history, often favoring a love story over historical fact.

  1. It's a truly local production - written by and starring Douglas Countians - that could be an important tool in telling the Bleeding Kansas story for those who are more inclined to go to the theater than open a history book."

Or,

  1. It is a musical comedy/drama written in the style of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mueller fictionalizes an historical event as the framework for making some beautiful music.

Wilbur_Nether 8 years, 4 months ago

Shelby shelled out "...feel free to take things out of context in the future in an entirely successful attempt to make people think you're a civil war nerd." Which is interesting on several counts, specifically that Shelby's original sound-bite, "This marks another entry in the long list of small communities who think their little scuffle 'was what started the civil war'," had no internal factual support or context to support a pretty caustic accusation; and that the local historians I know claim that it's the first pitched battle, not the proximate cause of the ACW. And, wow, do I ever feel taken to the woodshed by the reference as a Civil War nerd. Gee whillikers, if that didn't really make me stand back and rethink how I might have been wrong. Shelby further shellaced me with "The statement 'The Battle of Black Jack started the Civil War' is like saying 'The gassing-up of the Flight '93 plane started the War on Terror.'" Shelby's "nerd" response had left me thinking him/her somewhat juvenile in rhetorical ability. The complete failure of that analogy, though, causes me to have to apologize to Shelby for having made such a terrible overestimation.

Wilbur_Nether 8 years, 4 months ago

My last post here was somewhat vitriolic. Shelby, I apologize for the personal attack there. It was uncalled for, and I am asking the moderators to remove it.

Shelby 8 years, 4 months ago

Wilbur...dude...none taken. Don't remove it.

But I thought it was a good analogy. And it seems that we pretty much agree...

It's just that I lived near baldwin for a long time, and went to the high school there, and the maple leaf festival, and, well, we were always taught it was the first skirmish, and I'm a little bitter because it wasn't. For real, man. It may have been ONE of the first, but ask Shelby Foote.

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