Archive for Saturday, August 12, 2006

Ballad’ exists both as campy view of Kansas and as tool for history

August 12, 2006


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, has become 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 two 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. Shawn Deegan, who plays Charles Dow, 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.

Audio Clips
Ballad of Black Jack

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.


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