A well-populated house Thursday evening enjoyed the opening performance of this year's "The Ballad of Black Jack" at the Lawrence Arts Center. Don Mueller's musical, a local institution since its premiere in Baldwin in 1970, benefits from the new energy and greater fluidity given it by director Jack Wright and choreographer Barb Wasson. Numbers that in years past sometimes verged on tableaux vivant have become part of the action in this ambitious re-telling of 1855 eastern Kansas history.
The talent and enthusiasm of the large cast are the heart of this venerable production. More than 30 people, sometimes seeming to crowd the stage in the frequent ensemble numbers, did an exceptional job with the show's choral music - not an everyday occurrence even when capable voices are present. Credit musical director Pamela Gibbs for keeping them together, with crisp entrances and clear diction.
"Black Jack" showcases the fine voices of the romantic leads, Jim Tuchscherer as Jay Branson and Sarah Beach as Melinda Werther. Particularly in their duets, these two did justice to songs such as the lovely ballad "Quiet Place." Robin Miller as Mrs. Werther also knows how to deliver a tune, and Philip Bradley as Gov. Robinson exhibits a mellow baritone. A women's ensemble, led by Beach, does an exceptional job with "You'll Sing His Song" in the second act.
Dancers liven the stage in such numbers as the opening "Kansas!", which gets the play off to a positive start. Throughout the evening, it's easy to remember which members of the cast are the dancers, as their movement onstage is a treat even when not dancing: Kacie Dienstbach as would-be seductress Liza Grimm, or Alex Haynes' acrobatic abandon as Zeke. And don't miss Haynes' stunning impressions of a bear and a horse.
Other performances of note include Bob Newton's command of the pivotal role of Capt. Abbott; Doug Wasson's powerful but nuanced John Brown; Barry Landon as a rascally Sheriff Jones; Ron Willis' arresting portrayal of the by-the-book Col. Sumner; Fran Hopkins as the salty Mrs. Grimm. And Jayke Workman, who starred as JoJo in "Seussical" at Lawrence Community Theatre in 2006, resumes his scene-stealing abilities here as young Ephraim Werther.
The serviceable set features a rustic multilevel wooden platform with steps and ramps, which helps relieve an otherwise overcrowded stage. Lighting by Ron Chinn and R.J. Stephenson is effective, with good use of dramatic colors against an upstage scrim. A four-piece orchestra of piano, clarinet, bass and percussion not only backs the singers well but is nicely melodic in itself throughout the show's 20 songs. Costumes fill the stage with yards of calico and homespun (and some feminine frills), giving a solid 1850s frontier feeling.
Perhaps because of the theater's acoustics, or because of entrances and exits via the aisles, some audience members wished for a little less whooping and hollering from the cast to indicate the characters' enthusiasm. The play also has a few less effective moments when the characters are given rather declamatory set speeches, but director and actors must deal with these as best they can.
If you enjoy musicals, would like a refresher course on Bleeding Kansas, and want to see a big local cast giving their hearts to an improved local tradition, head on down to the Lawrence Arts Center this weekend.