Throughout the Beatles tribute show at the Omaha Community Playhouse, they’re just their genuine, funny and entertaining selves. No costumes, no pretense.
That enables Omaha performer Billy McGuigan (of “Buddy Holly” fame) and brothers Ryan and Matthew to bond immediately with the audience. The performers and audience have something important in common: They all love the Beatles.
“Yesterday and Today” has been at the Playhouse for more than a decade with an audience-request format. Until 2019, they perused the requests backstage and put together a performance before the show started.
Now they put the requests in baskets and select them onstage in real time. I was a little fuzzy on how it would work. I thought it would be a hodgepodge (or, in radio terms, a train wreck, which is when a DJ plays two incompatible songs back to back). I figured they would choose requests entirely at random.
They do, but they wisely figured out a way to give performances more structure: It appeared that each request went into a basket according to category (early Beatles, later Beatles, love songs, etc.) and as the show rolls along, they randomly pick from each collection depending on where the music has been and where they want it to go.
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The musicians — including Jay Hanson, Rich Miller and Tara Vaughan — also perform a few (apparent) non-requests for a compelling and heartwarming reason: The pieces (a notable one is “We Can Work It Out”) help the McGuigans tell the history of the show and their family.
Dad McGuigan was a huge Fab Four fan who passed his passion on to his sons. He died of cancer in the 1990s. The show is as much a tribute to him as it is to the Beatles — at one point, pictures of the family are projected on screens above the stage. It’s very cool.
In fact, the entire thing is an absolute blast.
They ask some people to stand when their songs are chosen, and there’s banter back and forth. One guy requested “When I’m 64,” changing the number to 84 because, presumably, he’d already passed the younger landmark. That was good for some conversation with the band.
Others get to see the slips they filled out projected on the screens. I don’t know about everyone else, but I found myself anxiously awaiting to see whether my song would be selected. There’s a place on request forms to tell them why it’s your favorite song, and they’re fun: “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” was one request, “because everything sounds better in German ... or French.”
At our interview, the McGuigans insisted on knowing my favorite Beatles song. I answered without hesitation: “The Long and Winding Road.” By the time the show came around, however, it was “Golden Slumbers,” the sublime medley that ends the “Abbey Road” album, and they played it as their own finale (then returned for several encores, of course). The reason on my form: “Because today it’s my favorite. Tomorrow it might not be.”
I texted my brother, a fervent Beatles fan, and asked for his favorite song: “Hey Bulldog,” he replied.
It was someone else’s favorite too, because “rock and roll,” the form said. It was the second song after they opened with “Come Together.”
The hits kept coming: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “Drive My Car.” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
There was an extended sing-along (“Hey Jude”) and early set (“Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” “Twist and Shout.”)
The entire band sat in an upstage circle to recreate all-acoustic childhood jam sessions in the McGuigan home (“Things We Said Today” and “Blackbird”).
After hundreds of performances over the years, no two the same, these musicians know their stuff. They put their own stamp on the songs (they’re not just dutifully mimicking album arrangements), but, regardless, it’s amazing how close they come to the overall Beatles sound.
By not slavishly portraying one band member throughout, like people in most tribute bands, the McGuigans free themselves to sing lead on the songs they know and love best or those most suited to their particular styles and talents.
It’s a pretty brilliant concept, and one I’m sorry I’ve been missing all this time.
I feel like I’ve been initiated into a very special club that meets once a year.
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1. Aladdin: "Aladdin" grabs you from the moment the curtain rises on a stage filled with brilliant color. This show requires performers to be expert vocalists, athletic dancers and comic actors, and, for the most part, this touring cast is up to the challenge. Read more
2. Return to Niobrara: "Return to Niobrara," deals with issues that unfortunately are as pertinent today as they were when Chief Standing Bear sued General George Crook in the 1870s: human rights, racism and stereotypes, among others. It's undoubtedly one of the best shows of the past year. Read more
3. South Pacific: Despite a lack of scenery and trims to the script, this production of "South Pacific" had a lot of heart and energy. Read more
4. I and You: What a story "I and You" is, complete with an ending that stunned everyone in the premiere-night audience. And what a group of actors, directors, designers and technicians the theater has chosen to tell it. Read more
5. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is a raw, honest play, performed by actors who understand that. If you're used to rainbows and bluebirds, it will rattle you. But nonetheless, it is a worthwhile production. Read more
6. Of Mice and Men: "Of Mice and Men" is a faithful version of John Steinbeck's legendary novella, with a fine cast of actors, fabulous music evocative of the period and a theater space ideal for the 11-member cast. Read more
7. The Doll-Maker's Gift: "The Doll-Maker’s Gift" looks at the impact of pogroms on Russian Jews in the early 1900s. But it has more to say about kindness and hope, helping adults and children alike believe that the world may just hold more good people than bad. Read more
8. On Your Feet: There isn’t a dud in the cast of "On Your Feet." The touring musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan has lots of energy, a bit of heart and enormous appeal. Read more
9. The Bridges of Madison County: The story behind "The Bridges of Madison County" isn't any more compelling than it ever was. But the Playhouse show, with its first-rate vocal work, acting and production values, is undeniably stunning. Read more
10. Come From Away: "Come From Away" is a warm and witty look at the generosity of a Canadian town to stranded jet passengers during 9/11, and inspires one to be a more generous, caring person. Read more
11. One Man, Two Guvnors: "One Man, Two Guvnors" was ably directed, features a supporting cast every bit as special as the lead actor and captures the best of British comedy in a side-splitting production. Read more
12. Dragons Love Tacos: "Dragons Love Tacos" is aimed squarely at kids. It has an uncomplicated and somewhat repetitive kooky story that doesn’t move too fast. Though I found my mind wandering at times, I derived my joy from seeing the kids' reactions. Read more
13. Men on Boats: "Men on Boats" tells a historical story in an innovative way, and the direction and acting are superb. But figuring out the underlying message was a bit challenging. Read more
14. The Woodsman: "The Woodsman" is everything theater can be. It doesn't need elaborate or expensive embellishments or more than an hour and change to tell a warm, fully realized and absolutely irresistible story. Read more
15. Miss Saigon: "Miss Saigon" has some absolutely breathtaking music, and cast members of the touring Broadway show have some absolutely breathtaking voices. The show's subject matter is still relevant today, and it doesn't pull any punches. Read more
16. Ragtime: "Ragtime" offers a portrait of immigration that contradicts some of the narratives today. It's been my experience in this job that the Playhouse always saves its season-best for last. That's true again this year. Read more
17. She Rocks: Tara Vaughan's "She Rocks" is a tribute to several artists. Sometimes she hewed closely to an idol's original sound, and at other times she got a little crazy. Depending on the song, her voice can be somewhat slight and girlish, folksy and alternative, sexy and just plain powerful. Read more
18. Matilda: Actor Joey Galda is a stitch as the evil Miss Trunchbull in this stage version of Roald Dahl's "Matilda." The rest of the cast, including kids, is pretty special, too. It also has probably the best set I've seen all year. Read more
19. West Side Story: Omaha South High School is using profits from "West Side Story" toward building a visual and performing arts addition on the south end of its campus. The diverse, well-acted, timely production is proof that the money will be well-spent. Read more
20. Hamlet: With artful direction from John Hardy, the gender-reimagined cast in "Hamlet" seamlessly slipped into the text and the action. The actors and their characters transcended gender roles to illuminate human and political archetypes in a compelling way. Read more
21. Into the Woods: I left feeling like I had been there a tad too long and I wasn't too taken by the music in "Into the Woods." But despite my gut reactions, I still enjoyed the experience, particularly the top-notch performers and beautiful sets. Read more
22. Beauty and the Beast: A luminous Belle, buffoonish Gaston, extra-special orchestra and more make this production of "Beauty and the Beast" a good, old-fashioned celebration and a wonderful way to spend a summer night. Read more
23. Rock Twist: Billy McGuigan is so likable, such a good storyteller and such a great showman that despite a few sound deficits, we left the theater grinning and raving about this year's "Rock Twist." McGuigan is real, with a self-deprecating humor and no pretensions. He doesn't take himself too seriously. Read more
24. Sweat: A Pulitzer-winning script, performances and other details make the show an excellent (if hard to watch) season-opener. But lest you think this show is relentlessly depressing, it’s actually anything but. Strangely enough, I left "Sweat" feeling hope. Read more
25. Hamilton: While others were breathlessly awaiting "Hamilton," I was blasé. I scoffed at the hype. But after seein git at the Orpheum Theater, I succumbed to the fever. There's not a weak link in the cast, and the show takes advantage of that by using nearly 90% of the ensemble most of the time. Read more
26. Annie: "Annie," the feel-good musical about a Depression-era orphan who hopes to find her parents and ends up with a brand-new life, has enough cute to go around, and other than a few nitpicks, it had a lot going for it. Read more
27. Red Summer: Playwright Beaufield Berry says she set out to give Will Brown, who was lynched in Omaha in 1919, dignity and an identity, and she succeeded. If you see no other show this season, go to "Red Summer." It’s important. Read more
28. The Cat in the Hat: The production immediately grabbed kids with its colorful, book-like set, a likable brother and sister facing a boring rainy day and a "fish" in a frilly pink dress that performed a ballet. When the Cat popped up, the kids were loudly delighted. But even speaking as an adult, it melted my heart. Read more
29. The Rocky Horror Show: The show centers is authentic to the original and packed full of enthusiastic and talented performers, great song and dance and high-quality production values. It’s a keeper. Read more
30. Bernhardt/Hamlet: The serious and humorous script focuses on a plan by Bernhardt, an acclaimed French theater actress in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to stage and star in "Hamlet" at her new theater. Played by Delaney Driscoll, Bernhardt's humanity — a strong will, abundant confidence in her abilities, vulnerability born of a difficult childhood — shines. Read more
31. Dogfight: "Dogfight," which tells the story of Marines who have one final night of carousing in San Francisco before they’re shipped off to Okinawa and then Vietnam, is the antithesis of a happy, fluffy musical. But it is a worthwhile evening of theater about a difficult time in U.S. history and offers audiences fodder for postshow conversation. Read more
32. Ella Enchanted: "Ella Enchanted" depicts a girl whose misguided fairy godmother casts a spell that renders her unable to say "no." The play is about helping kids realize they have a voice, a will and a brain, and that they don’t have to automatically agree to every request from every person. Read more
33. Jesus Christ Superstar: The 50th anniversary tour of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at the Orpheum was raw and evocative, the performances were first-rate and the songs were showstopping. In a word — super. Read more
34. Yesterday and Today: Throughout their Beatles tribute show, the McGuigan brothers are just their genuine, funny and entertaining selves. No costumes, no pretense. That enables them to bond immediately with the audience. Read more
35. Omaha Symphony Christmas Celebration: This concert was a major crowd-pleaser, and for good reason: An enthusiastic and more-than-capable orchestra. Wonderful professional dancers. Cute kids and a dog. Résonance, a choir that sounded massive in the confines of the Holland Center. And several noted Broadway performers. Read more