Open House Theatre, A Small Town Theatre, Brings Big Talent with “Judge Jackie: Disorder in the Court”

As a recent St. Louis area implant, I am still learning all the ins and outs of arts and entertainment in the Gateway to the West. I had the privilege of taking a short scenic drive to the thriving metropolis of New Athens, IL—a hidden gem on the outskirts of the Metro-East. In a town with a population that hovers around 2,000, I was pleasantly surprised to find a night of fun and frivolity in Judge Jackie Justice.

This quirky musical written by Christopher Dimond (Book & Lyrics), Michael Kooman (Music), and based on the concept by Van Kaplan was directed by Richard Matt of Open House Theater. Judge Jackie presides over daytime TV’s hottest reality courtroom with the help of her trusty bailiff, Henry Winslow. When the show’s ratings drop, Jackie must decide whether she’s willing to change with the times and if she’s ready to open her heart to love.

From the beginning, the audience was asked to sing along with the theme song of Judge Jackie’s show—an experience made great by a warm and welcoming hometown crowd. Throughout the play, members of the audience served minor roles as rock/paper/scissors competitors, a cult god, a flirty paralegal, and a backup dancer. The cast shined in their ability to improvise with both the enthusiastic and more reserved audience members.

Amy Kinsella played a perfect Judge Jackie, sarcastic and in command—a true juxtaposition to the more timid Henry Winslow played by Jordan Zeitler. The strongest musical number of the night came from Bailey Lance as Luanne Pumpkinblotch, a hopelessly devoted doomsday prepper, singing “Ain’t No Drill.” Another showstopper came from Rachel Likert singing “My Daddy Hate Me” as Britley Spanx. Both women showed heart and humor with big voices.

In my mind, there was one character who stole the show—John Lukomski’s Shane Shankleman. Lukomski channeled The Music Man’s Harold Hill in his portrayal of this quick-talking, next-best-thing-looking network executive. His commitment to his musical numbers was admirable, and I laughed out loud at this character who Judge Jackie herself described as a “walking malaprop.”

Overall, the cast did a fantastic job of using a minimalist stage to communicate scene changes, and the strength of this performance was in the individual actors’ ability to stay in character in their varied roles. Tristan Ferendzo conquered the challenge of transitioning smoothly from local yokel, Duane Duanneson, to unlucky in love beatboy, Treat Macklin. Judy Milford and Kyle Richeson offered great support as piano accompaniment and lights and sound respectively. As a whole, this small town cast performed with big city talent.

This production of Judge Jackie Justice was everything right about community theater. With the retirement of founders, Dick and Muriel Petrowich, Richard Matt and Jordan Zeitler are ushering in a new era in Open House’s 31st season. The future is promising.

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