“A Chorus Line” gets brilliant treatment with MOT and Theatre Red collaboration

The cast of “A Chorus Line” with headshots for the producer

The recent Powerball pot of $700 million spawned a number of stories about what you’d do if you won.

Well, if I ever win the lottery I’m going to build a spectacular golf course and then give a couple million each to Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Theatre Red. The money would provide the opportunity for each company to have extended runs of their creative, challenging and unique productions.

Case in point:” A Chorus Line” the enchanting show that revitalized the American musical 42  years ago and that remains fresh and engrossing today.

The only sad part of the collaboration between these two companies is the fact that this wonderful production ran for only two nights. It could – should – have run for two months or, what the hell, two years.

Before we get to the big issue, let’s take a little walk down the road not travelled for so many people who couldn’t see this show. All of you, listen up, because here’s what you missed.

The musical is an unvarnished look at the behind the scenes life of wannabe Broadway dancers who are in audition for a spot in an upcoming production. It’s the story of their confidence and insecurities that go with being a trained performer looking for a job. It’s the embodiment of the axiom “the most difficult job for a dancer is getting a job.”

Seventeen dancers have made the final line to audition for Zach played by Joe Picchetti and his accompanist Larry, played by Ryan Cappleman, who was also the music director in the show.  

Ryan Cappleman puts the dancers through their paces.

It all begins with the song “I Hope I Get It,” a lament not just for show business but for anyone who ever applied for a job they really wanted. It’s a group number and it’s complete with wonderful and imaginative choreography from James Zager.

One by one Zach calls on them to talk, to explain themselves, to make an honest pitch for why they should get the job. Here’s the rundown.

David Flores soft-shoes his way through “I Can Do that”

David Flores gets the first call. Short and round he looks like anything but a dancer. But dance he can, with a smooth soft shoe to the song “I Can Do That,” the line he said over and over as his mother took him along to watch his sister in her dance lessons. Flores is as polished a performer you may ever see and this one is right in his strike zone.

Next came Karl Miller, a dancer, actor, director and choreographer himself. He starts out by performing for Zach, who calls him out. “Do you want to know about all the wonderful and exciting things that have happened to me in my life,” he asks. “Or do you want the truth.” Zach opts for truth.

Melissa Kelly Cardamone, Jenny Wanasek and Angela Iannone are “At the Ballet”

Next comes one of the most beautiful numbers of the entire show, “At The Ballet,” performed here by Angela Iannone, Jenni Wanasek and Melissa Kelly Cardamone.  The contrast between the three is striking, Ms. Iannone the jaded dancer full of temerity, Ms. Wanasek damaged by her appearance and loveless parents and Ms. Cardamone, young and hopeful and shocked by the older dancers.

Doug Jarecki and Karen Estrada were a married couple, each trying for the job. The roars of laughter started when Estrada mentioned that she could dance, but she couldn’t sing. Jarecki instructing her first in “Three Blind Mice “and then in Jingle Bells” – both of which were mangled by Ms. Estrada, was a moment of high humor.

Part of the joy of this show is how each dancer, willing or not, dives back into what made them the person they are today. And one of the most revealing and both funny and touching came from Mark Bucher, the Artistic Director at Boulevard Theatre and a veteran of the Milwaukee community.

“And then there was the time I was making out in the back seat with Sally Ketchum,” he said of his youth. “We were necking and I was feeling her boobs, and feeling her boobs and after about an hour or so she said, ‘Ohhhh, don’t you want to feel anything else?’ And I suddenly thought to myself, ‘No, I don’t.’” Bucher was priceless but there was more to come.

Marcee Doherty-Elst found success with new “Tits and Ass”

The famous song “Dance Ten, Looks Three” fell into the hands (and all the rest of her) of Marcee Doherty Elst, the Producing Director of Theatre Red.

Ms. Elst is a woman of size and she made the most of every bulge and jiggle. She told the story of leaving home, coming to New York to become a Rockette and how she wasn’t able to get a job doing anything until she came to a realization that she had to change the way she looked.

“Dance Ten, Looks Three
And I’m still on unemployment
Dancing for my own enjoyment.
That ain’t it kid, that ain’t it, kid.

“Dance Ten, Looks Three,
Is like to die;
Left the theater and called the doctor
For my appointment to buy….

“Tits and Ass
Bought myself a fancy pair
Tightened up the derriere
Did the nose with it
And all that goes with it.”

The number absolutely brought the house down. The applause was thunder and the show had to pause until everyone settled down. Ms. Doherty-Elst delivered a performance that was part Ethel Merman, part Bette Midler and part Carol Channing. She was magnificent.

The most poignant point of the evening came from C. Michael Wright, the Artistic Director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, who played Paul.  

His early life was chaotic and he struggled to come to terms with his sexuality. He was victimized by bullies and ended up in a drag show, without his parents knowing. A tour was planned and, to his shock, Paul saw his parents at the stage door, while he was still dressed in drag. He was frightened of their reaction.

“All they said to me was, please write, make sure you eat and take care of yourself,” he said. “And just before they left, my father turned to the producer and he said: ‘Take care of my son.’ That was the first time he ever called me that. I….ah…ah…”

There was barely a dry eye in the house and you could have heard a pin drop if someone dropped a pin.

Then came the wrap, with the spectacular Rana Roman and the mournful and optimistic classic “What I Did For Love.” Joined by Beth Mulkerron and the remainder of the cast, there were chills and goosebumps everywhere you looked.

The show ended with the cast running up the aisles through a raucous audience that clearly wanted them to turn around, go back on stage, and keep on going.

Theatre Red has brought us “Bachelorettes” and then last year collaborated with Wisconsin Lutheran College to stage a spectacular show about lady pirates, “Bonny Anne Bonny.”

Milwaukee Opera Theatre, guided by the dashing and daring Jill Anna Ponasik has staged a one person opera about a monkey, a brilliant collaboration with Wild Space Dance Company to stage “Songs from the Uproar,” and a version of “The Mikado”that had both Gilbert and Sullivan laughing in their graves.

There are many theater companies in Milwaukee which stand on firmer financial footing and create shows that are glorious.

But nobody can match the out-of-the-box reach of these two, which is why I know what I’m doing with the money when I win the lottery.

Production Credits: Director, Jill Anna Ponasik, Music Director, Ryan Cappleman; Percussionist, Michael “Ding” Lorenz; Stage Manager, Sarah Acker; Production Manager, Jim Padovano” Lighting Designer, AntiShadows LLC; Photography/ Videography, Traveling Lemur Productions; Production Photos, Mark Frohna.

Cast: Joe Picchetti, Ryan Cappleman, Beth Mulkerron, Angela Iannone, Marcee Doherty-Elst, Rana Roman, Diane Lane, Karen Estrada, Jenny Wanasek, Melissa Kelly Cardamone, Carol Greif, David flores, Bill Jackson,Joel Kopischke, C. Michael Wright, James Zager, Mark Bucher, Karl Miller, Doug Jarecki.



Guide to Milwaukee theater productions opening in September

The Milwaukee Theater scene begins to heat up in September with a number of exciting productions scheduled to hit the boards.

There’s a lot to choose from and this guide may be helpful. Let’s get off to a good start for what we all hope will be a wonderful season. 

“Next to Normal”
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt.
All In Productions (performance at Next Act Theatre)
September 7-16

The rock musical is the story of a woman with bipolar disorder who struggles on a daily basis and the impact it has on her family. It’s a moving story, told so well it was nominated for 11 Tony awards and won 3. All In has a reputation for doing  small, serious show with great skill. “The Last Five Years,” “The Shape of Things,” and “Dogfight” were all memorable productions and the potential is for this company to deliver again. Tim Backes directs and Julie Johnson is Music Director.

By Stephen Temperley
The Rep
September 10-November 5

Florence Foster Jenkins came alive for millions of people in the Oscar-nominated movie of the same name with Meryl Streep in the title role.It’s the story of a wealthy New York socialite who was convinced she could sing, saying, “people may say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.” With a voice like scratching on a blackboard, she gave a series of off-key concerts, all leading up to an appearance at Carnegie Hall. Any show with Milwaukee’s Jack Forbes Wilson in it is always a great evening at the theater. The story may be a bit shopworn, but great performances can make it a good night for dinner and a show in the Stackner Cabaret.

“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”
By Terrence McNally
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
September 20-October 15

A great American play about two middle aged people who end up in bed one night.. He’s a short order cook and she’s a waitress who is overweight and feels unattractive. Johnny falls hard for her, but she’s wary. The two take small and hesitant steps toward each other. The fabulous Mary McDonald Kerr directs two of Milwaukee’s best, Todd Denning and Marcella Kearns.

“Guys and Dolls”
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.
The Rep
September 19-October 29

Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements is a magician with a big musical, and they don’t come much bigger, or better, than this almost 80-year old classic full of Damon Runyon characters. With songs like “Luck by a Lady,” “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “A Bushel and a Peck” it invites audiences to sing along. One of Milwaukee’s favorites, Kelley Faulkner is one of the dolls in this tale of love, luck and a glance at the underworld  side of life.  The Rep opens and closes its Quadracci season with two classics, “Guys and Dolls” and “Our Town.”

“The Who and The What”
By Ayad Akhtar
The Rep
September 27-November 5

Milwaukee’s own Pulitzer Prize winning playwright is back with a story about family and faith and the sometimes conflicting merger of the two. Here’s part of Charles Isherwood’s review in the New York Times: “considers the itchy frictions that emerge when religious belief and contemporary life rub up against each other, as they do for the family at the center of the play, a Pakistani immigrant and his two grown daughters.” Rep Artistic Associate May Adrales will direct.

“Silent Sky”
By Lauren Gunderson
Next Act Theatre
September 28-October 22

The first of two plays by Gunderson, one of the brightest and most successful young women playwrights in the country. The story in this one is about women pioneers at Harvard who map the stars. Talk about a killer cast – this one includes Deborah Staples, Karen Estrada, Reese Madigan, Carrie Hitchcock and Kelly Doherty. In Milwaukee, it doesn’t get much better than that.


Like clowns from the little car, APT’s “Pericles” is as funny as it gets

James Ridge and his steamer trunk in APT’s “Pericles.”

Remember when you went to the circus and that little car drove into the center ring and a whole bunch of clowns tumbled out – 10, or 20 clowns.

Eric Tucker, the ever-inventive Artistic Director at the ever-inventive Bedlam Theater Company in New York, obviously remembers those clowns.

How else to explain the opening of “Pericles – Prince of Tyre,” the Shakespeare romance that opened over the weekend at American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

The production opens with a steamer trunk center stage and James Ridge, dressed in an outfit that includes ankle high off-green socks, Opening the trunk, an actor climbs out, then another and another and another. Ten actors crawl from the trunk.

Then come black-clad lighting technicians and members of the crew. The audience howls in delight with each new entrant.

This is Shakespeare?

The answer is yes, especially if you are Tucker, whom New York Times critic Ben Brantley said was a director of “ecstatic ingenuity.”

“Pericles” is a play that can have somewhere between 22 and 3-something characters. Heroes and heroines and ladies, gentlemen, sailors and all of that “Shakespeare stuff.”

Not for Tucker who has made a name for himself at Bedlam by directing classics with small casts. Think Shaw’s 20-character “St. Joan,” with four actors.

The cast of “Pericles” at American Players Theatre

The APT production has 10 actors, all playing multiple roles and some playing multiple-multiple roles. And buried somewhere in all of this is a story of a prince(Juan Rivera Lebron)  who travels the world in search of love. Along the way he is buffeted by sturm and drang with a bevy of characters who Shakespeare never dreamed about.

Think a dust bowl shack with David Daniels and Tracy Michelle Arnold complete with southern hick  accents. Or Marcus Truschinski dressed in a yellow slicker and a Scottish brogue or the lustrous Andrea San Miguel in a dress best suited for a spring prom than a Shakespeare production. Or Cristina Panfilio creating thunder by slamming a tin strip against a wall of the stage. Truschinski also manages a section where he sounds like the Count from “Sesame Street.”

Think, for a moment, how you hear the sound of a joust – two warriors on horses with lances trying to knock each other dizzy – created from the creative mind of sound designer Josh Schmidt. That’s right THE SOUND of jousting.

Tucker has turned this cast loose to play for laughs, to play it over the top with big characters getting big laughs. Mr. Lebron is the only character who plays it relatively straight. Everybody else is something that nobody would expect in Shakespeare.

This – believe it or not – is Shakespeare at APT.

In his director’s notes for the production, Tucker explains just what he expected out of this production.

“It’s an epic story that spans a decade and a half and several different kingdoms. It is a tale of adventure with storms at sea, shipwrecks, pirates, brothels, famines, knights, incest, a goddess and much, much more. In short, it’s a story that is aching to be told on stage, with live actors and the imagination of a willing audience.

“This is a story that has the possibility not only to entertain and enlighten, but one that I hope can do what I encounter only so often, and that’s reconfirm the power of theatre.”

Those are his expectations, but one of the things that you will carry away from this production is that it is almost totally unexpected. It’s a surprise, in every single way.

“Pericles, Prince of Tyre” runs through Sept. 29 and information on showtimes and tickets is available at http://www.americanplayers.org.

Production credits”Director, Eric Tucker; Assistant Director, Katherine Burris; Voice & Text Coach, Ana Cristina (Gigi) Buffington; Costume Design, Daniel Tyler Mathews; Scenic Design, Andrew Boyce, Lighting Design, Michael A Peterson; Sound Design and Original Music, Josh Schmidt; Stage Manager, Carrie Taylor; Production Photographer, Liz Lauren. 

Cast: Cher Desiree Alvarez, Tracy Michelle Arnold, David Daniel, Gavin Lawrence, Juan Rivera Lebron, Cristina Panfilio, Cage Sebastian Pierre, James Ridge, Andrea San Miguel, Marcus Truschinski.

APT delivers a classic and glorious “View from a Bridge”

There is nothing quite like the eternal battle between obsession and fear of obsession has rarely gotten such an intense look as in Arthur Miller’s  “A View From the Bridge.”

And there is nothing quite like the searing production of this classic that opened over the weekend at American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

Under the precise and unrestrained direction of Tim Ocel, a cast of actors tells a story so painful and complex that it demands attention and stamina, watching a man’s  gradual descent into the darkest and most fearsome place in his heart.

Eddie Carbone (Jim DeVita) is a longshoreman on the docks in Brooklyn. He’s married to Beatrice (Colleen Madden) and they have adopted her niece, Catherine (Melisa Pereyra) whose parents were killed in an accident,

From the earliest moments, the relationship between the three raises warning flags that all is not healthy. Catherine, a  young woman of serious beauty, acts as a child to Eddie, bringing him his beers, rubbing his shoulders, settling on his lap after his arrival home from a tough day on the docks.

Colleen Madden and Jim DeVita are falling apart

Eddie is overbearing with his niece, firm in his guidance that she finish school, stay away from boys, and to “be with a different kind of people.” With his obvious connection with Catherine it also becomes clear that there are cracks in the marriage of Eddie and Beatrice.

They have not had sex for three months and he refuses to discuss the reasons why he’s become so distant. Beatrice urges him to loosen his strings on Catherine, suspecting that his infatuation has a bearing on his love for his wife.

Enter into this combustible mix two of Beatrice’s cousins, Marco (Casey Hoekstra) and Rudolpho (Will Mobley),  illegal immigrants from Italy, who move into the the house with the others.  Marco is a husband and father, leaving his family at home. Rudolpho is everything Eddie isn’t – single, blonde, artistic and, most especially, free to be attractive to and attracted by Catherine.

Mr. DeVita, who grew up on fishing boats on Long Island, absolutely smolders as his desperation about the relationship grows. He seeks legal advice from Alfieri (Brian Mani), claiming “he ain’t right,” his certainty that Rudolpho may be gay and attracted to Catherine only as a way to get his citizenship.

Mr. Mani also acts as the narrator of this journey, describing Eddies,  “he was as good a man as he had to be.”

Will Mobely and Jim DeVita square off.

Eddie tries everything to kill the budding love affair, from the getting legal advice to using a boxing lesson to hurt Rudolpho. Nothing works, however, and he finally resorts to an anonymous call to the Immigration Service, to report the presence of Marco and Rodolpho, hoping for an arrest and deportation.

The story comes to a tragic end with a fight between Eddie and Marco, a battle that ends with Eddie dying by his very own knife.

This cast of actors deliver the kind of performances that have created the mystique of the outdoor theater in the hills of Tower State Park. It’s a performance of power, grace and intelligence.

Mr. DeVita delivers a craftily etched performance that provides a window into the conflict and guilt that lurk beneath his machismo and demanding personality. He is a marvel to behold each time he takes the stage and, like Michael Jordan in basketball, makes the players around him better,

Ms. Madden wears beleaguered and ignored with subtle display and in her every movement. She never takes an action without having a reason for it and she  wears her sorrow on her face and her plea for a place in life in every word she utters.

Ms. Preyra is a continuing marvel to behold torn in all directions. She is the affectionate child to Eddie, the teenager on the verge of womanhood, the loyal niece to Beatrice and lover hoping for validation and peace.

Mr. Hoekstra and Mr. Mobley each span a wide gamut of emotion and expression. From the dreamers who arrive from Italy to the disappointed who find that life is a constant struggle, each actor had an intensity and transparent variety that left no doubt as to what was roiling in their lives.

A special mention must go to fight choreographer Brian Byrnes. The final fight between Eddie and Marco is fierce and as realistic as any fight you may ever see on a stage.

This production is a rare event in the world of theater. It marries a glorious space with a glorious play and a glorious team of designers and actors.

What a way to spend a glorious summer evening.

Production credits: Director, Tim Ocel; Assistant Director, Christine Weber, Voice & Text Coach, Sara Becker; Costume Design, Holly Payne; Scenic Design, Takeshi Kata; Lighting Design, Jesse Klug; Sound Design & Original Music; Gregg Coffin; Fight Director, Brian Byrnes; Stage Manager, Rebecca Lindsey.

Cast: Kipp Moorman, Tim Gittings, Brian Mani, Jim DeVita, Melisa Pereyra, Colleen Madden, Danny Martinez, Casey Hoekstra, Will Mobley, Robert R. Doyle, Josh Krause.

Like nails on a blackboard, Off the Wall mounts Baby Jane!

Jeremy Welter and Mark Hagen as Baby Jane and Blanche.

Milking the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, two of greatest actors of their time, rose to a fevered pitch with the release of the 1962 movie “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane.”

It was a frantic and suspense-filled romp through the life of Baby Jane Hudson, from her life as a child star on the Orpheum Circuit, to her fall from grace into a harridan who imprisons her own crippled sister, Blanche, in a mausoleum of a home.

The movie was high camp and met with wonderful critical acclaim and a slew of Academy Award nominations.

Proving that he knows a good story when he sees it and that he knows how to take a brittle screech and turn it into a piercing wail, Dale Gutzman took the story and turned it into a two-act play that opened its second run at his Off the Wall Theatre this week.

If nothing else, Mr. Gutzman understands when it’s okay to let loose the reins and let his horse gallop untethered across the plain.

The conceit of this production, which had its debut in 2011, is that the roles of Baby Jane and Blanche are played by men, Mark Hagen and Jeremy Welter. In addition, the two men alternate roles and Mr. Welter played Jane to Mr. Hagen’s Blanche on opening night.

If pressed as to why stage this thing, Mr. Gutzman may well replay, “just for fun.” That is also going to be what people are saying when they walk out of the black box theater on Wells St.

Here’s the story.

Baby Jane is a star in the world of touring child stars who are cute, sing, dance and make money. Kayla Salter does a nice turn as the young Baby Jane ,trilling “I wrote a Letter to Daddy,” perhaps the most obnoxious song about potential incest you will ever hear.

Once we have established her cuteness and brattiness the scene shifts forward to a time when the sisters have become adults.

Baby Jane is a drunk with a heart of coal who keeps her sister, confined to a wheelchair, a virtual prisoner. Blanche was injured in an automobile crash, allegedly a plot by Jane to kill her sister, who is now the most popular star in the family.

Ah, you say, murder is afoot.

And it is, but not before there is so much gore and glory to be spread through both the big and little things that Mr. Gutzman is so adept at directing his actors to consider.

Mr. Welter looks like Bette Davis, with white makeup covering his blonde ringlet surrounded face, broken only by the garish slashes of bright red lipstick. Dressed first in a Mumu and then a lace dress with black heels, he is the embodiment of every man’s nightmare of a date.

Mr. Hagen is confined to his wheelchair with a severe black wig and crimson gown.

Jane’s cruelty to her sister knows no bounds. She bakes Blanche’s pet parakeet and serves it to her sister for lunch. Dinner is a rat, captured in the basement of their home. She banishes the woman who cleans and helps to care for Blanche.

The brightest of the comedy in this production is physical and much of it belongs to Blanche.

At one point in the first act she attempts to type a letter of plea to be dropped out a window. The typewriter is on one table, but paper is on another. Watching her wheelchair to get paper, put it in her mouth, and wheel back, sets off a string of back and forth that had the audience roaring in delight. She needs an address, a phone number, a spelling. Each one requires a herculean effort.

But it’s not just the broad physical comedy that marks a Gutzman production. While wheeling back to find a dictionary to see how to spell “immediately,” she pages through it, “ilk,” she says, then “ill” then “impeach, oh I’ve gone too far.” When she said ‘impeach” this political aware crowd chuckled with approval.

When Blanche tried to get to the downstairs (and downstage) phone to call for help, the tortured nature of her 10-minute journey was propelled with gales of laughter with each hurdle passed and faced.

Once Blanche makes it to the phone and calls for help, she is interrupted by Jane, who drags her behind a couch and stomps, kicks, hits and jumps on her sister. Each attack is accompanied by a reflexive leap of Blanche’s legs and, again, it’s the kind of physical comedy that produces peals of laughter.

Mr. Gutzman has a coterie of actors who consistently appear in his productions. They are all earnest players, some more able than others. His skill as a director – and producer – is to get everything he can out of the actors he has. The stars are stars and the others are there for support of the story.

Mr. Gutzman also knows, like Hamlet, that above all else, “the play’s the thing.”

“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” runs through August 27 and information on show times and tickets is available at http://www.offthewalltheatre.com

Mike Fischer’s review of Three Sisters at APT

Kelsey Brennan, Rebecca Hurd and Laura Rook at APT.

As promised, I want to bring other news about theater to readers, and that includes the reviews from Mike Fischer in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

He’s the best in this state, and anyone interested in theater should read him regularly.

Here’s his look at “Three Sisters,” the Chekov play in repertory at American Players Theatre.



8 Milwaukee productions I’m really looking forward to this season

Jill Anna Ponasik continues to redefine what opera means.

The 2017-18 theater season is underway in Milwaukee and I’ve been looking at my schedule with great anticipation.

And I confess that there are some plays that jump to the top of my list, anxious to see them and to hope that they create magic. Here, in no particular order, are 8 plays I can hardly wait to see this season.

Ana Sokolovic is a unique composer

“Svadba-Wedding” by Ana Sokolovic´
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Wild Space Dance Company
May, 2018

The last time these two companies got together in 2016, they created absolute magic with “Song of the Uproar.” It was a blending of theater, dance and music that you rarely see on stage in Milwaukee. Unique and creative don’t begin to describe that night of theater. This time around the little known a capella piece featuring six women holds promise for the kind of special night out that makes the theater scene so good in this town. It’s also another step in Jill Anna Ponasik’s campaign to redefine what opera is. Daring doesn’t begin to describe her vision.






Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel will heat things up at Renaissance

“Sex with Strangers” by Laura Eason
Renaissance Theaterworks
October 20-November 12

Two of my favorite women in Milwaukee theater team up for this story. Mallory Metoxen directs the always spectacular Marti Gobel and Nick Narcisi. When frustrated forty-ish novelist, Olivia, meets fast-talking, twenty-something, blogger and memoirist, Ethan – known more for his sexual prowess than his prose – she worries that she will become just another chapter in his little black book. Their funny and passionate union blurs the lines between rewrites, romance and royalties – proving you can’t judge a book by its author. Metoxen is one of the most talented and spirited women directors in the city.




Deborah Staples heads a sparkling cast at Next Act

“Silent Sky” and “I and You,” both by Laura Gunderson
Next Act Theatre
September28-October 22 and April 5029

Gunderson is one of the most popular young playwrights in the country and last season Next Act killed her show “The taming.” This year the company stages two very different works from her. And Sky has an absolutely killer cast of women actors, including Deborah Staples, Karen Estrada, Kelly Doherty and Carrie Hitchcock. Reese Madison holds up the male end of the spectrum.



The young boy at the heart of Antartica, WI at First Stage

“Antartica, WI” by Finegan Kruckemeyer
First Stage
April 6-April 22

Two years ago, the Australian playwright delivered “The Snow” under a commission from First Stage, and it was absolutely brilliant. Now he’s back with another commissioned work. From the First Stage description: “In Milwaukee there lives a very special young man. One who sees more deeply than others. He sees so much that he loves in his city, but he also sees the fractures. And when this special boy begins to see icebergs floating into Milwaukee, he alone must find a way to help his community navigate through the dangerous waters. From internationally recognized playwright This contemporary folk tale is inspired by conversations with our community.”



Dale Gutzman brings Shakespeare together with Cole Porter

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare and Cole Porter
Off the Wall Theatre
October 19-29

Every year Dale Gutzman swings for the fences with a couple of productions and marrying Dream with songs from Cole Porter seems like it has the potential to clear the bases. As he describres it: “In the Still of the Night,” fairies fight, lovers love and Man makes an ass of himself.” Plus, the show features the creative and tantalizing David Flores as Puck.




Laura Gordon will play the Stage Manager in Our Town at The Rep

“Our Town” by Thornton Wildler
The Rep
April 10-May 13

This one is a classic, one of the greatest of all American plays. It marks the Quadracci debut of Brent Hazelton as director and he deserves the step up. It will also feature the uber-remarkable Laura Gordon in the role of the Stage Manager, a role normally played by a man.




Andrew Varela dazzled as Sweeney Todd and will play The Narrator at In Tandem

“The Fantasticks” by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
In Tandem Theatre
April 26-May 20

I’m torn here about a play I’ve seen over 100 times, easily. It’s dated, but still a wonderful romantic story with great songs. It’s also going to be a chance to see Andrew Varela in the role of the Narrator. He was dazzling in “Sweeney Todd” at Skylight last year. But the show may be reaching the end of its appeal, even to me. I honestly think that In Tandem shines brilliantly when it doesn’t get wrapped up in silliness. “The Glass Menagerie,” “Any Given Monday,” “Burying the Bones” and “The Nightmare Room” have always made it on to my best plays of the year lists.




Chamber’s “Deathtrap” a skillfull mystery told with twists and turns

Bill Watson and Di’Monte Henning star in “Deathtrap.”

If you are of a certain age, or a fan of film and television mysteries, then you most likely recall, with some chill, the work of the great Alfred Hitchcock.

The maker of films and television shows, he was such a master of the genre of mystery and suspense, that he was knighted and left a body of work that is still seen today, “Dial M for Murder,” “North by Northwest,” “The Birds” and “Psycho.”

Michael Cotey, the adept young director from Milwaukee, channels the master in his mounting of “Deathtrap” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, the unofficial opening production of the Milwaukee theater season.

Mr. Hitchcock developed the mastery of special effect to move a story from the plain to the perfect – the background of a sound that signals the growing pace of suspense, the manipulation of light to herald a moment of horror, the breath-taking surprise of the unexpected.

Mr. Cotey, aided and abetted by a bevy of designers and a corps of smart actors, delivers all of Mr. Hitchcock without ever sacrificing the honesty in Ira Levin play in favor of any gimmick.

“Deathtrap” is a play within a play within a play and so on.

Sydney (Bill Watson) is an aging playwright, once a success but now an artist without a thought in his head.  No play, no ideas He and his wife Myra (Susan Spencer) are discussing a play that has been sent to him by a former student, Clifford (Di’Monte Henning), a play that has box office success written all over it.

The question before them – in jest or not – is whether it would be possible to act out a mystery by killing Clifford and making the play his own, restoring Sydney’s  fame and their fortune, both of which have taken a precipitous fall.

Along the way the mystery is joined by a Helga (Mary Kababik) a neighbor who is also a self-professed psychic and Porter (David Sapiro) Sydney’s attorney/agent.

There is not enough bribery money in the world to make me divulge the twists and turns of this production. Let it suffice to say that surprise and shock are waiting to assault the lucky members of the audience.

But even without knowing what is going to happen, we can easily discuss the skills of the artists who make it happen. You will note a strong connection to both Northwestern University where Mr. Cotey is finishing his MFA and UWM where he did his undergraduate work.

Let’s begin with the set, designed by Arnel Sanciano, who created the detailed look of a homey lodge with furniture appropriate to a forested cottage and a collection of weapons and theater posters that evoke mood and history. Props Master Nikki Kulas did special duty creating the tools (weapons and other) that play such an intimate role in this production.

The costumes, designed by Mr. Cotey’s talented wife, Eleanor, captured the essence of the post-Watergate time frame. Her eye for color and composition is in full service to the story being told.

The combination of sound (Grover Hollway) and light (Alexander Ridgers) also play an intimately coordinated role in building suspense and spotlighting the havoc that is wreaked.

But it is the performance by Mr. Watson that carries this play on his shaky shoulders. Alternately insecure and wounded and blustery and certain of the path to rescue, he is a magnificent example of how lust for success can turn a man weak and callow.

Mr. Henning is the perfect foil for Sydney. He is cocksure with the kind of fervor that belongs to the young. He is the embodiment of both fear and opportunity to Sydney and his playing captures everything that Sydney once was and wants to be again.

Ms. Spencer takes a role that could be nothing more than an adjunct to Sydney and turns her into a complex woman who acts as both a check on and an enabler of her husband’s flights of fancy.

Both Mr. Sapiro and Ms. Kababik have their moments of humor but it is Mr. Watson and Mr. Henning who are the engines that take us on this drive through mystery, suspense and great laughs that set a high bar for the rest of the theater season in Milwaukee.

Production Credits: Director, Michael Cotey; Production State Manager, Brandy Kline; Scenic Designer, Arnel Sancianco; Costume Designer, Eleanor Cotey; Lighting Designer, Alexander Ridgers; Properties Master, Nikki Kulas; Sound Designer, Grover Hollway; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Fight Director; Christopher Elst; Assistant Director, Sophornia Grace Vowels; Technical Director, John Houtler-McCoy.

“Deathtrap” runs through August 27 and information on showtimes and tickets is available at www.milwaukeechambertheatre.com.


*Mr. Elst is a fight director of immense talents and his work adds a believable and crucial element to the production. Without giving anything away there are a couple of fights that demand the kind of precision and drama that are believable without being dangerous to the actors.

*The first act of this play is a sprint, all-out from start to finish. The second act is more of a marathon. Mr. Cotey was brave enough and smart enough to not try and fill the lulls with meaningless tricks. He allowed the play to have the kind of breath that a story of suspense needs to have.

*C. Michael Wright clearly relishes the role of Chamber Theatre as the leader of the pack each season in Milwaukee. Over the last four seasons he’s opened with “Art,” “Master Class,” “Boeing, Boeing” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and  Spike.” With “Deathtrap” he continues that successful run and makes me anxious for next season to start.



Deathtrap brings Michael Cotey home and opens theater season.

It’s a tradition that Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens the theatrical season in Milwaukee and that tradition gets underway August 11 at the Broadway Theatre Center.

The production is the Ira Levin play, Deathtrap, about a blocked playwright who finds a play that he figures he can pass off as his own if he just commits a little murder.

It’s a wonderful play and marks the return of Michael Cotey, the uber-talented actor/director who founded Youngblood Theater and is currently in the MFA program at Northwestern University.

Here’s a link to information about the production. Let’s get the season going.


Mike Fisher’s Visit to Stratford is an annual treat. Read his review here.

Ny colleague Mike Fisher, the best reviewer in Milwaukee, by far, paid his annual visit to the Stratford Festival in Ontario. It’s an orgy of classical plays and his reviews are always a must read for any theater fan. Here they are…