American Players Theatre announces exciting schedule for next season

SPRING GREEN, WIS: American Players Theatre (APT) is excited to announce its 39th summer season, which will run June 9 to October 14, 2018. In APT’s flagship outdoor amphitheater, William Shakespeare will bookend the Hill season with As You Like It and Measure for Measure. Also playing on the Hill: Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, George Farquhar’s restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

The 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre will host: Exit the King by Eugéne Ionesco, Blood Knot by Athol Fugard and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (a play featuring prisoners putting on a production of The Recruiting Officer). The 2018 shoulder season opening in November will feature John Morogiello’s Engaging Shaw.

 In advance of the 2017 season, APT launched an $8 million capital campaign, titled The Next Great Stage campaign, to rebuild the Hill Theatre stage, lobby and backstage area. As of the close of the season, APT is thrilled to announce that the $8 million fundraising goal has been met, and the construction project is fully funded.

Artistic Director Brenda DeVita said, “We are so grateful to every single person who helped us build our beautiful new stage. The past 12 months have been absolutely wild, and this summer we were able to produce plays that would just not have been possible for us in the past. The flexibility it gives us – the creativity it inspires – can only continue to make the experience richer for our patrons and our artists. The plan for 2018 is to take what we’ve learned and hand it over to a group of directors who, for the most part, didn’t direct on the Hill last season. And, you know, just see what new magic they come up with. I can’t wait see where their vision takes us, and I can’t wait to direct on the Hill for the first time myself.”

The 2018 season schedule will be available in early January. Tickets will go on sale to returning patrons on March 5 at 7:00 am online at americanplayers.org, and at 10:00 am via the APT Box Office by phone at 608-588-2361.

The 2018 Season, June 9 – October 14, 2018

 

ON THE HILL

As You Like It By William Shakespeare

Directed by James Bohnen

Two of Shakespeare’s favorite devices – cross-dressing and running away to the woods– meet in glorious fashion in As You Like It. Rosalind and Celia are best friends and cousins. But when Celia’s father, the Duke, begins to see Rosalind as a threat to his daughter’s future prosperity, the two women don disguises (with Rosalind pretending to be a boy named Ganymede) and head to the Forest of Arden before Rosalind can be banished. Meanwhile, Orlando, a young gentleman who had previously fallen in love with Rosalind, is similarly threatened by his own brother and also flees to the Forest. There, he meets “Ganymede,” who promises to teach him how to woo Rosalind. All that plus a band of merry woods-dwelling misfits make for a great Shakespearean comedy.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques, Melisa Pereyra as Rosalind and Marcus Truschinski as Touchstone.

Born Yesterday By Garson Kanin

Directed by Brenda DeVita

Shady businessman Harry Brock heads to Washington with his ex-showgirl girlfriend Billie Dawn in an attempt to shift the law to his side. When Brock decides that Billie is too unrefined to mix with the DC political set, he hires journalist Paul Verrall to make her appear more intelligent. But a little education can go a long way, and Billie may be smarter than her “friends” give her credit for. A hilarious and timely send up of politics and perceptions.

Featuring: David Daniel as Harry Brock and Colleen Madden as Billie Dawn.

The Recruiting Officer Written by George Farquhar

Directed by William Brown

Scoundrels are put on notice and women (literally) wear the pants in this uproarious restoration comedy. Recruiting officers travel from port to port wooing men into service at sea, and women into their beds. Two such men, Worthy and Plume, land in Shrewsbury each in love with a woman who lives there. Worthy has asked Melinda to be his mistress – an offer that she declined. Meanwhile, Plume is in love with Melinda’s cousin Silvia. But Silvia, grieving her brother’s recent death, disguises herself as a man to get away for a while, throwing everyone’s plans into comedic chaos.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan as Silvia, Nate Burger as Plume and Marcus Truschinski as Brazen.

Heartbreak House Written by George Bernard Shaw

Adapted by Aaron Posner Directed by Aaron Posner

Sweet Ellie Dunn has been invited to a party along with her father and fiancé at the home of the eccentric Captain Shotover, where he lives with his bohemian daughter Hesione and her husband Hector. But it soon comes to light that Ellie has eyes for another man. Surprises hit one after the other, when it turns out Ellie’s “true love” is not who he appeared to be, Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne, shows up at the party after a 23-year absence, and the evening is peppered with burglars and bomb scares. A rich Shavian comedy about human folly and the charming and self-absorbed gentry.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Hesione, Jim DeVita as Hector and Colleen Madden as Ariadne.

Measure for Measure Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Risa Brainin

The city of Vienna is rife with vice, and good Duke Vincentio wants to put a stop to it. So in hopes that a new leader will change the people’s wicked ways, he steps down and appoints his trusted minister Angelo to rule in his place. But as Angelo assumes control of the city, his hunger for power grows, and he reinstates strict morality laws with deadly penalties. Claudio, the first to feel the bite of these laws, calls upon his sister Isabella, an aspiring nun, to help prove his innocence. But when Isabella approaches Angelo and appeals to his better nature, she finds he doesn’t have one, and must choose between her brother and her virtue.

 

Featuring: Melisa Pereyra as Isabella and Marcus Truschinski as Angelo. 

THE TOUCHSTONE THEATRE

Blood Knot By Athol Fugard

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Two brothers live a quiet, strained existence in a tiny house in apartheid South Africa. Morris, who has very fair skin, and has in the past passed as white, has recently returned to Port Elizabeth and is living with his brother Zachariah, who works long, painful hours as a sentry at the gate of a whites-only park. Despite Morris’ constant presence, Zach is lonely for the company of a woman, so Morris suggests he find a pen pal. When it turns out Zach’s pen pal is a white woman, the brothers’ desperation exposes the complex angles of their relationship in this powerful play by the man who wrote The Island (produced at APT in 2015) and Exits and Entrances (at APT in 2010).

Featuring: Jim DeVita as Morris and Gavin Lawrence as Zachariah.

 

Exit the King By Eugène Ionesco

Translated by Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush

Directed by Kenneth Albers

An absurdist masterpiece in the Touchstone Theatre. A fading ruler at the helm of a world in decline, King Berenger is having some trouble accepting his fate. His first wife, Marguerite, is intent on forcing him to face his mortality, while his second wife, Marie, wants to shield him from the bad news. All the while an eccentric mix of servants weigh in from the sidelines, with varying degrees of helpfulness. A very funny and deeply moving look at the end of it all.

Featuring: James Ridge as King Berenger.

 

Our Country’s Good By Timberlake Wertenbaker

Adapted from the novel “The Playmaker” by Thomas Keneally

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

A group of soldiers and criminals have been sent to Australia as part of a recently created penal colony. The conditions are bad all around, as food is scarce for both jailor and jailed, and the punishment for theft is dire. To raise morale (and in hopes of being noticed by the governor), Lieutenant Ralph Clark decides to stage a production of

Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer, cast with inmates. But Ralph has his hands full with this group of actors, who are sometimes loveable, sometimes unscrupulous, and always perfectly human. Offering funny and candid conversations about incarceration, sex and the redemptive power of art, this play pairs particularly well with The Recruiting Officer. Note: contains strong language and adult themes.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan and Nate Burger (roles TBA).

Opening in November

Engaging Shaw By John Morogiello

With excerpts from Bernard Shaw

Directed by David Frank

George Bernard Shaw is well known for his writing, wit and commitment to social justice. But in his time, he was also known for being an unrepentant philanderer. His aversion to marriage was so strong that he clung to it even in the face of the clever and charismatic Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who is clearly more than a match for him.

Urged on by their friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the two would-be lovers trade witty barbs as they form a close friendship. The question at the center of this charming romantic comedy is whether or not they’ll ever admit how close that friendship is.

Featuring: Colleen Madden as Charlotte Payne-Townshend and James Ridge as George Bernard Shaw.

 

For more information, visit www.americanplayers.org

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“Sex with Strangers” at Renaissance isn’t hot or sexy

Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel star inb Sex with Strangers.

The proverb is over 300 years old – “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

There is also the axiom – “don’t promise more than you can deliver.”

They both apply, sadly, to the opening production of the season for Renaissance Theaterworks, Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers” that opened over the weekend.

Let’s be clear about all of this – this play is about sex between a 40-something writer, Olivia (Marti Gobel) and a 20-something boy toy Ethan (Nick Narcisi).

She’s stuck at a writer’s workshop in a snowbound cabin in Michigan.The weather is so severe she is all alone, until the incessant knock on her door announces the arrival of Mr. Smooth.

She is the author of a book that hardly anybody read, although Ethan claims to have done so, also claims that he thought it was a “great book.”

He wrote a book called “Sex with Strangers.” a recounting of his pledge to have sex with a different woman each week for a year, a book that spent a long time on the bestseller lists. He made money and they’re making a movie of his book. She sold a few copies and

He flirts, she flirts back, he seduces, she lets herself be seduced and they are off to bed, again and again and again.

And here’s where the problems arise.

All of the publicity leading up to opening night was focused on the sexual tension and lust between these two characters. The photo for the show was a steaming embrace between Ms. Gobel and Mr. Narcisi. But that photo paled in comparison to the onslaught of “intimacy choreography,” a new concept sweeping the world of theater.

It applies to scenes of sexuality that take place on a stage and the idea was born, in part, due to some instances of inappropriate behavior during rehearsals in Chicago and elsewhere. The idea was to choreograph intimate scenes so that actors would feel safe and everybody would respect boundaries.

Renaissance made a big deal about the choreography, hiring highly respected fight choreographer Christopher Elst as the Intimacy Designer and Tonia Sina, a leader in this movement as Intimacy Consultant.

A play called “Sex With Strangers,” the older woman/younger man thing, good looking people – all the elements for the kind of romantic story you might pick up waiting in line at the grocery store. Everything is on the plate, except for one thing.

There is no heat from this fire.

Ms. Gobel is one of the best actors in this city and Mr. Narcisi shows promise, but the two of them together might as well be a couple of strangers telling slightly off-color jokes to each other.

If it’s possible to turn sex into a boring experience, this play manages to do it and the blame can be directly laid at the steps of this “intimacy choreography.”

In real life, this kind of sexual exploration is full of excitement and wonder and joy. In this show, the sex is strictly by the numbers.

Right hand goes here. Left hand goes there. His lips go here. Her lips go there. His hand touches her butt. Her hand reaches for his zipper.

If porn were this boring it would not be the gazillion dollar business that it is.

I think it’s great that the actors felt comfortable having the designers choreograph their every intimate second. But that choreography has taken everything good about sex and thrown it out the window.

This whole thing loses touch with one of the two most important parts of any production – the audience. I think it’s probably safe to say that nobody in the opening night audience ever had sex like this.

Ms. Gobel is an exciting actor and she has created many memorable roles. Yet Director Mallory Metoxen, one of the brightest young directors in this city, has decided to put shackles on her in this play and she has taken a woman who is full of fire and passion and reduced her to a wooden caricature.

There are a lot of issues explored in this play – the tech savvy world of young people, the identity of self, the best definitions of success.

But when the most important part of the play turns out to be the most bland, it hardly pays to travel any further hoping that the road will get much more interesting.

Renaissance decided to tell us all about “intimacy choreography” and knowing all about it, ruined my expectations for a great evening of theater.

And my disappointment was deepened when the promise of a steamy and exciting story was empty.

Imagination runs wild in First Stage’s “

Drew Brehl and Elyse Edelman are the evil duo in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Like every single production at First Stage, there are a lot of reasons to go see a show – in this case “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” which opened last weekend.

You can go for the story, or the music or the dancing or the sets or the costumes or the cute kids or the always smart and sensitive direction.

But in this production, there is one (or is it two) reasons to go see this show.

In major roles are two of the absolute lions of Milwaukee theater – Drew Brehl and Robert Spencer.

These are two men who for decades, have starred everywhere from Broadway to Door County with stops all over and in between. Their records of accomplishment are virtually unmatched in this state and this production gives them a chance to use all of their considerable chops and all of us a rare opportunity to watch them on the stage together.

Mr. Spencer plays Grandpa Potts and Mr. Brehl plays the Baron of Vulgaria and they are both integral to this story about an old car that becomes a magic car, floating on water, flying through the air and proving that by working together, you can accomplish just about everything.

The car! Aaaah, yes! The Car!!!

It’s an old beat-up wreck destined for the graveyard. But two children, Jeremy and Jemima Potts (Seth Hoffman and Michalene McQuide in the MIraculous cast), vow to save it, if they can come up with the 30 bob needed to buy it.

Enter their dad, Caractacus Potts (Jackson Evans), who comes up with the money and sets out to restore the vehicle to its former glory and then some.

Like all good stories for a family, you need some bad guys in this thing, and the Baron and Baroness (Elyse Edelman) fit the bill well.

And it is the battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil that carry this story along at a pace that Director Jeff Frank keeps tight rein on. He never lets the tale get away from him. If you remember the 1968 movie that the play is based on you’ll be surprised by the depth of the character development in this version.

The movie was all about the car. The play is about the car and the people whose lives intersect with that car.  First Stage has an enviable reputation for demanding that audiences use their imagination when confronting the varied miracles in its productions.

The art, if you will, is that the company always makes you feel good that you are exercising your imagination and proud of yourself for being able to take these flights of fancy and arrive safely.  Think of cast members, hidden in plain sight, making the car wiggle and shake so that it seems like it’s really moving. Think of cast members, hidden in plain sight, with light blue pieces of waving fabric, making you believe that this car really is sailing one of the seven seas.

Time after time, production after production, First Stage always achieves the most difficult tasks in theater – it makes you stretch to the edge of belief and it makes you feel comfortable and safe.

The limits of stage and space have always presented a challenge for First Stage. When you tell stories for children (and their families) the pressure on artists and designers becomes immense. And in this one, everybody steps up to the plate and hits line drives.

It starts with the car, designed by Nikki Kulas, the properties master who has a special touch for strewing a set with the kind of stuff that makes any locale come alive.

Paul Helm directed the music for the charming songs and played his keyboard from a perch center stage right in the middle of the audience.

For choreography, full of delight, Frank turned to no less an expert in Michael Pink, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet, and his wife, Jayne. They are a perfect example of what might be called the First Stage formula. Mix seasoned professional actors with a variety of young actors and have choreographers like the Pinks meld the whole thing into an energetic and interesting ensemble.

Still, above all of this, the spectacle of Mr. Brehl and Mr. Spencer on the same stage is almost too delicious to bear for anyone who loves the theater. Spencer is a master of the understated, moving with care and purpose and wearing expressions of wonder and confidence under his bushy mustache.

I will always associate Brehl with his “I Am The Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” the song from Pirates of Penzance at Skylight last year. It was then, and remains, one of the most sparkling and funny things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

As the evil Baron here, he plays with Ms. Edelman as a duo who revel in just how nasty they can be. And all that nastiness makes for a very good time for those of us sitting in the audience.

“Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” runs through November 5 and information on tickets and showtimes is available at www.firststage.org.

Production credits: Director, Jeff Frank; Music director, Paul Helm; Co-Choreographers, Michael Pink, Jayne Pink; Costume Designer, Lyndsey Kuhlmann; Scenic Designer, Martin McClendon; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Sound Designer, Matt Whitmore; Stage Manager, Melissa L. Wanke; Assistant Stage Manager, Lauren Gingold; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

Jarecki leads cast of literate illiterates at In Tandem

Doug Jarecki sparkles at In Tandem Theatre

How funny is Doug Jarecki?

I was standing in line to pick up my ticket for “All The Great books (Abridged) at In Tandem Theatre Friday night when I heard this voice from behind me.

“Hey Dave,”

I turned around. It was Jarecki.I started to laugh. He didn’t do anything, but there I was laughing at him. And laughing.

“Have a great show,” said, shaking hands. Then I walked into the theater, a smile on my face.

That’s how funny Doug Jarecki is.

Jarecki is one third of a sparking cast in one of the funniest, and silliest, shows likely to be on the stages in Milwaukee this season.

The show opens with Jarecki, cast as “Coach” arrives in a high school classroom to announce that the remedial reading program (for the audience) will consist of an examination of the 89 greatest books ever written. The announcement is followed by an avalanche of the books being thrown over the walls from all angles, to fall on the stage.

Jarecki is soon joined by drama professor, Ryan Schabach and student teacher Matt, Chris Goode.

Doug Jarecki and Ryan Shabach

Through dozens and dozens of costume changes, some profound some only hinting at an identity, the three actors create a summary of the 89 great books. To us the word “abridged” is kind of like saying Donald Trump is a moron. It just doesn’t seem like enough.

Laying out the curriculum includes “Ulysses, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Remembrance of Things Past, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Charles Dickens and….War and Peace.” Sight gag to follow with the dropping of a book that is probably a foot and a half thick. A memory for everyone who had to slog through the Leo Tolstoy challenge.

Here’s a piece of script from the play that captures what the 90 minute evening is all about.

Professor: To give you a taste of the anticipation and drama experienced by the 19th century reader, we are proud to present to you, Charles Dickens continuing soap opera…(soap opera music begins) Great Expectations. And now, episode seventeen of Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Tittles. Charles Darnay, trapped in prison, is being interrogated by the evil Madame Defarge.

(Coach and Matt enter as their characters are introduced. Coach wears handcuffs and kneels center. Matt wears a skirt and wig. Professor exits).

Matt: It is the best of times.

Coach: It is the worst of times.

Matt: Like sands through the hourglass….

Coach: …these are the Days of our Lives.

Matt: You will not live to see another day, Monsieur Darnay. You French aristocrats have destroyed Pine Valley. But we, the Bold and the Beautiful, are now the Young and the Restless.Our day has come.

Coach: You must recant your lies so that I can return to my loving wife Lucie Manette and our four little ones.

Matt: Ha! There are no longer four. We have executed Jean-Renault.

Coach: You shot J.R?

Matt: Oui!

(They exit. The Professor enters)

Trust me on this. It’s much,much funnier in person.

Under the direction of Chris Flieller and the awesome number of costumes from Kathy Smith, the space at In Tandem is filled with more characters than the Donald Trump cabinet. (I know I keep using Trump, but the target is just too easy).

Schabach is a very funny guy, in the Don Knotts/Mr. Rodgers tradition. He’s stuffy and friendly at the same time with a face full of expression. He’s an accomplished physical comedian and leads with his chin as he’s headed for a laugh line.

Goode is young and has a hangdog expression on his face with a morose glare that makes him look like he’s befuddled by life. You have expect him to start crying any minute.

And then there is Jarecki who has the kind of humor that both bites and soothes at the same time. His timing is perfect and he moves with thoughtful purpose with nary a misstep. He is a joy to watch on the stage and it’s with real anticipation that he will resurrect his “‘Twas the Month Before Christmas” at Next Act Theater in December.

But don’t wait until then to see him. Run to In Tandem to see a play that could be silly and wasted but manages to be silly and meaningful at the same time.

The production runs through Oct. 29 and information on showtimes and tickets is available at www.intandemtheatre.org.

Touring production of “Rent” ought to face possible eviction

During the intermission of  “Rent” at the Marcus Center on opening night, a friend of my wife’s was debating leaving.

This woman, who shall go unnamed, is a regular at theater in Milwaukee and an astute critic who loves most everything she sees. Thinking about leaving at intermission is a drastic step.

But I easily understood and shared her disappointment with the first act of a play that had won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Our small group tried to figure out what this play was about and why we ought to care about any of these characters.

Making its debut in 1996, “Rent” was a cutting edge look at young artists in the bowels of Greenwich Village and their struggles with life, love and art. The story was met with great acclaim when it hit Broadway and ran for over 5,000 performances.  Resurrected now, it’s kind of sad to say that the story of “Rent” doesn’t carry much weight anymore. The whole thing is dated.

As a world we’ve moved beyond the HIV.Aids panic, we aren’t surprised at gay and lesbian couples and Greenwich Village, for those who have been there, isn’t all that glamorous.

Given the fact that this tale won’t be enough to hold an audience for just over two hours, you search for performance that would give you a bang for your buck. Alas, there are no such performances and a combination of factors made this an evening of disappointment.

The sound throughout the show was as cloudy as any I’ve ever seen in Uihlein Hall. The acoustics in the building have always been problematic, but these performances made things worse.

Everything was too loud, especially the singing.

It’s not that these young people in the inexperienced, non-equity cast,couldn’t sing. They hit notes, but they all seemed to be unable or unwilling to find out what the words of the song actually mean. I might as well have been in some tavern with a string of karaoke singers trying to keep a bunch of drunks awake.

Kaleb Wells, one of the male leads, was especially grating. He was incredibly unfamiliar with the concept of dynamics It sounded like he was from the “Louder is Better” American Idol school of music.

Near the end of the play there is a lovely song when Wells’ love of his life is dying and he sings what should be a tender ballad to her.

When I Looked Into Your Eyes
Why Does Distance Make Us Wise?
You Were The Song All Along
And Before The Song Dies
I Should Tell You I Should Tell You
I Have Always Loved You
You Can See It In My Eyes
When I Looked Into Your Eyes
Why Does Distance Make Us Wise?
You Were The Song All Along
And Before The Song Dies
I Should Tell You I Should Tell You
I Have Always Loved You
You Can See It In My Eyes

It’s a tender moment but the love and longing are lost amid a delivery that just doesn’t connect with the words of the song or the meaning behind them.

Wells isn’t the only offender here. Everyone in this cast acts as if there were no microphones and they had to sing loud enough to reach the back row in the hall. Overacting and over singing are two sins certain to doom a production. The most severe damage caused by  this kind of musical maelstrom is that we never get to see who these people are.

This show is all about relationships, but all the shouting prevents any chemistry between actors. For all their proclamations of “togetherness” this cast was remarkably distant to each other.

The single most important thing in any play is the story. If you don’t have a story, you don’t have a play or a musical or a movie or whatever. Rent obviously was at one time a major achievement for Jonathan Larson who wrote the book, music and lyrics.  

But the lackluster staging and performance make it incredibly hard to follow the tale. Not knowing what the story about is a surefire way to kill a play and this one was gratefully put out of our misery after only two hours.

Skylight and Hot Mikado a delicious Japanese dish

The crazy cast of “Hot Mikado at Skylight. PHOTO:MARK FROHNA

Is six months too short a time to see a sendup of the famed Gilbert & Sullivan operetta “The Mikado” twice?

Under normal circumstances the answer might be “yes,” but after seeing the Skylight version of “Mikado” Saturday night the answer is “Hell NO!”

After seeing the Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s hilarious version last March, I was convinced I’d been to the mountaintop of fun and frolic with this timeless story. The production was an absolute riot from beginning to end.

Well the mountaintop has gotten a little crowded because the Skylight production stands just as tall.

As Shirley and Lee wrote way back in 1956, “C’mon Baby Let the Good Times Roll.” That song isn’t in this production, but it could be because good times rolling are what this production is all about.

Under the stage direction of Austene Van, the music direction of J.Michael Duff and the choreography of Garry Q. Lewis, the Ray Jivoff reign at Skylight has gotten off to a rollicking and exciting start.

Everyone knows the story of Ko-Ko, Yum-Yum, Nanki-Poo and Poo-Bah and the assorted ladies and gentlemen of Japan who gather for the festivities in the village of Titipu.

Yum-Yum (Rána Roman) is the object of desire for Ko-Ko (Chris Klopatek) and Nanki-Poo (Michael Penick). But the courtship by both men proves to have far more complications than you could imagine.

Included in all of this are beheadings, hangings, lies, cheating, mistaken identities and all sorts of mayhem and love stuff.

This musical by David Bell (book and lyrics) and Rob Bowman (music adaptation) had its first performance over 30 years ago at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. As you may recall that’s where Abraham Lincoln was killed.

There is no killing in the Skylight production, but the show is an absolute killer of a mix of singing and dancing that create a great evening of theater.

The plot of the show follows the tried and true line of poking fun at stuffy politicians and upper crust dwellers. It’s the reason that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote their shows, trying to hide the jabs they were throwing at British society.

This version rises and falls on the backs of the cast and musicians and these people were more than up to the task.

Looking at the group, it’s amazing that on the small stage at the Cabot Theatre, Mr. Lewis was able to create such vast and intricate dances. With 14 actors on the stage, the choreography and musical numbers are an absolute feast for the eyes.

With a variety of costumes designed by  BrianC. Hemesath that capture both mood and spirit of the fantastic blend of music and dance.

Leading the parade is Chris Klopatek who plays Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. Mr. Klopatek has long been one of the most adept comedians in this state. Here he presides over the land with the kind of sly oversight that allows for some priceless moments of comedy.

Early in the show he sings the memorable “I’ve Got a Little List,” his tale of the candidates he has created for execution.

As someday it may happen that
A victim must be found
I’ve got a little list
I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
Who never would be missed
Who never would be missed
There’s devotees of movie stars
Who write for autographs
All people who have flabby hands
And irritating laughs
They’d none of them be missed
I’ve got them on my list
I’ve got them on my list

Mr.Klopatek is part Charlie Chaplin, part Marx brother and part Don  Rickles. He’s an absolute riot. But this is not a one man show. Not by a long shot.

Ryan Cappleman plays Pooh-Bah, the Lord HIgh of Everything Else. He is a serious highlight with his brief impersonation of a number of well-known people, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, the Godfather, and many more.

Mr. Cappleman is also the Dance Captain in the show and has helped Mr. Lewis take a group of actors and turn them into a group of dancers. The choreography is both challenging and interesting.

Michael Penick plays Nanki-Poo, the poor young man who is Yum Yum’s true love. He is, in truth, the son of The Mikado and he brings a boyish charm to the fore.

Ms. Roman is, as always, a combination of unadorned cuteness with a kind of sultry lounge singer leaving no doubt about why these men are crazy about her.

And then there is Jamecia Bennett, three-time Grammy award winner. The stocky and curvy Ms. Bennett, resplendent in red sequins shows up late in the production, a vamp on the prowl.

She is a striking stage presence and overwhelms the citizens of Titipu. When she sings of the mournful “The Hour of Gladness” it is impossible to look away from this mezzo.

“You think you’re hot, but you will see
You have not got the best of me!
You’ve pissed me off and now you’ll pay
For what  you think is her wedding day.
We’ll hear no more, you angry owl
Our joy will soar, despite your scowl,
The echoes of our festival
Shall Rise Triumphant over all!

Ms.  Bennett brought the house down with her soaring voice and powerful presence on the stage. There is almost nothing that matches a big audience in full throated roar over a memorable performance, and this is one of those moments.

Once the show ended I couldn’t help but wonder who was going to do “Mikado” next. Whoever it is will have a tough time matching the glory of the Skylight version.

“Hot Mikado” runs through October 15 and information of tickets and showtimes is available at http://www.skylightmusictheatre.org

 

Next Act stages profound, important and sensitive Silent Sky

Deborah Staples is Henrietta Leavitt in Silent sky at Next Act

“We do not know where we are. “

“All I have is time. All I haven’t is time.”

It is with the search and the claim that a chronicle of the journey of Henrietta Leavitt  is taking place at Next Act Theatre in “Silent Sky,” a brilliant play by Lauren Gunderson.

Under the direction of David Cecsarini and with a cast of absolute killers,  this story of our sky and the mysteries held there is a gripping and true tale of the stars and a moving tale of ambition and single-minded dedication.

Leavitt lived around the turn of the 20th century and worked at the Harvard College Observatory in a room of women who were called “computers.” Their job was to map the galaxy based on the photographic plates taken through the giant telescope at the facility. She works in an office with Annie, (Carrie Hitchcock) and Williamina (Kelly Doherty).

That telescope is off limits to the women, much to the disgust of Leavitt (Deborah Staples).  Make no mistake about it, this is a play is a story about women, weaving in the fight for the right of women to vote to the need for women to be caretakers, to the difficult desire to join a man’s world.

Leavitt leaves her father and her loving sister Margaret (Karen Estrada) to go to Boston, full of the belief that she will be able to pursue her dream of answering the questions that roil through her mind (“All I want to know is what’s true”).

She eventually discovers and measures the relationship between the brightness of stars and the distance between them. That discovery, still in use today, allowed scientists to measure the distance from Earth to other galaxies.

It’s a thrilling story watching as Henrietta faces her loves – family, a male colleague (Reese Madigan) and, above all the vast panorama above her at night.

Ms. Staples is an absolute marvel as she takes us on her journey. She is an actor at the top of her game, a performance we’ve come to expect from her.

To say any performance is perfect is difficult but the word applies here. She’s captures the longing, the dedication, the humor and the loneliness of a woman who gazes up and asks “how far away are my stars?”

Ms. Hitchcock and Ms. Doherty fill in the mapping room with a variety that adds both strength and depth to the story.

Ms. Hitchcock continues to prove how much she was missed during her hiatus that ended a couple of years ago. Her discipline on stage is remarkable and she has the ability to blend to any situation with grace and precision.

Ms. Doherty remains one of my favorite actors of humor in the city. Her role brings lightness to the story with a sly and sarcastic style that can be withering and bring laughs that both lighten the story and move it along.

Ms. Estrada has the difficult task of living in the shadow of her hard-drivin sister, creating a domestic base from which Henrietta can be launched and come to rest as well.

This play is a beautiful story told with sensitivity and delight and the kind of thing that Next Act does as well, or better, than any other company in town. With Cecsarini at the helm, Next Act is brave and has a focus on important issues and this is another in a long line of both relevant and excellent productions.

Silent Sky runs through October 22 and information on tickets and showtimes is available at www.nextact.org.

Production Credits: Director, David Cecsarini; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting and Video Design, Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Jason Orlenko; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Original Music, Jenny Giering; Properties Design, Heidi Salter & Shannon Sloan-Spice; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Technical Director, Michael Van Dreser.

 

Akhtar play at The Rep is timely and important, but could use some fine tuning

Nikita Tewani and Soraya Broukhim in The Who & the What at The Rep

It was almost as if I was watching Serena and Venus Williams and Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on a tennis court mixing it up and blisteringly batting a ball back and forth over the line.

Winners hit and then points saved. Big serves. Him against him and her against her and then him against her and her against him.

It’s “The Who and the What,” the play by Pulitzer Prize winner Ayad Akhtar that opened Friday night at The Rep’s Stiemke Studio theater.

Akhtar writes movingly about the Muslim experience and here he examines the clash between a fervent ancient belief and the conflicting temptations of modern life. In alongside the religious conflict is the family dynamic that can, and does, add to the

The story is of a Muslim family, Afzal (Brian Abraham), a successful Atlanta businessman and widower and his two daughters, Zarina (Soraya Broukhim) and Marwish (Nikita Tewani).  Added to this mix is a white guy, a convert to Islam, Eli (Ben Kahre).

Afzal is a devout believer who has mixed his religion with his drive to owning 30% of the taxicab business in Atlanta. He is as devoted to his daughters as to his faith.

Those dual devotions have created a meddler in the lives of the two daughters, born born of love but exasperating and discouraging.  It is with Zarina that he is the most meddling of fathers.

He creates a Zarinia profile for the website “muslimlove.com” and has pretended to be her in search of a match. He exchanges messages with a number of young men who though they were talking to a young Muslim woman. Her shock at the invasion of her privacy is  full of amazement.

He is responsible for forcing the breakup of Zarina and a Christian boyfriend when both were on the precipice of marriage. That breakup still haunts her.

Both Afzal and Marwish are compulsive about finding a way for Zarina to move on from the breakup and start dating. She doesn’t have time for a social life since she is wrapped up in a book about “gender politics and Muslim women.  She has developed writer’s block and the book, like her life, seems to be going nowhere.

Her father has discovered Eli and has set up a meeting in a coffee shop, which starts awkwardly but, as the production moves forward, proves to be a success with a marriage for the couple.

Akhtar’s play seems to be almost two plays in the one.

First and foremost is the one about Islam and the struggle to lead a faithful life in a changed time, as a distinct minority and the amid demands of corporate ambition.

The second is about the often charred relationships that fuel the ever-changing torment between parents and children, and especially between a father and his daughters.

The talented May Adrales, newly-appointed co-Associate Artistic Director at The Rep, brings her high-level sensitivity to the director’s chair in this production. She directs all over the country, gravitating to new works. Here she has a clear understanding of the twin stories being told.

Akhtar is a spectacular writer with an equally spectacular reputation. But this play has its uneven moments. In some respects these four characters seem in need of some depth.

Afzal is too controlling, Zarina is too disquieted, Mahwish is too needy and Eli is too white guy. This lack of dimension leads to a temptation to not fully engage with them as real people.

Having said that, the work of this cast to try and find more than is written on the page is admirable.

Mr. Abraham leads the pack with his devoted dignity and his sense of humor. He is committed to the struggle of faith and Abraham has a visage that just makes you want to sympathize with a man so bound by tradition.

Ms. Broukhim has a remarkable ability to shift from joy to sorrow and just about everything in between. She has the teasing and tolerant style with her little sister and determination in the task of trying to finish the book that examines in new light the life of Mohammed.

That little sister, Ms. Tewani,  is the one character who seems to have made accommodations with her faith and her desire. She is engaged to be married to a boy whom she has known all her life. Whether it’s an arranged marriage or not, it seems so. She understands the needs of men so she has anal sex with him so she will be a virgin when they marry.

Mr. Kahre had a difficult task, capturing the historical journey of white suburban guy to a convert to Islam who runs a mosque, works as a plumber and tries to convince a girl and her family that he is worthy of her love.

The subject matter of this play is important to our national discussion but that discussion gets cluttered by the family drama before us. There is too much back and forth between two people – too much singles and not enough  and might have been more interesting with three or four people in the mix.

The Who and the What runs through November 5 and information is available at www.milwaukeerep.com.

Production Credits: Director, May Adrales; Scenic Designer, Andrew Boyce; Costume Designer, Izumi Inaba; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Dialect Coach, Eva Breneman; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington-Calin.