Funniest Christmas Play You Will Ever See Running at Next Act

Joe, Doug Jarecki, proposes to the Virgin Mary, Sara Zientek

A carpenter named Joe walks into the Nazareth tavern, nervous about this date that is a fix-up.

Sitting in a chair, clutching a white afghan over her tummy, sits the very pretty Mary. It’s her first blind date.

He introduces himself as Joe the carpenter. She replies she is called the Virgin Mary.

“Cool nickname,” he says. Joe is lovestruck immediately and proposes to Mary. She says yes, and then Joe finds out she’s eight months pregnant. Joe tries to understand the immaculate conception thing, and once he’s convinced there is no other man, they marry.

The sweet and stirring moment when they agree to go ahead with the wedding could only come from the sweet and stirring mind of Doug Jarecki

Mr. Jarecki debuted his “‘Twas the Month Before Christmas” two years ago to rave reviews and wild audience acclaim. It’s back again, running at Next Act Theatre and opening night the show proved to be at least just as funny and maybe with an added touch of sweetness.

Collaborating with the wonderful direction of James Fletcher, Mr. Jarecki has tightened some of the first version of the play while never losing the humor, some obvious and some subtle, that makes this show the best holiday show in town.

He’s got a sparkling cast of himself, Mitch Weindorf, John Cramer, Lindsey Gagliano and the spectacular and continually amazing Sara Zientek as a multi-layered Mary, and Mr. Fletcher has guided them into a cohesive and well-timed ensemble.

There is, of course, a thread that runs through the whole show – the impending birth of Jesus Christ. Three kings are going to Bethlehem via Nazareth and Persia, an innkeeper and his daughter are working hard to fill the inn, which is built right in front of their ramshackle manger (get it?), and two servants, one of whom has the hots for one of the kings.

The various journeys are full of moments of wild hilarity.

Joe and Mary are getting ready to head to Bethlehem and they’re having a conversation about why Joseph feels so out of it., ignored in all the excitement.,

“It’s the whole immaculate conception thing,” he complains to Mary. “And now it’s the name thing.”

“We can’t name him Henry,” Mary says, rejecting Joseph’s suggestion. “We can’t call him Henry Christ. (She pauses) But we could use it as a middle name.”

Joseph thinks it over.

“Jesus H. Christ,” he shouts. “I love it.”

They exit and we are then greeted to the three kings, Melchior (Mr. Jarecki), Gaspar (Mr. Weindorf) and Balthasar (Mr. Cramer). They enter like unhinged cheerleaders.

“Let me hear you Persia,”Mr.  Jarecki shouts as he runs around the stage. “C’mon Persia. Let’s do the wave.” And the wave gets done.

The three kings discuss the difficulty Gaspar is having getting together with his slave, Helen. In order to help him get in touch with his feelings Melchior suggests a road trip.

“Bethlehem,” he shouts. “Here we come.”

Sara Zientek the overloaded servant follows Doug Jarecki to Bethlehem

Each of the kings is determined to bring a gift. Melchior will bring gold. Balthasar is bringing frankincense. Gasbar announces he’s bringing myrrh, sending the other two kings into stitches.

“Myrrh,” Melchior shouts. “Myrrh? That’s the incense they use at funerals to cover up the stench of dead bodies. It’s corpse deodorizer.”

Eventually, of course, we get a baby and all’s well that ends well.

This play is a classic example of how wonderful humor can be when it’s done well.

This is not salacious or suggestive humor. It’s a gentle humor that pokes gentle fun at a story that is holy for Christians. Some of the jokes are obvious, but that only adds to the enjoyment of the evening.

Mr. Jarecki has put together a great cast and a very clever play that got laughs from beginning to end.Mr.  Fletcher directed with a very steady and seasoned hand, making all the transitions and costume changes as smooth as a Jarecki joke.

I can hardly wait for next Christmas to see this again, and the only suggestion I’d offer is that he take the first scene at the inn and tighten it up a bit to keep the laughs going.

In addition, I can hardly wait for next March when Mr. Jarecki debuts and new play, “One Night in Poland.”

There are are lots of choices for theater this holiday season, but if you are looking for a holy and laugh-filled story with the kind of sweet moments that make the humor even funnier, then this is the one to pick.

“‘Twas the Month Before Christmas” only runs until December 23. Santa says stop wrapping. Go see it.

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Lonely guys, elderberry wine and old lace ladies – Happy Holidays from Off the Wall

Michelle Waide, Marilyn White and Robert Zimmerman

Ah, the holidays in the theater – music, beautiful and sparkly costumes, dancing, Christmas trees, cute kids warm-hearted adults – it’s a winter wonderland of warmth and decking the halls.

And then there is Dale Gutzman and his ever-dangerous Off the Wall Theatre.

The holiday offering this season (since the immensely talented Gutzman didn’t bother or couldn’t bring himself, to create another topical Holiday Punch series of humorous skits) is “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the classic that debuted on Broadway over 75 years ago.

Loving adults? Cute children? Sparkles, bangles and beads? Christmas Trees and ice skates?

As Donnie Brasco said…”Fuggitabout!”

Instead we get a panoply of characters who might lead you to believe that Joseph Kesselring was in the middle of an LSD (or whatever the equivalent was in the 1930’s) when he made these people up.

Let’s start with Abby Brewster (Marilyn White) and Martha Brewster (Michelle Waide), a pair of sisters who preside over the family manse. Living with the two is nephew Teddy (Lawrence J. Lukasavage) who is so convinced he is Teddy Roosevelt that every time he climbs the stairs he sounds the “charge” because he thinks it’s San Juan Hill.

Michelle Waide and Mark Neufang

We add to this mix the people who arrive at various times, including: Mortimer (Mark Neufang), Teddy’s brother who is a drama critic and in love with Elaine Harper (Brittany Meister) the daughter of the pastor (Paul Pfannenstiel) who lives next door.

Jeremy C. Welter

We also have two cops (Jeremy C. Welter and Mark Ninneman), Mr. Gibbs (Welter with wig) a man looking for a room, Officer O’Hara (Welter with an Irish accent and another wig) and Mr. Witherspoon (Welter with yet another wig and a prissy accent). We also see a dead body (Barbara Weber).

And lest we forget along comes Jonathan (Gutzman), who is the brother of Teddy and Mortimer and Dr. Einstein (Robert Zimmerman), who is Jonathan’s partner in petty crime, including some murders.

Dale Gutzman

The Christmas miracle here is that you really don’t need a program to tell the players. They are clearly drawn and clearly acted.

The Brewster sisters, devout Catholics (I think) are committed to relieving the suffering of lonely men who cross their path. They relieve the suffering by having them drink a glass of Elderberry wine that’s mixed with “arsenic, strychnine and just a pinch of cyanide.”

The men are initially kept in a window box and then are buried in the basement  where Teddy believes the graves he digs are part of the Panama Canal he is constructing.

Mortimer, who has just proposed to Elaine, accidentally discovers the latest body in the window seat and we are off and running in a madcap romp through a classic farce without all the doors even though there are a couple of them.

This play has had lengthy runs in New York and London and has been performed countless times by other companies and was made into a movie starring Cary Grant. It has stood the test of time with good reason.

It is an intricate plot with twists and turns and surprises around every corner.

It’s also an example of the kind of performance Mr. Gutzman, who directed, can draw out of a cast with diverse levels of talent and experience.

Ms. White and Ms. Wade are veterans and it shows. Both actors are full of talent and create carbon copies of elderly Elderberry dispensers. They have perfect comedic timing and understand what’s supposed to be funny and what’s not. The skill comes in playing funny characters dead straight and both of them deliver heroically.

Mr. Ninneman is a panicked delight as the confused and confusing Mortimer. He slides through his characters as both an honest young man and as an outraged and frightened nephew.

And then there is Mr. Gutzman, who understands both the big and the little of great comedy.

As an example, see him and his hat. I will try to do justice to this brief, but hilarious routine.

When Jonathan arrives he is wearing a black bolero hat.

First he tosses it to the arm of the couch, but misses. A short time later, he tries again and misses again.

Then several minutes later he prepares to toss it again, pauses, shakes his head, and walks over the couch to put the hat down.

I realize it loses something in the translation from stage to page, but put  your faith in the description.

There also needs to be special mention for Mr. Weller, an actor with the ability to play a wide variety of characters. He is a talent that is not to be denied and his four-character turn here is worth the price of admission all by itself.

“Arsenic and Old Lace” runs through New Year’s Eve.

Production credits: Director, Dale Gutzman; Technical Direction & Scenic Design, David Roper; Assistant to the Director, Sandy Lewis.

First Stage Young Company sinks its teeth into an American classic

It takes little more than a minute to herald that we are about to be taken on a strange and, perhaps, wonderful journey

When the always magnetic Jennie Babisch climbs onto the stage, tweed jacket and tie, and grabs a microphone, she commands our attention.

“The management takes pleasure in bringing to you —  the news of the world : Freeport, Long Island.  The sun rose this morning at 6:32 a.m. This gratifying  event was first reported by  Mrs. Dorothy Stetson of Freeport, Long Island, who promptly telephoned the Mayor. The Society for Affirming  the End of the World at once went into a special session and postponed the arrival of that event for twenty- four hours. All honor to Mrs. Stetson for her public spirit.
“Milwaukee, the theater where you are in which this play is playing.
A number of lost objects were collected, as usual. Among these objects found today was a wedding ring, inscribed : To Eva from Adam. Genesis 2-18. The ring will be restored to the owner or owners, if  their credentials are satisfactory.”

Ms. Babisch leaves the stage and we are off and running with Thornton Wilder’s classic “The Skin of OUr Teeth,” staged at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center by the Young Company of First Stage.

This is a difficult play for actors and directors and difficult for an audience to get its arms around. There have been volumes written by academics about the play but it is probably best left to Wilder, who was born in Madison and won three Pulitzer Prizes – one for this play – to best explain what it’s about in his “Story of the Play” which appears just before the play opens.

“Here is a comedy about George Antrobus, his wife and two children and their general utility maid, Lily Sabina, all of Excelsior, New Jersey. George Antrobus is John Doe or George Spelvin or you— the average American at grips with a destiny, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet. The Antrobuses have survived fire, flood, pestilence, the seven-year locusts, the ice age, the black pox and the double feature, a dozen wars and as  many depressions. They run many a gamut, are as durable as radiators, and look upon the future with a disarming optimism. Alternately bewitched, befuddled  and becalmed, they are the stuff of which heroes are
buffoons. They are true offspring of Adain and Eve, victims of all the ills that flesh is  heir to. They have survived a thousand calamities by
the skin of their teeth. Here is a tribute to their indestructibility.”

When a young company of actors, most high school aged, stage a play as difficult as this one, it is not unusual to find a varied degree of ability. Some of the kids are born to the stage, others have trouble even finding it.

Not so with the young company which is guided by Matt Daniels and John Maclay who is the director of the Young Company. From the leads to the smaller parts, this was a display of actors who had obviously worked hard and deep to grasp hold of this convoluted display.

Nobody on that stage seemed lost or uncertain. Every movement, every line, every action was precise and was in service to the story. Wilder called it a comedy and this cast was on top of both the delivery and the timing of the comedic moments. But it also caught the dramatic and meaningful subtleties with great perception,.

Wilder’s play is full of biblical reference and parallel and the Young Company was adept in drawing the lines without falling into the sometimes ponderous styles that sometimes accompany stories like this.

This play has a tendency to run in spurts that can make it even more difficult to understand but director Joshua Pohja keeps the pace even and smooth.

The First Stage Young Company deserves serious attention in the world of Milwaukee theater. Many of these young people are going to be the actors we are watching in the next few decades. Watching them in action imbues me with confidence in the future.

“The Skin of Our Teeth” runs through December 17 at First Stage. Tickets are available.

The Ensemble: Zora Allison, Sylvie Arnold, Jennie BabischElliott Brotherhood, Luke Brotherhood, Megan Grizzle, Mary Jensik, Bree Kazinski, Kate Lepianka, Chantae Miller, Mathilde Prosen-Oldani, Emmy Repetti, Kayla Salter, Megan Watson.

Production credits: Director, Joshua Pohja, Costume Designer, Jaclyn Bjornson; Lighting Designer, Marisa Abbott; Sound Designer, Erin Page; Stage Manager Lauren Gingold; Assistant Stage Manager, Robert Torres.

Rep’s Bauman’s 2nd column sparks bitter exchange between two women critics.

Chad Bauman, the Managing Director at The Milwaukee Rep, has created a mini-firestorm with a couple of columns about the state of theater criticism.The first appeared in American Theatre magazine. You can read the column and my response here. https://davebegelontheater.com/2017/11/29/chad-baumans-column-on-criticism-and-a-response-from-a-theater-critic/

His second piece, appearing on his always interesting blog can be found here.  https://managingcreatively.com/2017/12/03/criticism-and-metrics-of-success/

I’m not going to get involved in a back and forth with Mr. Bauman, even though I think he doesn’t quite make it clear exactly what he thinks. My guess is that he has devalued individual critics in favor of a crowd-sourcing approach to the use of reviews in marketing a particular show. I’m fine. He runs a big theater company and do pretty much what he wants.

But there is a Facebook spat brewing between Madison based Gwendolyn Rice and Milwaukee based Anne Siegel. It started when The Rep distributed a “review response” from a woman named Jessica who complained about a review of a play in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It continued when Ms. Rice responded to Mr. Bauman’s first column.

Here’s the first Facebook thread.

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So, we have that dispute between Ms. Rice and Mr. Smith and Mr. Bauman (silent performer.) But things have really gotten heated when Ms. Siegel got into it with Ms. Rice over some perceived slight, of which I am unaware. It’s two women and one of them, Ms. Siegel, trots out the “support a fellow woman” argument as well. Here’s that thread.

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I’m not sure how important all of this is, but seeing two critics go after each other is something that catches my attention. Maybe you’ll find it interesting as well. If not, so be it.

Broadway’s Andrew Varela happy in Milwaukee and Milwaukee is happy to have him

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Andrew Varela spreads joy in Skylight’s “Annie” as well as in the Milwaukee theater community

Broadway! The Great White Way!

It’’s where every actor wants to get, and once there it’s where every actor wants to stay and stay and stay. For some it becomes and almost desperate pursuit full of danger and pitfall.

Meet Andrew Varela.

“Les Miserables” on Broadway. He’s played both Valjean and Javert. National tours of Les Miz and “Phantom of the Opera.” He played the Phantom. He met his wife, the accomplished actor Susan Spencer during a national tour of “Evita”.

And then, Bang!

They pack up their son, Oscar, who is now 15, and move to Wisconsin where his wife grew up in Greendale. They have been here seven years now and Mr. Varela has become an absolute standout in the world of Milwaukee theater.

“We were  doing a show and I meet my wife and we are living in New York” he said describing the journey.  “And when you have a kid New York changes.I remember once I was in Miami doing a show and my wife sent me a picture of Oscar when he was tiny, and he was standing. It was a beautiful picture of him, but all I can see is the rusty chain link fence with trash behind him.  It jarred me.

“The private school (where they sent Oscar) was like bad daycare and super expensive and it was an hour each way to it. It was like “‘what are we doing?’ We are working in a community where we don’t want to live. I was on tour, getting these roles and one day I said to my wife, we we’re at the end of our rope, let’s just go to Wisconsin. We’ll settle in and we’ll see what happens. I knew I didn’t want to stay in New York. Because I had reached a certain level, I was getting calls. So we didn’t have to be in New York.”

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But what about acting, getting roles, continuing to make your living with your skills.?

“As far as creative outlets for me, I’m lucky that I’ve developed relationships, like the one with Skylight. I have roles and my wife and I are doing a Valentine’s Day concert at Sunset Playhouse. Then I’m going to In Tandem to do “The Fantasticks.”

Mr. Varela also is in the pipeline for commercial work, both in Milwaukee and Chicago as well as film and television in Chicago. He has a relatively rare combination of talents. Chief among them is his powerful and expressive tenor that is versatile enough to do both Sweeney Todd and Daddy Warbucks.

“I always could sing,” he said. “I was always the loud kid in school. Always in choirs. I’ve been singing the whole time. It’s been a part of my identity for years, as long as I can remember. I If I didn’t sing I don’t know if I would have  gotten the opportunities I’ve had.  I’ve been doing a lot of different roles. Valjean and Javert are very hard roles. Very hard.”

Mr. Varela may have been a natural born singer, but he is studious about his craft and admits that acting didn’t come as naturally.

“It used to be pretty hard to do the acting,” he said. “Having the empathy for the person I’m playing. You find places that haven’t been done in a song. I feel a responsibility to the person I’m playing to give them that depth. So that you show the layers of the character.”

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Mr. Varela and Christina Hall in Skylight’s Sweeney Todd

Mr. Varela’s performance in “Sweeney Todd” was a magnificent and multi-layered one, capturing the most difficult parts of the character of the terrorizing barber. His singing was wonderful but the acting diligence he uses found parts of the barber that are rarely on display. He has a deep commitment to getting everything out of a character he can.

“What I get real satisfaction from is doing it right,” he said. “Hitting all my marks. I remember singing the end of “Stars” (in Les Miz)  with its big overwrought ending, and just feeling my voice click into the right position and all the notes came through and the breathing was right.  I can kind of equate it to being a figure skater where you have to have precision and athleticism to hit everything you planned on hitting and doing it right when it counts.”

Watch Mr. Varela sing “Stars” here.

Doing right when it counts is a treat for Milwaukee theatergoers, especially this holiday season when he does his Daddy Warbucks role in “Annie,” the holiday production at Skylight Music Theatre. It’s a show that entire families should see.

And Mr. Varela, who has been under the bright lights of Broadway, seems perfectly happy in Milwaukee.

“We came back here and looked at a school.” he said.  “It’s great, they are all angels, so sweet. And we’ve been here 7 years since then. And it’s great. I lack nothing. I want for nothing. There is everything in Milwaukee. It’s like New  York. There may be 4 Cuban restaurants here of here, and 24 of them in New York. of them. But I wasn’t going to 24 in New York. There all the outlets here.

“The flip side of it is that I have wonderful neighbors that plow my driveway if I can’t get to it. They don’t even ask. They show up with a cooler of beer and we’re doing the yards today.’

“The living I can make here is certainly less than New York. But the nut here is a third of what it was in New York.

“It’s been a great change for me, my wife and my son.”

He might also have said, but I’ll say it for him. It’s also been a great change for Milwaukee.  

 

Clements’ “Christmas Carol” a a magnificent tale of suspense

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Jonathan Wainwright as Scrooge and Jonathan Smoots as Marley’s Ghost

Stephen King meet Mark Clements.

Clements, the Artistic Director of The Rep, channels the famed horror story writer in year two of the staging of his adaptation of  “A Christmas Carol” which opened Friday night at the Pabst Theater.

In this, the 42nd annual Rep production of the Charles Dickens story, Clements has transformed what was a production seeking to find its feet into a spectacular story, full of horrors and suspense that gave free rein Jonathan Wainwright to create an Ebenezer Scrooge with a depth and slow conversion that is at the heart of the journey.

Mr. Clements vividly demonstrates in this production that he has a penetrating look into what a play needs to carry and deliver all the power it can.

Perhaps the most glaring difficulty in the first staging of this production was that, despite being surrounded and supported by unmatched sets and costumes, the conversion of Scrooge from nasty and cruel miser to a Christmas angel happend to quickly.

This year the agonizing journey of Mr. Wainwright seemed endless as he was faced with vivid echoes of his past, from young boy to young man to aging skinflint. The suspense in the audience was palpable.

Clements has turned this warm-hearted transformational tale into a suspense story where everybody knows the ending but warmly embraces the expedition to get there.

This in large measure is the work of the three Ghosts (of Past, Present and Future), who take Scrooge on this safari through a land of dreams.

Deborah Staples is up first as she takes control and freezes Scrooge in her embrace to visit the things that turned him into the monster he now is.

From a young boy who won’t visit a friend for Christmas out of fear of the wrath of his father to a young man (Christopher Peltier) in love with the ravishing Belle (Arya Daire) but unable to overcome his social awkwardness to pursue her.

Ms. Staples is an absolute mesmerizing presence, capturing the almost vicious determination and delight in exposing to Scrooge, the horrors of his early behavior in life. She seems to float across the stage with an occasional  plea to the audience for permission and encouragement to continue ravishing Scrooge with a memory of his own life.

Next up is Ghost of Christmas Present with the Todd Denning clad in a lush green with white trim and a beard and curl of hair. Mr. Denning’s ghost it full of humor as he guides Scrooge through his life, including the decisive scene of the holiday dinner with the family of Bob Cratchit (Reese Madigan).

Mr. Wainwright is fearfully horrified after coming face to face with Tiny Tim and wonders if the child will survive. It is the first and most graphic of the metamorphosis of Scrooge from tyrant to a man filled with the warmth of humanity.

Finally the Ghost of Christmas Future (Brade Bradshaw) drives the final stake into the cold, cold heart of Scrooge. In a Darth Vader costume, complete with shining bright red eyes,  Mr. Bradshaw is silent as he directs Scrooge to what is on the painful horizon if he doesn’t change his ways.

The disintegration of Scrooge has come first circle and the Mr. Wainwright’s collapse is like a Christmas gift for all of us in the audience. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag of rapicious greed and now the ribbon is off, the Scotch tape has been torn and the paper is teetering on the edge of disappearance.

This adaptation by Mr. Clements has become a fascinatingly layered mounting of this classic, with added details and depth and backstory of nephews, friends, employees and others who have dipped into Scrooge’s life.

Mr. Wainwright made his debut as Scrooge last year and seemed a little overwhelmed by the scope of the role. This year he has become the full owner of Scrooge, finding the cloistered and bound presence of this miser before exulting in the freedom and joys of his holiday committment.

He has become an actor of prodigious skills and they are all on full and vibrant display here.

Mr. Clements has reworked his adaptation into what will become a classic for Milwaukee Christmas seasons to come. It is assuredly time to recognize that there is a wisdom in “leaving well enough alone.” His Christmas Carol is now well enough to leave alone.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 24 at The Rep.

Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tecoma; Lighting Designer, Jeff Nellis; Sound Designer, Barry G. Funderburg; Original Music Score, John Tanner; Stage Movement Director, Michael Pink; Production Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Dialect Coach, Jayne Pink; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Make-up/Hair/Wig Designer, Lara Leigh Dalbey; Associate Director, Leda Hoffmann; Stage Manager, Rebecca Lindsey; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.