A couple more reviews of Black Pearl Sings at The Rep

Two more reviews for Black Pearl Sings at The Rep from distinguished critics.

Mike Fischer Milwaukee Journal Sentinel



Kelsey Lawler Broadway World



Rep’s “Black Pearl Sings” – not enough singing and too much talking and talking and talking

Driven by an obvious desire to cover all the bases – and even create new bases – playwright Frank Higgins has created two distinct and troubled characters who live in parallel universes.

And each character gets equal depression-era weight with troubles in “Black Pearl Sings,” the latest production at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret.

One character is Susannah, a white woman who works for the Library of Congress and is traveling the country recording songs from the past that might be lost to history.

Her latest discovery is Alberta Johnson a black woman imprisoned for 10 years in Texas for “cutting the pecker off” an abusive male partner.

Susannah accidentally hears Alberta (nicknamed Pearl) singing and persuades her to sing some of the “old songs” and is amazed at both the power and beauty of Pearl’s voice. The battle to get Pearl, dressed in prison stripes with a ball and chain around her leg, ensues, a battle that obviously will end successfully with Pearl singing her head off like a combination of Beyonce, Pearl Bailey, and Marian Anderson.

Both of these women have enough problems to fill the most complex soap opera on afternoon television.

For Pearl she is in prison, worries about her daughter in Houston sho seems to have disappeared, is covered in a leech from working in a swamp, is suspicious of white people and is torn from her childhood home on an island in South Carolina.Along the way she is exploited, finds her daughter who dies on the way home as she gives birth to a baby girl (who just before death is named Pearl) and is willing to don a prison uniform for her performances.

Susannah has her own devils. She has been victimized by a powerful man who took credit for one of her discoveries, she has disowned her family for some unknown reason, she is forced to succumb to a former flame (married at that) to get something she wants and she is consumed by her scheme to use Pearl to get a job at Harvard.

There is a basis in truth for Higgins’ play.

In the 1930’s John Lomax from the Library of Congress discovered guitar player Lead Belly in prison. Lomax got him out of prison and toured the country with him, playing a white second fiddle to one of the greatest blues artists ever.

But Higgins has filled his play with so much stuff that it runs two and a half hours with a series of disjointed scenes moving us along Pearl’s journey from prison to performing in front of white liberal university audiences.

Two great actors, Colleen Madden and Lynette DuPree, and the wonderful direction of Leda Hoffman would lead you to expect an evening of rousing entertainment.

But that’s not what happened.

Ms. Madden, a member of the company at American Players Theatre, is one of the best in the state of Wisconsin. She is an absolute genius on a stage but is saddled here with a script that is so multi-dimensional that it’s hard to make sense of many of her moments.

Ms. DuPree is a force on stage, complete with the kind of askance glance that says a thousand words and a clear and warm voice.

But they aren’t enough to bring this thing off.

First of all, there isn’t nearly enough singing. This play is long on time-filling dialogue and short on songs. It is music, after all, that Susannah is searching for and less talk more music might make this production more enthralling.

In addition, this is another one of those Stackner productions that seems bent more on educating the audience than entertaining it. Three seasons ago “The Beautiful Music All Around Us” played at The Stackner and it was like a sophomore class in the history of banjo music.

If you want to write a play about the mystery of the evolution of music from the deep south, you better include a lot of music.

And you better look for surprises. “Black Pearl Sings” was transparent, with almost everything that happened fully expected and almost trite.

Kind of like your average soap opera.

Production Credits: Director Leda Hoffmann; Music director, Abdul Hamid royal; Scenic Designer, Courtney O’Neill; Costume Designer, Lauren T. Roark. Lighting Designer, Aimee Hanyzewski; Sound Designer, Erin Paige; Movement Director, Desiree Cocroft; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Audra Kuchling; Production Photos, Michael Brosilow.


Max Pink, Reese Madigan, Elizabeth Ledo and April Paul

Ah, America.

The land of opportunity. We welcome you to our shores but….be careful.

Don’t fall into the America trap, one that can be the painstakingly slow disintegration of your own personal American dream.

America can eat you alive.

That’s the message behind “The Russian Transport,” the exhilarating play by Erika Sheffer that opened Saturday night at Renaissance Theaterworks. Under the exquisite direction of Laura Gordon, the evening is one full of disturbing humor, pathos and a shared grief for a family that can’t see what is happening to them.

The play is the story of a Russian family of four who emigrated to the United State, presumably some time in the 1990’s, a time when their home country was a wild frontier with crime running wild and billionaire cowboys seemed to pop up every week.

The family is headed by Misha and his wife, Diana. Misha runs a struggling car service out of a closet in the family’s small home and he’s discontented at the difficulties he has providing for his brood. 

Diana runs the household, taking the steps and the shortcuts she knows are necessary to keep this dream alive.Her weapon is her tongue and frank approach to the realities of her life and her family. Think Roseanne Barr with a heavy accent.

Son Alex was born in Russia and is a fully Americanized high school senior. He has a hidden devotion to his family, critical on the surface but loyal in depth. He goes to school, drives for his father and works at a Verizon store, all to contribute to the family bank account.

Mira was born in America and is a typical high school freshman girl. She’s worried about her future, she wants to have fun, she wants to spread her wings and she wants her mom to treat her like something other than a daughter. She thinks she’s an adult and wants everyone else to treat her like one.

From the earliest moments of the play, it’s apparent that this is not a family without ingrained stress.

The first hint is the moment between Diana and Mira. Diana’s brother Boris is finally coming to America and Mira questions why she has to sleep on the couch while her room is being turned over to Boris.

Diana: Is different with Boris.
Mira: Why?
Diana: Because I’m telling you so, shut you mouth.
Mira: If you, like, give me a reason instead of just talking to me like I’m retarded, maybe I wouldn’t…
Diana: Listen to me.
Mira: What?
Diana: From now on you take you clothes into the bathroom when you shower, you understand?
Mira: You’re so gross.
Diana: And war a bra.
Mira: I don’t need to.
Diana: Yo need to! I’m looking at you right now. You like a gonilla, swinging from tree to tree.

Mark Puchinsky

Misha arrives after just having picked up Boris who immediately tries to establish rapport with the two children and an accommodation with his sister. There is history, unexplained so far, between the two of them.

What the audience can tell, from the earliest moments, is that Boris is not the innocent and eager immigrant that he seems. There is something darker and mysterious about him and he combines his sex appeal with a suspect kind of innocence that is both endearing and frightening.

Drip by drip – as if it’s death by a thousand cuts – this family begins to fall apart. From bitterness between Misha and Diana that is just a masquerade for their love to full-fledged bitterness, the father and mother move to polar opposite ends of the spectrum. Alex falls under the spell of his uncle and finds himself sliding ever deeper into a worrisome warren of activity and challenge.

Miss Gordon is a spectacular actor and accomplished director and she brings both to her directing challenges here. She is an actor’s director and gives each actor room to fully develop their own characters.

But she is also a creator and she has staged this play as a fully rounded and familiar family dynamic. People talk and move in concert with each other and independently of each other. It’s the way real people move and talk and is executed with immense skill by her wonderful cast.

Elizabeth Ledo is Diana, channeling every skewed and stunted emotion as a bittersweet mother who uses direct humor as her prime weapon. She challenges her reality with every member of her family, grudgingly tolerant of her present while driving each of them toward her chosen future.

Reese Madigan is Misha, full of obvious and unreasonable surety with a barely hidden discontent and uncertainty. Mr. Madigan is an actor of immense breadth, evidenced this season by his work in “Silent Sky” at Next Act Theatre and this turn as a Russian determined to be the oligarch of his own family.

April Paul and Max Pink

April Paul delivers a bravura performance as Mira and as three young Russian newcomers, each of whom is headed toward a world as highly-prized escorts run by Boris and his criminal clan. Her Mira is everything a discontent high school freshman can be full of longing and hope and distrust. And the vulnerability she brings to each of her hookers-to-be is heartbreaking and begs for an intervention.

Mark Puchinsky, the son of Soviet immigrants, has the duplicity of Boris down pat. From his first moment, the audience can sense that all is not as it seems with this charmer.

It is left to young Max Pink to steal the show as the one character whose arc of development is the most immense. Mr. Pink is the son of Milwaukee Ballet Artistic Director Michael Pink and his wife Jane, and has inherited their ability ability to command a stage.

This production marked Mr. Pink’s first professional show and he was more than equal to the challenge of working with such experienced and able actors.His gradual slide into disillusionment is both graceful and agonizing.

There must also be mention of Jason Fassl, one of this country’s best lighting directors, who is beginning to make his name as a scenic designer as well. The demands of this play required the creation of three different rooms – living quarters, an upstairs bedroom and a cramped office. His work showed three distinct places to play, each one a reflection of the chaos of the lives of this family creating their own fulfillment of the dictum that someone who has overstayed their welcome.

Russian Transport runs through Feb. 11.

Production Credits: Director Laura Gordon; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Assistant Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Scenic and Lighting Design, Jason Fassl; Assistant Scenic and Lighting Design, Marisa Abbott;Props Design, Ana McHenry; Sound Design, Megan B. Henninger; Costume Design, Jason Orlenko; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Dialect and Language Coach, Dramaturg, Graham Billings; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Fight Choreography, Reese Madigan; Russian Language Captain, Mark Puchinsky; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.


“Constellations” brings dramatic and powerful end to All In Productions season

Libby Amato and David Sapiro in “Constellations”

It’s a rare theatrical evening indeed, when the most unexpected combination of disciplines create a chemical reaction that explodes inside your heart.

That’s the case in “Constellations,” the Nick Payne romantic comedy/drama that was opened by All In Productions Friday night at the Tenth Street Theatre.

With two superb actors, marvelously taut direction and a play that marries science with love, it is truly a must see for any theater fan before it closes its brief fun next Sunday.

Boy meets girl – him from one world and her from another – is perpetually the stuff that stories are crafted from. But this is nothing like the other boy meets girl trope that you’ve seen.

This is the story of Marianne (Libby Amato) and Roland (David Sapiro). But rather than telling it from start to finish in a world of reality Payne has crafted a story told with a nod to the string theory of physics.

“In physics, string theory is a theoretical framework in which the point-like particles of particle physics are replaced by one-dimensional objects called strings. It describes how these strings propagate through space and interact with each other.”

In case that kind of thing gives you the shivers, don’t worry about it. This most entertaining of productions is as romantic, touching and funny as you could imagine. In short, it’s kind of like a real relationship.

When first we see them, the two meet at a barbecue, and it is Marianne who is obviously searching for a hookup of some kind.

She spots Roland and leads with her best line.

“Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows? They hold  the secret to immortality, so if you COULD  lick  them, there’s  a chance you’d  be able to live forever. But if everyone did it, if everyone could actually lick the tips of their elbows, then there’d be chaos. Because you can’t  just go on living and living and living.”

Roland replies that he’s in a relationship and Marianne moves on. She tries the same thing on a married Roland and another married Roland. Finally, she finds a Roland who is unmarried and interested.

He is a beekeeper and she is a theoretical physicist. The odd couple has nothing on these two.

But there are – more than one Mariannes and more than one Rolands. They are particles in a universe where every decision and action steers each of them in one direction or another.

Payne calls this the multiverse.Marianne Tries to explain it to Roland upon their first meeting.

Marianne: Let’s say that ours really is the only universe that exists. There’s only one unique me and  one unique you. If that were true, then there could only ever really be one choice. But if every possible future exists, then the decisions we do and don’t make will determine which of these futures we actually end up experiencing.  Imagine rolling a dice six thousand times.

Roland: Everything?

Marianne Everything.

Roland  Everything I’ve ever done?

Marianne Everything you’ve ever and never done. We should  try and keep our  voices down, my housemate –

Roland But if everything I’m ever gonna do already exists, then what’s  the point in me –

Marianne There isn’t. Roland What?

Marianne In none of our equations do we see any sign whatsoever of any evidence of free will.

Roland  In your e-

Marianne We’re just particles. Roland  Speak for y’self.

Marianne You, me, everyone, we might think that we have some say in – We might think that the choices we make will have some say in the –

Roland Right, no, sure – Marianne We’re just particles –

Roland  No, sure, but –

Marianne We’re just particles governed by a series of very particular laws being knocked the fuck around all over the place.

Roland You make it sound so glamorous.

The structure of this play is unusual in that each scene between Marianne and Roland is replayed and replayed again.

Director Mitch Weindorf moves the two actors around the stage, just slightly, signaling that we are going to see something new or at least newish.

We follow Marianne and Roland through their relationship, courting, marriage, the crisis of cheating, forgiveness and the moment they face mortality.

This production wouldn’t work at all if it wasn’t for the absolutely outstanding work of the two actors. The play would be hard to follow and lead to an early tune out for many in the audience. But this one was riveting, from beginning to end.

Ms. Amato isn’t seen nearly enough on Milwaukee stages and this performance is an eloquent example of what she brings to a stage. She is immaculately delicate and precise in capturing the kind of awkward emotional and physical manifestations of a nerd in love .

Five years ago she dazzled this same theater with Mary C. McLellan in a stunning performance of “The Nightmare Room,” staged by In Tandem. She is no less stunning here.

Mr. Sapiro continues his steady climb up the ladder of Milwaukee actors who can find surprising depth in a character. He is both dumbfounded and remarkably perceptive in his various personna. His gentleness and love and support for Marianne is steadfast, despite the boulders thrown in their path.

Perhaps the most mesmerizing scene in the entire play is when the two repeat a scene just played, but in a kind of silent sign language that owed something to sign language for the deaf and something unique to this discussion.

It’s a moment that must be seen to be appreciated and these two actors have a special kind of chemistry that enwraps the stage and the audience.

“Constellations” runs through January 21.

Trying to find a message keeps The Rep’s “Animal Farm” stuck ion the barn

It is perhaps fitting that the lingering feeling after watching the Orwellian production of “Animal Farm” at The Rep was one of theatrical dystopia.

For anyone who had some trouble with vocabulary tests in high school, “dystopia” is the opposite of “utopia. It’s finding yourself in a place where you would rather be anywhere else.

That’s kind of the reaction to this production, directed with some confusion by May Adrales, who is also a Rep Associate Artistic Director.

Ms. Adrales is committed, as she points out in her Director Notes, to her “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.”

If that is something she truly believes, then she must find other ways to pursue that goal than to try and steer a dated and stereotypical 90-minute journey into the hearts and minds of an audience.

The book, published in 1945 is Orwell’s allegory for the events leading up to the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the rise of Joseph Stalin to power. The book is a popular one for students, both middle school and high school. But, by the time they get to college, it’s fair to say that this simplistic novel has lost a lot of its cachet.

So, too, has any relevance to the world (much less the United States) today. Our proletariat isn’t staging revolts. Sure, they’d like better jobs and more money and less crime, but nobody is in full rebellion.  The story of “Animal Farm” is a historic one but one that is lost on any adult paying attention these days.

If Ms. Adrales and The Rep were looking for an Orwell adaptation to stage, they might well have been much better off with the stage adaptation of “1984.” That novel enjoyed a surge in bestseller lists after the “alternative facts” speech came out of President Trump’s camp.

The stage adaptation had a successful five-month limited run on Broadway last year and is enjoying success touring the world.

The production at The Rep that opened Friday night is either too full or too empty, depending on what you expect out of a night at the theater.

It’s too full of gimmicks, like crazy costumes with heads that designate various members of the revolting animals (that is an action adjective, not a descriptive one).

It’s too full of manufactured shock, like the scene near the end when Squealer dispatches a variety of “traitor” animals with particularly gruesome special effects.

It’s too full of effort. Ms. Adrales is just trying too hard to make this play important.

But it’s too empty of any kind of clarity that might actually let someone follow the bouncing ball and find something to latch on to.

For a drama, it’s way too empty of drama. This is a play that has “OBVIOUS” stamped across its forehead and nobody wants to spend good money to go somewhere where there are no surprises.

It could be that all the work of a cast of wonderful actors and some great and interesting designs were undone by a failure to find a story.

Dedication to inspiring dialogue and getting people to think about their world is just fine.

But the first, and most important, commitment for any director needs to be a dedication to the story.

That’s what’s missing in The Rep’s”Animal FArm.”

“Animal Farm” runs through February 11.

Production credits: Director, May Adrales; Scenic Designer, Andrew Boyce; Costume Designer, Izumi Inaba; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Design and Original Composition, Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts; Movement Director, Nancy Lemenager; Casting Director, Frank Honts, NY Casting, McCorkle Casting; Stage Manager, Jacqueline Singleton; Production photographer, Michael Brosilow.

Transcendent trio of actors bring touching and funny to a story of sisters

Charity Angel Dawson, Desi Oakley and Lenne Klingaman

Once upon a time a famous chef – Wolfgang Puck or Julia Childs or Gordon Ramsay – said that “cooking is an art but baking is a science.”

None of those famous people ever had a chance to see the play “Waitress” that opened at the Marcus Center Tuesday night. If they had, they’d realize that baking, at least in this wonderful music, is the highest form of art.

With a transcendent trio of women actors this slice of life (think slice of pie) musical with a book by Jessie Nelson and music and lyrics by Grammy star Sara Bareilles, is as much a testament to a great piece of pie and a cup of coffee as it is to the values of sisterhood that can bind wildly different women together.

This is the story of Jenna (a captivating Desi Oakley), a waitress in Joe’s Pie Diner. She is a woman trapped in a marriage she doesn’t want and finds her predicament grow even more perilous when she discovers that she is pregnant. She’s poor and unskilled and can’t see any path that might lead to somewhere…something better.

The other two members of this waitressing trio are Dawn (a perky and unsure Lenne Klingaman) and Becky (the blithe and worldwise Charity Angel Dawson). The two women join arms, both figuratively and literally to keep Jenna warm after the cold front of the pregnancy blizzard that swirls out of her sky.

Waitress the Musical

“Couch Potato Pie” named for her ne’er do well husband; “Deep (Shit) Dish Blueberry Bacon  Pie” for the mess her pregnancy brings; “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie.”

Early on Jenna sings to her late (an unseen) mother about the satisfactions of baking her pies.

I’ll place it on display
And then I’ll slice and serve my worries away
I can fix this
I can twist it into sugar, butter covered pieces
Never mind what’s underneath it
I have done it before
I’ll bake me a door to help me get through
I learned that from you
Mama, it’s amazing what baking can do”

The song begins the process of rounding out Jena into a full-fledged woman, trying to find her joys while trying to minimize her sorrows. It’s a treacherous journey, marked by fits and starts, the old one step forward, two steps back.

Those steps take her into the arms of her married and new pediatrician, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart). Their affair is deep and passionate until Jenna discovers that the good doctor is married to another woman, also a doctor.

Jenna’s journey may well be sad and lonely, but it’s populated along the way with some delightful humor.

Ms. Klingaman who has never dated but is now on a dating site gets the laughs off and running on the evening of her first date (which she set up to last five minutes). She both funny and poignant.

What if when he sees me,
I like him and he knows it?
What if he opens up a door,
And I can’t close it
What happens then?
If when he holds me,
My heart is set in motion,
I’m not prepared for that.
I’m scared of breaking open.
But still, I can’t help from hoping,
To find someone to talk to,
Who likes the way I am.
Someone who when he sees me,
Wants to again.”

Ms. Oakley delivers a magnificent performance, full of sorrow, hope, tantalizing determination, fear and courage all in one evening. She is a graceful comedic actor but also has the kind of presence that brings a glorious gravitas to some moments. She’s got a messy life but like so many people, the birth of a child can provide some clarity that strengthens a backbone and clears a hidden path. With Becky and Dawn in the background, Ms. Oakley delivers the moment of the show after catching her first glimpse of her baby.

“Today’s a day like any other
But I am changed, I am a mother
Oh in an instant
And who I was has disappeared
It doesn’t matter, now you’re here
So innocent
I was lost for you to find
And now I’m yours and you are min
Two tiny hands, a pair of eyes
An unsung melody is mine for safekeeping
And I will guard it with my life
I’d hang the moon for it to shine on her sleeping
Starting here and starting now
I can feel the heart of how
Everything changes.”

It’s a very moving song and you can hear Ms.Bareilles sings, “Everything Changes,” here.

“Waitress” runs through Jan. 7.

Production credits: Director, Diane Paulus; Choreographer, Lorin Latarro; Music Supervision, Nadia DiGiallonardo; Orchestrations, Sara Bareilles & The Waitress Band; Set Design, Scott Pask; Costume Design, Suttirat Anne Larlarb; Lighting Designer Ken Billington; Sound Design Jonathan Deans;: Production Stage Manager, Jovon E. Shuck; Production Photographer, Joan Marcus.