Milwaukee Opera Theatre on tap with another unique and promising production

“A new production from MOT holds great promise

It’s a rare occasion that I ever recommend a play without having seen it first.

As they say, rules are made to be broken. So, here we go.

For only three nights, Milwaukee Opera Theatre will stage “Antiology” at the Boswell Bookstore on Downer Avenue on the East Side of Milwaukee. The show opens Wednesday, Oct. 10 and runs through Friday. Just three performances, which has always been one of the only regrets I have for MOT.

Just as the Milwaukee Ballet should have more performances, so, too should MOT since the company delivers some of the most unique and stunning productions seen in any given season in this city.

“Antiology” appears to be another one, especially since the show is the product of the same team that created the highly-acclaimed “Lucy” that had its premiere at MOT four years ago. That show, about a monkey, was one of the very best I saw that season.

This time the music was written by John Glover and the words by Kelley Rourke. The main performers will be the fantastic baritone Andrew Wilkowske and the equally fantastic Jack Forbes Wilson, Milwaukee’s greatest semi-hidden jewel.

The show is based on the novel, “Eat the Document” by Dana Spiotta. The story is about a pair of radicals from the Vietnam Era, and their lives two decades later. Different people and different paths.

Perhaps I’m a little biased because I knew, and even planned, with two of the most famous women anarchists of the Vietnam era, Bernadine Dohrn and Katharine Ann Power.

Jill Anna Ponasik, the ever inventive artistic director at MOT and the artistic associate at Skylight, is the muse behind this production, and so many other memorable productions. For all of her “aw shucks” attitude she is a woman of formidable talents who should have a larger stage for her works (HELLO SKYLIGHT WHICH IS LOOKING FOR A NEW ARTISTIC DIRECTOR)!!!

The production will feature the following instruments: guitar, piano, dulcimer, autoharp, accordion,ukulele, banjolele, harmonica, banjo, washboard, cello, toy piano, metronomes, saxophone, trombone, recorder and spoons.

All those instruments will combine in a jam to the following songs:

Our Prayer: Beach Boys

God Only Knows: Beach Boys

Good Vibrations: Beach Boys

River Song: Denis Wilson

Eight Miles High: The Byrds

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: Bob Dylan

Broken Heart: Skip Spence

Maybe this thing will fall flat on its face, and I’ll be embarrassed by this preview. But I’d bet against it and urge everyone to see this three-performance production.


Magnificent actors bring cats and dogs and pains to life at Chamber Theatre

Jenny Wanasek and James Tasse are marvelous in “Chiapatti” at Chamber.

There is nothing quite as interesting as a look – a deep look -inside the deepest reaches of another person. Photo by Paul Ruffalo. 

A look the diamonds and stones, the warts and dimples, faith and doubt.

That’s the look that comes if you are in the audience at the riveting production of Christian O’Reilly’s “Chiapatti” being staged at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

Put together a director with a great touch of intelligence mixed with sincerity and two of the best actors you will ever see in Milwaukee and you end up with 90 minutes of a ride on an emotional zip line – traveling from here to there slowly but deliberately. There are no stops in this play.

The tale is of two neighbors.

Dan, who along with his dog Chiapatti, lives alone after the death of his one love, Martha.

Betty, who lives with a bitter much older neighbor and cats – lots of cats – enough cats so she even refers to herself as the “old cat lady.”

The thing between them might well come from the Billy Joel song…”sharing a drink they call onliness.” Dan’s a lifelong bachelor, even though he had one deep love with his Martha. Betty is a long-time widow whose life is wrapped up in and dedicated to her cats.

The two first cross paths at the office of the local vet where Dan has gone to get an unneeded checkup for his dog. Betty drops a cardboard box holding a bunch of kittens who squeal around the waiting room, putting dogs and people on edge.

Dan is obviously struck by Betty’s reaction, which is one of unstoppable and almost hysterical laughter.

“Laughing is what I used to do when Martha was here,” says  Dan after he his home and recalling the cat lady.

From that first moment, Dan and Betty walk haltingly toward each other.

The unique style of Mr. O’Reilly’s play is that most of it is conducted in a monologue, based in separate locations in the sparse set designed by Sandra J. Strawn. It is only on rare occasion that both Betty and Dan are in the same place, interacting with each other.

This is  a play where both the mundane pace of daily duty and the unexpected jolt live side-by-side with equal impact.  It would be unfair to mention the surprises, but they are part and parcel of the gentle ride along this path.

This story is an unremarkable one but it comes alive by the magnificent performances of James Tasse and Jenny Wanasek, two of the most experienced and accomplished actors this city has ever seen.

And it is to the eloquent testimony of director Michelle Lopez-Rios who knows what she’s got and is willing to let them have their way on this stage. It’s easy to over-direct a play, but it is the smart ones who know just how much is needed and Ms. Lopez-Rios shows mature and remarkable restraint in shaping this production.

Mr. Tasse is fine fettle as an aging Irish laborer who has reached a place where he doesn’t have much, if anything, to live for. His body is laced with ache, but not nearly as the ache in his heart. aches but not nearly as painfully as his heart.

He is gruff as well as generous with both his time and his effort, withholding only his affections and his commitments.

Ms. Wanasek is a marvel as Betty. She is lonely, but has filled her life with the cats. She is fully aware that the main thing that she has missed out of life is genuine love. Her marriage was loveless and she is acutely aware of her dreams of what a life of love might be.

Under the long time guidance of C. Michael Wright, Chamber has made a mark with plays about people. It may be conscious or it may not be, but some of the most memorable and intimate plays about the foibles of humanity have been at Chamber. This one goes to the head of this long and admirable line.


Rep opens season with a glorious “In the Heights”

Nicholas Garza, Stephanie Gomérez and Ryan Alvarado, all live “In the Heights.”

We can all barely wait for the announcement from The Rep of an emergency capital fund-raising campaign to fix a sudden and unexpected tumultuous event.

The roof of the theater needs to be replaced because a rambunctious wildly diverse band of brothers and sisters blew the roof off the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater Saturday night during the opening night of “In the Heights,” the Lin Manuel Miranda musical.

On the continuing journey to its recognition as one of the best regional theater companies in America, director May Adrales captured a special kind of magic rarely seen on this country’s stages.

Mr. Miranda is, of course, the creator of the wildly popular and inventive “Hamilton” this production is an opportunity to see his first steps into both form and subject that has swept the country.

This is a tale of the people who live in the same Latino neighborhood in New York. But even more than a story of people, this is a story of place – Washington Heights – and the impact it has in shaping how people go about their daily lives.

And what a neighborhood it is. A place where people have disagreements and worries but a place that binds them together into a family as tightly knit as ny nuclear group of people.

Dreams exist beside uncertainties. Fears live next to the courage. Sorrows are overwhelmed by communal joys.

These may seem like simple folk with simple issues, but there is a complexity to  their lives and loves. Nothing comes easily.

There are two primary stories being told here.

One is about Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado), the young man who runs the neighborhood bodega and who spends hours trying to figure out how to get with the sexy Vanessa (Stephanie Gomérez).

The other is about the heroic Nina (Sophia Macias), the young girl who has been one to escape the barrio and has gone to Stanford, making everyone proud but especially her father Kevin (Tony Chiroldes), and mother Camila (Karmine Alers).

Nina’s first year in college has not been successful. With two jobs and strained pressures she has dropped out and come home to tell her parents, crushing their dreams for their only daughter.

She breaks the news to them and when he is alone, Mr. Chiroldes sings the most moving song in the show, Inútil (Useless) about the sorrow and shame he feels as a father.

I will not be the reason

That my family can’t succeed.

I will do what it takes

They’ll have everything they need.

Or all my work, all my life

Everything I’ve sacrificed will have been useless.”

There was barely a dry eye among the parents in the audience, especially all the fathers.

Let’s start with Ms. Adrales, an Associate Artistic Director at The Rep and has directed all over the country. She seems to grow by leaps and bounds in each show I see.

Here she captures the beat of the heart in this neighborhood. She keeps her hands off this largely Latino cast, letting them run with the rhythms that thrive inside their hearts. Her inventive construct of moments of brash explosion mix with moments of excruciating quiet to take an audience on a roller coaster of emotional investment.

She pulled the strings but she had plenty of help, led by  music director Dan Kazemi conducting a 10-piece orchestra seen on stage on top of a grillwork of pipe in a scene created by Tim Mackabee.

Mr. Kazemi, a Rep Associate Artist, takes hip-hop and pop and Latin beats andmelds the entire thing into an evocative musical journey that keeps the world going. It’s a rare evening when  you see a largely white audience shaking its shoulders in time to the pounding sound.

This cast of 18 singers, dancers and actors create a sound that is both precise and enthusiastic. Capturing numbers that mixe Spanish with English is a difficult task but  sound designer Megan B. Henninger does a spectacular job of capturing every shout and every nuance.

The cast is, in a word, spectacular.

Led by the charismatic Mr. Alvarado there are no copies or stereotypes here. Each characters is an individual with his or her own story. For some, the individuality is expressed in lines and verse. For others, in dance.

William Carlos Angulo puts these dancers through their paces. The dance is often sexy but always filled with respect for others. I’ve seen productions of this show with choreography where the dancers must have been instructed to “go dance dirty.”

Not for Mr. Angulo. He took the heat and passion of these young people and turned it into both a seduction and a compliment.

A special mention must be made of Yassmin Alers who plays the abuela (grandmother) of Usnavi. Perhaps grandmother more by deed than blood, she is the soul of the neighborhood, full of the kind of elder decency that is both a lesson to the future and a lament to the past. She is a powerful and sensitive actor.

The Rep’s “In the Heights” is everything a great musical theater production should be. It’s smart, startling well sung, colorfully danced and brilliantly acted.

Production Credits: Director, May Adrales; Choreography, William Carlos Angulo; Music Direction, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Tim Mackabee; Costume Designer, David Israel Reynoso; Lighting Designer, Robert J. Aguilar; Sound Designer, Megan B. Henninger; Musical Supervisor, John Tanner; Dialect Coach, Micha Espinosa; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown, Stage Manager, Michael B. Paul; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.


Skylight stages a forgettable and exhausting “Pippin” to open season

Lucas Pastrana and Krystal Drake in “Pippin” Photo by Ross Zentner

Bob Fosse was the genius behind “Cabaret,” Chicago,” “Damn Yankees,” “All that Jazz” and “Sweet Charity” – all major achievements in the world history of American musical theater.

Mr. Fosse, who died in 1987, also wrote “Pippin,” which had a long Broadway run starting almost 50 years ago and won a black bowler hat full of awards.

Wherever Mr. Fosse is now he must be glowing with pride at many of the outstanding performances of his shows that are produced frequently today.

After seeing the season-opening production of “Pippin” that opened at Skylight Music Theatre, however, Mr. Fosse must be rolling over in his grave.

If ever there was a production that managed to take all the magic, mystery, vigor and exuberance out of it, this was the one.

With singing that was mixed and acting that was suspect, this production, directed by Ray Jivoff, music directed by David Bonofiglio and choreographed by Crystal Wagner, became a ponderous and plodding almost two and a half hours that seemed it might never come to a merciful end.

The story of the play is of a young prince, Pippin (Lucas Pastrana), the son of Charlemagne (Todd Denning) who searches for a meaningful life. Along the way he fights in a war, has lots of meaningless sex, kills his father, becomes the king, abandons his throne and finally happily ends up with a widow and her young son, to live happily ever after.

The entire thing was overseen by The Leading Player (Krystal Drake) a kind of mashup character between Judy Garland, Gwen Verdon and Ben Vereen (who created the role).

There are a number of aspects of this production that are captivating and stand worthy of the history of “Pippin.”

The music direction of Mr. Bonofiglio is loyal to the original and his six-man band is imaginative and solid. Costumes by Karen Simonson Kopischke are cast in various shades of black and gray were stark and striking.

The lighting by Jason Fassl, one of the most imaginative and skillful designers in theater was the most striking off all the designers. His creative use of rear production screens was a highlight and he proved once again, that when there is music, his lighting often becomes a song all by itself.

But then there is the rest of this mess.

Mr. Pastrana has a pleasant tenor with an impressive range. But his acting is wooden and his musical numbers were almost always sung to the rafters of the Cabot Theatre as if he were pleading to some wistful spirit. There was almost no connection with the full-house on opening night.

Ms. Drake had an excellent connection with the audience and a kind of sassy essence that did her character proud. She can sing and she can dance and both skills were on display. As they were with Mr. Denning who is one of the best and most experienced and accomplished actors in Wisconsin. He tried to milk every laugh out of his role, but good theatrical comedy needs more than just one person. Nobody was there for Mr. Denning.

While Mr. Denning showed the most accomplished chops, joined by Kathryn Hausman,  it would have been nice if the rest of his cast had learned that sometimes less is really more. Overacting ran amok with mugging being the primary expression for many of the actors like Alex Campea, Elaine Parsons Herro and Becky Cofta.

But it was the dancing that truly set this show apart and helped to create an evening of such a single dimension that it was difficult to hang in there for the entire two and almost a half hours.

Mr. Fosse was, above all else, a dancer and choreographer. He populated his shows with dancers and singers who could really dance and sing.

Faced with the problem of not having many dancers who can really dance, Mr. Jivoff and Ms. Wagner, made the decision to create dances that went on and on and on. And ON.

The choreography was stock stuff and was performed with an ineptitude that boggled the mind. The smart thing would have been to cut the dances short and get on with whatever story they were trying to tell. But we couldn’t get so lucky.

A prime example was the performance by Ms. Parsons Herro, who had a nice scene with as the grandmother to Pippin, explaining to him that he needs to lighten up and live his life.

She was a cloistered and aged as she lectured her grandson about her life, and how well she has lived it.  After singing verse after verse and getting the audience to sing along with the chorus, she shed her grandma gown and revealed herself in a spangled onesie with shorts to her mid thigh.

And she began to tap dance. She tapped and tapped and tapped. Nothing special or exciting, and I found myself wishing she would stop this nonsense.

It wasn’t her fault. It was the choreographer who obviously felt that dancing was oh so much damn fun for an audience, even if it was repetitive  and unimaginative dancing. 

Skylight is one of the six groups that receive the major portion of funds raised by the United Performing Arts Fund. It’s a signal that the company is a major player in the arts panorama in Milwaukee.

This production could well have been staged by college drama department. Skylight has a proud and long history of great entertainment and high level productions making it worthy of the big funding benefits.

At the beginning of the play, Ms. Drake promises to make “magic.” The only thing she didn’t say was that the tick was going to be on us.

I deeply hope that the next production, “Hairspray,” brings it back to the excellence we have all come to expect.

A NOTE: “Pippin” marks the last production in Milwaukee for Ms.  Hausman, who is leaving Milwaukee for a year long residency with English Musicals Korea. In the last couple of years she has emerged as a smart and interesting actor, singer and dancer. Her turn in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” at Skylight was memorable. I hope she has fun and then comes back to Milwaukee.

Rep christens Stackner with Memorable “Songs for nobodies”

Bethany Thomas is captivating in “Songs for nobodies” at The Stackner.

The Stackner Cabaret at the Milwaukee Rep has been the scene of an abundance of funny shows with songs with simple melodies and silly lyrics.

Think the “Doyle and Debbie Show” and “Guys on Ice” and “Gutenberg! The Musical.”

But the Stackner has been beautifully remodeled (with a small issue with sight lines for the second row in the riser behind the main floor).

And they’ve opened the new place with one of the most sophisticated and moving shows ever in the cabaret.  

Indeed, even though the song wasn’t in the production of “Songs for nobodies,” I couldn’t help but think of one of the greatest jazz songs of all time, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”

The production of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s pean to five wonderful singers and her examination of what it means to be a nobody, rides the wings of Bethany Thomas into the skies of glorious drama and music.

Ms. Thomas is a Chicago based actor and singer and her work here is both rare and powerful. To see someone command a stage like Ms. Thomas is a magnetic performer who takes on a very difficult challenge with the kind of magic that had a Thursday night audience in a special kind of rapture.

The story features five women, Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas, all famous and accomplished. Each singer is paired with a “nobody,” and Ms. Thomas, playing all parts, tells the story of a song sung for each of the ladies.

These are not impersonations, by Ms. Thomas. Rather, under the musical direction of Abdul Hamid and the Direction of Laura Braza, she chillingly captures the essence of five very different vocalists.

In addition, this is a show that reeks with intelligence.

For example, when doing Edith Piaf, it could be expected that we would hear “La Vie en Rose,” her most famous song. Instead we hear both “L’Accordéoniste” and a moving rendition of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien,” a song everyone will recognize and which captures the memory of a daughter whose father was saved from the death camp at Dachau by a chance encounter with Ms. Piaf.  

Ms. Thomas plays both characters in each scene: A seamstress to Ms. Garland; an usher and backup singer to Ms. Cline; the daughter in the Ms. Piaf scene; a rookie reporter to Ms. Holliday and an Irish nanny on the Aristotle Onassis yacht to Ms. Callas.

Each story is compelling, filled with humor and the pathos of the ups and downs of lives filled with both joys and sorrows, the expected and the surprising.

But more than anything there is the music and, again, Ms. Thomas doesn’t even try to be a mimic. Instead she flashes both musical and theatrical genius to capture the quirks and identifiers of each voice.

Ms. Garland was a singer who treated each song as an athletic contest and she attacked with vigor. She was noted for throwing all of her enthusiasm into a song and and letting it jump around inside her throat. The diaphragm was not a factor in her performance. Ms. Thomas go the sound and with her mouth forming a huge “O” on the long vowels it was perfect. She dripped with the pain of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer classic.

Then came Ms. Cline who was noted for her smooth and emotional vocal stylings. She had an alto sound that was punctuated by a kind of hiccup that added to the emotional wallop of her songs. Ms. Thomas brought all of it to the Willie Nelson classic, “Crazy.” (A side note is that Mr. Nelson wrote “Crazy.” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and ”Night Life” in the same week. )

Then came the Ms. Piaf songs, and featured a performance with the power and passion of the French chanteuse. Ms. Piaf was noted for wringing every moment of emotion out of her songs, and Ms. Thomas captured both the power and mournful passion of the singer.

Ms. Holiday for whom music was a message. Her style was marked by pitch variance in each performance, designed to keep listeners leaning forward waiting for what was coming next. She had a particular phrasing that drew vowel sounds out like a rubber band being stretched to almost the breaking point.

And finally, there was Ms. Callas. This was a profound demonstration of the variety of Ms. Thomas’ skills. She sang the heartbreaking area “Vissi D’Arte” from Puccini’s Tosca. Ms. Thomas captured the mezzo power and color that belonged to Ms. Callas and watching her slide around a stage like the most accomplished diva was riveting.

“Songs for nobodies” is a surprising evening and the delivers the kind of enchantment and a musical mojo that is a fitting match for the loveliness of the new Stackner.

Production Credits: Director, Laura Braza; Music Director, Abdul Hamid Royal;Scenic Designer, Michelle Lilly; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tacoma; Lighting Designer, Jared Gooding; Sound Designer, Erin Paige; Dialect Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown; Stage Manager, Rebekah Heusel; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.


All In Productions Grows Up with Formidable Hedwig

Lydia Rose Eiche and Brett Sweeney carry a spectacular Hedwig and the Angry Inch

It starts with a small smile.

Then comes a grin and a laugh and then you cringe and then you get serious for a moment, a lump in your throat, maybe even a tear in  your eye.

Then you do it all over again and again and again.

And over all of that, over every bit of those emotions, is the question.

Is she a he or is he a she.

And the answer, finally dawning is “YES.”

It is “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” the wonderfully bizarre musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, a show that has been both off and on Broadway and in hundreds of smaller theaters around the world.

It is now in Milwaukee, produced by the rabble rousers at All In Productions and being staged at Next Act Theatre, one of the best spaces in the city.

AIP was born four years ago with “The Last Five Years,” one of the best plays I’ve ever seen. It was staged in the same spot. Since then their production history has had its ups and downs, expected from a baby.

Well, with Hedwig, the baby has grown up. Under the creative and rambunctious direction of Robby McGhee, Hedwig is a night that is everything great theater ought to be.

With Brett Sweeney delivering a performance as good as any I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee, this show soars on wings draped in black leather, gilded dress, full length gown and a series of wigs that change a look and a personality.

This Hedwig and her band (The Angry Inch) is a combination of Chrissie Hynde, Cher, The Muffs, Sid Vicious, David Bowie and is a combination of Chrissie Hynde, Cher, Tina Turner, David Bowie, Patti Smith and not coincidentally, The Ramones.

“Hedwig” is a story of conflict and is immensely striking in America today with the two battling sides of our national psyche.

It’s about the wall in Berlin that ended a war and divided a country, and a wall inside Hedwig that started a war and split a personality. Hedig is a nightclub singer with a show that is part spoken word, part music and all riveting. It’s the story of her life, from a child in East Germany, through love and loss, crucifixion and resurrection, and joy and sorrow.

It’s difficult to adequately explain just how commanding this production is.

Hedwig’s journey to get to the point where she is an internationally ignored singer, fresh off a breakup and stuck in a third-rate tour with her assistant, Yitzhak, (Lydia Rose Eiche), is a tortuous one.

Mr. McGhee has given free reign to the actors and musicians, who are costumed (Lyn Kream) as a vivid paen to every punk band to ever hit the stage. Paula Foley Tillen, who directed the music for the show, is specially striking with a head of red curly hair crowning a leather vest as she pounds her keyboards.

Mr. Mcghee has put together a great little band, two guitars, bass, keyboards and frantic drummer to be the backup stars to the big star. They capture the wild abandon of every punk band and have the ability and skills to wring the tenderness out of songs like “The Origin of Love” and “Hedwig’s Lament.”

Ms. Eiche is a marvelous talent with a voice that can capture both Whitney Houston and Dolly Parton in the same evening. She’s a good actor and stands out in both her solo and harmony work with Hedwig.

It is Mr. Sweeney who carries this show on his shoulders.

From the first moments, draped in a long curly blonde wig (designed by Kathy Smith), this is a girl with boundless sex appeal.

Like the neighborhood hooker with a heart, this girl is traveling suitcase full of contradictions.

She’s brash and brazen but saddled with uncertainty and self-doubt. Mr. Sweeney is spectacular.

He’s got a lot of girl in him and a lot of wannabe stardom. He moves like a graceful man moving like a graceful woman and clearly embraces the concept of communication by body language.

His tremulous tenor strikes to the heart and carries us along this incredible journey. To say that this actor owns his character is a severe understatement. He takes Hedwig, holds her in his arms, pats her forehead to try and keep her calm and lets loose when the world gets to be too much.

This is a production that won’t run forever – too bad – but it is the highlight of the early season in Milwaukee. Don’t miss it. I mean, DON’T MISS IT!

Production Credits: Director, Robby McGhee; Music Director, Paula Foley Tillen; Choreographer, AJ Pawelski; Costume Designer, Lyn Kream; Lighting Designer, Mike Van Dreser; Sound Designer, Derek Buckles; Set Designer, Chris Budish; Wigs, Kathy Smith; Stage Manager, Allison Kaprovich; Deck Chief, Jessica Betts; Makeup Consultant, Ben Ludwig; Graphic Designer, Chad Forrest; Production Manager, Alex Scheurell; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.