2019-20 Theater Season Full of Promise and Excitement

The first production of the year for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is the traditional start to the season in Milwaukee, and it’s just a couple of weeks away with the promise of some exciting developments.

Chamber will open with the frequently produced farce, “Unnecessary Farce,” by Paul Slade Smith. Complete with twisted identities and a total of eight doors, the play has gotten rave reviews around the world.

Anytime you have cast that includes Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jenny Wanasek and Rick Pendizch you know you are in for an evening of fun.

The play marks the start of the final season of the renowned C. Michael Wright who is retiring after 15 years as Artistic Director. Wright has an enviable record and he’ll be replaced by Brent Hazelton, the talented former Associate Artistic Director at The Rep.

Close on the heels of Chamber’s opening will be the American classic, “West Side Story” directed by The Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clements. When he sinks his teeth into one of these classic musicals (see Man of La Mancha in 2016) Mr. Clements can deliver theatrical magic. 

It’s kind of like a perfect trifecta – a beloved show, the season opener and Mr. Clements and his musical mastery. They could run this for six months and never have an empty seat. 

There have been a number of off-season changes and developments that are going to have an impact on the season.

Perhaps the biggest news was the closing of In Tandem, the 21-year labor of love for Chris and Jane Fleiller who rana company in a lovely spot on Tenth Street. They produced memorable works like as good a “Glass Menagerie” I’ve ever seen and a take on “The Fantasticks” that was a joy to behold. 

The couple got tired, I’m sure, of the constant struggle for financial survival that is common to all small theater companies. But, as they say, when one door closes …etc.

Mrs. Fleiller has landed at David Cecsarini’s Next Act Theatre as the development director. Her expertise in the non-profit sector will be a boon to Next Act.

Mr. Cecsarini’s welcome mat has also lured the women from Renaissance Theaterworks, who are moving from their home at the Broadway Theater Center to Next Act, not this season, but the next. 

The two companies stress that they are not combining artistic tasks but just space. These are two of the most exciting and adventurous theater companies in this city and I’d be willing to bet that synergies will develop between the two that will provide even more thrills on Water St. 

The other big news is that Skylight Music Theater has hired Michael Unger as the new Artistic Director, replacing the retiring Ray Jivoff. 

Mr. Unger has an impressive resume as a director and associate artistic director at The York Theatre Company in New York. He has also created an enviable record as an educator and has a deep belief in the ability of the arts to help heal communities. 

He has done admirable work in Newton, CT, the site of the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook. He is the Producing Artistic Director of NewArts in Newtown, Conn., which he started with a local father in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. NewArts brings the children of Newtown together with Broadway professionals to present high-level performing arts productions as a way to build confidence, foster creativity, and give children tools for their future. 

Mr. Unger has an avowed affection for helping to nurture new and underperformed works, and it’s likely that he will exercise that viewpoint when he takes the helm at Skylight.

It might do well to remember the tenure of Viswa Subbarraman who spent four years directing the Skylight and walking a tightrope between the traditional musicals that the audience had come to expect and love, and cutting edge new and underperformed works. The lack of enjoyment from part of the audience and the board  of the second part of the philosophy led, in part, to his departure from Milwaukee. 

There is a fine line between critical acclaim and audience approval at times and hopefully Mr. Unger will be able to navigate that with ease.

Finally, when you look at the planned shows for the season it’s amazing how rich the panorama of choices will be. Having said that, there are a few shows that are already getting highlighted on my calendar. 

The parade is led by the Renaissance staging of the Samuel Beckett play, “Happy Days.” The production, directed by the brilliant Marie Kohler will feature two of the most brilliant actors in Milwaukee, Laura Gordon and Todd Denning. The role of Winnie has been described as Hamlet for women and a summit role to any actor’s career and I can hardly wait to see Ms. Gordon in this one. 

Adam Bock wrote a great play, “A Small Fire,” and Mr. Cecesarini will direct a powerhouse cast of Mary Macdonald Kerr, Jonathan Smoots and a returning Emily Vitrano, at Next Act. This is a searing look at a woman on the edge and the relationships that surround her. 

The Rep may have West Side Story but Skylight opens with the classic,  “Oklahoma.” And then comes “Newsies” which will be directed by the always inventive Molly Rhode with costumes from the always creative Jason Orlenko. 

Mr. Wright, who has been at the helm of Chamber for 15 years, is going out with a bang. Beside the first show of “Unnecessary Farce,” the company will stage the troubling “Fires in the Mirror” With Marti Gobel and Elyse Edelman playing a total of 26 roles. Ms. Gobel teamed with Angela Iannone for “Twilight Los Angeles,” a similar play also by Anna Deveare Smith, three years ago and this outing should be riveting. 

And Chamber also brings back the always delightful Jeeves series with Matt Daniels reprising his performance in “Jeeves at Sea.” Beside Mr. Daniels the cast features Chris Klopatek, Josh Krause, Diane Lane, Michael Stebbins and the return, after a year in Asia, of Kathryn Haausman, one of the most delightful young actors in the city.

I’m also looking forward to First Stage’s staging of “The Wings of Mariposa,” written by Alvar Saar Rios, the brilliant playwright from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His play “Luchadora” has been one of the best at First Stage in recent years and this bilingual outing holds great promise. 

One company is missing and every year Milwaukee Opera Theater stages something that takes my breath away. The company doesn’t list its season, so I’ll just be patient.

That’s a brief look at the coming season that opens Aug. 10. It’s a season full of promise of both outstanding performances and some surprises that make the Milwaukee theater scene the special place it is.

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