The last time I actually sat in a darkened theater and watched action on a brightly lit stage only a few yards from my seat was in February of 2020.
It was the magnificent confines of the Cabot Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre was staging a startlingly funny production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” With the always marvelous Samantha Sostarich leading the way this wispy little musical had a capacity crowd rocking and rolling in seats all night long. Sitting in the audience was Michael Unger, the new artistic director of Skylight and, coincidentally, a co-director of the world premiere of “Spelling Bee.”
Little did I know then that this was the end of the road for all the joy I always felt when walking into a theater, tickets clutched in one hand, a program in the other. Yes, theater was work, but it was more fun than anything else I’d ever done in my life.
In the early days of the pandemic I, like everyone else, was wrapped up in how to get along. Was I washing my hands enough. Oh, God, I think I just touched my face. How far was six feet, really? But now life in the pandemic has become the new normal and I exist in a world with no live theater. Here is some of what I miss.
Mark Clements and The Rep. He has a touch with the big musical that is truly world class. I’ve seen “Man of La Mancha” and “West Side Story” countless times, and his productions of those two shows were as good as any I’ve ever seen anywhere, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia productions. Mr. Clements is in his 10th year and he and Executive Director Chad Bauman have led a transformation of The Rep into an active and vital player in the social structure of the city. The Rep uses its three theaters and skilled and experienced human capital in a serious effort to expand opportunities for underserved populations both as parts of production teams and as members of the audience. The Rep has produced a lot of virtual content that’s on its website, and much of it is fascinating. But nothing matches a live evening in the Quadracci.
Speaking of music, I truly miss the Skylight Music Theatre and it’s new artistic director, Mr. Unger. He was kind of just getting his feet wet when the Coronavirus came along and he barely missed a step as he pivoted to deliver content virtually. Intelligent discussions and delightful music is available on their website, but again, I miss sitting in the Cabot laughing, crying, holding my breath and humming along with yet another great Skylight production. Mr. Unger promises a new era for Skylight, continuing to pay homage to the classic musicals that have been the backbone of the company but being more aggressive in producing new and rarely produced works. In addition, Mr. Unger has hired the multi-talented Susan Varela as Director of Artistic Operations. Ms. Varela has a distinguished history on stages the world over and will bring a needed dose of sophistication to productions.
I miss every single thing about the tiny Milwaukee Opera Theatre. The company, founded and guided by Jill Anna Ponasik, has delivered – year after year – some of the most memorable and creative productions I’ve seen on a stage anywhere in this world. She staged a one-person show about a monkey, a show in a bookstore that was about friendship, two spectacular collaborations with Wild Space Dance Company, one about a wedding sung entirely in Serbian and the other the story of a little-known Swiss woman who led a life of unparalleled adventure. Every single time I walk into the a space somewhere I am filled with anticipation of being moved in ways both new and profound. I am almost never disappointed.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has been one of the most reliable companies in town for almost half a century. C. Michael Wright who has nurtured and guided the company for 15 years has retired and he has been replaced by Brent Hazelton. Mr. Wright’s work was always distinctive and sure. He not only programmed the seasons but he directed and acted as well and left big shoes to fill. Mr. Hazelton is a smart and adventurous artist and I can hardly wait to see what he does at Chamber. The promise is tantalizing.
On an annual basis, David Cecsarini produces some of the most provocative and emotionally charged shows in Milwaukee. There is nothing he is afraid to take on and his examinations of societal institution and human condition are the stuff that makes great theatre. Shows like “Twilight: Los Angeles” and “Bravo, Caruso” deliver on the promise that if you watch you will feel the joys and the pains, the dreams and nightmares and the fears and hopes of life in America. Mr. Cecsarini has been the shepherd of Next Act for 30 years and I miss everything about his work, including the great oatmeal raisin cookies they sell in the lobby.
Speaking of Next Act, Renaissance Theaterworks has moved out of the Broadway Theatre Center and into the space at Next Act on Water Street. Renaissance is “theatre by women for everyone” and has built an enviable record of opening up positions, on stage and off, for underserved populations, especially women. But it is not a company that has ever sacrificed quality on the alter of equality. A prime example is “The Ballad of Emmitt Till” which was as searing and profound an examination of race in America that I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee. I’m fascinated by the opportunities open for Renaissance under the artistic guidance of Suzan Fete who has a bold spirit that is often full of surprises.
I also deeply miss the world class family theater at First Stage. I don’t use the phrase “world class” lightly, but it is fitting for First Stage. Under the guidance of Jeff Frank , this company always delivers top flight theater to be enjoyed by adults and children. Shows like “Luchadora” by Milwaukee’s Alvaro Saar Rios, show the reach and high level production values you always get at Firs Stage. Theater officials from around the world come to Milwaukee to see how First Stage does all of its magic, both onstage and off. Milwaukee is a much richer place with the annual hard work and brilliance always on display at the company.
I also miss the smaller companies, many of which struggle for survival but who manage to deliver such high quality work that I find myself hoping that they make it to the next week. Places like Dale Gutzman’s Off the Wall Theatre and the kids at All In Productions always reach for the starts. Sometimes they strike out but occasionally they hit grand slam homers and it’s always worth waiting for those nights.
Some smaller companies also find strength in collaboration, like Theatre Red which collaborated with Wisconsin Lutheran College for a brilliant production of the equally brilliant “Bonny Anne Bonny” by Milwaukee’s Liz Shipe.
I know this whole column is a look back at why I miss all this theatre, but my hope is that we can all look forward to what is coming. Most of these companies have a variety of virtual entertainment going on and I encourage everyone to check out their websites.
But nothing replaces a night at the theatre and I can hardly wait for a combination of Biden, masks, vaccines and prayer to coalesce and open up those doors and turn on those footlights once again.