Skylight’s “Spelling Bee” a warm and wispy night of high hopes on musical parade

Samantha Sostarich surrounded by her spelling bee wanna bees.

No matter what kind of game you are playing or watching, the rhythm normally follows a predictable pattern.

Play football or basketball, Monopoly, bridge, golf, Fortnite or Call of Duty, dominoes, Saturday morning soccer, Trivial Pursuit – it’s always the same.

Fun and cheerful in the early going and then, when victory or defeat are rubbing elbows, things get serious and tense and even a little uncomfortable.

It’s even the same thing in a middle school spelling bee, as evidenced by the production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the wispy little musical that opened over the weekend at Skylight Music Theatre.

Under the watchful eye of Rona Lisa Peretti, a hot shot real estate salesperson and former Bee champion, a collection of socially awkward misfits gather for their chance – a lonely chance – at a brass ring that has eluded them everywhere else in their lives.

Like reality, the first act of this show is one joy-filled laugh after another, full of wonderful songs and laughs galore. The second act is less joyful, indeed it has elements of sadness and pain that are a dramatic counterpoint to the first part of the play. 

It all adds up to an evening of mixed emotion for those of us in the audience.  At intermission everyone had a smile and a chuckle. On the way out of the theater it was noticeably more quiet. 

Director and Choreographer Brian Cowing gave plenty of room for his talented cast of actors to do what they do best – pull every laugh out of every joke and situation all evening long. He kept things moving along and threw in dashes of limited but spirited choreography that was skillful.

The strongest thing Mr. Cowing has going for him is a cast full of actors, singers and (even) dancers who are as delightful as can be.

The cast is led by Samantha Sostarich who plays Ms. Peretti, the lady who runs the spelling bee. Ms. Sostarich introduces the story, the players and just about everything else with the kind of aplomb you might expect from a woman who loves being the biggest fish in this small pond. Ms. Sostarich has grown into a marvelous presence on stage, with a wonderful voice and a magnificent touch for comedy. As she takes her place behind that infernal spelling bee bell, you know you are in good hands with Ms. Sostarich at the helm.

She is joined at the table by Robby McGhee, a co-founder of all In Productions and an actor who is starting to get good roles in Milwaukee. He plays an assistant principal who is moving on from a slightly troubled past. Mr. McGhee is a burly presence who plays marvelously with Ms. Sostarich.

At the heart of this contest are the six kids who all want to go home with the big cup and win a trip to nationals in Washington D. C. 

James Carrington plays William Barfee whose last name is continually mispronounced (it rhymes with parfait). Mr. Carrington never met a double cheeseburger he didn’t like, and insists he looks great in a pair of cargo shorts and uses a “magic foot” to help him spell out the words. Mr. Carrington has a carriage that begs for affection and it’s easy to take him to your heart.

Kendyl Ito plays Marcy Park, a young girl burdened by expectations that she will always be perfect. Ms. Ito is an adult Equity actor from New York but she creates a middle school student to perfection. Her big number, when she revolts against the life of high expectations that has been crafted for her, is perhaps the highlight of the evening. 

Yando Lopez plays defending champion Chip Tolentino with a verve and easy smile that turns him into every teenage boy you’ve ever loved. He is done in, however, by his inability to control his hormones and his song that opens the second act (an homage to an involuntary erection) is a crowd grabber.

Kaylee Annable plays Logainne SchwartzandGrubenierre, saddled with gay fathers, pigtails that seem somehow too young and a lisp that sends shivers down your spine.

Ryan Stajmiger plays Leaf Coneybear, suffering from the conflict between sibling ridicule and personal egotism. Mr. Stajmiger creates a character who you think might end up either in jail or the governor’s office.

And finally there is Amanda Rodriguez who plays Olive Ostrovsky, a young girl whose life is a latch key. She has been dropped off alone, missing her mother who has traveled to India and who doesn’t have the $25 entry fee. As she waits and hopes for her father to arrive we are swept up in the sadness lurking just beneath her quixotic surface. 

Ms. Sostrach steps into the role of her mother for the poignant “The I Love You Song,” the warmest moment of the evening shared with Shawn Holmes who steps out of his role as the Comfort Counselor who is responsible for bidding goodbye to those who miss a word. 

There is something special about watching the children of this cast try their hardest to both define their goal and reach it. 

This is geekdom at its most touching and precise. It’s a competition, yes, but there is no bitter battling on this stage.

Instead, it’s just a bunch of kids trying to figure out how they can actually get a shot at a very special brass ring.

Production Credits: Director/Choreographer, Brian Cowing; Music Director, David Bonofiglio; Costume Designer, Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer, Jamie Roderick; Sound Designer, Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Stage Manager, Allyson Schiller; Production Photographer , Ross Zentner.


Next Act captures the Golden Age of Television Humor with Laughter on the 23rd Floor

The writers room in Laughter on the 23rd Floor






















Golden Age is a phrase thrown around pretty easily. 

The Golden Age of music. The Golden Age of baseball. The Golden Age of Hollywood.

You can argue about the nominations, but there is one Golden Age it’s hard to argue about.

The Golden Age of television comedy was the 1950’s, headlined by Your Show of Shows and the Sid Caesar Hour. 

And Next Act Theatre is paying homage to that golden age with “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” the autobiographical play by Neil Simon. 

As it ought to be, this production under the direction of Edward Morgan, is as filled with as many laughs as anything we are likely to see this season in Milwaukee. 

There are nine characters in this play and in typical Simon fashion, each one has an individual identity and each has moments to shine during the two hours of the show. 

The tale takes place in the writer’s room of a 1953 television variety show. The narrator of the play, Lucas Brickman (Zack Thomas Woods) is the Mr. Simon character, the new kid in a room full of zany creative outcasts. 

The writers in the real room included Mr. Caesar, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin and, perhaps Woody Allen. 

The characters drawn by Mr. Simon provide plenty of material for Mr. Morgan to shepherd his troops through. And the direction in this show is a beautiful example of a director who has the ultimate trust in his actors. 

The story being told is about the conflict between the show and the NBC network that is looking to cut costs. Although there is a sword hanging over their heads, these comic figures realize it’s just another week of trying to come up with something that will make people laugh.

There is roaring humor on the surface of this production: from the Russian emigree , Mohammad N. ElBsat, to the only girl in the room, Karen Estrada, whose pregnancy may well be the highlight of the evening.

The writers revolve around Max Prince (David Cecsarini), with slicked back hair and a demanding presence who challenges and loves the writers who make him look so good. 

Underneath the surface of the funny, however, the brilliance in this play hones in on the serious business of being funny. This is their livelihood and for these smart people there is nothing funny about being funny. The desperation to be humorous and competitiveness to be the king of the hill for a week are very moving.

A final thought concerns Rick Pendzich, who plays Milt. Earlier this season Mr. Pendzich was The Highland Hitman in Unnecessary Farce at Chamber. It was, perhaps, the funniest performance I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee. In this one, Mr. Pendzich outdoes himself and continues to prove that there is nobody in Milwaukee who handles comedy as he does. 

Cast: Lucas, Zack Thomas Woods; Milt, Rick Pendzich; Val Mohammad N. ElBsat; Brian, Dylan Bolin; Kenny, Seth K. Hale; Carol, Karen Estrada; Max Prince, David Cecsarini; Helen, Lindsay Webster; Ira, Adam Qutaishat.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Designer, Rick Rasmussen; Liughting Designer, Mike Van Dreser; Costume Designer, Amy Horst; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini; Properties Master, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly.

The Nerd at The Rep is a tasty tonic for our times

Michael Doherty and Andy Nagraj in The Nerd at The Rep. Photo Michael Brosilow.

Here’s the way my Wednesday went.

First of all I had to appear in traffic court to fight a ticket I got at the airport. Got nothing resolved and demanded a jury trial.

Then down in front of my television set to watch 22 of the finest lawmakers in the world ask a series – a long series – of questions about the minutiae of the impeachment effort against Donald J. Trump, who is – shamefully – still the president of the United States. 

Then I changed my clothes and tried to find a matching pair of socks. 

Then I drove to the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre and had trouble getting my ticket that would both let me in and let me out of the parking structure.

Then I ordered a sandwich and two soda’s at the bar in the Quadracci Powerhouse that cost me $22.

I was badly, desperately in need of something that might put a smile on my face and proving that Lady Luck will eventually shine, along came The Nerd.

It was nearly 40 years ago that the Larry Shue play had its world premiere at The Rep. Since then it’s been produced thousands of times – Broadway, London’s West End, Division I, II and III colleges, high schools, amateur community theater groups and companies all over the world. 

I was worn out when I sat in my seat. I was semi-grumpy and frustrated with my world and the rest of the world.

But this production, under the sparkling baton of JC Clementz, made me laugh in the simplest way possible. 

A lot of very smart people will argue that The Nerd has a profound relevance to today, that there are deep meanings, that it reflects the search for identity.

I don’t know, maybe they’re right. Obviously they are a lot smarter than I am.

I think The Nerd is so popular because it asks so little from the audience. 

All I had to do was hold on to m Rep soda cup, lean forward, clear my mind of everything that’s wrong in the world, and let a group of actors go to work with a mental massage that proves the funny bone is connected to all the other bones in the body, 

The Nerd is a simple story. The title character, Rick Steadman (Michael Doherty, is an inspector in a chalk factory in Wisconsin. During the Vietnam War he saved the life of Willum Cubbert (Andy Nagraj) who is an architect. Cubbert owed his life to Rick and Rick decides to cash that check and arrives, surprisingly, on Willum’s doorstep, suitcases in hand. 

We throw into this mix a rogue’s gallery of players: Tansy, the wannabe weather girl who Willum loves; Axel, the best friend who is a prissy drama critic; the Waldgrave family – Warnock, a stuffy client of Willum’s, Celia, his neurotic wife, and Thor, their grade school son.

Everybody has their moments with twists and turns that are both easy to see coming and easy to follow once they show up. 

It is absolutely the best easy funny show you can see and the perfect tonic for a world going nuts all around us. If everything were this simple, life would be a lot more fun. 

I walked out of the theater whistling that famous song from Gypsy asks, “May We Entertain You?”

Hell, yeah. 

Caast: Willum Cubbert, Andy Nagraj; Tansy McGinnis, Alex Keiper; Axel Hammond, Jeremy Peter Johnson; Warnock Waldgrave, chris Nixon; Celia Waldgrave, Lillian Castillo; Thor Waldgrave, Damon McCoy; Thor Waldgrave, Charlie Cornell; Rick Steadman, Michael Doheerty. 

Production credits: Director, JC Clementz; Scenic Designer, Arnel V. Sancianco; Costume Designer, Misti Bradford; Lighting Designer, Lee Fiskness; Sound Designer, Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager Kate Ocker,

Skylight’s “Newsies” Tries Hard But Just Doesn’t Deliver

The cast of Newsies at Skylight Music Theatre

“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.” – Isaiah 11:6

The verse above sounds a lot like the world today when you see young people everywhere trying to engage with life and lead us adults to a better place. 

Greta Thunberg, the climate change girl, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner, all those students from Parkland High School demanding tighter control of guns.

You would think that a musical about children rebelling against the grown ups and trying to force a new world order would passionately resonate with an audience.

Unfortunately the production of “Newsies” that opened over the weekend at Skylight Music Theatre is a corny repetitive show that seems to take itself too seriously.

Under the direction of Molly Rhode – whose work on and off stages I have loved and admired – this Newsies is less about a changing of the guard and more about “see how they run.”

The story, based on a 1992 Disney movie, is simple.

The street urchins who deliver newspapers survive in a kind of secret band of brothers and sisters slaving for the New York City barons, including Joseph Pulitzer.

The publishers announce a slight increase in the price of the papers – which also means an increase in costs for for the children.

Led by the charismatic bad boy Jack Kelly, (Marco Tzunux) the kids moan, groan and finally grip their reality and decide to form a union and go on strike. The play is based on an actual 1899 strike by newsboys, a two-week stoppage that ended when a compromise was reached.

The decades old Disney film was not well received but found a life as a small cult favorite and was revived as the stage production in 2011. It was nominated for a delivery bag full of Tony awards and won two, for choreography and original score.

Three years ago a national tour played at the Marcus Center. That production was full of verve and joy. Oh, they had urchins but those urchins got a kick out of life. They were full of characters who were distinct and developed.

The Skylight production is devoid of any joy as well as almost totally devoid of a commitment that acting is a part of a performance on stage. 

There is little effort made to create believable characters but a lot of embracing stereotypes – a belligerent Joseph Pulitzer, fawning aides, greedy supervisors, evil jailers, big-hearted women of ill-repute and noble (against all odds) boys. 

Because there is little acting, what we are left with is a series of musical numbers that reminded me of nothing so much as a review of talent. It’s as if Ed Sullivan might come out to introduce each act since there was no real thread to pull things together. 

Music is expected to serve the story in a musical, but in this case there was a story that was in service of the dancing and singing.

A typical display of variety show talent overkill came when, in one number,  we had a tap dancer, followed by three tap dancers, then three more tap dancers, then a whole slew of tap dancers, then a small group of tap dancers and finally a stage full of tap dancers and guys doing flips and cartwheels. Enough already.

The most memorable scenes from “Les Miserables is the one where the group of rebels charge with fists raised singing the fierce “Do You Hear the People Sing.” In Newsies we get songs with titles like “The World Will Know,” “Seize the Day” and Once and For All.” 

The creative team on this one just took the whole “this sure is relevant today” thing way too seriously. We are supposed to enjoy or be moved by musical theater, not expected jusst to sit back and watch kids dance.

The cast is not without talent and Ms. Rhode has done an admirable job getting a bunch of local kids to impersonate professional performers. But a lot of the urchin newsies look more like almost-adult newsies and accomplished actors like Lee Palmer, Rachel Zientek and Chase Stoeger suffer along with this irregularly spaced effort.

This show needed to give us something to care about but it couldn’t move from the comic section to the front page. 

Janet Maslin was the highly respected film critic of the New York Times and reviewed the film, and what she wrote 25 years agocould easily apply to the Skylight Production. 

“The real trouble lies in its joyless, pointless execution. It’s a tedious story which will seem dull to children and badly contrived to their parents.”

Cast: Jack Kelly, Marco Tzunux; Katherine Plumber, Rachael Zientek; Crutchie, Jordan Arrasmith; Davey, Nicholas Parrott; Les, Abram Nelson/Edward Owczarski; Joseph Pulitzer, Lee Palmer; Medda Larkin, Natalie Harris; Wiesel/Mayor, Kevin James Sievert; Oscar Delancey/Stage Manager, Shawn Holmes; Morris Delancey/Teddy Roosevelt, Christopher Elst; Snyder/Jacobi/Nunzio, Chase Stoeger; Race/Bunsen/Darcy, Austin Ryan Hunt; Finch/Sietz/Bill, Jonathan Turner; Hannah/Bowery Beauty/Nun, Stephanie Staszak; Spot Coonlan/Bowery Beauty/Newsie, Jamie Mercado; Albert, Joseph Davila; Specs, Kamani Graham; Henry, Matthew Peterson; Romeo, Keleous Lange; Elmer, Nathan Kabara; Buttons, Nolan Van Haren; Tommy Boy, Tikvah Schlissel; Jojo, Francis Faye; Ensemble, Eloise Field; Max Larson, Michael Loomans, Lily Miller, Alicia Rivera, Paisley Schroeder. 

Production credits; Director, Molly Rhode; Music Director, Christie Chiles Twillie; Choreographer, Molly Rhode/David Roman; Sc.enic Designer, Front Row Theatricals; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Joseph Arthur Franjoine; Sound Designer, Hankyu Lee;Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna. 

Holy Moses! Nunsense Continues to Deliver A Blessed Abundance of Laughs

The Little Sisters of Hoboken at The Rep

So this nun, Sister Robert Anne, found this tiny canister of something labeled “RUSH” in the girls locker room, and she’s brought it to the Mother Superior. 

The reverend mother does a serious “tsk tsk” and then, once she’s alone, she decides to take the cap off and take a whiff of whatever this may be. 

Just as you might expect, she is repelled by the smell, but gradually falls in love with the high – the RUSH – that grabs hold of her. 

Sister Mary Regina (Melody Betts) is off and running with what may well be the funniest drunk/high scene ever on any stage in Milwaukee. 

It starts with the room getting warmer, waving her hands to cool off, followed by a series of moments on her trip – moments that include her miracle pregnancy and a sighting of Elvis. 

There’s a reason that getting high is called a trip and the one with Ms. Betts as the conductor is astoundingly funny. The kind of humor where laugh upon laugh roll through the audience until it’s so loud you can barely hear the actor.

The exhausting performance comes at the end of the first act of Nunsense, the decades-old musical review being staged by The Rep at the Stackner Cabaret.  And it’s a good thing that an intermission came along so people could recover.

Nunsense premiered in 1985 and it’s been done around the world time after time after time, always to the joy and applause from audiences.

Under the wonderful and skillful direction of Malkia Stampley, these five actors dash through this two hour special with nary a pause in the hilarity.

Ms. Betts is joined by four other nuns who make up what’s left of the Little Sisters of Hoboken – Sister Robert Anne (Kelley Faulkner), Sister Mary Amnesia (Veronica Garza), Sister Mary Hubert (Lachrisa Grandberry) and Sister Mary Leo (Candace Thomas).

These are five great singers, great actors and spectacular comedic timing. Shows like this can fall flat if the timing isn’t right, but Ms. Stampley has kept things moving at an ideal pace.

Ms. Faulkner did double duty as the movement director for the production and she has brought a fun-filled kind of dance to five characters who all look different. 

Like any great revue, this one is held together by a flimsy story but gives each of the stars moments to shine.

Ms. Betts has her rush-fueled trip; Ms. Faulkner sings “Growing Up Catholic,” a ballad that ruminates on the changes in both the church and the world; Ms. Garza dazzles with her “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville,” a plaintive cry for what might have been; Ms. Grandberry slams the door shut with her exuberant “Holier Than Thou” and Ms. Thomas delights with her portrayal of her morning routine in “Benedicte,” revealing her drive to be the first nun ballerina. 

Some of the humor in Nunsense is corny and some seems a little dated, but with these five “wimpletons” on stage, the laughing never stops. 

Cast: Sister Mary Regina, Melody Betts; sister Robert Anne, Kelly Faulkner; Sister Mary Amnesia, Veronica Garza; Sister Mary Hubert, Lachrisa Grandberry; Sisterm Mary Leo, Candace Thomas. 

Production credits: Director, Malkia Stampley; Music Driector, Dan Kazemi; Costume Designer, Debra Krajec; Sound Designer, Zack Bernstein; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Lighting Designer, Jared Gooding; Stage Movement Director, Kelley Faulkner; Stage Manager, Emily Wright; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Production photographer, Michael Brosilow. 

Credibility Challenge Can’t Stop the Laughs at Renaissance

Isabel Quintero and Marti Gobel in The Roommate at Renaissance.

Oscar and Felix.

Perhaps there is no more famous odd couple than the two Neil Simon characters, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, who became roommates and dazzled Broadway and television audiences half a century ago.

Now along comes another odd couple in “The Roommate,” a play written by Jen Silverman and getting a production under the direction of Suzan Fete at Renaissance Theaterworks. 

The play and television series were fluffy situation comedies starring Walter Matthau and Art Carney in the play and Jack Klugman and Jack Lemmon in the television show. The actors carried the show.

The premise was a simple one. Oscar was a slob divorcee who spent his days and nights wrapped up in his sportswriting. Felix was a neat and fastidious nerd who wrote straight news and moved in with Oscar as his marriage crashed on the rocks. 

There was no subtext to Simon’s work. Nothing deep or dark or thoughtful. It was funny fluff, the classic stuff during the heyday of the situation comedy. 

In her reworking of the theme, Silberman has written a slender play full of gags and jokes and laugh out loud humor that is a pleasant 100 minutes but falls well short of anything full of meaning or matching the pre-show claim that this is a show that is a dark comedy about what it takes to reroute your life – and what happens when the wheels come off.

There is a lot of comedy but very little dark, with the exception of a tear-jerking ending that feels manipulative after all this time we spent laughing. 

Sharon (Isabel Quintero) is a 50-ish Iowa housewife, recently divorced and living alone in her Iowa City house. She needs a roommate and one arrives in the person of Robyn (Marti Gobel), also 50-ish, a lesbian refugee from the Bronx. 

For Sharon rap is the Saran she uses to cover leftover casseroles. For Robyn rap is the slam poetry that defines a part of her life. Sharon is white, domestic and frantic. Robyn is black, a vegan and cool, oh so cool.

The earliest moments are the tipoff that this whole thing is going to be an exercise in one joke  after another, held loosely together by the story of how these two become friends. 

Despite the heroic performance by Ms. Gobel, a transcendent actor who can lift a sunken Titanic of a play back to the seas where it can float, this one just never grabbed hold of my heart.

Perhaps the biggest hole in the script was dug by Ms. Quintera who played Sharon as the most neurotic and crazy lady who ever lived among the cornstalks of Iowa. Nobody could possibly be as frenetic and uncomfortable as this Sharon.

Credibility is a critical element of any play, comedy or tragedy. The audience has to believe in the characters on the stage. 

Robyn is believable, Sharon is not. 

A triumph for the script, however, is the fact that even though they jokes are so transparent that you see them coming from a mile away, they still made me – and the rest of the audience – laugh. 

Robyn sits at the kitchen table rolling a joint that she calls medicinal herbs. You can tell that it won’t be long until Sharon tokes and she does, she gets high, and she loves it. It’s very very funny.

Sharon helps move a box into the house, sneaks a look and you just know she’s going to find something surprising. She does and it leads to the next ongoing joke that runs through the final 20 minutes of the play or so.

You know that there is going to be some kind of lesbian thing happening and, indeed, a drunk Sharon plants a kiss right on Robyn’s lips after the two slow dance together. 

And, as you might expect since the play actually has to come to an end sometime, Robyn leaves and we are left with this ending, with the actors apart and obviously begging for tears, or at least a sniffle or two. 

This funny play would have left a much more meaningful impression of Ms. Silverman had stuck to the comedy. When you spend an entire evening smiling and laughing, asking us to choke up for the last three minutes just feels like cheating.

Cast: Sharon, Isabel Quintero; Robyn, Marti Gobel. 

Production credits: Director, Suzan Fete; Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Lighting Designer, Sarah Hamilton; Scenic Designer, Madelyn Lee; Co-Props Master, Melissa Centgraf; Co-Props Master, Simone Tegge; Sound Design, Sarah Ramos; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.

A searing and unflinching look at race in America in “Niceties” at The Rep

Kimber Elayne sprawl and Kate Levy sparkle in the thoughtful “Niceties” at The Rep


It’s not guns.

It’s not gay marriage.

It’s not economic disparity nor education nor health care for all. 

The most difficult thing to talk about in America is now, and has been for hundreds of years, is race. 

Nothing  raises passions so deeply held or defies resolution more than discussions of racial relationships between white people and black people in this country. 

And rarely have those passions been on such dynamic theatrical display than they are in “Niceties” that opened Saturday night in the Stiemke Studio at The Rep.

The setting is the office of white history professor Janine Bosko (Kate Levy) at an elite northeastern college, most likely Yale University.  She is meeting with a black student, Zoe Reed (Kimber Elayne Sprawl) to review a report Zoe has done on the American Revolution. 

The two are friendly in that revered teacher/anxious student way. Small attempts at humor as Janine goes over the minor flaws. A missing comma, a gerund error. Zoe religiously notes all of the criticisms until the seminal moment arrives. 

After Zoe agrees to the minor changes, Janine hits her hard.

“I’m afraid you’re in for a substantial rewrite,” she says. “Your argument is…fundamentally unsound.”

The first rumblings from what will eventually become a volcano can be heard as Zoe tries to defend her theory that slavery played a major role in the conduct of the American Revolution.

Janine tries not to be patronizing as she discounts Zoe’s theory and defends the theories of her established colleagues. Despite herJanine’s best – and genuine – efforts, Zoe feels patronized. She feels victimized by this powerful figure in her life, and her resentment begins to morph into an anger that is frightening in its power.

Eleanor Burgess wrote “Niceties” and she talks about how she came to set the play in the time period she did. The following is from an interview she did at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, Ms. Burgess Hometown theater. 

“It is set during the primaries of the Republican and Democratic parties. It’s partly set there because that was when I wrote the first draft — but also ever since the election, I’ve wondered about updating it, and that would be wrong. One thing I like about the timing of the play is that the characters on stage don’t know what’s coming in this country, and we in the audience know very well. We know the stakes of liberals not agreeing with each other and not being enthusiastic about the same things. We know the consequences of a white woman failing to win over people who aren’t white and the consequences of a woman in her 60s failing to win over a millennial. We also know more than they do about how far Americans are willing to go to defend their beliefs about America and their understanding of race in America. There is a dramatic irony present in the play; we have a fear of where the conversation is going that neither of them knows or sees. We also know how much they’re going to lose and how dangerous the world is going to get for both of them.”

This play is fascinating and it’s a chilling evening of high-powered dramatic theater. Both Ms. Bosko and Ms. Sprawl are smart, sensitive and precise actors who capture the complexities of their characters. These are complex people with no place for an easy label to be pinned. This is difficult theater, but it is so worth every second of discomfort.

When it was over I found myself not just thinking about how I feel about race, but about how I act.  Thoughtful doesn’t come close to describing the experience of seeing this very special production  

Cast: Janine Bosko, Kate Levy; Zoe Reed, Kimber Elayne Sprawl.

Production Credits: Director, Annika Boras; scenic Designer, Courtney O’Neill; Costume Designer, Christine Pascual; Lighting Designer, Noelle Stollmack; Sound Design and Composition, Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Stage Manager, Martinique M. Barthel; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

A Tsunami of words about the role of art in a revolution

The ladies of “The Revolutionists” at Next Act Theatre (photo by Ross Zentner)

After the talkiest play to hit Milwaukee stages finally comes to an end, the struggle to figure out what it’s about also ends.

Instead of wonder, one is left with a sense of contentment having watched two hours of a very intelligent discussion about the role of art in a movement of social change. 

The evening is “The Revolutionists,” the latest play from the prolific Lauren Gunderson who is the most produced living playwright in America.

Gunderson’s play is focused on four women – French playwright Olympe de Gouges (Cassandra Bissell), French assassin Charlotte Corday (Eva Nimmer), French queen Marie Antioinette (Bree Beelow) and Haitain anti-slavery activist Marianne Angelle (Lea Dutchin). Only the character of Marianne is fictional.

The nexus of this play is Ms. de Gouges, the playwright who is currently without a play. “I’m not blocked,” she says. “I’m just…mentally…hibernating.”

The three other women arrive at Ms. de Gouges’ chambers, all in search of help, thus posing the question of what role art plays in a revolution. 

Ms. Angelle arrives first, announcing her intention to spy on France and send the intelligence home to Haiti. She wants to enlist Ms. de Gouges to write political pamphlets for her movement. 

Ms. Corday arrives next, announcing her plan to assassinate Jean-Paul Marat, a leader of the ultra-violent revolutionary Jacobin forces. She is in search of final words she can use when standing under the guillotine awaiting her punishment. 

Finally Marie Antoinette arrives, fresh from her dethroning and headed to her beheading. She wants a rewrite in order to be restored to her position as monarch.

Director Laura Gordon has wisely let the play and the torrent of words flow unfettered. A play about a playwright writing a play can be a treacherous voyage, especially since the currency of any play is the words on the page. 

But Ms. Gordon resists any temptation to clutter up the flow of language with miscellaneous gimmicks to break up the torrent. She lets the tsunami swap the audience unabated and leaves it to Ms. Gunderson to keep us engaged. 

Ms. Gunderson is not only a wonderful playwright, but she is also very funny. Some of the jokes in this play can be a little overbearing. A continuing joke is the one about “who wants to see a musical about the French revolution?” (Hello Les Miserables).

But the biggest  thing that saves this from becoming some kind of feminist diatribe is the performance of this wonderful cast of actors. 

Ms. Bissell is the personification of the artist at work …one step forward, two steps backward. She eagerly grasps hold of each new idea, shakes its tree, and then discards it to embrace yet another idea.  She is an actor of immense range and can switch from earnest pursuit to humorous gadfly in the blink of an eye.

Ms. Dutchin is every passionate revolutionary you have ever met. She is single-minded and devoted to her cause yet she has the depth to be torn between her lover and her love. 

Ms. Nimmer is a dichotomy. On the one hand she looks like the cute kid next door who babysits for your kids. The other side of her coin is the cold-blooded assassin who has a detailed plan to stab Marat to death while he lounges in his medicinal bath. 

And finally there is Ms. Beelow, clad in a royal gown topped with a silver wig that almost scrapes the ceiling. She is an actor who can marry sympathy-demanding sorrow with flighty arrogance and make each genuine. She and Ms. Bissell stage a master class in comedic timing. One moment you can’t stop laughing at them and the nest Ms. Beelow makes you want to give her a hug and tell her it’s going to be alright.

When the evening wraps up there is no doubt that the art world has both a chance and a responsibility in every revolution. As a wise man once said, “…and the artist shall lead them.”

That’s the fun and enjoyment of “The Revolutionists.”

Cast:  Olympe de Gouges,Cassandra Bissell; Charlotte Corday; Eva Nimmer; Marie Antioinette,Bree Beelow; Marianne Angelle, Lea Dutchin.

Production credits: Director, Laura Gordon; Scenic Designer, Samantha Gribben; Lighting Designer, Marisa Abbott; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini; Properties Master, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager Jessica Connelly. 


Skylight’s “Oklahoma” Honors History in the Happiest Show of the Year


Glorious choreography from James Zager highlights “Oklahoma” at Skylight Music Theatre

Sometimes you’ve just got to leave history alone and not bother to try to remake yesterday for today.

And thank all the lords that Jill Anna Ponasik and Skylight Music Theatre show just that precise great sense and taste as they put a piece of history on stage with a verve and respect that creates an absolutely delightful evening of musical theater.

More than half a century ago “Oklahoma” changed the course of American musical theater, melding songs and dance into the fabric of a show that told a story. Almost single handedly the show created theater where music was performed in service to the story, the exact opposite of what musical theater had been to that point.

Ms. Ponasik, the pixie who regularly delivers surprising and chimerical theater with her Milwaukee Opera Theatre, has assembled a cast of 11 actors/singers/dancers and some brave and courageous designers and musicians to stage what has to be the happiest show in Milwaukee so far this season.

Part of the happiness comes from the familiarity of such great Rodgers and Hammerstein songs as “People Will Say We’re In Love,” “Surry With The Fringe On Top” and “Oh, What A Beautiful Morning.”

The other part of the happy joy comes from some surprises in a production that adds dimension without taking anything away from the “Oklahoma” we all know and love.

The story, based on a 1931 play, “Green Grow theLilacs,” tells the story of two boys, Curly and Jed, who are both in love with the lovely Laurey Williams, who with her Aunt Eller, run the farm on the edge of town in Indian Country. 

The first surprise of this production is remarkable for the fact that it really isn’t much of a surprise at all. In this production, Laurey (Brittani Moore) and her aunt (Cynthia Cobb) are black. The fact that I said “oh, they’re black” to myself and then moved easily into the story, was a surprise showed how far we have come with color blind casting. It didn’t make any difference.   

The show, set delightfully with a prominent band visible upstage and minor evocative trappings down, opens with “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” sung by Curly (Lucas Pastrana).

Mr. Pastrana has a lovely tenor with an easy range that carries us eagerly into the music . He’s a young man dripping with charisma and ability. He is sweet and tender and tough and handsome all in one cowboy package.

The object of his affections is Ms. Moore who is just as cute a little button as she needs to be. She has a thousand watt smile and a lilting soprano perfect for an object of masculine affection.

Jeremy PeterJohnson plays the farmhand Jed as ghoulish and threatening as you can imagine. Mr. Johnson is making his debut in Milwaukee and brings a heightened level of drama to the otherwise sunny story. His chilling character creates a strong contretemps for Curly to battle against. 

“Oklahoma” set the pace for so many musical theater gems by designing a pattern of bit musical moments that both fit and advance the story being told. It allowed for shining moments for actors throughout the production.

A perfect moment is created by Hannah Esch who plays Ado Annie, the man-crazy daughter of a farmer. Ms. Esch is introduced with “I Can’t Say No,” the heartfelt and exuberant anthem of all the girls who like all the boys just as little too much.

Ms. Esch is a show stealer, with a big persona and vocal cords made of steel (a description provided by someone who knows a lot more about music than I do). She is a young woman who truly commands the stage and has a comedic touch that should carry her along way in the world of musical theater.

The joys of this production are achieved by a mixture of loyalty to the original and courage to update and refine things that shine.

The choreography ofJames Zager is a perfect example. 

The first act ends in the famous dream ballet – Laurey’s dream of both the possibilities and fears of her life.  

Mr. Zager stays true to the conflicts that plague Laurey but adds a distinctive focus on both the pleasure and pain of being young and in love. He does pay homage to the original choreography by including a few moments of can-can, the hallmark steps of the original. 

The second act opens with more of Mr. Zager’s work and the exciting “The Farmer and the Cowman,” the “we should all get long song.”

This is a song full of humor and delight as well as a slightly hidden message of coalition of all people. He has created a spectacular dance to lead off the second act. It’s high energy and it gives ample opportunity for all dancers to dance and it quickly shakes any intermission-fueled sand from your eyes.

This may well be the best and most challenging work I’ve ever seen from Mr. Zager. 

Milwaukee is very lucky right now with two classic musicals playing at the same time. Buth “West Side Story” at The Rep and the Skylight’s “Oklahoma” are in the discussion for most important/best/greatest of all time musicals. Each of these productions is absolutely outstanding.

This “Oklahoma” must also be viewed in the shadow of the Broadway production that has gathered such praise and which is about to start a national tour. That show takes a pickaxe to the original, highlighting all that is dark about the show. Much to the credit of Skylight, there is faith on display in the Cabot.

I rarely actually recommend going to see a play, but in this case, you have a chance to see the grandest history of musical theater in the same city. Don’t miss.  

Cast: Curly McClain, Lucas Pastrana; Aunt Eller, Cynthia Cobb; Laurey Williams, Brittani Moore; Will Parker, Sean Anthony Jackson; Jud Fry, Jeremy Peter Johnson; Ado Annie, Hannah Esch; Aliu Hakim, Ethan D.Brittingham; Gertie Cummings, Christal Wagner; Andrew Carnes, Chad Larget; Cord Elam, Emanuel Camacho; Kate, SaraLynn Evenson; Slim, Stephanie Staszak. 

Production credits: Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director, David Bonofiglio; Choreographer, James Zager; Scenic/Lighting Designer, Peter Dean Beck; Costume Designer, Karin Simonson Koposchke; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production photographer, Mark Frohna.


Powerful, Riveting and Important “Fires” at Chamber Theatre

Marti Gobel and Elyse Edelman are riveting in “Fires in the Mirror”

A good story is told from beginning to end.

A great story gives you the background – context – that explains why the beginning may not be the only beginning. 

A great, great story is what’s being told at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in an absolutely stunning production of Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith. 

Brilliantly directed by Marcella Kearns and C. Michael Wright and performed by two of the most brilliant actors in Milwaukee, Marti Gobel and Elyse Edelman, this is a production that is every single thing that great live theater can be.

Ms. Smith, an accomplished actor, has made a marvelous second career as a documentary theater playwright. In 2016 Next Act Theatre staged her Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, based on the Watts riots after the Rodney King beating. Ms. Smith conducted countless interviews and used real dialogue as she created a multi-character play that, not coincidentally, featured Ms. Gobel.

At the time I thought it was as important a play seen in Milwaukee in ages. This production of Fires reaches even higher. 

It is based on the riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in the summer of 1991. A car driven by a Jew was involved in an accident and seven-year-old Gavin Cato, a Guyanese child, was killed.

The black community reacted with rage at the Jewish community and three hours after the accident, a group of about 20 black boys and men stabbed and killed Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jew in New York doing research for a doctorate.

What followed was three days of intense rioting and warfare that captured the attention of a nation. 

Ms. Smith has crafted a 110 minute tale that, like the event itself, begins slowly and climbs steadily to an emotional summit that is breathtaking in its power.

Ms. Gobel and Ms. Edelman take turns playing 30 characters, ranging from Al Sharpton to a Muslim minister to an amusing Jewish housewife and an esteemed rabbi. 

With slight changes – a hat, a scarf, a hoodie and a slight change in accent, and we see brand new characters before us. 

The play begins with the context of identity – a journey through two ethnic groups that are more similar than they are different. 

It’s most vividly clear in a speech from Angela Davis, the former Black Panther who was as vitriolic as any activist in the Civil Rights movement. 

“This is what I’m working on in my political practice right now. We have to find ways of coming  together in a new way. Not the old notion of coalition in which we anchor ourselves very solidly in our, um, communities and simply voice our solidarity with other people. I’m not suggesting that we do not anchor ourselves in our communities; I feel very anchored in, um, my various communities. To use a metaphor, I think that the rope attached to that anchor should be long enough to allow us to move into other communities, to understand, to learn.”

Ms. Kearns and Mr. Wright have set a careful and delicate pace to this piece. It’s as if they are coaxing the audience into relaxed and regular breathing, knowing that before too long breath will be a valuable commodity that is hard to come by. 

The high art of this production is how it takes a terrible event – one of the earliest of urban riots – and turns it into an insightful gaze into the human condition. 

Watching these two actors reach parts of the soul often untouched is a mesmerizing experience. Ms. Gobel always is a commanding presence on a stage, andMs. Edelman proves to be her rarely seen equal. 

Mr. Wright is in his final season as Artistic Director at Chamber and he is clearly going out in high style with the most entertaining and thoughtful production of the season. 

Cast: Marti Gobel, Elyse Edelman.

Production credits: Director, Marcella Kearns and C. Michael Wright; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Costume designer, leslie Vaglica; Lighting Designer, MNarisa Abbott; Sound Designer, Sarah Ramos; Propmaster, Melissa Centgraf; Production Manager, Colin Gawronski; Dialect Coaches, Raeleen McMillion and Rick Pendzich; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.