The American story gets spectacular Johnny Cash treatment at The Rep

A huge slice of musical Americana is on full and stunning display in the intimate confines of the Stackner Cabaret at The Rep.

It’s “Ring of Fire,” a remounting of the 2013 hit show staged at the Stackner, but this time with a more powerful, skilled and emotionally moving cast.

A musical tribute to the long road to becoming an icon for Johnny Cash, warts and all, who lived a life that fit the Vince Lombardi quote of “it doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down. What matters is how many times you get back up.”

Right now there is no better way to spend two hours as part of “Ring of Fire” which at turn will make you laugh, think and cry.

This cast of five actors/musicians is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. They all seem to take turns playing all of the instruments that are on this sate, including guitar, banjo, ukelele, bass, harp, autoharp, drums and even spoons and tin cups.

The sheer brilliance of these musicians takes your breath away as they combine to take you on this particularly American journey. The five performers are Alex Keiper, James David Larson, Kent M. Lewis, Corbin Mayer and Paul Wyatt.

Mr. Lewis is the centerpiece as the Johnny Cash at the height and end of his career. Mr. Corbin takes center stage as the young Mr. Cash and Ms. Keiper fashions a gloriously delightful June Carter Cash.

Mr. Lewis has both the gravitas and the sarcastic humor that marked so much of Mr. Cash’s music. His work is not an impression, but it’s evocative of one of the most distinctly unique voices in country music.

He perfectly captures the playfulness in “Five Feet High and Rising,” the story of a flood of the cotton fields where the Cash family was raised and from which a guitar was the oar that rowed Mr. Cash out of a drowning flood of poverty.

He smoothly switches to the bitter weight of “Man in Black,” a very personal song that eloquently defines Mr. Cash’s view of the world around him. Mr. Wyatt is mesmerizing both in his focused communication with the audience and the personal interplay with the other members of the cast.

A perfect example of the kind of man Mr. Wyatt portrayed can be seen in the video below of the final performance of Mr. Cash which took place at a large wooden structure near Hiltons, VA., the center of life for the famed Carter family.

The final live performance of Johnny Cash, Sept. 13, 2003, two months before he died at 71.

Mr. Lewis did not deliver the only memorable performance from this extraordinary production that bore the distinct gracious touch of Rep Associate Artist, director and music director, Dan Kazemi. Mr. Kazemi regularly brings his brilliance to Rep musicals.

Mr. Larson is incredibly moving with “Delia’s Gone,” as song Mr. Cash recorded after looking for another murder song to follow his famous “Folsom Prison Blues” with the line, I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.”

The most emotional night came from Mr. Mayer performing a stripped down “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Written by a y oung and broke Kris Kristofferson is often seen as Mr. Cash’s confession of his drug and alcohol use. However, the song was the brainchild of Mr. Kristofferson and only recorded after he landed a helicopter on Mr. Cash’s lawn and forced a demo tape into his hand. Sunday Morning was one of the songs on the tape the other was “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Mr. Kazemi understands that the centerpiece of this production needs to be the music and he let’s that happen, with a bare bones story filling in the gaps around the music.

And it’s the music that carries the audience along on the wings of a true American hero and invites the audience along for the ride.

Production credits: Director and Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Michelle Lily; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tacoma; Lighting Designer, Aimee Hanyzewski; Sound Designer, Barry G. Funderburg; Choreographer, Stephanie Card; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Richelle Harrington Calin.


Important and Spectacular “Carmina Burana” at Skylight

Here’s how cool it is to go to the theater.

I had just finished watching a production that had no story, unusual sounds, not a syllable of dialogue, dozens of characters all without names and sung in a foreign language or two that I don’t speak and it lasted just seconds over an hour.

And I found myself absolutely in love with the whole thing and while the production is complex, the Why I loved it is simple.

Everybody on the stage let me know that what they were doing was important, with a capital I.

The event was opening night of “Carmina Burana” at Skylight Music Theatre.

Before arriving – totally unfamiliar with this thing – I discovered it was written in the middle of the last century by Carl Orff, who called it a composition of “secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung with instruments and magical images.”

I couldn’t even figure out what that meant.

But leave it to the fertile and sometimes freaky mind of Jill Anna Ponasik to take something like Burana and turn it onto its head and offer it up on a solid golf plate for even a commoner like me to enjoy.

Ms. Ponasik runs the Milwaukee Opera Company  and is an Associate Artistic Director at Skylight. She is the woman who has brought us dazzling and memorable productions about a monkey, a cracked version of “The Mikado,” another no dialogue piece based on a life of a woman adventurer nobody has ever heard of an a story about friendship that was performed in a bookstore.

Let us make no mistake about “Carmina Burana.” Although there was plenty of help, most notably from Music Director Janna Ernst and Choreographer Dani Kuepper, this was the brainchild of Ms. Ponasik.

And Thank God.

This production is a seductive assault on your senses.

The music comes from two pianos six percussionists under the exquisite baton of Benjamin Bedroske, the Chant Claire Chamber Choir which added its voices from the top boxes of the intimate Cabot Theatre.

Ms. Kuepper brought along a handful of friends from Danceworks, where she is the Artistic Director, all dressed in shade sf grey, except for a momentary slide into a slinky red dress for Danceworks veteran the freshly shorn Cristal Wagner. Ms. Wagner danced a deductive pas de deux with tattooed tenor Tim Rebers, who sang while she danced.

And then there were the singers.

Ms. Ernst and Assistant Music Director Maggie Rebers (the two pianists as well) took this cast of musical marvels to places that seemed almost heavenly.

Ranging from veteran baritone Bob Balderson to a five young performers, the took the stage as ensembles of various combinations and as soloists to deliver dramatic, comedic and mysterious songs that were always gripping.

There were magical moments, including “Once I Swam in Lakes,” featuring one of my all time favorite Milwaukee singers, Nathan Wesselowski. Plus the fact that his talented young daughter, Lorelei was in the same show with her dad, was extra special.

The score might have been translated into English, but they wisely decided not to bother, but to let the power of the music and the voices carry the day.

Sets by Lisa Schlenker were simple and the always magical lighting by Jason Fassl was a performance all by itself.

The only concession to an audience like me, who had no idea what was going on, was a giant orb on a black curtain that was lit with occasional phrases – “I Feel Pretty – and images, a field of daisies.

It has to be mentioned that I have seen dozens and dozens of show at the Cabot over the years and can’t remember ever seeing an audience in such rapt attention. There was nary a fidget or murmur during the entire 65 minutes. And when it ended, the standing ovation was not out of duty – as is so often the case – but out of a shared respect, affection and love for “Carmina Burana,” whatever it was.

Pretty cool. Pretty damn cool.

Production credits: Stage Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director, Janna Ernst; Choreographer, Dani Kuepper; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Costume designer, Shima Orans; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Conductor, Benjamin Bedroske; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner.

Rep Extraordinary in Searing Family Drama

The drama of a family in crisis at The rep in Things I Know to Be True

The truest form of magic in the theater happens when talents combine to take the ordinary and turn it into the extraordinary.

Mark Clements and his band of smart and creative warriors have fashioned an extraordinary evening with the production of “Things I KNow To Be True,” by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell.

The very ordinary fabric of daily life is the mise-en-scéne for a family of six facing a non-stop series of perfectly ordinary crises ranging from a teenage broken heart all the way to a son struggling with gender identity.

The evening starts innocently enough, with the teenager, Rosie (Aubin Heglie) telling the story of her youthful hike through Europe and her falling in love with a Spanish libertine who takes her to bed for three straight days before leaving and breaking her heart.

Alone on the stage she regales us with the kind of rapture reserved for the young. And then comes the morning when she finds herself alone, her money and other stuff stolen and a strange woman smoking a cigarette who tells her to leave this apartment.

I walk through the streets of Berlin. I feel small. I feel like I’m 12 years old, I feel ridiculous. I want to cry but I won’t. Well I do, a little. But not as much as I want to. I want my dad. I want my Mom. I want my brothers and my sister. I want to hear them laugh and argue and fight and tease me. But I can’t think of them much because if I do my chest will explode. I feel like I’m going to literally fall to pieces. That my arms are going to drop off and then my legs and my head. And so to stop myself coming apart I make a list of all the things I know…. I mean actually know for certain to be true and the really frightening thing is…. It’s a very short list. I don’t know much at all. But I know that in the house where I grew up things are the same as when I left and they always will be.

And I know that I have to go home.”

Home is the backyard in the house her family has lived in for 30 years. Waiting for and surprised by her arrival are her dad Bob (Bill Geisslinger) ), mom Fran (Jordan Baker), sister Pip (Kelley Faulkner) and two brothers Mark (Kevin Kantor)and Ben (Zach Fifer).

Each member of the family is a distinct individual, but all are bound by a desire to love and be loved.

Fran is overbearing and unafraid of conflict and especially demanding of her oldest daughter. Bob is the understanding parent, welcoming peace and satisfaction.

Each child brings a different trouble into that backyard over the course of a year.

It starts with Pip, wife and mother, who is about to leave her husband. She denies there’s another man, but Fran knows better. Pip has respect and affection for Steve, but she isn’t in love with him. That makes no difference to Fran, who is calls her daughter “a fucking princess.”

The life tremors for the girls pass, to be replaced by a backyard visit from Mark who arrives in the middle of a gloomy hurricane of emotional conflict. He’s here to break the news to his parents, the news that after years of sorrow he has decided to become a woman.

Parental reaction is, as you might expect, one of shock and wonder, a search inside for the answer to how in the world this could happen. Of course, answers are hard to find, buried deep inside the historical dynamics of the Price family.

Finally there is a visit from Ben, the  youngest brother who lives a fancy life in direct comparison with and disapproval of Bob, a reluctantly retired auto worker.

Ben arriving torn apart, confesses to stealing $200,000 at work and frightened that investigators are closing in. Fran wants to help but Bob is adamant about his boy paying for what he’s done. He is beside himself with disgust at Ben.

“You know the difference between right and wrong. You couldn’t have grown up in this house without knowing that.”

Mr. Clements, the Artistic Director at The Rep, has carved an enviable reputation for staging and directing big shows, musicals. This is a little show and he proves that he is a marvelously patient director. He gives his actors space and time that allows them to create fully realized people, each suffering personal devils.

He has also turned to Chicago choreographer Julia Rhoads to create  gorgeous moments when the actors move in a kind of free flowing Kabuki dance, five moving behind one speaking. It’s a moving and glorious touch that solidifies the constant backbone of this story.

Mr. Clements demands a lot of his actors and this cast is clearly up to the task. The acting is remarkable, from start to finish. A special word must be us4ed for Ms. Faulkner.

I’ve seen her any number of times and never have I seen her grab hold of a role with such vigor and deliver such a nuanced performance. She sets a high bar, one reached and matched by all of her castmates.

“Things” is a play that is full of humor, providing necessary breathing moments from the intensity of the ongoing drama of family life. It combines to take ordinary lives to extraordinary height.

Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements, Stage Movement Director, Julia Rhoads; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer, Rachel Laritz; Lighting Designer, Jesse Klug; Original Music and Sound Designer, Joe Cerqua; Voice and Text Coach, Eva Breneman; Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Casting Director Frank Honts; Stage  Manager, Rebekah, Heusel; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

Scantily Developed Script Dooms “Strange Snow” at Chamber Theater

A decade after the Vietnam War ended, playwright Stephen Metcalfe tried to tackle the plight of veterans from that war and the difficulties they had adjusting to life outside while battling the demons bubbling beneath the surface for so many of them.

Unfortunately, what he came up with in “Strange Snow,” is a superficial, hard to believe two hours that opened over the weekend at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

This show, under the direction of C. Michael Wright, is nothing more than a live version of an afternoon soap opera – shallow characters, incredible relationship development and vague points to be made.

And it’s really a shame because the cast of three very good actors and  Mr. Wright and his design team all perform with admiration.

The problem is the play itself.

The play concerns two veterans, Davey (Marques Causey) and Megs (Ken T. Williams) along with Davey’s sister Martha (Krystal Drake).

Davey and Megs served in Vietnam together but haven’t seen each other in the post-war period until they meet, by chance in a parking lot. For Megs, it’s a chance for an important reunion and he convinces Davey to celebrate on the opening day of the fishing season.

He arrives before dawn, pounding on the front door while shouting for Davey to wake up. The door eventually is opened, by Martha, complete with a five-iron ready to take a full swing at Megs.

We’re okay, so far, but from that point on the play sinks into one imagination-stretching episode to another.

Let’s see if we can simplify this whole thing.

Megs is a garage mechanic who is boisterous and blunt, the most outlandish guy in the room. He is clearly desperate for some kind of human companionship and is firmly convinced that he and Davey can rekindle the camaraderie they had in their army unit.

Davey, on the other hand, wears his misery on his sleeve. His drinking is out of control and fueled by his anger and disappointment in what life has given him. He lives in the same house as his sister, a house given to them by a mother who deserted them to move to Florida (for a reason unknown).

Then there is Martha, the spinster schoolteacher who disapproves of her brother and his ignoble ways. She is lonely, angry and frightened of life.

In the span of one day here’s what happens.

Megs arrives. He convinced Martha he’s really a fairly nice guy. Davey wakes up. He doesn’t want to hang with Megs and certainly doesn’t want to go fishing. But Megs wins out, getting Martha to drink a breakfast beer and join the two guys in a quest for trout that they’ll have for dinner. They leave and then return, troutless. Martha and Megs look to grow a little friendlier. Davey and Megs get into a simmering and then blistering fight about their Vietnam days and the memory of the unseen (and killed) Bobby, who was a huge Boston Red Sox fan. Davey ends up leaving and Megs and Martha head upstairs (at her suggestion) to the bedroom.


And let the head shaking begin.Is this a war story (Megs and Davey), a love story (Megs and Martha) or a ghost story (Megs, Davey and Bobby)? The answer to that question is either all of the above or none of the above.

Part of the problem her is that Mr. Metcalfe has tried to put way too much into one day. There is no time for the play to breathe or to develop at a pace that provides for something more than superficial glimpses at these three characters. They might really be interesting people but this production doesn’t allow for seeing if they are.

Mr. Williams and Mr. Causey have distinguished resumes in Milwaukee theater and they live up to their experience and billing despite not having much to really work with. Ms. Drake, less experienced yet memorable for her Leading Player role in Skylight’s “Pippin” is an actor worth watching as she progresses.

But even these three actors aren’t enough to lift this play out of the threadbare and cliched script.

”Strange Snow” is either an idea in search of a play or a play in search of an idea and neither one makes for a fully engaging night at the theater.

Production credits: Director, C. Michael Wright; Stage Manager, Veronica Zahn; Scenic Designer, Keith Pitts; Costume Designer, Jazmin Aurora Medina; Lighting Designer, Sarah Hamilton; Sound Designer, Kristan Wilborg; Production Manager, Brandy Kline; Propmaster, Meghan Savagian; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.


Powerful “Blood at the Root” dazzles at Next Act

The tree at the heart of “Blood at the Root” at Next Act

Six high school kids – black and white –  in a tiny school in a tiny town down south and an innocent moment that spirals into a race war leaving victims strewn all over the place.

And all because of a tree.

But what a tree.

A magnificent tree. A huge and storied tree. A tree with a name. A tree with roots as thick as sewer pipes. A tree with limbs as thick as your leg.

It is this tree, named Old Devoted, that is at the heart of “Blood at the Root,” the powerful play by Dominique Morisseau getting an exhilarating run at Next Act Theatre.

If there was ever a time for this play, it is now and if there was ever a place for it, it is Milwaukee.This is a city with its collective head in the sand because of our inability to talk about racial inequity in any meaningful way.

In this production, daringly directed by Marti Gobel, we see – as we have through history – that it is often out of the mouth of babes that the greatest wisdom comes.

This play  has its birth in a t12-year old true story that took place in Jena, Louisiana. Six black teenagers were convicted of beating a white student. That beating was the culmination of a series of events at the high school that began with the tree – a whites-only loitering spot at the school. Once a black student sat under the tree hangman’s nooses showed up on the limbs of the tree and the racial unrest started its rolling boil.

“Blood at the Root” is a story told in spoken word, dance, rap, song and visual power. And nothing is more powerful than the tree, born in the mind of Jason Fassl, the eminent lighting designer who also designed the set for this production.

Mr. Fassl, who has carried productions with high lighting genius, has created a play all by himself with his tree. To stand a look at it, watch how it settles and rises and reaches, is to know the story being told and to know it viscerally.
Ms. Gobel has given her six actors a detailed and intelligent pathway to tell this story and all six are wonderful individually and brilliant as an ensemble.  Each student, three boys, three girls, three whites, three blacks, has a moment in the sun. It is moving to watch the way these six children ask the hard questions. And it’s equally moving to see them come up with easy answers in some cases and no answers at all in others.  The are unencumbered by the weight of life, but you can see them standing on the precipice of pain where real life intrudes on the idyllic life of a child.

Perhaps none of the children grabs hold of the issues with more perception that Colin, a closeted gay white quarterback who has just transferred into the school. Played by Casey Hoekstra, Colin struggles with the events if the past couple of days. It’s a transfixing speech.

It was like some shit out of a Civil Rights documentary. Like the kind they be showin’ in class. And most of the folks be fallin’ half asleep. Seen this one kid in third period start droolin’ on the desk when we was watchin’ this one – Eyes on the Prize it called. Real’ to me, but guessin’ not to most everbody else. I interested cuz it’s nice to know what done happened before I showed up somewhere. Nice to know how !hangs used to be and that thangs as they is now come from somethin’. It all got roots. Way somebody choose not to sit next to somebody in the lunchroom-  got roots. Way_ somebody got problems with the flag somebody else wear on they t-shirt – got roots. Way some people talk the way they talk, or hang out with who they hang out with, or love who they love, or hate who they hate – all got roots. It feel halfway comfortin’ knowin’ it ain’t just start with us. That it been this way. That somebody’s been plantin’ these awful feelins in the soil somewhere. Long before we came along and started pulling up crops. We been digestin’ this same stuff, grown in this same soil, and ain’t even know it. So I like seein’ stuff like that.. .byes on the Prize… documentaries on the,Civil Rights Movement. When that happened today at school.. .when those students went and stood under that great oak tree… O1′ Devoted they call it. .. Look like some kinda protest. Look like somethin’ like from another time. From a Civil Rights Time. And it got me thinkin’ …what kinda crop is the folks after us gonna dig up? Is it still gonna be from this same ol’ soil? Or is we ever gonna plant somethin’ new…”

Ms. Gobel has a clear grasp of the power in this play and never lets it get preachy or pontifical. She knows that children can show the way to a tomorrow that might be a much better place for them to live than the one they are forced to live in now.

She is a brilliant director and this reminds me of her work on “The Brothers Size” that she directed a year ago for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Both shows are socially powerful and Ms. Gobel once again lets them soar into the highest branches of the magic tree.

One Note:

MIke Fischer made his debut as a dramaturge in this production. For 15 years he was the theater critic for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was also a top flight Milwaukee attorney.

He has now moved into the world of theater as a part of it, not just an observer.

Mr. Fischer is a brilliant man and it will be a thrill to watch him move into this world. The theater world in Milwaukee will be richer with his contributions and I wish him well and thank him for all he does.

Cast: Raylynn, Chantae Miller; Toria, Grace DeWolff’ Asha, April Paul; Justin, Ibraheem Farmer; Colin, Casey Hoekstra; De’Andre, Justin Lee.

Production credits: Director, Marti Gobel; Costume Designer, Marti Gobel; Scenic and Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Properties Designer, Heidi Salter; Sound Designer, David Cecsarini ; Composer, Kemet Gobel; Choreographer, Alicia Rice; Dramaturg, Mike Fischer; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production photographer, Ross Zentner. 


Skylight an Immense Delight with Five Guys Named Moe

The Five Guys Named Moe gang up on Gavin Lawrence at Skylight

The staid and storied Cabot Theater, famous for its European design and story driven musical theater, has turned in to a rollicking, soul train unlike anything seen there in recent memory.

It’s the Skylight Music theatre production of “Five Guys Named Moe,” a parade of the music of Louis Jordan, the bandleader and singer who was known as “King of the Jukebox” during his career that went from the 1930’s to the 1950’s.

For a theater company with an overwhelming white audience base, the show is an eloquent testimony to the fact that while we may put labels on music, good music knows no boundaries defined by race.

The story is a thin one, pegged to Nomax, played by Gavin Lawrence, the outstanding actor who is joining the core company at American Players Theatre this season. Mr. Lawrence comes slow-strolling onto a simple stage set with a chair and a table and an old fashioned radio on top of the table.

He’s got whiskey and he’s got the blues.

“It’s early in the morning
And I can’t get right.
I had a little date
With my baby last night.
It’s early in the morning
And I ain’t got nothing but the blues.”

He is in full sulk and then POOF! Like magic, the voice on the radio talks to him.

He’s full of drunken wonder and confusion and and then again, POOF! five guys show up, out of the radio, dead set in getting Nomax straightened out in both his love life and the rest of his life as well.

This is one colorful quintet.

The tall and skinny Eat Moe (Sean Anthony Jackson); the giant Big Moe (Lorenzo Rush, Jr.); the cherubic Four-Eyed Moe (James Carrington); the rotund and jiggly Little Moe (Kevin James Sievert); and the shaved head belonging to No Moe (Shawn Holmes).

All of these guys can sing and dance and act and they take us through a series of songs, all designed to get Nomax straight and get the audience tapping feet, clapping hands, bobbing heads and smiling from ear to ear.

There are no moments of sorrow or drama in this music. It’s upbeat, fun and what messages are there are positive –  how men should treat women and how women should be careful around men.

This production, under the joyful direction of Malkia Stampley, is the kind of thing that is a perfect evening for the cold of a Milwaukee winter.

Ms. Stampley, who has directed the jubilant  “Black Nativity” at the Marcus Center the last three years, has more than a touch of soul in her soul. She also has a pristine and penetrating glare into the heart of a tale well told and the music that drives it.

Collaborating with Music Director Christie Chiles Twillie and choreographer Lanette Costas, Ms. Stampley has filled the small stage at the Cabot with jumpin’ and jivin’ and moment after moment of high flying joy.

Every performer gets moments in the sun and each one of them grabs the spotlight and sets off on a run that drags each audience member along on the trip.

But the most fascinating part of the evening is when all five, or six of these actors are in action.

Ms. Costas has created choreography that is both entertaining and unique. Rather than push for everybody doing the same thing at the same time, she gives these dancers time and space for their own individual touches on numbers. All of these men look decidedly different, from the huge Big Moe to the reed-thin Eat Moe and each has his own style. Much to the credit of Ms. Costas and Ms. Stampley, each actor is able to fly along in his own individual flow and merge with the other characters.

A gimmick in the show – albeit a very successful one – is involving the audience in the show. There are sing alongs, jokes on patrons and a wildly imaginative and successful conga line that ended the first act.

One of the most striking things about this show is how “black” it is.

Like many businesses, the world of theater struggles with diversity – providing opportunity for marginalized populations, women, blacks, latinos, Asians and others.

Artistic Director Ray Jivoff deserves immense credit for staging a show so out of the wheelhouse of Skylight. He didn’t stage it because it was a black show but staged it because it was a good show.

I can’t help but wish, however, that we’ll get to the day when we don’t need a racially identifiable show to be diverse. When a back director helms “Death of a Salesman” or a white director handles “A Raisin in the Sun” the world of theater will truly be a diverse universe.

As the creep toward that idea continues, “Five Guys Named Moe” proves that a glorious evening of entertainment crosses all boundaries and touches your soul.

Production credits: Stage Director, Malkia Stampley; Music Director, Christie Chiles Twillie; Choreographer, Lanette Costas; Scenic Designer, Tara A. Houston; Lighting Designer, Latrice Lovett; Costume Designer, Samantha Jones; Sound Designer, Zack Berinstein; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner.

Renaissance Mounts an Exquisite “Photograph 51”

Neil Brookshire, Cassandra Bissell and Josh Krause in “Photograph 51” at Renaissance

Suzanne Fete, the Artistic Director at Renaissance Theaterworks, has stepped out of her administrators chair to direct an exquisite production of “Photograph 51,” the Anna Ziegler Play that is a portrait of genius faced with unreasonable obstacles.

This play, which opened over the weekend, is such a magnificently detailed and perfect production that it is an exemplar of the power of live theater to make you think, feel and both ask and answer questions.

Fete has surrounded the brilliant Cassandra Bissell with five men to tell the story of Rosalind Franklin (Ms. Bissell), the scientist who discovered the key to DNA in 1950’s London, and the five men who surrounded her and, eventually, snapped the credit she so profoundly deserved.

If the” MeToo” movement is about male sexual predators then Dr. Franklin (her co-workers called her Miss Franklin) could well have started a “How About Me?” movement, forcing the male dominated world of science to recognize her massive and long-lasting contributions to the world of scientific knowledge. 

Dr. Franklin, Jewish and a woman came to a largely WASP male Kings College to work on X-ray diffraction studies. She had been promised that she could do her own work but almost immediately found that she was going to be supervised by Dr. Maurice Wilkins (Neil Brookshire).

With that chilled reception we see our first glimpse of the ferocious intransigence of Dr. Franklin. She’ll have none of Dr. Wilkins, professionally or personally.

The play carries us along the path to discovery, a path centered on Dr. Franklin but populated equally by a gang of men who had obvious envy and equally obvious scorn for Ms. Franklin, for her work, for her personality and for her Jewishness.

Beside Dr. Wilkins the gang included Francis Crick (Trevor Rees) and James Watson (Nick Narcisi), a partnership that was also in search for the key to life.

Dr. Franklin was not without her allies, however, as she had a graduate assistant (Josh Krause) and a fanatic admirer from Yale (Joe Picchetti).

But these men were all moons circling the sun that was Dr. Franklin.

Ms. Bissell created a character that was desolate in her isolation and single-minded in her pursuit of her holy grail. She also has a rigid and almost frightening lack of social skill. If categorized, she may well have shown up on the autism spectrum.

Eventually the key to DNA, the helix found in Photograph 51 which was taken by Dr. Franklin, was appropriated by others and earned a Nobel Prize for three men, while Dr. Franklin remained without credit.

It was a pristine example of gender discrimination and a measure that shows how much progress has been made and how much further we have to go.

The five male actors in this production are all solid. Mr. Brookshire is particularly appealing as a scientist who wants to work with Dr. Franklin but is unable to crack her chilling code.

Ms. Bissell is an absolute marvel. She is crisp in manner, careful in style and cautious in her personal life. But most of all she is genuine. From her hobby of hiking in nature to her hopes hidden deep within her soul we know this woman well by the time the 90 minutes (no intermission) is over.

Her speech about these hidden hopes near the end of the show is as moving as you will ever see. I felt my heart open up to her as she laid her longings as bare as she dared.

Renaissance has a committent to woman centered theater and they achieve that goal regularly. But more than they, they have a commitment to tanscendent theater, and with “Photograph 51” they’ve reached that goal as well.

Production credits: Director, Suzan Fete; Assistant Director, Tanya Dhein; Stage Manager, Bailey Wegner; Technical Director, Anthony Lyons; Scenic Designer, Sarah E. Ross; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Props Manager, Heidi Salter; Sound Designer, Matthew Whitmore; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Dialect Coach, Rick Pendzich; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner. 

Akhtar’s “Junk” a complex tale in need of a slower pace at The Rep

Jonathan Wainwright and Gregory Linington in Ayad Ahktar’s “Junk” at The Rep

For all the excitement about the Midwest premiere of playwright Ayad Akhtar’s expansive look at the world of junk bonds and financial voodoo it comes to an end leaving a surprising absence of emotional investment.

Akhtar is the Brookfield native and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has a massive, and well-deserved, reputation for creating penetrating characters trapped in the world around them.

“Junk” is his sweeping (20 actors) look at the Michael Milken, architect of the high-yield junk bond legerdemain of the 1980’s. It’s Mr. Akhtar’s take on the high flying world of hyper-creative debt accumulation as a way to build wealth.

It was all Go-Go-Go back then and that speed and recklessness may be a little problematic with this production under the direction of Artistic Director Mark Clements.

The story unfolds so fast that there is rarely any time to get to know these characters who end up being mere cutouts of incredibly complex individuals with competing motives and conflicting goals.

The two-hour, intermission free evening unfolds in 48 (by one count) separate scenes, each flowing into the next after a brief blackout, some minor scenic adjustments and new brilliant rear projections (Jared Mezzocchi) on the blocky and brutal set (Todd Edward Ivins).

We meet all the players, from the Milken-inspired Robert Merkin (Gregory Linington) to the specific target of his takeover machination, steel company owner Thomas Everson, Jr. (James Ridge). Also strewn about this massive onslaught of people nobody could love, are all the Iago’s, Desdemona’s and other Shakespearean archetypes you can find in the canon.

The story centers on the efforts of Mr. Merkin to take over a third-generation steel company owned by Mr. Everson. One thing Mr. Akhtar does so very well is to define the sides in this battle.

On one side, of course, is Mr. Merkin and his conspirators, some loyal, some uncertain and some beleaguered.

Then you have the good-hearted financial lion (Brian Mani) who can’t stand what’s happening to the world of high finance where he has long reigned supreme as the white shoes boss of the world. Mr. Mani, a perfect example of the high level of casting and acting in this show, is full of bluster, but manages to be one of the few characters who seem to have more than one dimension. He gives some wonderful shading to the lurid prejudice Mr. Akhtar has given him.

Mr. Ridge heads the third faction here, the target of the takeover. He’s joined by his loyal attorney Matt Daniels and his financial advisor, N’Jameh Camara, who proves to be a mole for for the forces of evil.

We also have the United States Attorney Giuseppi Addesso (Dominic Comperatore) who is drawn from Rudy Giuliani who prosecuted Mr. Milken.

Like any great Shakespeare play this cast of characters is full of good guys, bad guys, traitors, sexual liaison and showdowns at dawn. The difference between Shakespeare and Mr. Akhtar’s play is that Shakespeare gives us something to care about.

When you have a subject as complicated as financial machination in 1985 it seems that it might be best to give the audience time to catch its breath after each new development or reveal.

Tthe frenetic structure of the play and the pace  doesn’t give you time to catch up and figure out who is doing what to who and how they are doing it and who is pulling whose strings. 

At one point Mr. Linington says that trying to explain the world of high finance to the general public just makes people’s eyes glaze over.


Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Theresa Ham; Lighting Designer, Thom Weaver; Original Music and Sound Designer, Lindsay Jones; Projection Designer, Jared Mezzocchi; Production Dramaturg, Deanie Vallone; Voice & Text Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, Laura F. Wendt; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

Brilliant Matilda from First Stage is an absolute triumph

Reese Bell and the Children of Matilda, The Musical, at First Stage

If there has ever been am on-stage testament to the glories of the theater community in Milwaukee it is now on parade at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center.

Led by a troupe of the most powerless among us, a cast of (dozens? Hundreds? Thousands?) children, First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank has ridden herd on a crowd that is deep in talent, brilliant in choice and enthusiastic in task.

It’s a magnificent production of “Matilda The Musical,” the imported British show that ran on Broadway and represents the first two-hour plus production that First Stage has ever done. I could have stayed for four hours, as could the capacity crowd on opening night.

“Matilda is based on the book by Roald Dahl and tells the story of a child – indeed all children – and the battles against tyranny, cruel punishments, stifled imagination and unjust discipline.

The musical tells the story of young Matilda (Reese Bell on opening night) who lives in a family with her father(Jackson Evans)  an idiot and crooked car salesman, her mother (Molly Rhode), a consummate ditz and her brother (Jonathan Neustifter in the Diligent Cast), a lump on a log.

Matilda retreats from the harsh behavior of her parents – including the fact that her father calls her “son” – by reading books, an activity that sparks horror in the rest of the family.

The story continues to its end, full of escape by children and fighting back by those same children. It’s a story about the power of imagination, creativity and determination.

This is an amazing production for any theater, but especially so for one that built an international reputation as a theater for children.

It has truly become a theater for children and families and nothing better exemplifies that than this production and the talents that went into creating it.

Let’s start behind the scenes where Mr. Frank has assembled an enviable bucket of talent.

Moving a cast of dozens around the small stage is a daunting task by the choreography is sparkling and full of the verve and excitement. Michael Pink, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet and his wife, Jayne, created a series timeless and energetic dance numbers that were an absolute delight.

Jeff Schaetzke is Director of Artistic Operations at First Stage and a music director of unparallelled skill and achievement. He has directed at every level, from high school to top professional and each and every production is marked with the highest of standards and it’s the case here. This music is not seems simple but is full of complexities clearly translated by Mr. Schaetzke.

Jason Fassl is one of the greatest lighting designers in the country and in this, his 18th year designing for First Stage, he continues to use light as a weapon of mass instruction. You almost have the feeling that a play would be just as effective without dialogue as long is it had the evocative and brilliant lighting by Mr. Fassl.

Spectacular costumes from Arnold Bueso, a set from Brandon Kirkham and amazing sound design from Matt Whitmore added to the joy of this evening.

The cast is, simply, magnificent.

Led by a core of adult equity actors you can see how the young people lift their games so everyone is playing on an equal stage.

Kelly Doherty as the brutal headmistress and Mr. Evans are particularly skilled at capturing the brutality of the adults who damage the lives of the children, are especially glorious.

Elizabeth Telford is the teacher who recognizes and is amazed by the peculiar gifts of Matilda. But she understands that Miss Honey is a character with many layers and she finds each with clarity and passion.

And then there was Reese Bell who played Matilda on the night I saw the play.

Faced with a huge roll with song, dance and dialogue in front of her, this seventh-grader was more than up to the task. From the earliest moments you could feel the heart of the entire audience go out to this little girl and Miss Bell took our hearts of a journey from despair and fright to warmth and joy.

There is nothing in Milwaukee when First Stage is at the top of its game, and this one is even higher than the normal expectations for this marvelous company.

Production credits; Jeff Frank, Director; Michael Pink, Choreographer; Jayne Pink, Choreographer; Jeff Schaetzke, Music Director; Sheri Williams Pannell, Assistant Director; Molly Rhode, Dance Captain; Tyne Turner, Dialect Coach; Brandon Kirkham, Scenic Director; Arnold Bueso, Costume Designer; Jason Fassl Lighting Designer; Matt Whitmore,Sound Designer; Samuel Clein, Music Supervisor; Paul Westfahl, Drums/Percussion; Josh Robinson, Keyboards; Melissa L. Wanke, Stage Manager; Jade Bruno, Assistant Stage Manager; CArrie Johns, Second Assistant Stage Manager.

Rep’s “All Nigh Strut” a train to nowhere

The cast of “All Night Strut” at the Stackner Cabaret. Photo by Michael Brosilow

So the conductor walks out on the stage.

“All Aboard,” he shouts. He walks down the aisle, asking for, taking and punching tickets.

Ah, it’s a train ride we are in for at the “All Night Strut,” now running at The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Sounds like fun.

As it turns out, however, this is a train to nowhere.

Like a shrub of tumbleweed in a windstorm, this train wanders around, stopping at stations that have almost no logical relationship with the each other.

There is no beginning to this trip, no middle to this trip and no end.

It’s so uninteresting that I didn’t even care that they never explained why we had this train in the first place.

This ultra-thin musical is a paean to the music of the 30’s and 40’s and it’s got a couple of dozen very cool songs, ranging from “I’ll Be Seeing You” to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “In the Mood” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”

It’s got five talented and versatile performers who can sing, play instruments and even dance a little bit.

But there’s no story here. Each song is almost totally unrelated to any other song as well as seeming to have only a nodding acquaintance with whoever is singing it. Instead we get unconnected and earnest efforts by the entertainers, performances that you might get if they were auditioning for a role in a Broadway musical.

They hold nothing back. It’s all in from the first to last note and no effort at any kind of  f subtlety or even a smattering of dynamics in these musical gems.

This isn’t about telling a story. It’s like somebody tied the talented hands of director JC Clementz behind his back and told him to “make this really sparkle.” And he did, teaming with music director Dan Kazemi to give each song everything in the bag.

It’s tough to say that these five people (Brian Russell Carey, Kelley Faulkner, Nygel D. Rogbinson, Jonathan Spivey and Katherine Thomas) could be boring. But the evening is almost totally without surprise.

You expect the songs to be good songs. You expect the singers to be good singers. You expect them to be able to play all kinds of music. And they meet all the expectations.

But there is no bar set up high for these performers to reach for This whole thing is way too much in their comfort zones. Nobody looks like they are working. They might as well be sitting around in a living room, holding glasses of Pinot Noir and taking turns dazzling each other with their vocal gymnastics.

The Stackner has been home to a whole line of wonderful productions telling stories about Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, John Denver, Tony Bennett and a whole raft of famous divas

The music in “All NIght Strut” can hold up against all the others.

But there is no tale to be told. When it was over I jotted down my overwhelming impression.

Yeah, so what?