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

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

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

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

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

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

The tale is of two neighbors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Rep opens season with a glorious “In the Heights”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two primary stories being told here.

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

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

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

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

I will not be the reason

That my family can’t succeed.

I will do what it takes

They’ll have everything they need.

Or all my work, all my life

Everything I’ve sacrificed will have been useless.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cast is, in a word, spectacular.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then there is the rest of this mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rep christens Stackner with Memorable “Songs for nobodies”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All In Productions Grows Up with Formidable Hedwig

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

It starts with a small smile.

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

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

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

Is she a he or is he a she.

And the answer, finally dawning is “YES.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Doc Danger” full of promise and bright moments, but needs to find some clarity

Harper Navin is a show stopper in “Doc Danger and the Danger Squad”

The era of pulp fiction in this country spanned about about 50 years and created a whole panorama of heroes and villains and adventures that were powerful weapons in the real life battle against a collective national consciousness wracked by loss and  uncertainty.

It was after the turn of the last century until the end of World War II that the pulp magazines, featuring a parade of good and evil that seemed to have no end: Nick Carter, The Avenger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Avenger, Captain Future, Tarzan, Zorro and Buck Rodgers.

And, for me, The Shadow. When I was a mere boy nothing beat the Sunday nights in front of the radio when I heard those famous words – “What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men – The Shadow Knows.”Stacks of cheap books underneath my bed, the Shadow and dozens of others.

Stacks of cheap books underneath my bed, the Shadow and dozens of others.

It was a world of fantasy and mystery created in books and radio, before television and before the end of the second world war. They were cheap and escapist and an important part of the lives of adults and kids alike.

Which brings us to the debut of “Doc Danger and the Danger Squad,” the overwhelmingly endowed Jason Powell musical that opened at the Broadway Theater Center under Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s ever-fascinating umbrella.

Mr. Powell, who never met a bizarre oddity he didn’t like, has written his own pulp magazine, aided and abetted by a high class crew of directors and designers and a cast of a dozen youthful performers who had an overflowing abundance of the kind of exuberance that this production demands.

There was nothing subtle about the characters in the pulp magazines. They were broadly drawn and there was little or no doubt about what challenge the hero faced. Was there a girl tied to a train track and you could hear the whistle coming? Did someone steal the jewels? Blackmail was afoot, but nobody could figure out what was going on.

The hallmark of the great pulp magazines was that the reader knew what had to be done, almost from the start. The mystery and thrill was in the getting to the resolution.

If Mr. Powell’s script has any problem it may well be that it is so burdened with cleverness that the clarity of the mystery is hard to grasp. At intermission I spoke with several people about what they thought was the aim of the hero, what did the story need to happen.

The answers were all vague with no specificity and no sense that anyone had a grasp of where this story was headed. I, too, was confused. I know a gem had been stolen and that there was a machine that had gone missing, and there had been a girl strapped to a train track who had barely escaped.

But there was very little distinct sense of direction. I was unsure where we were headed.

Oh, Mr. Powell made it easy to identify the heroes and the villains and there were a series of numbers, each of which provided enjoyment. He has a way with words that create lyrics that are unique and always interesting. There is a lot of humor and some more serious,a and touching, moments.  

A perfect example of his skills as a librettist comes early in the show when he introduces two heroes, the cowboy pair of Satellite Sally (Carrie Gray) and Clare de Lune (Hannah Esch)

We’re cowgirls! Cowgirls!
And we’re taking off through starry skies On another enterprise,

Like when we landed on Saturn’s ring
And took down the villainous Vulture King!

(I got nicked by his right wing!
Woo-ee! That wound still sure does sting.)

Or cornered Black Hole Bart’s black ship On that old Mercury airstrip!

(Since then, I’ve got one bad hip
From the bullet with the Mercury tip.)

We’re cowgirls on the moon: Satellite Sally and Clare de Lune!
Confronting crooks in craters near a crescent-shaped sand-dune,

We’re cowgirls! Cowgirls!
Cowgirls on the moon,

And we’re taking off through starry skies On another enterprise,

Like when we faced that rogue robot Alone on Jupiter’s red spot!

(I’ve still got a gnarly knot
From where I took some laser shot.)

Or went cruisin’ in our rocket-cars After criminals who fled to Mars!
(I’ve still got some mental scars

From the drinks they serve in those Mars bars.)

We’re Cowgirls on the Moon: Satellite Sally and Clare de Lune,
With a friendship that you can’t eclipse and pluck you can’t impugn,

One of the most serious challenges facing a transition from the written word to the stage is to recognize the vast difference between the two platforms. In a book, the reader can pause, turn back, re-read and clarify.

On a stage, you only have one chance to bring the audience along the path you want them to follow. If you lose them once, you have probably lost them until the final curtain.

This production does serve as an introduction to a whole bunch of new voices in the Milwaukee musical theater scene. They are young voices and are still working to find the kind of dynamic that more seasoned voices bring to a stage, but they captured the breadth of their characters easily.

One absolute standout was Harper Navin, who played the role of the kid, the creator and sole member of the Danger Squad.

Ms. Navin, who will be a freshman at Franklin High School this year, is a magnetic performer, with a sophisticated voice and acting chops that are a credit to some serious training. I hope to see more of her on Milwaukee stages soon.

Mr. Powell wrote the wonderfully successful opera  “Fortuna the Time Bender vs. the Schools of Doom” for MOT. It’s an exciting show, with similar demands on an audience and an audience need not spend any time trying to figure out what’s going on.

It might be fruitful to extend the work on Doc Danger to make it easy to follow the action so that we know how all of the marvelous pieces fit together.

A final note: Milwaukee Opera Theatre is as committed as any company in town to fostering new and unique works. I can only think of two current Milwaukee playwrights who have had full productions of their works, Liz Shipe and Mr. Powell. MOT deserves immense credit for its efforts.

“Doc Danger and the Danger Squad” runs through Aug. 30 at the Broadway Theatre Center.

Cast: Doc Danger, Brina Rose Lipor; Jesai of the Jaguars, Stephanie Staszak; Satellite Sally, Carrie Gray; Clare de Lune, Hannah Esch; Lady in Black, Rae Elizabeth Pare; Professor Z, Eric Welch; The Beetle Queen, Ana Gonzalez; Penny Dreadful, Becky Cofta; Demon/Robot/Mom, Melissa Anderson; Robert Von Hesslington, Sean A. Jackson; The Kid, Harper Navin.

Production Credits: Words and Music, Jason Powell; Stage Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director Donna Kummer; Choreographer, James Zager; Stage Managers, Jim Padovano, Sarah Acker, Ceci Scalish; Sets and Properties Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Lighting Design, Antishadows LLC; Costume Designer, Molly Mason; Sound Design, David A. Robins; Wig and Makeup Design, Eric Welch; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner. 

Chamber’s Sherlock is Less than the Sum of It’s Parts

Rick Pendzich, Kay Allmand and Brian J. Gill in Sherlock Holmes comedy at Chamber Theatre. (photo by Paul Ruffalo

If you think about it, any theatrical production can pretty easily be divided into five distinct parts that all end up trying to work together.

First you have the cast, secondly you have the director, thirdly you have the designers (set, sound, lights, costumes, props), stage management and, finally, the play.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has opened the Milwaukee theater season by staging “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of The Jersey Lily.”

It’s a nice thing to see on a summer night, but unfortunately you will only see four fifths of a great experience.

This production is bedeviled by the singular thing that is impossible to overcome – the play itself.

Katie Forgette has written a mystery/comedy about Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde, a pairing with immense possibility. But she traps the troupe of wonderful actors in a shallow ditty rather than a deep and fascinating melding of two very special characters.

The backstory involves the theft of secret love letters, allegedly written by Lillie Langtry (Kady Allmand)  to a member of the English royal family. She is being blackmailed for a huge ransom but doesn’t know who is doing the blackmailing.

She and Oscar Wilde (Rick Pendzich) decide to take the case to Sherlock Holmes (Brian J. Gill) who, with Dr. Watson (Ryan Schabach) by his side, hears her out.

So, we have now established the mystery that needs to be solved. And therein lies the rub.

In Ms. Forgette’s play, everything comes too easy.

Holmes figures all sorts of stuff out early and with almost no help from Watson, flying in the face of the Sherlock Holmes books. Watson here is reduced to a sniveling, star-struck groom to be. There is none of the interplay between the two of them that help make all these stories so interesting.

Ms. Forgette has drawn characters that are almost without substance. The evil Professor Moriarty (Matt Daniels) and Mr. Smythe and Abdul Karim (both played by Jesse  Bharmrah) are created as caricatures and despite earnest efforts by Mr. Daniels and Mr. Bharmrah, they remain without the kind of substance the two conspirators need.

Perhaps the most fully developed characters both belong to Karen Estrada, one of the best comic actors in this city. She plays the housekeeper Mrs. Tory and the third conspirator, Mrs. Glynn with the kind of alomb we expect from her.

Ms. Allmand gives us a Lillie that has the kind of ethereal beauty, socialite bearing and accomplished actor that match the real life character. She does a lot with this little script and casts a smashing shadow over the proceedings.

Mr. Gill is smooth and confident as Sherlock, but his part is a difficult one to draw. Everything comes too easy for this Sherlock and there is not much more Mr. Gill could have done to make this sleuth more sleuth-like.

Finally, Mr. Pendzich, who has long been one of my absolute favorites, draws a Wilde who captures all of the quirks of the real character. Ms. Forgette wisely uses many of the witticisms from the real Wilde, but stops short of exploring more of his clever observance of mankind and his surroundings.

Mr. Pendzich is an absolute marvel of the well-turned eye, the most effective pause and the physical stylings that fit so well into any comedy.

Having said all that, and realizing that the whole thing is less than the sum of its parts, it’s still an evening of theater that can happily pass a couple of hours away on a warm summer night.


Funny doesn’t begin to describe “Urinetown” at Skylight

Rachel Zientek leads her pack of rebels in “Urinetown.”

If you want a love story for the ages, complete with music and crazy dresses and hats, you could easily have become wrapped up in The Royal Wedding.

But a wiser, and far less serious choice for a rollicking good time, would have been to see the musical “Urinetown” that opened at Skylight Friday night.

Harry and Meghan? Give me Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell. Prince Charles the grumpy father? Nope, give me the runhibited John Strong. How about that darling little Princess Charlotte. Give me Little Sally just a cute and a whole lot sexier. And, you want Fergie with a little bit of an edge, take Penelope Pennywise, all edge and sharpened to a razor.

And finally, The Queen Mother, complete with rigid control and seemingly only caring about her family and not giving a hoot for the rest of humanity. Instead I’ll take the nasty and controlling Caldwell B. Cladwell.

Just a little over a year ago Skylight named Ray Jivoff as the Artistic Director to replace the recently resigned and adventurous Viswa Subbaraman. At the time Mr. Jivoff talked about his vision for Skylight.

“Next season, even the more thought-provoking shows will have a comic, fun element to them.”

Comic meet Fun!

The horrendously titled “Urinetown” several Tony awards for score, book and direction and it has overcome the horrors of it’s title to be a frequently produced musical in regional, local and collegiate companies.

The story hardly matters and can be summed up in a paragraph or two.

People in the play have to pay money to use a public toilet to pee. The toilets (and water) are controlled by a big company that wreaks havoc on the downtrodden citizenry. Finally, after all the shame and suffering, the rabbel rebel, and all ends with bad guys vanquished and good guys taking control of their own world.

In Mr. Jivoff’s production the story of the play is unimportant, and exists primarily as a setup for a gag and another gag and another gag for just about everyone in the 18-actor cast a moment or two of absolute hilarity.

The start of the whole thing gets underway with the always amazing Rick Pendzich and Officer Lockstock who acts as the narrator, explaining that we are watching a musical theater show. He also is charged – along with his partner, Officer Barrel (say their names together to get the joke) – with keeping the peeing limited to the public, for-pay toilets. Woe is to the sin of peeing somewhere that doesn’t cost any money, all of which goes to the the Urine Good Company (say it aloud), the monolith created by Cladwell B. Caldwell (Steven M. Koehler).

The jokes come fast and furious, really catching fire in the second act. The first seems a little slow and the momentum builds gradually. The problems are certainly not with the actors or band, but with the book, which seems to meander before before catching the wind.

The humor in this production comes both in the dialogue and the music.

Take, for example, Caldwell B. Caldwell’s advice to his team, and his daughter, Hope (Rachel Zientek) who has just returned from the “best college in the world.”

Dressed in a dark suit, long red tie (Trumpian for sure) and pink bunny slippers, he uses the bunny to explain how to do it.



That’s what it’s like as the evening wears on and on and on. Picking highlights is a difficult task in this uniformly solid cast. But there were moments.

After capturing Hope to hold as ransom, Little Becky Two Shoes (Haley Haupt) and Hot Blades Harry (Michael Stebbins) plan to kill her as they sing “Stuff That Girl,) while they surround her on each side.

The song is funny but as the two kidnappers push Hope back and forth, each time she moves toward Little Becky she gets slammed with her pregnant stomach. Very funny.

Every actor in this production give outstanding performances as singers, actors and dancers under the creative musical direction of David Bonofiglio and the choreography of Ryan Cappleman.

And the uber-talented Karin Simonson Kopischke creates a spectacular array of costumes that overwhelm the senses. It’s a panorama of color and style.

A special mention has to go to Rachel Zientek who is fresh off the miraculously funny role of Gret in Renaissance’s “Top Women.” Here she even further develops her formidable comedy chops and adds her lyrical soprano to the role of Hope, torn between loyalty to her father and love for the downtrodden and for Bobby.


Also, James Carrington, who we last saw as adelicious  Cowardly Lion at First Stage, continues his run of comic mastery as the top aide to Cladwell B. Caldwell.

“Urinetown” is the final production under Mr. Jivoff’s leadership at Skylight and it is a finish with a bang. He is obviously a man in love with musical theater and determined to return the company to what it has always been known for – the lively and entertaining evenings of music, acting and dance.

Production credits: Stage Director, Ray Jivoff; Music Director, David Bonofiglio; Choreographer, Ryan Kappelman; Scenic Designer, Brandon Kirkham; Lighting Designer, Holly Blomquist; Costume Designer, Karen Simonson Kopischke; Sound Designer, Megan B. Henninger; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.


Nothing Like the Spectacular Show from Wild Space and Milwaukee Opera Theatre

The remarkable cast from Svadba-Wedding from MOT and Wild Space

Oh, that we might have more and more collaborations between the Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Wild Space Dance Company.

If it came to pass the theatrical panorama in Milwaukee would be so much richer, so much more filled with enveloping experience and so proud of a reputation as a home for singular and inimitable theater.

The founders and muses Debra Loewen of Wild Space and Jill Anna Ponasik of MOT, have again met in the ether of some planet creative and created an unrivaled experience in Milwaukee this, or any other, season.

The production is of “Svadba – Wedding,” the award-winning eight year old vocal composition written by Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic´. To say this 55 minute piece is a remarkable experience in the Great Hall of the  Best Place in the Pabst complex is like saying the steak at Five O”Clock Club is a decent meal.


The story is a simple one. A young woman is about to be married and the night before the wedding she is joined by her five best friends for a final party.

Arriving at the site for the performance I was greeted by a large hall, designed like a typical wedding reception hall, round tables with strangers sitting with strangers. Two little girls dressed in simple pink dresses, greeted and sat the guests.

And then came the performance.

Let me explain that this opera has no orchestra. It has no dialogue. And it is sung entirely in Serbian.  

You heard right, Serbian, and not even traditional Serbian. Sokolovic has taken the basic language and edged and tailored it to this piece. I mean who in the world speaks Serbian beside Serbs?

This cast is made up of six women who sing and six women who dance.

It’s an amazing journey through and evening that ranges from the greetings from the bride to her five friends to the solemn ceremony sending Milica (Lydia Rose Eiche) off into an arranged marriage that she is not thrilled about.

The scenes leading from then until now resonate with a familiar feel that is unmistakable for anyone who has ever been to or in a wedding weekend.

The five girls, for example, gather at a bar for a brief celebratory moment. They start with quick vocal chops and sounds complete with doing shots, move into a melodic revelry and finally into the kind of melancholy that often comes with the fading moments of a serious party.

But this production is less about the what we are seeing and more about the how these dozen women tell the story, whatever that story may be.

With stage direction by Ms. Ponasik, choreography by Ms. Loewen and music direction by Adam Qutaishat, who appears in various spots to conduct his singers, this is a production that invites us to the wedding and makes sure we get on this ride.

The language of the music is something you can’t understand in a literal sense, it seems universal in an emotional sense. I couldn’t give you a single translation for a single word, and yet I, and it seemed the entire opening night crowd captured every single moment.

This score is a difficult one with language that is earthy and romantic and filled with the kind of vocal acrobatics rarely seen on stage.  

The singers and dancers were all wonderful. The singers (all with athletic voices) were Ms. Riche, Sarah Richardson, Kati Schwaber, Maela Schneider, Alaina Carlson and Allison Hull. The six dancers, alter-egos for the six singers, flew and floated throughout the hall. They were Chelsey Becher, Kylee Mae Karzen, Danielle Lohuis, Elisabeth Roskopf, Maggie Seer and Jimmi Renae Weyneth.

It was two years ago this month that Wild Space and MOT first came together to stage the remarkable “Song from the Uproar,” an opera marvelously conducted by Viswa Subbaraman that was one of the best and most interesting productions of the season.

Now, the two companies have done it again. They have proved that there is a hunger for new style and form in our world of theater. It’s risky of course, but with great risk comes great reward.

Let me end with sorrow at just a three day run and a plea in Serbian, the first and probably only time I will ever do this. Go look it up.

“Dajte nam još”

Production credits: Choreographer, Debra Loewen; Stage Director, Jill Anna Ponasik; Music Director, Adam Qutaishat; Assistant Stage Director, Daniel J. Brylow; Costume Designer, Leslie Vaglica; Lighting Designer, AntiShadows LLC; Stage Manager, Paula Gallarino; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.


Andrew Varela leads outstanding cast through a fantastic “Fantasticks”

Keegan Siebken and Susan Wiedmeyer in The Fantasticks. Photo by Mark Frohna

In the fall of 1965 I was stationed at a Navy base on Treasure Island, a man made tiny piece of land at one end of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge.

I was going to be there for six to seven months and so, I settled in to get to know San Francisco. After a couple weeks of bars and nightclubs, I stopped at the USO to see what they had to offer.

They had two tickets, every night, to a play called “The Fantasticks.”

I had acted in some plays before the Navy and my mom was also a community theater actor. I took one of the tickets and took a famous cable car  to a tiny theater in Ghirardelli Square at the famed Fisherman’s Wharf.

I loved the play beyond all common sense. So, I went back, and back and

back again. My best guess is that I saw the play at least three times a week for five and a half months. Some weeks I saw it five or six nights in a row. I couldn’t get enough.

Best guess is I saw it over 100 times. And as life moved on I continued to go. I saw it about a dozen times at the Sullivan Street Theatre in Greenwich Village. I saw it at a couple of colleges and a few community theaters. I guess I’ve seen in about a dozen times, at least, in various Milwaukee theaters.

I saw it again opening night at In Tandem Theatre and I can one thing for sure.

In all of those productions, from New York to  San Francisco and dozens of places in between I have never, ever seen an El Gallo like Andrew Varela in an impeccable and delicious production that ends In Tandem’s 20th anniversary season.

Everybody knows the story of Fantasticks.

Luisa(Susan Wiedmeyer) and Matt (Keegan Siebken)  are in love. Their fathers, Hucklebee (Matt Daniels) and Bellamy (Chris Flieller) are at war with each other. Shenanigans arrive, accompanied by the aging actor Henry (Robert Spencer) and his supporting castmate Mortimer (Austin Dorman). Add in the onstage stage manager Mute (Mary McClellan) and you have a cast of high-powered actors who find ways to round out these characters I know so well.

Let’s start with Mr. Varela who acts as both the narrator and the suave swindler El Gallo.

He is very handsome and with his black slacks, red shirt and black vest cuts a dashing figure on stage. But it is voice and acting ability that make this El Gallo one to remember.

His baritone fills the theater at times almost climbing into a tenor range, and he can sing in a hush without losing a iota of power and clarity. He also creates a character who is menacing and gentle, serious and funny and disingenuous and frank all at the same time.

The Fantasticks is a show that rises and falls on the shoulders of El Gallo and with this performance the entire production soars like I’ve rarely seen.

He opens the show with the classic “Try to Remember” and it’s the first realization that this is going to be something special. Mr. Varela understands the importance of the lyrics in a song and he sings the words, with full meaning. He doesn’t find the need to phony the song up with pyrotechnics. He knows full well that it’s better when you “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

The rest of this cast is, simply put, amazing.

As the two young people Mr. Siebken and Ms. Wiedmeyer are perfect. He is worldly as only a young man can be and she is a dreamer whose fantasy for her life seems to be just over the hill. He has a pleasant tenor, easily capturing the youthful assuredness to go with her lovely soprano. Ms. Wiedmeyer can really sing and your heart goes out to her with each stretch for the dream of the moment.

As the two fathers, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Flieller, both veterans in Milwaukee, have a chance to exercise their overwhelming chops for both physical and vocal comedy.,  The interesting thing is that often the two fathers are played as virtual cardboard cutouts, but in this production those men are fully developed into fathers that everyone can relate to.

Mr. Spencer, who played Matt 54 years ago Off-Broadway, makes it a complete circle with the ancient Henry, the gypsy actor who takes his falling-apart act on the road, wherever he can get an audience of at least one person. He gives this character more humor and bits of hijink than I’ve ever seen.

As his slavish aide de camp, Mr. Dorman makes the most of his memorable scene where he displays his perfect art of dying on the stage. The tension of waiting for him to actually perish is palpable.

Ms. McLellan plays Mute with great good humor and spirit. She is leaving Milwaukee soon and we theater fans will be poorer for her family’s move.

Jane Flieller directed this production with an eye toward dedication to the script. Over the years I’ve seen productions of this show with a cast in the nude, a cast blindfolded and a cast doing every song just as spoken word. Ms. Flieller is wonderfully honest with her direction  and creates opportunities for the actors to do what they do best.

The music is provided by harpist Mary Keppeler and Josh Robinson, who plays keyboards and served as Music Director for the show. He is building an impressive resume for music direction in this city. He gets the absolute best out of his singers with no gimmicks present.

This is obviously a show that I love but it’s been rare that I’ve enjoyed one as much as I did this one. As the theater season winds down, you don’t want to miss this show.

If you’ve seen it before, go. If not, go.