Conversations: Chamber Theatre Artistic Director Brent Hazelton

Milwaukee and Wisconsin are home to dozens and dozens of wonderful theater artists, some who appear on stage and others who work behind the scenes.

Each of them has a set of skills and experiences that bring so much enjoyment into our lives. These conversations are designed to get to know them a little better and get to know about those things that make their work so memorable.

Brilliant Production of “The Christians” restores faith in live theater

David Cecsarini is Pastor Paul in The Christians

Welcome back Next Act!

Welcome back David Cecsarini?

And for God’sSake….WELCOME BACK THEATER!!!!

Mr.Cecsarini, who has never met a social issue he doesn’t like, has created a real piece of enthralling theater in the brilliant production of “The Christians,” the provocative play by Lucas Hnath.

In just over 80 minutes Next Act takes a deep dive into the world of doubt that threatens to overcome a megachurch presided over by Pastor Paul (Mr. Cecsarini).

This is a play about faith, about faith shaken to its very roots and about the fallout when faith is replaced by doubt and that doubt is then replaced by another certainty.

There have been a variety of online productions as theater companies have tried to cope with the pandemic. Some have been better than others.

This production from Next Act has set a high bar that all other companies would do well to attempt to reach. 

With a production filmed at the Gethsemane United Methodist Church in Pewaukee, this is a full-fledged magnetic production that is equally powerful both in medium and in message. 

Timothy Moder is the videographer and editor of this production and he has created a seamless film that is absolutely gripping. There are no zoom boxes here. This is a fully developed film, simply set but full of the complexities that sometimes accompany religious faiths. 

Pastor Paul has built a megachurch and has finally retired the debt required to construct his building. And he announces that fact in a sermon that shocks his congregation as he affirms his disbelief in the concept of hell. He has run contrary to everything his flock believes.

The schism is so great that his associate pastor, Andrew Muwonge, leaves his post, a single mother congregant, Emily Vitrano, wonders if she has been sold a bill of goods, and a church elder, Rick Richter, is sorrowed at the fallout from the sermon.

But it is best left to the pastor’s wife, an always transcendent Marti Gobel, to best explain the fallout from a sermon that has shaken her to her very core. 

In the final scene between the two, she laments her loss, talking about her husband, but she could just as easily be talking about her faith in Christianity. 

“I wish I didn’t.
I wish I didn’t like you,
I wish I didn’t find you so attractive,
I wish I didn’t want you here in bed beside me,
I wish I didn’t think that you’re so smart
and kind
and good,
and I wish I didn’t find you so magnificent.
Because if I didn’t feel all those ways
it would be so easy to —
I’m worried that we won’t be together forever,
and I’m worried that it’ll be my fault,
and God will say — when it comes time to say the things he’ll say —
“Why did you fail him?”
“Why did you let him fall away?”
“Why did you not do everything you could to keep him from falling away?”
And so this is me, doing everything I can do,
but really, I’m afraid to do everything that I could do,
but I know I have to do everything I can do,
because I want to be with you forever.
By staying with you, I am making it easier.
Aren’t I?
It would be harder if I weren’t here.”

Mr. Cecsarini’s cast creates characters that are full of depth and besieged by the tortuous entanglements of doubt. Mr. Muwonge brings he courage of his convictions to the stage and Mr. Richter is believably conflicted about his position on the board.

Ms. Vitrano, who we don’t see on Milwaukee stages enough, captures both the spirit and the power of a young woman, a single mother, suddenly finding all that has held her up beginning to collapse. Her questions are pointed although her reluctance to ask them is powerful.

And Ms. Gobel and Mr. Cescarini, as the power couple, proves once again that putting two great actors on a stage together is a sure fire recipe for magic. 

“The Christians” is running now online and you can get tickets at ww.nextact.org. 

If you love the arts, and who doesn’t, this is a place to start coming back to the world of theater. It’s not live, but it is very much alive.

Production credits: Director Edward Morgan; Videographer/Editor, Timothy Moder; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Properties Manager, Heidi Salter; Music Director, DAvid Bonofiglio; Production Director/Sound Engineer, Michael Van Dreser; Stage Manager Jessica Connelly; Production photos, Timothy Moder.

Cast: Pastor Paul, DAvid Cecsarini; Elizabeth, Marti Gobelm Joshua, Andrew Muwonge; Jenny, Emily Vitrano; Elder Jay, Rick Richter Church choir: Lachrisa Grandberry, Raven Dockery, Rana Roman.

Conversations: Jill Anna Ponasik, producer and director

Milwaukee and Wisconsin are home to dozens and dozens of wonderful theater artists, some who appear on stage and others who work behind the scenes.

Each of them has a set of skills and experiences that bring so much enjoyment into our lives. These conversations are designed to get to know them a little better and get to know about those things that make their work so memorable.

Madison’s Daddy Long Legs a touching and perfect virtual performance

Kevin McAllister
Kailey Boyle

Every theater artist will tell you how difficult it is to create meaningful work in this new, all virtual, environment the pandemic has forced on all of us.

But Madison’s Capital City Theatre, located in the suburb of Middleton, has created an absolutely perfect couple of hours of theater with its production of “Daddy Long Legs” which runs unto Nov. 28 online.

The story of this play, based on the 1912 novel by Jean Webster, it tell the story of an orphan girl named Jerusha Abbott and a mysterious benefactor who sends her to college and to a life filled with both opportunity and success.

The book for the play was written by John Caird with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon and Capital City has taken this delightful story and turned it into an enchanting and delightful production full of humor and burgeoning love.

Under the masterful direction of Stephen Amato and music direction of Evan Lange, this two-person cast delivers a performance that is filled with warmth and passion.

As Jerusha, Kailey Boyle has the wide-eyed innocence of a young girl and she easily and gracefully grows into a woman hungry for new experience and brave enough to follow both her heart and her dreams. She is a darling singer who handles a difficult libretto with ease.

Kevin McAllister plays Jervis, the benefactor who gradually finds his cold heart cracked wide open. He combines power with a gentleness that portrays the slow but sure growth in his soul. He also has a great voice and a presence that demands attention.

The entire story is told in the letters that Jerusha is required to write every month, reporting on her activities to Jervis. She has no idea who he really is and he is determined to maintain his anonymity. Each character sings separately and, on occasion, together, a difficult task when shooting a script requiring both players to be in separate locations.

Your can see the hard work that went into making sure the video editing and the performances flowed with the same kind of ease that you would see if this performance were live. Eight years ago, Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre staged one of the original versions of Daddy and it was a winning performance.

But this production by Capital City seems somehow to capture the leisure and inevitability of the this man and this woman toward love with an added bit of seduction. Perhaps it is the very nature of a virtual performance that enhances this story.

It is so interesting watching theater companies struggle to survive by moving from real stages to a virtual world. Some do it with great stress and difficulty. Capital City has seemingly slid into the world with ease and provides an absolutely wonderful heart-filled theatrical experience.

To see “Daddy Long Legs” go to https://capitalcitytheatre.org/.

First Stage Production Shows the Perils of Virtual Programming

Milwaukee’s First Stage theater company is one of the great companies for young people in the world. Artists from all over use the First Stage model when trying to create family friendly theater companies.

As a city, we are lucky to have First Stage around. Their professional productions provide work for a variety of adult artists and for young people beginning their lives in the world of theater. I am always pleased and excited with each each and every production at the Marcus Center.

But the current production of “She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms” is a vivid example of the difficulties performing plays online. Simply put, this effort falls flat and it’s hard to figure out where the problems reside.

The play, written by Qui Nguyen, was originally intended as an adult comedy-drama about a woman named Agnes Evans whose parents and sister Tilly were killed in an automobile accident. The drama revolves around Agnes playing a Dungeons and Dragons module that Tilly had created.

It had its debut almost 10 years ago in New York and also enjoyed a run at Steppenwolf in Chicago. There is a version of the play intended for young audiences, and this is the one First Stage used. It removes almost all the explicit language and soft-pedals some of the focus on Tilly’s sexuality. It also turns Agnes from a grown woman into a high school cheerleader.

That version has been widely produced around the world, especially at the high school level and it has been successful, but the First Stage production has come up empty.

Directed by Coltyn Giltner, the play is missing the kind of interaction between characters that is at the heart of live theater. Instead of a story that invites the audience in, this is really a flat and unimaginative recitation of lines from a play by characters bound by Zoom boxes and a convoluted story.

One thing clearly obviously missing is any sense that these characters are talking to each other. For some reason, every time a character speaks, that character is looking straight ahead at the camera. The only way that dialogue can seem close to realistic is to have actors look in a designated direction, and the other actor look in the opposite direction.

Otherwise what we are left with is something less than even a staged reading. It is more like a recitation and it left me feeling so empty. The run of “The Quest for Solomon’s Treasure,” written by John MacLay, is coming to an end, but it was head and shoulders above Monster for the kind of communication that is the backbone of any theatrical production.

Let’s hope that First Stage soon gets back on a real stage.

Conversations: Jim Pickering and Tami Workentin

Milwaukee and Wisconsin are home to dozens and dozens of wonderful theater artists, some who appear on stage and others who work behind the scenes.

Each of them has a set of skills and experiences that bring so much enjoyment into our lives. These conversations are designed to get to know them a little better and get to know about those things that make their work so memorable.

Enjoy:

Vritual Theater Earns Its Spurs With Sklight’s Delightful “Earnest”

Many theater companies have tried too cope with the pandemic by creating theater virtually.

And I must confess that I’ve avoided all of it, mainly because I so relish a night in a real theater with a real stage and real lights and real music and real actors and real seats and real cookies at intermissions. 

Boy, what I’ve been missing.

I put a tentative toe into the virtual theater water with “Being Earnest,” produced by Skyllight Music Theater. 

I should have known that when creative people put their talents to work in new and untried ways they would triumph over all the boulders and barriers in their way.

This production of a piquant take on the classic Oscar Wilde play is so much fun, so very real and so smart that the 100 minutes flew by and – unlike a real night in the theater – I immediately watched the whole thing again. 

Directed by Michael Unger, the Artistic Director at Skylight, the show featurs a cast of seven and some of the most delightful and clever songs you’ve ever heard.

It was about eight years ago that this production, with book by Paul Gordon and music by Mr. Gordon and Jay Gruska, had its premiere. It was designed as a production of the 1960’s, set in London’s Carnaby Street, a bastion of off beat culture that featured distinctive styles in clothing, music and morals.

For those of us in the United States, this production from Sklylight resembles nothing so much as the pioneering television show “Laugh-In.”

The performance is conducted in a socially distanced manner, with characters appearing in boxes that move around the screen, change colors, morph into other boxes, switch characters, show still pictures and dance – as the saying goes – like no one is watching.

Everybody knows the story of the play by Mr. Wilde. It’s about two young couples in love, complete with misplaced identities, conventions of high society and an overbearing mother, Lady Bracknell, one of the most memorable characters in the history of modern theater.

Mr. Unger has taken this cast of all local performers and turned each one into a finely-drawn character pulling the strings of our hearts as each tickles our souls. 

The dynamic duo of Max Pink and Joey Chelius are the young men while Stephanie Stazak and Ashley Oveido are the two young women caught up in the wild affair. 

They are joined “onstage’ by Nathan Marinan who plays Lady Bracknell with a gusto that shocks,the laways delightful Karen Estrada as the prim and not always proper Miss Prism and the versatile Tim Rebers as three distinct characters. 

A special mention has to be made of Tyler Milliron who gets billing as video consultant. I’m not sure what that is, but the video work putting this whole thing together is amazing. It moves along at a perfect pace, quickly enough to move the story along but patiently enough so that we can savor each moment on the screen. 

I also have to say something about Mr. Pink, the Shorewood High School graduate who is recently returned to Milwaukee from theRoyal Conversavatoire in Scotland. He is the son of Michael Pink, Artistic Director of the Milwaukee Ballet, and his wife, Jane. Max Pink is a remarkably handsome young man, taking after his stunning mother, and very talented, taking after his brilliant father. 

I am thrilled that I finally caved in to move to the virtual theater and now intend to travel the breadth of Milwaukee’s creative community, enjoying each and every moment.

Production Credits:  Director, Michael Unger; Music Director, Conor Keelan; Choreographe,  Amanda Marquardt; Costume Coordinator,  Shima Orans;

Video Consultant,  Tyler Milliron; Stage Manager,  Samantha Pekelnicky.

Oh My, How I Miss Live Theater in Milwaukee.

The last time I actually sat in a darkened theater and watched action on a brightly lit stage only a few yards from my seat was in February of 2020.

It was the magnificent confines of the Cabot Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre was staging a startlingly funny production of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” With the always marvelous Samantha Sostarich leading the way this wispy little musical had a capacity crowd rocking and rolling in seats all night long. Sitting in the audience was Michael Unger, the new artistic director of Skylight and, coincidentally, a co-director of the world premiere of “Spelling Bee.”

Little did I know then that this was the end of the road for all the joy I always felt when walking into a theater, tickets clutched in one hand, a program in the other. Yes, theater was work, but it was more fun than anything else I’d ever done in my life.

In the early days of the pandemic I, like everyone else, was wrapped up in how to get along. Was I washing my hands enough. Oh, God, I think I just touched my face. How far was six feet, really? But now life in the pandemic has become the new normal and I exist in a world with no live theater. Here is some of what I miss.

Mark Clements and The Rep. He has a touch with the big musical that is truly world class. I’ve seen “Man of La Mancha” and “West Side Story” countless times, and his productions of those two shows were as good as any I’ve ever seen anywhere, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia productions. Mr. Clements is in his 10th year and he and Executive Director Chad Bauman have led a transformation of The Rep into an active and vital player in the social structure of the city. The Rep uses its three theaters and skilled and experienced human capital in a serious effort to expand opportunities for underserved populations both as parts of production teams and as members of the audience. The Rep has produced a lot of virtual content that’s on its website, and much of it is fascinating. But nothing matches a live evening in the Quadracci.

Speaking of music, I truly miss the Skylight Music Theatre and it’s new artistic director, Mr. Unger. He was kind of just getting his feet wet when the Coronavirus came along and he barely missed a step as he pivoted to deliver content virtually. Intelligent discussions and delightful music is available on their website, but again, I miss sitting in the Cabot laughing, crying, holding my breath and humming along with yet another great Skylight production.  Mr. Unger promises a new era for Skylight, continuing to pay homage to the classic musicals that have been the backbone of the company but being more aggressive in producing new and rarely produced works. In addition, Mr. Unger has hired the multi-talented Susan Varela as Director of Artistic Operations. Ms. Varela has a distinguished history on stages the world over and will bring a needed dose of sophistication to productions.

I miss every single thing about the tiny Milwaukee Opera Theatre. The company, founded and guided by Jill Anna Ponasik, has delivered – year after year – some of the most memorable and creative productions I’ve seen on a stage anywhere in this world. She staged a one-person show about a monkey, a show in a bookstore that was about friendship,  two spectacular collaborations with Wild Space Dance Company, one about a wedding sung entirely in Serbian and the other the story of a little-known Swiss woman who led a life of unparalleled adventure. Every single time I walk into the a space somewhere I am filled with anticipation of being moved in ways both new and profound. I am almost never disappointed.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has been one of the most reliable companies in town for almost half a century. C. Michael Wright who has nurtured and guided the company for 15 years has retired and he has been replaced by Brent Hazelton. Mr. Wright’s work was always distinctive and  sure. He not only programmed the seasons but he directed and acted as well and left big shoes to fill. Mr. Hazelton is a smart and adventurous artist and I can hardly wait to see what he does at Chamber. The promise is tantalizing.

On an annual basis, David Cecsarini produces some of the most provocative and emotionally charged shows in Milwaukee. There is nothing he is afraid to take on and his examinations of societal institution and human condition are the stuff that makes great theatre. Shows like “Twilight: Los Angeles” and “Bravo, Caruso” deliver on the promise that if you watch you will feel the joys and the pains, the dreams and nightmares and the fears and hopes of life in America. Mr. Cecsarini has been the shepherd of Next Act for 30 years and I miss everything about his work, including the great oatmeal raisin cookies they sell in the lobby.

Speaking of Next Act, Renaissance Theaterworks has moved out of the Broadway Theatre Center and into the space at Next Act on Water Street. Renaissance is “theatre by women for everyone” and has built an enviable record of opening up positions, on stage and off, for underserved populations, especially women. But it is not a company that has ever sacrificed quality on the alter of equality. A prime example is “The Ballad of Emmitt Till” which was as searing and profound an examination of race in America that I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee. I’m fascinated by the opportunities open for Renaissance under the artistic guidance of Suzan Fete who has a bold spirit that is often full of surprises.

I also deeply miss the world class family theater at First Stage. I don’t use the phrase “world class” lightly, but it is fitting for First Stage. Under the guidance of Jeff Frank , this company always delivers top flight theater to be enjoyed by adults and children. Shows like “Luchadora” by Milwaukee’s Alvaro Saar Rios, show the reach and high level production values you always get at Firs Stage. Theater officials from around the world come to Milwaukee to see how First Stage does all of its magic, both onstage and off. Milwaukee is a much richer place with the annual hard work and brilliance always on display at the company.

I also miss the smaller companies, many of which struggle for survival but who manage to deliver such high quality work that  I find myself hoping that they make it to the next week. Places like Dale Gutzman’s Off the Wall Theatre and the kids at All In Productions always reach for the starts. Sometimes they strike out but occasionally they hit grand slam homers and it’s always worth waiting for those nights.

Some smaller companies also find strength in collaboration, like Theatre Red which collaborated with Wisconsin Lutheran College for a brilliant production of the equally brilliant “Bonny Anne Bonny” by Milwaukee’s Liz Shipe.

I know this whole column is a look back at why I miss all this theatre, but my hope is that we can all look forward to what is coming. Most of these companies have a variety of virtual entertainment going on and I encourage everyone to check out their websites.

But nothing replaces a night at the theatre and I can hardly wait for a combination of Biden, masks, vaccines and prayer to coalesce and open up those doors and turn on those footlights once again.

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

Samantha Sostarich surrounded by her spelling bee wanna bees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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