Credibility Challenge Can’t Stop the Laughs at Renaissance

Isabel Quintero and Marti Gobel in The Roommate at Renaissance.

Oscar and Felix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robyn is believable, Sharon is not. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s not guns.

It’s not gay marriage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The choreography ofJames Zager is a perfect example. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Powerful, Riveting and Important “Fires” at Chamber Theatre

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

A good story is told from beginning to end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cast: Marti Gobel, Elyse Edelman.

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

The Classic “West Side Story” Gets Spectacular Treatment at The Rep

The Sharks and Jets together in West Side Story at The Rep

 

Liesl Collazo and Jeffrey Kringer star as Maria and Tony in West Side Story at The Rep

 

Donald Trump’s wet dream is alive and well at TheRep in downtown Milwaukee.

Under the phenomenal direction of Mark Clements, The Rep is staging a production that has everything our crazy president demonstrates  on a daily basis in his efforts to transform America. 

We have ethnic stereotypes, prejudice galore, a battle between white folks and a group of Latinos, white authority figures who wants to help the white people “get rid of ‘them’,” unbridled violence and brutal and savage murder. 

It is, of course, West Side Story that opened six-week run Saturday night.

While Trump’s America is ugly, this production has a power and beauty hardly ever seen on any stage anywhere. For those whose only experience is with the 1961 movie, go and see how different and rugged this production is. 

With an incredibly talented team of designers and production staff, Mr. Clements has turned this classic on it’s head and created something new and fresh that has a relevance both striking and horrifying.

This electrifying production will make you laugh, cry, catch your breath and hum along with some of the best known songs from the canon of musical theater.

It is common theatrical knowledge that Mr. Clements has a special touch with big musicals but even he has outdone himself on this one. 

It is probably fair to say that there are no surprises in the story based on the book by Arthur Laurents and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

A white gang, The Jets, feels threatened  by a Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. During a dance held to set up the rules for a rumble between the two, Tony (a former leader and founder of theJets) meets Maria .

They fall desperately in love despite their warring families and after a big fight complete with murder, the tragedy reaches a peak when Tony is killed by a jealous and vengeful Chino. 

A huge cast of 30actors, singers and dancers take over the stage at the Quadracci Powerhouse with the kind of enthusiasm and skill is breathtaking. 

The joyous performances are enhanced by a striking moveable set by Todd Edward Ivins, costumed by Alexander B. Tecoma, Lighting by Ya Lubetsky and the challenging and successful sound design from Daniel Erdberg and Megan B. Henninger. Three other members of the production staff deserve special recognition for that kind of achievements that can define a career.

Dam Kazemi, a frequent collaborator with Mr. Clements, was the music director. It’s a challenge to take these songs that are so ingrained in the musical psyche of an audience and make them stirring, moving and full-hearted. But Mr. Kazemi has taken a six man orchestra and made it and the singers  soar to the farthest reaches of the rafters and your heart. 

So much of this show is about battles and Cuck Coyl has choreographed the fights within the evocative musical gambol so vital to this production. 

And then there is the dancing shaped by young choreographer John Rua, who has worked on several of the most memorable recent Broadway productions.

If you remember the movie the dancing was smooth and flowing. The word “beautiful” has been used to describe it. 

The dancing in this production could never be described that way.

Mr. Rua has created powerful and intimate dance that tells a story as much as anything else in this show. Every movement means something, every glance and fist and forceful pounding of feet have their own emotional punch. 

Having seen dozens of musicals in Milwaukee I can safely say I have never seen choreography that meant as much and that carried me along. There were moments that the dance was like a punch in the face and other  moments where it was like a gentle caress on the cheek. It is a remarkable achievement. 

All of this magnificent production would mean little if there wasn’t a cast to carry the heavy load demanded by West Side Story. This cast was more than up to the task with uniform exuberant excellence. There were several leading performances that were breathtaking. 

The two lovers, Liesl Collazo and Jeffrey Kringer lead the way as Maria and Tony.

Ms. Collazo has a stunning voice and a presence that captures the naive young Puerto Rican girl, recently arrived in America, and suddenly and unexpectedly in love. She sings with the emotional impact of Edith Piaf and the lusty grace and abandon of Gloria Esteban.

She meets her match in Mr. Kringer, who with his curly blonde hair has a boyish maturity that is impeccable. He has a huge tenor range and there is an emotional and passionate timbre to his voice.

When the two of them meet on her balcony and they sing the classic “Tonight” I had my first severe case of goosebumps and they stayed for a long while. 

Courtney Arango played Anita, the girlfriend of Bernardo, Maria’s brother, and she has a blistering fire that smolders and flames. Her singing, acting and dancing overwhelm with heat, desire, rage and sex appeal.

José-Luis Lopez, Jr. plays Bernardo, who is also the leader of the Sharks and who matches Ms. Arango in the sex appeal department. He has created a character with depth and  multitude of emotional and intellectual heat. Watching him glide around the stage is like watching a Lippizaner stallion in full and graceful rear. 

Two of Milwaukee’s favorite actors, James Pickering and Jonathan Wainwright make small but important appearances. Mr. Pickering is the wise and beleaguered Doc and Mr. Wainwright is the unrelenting authority figure, Lt. Schrank. 

Mr. Clements understands that a complete production is built of moments and this show has dozens. But if there is one that stands out it comes from a little girl named Anybodys. Played by Hope Endrenyl, she dresses like a boy and wants nothing more than to be a member of the Jets. As theplay reaches its inevitable climax she appears in the audience, standing quietly on a platform and she sings the haunting ballad “Somewhere.” She moves slowly to the stage, in front of Tony and Maria and it’s a moment to cherish.

West Side Story has a prominent place in any discussion of the greatest musicals of all time and this production by The Rep does more than justice to the legacy of the powerful piece of theater.

Cast: Maria, Liesl Collazo; Anita, Courtney Arango; Bernardo José-Luis Lopez, Jr.’ Chino, Carlos A. Jimenez; Pepe, Mark Cruz; Luis, Joshua Ponce; India, Gilberto Saenz; Anxious, Austin Winter;  Nibbles, AJ Morales; Rosalia, Mara Cecilia; Consuela, Isabella Abel-Suarez; Teresita, Brianna Mercado; Francesca, Gina dePool; Estella/Maria’s Mother, Brooke Johnson; Margarita, Reese Parish; Isabel, Isabel Bastardo; Gabriella, Terynn Erby-Walker; Tony, Jeffrey Kringer; Riff, Jacob Burns; Diesel, Clay Roberts; A-Rab, Devin Richey; Action, Alex Hayden Miller; Baby John, Alex Hatcher; Snowboy, Rick Parrott; Graziella, Rebecca Corrigan; Velma, Kellie Hoagland; Anybodys, Hope Endrenyl; Minnie, Sydney Kirkegaard; Clarice, Georgina Pink; Doc, James Pickering; Lt. Schrank, Jonathan Wainwright; Officer Krupke, Bill Watson; Swing, Dan Castiglione; “I Feel Pretty” Swing, Isabel Bastardo.

Orchestra: Conductor/ Pianist, Dan Kazemi; Trumpet Greg Garcia; Drums, Patrick Morrow; Reeds, Johnny Padilla; Bass, Michael Ritter; Violin , Eric Segnitz. 

Production Credits: Director, Mark Clements; Choreographer, John Rua; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tecoma; Lighting Designer, Yael Lubetsky; Co-Sound Designers, Daniel Erdberg and Megan B. Henninger; Music Supervisor, John Tanner; Fight Choreographer, Chuck Coyl; Voice and Text Director, Micha Espinosa; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown Casting; Stage Manager Tara Kelly; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow. 

An Uncle Vanya That Captures Pain and Pleasure

DAVID FLORES IS A POWERFUL UNCLE VANYA AT OFF THE WALL THEATRE
RANDALL T. ANDERSON AND ALICIA RICE IN UNCLE VANYA AT OFF THE WALL THEATRE

One of the most popular of ethnic stereotypes is that of the morose Russian and in a new production of “Uncle Vanya” we see the full breadth and power of that belief.

Based on several translations of the Chekhov play, Dale Gitzman has adapted the play into a parade of misery and sullen emotional little bombs.

Mr. Gutzman knows as much about staging and theatricality as anyone in this city and he pulls out all the stops in this production. With moments that range from melancholic paralysis to fearsome and tempestuous moments of fierce anger this show is a riveting roller coaster of human frailty.

Mr. Gutzman has assembled a cast led by outstanding and memorable performances from David Flores and Alicia Rice. 

Mr. Flores who has built a full and scintillating resume over decades is Vanya and his vast range is on clear display. He’s bored, sad, joyous, lustful, disappointed, pained, cruel and passionately outraged. His scene with Mr. Gutzman is absolutely chilling and incredibly commanding of attention. 

Ms. Rice is an actor seen far too seldom on city stages. The last time I saw here was as the title character in Bonny Anne Bonny, a Theatre Red co-production with Wisconsin Lutheran College. It was a role that demanded incredible physical ability as well as acting chops. She took a role that was hard to define and gave it a precision that was both thoughtful and defined.

In this one she faced a number of choices as Elena, the  young wife of Mr. Gutzman’s elderly professor. Two men, Vanya and Dr. Astrov (Randall T Anderson) are both in hopefully in love with Elena.

Traditionally actors who have played Elena are tempted by sluttty overacting. The character can easily be an off duty porn actress.

But Ms. Rice achieves a profound balance between a temptress, a bored housewife and a woman who hungers for another life, even though she is uncertain what that life could, and should, be. Her performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen at Off The Wall. 

Jenny Kosek plays Sonya, the daughter of the professor, who is a plain young woman hopelessly and secretly in love with Dr. Astrov. She is painful to watch, suffering both from a harsh self-image and the heartache of her silent love affair. Ms. Kosek wonderful quiet presence on the tiny stage on Wells St. 

That small stage, sandwiched between two sections of seat sections, is one of the issues Mr. Anderson struggles with.

He clearly has a grasp of his character but has a stagnant facial expression, always the same semi-grimace, no matter the emotion. He needs some serious direction on how to convey emotion physically, as well as with his voice. 

Mr. Gutzman has directed a production that is a Chekhov masterpiece about the futilities of life and the inability of these people to  either change their circumstances or cope with the reality of their lives. It’s a story filled with lots of agony mixed with a bit of ecstasy and it’s as thoughtful and visceral as anything I’ve ever seen at Off The Wall.

Cast: Vanya, David Flores; Maria, Christine Horgen; So0nya Jenny Kosek; Professor Alexander, Dale Gutzman; Elena, Alicia Rice; Astrov Randall T. Anderson; Nanny Barbara Weber; Telegin, Larry J. Lukasavage. 

Production credits: Director, Dale Gutzman; Technical Director; David Roper; Lighting, John R. Dolphin and David Roper; Assistant to Mr. Gutzman, Sandy Lewis.

A Love Affair Destined to End in Sorrow at The Rep

Joe Kinosian and Ben Moss are brilliant in 2 Pianos 4 Hands at The Rep

In every love affair there are two undeniable truths. 

One is that a love affair is consuming, passionate and personal.

The second is that the affair will end – either well or badly.

A love affair, with all the warts and joys is on full and robust display  in downtown Milwaukee with the opening of “2 Pianos 4 Hsands” in the Stackner Cabaret at The Rep. 

Like every love affair, this one is full of comic moments, bitter conflicts, challenges and victories and endings that seem almost predestined.

The story is about two piano players, Ted (Joe Kinosian) and Richard (Ben Moss) and their obsessive commitment to the soaring compositions of bach, Beethoven and Mozart, all performed on the 88 keys of the nearest piano.

Like any tale, this one begins with two young Canadian boys enrolled in piano lessons, taught by two characters who specialize in the early days of parental inspired lessons for children.

Anyone who has ever taken any instrument lessons will easily recognize the pathway for each boy. Shouts from parents to keep practicing. Forcing them to keep at it even while wanting to go outside with friends to play hockey.

Threats to ban television for a night if practice doesn’t continue for the half hour. Confusion by the boys as to just what they are supposed to be practicing. The halting and patient instruction from all those early instructors. 

Mr. Kinosian and Mr. Moss play all the characters, ranging from nuns to romantic Italian impressarrios and rigid adjudicators of classical music.  

The boys meet at 10 years old playing in a KIwanis Club competition as pairs, playing the Mozart Sonata for One Piano, Four Hands in D major. After six months of practice Ted chokes and is first unable to play and once he finds the music, unable to get in order to read. It’s a hilarious scene and the audience roared. 

The humor of the first act is leavened by a long bitter scene between Richard and his father, a pianist himself who never achieved the kind of notoriety he thought he deserved. The father is a strict taskmaster who clamps down forcefully on Richard’s reluctance to live out the dreams of his father. 

Before long, as they approach their teenage years, they begin their contact with serious conservatories of music where the boys have their initial experience with demanding teachers who have seemingly impossible standards.

The first act is a setup for the serious pursuit of a career and the fulfillment of the extraordinary promise each boy has shown.  They are focused on careers as artists, a perilous and uncertain future under the best of circumstances. 

And, as expected, the brass ring remains a mirage in the desert for both boys. They let everyone know with a rag-tag piano mashup of “Bennie and the Jets,” “Imagine,” “The Entertainer,” “Chariots of Fire” and “Great Balls of Fire.” It is with the popular songs that we finally get a glimpse of the two boys actually having fun at the piano. 

At the end, both boys give up their dream and accept the fact that they are the “two best piano players in the neighborhood.”

Ths play is almost 25 years old and was written by Ruchard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra. It’s a true story and it’s been wildly successful with productions at over 200 theater companies worldwide.

The Rep production, under the free-wheeling direction of Laura Braza, is perfect for the Stackner. Mr. Kinosian and Mr. Moss are exceedingly talented piano players and actors. They move from character to character and mood to mood with ease, never over playing roles that could easily be caricatures. 

When it’s funny it’s very funny. When it’s tough, it’s very tough. And when it’s sad, the sorrow drips.

One of the most difficult tasks in theater is playing a musician and making that character believable. Mr. Kinosian and Mr. Moss bring the kind of focus that every great musician needs. They don’t just play notes, they understand the dynamics of these compositions and share their gifts with the audience.

This production is careful to capture the kind of catastrophe that can develop when dreams outstrip the realities of life. 

Just like every love affair we’ve ever known. 

Production Credits:? Director, Laura Braza; Music Direction, Joe Kinosian; Scenic Designer, Michelle LIly; Costume Designer, Nicholas Hartman; Lighting Designer, Jared Gooding; Sound Designer, Erin Page; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager, David Hartig; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

2019-20 Theater Season Full of Promise and Excitement

The first production of the year for Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is the traditional start to the season in Milwaukee, and it’s just a couple of weeks away with the promise of some exciting developments.

Chamber will open with the frequently produced farce, “Unnecessary Farce,” by Paul Slade Smith. Complete with twisted identities and a total of eight doors, the play has gotten rave reviews around the world.

Anytime you have cast that includes Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jenny Wanasek and Rick Pendizch you know you are in for an evening of fun.

The play marks the start of the final season of the renowned C. Michael Wright who is retiring after 15 years as Artistic Director. Wright has an enviable record and he’ll be replaced by Brent Hazelton, the talented former Associate Artistic Director at The Rep.

Close on the heels of Chamber’s opening will be the American classic, “West Side Story” directed by The Rep’s Artistic Director Mark Clements. When he sinks his teeth into one of these classic musicals (see Man of La Mancha in 2016) Mr. Clements can deliver theatrical magic. 

It’s kind of like a perfect trifecta – a beloved show, the season opener and Mr. Clements and his musical mastery. They could run this for six months and never have an empty seat. 

There have been a number of off-season changes and developments that are going to have an impact on the season.

Perhaps the biggest news was the closing of In Tandem, the 21-year labor of love for Chris and Jane Fleiller who rana company in a lovely spot on Tenth Street. They produced memorable works like as good a “Glass Menagerie” I’ve ever seen and a take on “The Fantasticks” that was a joy to behold. 

The couple got tired, I’m sure, of the constant struggle for financial survival that is common to all small theater companies. But, as they say, when one door closes …etc.

Mrs. Fleiller has landed at David Cecsarini’s Next Act Theatre as the development director. Her expertise in the non-profit sector will be a boon to Next Act.

Mr. Cecsarini’s welcome mat has also lured the women from Renaissance Theaterworks, who are moving from their home at the Broadway Theater Center to Next Act, not this season, but the next. 

The two companies stress that they are not combining artistic tasks but just space. These are two of the most exciting and adventurous theater companies in this city and I’d be willing to bet that synergies will develop between the two that will provide even more thrills on Water St. 

The other big news is that Skylight Music Theater has hired Michael Unger as the new Artistic Director, replacing the retiring Ray Jivoff. 

Mr. Unger has an impressive resume as a director and associate artistic director at The York Theatre Company in New York. He has also created an enviable record as an educator and has a deep belief in the ability of the arts to help heal communities. 

He has done admirable work in Newton, CT, the site of the massacre of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook. He is the Producing Artistic Director of NewArts in Newtown, Conn., which he started with a local father in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. NewArts brings the children of Newtown together with Broadway professionals to present high-level performing arts productions as a way to build confidence, foster creativity, and give children tools for their future. 

Mr. Unger has an avowed affection for helping to nurture new and underperformed works, and it’s likely that he will exercise that viewpoint when he takes the helm at Skylight.

It might do well to remember the tenure of Viswa Subbarraman who spent four years directing the Skylight and walking a tightrope between the traditional musicals that the audience had come to expect and love, and cutting edge new and underperformed works. The lack of enjoyment from part of the audience and the board  of the second part of the philosophy led, in part, to his departure from Milwaukee. 

There is a fine line between critical acclaim and audience approval at times and hopefully Mr. Unger will be able to navigate that with ease.

Finally, when you look at the planned shows for the season it’s amazing how rich the panorama of choices will be. Having said that, there are a few shows that are already getting highlighted on my calendar. 

The parade is led by the Renaissance staging of the Samuel Beckett play, “Happy Days.” The production, directed by the brilliant Marie Kohler will feature two of the most brilliant actors in Milwaukee, Laura Gordon and Todd Denning. The role of Winnie has been described as Hamlet for women and a summit role to any actor’s career and I can hardly wait to see Ms. Gordon in this one. 

Adam Bock wrote a great play, “A Small Fire,” and Mr. Cecesarini will direct a powerhouse cast of Mary Macdonald Kerr, Jonathan Smoots and a returning Emily Vitrano, at Next Act. This is a searing look at a woman on the edge and the relationships that surround her. 

The Rep may have West Side Story but Skylight opens with the classic,  “Oklahoma.” And then comes “Newsies” which will be directed by the always inventive Molly Rhode with costumes from the always creative Jason Orlenko. 

Mr. Wright, who has been at the helm of Chamber for 15 years, is going out with a bang. Beside the first show of “Unnecessary Farce,” the company will stage the troubling “Fires in the Mirror” With Marti Gobel and Elyse Edelman playing a total of 26 roles. Ms. Gobel teamed with Angela Iannone for “Twilight Los Angeles,” a similar play also by Anna Deveare Smith, three years ago and this outing should be riveting. 

And Chamber also brings back the always delightful Jeeves series with Matt Daniels reprising his performance in “Jeeves at Sea.” Beside Mr. Daniels the cast features Chris Klopatek, Josh Krause, Diane Lane, Michael Stebbins and the return, after a year in Asia, of Kathryn Haausman, one of the most delightful young actors in the city.

I’m also looking forward to First Stage’s staging of “The Wings of Mariposa,” written by Alvar Saar Rios, the brilliant playwright from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His play “Luchadora” has been one of the best at First Stage in recent years and this bilingual outing holds great promise. 

One company is missing and every year Milwaukee Opera Theater stages something that takes my breath away. The company doesn’t list its season, so I’ll just be patient.

That’s a brief look at the coming season that opens Aug. 10. It’s a season full of promise of both outstanding performances and some surprises that make the Milwaukee theater scene the special place it is.

A Kiss Me Kate with sizzle at Skylight

When I grow up, or come back in another life,  I want to be Andrew Varela.

Mr. Varela is really handsome, really sexy, a really wonderful actor and a really wonderful singer.

Mr. Varela’s wife is Susan Spencer who is really beautiful, really sexy,  a really wonderful actor and a really wonderful singer

Finally, Mr. Varela’s current playmate is Rona Roman who is really beautiful, really sexy,  a really wonderful actor anda really wonderful singer.

See a pattern here?

You will, certainly, if you see “Kiss Me Kate” running at Skylight Music Theatre. You’ll be treated to almost three hours (there is a 20 minute intermission) of clever writing, some great songs and performances that are full of moments of sophisticated comedy that could only be delivered by Cole Porter who wrote this over five decades ago.

“Kate” is a look at Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” through a kaleidoscope in the clutches of a merry band of singers, dancers and actors, all under the spirited directorial guidance of Ray Jivoff, the the superlative Artistic Director who is retiring from Skylight after the run of “Kate.”

The story is familiar.

It’s about a theater troupe that is staging “Shrew” in a small theater in Baltimore. This is a show that will certainly never make its way to Brioadway.

Fred (Mr. Varela) and Lili (Ms. Roman) are the two leads, Petruchio and Katharine. In real life they are ex-husband and wife, both torn and connected by a tempestuous sizzle. From the earliest moments, the audience knows that these two belong together despite the fury of their constant personal Armageddon.

They engage in adjoining dressing rooms and the action is a parallel to what happens when they get on stage as Shakespeare’s two characters who are decidedly toxic in a world where the Me Too movement has such a profound impact on our lives.

Petruchio wants Kate but she is not the least bit interested. He pounds her with starvation and psychological bullying that are staged, thankfully, with good humor. Kate eventually responds with a beat down of her own.

The riotous beatdown she delivers to Petruchio and his respondent paddling of her bottom, were perfectly staged by fight director Christopher Elst. It’s a difficult task but one that was grippingly realistic and funny.

Mr. Varela and Ms. Roman are a stunning couple on the Cabot stage. The roller coaster of their relationship is the kind of magic that makes live theater such a glorious experience. They are sultry alone and absolutely sizzling together.

The remainder of the cast is uniformly solid, with singing and dancing that surround the two stars with bright moments shared by just about everyone on the stage.

Two of Milwaukee’s finest comedic actors, Doug Jarecki and Kelly Doherty, pair up for a couple of the funniest gangsters you will ever see. Along with the always gifted Jonathan Gillard Daly in two roles, they lead with a level of performance that helps carry the whole show.

For 30 years, Mr. Jivoff has been a part of Skylight and has always brought a puckish frolic to performing, directing and administering. The Milwaukee theater community will be poorer without his constant presence but it would come as no surprise to see him make an occasional appearance onstage.

In his own typical fashion, he is going out with a bang with this production of “Kate.”

Production credits: Stage Director, Ray Jivoff; Music Director, Kurt Cowling; Choreographer, Amy Brinkman; Scenic Designer, Robert Little; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Craig Zemsky; Sound Designer, Adam, Seaman; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Ross Zentner.