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


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.

“Trains” a brilliant August Wilson production at The Rep

“Two Trains Running” at The Rep captures all that August Wilson has to say.

A big part of the charm of the works of August Wilson is how very ordinary his characters are, and that’s never been more true than in “Two Trains Running,” running at The Rep now.

Set in a diner in The Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh – home for the powerful Pittsburgh Cycle – Trains grabs hold of a universal black experience and shakes it until all the leaves and fruits from this particular tree fall to the ground.

The ambitious ten-play Cycle traces the black experience through ten decades, telling the stories not with the soaring language and emotional punch of the black power movement but rather with a look deep into the soul of black people told through ordinary, everyday ambitions and  frustrations.

Memphis (Raymond Anthony Thomas)runs a diner that used to be a hectic hub for neighborhood sustenance and gossip. But the building Memphis owns is slated for demolition to pave the way for reimagined “development” guided by the city. His quarrel with the city involves how much the city is offering for the building and how much Memphis thinks it’s really worth.

The focus on money, desired and promised, runs through the play.

Sterling (Chiké Johnson) is just released from the penitentiary after serving five years for robbing a bank. He need a job and money, to live and to gamble with, hoping for the easy win and the big promise.

West (Doug Brown) is the funeral director has lots of money and is continually scheming to get more. He’s got seven Cadillacs and a flourishing business and is trying to buy the dinner with a cut-rate offer.

Wolf (Jefferson A. Russell) is a numbers runner who uses the diner as his office, complete with pay phone where he takes orders from the hopeful who are playing the lottery.

Then there is Holloway (Michael Anthony Williams) a neighborhood wise man, who has the key to getting wishes filled (the unseen Aunt Audrey) and who comments/explains/approves/disapproves on both motivations and actions of neighborhood. Holloway is the holder of the Aunt Audrey secret and acts as her off-site agent.

Throw into this mess the daily visit from Hambone (Frank Britton) driven almost insane by his nine and a half year search for a ham he thinks a storekeeper owes him fo painting a fence. “He won’t give me my ham,” wails Hambone, over and over. He’s made his pitch every day for nine and a half years and is as regular as the clock ticking inexorably on the wall.

Reigning over this testosterone charged gathering is Risa (Malkia Stampley) a complicated waitress/cook at the diner who is torn by debilitating doubt and bolstered by unbridled confidence all at the same time.

Mr. Wilson’s play is full of monologues from each of the characters, speeches that define the indefinable hopes that live deep in their souls.

West guards his money. Memphis wants money for his building. Holloway needs money to play the numbers. West handles the money. Sterling wants quick money, the easy way.

If you are beginning to sense a theme here, congratulations. It’s a theme.

Risa is the most interesting and oddly balanced character in the play.

She has cut her legs, disfiguring them, as a barrier to unwanted attention from men. She maintains a perfectly satisfied life of solo control over her life and has pledged her fear and determination to avoid all men.

But Ms. Stampley has created a well-rounded Risa and we suspect that there are layers underneath that all that solemnity.

Like most of Mr. wilson’s works, this one relies on the interchange between members of the ensemble. There are no stars or leading actors here. There are seven skilled and brilliant actors flourishing under the direction of Timothy Douglas.

The Rep has staged six of the plays in Mr. Wilson’s American Century Cycle and it’s a fervent hope that the other four will soon find spots on the schedule. The Milwaukee company his a dedicated commitment to diversity in programming and a commitment to Mr. Wilson would fit well in that mission.

Production credits: Director, Timothy Douglas; Scenic Designer, Tony Cisek; Costume Designer, kara Harmon; Lighting Designer, Michael Gilliam; Composer/Sound Designer, Matthew M. Nelson; New York Casting, Stephanie Klapper, CSA; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus’ Production Photographer, Mikki Schaffner.

Just an ordinary family at the heart of extraordinary Next Act Production

The Cain Family at Next Act’s How to Write a New Book for the Bible

Many productions in the theater ask that an audience sit back, relax and enjoy what is about to transpire on the stage before them.

And then there are the rare plays that demand that you sit forward in  your seat and pay close attention.

They are not simple. They take work.

That’s the new play at Next Act Theatre, How to Write a New Book for the Bible, written by Jesuit priest Bill Cain.

The conceit of the play is that the Bible is not a book of rules but, rather, the story of a family. This family – the Cain family –  is introduced by the youngest son, Bill, who is a priest. If it sounds like this is autobiographical, it should. Almost at the beginning, Bill tells the audience that a writer – any writer – should “write what he knows.”

And Cain the playwright knows his stuff on this one, and is unabashed sharing the joys, sorrows and truths and lies of his family life. But unlike so many “family” dramas, this one is not chock full of explosive crises.

This one is about how very extraordinary the ordinary can be if you face it with honesty, courage and a little bit of humor.

Bill (Jack Dwyer) returns to his home in Syracuse to care for his ailing and widowed mother Mary (Carrie Hitchcock) who calmly facing the fact that her life is coming to an end.

Told in fragments that jump around from time to time and place to place, the story unfolds slowly, dragging you into the aura of this very normal family. The aura is full of so many things that strike a familiar chord.

Children worrying about how to care for their parents. Love between siblings, tempered by occasional jealousies. Longing for a mate gone far too early. Memories of times good and times bad.  Some tears and some smiles, sometimes in the same moment. And, even with all the people who float in and out, at the heart the four individuals who make up this family.

This production, directed by David Cecsarini, rests on the shoulders of four actors and this could well be a master class.

Mr. Dwyer is new to Next Act and he has the smooth little brother part down cold. He’s careful and gentle with his mother despite the challenges she presents. There are moments when he is a grudging caregiver but in his heart he knows that duty calls and he’s going to answer.

Ms. Hitchcock brings an intense focus to Mary, creating a woman who misses her past but who faces both her present and future with a kind of peaceful aplomb that combined resignation, hope and inevitability. Her variety of faces, moods and movements are unmatched.

Jonathan Wainwright as the older brother is a presence with a steely outside shielding an uncertain and complex heart and mind. Mr. Wainwright, whos acting career continues to grow to heights, has a brilliance about him that allows him to range from an enticing Scrooge to a troubled Mercutio to a sensitive Tim in The Good Father. A production with Mr. Wainwright always delivers everything that an audience could wish for.

And finally, there is Norman Moses as Mary’s husband, Pete.

Mr. Moses has a range as broad as any actor in Wisconsin and that range is on full and vibrant display here.

Not only is he Pete, but he is a physical therapist, a doctor, a nurse, a friend named Paulette and a couple of other characters.

When he plays a woman, there is no impersonation attempt. Instead a fick of a wrist and a cock of a head is more than enough to know that this man has suddenly switched gender right in front of our eyes. Mr. Moses is the kind of actor I could watch every single night of the year and always be both surprised as I fall in love with yet another character.

Over he six years since Bible premiered there have been subtle criticisms of the depth of the autobiographical nature of Cain’s play.

There may have been some caution in other productions, but under the wise and brilliant direction of Mr. Cecsarini, this one is an evening well spent, as long as you are willing to give in to the moment.

Production credits: Director, David Cecsarini; Scenic Design, Rick Graham; Lighting Design, Noele Stollmack; Costume Design, Amy Horst; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production Photos, Ross Zentner.

Renaissance weaves magic in Annie Jump

Reese J Parish and Rachael Zientek in Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven

Two girls walk into a bar, one is a 13-year old science genius the other one, your typical Valley Girl,  is also a “ visual manifestation of a mindful of an intergalactic super computer built and maintained by a collection of the most advanced intelligent species in the universe.”

If it sounds like one of those familiar “walks into a bar” jokes, forget it.

In truth it is the setup for Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven, a Brink Festival winner by Reina Hardy getting a world premiere treatment at Renaissance Theaterworks.

Ms. Hardy is a young prolific Chicago playwright who is known for the themes of magical phantasmagorica in her works, and Annie fills that bill. It’s a play that is slightly uneven but full of some wonder, fantasy and a lot of laughs.

Reese J Parish plays Annie, a 13 year old science whiz who lives in Strawberry, Kansas

“I’m Annie Jump, and this whole story is about me.

I’m thirteen years old, I’m about to go to high school in the fall, and I’ve lived in Strawberry, Kansas for most of my life. My mom is from Chicago, but she’s dead now. I don’t miss her at all. I’m not mean or anything, I just don’t remember.

It’s not easy being a teenage science genius in a small town, especially when your dad believes in aliens. I try to take comfort in the thought that, even if he was totally and completely normal, no-one would like me anyway.

I mean, I have a 185 IQ, I got a perfect score on the SATs- last year, I put a hard boiled egg into orbit. Do you think there’s anything I could do to prevent Peter Stockholm and his cronies from stealing my gym shorts, besides being totally and completely someone other than me? Didn’t think so.”

Into Annie’s life comes self-described sophomore computer nerd KJ (Jarrod Langwinski) who is alternately infatuated with and intimidated by  Annie. She wastes no time or effort putting him in his place and he slinks off.

Moments after Annie introduces herself to the audience she is joined, as if from a puff of smoke, by a woman with a shockingly glorious mop of curly hair, wearing a frilly summer dress and a smile that says “I know a heck of a lot more than you’ll ever know.”

It’s Althea, played by a once-again spectacular Rachael Zientek, who turns this obvious outer space mystery into a classic Valley Girl complete with OMG’s, run on sentences and that kind of whine that either makes you smile or makes your skin crawl.

Althea tries to convince a skeptical Annie that she is truly from another world and that Annie has been designated as “the chosen one” who will hold close all the knowledge in the world.

It’s a cute story but has some drag in it, primarily because of the complexities of the number of stories being told, of the questions that need to be answered.

Is Annie’s dad crazy? Is Althea really from outer space? Is Annie going to move to Chicago? Are her grandparents going to sue her dad again trying to gain custody of Annie? Is the faxed promise of an alien landing in Hamlin’s real or a prank? And will KJ apologize if it’s a prank? Will Annie move to Chicago? Will Annie and KJ grow closer and cooperate? Is Annie’s dad going to die?

The play, under the humorous direction of the always-brilliant Pam Kriger, moves along at a good pace, especially in the scenes between Annie and Althea but it seems to drag when it drops into an exploration of other issues.

Having said that, it’s only 75 minutes long and the overwhelming majority of those minutes are full of laughs, magical mystery  and fascination.

Production credits: Director, Pam Kriger; Technical Director Anthony Lyons; Scenic and Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Props Master, Jordan Stanek; Sound Design & Original Composition, Josh Schmidt; Costume Design, Misti Bradford; Motion Design, John Fischer; Production Photographer, Ross E. Zentner.

The American story gets spectacular Johnny Cash treatment at The Rep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Important and Spectacular “Carmina Burana” at Skylight

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t even figure out what that meant.

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

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

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

And Thank God.

This production is a seductive assault on your senses.

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

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

And then there were the singers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty cool. Pretty damn cool.

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