Brilliant Matilda from First Stage is an absolute triumph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cast is, simply, magnificent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the conductor walks out on the stage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, so what?

First Stage Lives up to it’s reputation with “Nate the Great”

The cast of Nate the Great at First Stage

It’s not a fast slide from “Nate the Great” to Nate the Average or even the Nate Without Any Ideas.

But it happens, much to the surprise of everyone, but nobody was more surprised that Nate himself.

He had built a teenage career by being a deductive detective, taking cases and solving the riddles for his friends and family.

But this latest one (eventually two) has him flummoxed and the story, “Nate the Great” running now at First Stage is a spellbinding  play that brings the audience along the tortured path trying to solve the mystery.

Brilliantly adapted by John Maclay (book and lyrics) and Brett Ryback (music and lyrics) director Niffer Clarke works her musical theater wizardry to craft the kind of show that is perfect for the First Stage audience, kids, adults and anything else. Even your pets would like this one.

Nate (Seth Hoffman) is a teenager with an unbridled lust for pancakes and an equally unbridled confidence in his talents to solve even the most perplexing cases.

His friend Annie (Makayla Davis) has painted a dog, a painting she loves, but it has disappeared. Not lost, but stolen and she asks Nate to take her case.

He does, and what ensues is a step by step search for clues and solutions. Along the way he suspects and then clears friend Rosamond (Emily Harris) who has lost one of her many casts, a cat she calls her Super Hex.

Turn after turn and Nate runs into an empty basket, no answers to found and his spirits drop steadily. His frustration is overwhelming and he’s more discouraged in his abilities than ever before.

I’m not about to reveal what happens, but suffice it to say that with little brother (Cole Sison) and the always magnificent Elyse Edelman (the only adult ) plays everything from Nate’s Mom to Annie’s dog, Fang does an amazing tango with both Nate and Annie.

One of the most remarkable things about First Stage is the challenge facing the cast and the designers. Everything is done to a high level, while combining the need to make a production simple enough for children to follow.

This is a musical, but instead of simple melodies and lyrics, Mr. Ryback has written music that is complex and not the least bit easy to sing.

Ms. Clarke is a veteran of musical theater and brings her sensitivities and sills to bear on a cast that could easily overwhelmed by the challenges. She understands, as well as anyone, the concept of acting and singing that you need to tell a story, and to move it forward.

I have long held a dream to perform in a musical directed by Ms. Clarke. The discovery process for an actor/singer must be the ultimate in creative satisfaction.

Mr. Maclay, who is the Director of Artistic Development at First Stage has taken a great tale and moved it forward steadily, which honesty and free of gimmicks. Two seasons ago he collaborated with Joe Foust to adapt the best Robin Hood I’ve ever seen. Mr. Maclay has an unerring ear for raking the varied and diverse simple and understandable.

Mr. Ryback captures the synthesis of humor and storytelling with the need to make songs a part of something bigger.

First Stage is a remarkable company, perhaps the best family theater company in the country,  It proves, on a daily basis that there is no need to dumb down – or play down – to create magical enchantment for everybody in the family.

“Nate the Great” runs through Nov. 11.

Production credits: Niffer Clarke, Director; Brett Ryback, Music Director; Giana Blazquez, Choreographer; Joanna Iwanicka, Scenic Designer; Lyndsey Kuhlmann, Costume Designer, Jesse Klug, Lighting Designer, Stage Manager, Melissa L Wanke; Assistant Stage Manager, Carrie Johns; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

A quartet of spectacular actors bring brooding Irish alive at Next Act

 

Deborah Staples and David Cecsarini in Outisde Mullingar at Next Act

There are many joys in this world, but chief among them is having an opportunity to watch the very best in action.

The thing that often sets them apart is not the big stuff, but the little things.

It’s Yo Yo Ma, tilting his head so he can better hear the notes from his cello. It’s  Tiger Woods in his prime, taking just one more second to check before he strokes a putt. It’s Stephen Colbert that lets you know, if you catch it, that a joke is on the way.

With a cast of masterful actors hewing to equally masterful directions, “Outside MUllingar,” The John Patrick Stanley dark  romantic comedy running at Next Act Theatre, it is such little things that prove striking.

The first example comes early when the brilliant James Pickering, playing a crotchety, aging Irish farmer, prepares to add wood to his potbellied kitchen stove.

Before adding the wood, Mr. Pickering touches the top of the stove with a knuckle, checking the heat. It’s a small thing but oh so telling that we are about to watch masters at work.

Carrie Hitchcock and James Pickering at Outside Mullingar

Set in the rural Irish countryside, Mr. Pickering plays Tony, the widowed farmer who lives with his son, Anthony (David Cecsarini). They have just returned from the funeral for neighbor Christopher Muldoon and are soon joined by his widow Aoife (Carrie Hitchcock), who lives with her daughter Rosemary (Deborah Staples).

The first act is the expected brooding and dark affair. Aofie and Tony discuss their impending deaths, Tony is preparing to leave his world and is determined to keep his son from taking over the farm. “He doesn’t love the earth,” he moans, over and over.

Anthony, for his part, is an unhappy man for reasons yet to be revealed. His relationship with his father is tense and unpleasant, adding to the sullen climate.

Of course this being the Irish, there are moments of high good humor among the melancholy. All three actors have their moments when laughs come easily and often unexpectedly.

Introduced near the end of the first act, Rosemary shows the first glimpses into her relationship with Anthony. Her mother confirms that Rosemary holds a permanent grudge against Anthony stemming from a 30 year old incident when he pushed the six-year-old girl to the ground.

Their farms are separated by a strip of land that Tony sold to Christopher 30 years ago. The land, now owned by Rosemary, requires that Tony go through two gates in order to get from the road to his own home, a fact that gnaws at the old man.

The second act is a tour de force for both Ms. Staples and Mr. Cecsarini, who are real life husband and wife.

Like any good romantic comedy an incredible array of obstacles threaten the journey toward love. He is adamantly reluctant to get involved with her, instead offering to introduce her to his American cousin who is coming to Ireland to find a bride.

Rosemary is aghast at this idea and appalled that he “knocked on my door for your cousin.”

Eventually she plaintively asks “Why didn’t you knock for yourself Anthony?”

As expected, Anthony and Rosemary overcome the odds and thebarriers and end up happily ever after. But it is the journey, directed by Edward Morgan, that is so much fun.

People live and die, argue and love, drink beer and eat stew, shun and embrace – in short a fully Irish thang.

And these four actors are such a special quartet that I could have easily watched another couple of hours of this two-hour journey into the heart. The four of them all delve deep into their characters and bring these four vastly different people fully alive. They do all the big stuff that we expect.

And, they do the little things, that sets them apart from the rest of mere mortals.

Production credits: Director, Edward Morgan; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design,Aaron Sherkow; Costume Design, Dana Brzezinski; Sound Design, Grover Hollway; Properties Design, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Production photographer; Ross Zentner.

“Guards at the Taj” looks at both beauty and duty

Owa’Ais Azeem and Yousof Sultani star in “Guards at the Taj” Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is only with intelligent and perceptive direction that the truth of “Guards At The Taj” can speak plainly to an audience.

It would be easy to get wrapped up in the humor or the horror of the play, currently running at the Stiemke Studio at The Rep. It would be easy to think this is a play about what makes something beautiful and how important is it to daily life.

But under the maestro touch of Brent Hazelton, what we see on this stage is a piercing examination of the concept of duty – duty to others, duty to family and friends, duty to a cause and, ultimately, duty to yourself.

It’s the mid 1600’s and the magnificent Taj Mahal has just been completed – the most beautiful thing on earth. Humayun (Yousof Sultani) and Babur (Owa’Ais Azeem) are two lowly guards, assigned to the dawn shift guarding the palace. They must stand still, not talk and certainly not turn to look at the building.

Rajiv Joseph’s play breaks the plane of duty quickly with a brotherly banter between the two guards, Humayan intent on obedience to the orders, Babur equally intent on disregarding orders in order to indulge his flights of fancy.

The play starts funny, very funny, and Mr. Hazelton has given his two actors an incredible box of tools to work with and each actor  takes full advantage. They quickly draw portraits of who each man is and how abundant their relationship with each other is.

They may be the bottom of the totem pole, but they suffer each other graciously and find both love and delight in their brotherhood.

One of the most charming and mesmerizing parts of this play are the silences. Long and drawn out, Mr. Hazelton lets the silence breathe and even talk to the audience. They are enraptured.

The 85 minutes from places to curtain are a long and tortured slide from the funny guys to two men wracked with pains, both real and imagined. Mr. Hazelton manages this slide with patience and Azeem and Sultani let those silences ride on the wings of both fantasy mixed with harsh reality.

These two actors are scintillating in their passions and powers. Each draws a precise picture of men who enjoy abundant similarity while sharing a wonder at their differences.

This is a powerful play, full of surprise (which I’m reluctant to reveal). As the disillusion grows in a variety of directions for each character, there is an audience sympathy that mixes with the gnarl of painful repulsion.

I have enjoyed Mr. Hazelton’s work for a long time,and his continued growth as a director of amazing talents has been a joy to watch.

About a decade ago, when there was still a foolish thought that I might be an actor, I did a play at Windfall directed by Mr. Hazelton. One rehearsal we spent half an hour talking about a toothpick I used as a minor prop. Half an  hour about a toothpick.

It is that kind of attention to detail that makes him such a power heading a production. He is more than ably assisted here by brilliant scenic design by Scott Davis, evocative lighting by Noele Stollmack, a vibrant sound design by Barry G. Funderburg and creative scenic design by Scott Davis.

That team has combined efforts to create an evening of troubling theater, the kind of thing that makes you smile before it slams into you, demanding that you think about what you just saw on the stage.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre on tap with another unique and promising production

“A new production from MOT holds great promise

It’s a rare occasion that I ever recommend a play without having seen it first.

As they say, rules are made to be broken. So, here we go.

For only three nights, Milwaukee Opera Theatre will stage “Antiology” at the Boswell Bookstore on Downer Avenue on the East Side of Milwaukee. The show opens Wednesday, Oct. 10 and runs through Friday. Just three performances, which has always been one of the only regrets I have for MOT.

Just as the Milwaukee Ballet should have more performances, so, too should MOT since the company delivers some of the most unique and stunning productions seen in any given season in this city.

“Antiology” appears to be another one, especially since the show is the product of the same team that created the highly-acclaimed “Lucy” that had its premiere at MOT four years ago. That show, about a monkey, was one of the very best I saw that season.

This time the music was written by John Glover and the words by Kelley Rourke. The main performers will be the fantastic baritone Andrew Wilkowske and the equally fantastic Jack Forbes Wilson, Milwaukee’s greatest semi-hidden jewel.

The show is based on the novel, “Eat the Document” by Dana Spiotta. The story is about a pair of radicals from the Vietnam Era, and their lives two decades later. Different people and different paths.

Perhaps I’m a little biased because I knew, and even planned, with two of the most famous women anarchists of the Vietnam era, Bernadine Dohrn and Katharine Ann Power.

Jill Anna Ponasik, the ever inventive artistic director at MOT and the artistic associate at Skylight, is the muse behind this production, and so many other memorable productions. For all of her “aw shucks” attitude she is a woman of formidable talents who should have a larger stage for her works (HELLO SKYLIGHT WHICH IS LOOKING FOR A NEW ARTISTIC DIRECTOR)!!!

The production will feature the following instruments: guitar, piano, dulcimer, autoharp, accordion,ukulele, banjolele, harmonica, banjo, washboard, cello, toy piano, metronomes, saxophone, trombone, recorder and spoons.

All those instruments will combine in a jam to the following songs:

Our Prayer: Beach Boys

God Only Knows: Beach Boys

Good Vibrations: Beach Boys

River Song: Denis Wilson

Eight Miles High: The Byrds

Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: Bob Dylan

Broken Heart: Skip Spence

Maybe this thing will fall flat on its face, and I’ll be embarrassed by this preview. But I’d bet against it and urge everyone to see this three-performance production.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tale is of two neighbors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rep opens season with a glorious “In the Heights”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two primary stories being told here.

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

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

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

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

I will not be the reason

That my family can’t succeed.

I will do what it takes

They’ll have everything they need.

Or all my work, all my life

Everything I’ve sacrificed will have been useless.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cast is, in a word, spectacular.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then there is the rest of this mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All In Productions Grows Up with Formidable Hedwig

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

It starts with a small smile.

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

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

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

Is she a he or is he a she.

And the answer, finally dawning is “YES.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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