Congregation Beth Israel ner Tamid sets “Joseph” headlined by Andrew and Susan Varela

Susan and Andrew Varela will direct and perform in :Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at Congregation Beth Israel ner Tamid Sept. 8.

Summer may be fading and fall may be knocking at the door, but one way to prolong the joy of summer may well be to take a Sunday afternoon and visit a Jewish temple in Glendale.

What you will find at Congregation Beth Israel ner Tamid is a concert staging of the first musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice that was ever publicly produced. 

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” is a spectacular piece of musical theater that’s been staged over 20,000 times around the world. 

This one will be headlined by some of the most talented and magnetic Milwaukee performers you will ever see. 

Andrew VArela and his wife Susan Varela will sing and will also direct the production that is an annual fundraiser for one of the most interesting congregations in the area, Jewish, Christian or any other faith. 

Since moving back to Milwaukee the Varela’s have had a profound impact in the world of theater on our stages.

He is a magnificent singer and actor and has created some of the most memorable roles in recent years – Sweeney Todd at Skylight and The Fantasticks at In Tandem.  In addition he can be seen occasionally hosting The Morning Blend on Channel 4. 

Ms. Varela has a stunning voice and is living proof that her husband “married up.” She also has a refined sense of taste that will be reflected in the staging.

It promises to be an evening of high entertainment and no plug for the event would be complete without a mention of Samantha Sostarich.

A combination of Carol Channing, Ethel Merman and Bette Midler, Ms. Sostarich brings a comedic and sexy delight to whatever she does on a stage.

She is seen far too seldom and her ability to wrap an audience in whatever character she plays is one of the most enjoyable treats in Milwaukee theater.Other cast members include Tim Rebers, Doug Clemons, Matt Zeman, Carrie Gray and Ryan Charles, as Joseph.

The show is at 4 p.m., on Sept. 8 and tickets and information are available by calling Hazzan Stein at (414) 352-7310 or

This will be the perfect way to end a summer Sunday afternoon.

Rep’s Bauman’s 2nd column sparks bitter exchange between two women critics.

Chad Bauman, the Managing Director at The Milwaukee Rep, has created a mini-firestorm with a couple of columns about the state of theater criticism.The first appeared in American Theatre magazine. You can read the column and my response here.

His second piece, appearing on his always interesting blog can be found here.

I’m not going to get involved in a back and forth with Mr. Bauman, even though I think he doesn’t quite make it clear exactly what he thinks. My guess is that he has devalued individual critics in favor of a crowd-sourcing approach to the use of reviews in marketing a particular show. I’m fine. He runs a big theater company and do pretty much what he wants.

But there is a Facebook spat brewing between Madison based Gwendolyn Rice and Milwaukee based Anne Siegel. It started when The Rep distributed a “review response” from a woman named Jessica who complained about a review of a play in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It continued when Ms. Rice responded to Mr. Bauman’s first column.

Here’s the first Facebook thread.





So, we have that dispute between Ms. Rice and Mr. Smith and Mr. Bauman (silent performer.) But things have really gotten heated when Ms. Siegel got into it with Ms. Rice over some perceived slight, of which I am unaware. It’s two women and one of them, Ms. Siegel, trots out the “support a fellow woman” argument as well. Here’s that thread.



Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 10.00.43 AM

I’m not sure how important all of this is, but seeing two critics go after each other is something that catches my attention. Maybe you’ll find it interesting as well. If not, so be it.

Chad Bauman’s column on criticism and a response from a theater critic

Chad Bauman, the smart and experienced Managing Director of the Milwaukee Rep, writes a monthly column for American Theatre magazine. In the latest issue he was asked to look at the state of theatrical criticism in this country. You can read his very thoughtful and incisive column here.

But there is also a response, my response, crafted after over 50 years in the field of journalism. Mine won’t be nearly as detailed or researched as his, but I think it makes some points worth considering.

Mr. Bauman relies heavily on the advent of technology and the changes wrought in the getting the word out about the work of a particular theater company and the weakening of reliance of theater criticism. And nobody would disagree.

He wrote:

“In a recent survey sent to our single ticket buyers at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, we asked patrons what drove their purchasing decisions, and their responses mirrored my own hotel searches. First and foremost, patrons must be interested in the subject matter or premise of the play. Next, they check with friends and family to get recommendations, and then consider the ticket price. Only after all that do patrons report that a professional review will influence their purchasing decision. Just a decade ago, I ran a similar market study while at Arena Stage, with patrons reporting that the primary purchasing decision rested on the review of the Washington Post. So what’s happened in the intervening years?”

All you have to do is look at, as he does, the incredible shrinking role of newspapers in the United States today. Let me offer some context, however.

When I started in newspapers we used hot type, articles were written and marked up on paper and then hand carried to the layout floor before being sent to the printers.

Then came computers, and everyone wailed how it was going to ruin journalism. I remember those first classes that were supposed to teach us how to use the new technology.

Now we have the Internet and smartphones and laptops and social media. Newspapers have been decimated. But, and this is an important but, journalism has survived.

All we have here is a sea change in the types of delivery of news and feature stories and all the other stuff that has made newspapers vital to life. The tenets of journalism haven’t changed.

A theater critic is not an artist. A theater critic is a journalist. No different, really, than any other journalist.

Think, if you will, of a political columnist working for, say, The New York Times or Washington Post, both newspapers that are thriving.

The columnist watches events then tries to figure out the truth of them,measured against a standard defined by the columnist by experience and time. Then the columnist writes her opinion of those events.

So, too, with the theater critic.

Ben Brantley, for more than two decades the chief theater critic for The Times, is arguably the most influential critic in the world. He is also a sort-of friend and when I began to review plays, he gave me 10 pieces of advice. Numbers 1 and 10 were the same.

“Never forget who you are writing for,” he said. “It is for the people who go, or may go, to see plays.”

An arts critic, no matter what the subject, treats her work as an individual thing. A sportswriter tries to represent all the fans. A critic represents nobody but herself. Hopefully, a serious critic has some standards for success against which any production is measured.

But a real critic cares almost nothing about any reaction to a review.

I have been involved in any number of controversial journalism endeavors over the years and have never – ever – been overly concerned about how readers or subjects react to something I’ve done.

If an egregious error has been made, I’m good with talking about it. But other than that, the review is out there, it’s what I think, and a reader can choose to believe it or not.

I have heard athletes say that they never read stories about their team. I have heard actors say they never read reviews. I think both of those reactions are silly. If you are devoted to your craft,  you want as much input as possible, and it’s up to you to determine if it has anything of value.

One of the big differences between covering a sports team and a play, of course, is that with a score, you can determine which team wins and which team loses. Impossible in the theater.

Every time I walk into a theater I hope it’s going to be a play that knocks my socks off. I have things that I think are important to a play, and the biggest is that I want to get moved – to laugh, to cry, to think, to fear, to feel something.

When that doesn’t happen, I can’t be positive about any production. When it does, there is a glow to a review.

I think Mr. Bauman raises a number of good points, especially in the way theater companies have changed their outreach to audiences and potential audiences.

But good journalism isn’t going away anytime soon. There will always be a place for serious theater criticism, it’s just that you won’t get ink stains on your fingers when you read it.


Good Sex! Bad Sex! Charles Isherwood! Phony Awards!


Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s get to the point.

Watching and seeing and talking about sex is just about everywhere in our world. And the world of live theater is no exception, although sex and intimacy on stage has always proved problematic for the world of theater.

This season we have seen two examples of sex and intimacy on stages in Milwaukee and nothing could be more dramatically different than the two shows. And examining them shines a light on how theater deals with these scenes. And it also kind of points to how damaging a sense of political correctness can be to the world of theater.

The first example is the production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune,” staged in September at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre under the direction of Mary MacDonald Kerr. The show featured Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning as a couple of misfits who hook up. There was plenty of intimacy and even some nudity.

Marcella Kearns and Todd Denning at Chamber Theatre

And the scenes resounded with genuine emotion, especially for anyone who is even moderately familiar with real sexual activity. There was some touching, some awkwardness, a little humor and some real satisfaction, all the stuff that normally accompanies sex.

It was on the stage but it seemed like the real stuff.

The contrasting production was “Sex With Strangers,” staged in October by Renaissance Theaterworks, under the direction of Mallory Metoxen. The show contained a number of sexually charged scenes between Marti Gobel and Nick Narcisi – the older woman, younger man dynamic.

Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel star inb Sex with Strangers.

Renaissance hired accomplished  fight choreographer Christopher Elst as the intimacy choreographer” and also got help from Tonia Sina, the founder and President of Intimacy Directors International.

The idea behind this concept is to strictly choreograph intimate moments, much as fights are choreographed. The whole thing was born of the best of intentions – avoiding the kind of sexual harassment or romantic entanglements that happen in the theater world.

“Keeping actors safe” has become a byword and a rallying cry, and it’s a worthy sentiment and goal. Just as productions are careful not to let an actor be burned by a light, crushed by a piece of scenery or cut during a swordfight, actors should be safe when they kiss or rub or have sex with each other.

The problem arose, in the Renaissance production, when it became apparent that the sexual contact was boring. It was like watching two manikins be put through their caressing paces.

Ms. Gobel is a passionate actor, full of emotional skills. Mr. Narcisi, although new tome, is most likely equally able, so this is not their fault.

And I don’t think the fault lies with Mr. Elst.

Ms. Metoxen is a brilliant young director but part of the task of a director is to recognize what happens on the stage through the eyes of the audience. I’d be willing to bet that she saw that these scenes of passion were missing something – passion – but was burdened by the political correctness of intimacy choreography.

I’m not saying that intimacy choreography should not be part of a production. But I am saying that it’s harder than it looks and unless it’s done well, the audience becomes lost amid passion that is vacant of any heat.

Bogus Awards

I am a firm believer that theater, especially regional theater, is not a competitive sport, yet lots of people still think that awards are an important element and an indicator of the vibrancy of a local theater scene.

One of the awards programs is sponsored by Broadway World, a weekly theater roundup site that has a main edition and then a local one for 130 regions in the country. There is usually some interesting stuff on the site, including reviews by such luminaries by the brilliant Charles Isherwood, who got sacked by the New York Times for no apparent reason.

Broadway World is now sending out emails and other promotions of the voting for the Broadway World annual local awards. They have released the results so far. A glance through the nominees clearly shows how phony this whole thing is.

Let’s take a look at the “Best Actor in a Play” category.

Running away with the voting is Adam Qutaishat, (All In Productions) followed closely by Zach Sharrock (Lake County Playhouse) and Mark Neufang (SummerStage of Delafield).

I don’t know the top three – all young community theater actors –  but they are crushing seven Equity actors, all of who could be ranked as world class performers with years of training and experience behind them. The seven are Anthony Crivello (The Rep), James Ridge (APT), Jim DeVita (APT), Di’Monte Henning (Milwaukee Chamber Theatre), Matt Zambrano (The Rep), Marcus Truschinski (APT) and Reese Madigan (Next Act.

Take a look at the Best Actress in a Play voting results.

Beth Perry (Waukesha Civic Theatre), Cathy Marshall (Sunset Playhouse) and Ruth Arnell (Waukesha Civic Theatre) are running away with it. They are beating a dozen highly trained and experienced women. Marcee Doherty-Elst (Renaissance) Susan Varela (MCT), Carrie Hitchcock (Next Act), Kelly Doherty (Next Act), Linda Stephens (The Rep), Hollis Resnik (The Rep), Kelsey Brennan (APT), Karen Estrada (Next Act) and Janie Brookshire).

Don’t even get me started on the “Best Play” category features “Disgraced” by Ayad Akhtar at The Rep, trailing productions from Waukesha Civic, Sunset, SummerStage, Luminous, and All In productions. Disgraced, by the way, won The Pulitzer Prize.

I don’t mean to demean any of the people in these categories, but they are illustrative of the perils of trying to do this in a place like Milwaukee or Wisconsin. These awards are obviously not based on any kind of merit, but rather which organization can get its fans out to vote.

It’s silly to try and have a theater awards show in Milwaukee, mainly because it’s virtually impossible to get a panel of judges who could make informed decisions. Generally, people who go to play in Milwaukee go to one, or maybe two, theaters. You can’t possibly get a vote that means anything from people who don’t see all (or even most) of the nominees.

I’d like to see organizations that want to have awards work harder to generate support and additional funding for local theater organizations. That would mean a hell of a lot more than some award that doesn’t mean anything.


American Players Theatre announces exciting schedule for next season

SPRING GREEN, WIS: American Players Theatre (APT) is excited to announce its 39th summer season, which will run June 9 to October 14, 2018. In APT’s flagship outdoor amphitheater, William Shakespeare will bookend the Hill season with As You Like It and Measure for Measure. Also playing on the Hill: Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday, George Farquhar’s restoration comedy The Recruiting Officer and George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

The 201-seat indoor Touchstone Theatre will host: Exit the King by Eugéne Ionesco, Blood Knot by Athol Fugard and Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker (a play featuring prisoners putting on a production of The Recruiting Officer). The 2018 shoulder season opening in November will feature John Morogiello’s Engaging Shaw.

 In advance of the 2017 season, APT launched an $8 million capital campaign, titled The Next Great Stage campaign, to rebuild the Hill Theatre stage, lobby and backstage area. As of the close of the season, APT is thrilled to announce that the $8 million fundraising goal has been met, and the construction project is fully funded.

Artistic Director Brenda DeVita said, “We are so grateful to every single person who helped us build our beautiful new stage. The past 12 months have been absolutely wild, and this summer we were able to produce plays that would just not have been possible for us in the past. The flexibility it gives us – the creativity it inspires – can only continue to make the experience richer for our patrons and our artists. The plan for 2018 is to take what we’ve learned and hand it over to a group of directors who, for the most part, didn’t direct on the Hill last season. And, you know, just see what new magic they come up with. I can’t wait see where their vision takes us, and I can’t wait to direct on the Hill for the first time myself.”

The 2018 season schedule will be available in early January. Tickets will go on sale to returning patrons on March 5 at 7:00 am online at, and at 10:00 am via the APT Box Office by phone at 608-588-2361.

The 2018 Season, June 9 – October 14, 2018



As You Like It By William Shakespeare

Directed by James Bohnen

Two of Shakespeare’s favorite devices – cross-dressing and running away to the woods– meet in glorious fashion in As You Like It. Rosalind and Celia are best friends and cousins. But when Celia’s father, the Duke, begins to see Rosalind as a threat to his daughter’s future prosperity, the two women don disguises (with Rosalind pretending to be a boy named Ganymede) and head to the Forest of Arden before Rosalind can be banished. Meanwhile, Orlando, a young gentleman who had previously fallen in love with Rosalind, is similarly threatened by his own brother and also flees to the Forest. There, he meets “Ganymede,” who promises to teach him how to woo Rosalind. All that plus a band of merry woods-dwelling misfits make for a great Shakespearean comedy.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques, Melisa Pereyra as Rosalind and Marcus Truschinski as Touchstone.

Born Yesterday By Garson Kanin

Directed by Brenda DeVita

Shady businessman Harry Brock heads to Washington with his ex-showgirl girlfriend Billie Dawn in an attempt to shift the law to his side. When Brock decides that Billie is too unrefined to mix with the DC political set, he hires journalist Paul Verrall to make her appear more intelligent. But a little education can go a long way, and Billie may be smarter than her “friends” give her credit for. A hilarious and timely send up of politics and perceptions.

Featuring: David Daniel as Harry Brock and Colleen Madden as Billie Dawn.

The Recruiting Officer Written by George Farquhar

Directed by William Brown

Scoundrels are put on notice and women (literally) wear the pants in this uproarious restoration comedy. Recruiting officers travel from port to port wooing men into service at sea, and women into their beds. Two such men, Worthy and Plume, land in Shrewsbury each in love with a woman who lives there. Worthy has asked Melinda to be his mistress – an offer that she declined. Meanwhile, Plume is in love with Melinda’s cousin Silvia. But Silvia, grieving her brother’s recent death, disguises herself as a man to get away for a while, throwing everyone’s plans into comedic chaos.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan as Silvia, Nate Burger as Plume and Marcus Truschinski as Brazen.

Heartbreak House Written by George Bernard Shaw

Adapted by Aaron Posner Directed by Aaron Posner

Sweet Ellie Dunn has been invited to a party along with her father and fiancé at the home of the eccentric Captain Shotover, where he lives with his bohemian daughter Hesione and her husband Hector. But it soon comes to light that Ellie has eyes for another man. Surprises hit one after the other, when it turns out Ellie’s “true love” is not who he appeared to be, Shotover’s other daughter, Ariadne, shows up at the party after a 23-year absence, and the evening is peppered with burglars and bomb scares. A rich Shavian comedy about human folly and the charming and self-absorbed gentry.

Featuring: Tracy Michelle Arnold as Hesione, Jim DeVita as Hector and Colleen Madden as Ariadne.

Measure for Measure Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Risa Brainin

The city of Vienna is rife with vice, and good Duke Vincentio wants to put a stop to it. So in hopes that a new leader will change the people’s wicked ways, he steps down and appoints his trusted minister Angelo to rule in his place. But as Angelo assumes control of the city, his hunger for power grows, and he reinstates strict morality laws with deadly penalties. Claudio, the first to feel the bite of these laws, calls upon his sister Isabella, an aspiring nun, to help prove his innocence. But when Isabella approaches Angelo and appeals to his better nature, she finds he doesn’t have one, and must choose between her brother and her virtue.


Featuring: Melisa Pereyra as Isabella and Marcus Truschinski as Angelo. 


Blood Knot By Athol Fugard

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Two brothers live a quiet, strained existence in a tiny house in apartheid South Africa. Morris, who has very fair skin, and has in the past passed as white, has recently returned to Port Elizabeth and is living with his brother Zachariah, who works long, painful hours as a sentry at the gate of a whites-only park. Despite Morris’ constant presence, Zach is lonely for the company of a woman, so Morris suggests he find a pen pal. When it turns out Zach’s pen pal is a white woman, the brothers’ desperation exposes the complex angles of their relationship in this powerful play by the man who wrote The Island (produced at APT in 2015) and Exits and Entrances (at APT in 2010).

Featuring: Jim DeVita as Morris and Gavin Lawrence as Zachariah.


Exit the King By Eugène Ionesco

Translated by Neil Armfield & Geoffrey Rush

Directed by Kenneth Albers

An absurdist masterpiece in the Touchstone Theatre. A fading ruler at the helm of a world in decline, King Berenger is having some trouble accepting his fate. His first wife, Marguerite, is intent on forcing him to face his mortality, while his second wife, Marie, wants to shield him from the bad news. All the while an eccentric mix of servants weigh in from the sidelines, with varying degrees of helpfulness. A very funny and deeply moving look at the end of it all.

Featuring: James Ridge as King Berenger.


Our Country’s Good By Timberlake Wertenbaker

Adapted from the novel “The Playmaker” by Thomas Keneally

Directed by Tyne Rafaeli

A group of soldiers and criminals have been sent to Australia as part of a recently created penal colony. The conditions are bad all around, as food is scarce for both jailor and jailed, and the punishment for theft is dire. To raise morale (and in hopes of being noticed by the governor), Lieutenant Ralph Clark decides to stage a production of

Farquhar’s comedy The Recruiting Officer, cast with inmates. But Ralph has his hands full with this group of actors, who are sometimes loveable, sometimes unscrupulous, and always perfectly human. Offering funny and candid conversations about incarceration, sex and the redemptive power of art, this play pairs particularly well with The Recruiting Officer. Note: contains strong language and adult themes.

Featuring: Kelsey Brennan and Nate Burger (roles TBA).

Opening in November

Engaging Shaw By John Morogiello

With excerpts from Bernard Shaw

Directed by David Frank

George Bernard Shaw is well known for his writing, wit and commitment to social justice. But in his time, he was also known for being an unrepentant philanderer. His aversion to marriage was so strong that he clung to it even in the face of the clever and charismatic Charlotte Payne-Townshend, who is clearly more than a match for him.

Urged on by their friends Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the two would-be lovers trade witty barbs as they form a close friendship. The question at the center of this charming romantic comedy is whether or not they’ll ever admit how close that friendship is.

Featuring: Colleen Madden as Charlotte Payne-Townshend and James Ridge as George Bernard Shaw.


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Skylight hires Ponasik in the hope it can expand its traditional audience

Skylight Music Theatre has made a very interesting announcement with the appointment of Jill Anna Ponasik as Artistic Associate.

Ponasik, who has  roots in the world of opera – although she has clearly expanded what opera means in Milwaukee – will join Ray Jivoff, the new Artistic Director at Skylight, artist who has roots in musical theatre.
It should be an interesting pairing and may well expand the audience for Skylight.
Opera fans in Milwaukee frequently sneer at Skylight and it’s productions that the hard-core opera fans regard as “opera light.” These fans have stayed away in droves, but the combination of Jivoff and Ponasik may well prove to have broader appeal. Both have established solid reputations in Milwaukee and will surely tap into that for artistic decisions.
I wouldn’t want to bet against this pairing bri
Here’s the release from Skylight.
Milwaukee, Wis. (September 1, 2017) – Skylight Music Theatre Artistic Director Ray Jivoff today announced that Jill Anna Ponasik will join Skylight as Artistic Associate effective Sept. 5, 2017.
Ponasik will continue her role as producing artistic director of Milwaukee Opera Theatre, a company she has guided since 2009. In her part-time position as Skylight artistic associate, she will work closely with Jivoff and Skylight staff to develop and implement Skylight’s strategic, artistic and educational programming and priorities.
“Jill Anna has a long history with Skylight as a director, performer and supporter, and we are thrilled that she will officially be part of our company,” said Jivoff. “She has such a deep passion and knowledge of opera and music theatre and is respected and loved in this community. On a personal level, I am delighted to welcome my dear friend and colleague.”
Ponasik’s prior relationship with Skylight includes directing Tosca (2015) and Cinderella (2014), producing a Skylight cabaret called The One Stop Opera Shop (2013), performing in La Boheme(2008) and Pirates of Penzance (2009) and working on Skylight’s Standard Songbook school touring show as both a performer (2008) and assistant director (2009).
In more than 30 productions at Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT), Ponasik has collaborated with community partners in dance, theatre and music to expand access to opera and support artists and their work in lyric theatre.
“Ever since I saw Man of La Mancha as a kid at the old Skylight space, I’ve been hooked on the Skylight,” said Ponasik, referring to the 1990 production that ran in Skylight’s old theatre on Jefferson Street, housed in a converted tire garage. “I didn’t recognize its uniqueness until I left Milwaukee. I had thought it was normal for a city to have a company that performs operas, cabarets and musicals. I am thrilled to join the Skylight staff and cannot wait to work with Ray,” she said.
Ponasik fills the artistic staff position left vacant when Jivoff was named artistic director in March 2017.
Collaboration on The Tales of Hoffmann
Jivoff also announced that MOT will collaborate with Skylight on The Tales of Hoffmann, to be directed by Ponasik, and presented March 16-29, 2018 in the Cabot Theatre.  The partnership will feature a new libretto/adaptation by MOT’s Danny Brylow, which will be developed in collaboration with opera students at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, where Ponasik will be part of the adjunct faculty for the 2017-18 year. Ponasik describes the imaginative new adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann as a kinetic retelling made specifically for the Cabot Theatre.
Skylight will partner with MOT on their Voice Labs program, a free, intimate, educational performing opportunity for both professional and avocational opera and music theatre singers. Ponasik said she expects to tap into Voice Labs as part of the development process of the new version of The Tales of Hoffmann.
“Jill Anna is an exceptionally creative and joyful artist who inspires and motivates everyone around her,” said Jack R. Lemmon, Skylight’s executive director. “Having her be an official part of our exceptional existing team of artists translates into more good news for Skylight. We continue to strengthen and grow both financially and artistically as we near our 60th birthday. I can’t wait to see what Ray and Jill Anna come up with next!”
About Jill Anna Ponasik
As producing artistic director of Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT), Jill Anna Ponasik revels in the opportunity to direct, perform, program, and support artists and their work. She has worked on more than 30 MOT productions, including A Chorus Line, presented last month; a one-night-only version of 1776 featuring 26 performers in Turner Hall in 2016; a percussion playground version ofThe Mikado (2015 and 2017) and Zie Magic Flute, adapted by Danny Brylow and winner of a 2017 Footlights Award. Ponasik has been actively engaged in working with community partners in dance, theatre, and music to generate new work and create innovative productions of existing work that aim to transform the landscape of contemporary lyric theatre – with a special emphasis on artists who live and work in the Milwaukee area.
Projects have included 26 – a fantasy inspired by Italian songs and arias, a toy-theatre production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, Jason Powell’s comic opera Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, Dominic Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, Nautilus Music-Theatre’s Meditations on Arion, the tango-opera Maria de Buenos Aires, a classroom Candide, The Eurydice Project – a three-year collaboration with Carroll University, the rock recital Guns N’ Rosenkavalier, the world premiere of Kamran Ince’s Judgment of Midas, Walton and Sitwell’s Façade, and a L’Enfant et les Sortiléges that was built out of trash.
Ponasik has maintained a commitment to new work, fresh approaches to the classics, and working with excellent, innovative companies throughout her career. As a performer, she has appeared in productions with Nautilus Music-Theater, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, St Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera, Skylight Music Theatre, VocalEssence, Theatre Latte Da, Skylark Opera, Ohio Light Opera, Bronx Opera, New Dramatists, Alchemist Theatre, and Milwaukee Opera Theatre among others. As a director and collaborator she has worked with Milwaukee arts groups, including Renaissance Theatreworks, In Tandem Theatre, and Wild Space Dance Company. Ponasik has received awards from The Metropolitan National Council Auditions, The Schubert Club of St. Paul, Milwaukee’s Civic Music Association and the Wisconsin and Minnesota chapters of NATS. She holds degrees from the University of Minnesota and the Rice University Shepherd School of Music.

Guide to Milwaukee theater productions opening in September

The Milwaukee Theater scene begins to heat up in September with a number of exciting productions scheduled to hit the boards.

There’s a lot to choose from and this guide may be helpful. Let’s get off to a good start for what we all hope will be a wonderful season. 

“Next to Normal”
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey and music by Tom Kitt.
All In Productions (performance at Next Act Theatre)
September 7-16

The rock musical is the story of a woman with bipolar disorder who struggles on a daily basis and the impact it has on her family. It’s a moving story, told so well it was nominated for 11 Tony awards and won 3. All In has a reputation for doing  small, serious show with great skill. “The Last Five Years,” “The Shape of Things,” and “Dogfight” were all memorable productions and the potential is for this company to deliver again. Tim Backes directs and Julie Johnson is Music Director.

By Stephen Temperley
The Rep
September 10-November 5

Florence Foster Jenkins came alive for millions of people in the Oscar-nominated movie of the same name with Meryl Streep in the title role.It’s the story of a wealthy New York socialite who was convinced she could sing, saying, “people may say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.” With a voice like scratching on a blackboard, she gave a series of off-key concerts, all leading up to an appearance at Carnegie Hall. Any show with Milwaukee’s Jack Forbes Wilson in it is always a great evening at the theater. The story may be a bit shopworn, but great performances can make it a good night for dinner and a show in the Stackner Cabaret.

“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”
By Terrence McNally
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
September 20-October 15

A great American play about two middle aged people who end up in bed one night.. He’s a short order cook and she’s a waitress who is overweight and feels unattractive. Johnny falls hard for her, but she’s wary. The two take small and hesitant steps toward each other. The fabulous Mary McDonald Kerr directs two of Milwaukee’s best, Todd Denning and Marcella Kearns.

“Guys and Dolls”
Music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows.
The Rep
September 19-October 29

Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements is a magician with a big musical, and they don’t come much bigger, or better, than this almost 80-year old classic full of Damon Runyon characters. With songs like “Luck by a Lady,” “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “A Bushel and a Peck” it invites audiences to sing along. One of Milwaukee’s favorites, Kelley Faulkner is one of the dolls in this tale of love, luck and a glance at the underworld  side of life.  The Rep opens and closes its Quadracci season with two classics, “Guys and Dolls” and “Our Town.”

“The Who and The What”
By Ayad Akhtar
The Rep
September 27-November 5

Milwaukee’s own Pulitzer Prize winning playwright is back with a story about family and faith and the sometimes conflicting merger of the two. Here’s part of Charles Isherwood’s review in the New York Times: “considers the itchy frictions that emerge when religious belief and contemporary life rub up against each other, as they do for the family at the center of the play, a Pakistani immigrant and his two grown daughters.” Rep Artistic Associate May Adrales will direct.

“Silent Sky”
By Lauren Gunderson
Next Act Theatre
September 28-October 22

The first of two plays by Gunderson, one of the brightest and most successful young women playwrights in the country. The story in this one is about women pioneers at Harvard who map the stars. Talk about a killer cast – this one includes Deborah Staples, Karen Estrada, Reese Madigan, Carrie Hitchcock and Kelly Doherty. In Milwaukee, it doesn’t get much better than that.


Mike Fischer’s review of Three Sisters at APT

Kelsey Brennan, Rebecca Hurd and Laura Rook at APT.

As promised, I want to bring other news about theater to readers, and that includes the reviews from Mike Fischer in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

He’s the best in this state, and anyone interested in theater should read him regularly.

Here’s his look at “Three Sisters,” the Chekov play in repertory at American Players Theatre.

8 Milwaukee productions I’m really looking forward to this season

Jill Anna Ponasik continues to redefine what opera means.

The 2017-18 theater season is underway in Milwaukee and I’ve been looking at my schedule with great anticipation.

And I confess that there are some plays that jump to the top of my list, anxious to see them and to hope that they create magic. Here, in no particular order, are 8 plays I can hardly wait to see this season.

Ana Sokolovic is a unique composer

“Svadba-Wedding” by Ana Sokolovic´
Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Wild Space Dance Company
May, 2018

The last time these two companies got together in 2016, they created absolute magic with “Song of the Uproar.” It was a blending of theater, dance and music that you rarely see on stage in Milwaukee. Unique and creative don’t begin to describe that night of theater. This time around the little known a capella piece featuring six women holds promise for the kind of special night out that makes the theater scene so good in this town. It’s also another step in Jill Anna Ponasik’s campaign to redefine what opera is. Daring doesn’t begin to describe her vision.




Nick Narcisi and Marti Gobel will heat things up at Renaissance

“Sex with Strangers” by Laura Eason
Renaissance Theaterworks
October 20-November 12

Two of my favorite women in Milwaukee theater team up for this story. Mallory Metoxen directs the always spectacular Marti Gobel and Nick Narcisi. When frustrated forty-ish novelist, Olivia, meets fast-talking, twenty-something, blogger and memoirist, Ethan – known more for his sexual prowess than his prose – she worries that she will become just another chapter in his little black book. Their funny and passionate union blurs the lines between rewrites, romance and royalties – proving you can’t judge a book by its author. Metoxen is one of the most talented and spirited women directors in the city.



Deborah Staples heads a sparkling cast at Next Act

“Silent Sky” and “I and You,” both by Laura Gunderson
Next Act Theatre
September28-October 22 and April 5029

Gunderson is one of the most popular young playwrights in the country and last season Next Act killed her show “The taming.” This year the company stages two very different works from her. And Sky has an absolutely killer cast of women actors, including Deborah Staples, Karen Estrada, Kelly Doherty and Carrie Hitchcock. Reese Madison holds up the male end of the spectrum.


The young boy at the heart of Antartica, WI at First Stage

“Antartica, WI” by Finegan Kruckemeyer
First Stage
April 6-April 22

Two years ago, the Australian playwright delivered “The Snow” under a commission from First Stage, and it was absolutely brilliant. Now he’s back with another commissioned work. From the First Stage description: “In Milwaukee there lives a very special young man. One who sees more deeply than others. He sees so much that he loves in his city, but he also sees the fractures. And when this special boy begins to see icebergs floating into Milwaukee, he alone must find a way to help his community navigate through the dangerous waters. From internationally recognized playwright This contemporary folk tale is inspired by conversations with our community.”


Dale Gutzman brings Shakespeare together with Cole Porter

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare and Cole Porter
Off the Wall Theatre
October 19-29

Every year Dale Gutzman swings for the fences with a couple of productions and marrying Dream with songs from Cole Porter seems like it has the potential to clear the bases. As he describres it: “In the Still of the Night,” fairies fight, lovers love and Man makes an ass of himself.” Plus, the show features the creative and tantalizing David Flores as Puck.



Laura Gordon will play the Stage Manager in Our Town at The Rep

“Our Town” by Thornton Wildler
The Rep
April 10-May 13

This one is a classic, one of the greatest of all American plays. It marks the Quadracci debut of Brent Hazelton as director and he deserves the step up. It will also feature the uber-remarkable Laura Gordon in the role of the Stage Manager, a role normally played by a man.



Andrew Varela dazzled as Sweeney Todd and will play The Narrator at In Tandem

“The Fantasticks” by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt
In Tandem Theatre
April 26-May 20

I’m torn here about a play I’ve seen over 100 times, easily. It’s dated, but still a wonderful romantic story with great songs. It’s also going to be a chance to see Andrew Varela in the role of the Narrator. He was dazzling in “Sweeney Todd” at Skylight last year. But the show may be reaching the end of its appeal, even to me. I honestly think that In Tandem shines brilliantly when it doesn’t get wrapped up in silliness. “The Glass Menagerie,” “Any Given Monday,” “Burying the Bones” and “The Nightmare Room” have always made it on to my best plays of the year lists.



Deathtrap brings Michael Cotey home and opens theater season.

It’s a tradition that Milwaukee Chamber Theatre opens the theatrical season in Milwaukee and that tradition gets underway August 11 at the Broadway Theatre Center.

The production is the Ira Levin play, Deathtrap, about a blocked playwright who finds a play that he figures he can pass off as his own if he just commits a little murder.

It’s a wonderful play and marks the return of Michael Cotey, the uber-talented actor/director who founded Youngblood Theater and is currently in the MFA program at Northwestern University.

Here’s a link to information about the production. Let’s get the season going.