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.

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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.

Rep christens Stackner with Memorable “Songs for nobodies”

Bethany Thomas is captivating in “Songs for nobodies” at The Stackner.

The Stackner Cabaret at the Milwaukee Rep has been the scene of an abundance of funny shows with songs with simple melodies and silly lyrics.

Think the “Doyle and Debbie Show” and “Guys on Ice” and “Gutenberg! The Musical.”

But the Stackner has been beautifully remodeled (with a small issue with sight lines for the second row in the riser behind the main floor).

And they’ve opened the new place with one of the most sophisticated and moving shows ever in the cabaret.  

Indeed, even though the song wasn’t in the production of “Songs for nobodies,” I couldn’t help but think of one of the greatest jazz songs of all time, Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”

The production of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s pean to five wonderful singers and her examination of what it means to be a nobody, rides the wings of Bethany Thomas into the skies of glorious drama and music.

Ms. Thomas is a Chicago based actor and singer and her work here is both rare and powerful. To see someone command a stage like Ms. Thomas is a magnetic performer who takes on a very difficult challenge with the kind of magic that had a Thursday night audience in a special kind of rapture.

The story features five women, Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas, all famous and accomplished. Each singer is paired with a “nobody,” and Ms. Thomas, playing all parts, tells the story of a song sung for each of the ladies.

These are not impersonations, by Ms. Thomas. Rather, under the musical direction of Abdul Hamid and the Direction of Laura Braza, she chillingly captures the essence of five very different vocalists.

In addition, this is a show that reeks with intelligence.

For example, when doing Edith Piaf, it could be expected that we would hear “La Vie en Rose,” her most famous song. Instead we hear both “L’Accordéoniste” and a moving rendition of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien,” a song everyone will recognize and which captures the memory of a daughter whose father was saved from the death camp at Dachau by a chance encounter with Ms. Piaf.  

Ms. Thomas plays both characters in each scene: A seamstress to Ms. Garland; an usher and backup singer to Ms. Cline; the daughter in the Ms. Piaf scene; a rookie reporter to Ms. Holliday and an Irish nanny on the Aristotle Onassis yacht to Ms. Callas.

Each story is compelling, filled with humor and the pathos of the ups and downs of lives filled with both joys and sorrows, the expected and the surprising.

But more than anything there is the music and, again, Ms. Thomas doesn’t even try to be a mimic. Instead she flashes both musical and theatrical genius to capture the quirks and identifiers of each voice.

Ms. Garland was a singer who treated each song as an athletic contest and she attacked with vigor. She was noted for throwing all of her enthusiasm into a song and and letting it jump around inside her throat. The diaphragm was not a factor in her performance. Ms. Thomas go the sound and with her mouth forming a huge “O” on the long vowels it was perfect. She dripped with the pain of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer classic.

Then came Ms. Cline who was noted for her smooth and emotional vocal stylings. She had an alto sound that was punctuated by a kind of hiccup that added to the emotional wallop of her songs. Ms. Thomas brought all of it to the Willie Nelson classic, “Crazy.” (A side note is that Mr. Nelson wrote “Crazy.” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and ”Night Life” in the same week. )

Then came the Ms. Piaf songs, and featured a performance with the power and passion of the French chanteuse. Ms. Piaf was noted for wringing every moment of emotion out of her songs, and Ms. Thomas captured both the power and mournful passion of the singer.

Ms. Holiday for whom music was a message. Her style was marked by pitch variance in each performance, designed to keep listeners leaning forward waiting for what was coming next. She had a particular phrasing that drew vowel sounds out like a rubber band being stretched to almost the breaking point.

And finally, there was Ms. Callas. This was a profound demonstration of the variety of Ms. Thomas’ skills. She sang the heartbreaking area “Vissi D’Arte” from Puccini’s Tosca. Ms. Thomas captured the mezzo power and color that belonged to Ms. Callas and watching her slide around a stage like the most accomplished diva was riveting.

“Songs for nobodies” is a surprising evening and the delivers the kind of enchantment and a musical mojo that is a fitting match for the loveliness of the new Stackner.

Production Credits: Director, Laura Braza; Music Director, Abdul Hamid Royal;Scenic Designer, Michelle Lilly; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tacoma; Lighting Designer, Jared Gooding; Sound Designer, Erin Paige; Dialect Coach, Clare Arena Haden; Casting Director, Frank Honts; New York Casting, Dale Brown; Stage Manager, Rebekah Heusel; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.

 

Chamber’s Sherlock is Less than the Sum of It’s Parts

Rick Pendzich, Kay Allmand and Brian J. Gill in Sherlock Holmes comedy at Chamber Theatre. (photo by Paul Ruffalo

If you think about it, any theatrical production can pretty easily be divided into five distinct parts that all end up trying to work together.

First you have the cast, secondly you have the director, thirdly you have the designers (set, sound, lights, costumes, props), stage management and, finally, the play.

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre has opened the Milwaukee theater season by staging “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of The Jersey Lily.”

It’s a nice thing to see on a summer night, but unfortunately you will only see four fifths of a great experience.

This production is bedeviled by the singular thing that is impossible to overcome – the play itself.

Katie Forgette has written a mystery/comedy about Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde, a pairing with immense possibility. But she traps the troupe of wonderful actors in a shallow ditty rather than a deep and fascinating melding of two very special characters.

The backstory involves the theft of secret love letters, allegedly written by Lillie Langtry (Kady Allmand)  to a member of the English royal family. She is being blackmailed for a huge ransom but doesn’t know who is doing the blackmailing.

She and Oscar Wilde (Rick Pendzich) decide to take the case to Sherlock Holmes (Brian J. Gill) who, with Dr. Watson (Ryan Schabach) by his side, hears her out.

So, we have now established the mystery that needs to be solved. And therein lies the rub.

In Ms. Forgette’s play, everything comes too easy.

Holmes figures all sorts of stuff out early and with almost no help from Watson, flying in the face of the Sherlock Holmes books. Watson here is reduced to a sniveling, star-struck groom to be. There is none of the interplay between the two of them that help make all these stories so interesting.

Ms. Forgette has drawn characters that are almost without substance. The evil Professor Moriarty (Matt Daniels) and Mr. Smythe and Abdul Karim (both played by Jesse  Bharmrah) are created as caricatures and despite earnest efforts by Mr. Daniels and Mr. Bharmrah, they remain without the kind of substance the two conspirators need.

Perhaps the most fully developed characters both belong to Karen Estrada, one of the best comic actors in this city. She plays the housekeeper Mrs. Tory and the third conspirator, Mrs. Glynn with the kind of alomb we expect from her.

Ms. Allmand gives us a Lillie that has the kind of ethereal beauty, socialite bearing and accomplished actor that match the real life character. She does a lot with this little script and casts a smashing shadow over the proceedings.

Mr. Gill is smooth and confident as Sherlock, but his part is a difficult one to draw. Everything comes too easy for this Sherlock and there is not much more Mr. Gill could have done to make this sleuth more sleuth-like.

Finally, Mr. Pendzich, who has long been one of my absolute favorites, draws a Wilde who captures all of the quirks of the real character. Ms. Forgette wisely uses many of the witticisms from the real Wilde, but stops short of exploring more of his clever observance of mankind and his surroundings.

Mr. Pendzich is an absolute marvel of the well-turned eye, the most effective pause and the physical stylings that fit so well into any comedy.

Having said all that, and realizing that the whole thing is less than the sum of its parts, it’s still an evening of theater that can happily pass a couple of hours away on a warm summer night.

 

Funny doesn’t begin to describe “Urinetown” at Skylight

Rachel Zientek leads her pack of rebels in “Urinetown.”

If you want a love story for the ages, complete with music and crazy dresses and hats, you could easily have become wrapped up in The Royal Wedding.

But a wiser, and far less serious choice for a rollicking good time, would have been to see the musical “Urinetown” that opened at Skylight Friday night.

Harry and Meghan? Give me Bobby Strong and Hope Cladwell. Prince Charles the grumpy father? Nope, give me the runhibited John Strong. How about that darling little Princess Charlotte. Give me Little Sally just a cute and a whole lot sexier. And, you want Fergie with a little bit of an edge, take Penelope Pennywise, all edge and sharpened to a razor.

And finally, The Queen Mother, complete with rigid control and seemingly only caring about her family and not giving a hoot for the rest of humanity. Instead I’ll take the nasty and controlling Caldwell B. Cladwell.

Just a little over a year ago Skylight named Ray Jivoff as the Artistic Director to replace the recently resigned and adventurous Viswa Subbaraman. At the time Mr. Jivoff talked about his vision for Skylight.

“Next season, even the more thought-provoking shows will have a comic, fun element to them.”

Comic meet Fun!

The horrendously titled “Urinetown” several Tony awards for score, book and direction and it has overcome the horrors of it’s title to be a frequently produced musical in regional, local and collegiate companies.

The story hardly matters and can be summed up in a paragraph or two.

People in the play have to pay money to use a public toilet to pee. The toilets (and water) are controlled by a big company that wreaks havoc on the downtrodden citizenry. Finally, after all the shame and suffering, the rabbel rebel, and all ends with bad guys vanquished and good guys taking control of their own world.

In Mr. Jivoff’s production the story of the play is unimportant, and exists primarily as a setup for a gag and another gag and another gag for just about everyone in the 18-actor cast a moment or two of absolute hilarity.

The start of the whole thing gets underway with the always amazing Rick Pendzich and Officer Lockstock who acts as the narrator, explaining that we are watching a musical theater show. He also is charged – along with his partner, Officer Barrel (say their names together to get the joke) – with keeping the peeing limited to the public, for-pay toilets. Woe is to the sin of peeing somewhere that doesn’t cost any money, all of which goes to the the Urine Good Company (say it aloud), the monolith created by Cladwell B. Caldwell (Steven M. Koehler).

The jokes come fast and furious, really catching fire in the second act. The first seems a little slow and the momentum builds gradually. The problems are certainly not with the actors or band, but with the book, which seems to meander before before catching the wind.

The humor in this production comes both in the dialogue and the music.

Take, for example, Caldwell B. Caldwell’s advice to his team, and his daughter, Hope (Rachel Zientek) who has just returned from the “best college in the world.”

Dressed in a dark suit, long red tie (Trumpian for sure) and pink bunny slippers, he uses the bunny to explain how to do it.

“A LITTLE BUNNY IN THE MEADOW
IS NIBBLING GRASS WITHOUT A CARE.
HE’S SO DELIGHTFUL AS HE HOPS FOR YOU. YOU SAY, “HI, BUNNY,” AND rm STOPS POR YOU.
YOU PULL YOUR TRIGGER AND HE DROPS FOR YOU.
GOODBYE, BUNNY-BOO;
HELLO, RABBIT STEW!

DON’T BE THE BUNNY.
DON’T BE THE STEW.
DON’T BE THE DINNER.
YOU HAVE BETTER THINGS TO DO. IT AIN’T NO JOKE.
THAT’S WHY IT’S FUNNY.
SO TAKE YOUR CUE:
DON’T BE THE BUNNY.
DON’T BE THE BUNNY.”

That’s what it’s like as the evening wears on and on and on. Picking highlights is a difficult task in this uniformly solid cast. But there were moments.

After capturing Hope to hold as ransom, Little Becky Two Shoes (Haley Haupt) and Hot Blades Harry (Michael Stebbins) plan to kill her as they sing “Stuff That Girl,) while they surround her on each side.

The song is funny but as the two kidnappers push Hope back and forth, each time she moves toward Little Becky she gets slammed with her pregnant stomach. Very funny.

Every actor in this production give outstanding performances as singers, actors and dancers under the creative musical direction of David Bonofiglio and the choreography of Ryan Cappleman.

And the uber-talented Karin Simonson Kopischke creates a spectacular array of costumes that overwhelm the senses. It’s a panorama of color and style.

A special mention has to go to Rachel Zientek who is fresh off the miraculously funny role of Gret in Renaissance’s “Top Women.” Here she even further develops her formidable comedy chops and adds her lyrical soprano to the role of Hope, torn between loyalty to her father and love for the downtrodden and for Bobby.

 

Also, James Carrington, who we last saw as adelicious  Cowardly Lion at First Stage, continues his run of comic mastery as the top aide to Cladwell B. Caldwell.

“Urinetown” is the final production under Mr. Jivoff’s leadership at Skylight and it is a finish with a bang. He is obviously a man in love with musical theater and determined to return the company to what it has always been known for – the lively and entertaining evenings of music, acting and dance.

Production credits: Stage Director, Ray Jivoff; Music Director, David Bonofiglio; Choreographer, Ryan Kappelman; Scenic Designer, Brandon Kirkham; Lighting Designer, Holly Blomquist; Costume Designer, Karen Simonson Kopischke; Sound Designer, Megan B. Henninger; Production Stage Manager, Daniel J. Hanson; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.

 

“Songs for a New World” an absolute stunner from All In Productions

Indalecio de Jesus Valentin, Laura McDonald, Jamie Mercado and Patrick Jones in AIP production.

It’s safe to say that there is no other Milwaukee theater company that would stage “Songs for a New World,” the quirky play that launched the career of Jason Robert Brown in 1995.

It’s an unusual play, written for four singers and 16 songs with no dialogue. There is not story to be told. And not many people in Milwaukee have ever heard about it.

But stage it they did and the no-longer kids of All In Productions have created an evening of both theater and music that is clearly unrivaled this theater season.

AIP (this company has earned the right to just go by letters – ala American Players Theater) opened its fourth season the same way they opened their initial season.

That one was

In 2014 the company lit up the theater sky with a magical production of Mr. Brown’s “The Last Five Years.”Since then the company has had some sterling efforts and a few that were less than sterling.

But with “Songs” there is a confluence of factors that create an evening  unlike anything you are likely to see this season, or any other season.

Let’s start with the setting in Redeemer Lutheran Church on Wisconsin Avenue. It’s a spectacular structure, built in 1915 of masonry, brick and dark wood, with a ceiling shaped and constructed like the bottom of a sailing ship, a nod to the immigrant population in the congregation and Milwaukee.

The altar was three white stone steps with a simple wood podium on each side and behind those steps, a five piece band led by keyboardist Tom Reifenberg, who was the music director for the show.

The next thing to hit you is the lighting by Jim Padovano, spilling onto the band and gently moving around the stage, always maintaining a focus on the actors/singers.

And then there are the four cast members and those 16 songs.

This is not your usual musical theater event. These are 16, seemingly disconnected songs. Songs about a Spanish ship captain, a woman crying for attention from her husband, a nervous young girl about to move in with her boyfriend, a man and woman reuniting in friendship and maybe more, Mrs. Claus who has grown tired of the abuse from her mate, and others.

But once things get going, a theme does emerge, one that grips like a vice.

It’s about decisions that come up in life. Do you stay the course, be pushed around, push back, do you run or stand and fight? These are life questions and the songs are a lovely examination of those moments.

It starts with the lovely, tender and fierce Jamie Mercado (Woman 1), alone on the altar. She is soon joined by Man 2 (Patrick Jones).

WOMAN 1:

A new world calls across the ocean
A new world calls across the sky
A new world whispers in the shadows
Time to fly, time to fly

MAN 2:

It’s about one moment
The moment before it all becomes clear
And in that one moment
You start to believe there’s nothing to fear
It’s about one second
And just when you’re on the verge of success
The sky starts to change
And the wind starts to blow
And oh, you’re suddenly a stranger
There’s no explaining where you stand
And oh, you didn’t know
That you sometimes have to go
?Round an unexpected bend
And the road will end
In a new world

WOMAN 1:

A new world calls for me to follow
A new world waits for my reply
A new world holds me to a promise
Standing by, standing by

Each of the other two actors also appear in the first song, Laura McDonald (Woman 2) and Indalecio de Jesus Valentin (Man 1 and perhaps the best name of any actor working in Milwaukee).

The second number if Mr. Valentin as a Spanish sailing captain, praying for strength for himself and the welfare of the men and women he will carry to the New World.

Then comes Ms. McDonald hanging from the front of one podium, a woman who has stepped out onto the ledge of her high level apartment in an attempt to get some attention from her n neglectful husband.

And so it goes.

It’s hard to overstate the wonderful details of this production steered by Director Tim Backes who has a delicate touch for a delicate show. Even with a few swound level difficulties on opening night, he has crafted something that is much more than a song, much more than a play much more than a simple story.

The four players all have their own strengths which Backes gives space for flourish.

Mr. Valentin is a brooding heartthrob who has a ringing tenor that climbs to the rafters of the church. When he feels pain, we feel it with him.

Mr. Jones is the everyman who has a wide range of acting abilities. He can be as tender and as tough as anyone I’ve seen on a stage recently.

Ms. Mercado is the waif of the show, mixing doubt and determination into a series of songs that give full range to her lilting soprano.

And then there is Ms. McDonald, both a lover and a beleaguered Mrs. Claus, sick and tired of her Santa. She is a great singer and reminds me of the spectacular Diane Lane, Milwaukee’s best comic singer and actor.  She absolutely kills the song as Ms. Claus, milking everything there is in a very clever song.

The song and her performance are so funny, I want to give readers and chance to read all the lyrics.

Everything about this production is further evidence of the maturity of this company that doesn’t talk about doing edgy productions, but just does them in an outstanding manner.

This is a show not to be missed.

Production credits: Director, Tim Backes; Music Director, Tom Reifenberg; Assistant Music Director, Allison Bekolay; Choreographer, Stephanie Staszak; Assistant Director, Adam Qutaishat; Costume Designer, Molly Mason; Technical Director/Lighting Designer, Jim Padovano; Stage Manager, Allison Kasprovich; Production Manager, Beth Lewinski; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.

Orchestra: Keyboard, Tom Reifenberg; Keyboard 2, Alison Bekolay; Guitar, Liz Parsons; Bass, David Wickert; Drums, Bob Troemel.

And, as promised, the lyrics to Surabaya-Santa

WOMAN 2:

I was just seventeen
When you rode into town
Just a girl full of fantasies and longing

I saw you
I knew I had to be with you

Then you looked in my eyes
And you asked me my name
And I trembled before you like a baby
Then gently I kissed you
Who could resist you?
You took my heart and soul

And before I had a chance to take control
We retired to your palace on the Pole
Where we only had ourselves
And the reindeer and the elves
And a lot of things we never said
About the life I could have led
If I had had the sense to stay away

But here we are Nick
And so Nick
I know it’s time for you to go Nick
I know by now I’ll never claim you for my own
I’ve been resigned to spend my Christmases alone

And so au revoir Nick
It’s grand Nick
I don’t pretend to understand Nick
I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly
The way you used to look at me

I have sat twenty years
In this drafty retreat
As the latest in the line of Mrs. Clauses
I’ve sat here
And wondered what you want from me

But you sit by yoursel
On the couch in the den
And you watch “Miracle on 34th Street”
You get sad and dreamy
Can’t even see me
Won’t even say, “Hello!”

Now you tell me that it’s time for you to go
Ha!
Sling your sack upon your back and “Ho, ho, ho!”
Ha!
And what matters most of all
Is to sit inside some mall
And you never think of me
While I am pining by the tree
But never mind
I will survive
While you are gone

I set you free, Nick
Goodbye, Nick
Go ride your reindeer through the sky, Nick
I don’t suppose you’ll ever want me by your side
I know you now
You want a plaything, not a bride
So on your way, Nick
Shalom, Nick
Don’t feel the need to hurry home, Nick
Should I want comfort in the cold and bitter storm
I’ve got the elves to keep me warm

Oh, oh, Nick, I didn’t mean it. I’m just going crazy all cooped up in here! Oh, Nick, I mean, come on, I’m not even German.
Please take me with you. Please! I’m your wife damn it. Isn’t there one ounce of human decency buried beneath all those layers
of fat? You disgust me! Oh yes, It’s so easy to judge, isn’t it? Deciding who’s naughty and who’s nice? Well, who died and
left you God, Mr. Claus? Hmph.

But never mind, Nick
Okay, Nick
I hate to keep you from your sleigh, Nick
When you return I will be many miles away
I’ll have my lawyer call your lawyer
New Years Day

 

 

That’s all from me, Nick
Gain way, Nick
I’ll miss you less than I can say, Nick
Have fun with all the little boys along the route
I’ll get the mansion and the factory to boot
I will not wait until the snow beneath me thaw
I will escape
Your Santa claws!!

 

Power of Faith Shaken in Chamber’s “Doubt”

Colleen Madden and Marcus Truschinski in “Doubt” at Milwaukee Chamber theater

Accusation vs. Denial. Truth vs. Falsehood. Joy vs. Sorrow. Red state vs. Blue state. Offense vs. Defense.

I pledge, until death!

Those bitterest of rivalries are at the heart of “Doubt:A Parable,” the John Patrick Shanley Pulitzer Prize winning play opened over the weekend at Milwaukee Chamber theater.

On the surface Shanley’s searing drama is a tale of a Roman Catholic school administration  torn apart by a priest accused of sexual misconduct with a young boy and a savvy nun determined to expose him.

But today, 14 years after it was written, it has become much more relevant and meaningful than it was when it ran on Broadway.  

In this time of “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” the world of accusation has taken on the mantle of righteous virtue while the burden of denial is often matched by the virulence of the charge. What we have, in some cases at least, is an equal outrageousness that, as the battle escalates, becomes ever more intrenched and intractable by the parties.

“Doubt” is the story of St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, a school presided over by Sister Aloysius (Colleen Madden) , a non-nonsense latecomer to the faith of both her black habit and unshakable committment to her way of doing things.

In a conference with a teacher, Sister James (April Paul), Sister Aloysius asks about a new boy in school, 12-year old Donald Muller, the first black boy in at St. Nicholas.  She is concerned that he not be placed in a difficult position. She asks Sister James whether anyone has bullied the boy and the sister replies that nobody has because Donald has a “protector” in Father Flynn.

Sister Aloysius: What have you seen?
Sister James: I don’t know.
Sister Aloysius: What have you seen?
Sister James: He tood Donald to the rectory.
Sister Aloysius: What for?
Sister James: A talk.
Sister Aloysius: Alone?
Sister James: Yes.
Sister Aloysius: When
Sister James: A week ago.
Sister Aloysius: Why didn’t you tell me
Sister James: I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. It never came into my mind…that he…that there could be anything wrong.
Sister Aloysius: Of all the children, Donald muller. I suppose it makes sense.
Sister James: How does it make sense?
Sister Aloysius: He’s isolated. The little sheep lagging behind. This is the one the wolf goes for.

And so it begins. The rumor. The gossip. The circumstance. The conviction. The claim. The machinations and lies. The confrontation. The aghast denial. The pursuit of one version of the truth.

Flynn is horrified at the accusation. He’s outraged, defensive and immediately asserts his canonical rights over a mere nun in a convent. His denial only fuels the pursuit of blame for Sister Aloysius. Sister James is a bystander, torn and tossed by the waves of uncertainty, of doubt.

The curse of doubt eventually is the envelope that shrouds both sides and that doubt proves as debilitating as the passionate adherence to one half of the argument.

This play, directed by C. Michael Wright, is graced with a powerhouse cast that creates a pace that becomes ever more frantic.

Ms. Madden and Mr. Truschinski, both core company members at American Players Theatre, clearly appreciate the value of style and restraint. She is fully in grip of the worldly yet cloistered woman, in touch with both reality and her fantasies.

Mr. Truschinski continues his growth into an actor of incredible breadth and skill. Each time I see him on a stage he shows his remarkable ability to dig deep beneath the surface of a character to find things that make his people fully realized.

Ms. Paul is both certain of her love for teaching and children and unresolved about both the guidance of Sister Aloysius and her pursuit of guilt.

Malkia Stampley does a small turn as Donald Muller’s mother, called to the principal’s office to discuss the suspicions of Father flynn. Ms. Stampley is the trigger for this production to shift into high gear and her seething anger mixed with her unshaken loyalty to her child are a catalyst for the inevitable collision.

Mr. Wright has smartly allowed this production to roam into places Mr. Shanley never intended and his crucial understanding makes for a night when doubt is proven to cause more pain than resolution.

Production Credits: Director: C. Michael Wright; Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Scenic Designer, Steve Barnes; Costume Designer, Kim Instenes; Lighting Designer, David Gipson; Sound Designer, Victoria Delorio; Propmaster, Madelyn Yee; Dialect Coach, Raeleen McMillion; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

Ordinary Life is Extraordinary at Rep’s “Our Town”

DiMonte Henning and Cher Desiree Alvarez in “Our Town at The Rep.

It happens in barely a blink of an eye.

The Rep turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, the common to the sublime and the routine into the rare in the spectacular “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s penetrating exam of life in the middle lane.

From the earliest moments on a stage, primarily empty save for an erratic stack of chairs and several wooden porches perched atop a string of steps, the song “Something’s Coming” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” ran through my mind.

“Will it be, yes it will
Maybe just by holding still
It’ll be there
Come on, something
Come on in
Don’t be shy
Meet a guy
Pull up a chair
The air is humming
And something great is coming”

Mr. Wilder won a Pulitzer Prize for this remarkable little play in 1938 and in his notes Director Brent Hazelton remarks about the popular belief that not a day has gone by that this play is not being produced somewhere on earth.

And who could doubt it, as it is such a simple play to produce, with big casts, a minimal set and virtually no physical drama. It’s people talking

It is just like life.

And that realism is the thing that slowly wraps its arms around you and gives you a hug and promises warmth and comfort for a couple of hours.

Everything gets underway when the Stage Manager (an impeccable Laura Gordon) enters and pulls a street light off the stage, returns and graces all of us with her glorious and honest smile.

There is no fourth wall here. It is just her and all of us.

This play is called “Our Town.It was written  by Thornton Wilder; It’s directed by Brent Hazelton. The name of the town is Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire., just across the Massachusetts line: latitude 42 degrees 40 minutes; longitude 70 degrees 37 minutes. The First Act shows a day in our town. The day is May 7, 1901. The titne is just before dawn . The sky is beginning to show some streaks of light over in the East there, behind our mountain. The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go doesn’t it?”

As we collectively nod our heads to answer her question we are off and strolling through Wilder’s humane and delicate look at the circle of life.”

In three acts we go from birth to life to death and all the little things that make up all of it. For Wilder life is a series of moments, decisions we make – big and small – that carve the pathway to where we are going.

The main characters in this story are two families,  Doctor Gibbs (Chiké Johnson), his wife (Elizabeth Ledo) and their teenage son George (DiMonte Hening and Mr. Webb (Matt Zambrano), his wife (R´åna Roman) and their daughter Emily (Cher Desiree Alvarez).

Dr. Gibbs is of the overworked town doctor whose wife wants him to take some time off as she runs the family with a well structured routine. Mr. Webb runs the town newspaper and is a keen observer of life in Grover’s Corners.”

Each of the characters in this play have their moments during the courtship of both George and Emily and how normal and natural it seems, despite small misgivings from family and shaky uncertainties by the two lovers.

It’s left to Mrs. Gibbs to sum up the entire normalcy of both the impending wedding and, perhaps the constant of life in her town.

“Yes, people are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Tain’t natural to be lonesome.”

For all it’s superficial simplicity, “Our Town” is a complex show to stage.

Hazelton, and his designers and actors, tackle all of those complexities with aplomb and a remarkable creative spirit that shows in every detail on display. Like life itself, it’s the little things that make this production so special, like the Foley effects of sound designer Barry G. Funderburg that gave us the squeak of a door and the patter of rain on the roof. 

The director found the dark corners of our world, corners that we hide in the simple avoidance of life. Just talk about the mundane and none of these characters ever has to face a reality far harsher than anyone is willing to recognize.

Ms. Gordon is a spectacular actor and she is joined on this stage by a panorama of stars from Wisconsin who have all taken on small roles in service of the play – James PIckering, Carrie Hitchcock, Jonathan Smoots, Jonathan Wainwright and a heartbreaking James Ridge as the town’s drunken choir director.

Mr. Wilder wrote this play that asks  all of us to examine our own lives for the little things we do that make the big things keep their distance. It’s a marvelous achievement that Hazelton and The Rep have staged marvelously.

PRODUCTION CREDITS: Director, Brent Hazelton; Scenic Designer, Scott Davis; Costume Designer, Rachel Laritz; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Designer, Barry G. Funderburg; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Casting Director Frank Honts; Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus.