“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!!

 

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Funniest Christmas Play You Will Ever See Running at Next Act

Joe, Doug Jarecki, proposes to the Virgin Mary, Sara Zientek

A carpenter named Joe walks into the Nazareth tavern, nervous about this date that is a fix-up.

Sitting in a chair, clutching a white afghan over her tummy, sits the very pretty Mary. It’s her first blind date.

He introduces himself as Joe the carpenter. She replies she is called the Virgin Mary.

“Cool nickname,” he says. Joe is lovestruck immediately and proposes to Mary. She says yes, and then Joe finds out she’s eight months pregnant. Joe tries to understand the immaculate conception thing, and once he’s convinced there is no other man, they marry.

The sweet and stirring moment when they agree to go ahead with the wedding could only come from the sweet and stirring mind of Doug Jarecki

Mr. Jarecki debuted his “‘Twas the Month Before Christmas” two years ago to rave reviews and wild audience acclaim. It’s back again, running at Next Act Theatre and opening night the show proved to be at least just as funny and maybe with an added touch of sweetness.

Collaborating with the wonderful direction of James Fletcher, Mr. Jarecki has tightened some of the first version of the play while never losing the humor, some obvious and some subtle, that makes this show the best holiday show in town.

He’s got a sparkling cast of himself, Mitch Weindorf, John Cramer, Lindsey Gagliano and the spectacular and continually amazing Sara Zientek as a multi-layered Mary, and Mr. Fletcher has guided them into a cohesive and well-timed ensemble.

There is, of course, a thread that runs through the whole show – the impending birth of Jesus Christ. Three kings are going to Bethlehem via Nazareth and Persia, an innkeeper and his daughter are working hard to fill the inn, which is built right in front of their ramshackle manger (get it?), and two servants, one of whom has the hots for one of the kings.

The various journeys are full of moments of wild hilarity.

Joe and Mary are getting ready to head to Bethlehem and they’re having a conversation about why Joseph feels so out of it., ignored in all the excitement.,

“It’s the whole immaculate conception thing,” he complains to Mary. “And now it’s the name thing.”

“We can’t name him Henry,” Mary says, rejecting Joseph’s suggestion. “We can’t call him Henry Christ. (She pauses) But we could use it as a middle name.”

Joseph thinks it over.

“Jesus H. Christ,” he shouts. “I love it.”

They exit and we are then greeted to the three kings, Melchior (Mr. Jarecki), Gaspar (Mr. Weindorf) and Balthasar (Mr. Cramer). They enter like unhinged cheerleaders.

“Let me hear you Persia,”Mr.  Jarecki shouts as he runs around the stage. “C’mon Persia. Let’s do the wave.” And the wave gets done.

The three kings discuss the difficulty Gaspar is having getting together with his slave, Helen. In order to help him get in touch with his feelings Melchior suggests a road trip.

“Bethlehem,” he shouts. “Here we come.”

Sara Zientek the overloaded servant follows Doug Jarecki to Bethlehem

Each of the kings is determined to bring a gift. Melchior will bring gold. Balthasar is bringing frankincense. Gasbar announces he’s bringing myrrh, sending the other two kings into stitches.

“Myrrh,” Melchior shouts. “Myrrh? That’s the incense they use at funerals to cover up the stench of dead bodies. It’s corpse deodorizer.”

Eventually, of course, we get a baby and all’s well that ends well.

This play is a classic example of how wonderful humor can be when it’s done well.

This is not salacious or suggestive humor. It’s a gentle humor that pokes gentle fun at a story that is holy for Christians. Some of the jokes are obvious, but that only adds to the enjoyment of the evening.

Mr. Jarecki has put together a great cast and a very clever play that got laughs from beginning to end.Mr.  Fletcher directed with a very steady and seasoned hand, making all the transitions and costume changes as smooth as a Jarecki joke.

I can hardly wait for next Christmas to see this again, and the only suggestion I’d offer is that he take the first scene at the inn and tighten it up a bit to keep the laughs going.

In addition, I can hardly wait for next March when Mr. Jarecki debuts and new play, “One Night in Poland.”

There are are lots of choices for theater this holiday season, but if you are looking for a holy and laugh-filled story with the kind of sweet moments that make the humor even funnier, then this is the one to pick.

“‘Twas the Month Before Christmas” only runs until December 23. Santa says stop wrapping. Go see it.

Clements’ “Christmas Carol” a a magnificent tale of suspense

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Jonathan Wainwright as Scrooge and Jonathan Smoots as Marley’s Ghost

Stephen King meet Mark Clements.

Clements, the Artistic Director of The Rep, channels the famed horror story writer in year two of the staging of his adaptation of  “A Christmas Carol” which opened Friday night at the Pabst Theater.

In this, the 42nd annual Rep production of the Charles Dickens story, Clements has transformed what was a production seeking to find its feet into a spectacular story, full of horrors and suspense that gave free rein Jonathan Wainwright to create an Ebenezer Scrooge with a depth and slow conversion that is at the heart of the journey.

Mr. Clements vividly demonstrates in this production that he has a penetrating look into what a play needs to carry and deliver all the power it can.

Perhaps the most glaring difficulty in the first staging of this production was that, despite being surrounded and supported by unmatched sets and costumes, the conversion of Scrooge from nasty and cruel miser to a Christmas angel happend to quickly.

This year the agonizing journey of Mr. Wainwright seemed endless as he was faced with vivid echoes of his past, from young boy to young man to aging skinflint. The suspense in the audience was palpable.

Clements has turned this warm-hearted transformational tale into a suspense story where everybody knows the ending but warmly embraces the expedition to get there.

This in large measure is the work of the three Ghosts (of Past, Present and Future), who take Scrooge on this safari through a land of dreams.

Deborah Staples is up first as she takes control and freezes Scrooge in her embrace to visit the things that turned him into the monster he now is.

From a young boy who won’t visit a friend for Christmas out of fear of the wrath of his father to a young man (Christopher Peltier) in love with the ravishing Belle (Arya Daire) but unable to overcome his social awkwardness to pursue her.

Ms. Staples is an absolute mesmerizing presence, capturing the almost vicious determination and delight in exposing to Scrooge, the horrors of his early behavior in life. She seems to float across the stage with an occasional  plea to the audience for permission and encouragement to continue ravishing Scrooge with a memory of his own life.

Next up is Ghost of Christmas Present with the Todd Denning clad in a lush green with white trim and a beard and curl of hair. Mr. Denning’s ghost it full of humor as he guides Scrooge through his life, including the decisive scene of the holiday dinner with the family of Bob Cratchit (Reese Madigan).

Mr. Wainwright is fearfully horrified after coming face to face with Tiny Tim and wonders if the child will survive. It is the first and most graphic of the metamorphosis of Scrooge from tyrant to a man filled with the warmth of humanity.

Finally the Ghost of Christmas Future (Brade Bradshaw) drives the final stake into the cold, cold heart of Scrooge. In a Darth Vader costume, complete with shining bright red eyes,  Mr. Bradshaw is silent as he directs Scrooge to what is on the painful horizon if he doesn’t change his ways.

The disintegration of Scrooge has come first circle and the Mr. Wainwright’s collapse is like a Christmas gift for all of us in the audience. It was wrapped in a brown paper bag of rapicious greed and now the ribbon is off, the Scotch tape has been torn and the paper is teetering on the edge of disappearance.

This adaptation by Mr. Clements has become a fascinatingly layered mounting of this classic, with added details and depth and backstory of nephews, friends, employees and others who have dipped into Scrooge’s life.

Mr. Wainwright made his debut as Scrooge last year and seemed a little overwhelmed by the scope of the role. This year he has become the full owner of Scrooge, finding the cloistered and bound presence of this miser before exulting in the freedom and joys of his holiday committment.

He has become an actor of prodigious skills and they are all on full and vibrant display here.

Mr. Clements has reworked his adaptation into what will become a classic for Milwaukee Christmas seasons to come. It is assuredly time to recognize that there is a wisdom in “leaving well enough alone.” His Christmas Carol is now well enough to leave alone.

“A Christmas Carol” runs through December 24 at The Rep.

Production credits: Director, Mark Clements; Music Director, Dan Kazemi; Scenic Designer, Todd Edward Ivins; Costume Designer, Alexander B. Tecoma; Lighting Designer, Jeff Nellis; Sound Designer, Barry G. Funderburg; Original Music Score, John Tanner; Stage Movement Director, Michael Pink; Production Dramaturg, Brent Hazelton; Dialect Coach, Jayne Pink; Casting Director, Frank Honts; Make-up/Hair/Wig Designer, Lara Leigh Dalbey; Associate Director, Leda Hoffmann; Stage Manager, Rebecca Lindsey; Production Photographer, Michael Brosilow.  

Chamber’s “Miracle” is nothing but a stale holiday trifle

Raeleen McMillion, Greta WohlrabeJosh Krause and Kat Wodtke, the Noack Family.

A holiday offering at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre is a little like the fruitcake that your unmarried aunt insists on giving you each Christmas.

You imagine that all those ingredients would make something great, but in the end it is merely a trifle.

In the case of “Miracle on South Division Street” almost all the ingredients are there.

Four very good actors, led by the always remarkable Raeleen McMillion, , an almost unbelievably realistic and evocative set design by Stephen Hudson-Mairet and props master Meghan Savagian, creative and diligent direction from C. Michael Wright.

You’d think that given that lineup you were in for a very special evening.

Instead I walked away with a slight smile on my face and a hope for something with more…something.

The play, by Tom Dudzik is nothing more than a frothy kind of stand-up routine wrapped around a fanciful story. Everything led up to one one-liner after another. And like most routines, some one-liners were funny while others fell flat.

The story concerns the Noack family – Polish  and staunchly Catholic – from Buffalo, NY. There’s Clara (Ms. McMillion), daughters Ruth (Kat Wodtke), Beverly (Greta Wohlrabe) and Jimmy (Josh Krause).

Clara’s late father, a barber, had a vision once of the Virgin Mary. It was such a profound vision that he built a 12-foot statue of her in front of the house, a statue that has become a shrine of sorts with tourists and neighbors dropping coins in while make a wish for an answer to their prayers.

But that’s not the real story, which has been uncovered by Ruth. She’s called a Christmas Eve family meeting to reveal the true story and the changes she’s making.

I don’t want to give anything away, but the real story is full of genuine heart and romance and spirit. The story leading up to the reveal is plebeian in content. There are wildly concocted surprises but they all are just a backdrop to yet another funny line.

Two of the actors in the play carry the thing above and beyond the  the material they had to work with.

Ms. Wodtke is turning into a powerful and intelligent actor in her recent appearances on Milwaukee’s stages. She captures the conflict within Kate and the determination to resolve that conflict through the truth, no matter how much it hurts. She is an actor who clearly proves an unshakable belief in “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”

As Beverly, the versatile and perceptive Ms. Wohlrabe, demonstrates that she has not fallen far as a fruit of her blue collar tree. On her way to a bowling match (on Christmas Eve no less) she wears her track suit and her winter hat with an aplomb that is in stark contrast to the tension of her sister.

Mr. Krause is easily the least movable character in the play. He just goes around his life, steadily and carefully. He, though, also harbors a secret, one that is easily guessed at before he reveals it.

One of the surprises in the play is the performance of Ms. McMillion. She is an accomplished actor with an impressive body of work, but here she is unable to turn her Clara into anything more than cartoon stereotype of a Polish joke. Part of it may were  lapses in the crisp timing comedy needs and it may well have been an unease with her lines.

This was the holiday offering by Chamber and any holiday offering needs to leave an audience feeling warm and fuzzy.  The only real fuzz in this one is the hazy wonder about how what ought to be a good show turned out so ordinary.

“Miracle on South Division Street” runs through Dec. 17 at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

Production credits: Director, C.Michael Wright; Scenic Designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Costume Designer, Debra Krajec; Lighting Designer, Alan Piotrowicz; Sound Designer, Terrance Barrett; Properties Master, Meghan Savagian; Dialect Coach, Tyne Turner; Production Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.