Friday, September 22, 2017

APT presents "Midsummer Night's Dream"

Shakespeare performed under a moonlit Spring Green sky 

"If we shadows have offended,
Know but this and all is mended. 
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear, 
And this weak and idle theme, 
No more yielding than a dream." 

So says the trickster sprite Puck in the closing stanzas of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Oh, but say it wasn't just a dream! This ethereal, bewitching production by the American Players Theatre (APT) in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has quite possibly ruined me for all future iterations of William Shakespeare's beloved fairytale.   

Midsummer is playing through the first week in October at the newly-renovated Hill Stage, with its uncovered, amphitheater-style seating nestled in a grove of towering uplit trees. If there's a more fitting space to stage a show about an night of magic and mischief in the woods, I can't imagine what that might be. The Hill Stage fully immerses theatergoers into Shakespeare's wooded fantasy world.  

With the forest itself setting the scene, the set design on stage is rather simplistic. A large glowing moon with curved metal accents mingles mystery and romance with more modern structure, echoing the play's themes. For those unfamiliar with the Midsummer plot, the gist is that four young lovers, bound by Athenian law to marry against their will, run away into the forest, encounter fairies and tricksters, suffer love potions, and come out of the woods changed in one way or another. The worlds of Midsummer are distinct: magic resides in the forest, law and order in Athens. 

Although the set design is simple, the costuming serves to round out each scene. When all of the fairy creatures commune on stage, the effect is one of powerful, other-worldly enchantment — as if the characters are the fantastical forest personified. Shakespeare's most famous forest-incarnate sprite is the impish Puck — a part I've only ever seen played by a man. But in a genius move, the American Players Theatre cast the sensational Cristina Panfilio. 

Panfilio brings a refreshing, modern vibe to the character, and not just by virtue of her being a woman. The way she carries herself and delivers her lines feels decidedly contemporary, and that's what makes her humor and mischief all the more likable. Truly, there are countless laugh-out-loud moments in A Midsummer Night's Dream, from Shakespeare's signature merry band of fools to the physical comedy at play throughout. I'd describe them, but I doubt I'd do such moments justice; they have to be seen.

To me, witnessing the action — hilarious and otherwise — and hearing the actors' intonations are two of the most profound reasons to go and see Shakespeare performed. People say, "Shakespeare isn't for me" — but his plays are rife with love & sex, honor & jealousy, fools & kings. Bill Shakespeare wrote for the people! And in my experience, any good theater company that performs Shakespeare nowadays has a knack for bringing it back to the people, as the author intended. 

While reading Midsummer might require more brain power than one would like, during live theater, the actors, directors, and set & costume designers have done the work for you. They've unpacked every "thy" and "thou," mastered the delivery for optimal ease-of-understanding, and staged a show to transport — not torment — the audience. The troupe at the American Players Theatre offers us the very height of the Shakespearean experience with A Midsummer Night's Dream

"Are you sure
That we are awake?
It seems to me
That yet we sleep, we dream." 

Midsummer Night's Dream is playing at the American Players Theatre, through October 8th. Information and tickets at

*Photos courtesy of Liz Lauren

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Souvenir"

A fantasia on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins

It's said that lovers of good music had to stuff their handkerchiefs in their mouths to keep from bursting out laughing at the operatic recitals of eccentric Manhattan socialite, Florence Foster Jenkins. Madame Flo once declared, "People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing." She wasn't wrong — people did say she couldn't sing, but sing she did. 

Florence Foster Jenkins started by entertaining at intimate salon parties in the 1920s and 30s, then went on to sing at sold-out recitals seating 200-or-so at the Ritz Carlton ballroom. It's a truly amazing feat, given what one New York Times reporter said of Madame Jenkins' instrument: "She can sing anything but notes."

Luckily for Milwaukee theatergoers, Marguerite Willbanks is now channeling Florence Foster Jenkins and singing anything but notes at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. The two-person show, Souvenir, runs through November 5th and is being held at the cozy Stackner Cabaret dinner theater — a capacity which, I imagine, might be on par with Madame Flo's early salon recitals. 

The other half of the Souvenir duo is Jack Forbes Wilson, who plays our charismatic narrator and Jenkins' accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. While Willbanks slays the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, Forbes Wilson has also earned his standing ovation. His voice is clear and easy on the ears, and his breezy way of tickling the ivories rounds out his charm. I could listen to him play and sing 1920s jazz all night in that wonderful cabaret, where one gets lost in time and in the music. 

Yes, the setting was indeed a treat, but the heart and humor with which Willbanks plays Madame Flo could easily swell to fill a much grander space — perhaps even Carnegie Hall, where Florence Foster Jenkins gave her most renowned recital in 1944. At said recital, the entire house sold out in two hours, and single tickets purchased at $2.40 were being scalped for $20 a pop. On the eve of the performance, 2,000 more people clamored for tickets at the box office.

But back to Willbanks and the performance that garnered bursts of laughter, steady streams of tears, and a hop-to-your-feet standing ovation. I haven't seen the Meryl Streep movie about Florence Foster Jenkins, but Mary Louise better watch out — Marguerite Willbanks is coming for her Oscar nom. Willbanks so perfectly captures Jenkins' blind, childlike self-assuredness, her subtle heart-wrenching doubts, and of course her astounding pitch-imperfect singing. 

90% of Willbanks' singing is, indeed, off-key. You might wonder why anyone would pay to see tone-deaf musical theater, but we need only examine the phenomena that was the real Florence Foster Jenkins to find the answer. When audiences stuffed handkerchiefs into their mouths to keep from bursting, that's the sensation one gets at the Milwaukee Rep's SouvenirGiddy and gleeful — rapt with sheer awe and amazement at Jenkins' unwavering courage and spirit. 

How remarkable that this show gives us the chance to feel a glimmer of what Madame Flo's own audience must have felt. It's an uplifting, I-too-can-do-anything feeling, and one that sets the bar outrageously high for this season at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. 

Souvenir is playing through November 5th at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Info and tickets at

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

American Players Theatre

Outdoor theater in the woods of Wisconsin

When friends and I ventured to Spring Green for the American Players Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, we were absolutely blown away. My Oberon, what visions have I seen! But I'll leave the gushing for another day. For now, here are some tips to make the most of your time at the American Players Theatre, should you go. And friends, you really should go! 

The American Players Theatre is located in Spring Green, about two hours from Milwaukee and one hour from both Madison and Wisconsin Dells. Evening shows begin at 8pm, but in my experience, it's best to arrive a couple hours early. That way you have time to get lost, battle summer road construction, and enjoy a leisurely picnic. 

Also, bring a map! Or make better notes of directions, without counting on GPS. Our group lost cell phone reception once at the theater and didn't get it back until, after the play, we had already driven almost 30 minutes in the wrong direction. 

Let's Eat
We googled and googled some more to try and find a cute place nearby for dinner in Spring Green. We failed. We couldn't even find something that took kitsch to a fun, funky level — just a bunch of restaurants with no atmosphere and a meh-sounding menu. Sure, you might find a place in Wisconsin Dells or Madison, but then you still have to drive an hour to get to the theater. That makes me nervous. 

So forget dining out. Instead, packing a picnic is the way to go at the American Players Theatre. I'd recommend arriving a couple hours before show time so you can snag your ideal picnic spot and really enjoy yourself. Prime woodsy picnic tables are located up the hill, as you walk toward the stage. 

However, in the less-wooded picnic area, there are grills available to use. A cool perk if you're into grilling! My friends and I opted for classic picnic fare: cheese, charcuterie, chicken salad, fruit, chocolates for dessert, and champagne. Heaven. 

What to Wear
Layer, layer, layer. I knew the American Players Theatre was outdoors, but I figured it was a covered pavilion. Newsflash: It's not! The main stage is amphitheater-style, completely uncovered. It's magical. The size is just right so there's not a bad seat in the house. 

But back to what to wear, make sure to sport proper footwear. There is a little bit of a walk uphill on a pebbled path, so leave the heels at home. We brought bug spray, but the theater also provides it as you enter the stage area. And once more: layers. It can get chilly, and I imagine the show goes on in light rain. Check the forecast and plan accordingly.

Make it a Day Trip
Our group attended a Friday evening show, but if we'd had more time, there are plenty of nearby stops that would make for a fun day trip. The most obvious is the House on the Rock, which is located next-door to the American Players Theatre. There's also the Wollersheim Winery & Distillery, located a little over 30 minutes from the theater. It would be lovely to do a wine tasting in the afternoon, then picnic and play at night. 

Another popular stop is Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin. You can tour the house and grounds by day, or join a twilight tour just before showtime (foregoing a picnic dinner). The house does offer some evenings with drinks and appetizers during the twilight tour, catered to theater-goers. While my friends and I thought this sounded divine, we couldn't justify the price tag. Still, I'd put on that my "someday" list of things to do for sure. 

For more info on the American Players Theatre, visit

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

"A Chorus Line" in concert

Presented by Milwaukee Opera Theatre & Theater RED

Having never seen A Chorus Line before (blasphemy!), I wasn't really sure what to expect from this Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT) and Theater RED collaboration, staged the past two evenings at Cardinal Stritch University. I know the show is considered a musical theater classic, credited with the rebirth of the modern American musical, and for that I'm eternally grateful. But what of the show itself? 

In its entirety, A Chorus Line takes place during a dance audition for a Broadway chorus line. The characters are 20- and early 30-somethings, but MOT and Theater RED cast a lineup of veteran Milwaukee actors in the roles of young hopefuls for a unique touch. Knowing these two theater companies and their dedication to innovation, a twist of some kind wasn't surprising. But the effect this particular twist had on the story and audience was, indeed, remarkable. 

Playing for two nights only, with an aforementioned cast of Milwaukee favorites, the sold-out audience was no doubt packed with friends, family, groupies, and avid lovers of Milwaukee theater. Even I, a relative newbie to the Milwaukee theater scene, recognized a handful of faces in the Chorus Line cast and couldn't wait to see what they did with their part. 

There was the dryly hilarious and always-commanding Angela Innanone. Twinkle-toed David Flores. Diane Lane with her pitch-perfect delivery, both in song and comedic timing. The darling duo Karen Estrada and Doug Jarecki. Marcee Doherty-Elst bringing the va-va-voom. And angel-voiced Beth Mulkerron and Rana Roman taking it home with the show's famous ballad, "What I did for Love." 

On more than one occasion, applause erupted in earnest support of these actors that Milwaukee theater-goers have come to truly love. As the crowd rose to its feet in a final standing ovation, the sheer amount of pride in our city's incredible talent was palpable. 

It's insanely invigorating to play even a small part in such a community — and by viewing theater, you are indeed a part of it. I hope that Milwaukeeans who might be new to live theater will someday take a chance and join in the fun. As this Chorus Line proved, the theater scene in our town is a singular sensation.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Backstage at the Milwaukee Rep

Theater season is in the air! 

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure to hear from the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Artistic Director, Mark Clements, as he welcomed new subscribers to the Quadracci Powerhouse. There are three stages at the Milwaukee Rep, the largest being the Powerhouse, followed by the intimate Stiemke Studio and the always-musical Stackner Cabaret Dinner Theater. The three sizes and styles of space allow the Rep to stage a broad range of works, and that's what makes this company so very unique to the Milwaukee theater scene. 

Our group was also treated to a backstage tour, where we ogled prop rooms stacked with tupperware housing things like tinsel and embroidery. We saw the vast workroom where artists turn fresh slabs of wood into intricate, aged, character-filled pieces of scenery. 

As for the costume and wig shop, there's a strict "hands off!" policy. It's strange how hard it is to keep your digits to yourself when gorgeous period gowns and wigs worn by Deb Staples are just begging to be touched. Even so, my personal favorite space was the cast break room, which is also where they store a slew of chandeliers. Not a bad spot to take five backstage. 

This season at the Milwaukee Rep kicks off with a play on each of the theater's three stages. In the Cabaret, it's Souvenir — the story of Florence Foster Jenkins. Jenkins was an eccentric Manhattan socialite who loved to sing, but really shouldn't have. The Stiemke Studio starts its season with The Who and the What — a play by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ayad Akhtar, whose Disgraced and Invisible Hand have also been staged at the Rep. 

In the Quadracci Powerhouse, we'll all be toe-tapping to the Tony-winning Guys & Dolls when it opens on September 19th. They say this is the musical for people who claim they don't like musicals. The songs are catchy, there are show-stopping numbers, and it's such a classic story that even the hardest hearts can't argue with its greatness. I'll be there on opening night, probably grinning like an idiot. 

For information on all future Milwaukee Rep productions and to purchase tickets, visit

Monday, August 21, 2017

MOT & Theater RED present "A Chorus Line"

Two local theater companies, one singular sensation! 

They say A Chorus Line is a ground-breaking spectacle, revitalizing the American musical in 1975 with its focus on an ensemble cast of characters inspired by the real lives of Broadway dancers. 

The show chronicles the ambitions, dreams, and daily struggles that befall any Broadway hopeful, and does so in a mix of dialogue, monologue, montages, and show-stoppers. The structure was, in 1975, revolutionary, and is no less revered by avid lovers of musical theater today.

This weekend at Cardinal Stritch University, two Milwaukee theater companies are further revolutionizing this Broadway classic, adapting A Chorus Line to a concert format. With Milwaukee Opera Theatre's singer-centric art and commitment to reimagining classic and contemporary lyric theater, and Theater RED's dedication to roles for women and growth in craft for artists, their combined efforts are guaranteed to yield one singular sensation. 

As if the missions of these small-but-mighty companies weren't enough to pique interest, the cast boasts 100% local Milwaukee artists — and that really is something to brag about. Our city is teeming with such talent, and the performers assembled for A Chorus Line do so much more than keep local theater afloat — they truly make it soar. 

This weekend, for two nights only, take flight with some of Milwaukee's brightest stars. A Chorus Line is playing at Cardinal Stritch University, August 27 & 28, at 7:30 pm. Tickets here!

Friday, August 11, 2017

MAM: Free First Thursdays

The perfect time to visit the Milwaukee Art Museum

Thank you Meijer, you beautiful big box store, you! Thank you for sponsoring the Milwaukee Art Museum's Free First Thursday. That is to say, the first Thursday of every — yes, every! — month, admission to the Milwaukee Art Museum is free — yes, free! And as with all Thursdays, the museum is also open until 8pm. How nice is that?

If you take advantage of this September's Free First Thursday, it will be the last free night where you can see the highly-instagrammable works by Rashid Johnson in the exhibit Hail We Now Sing Joy.  

Per the Milwaukee Art Museum website: "Using his signature materials of white ceramic tile, red oak flooring, shea butter, black soap, and wax, Johnson examines themes of race, history, yearning, anxiety, and escape and investigates the relationship between art, society, and personal identity." Whew that's a lot. 

The motivation behind Johnson's work is certainly important. But even if you only have time to skate through this featured exhibition, it's entirely worthwhile. 

The star of the show is Antoine's Organ — the towering, show-stopping gridded sculpture, pulsing with hundreds of live plants, mounds of shea butter, audio-visual components, books, and a piano hidden within. At certain times, local musicians are scheduled to play said piano. It is, in a word, incredible. 

As is the fact that you can see this (until September 17th) and Milwaukee's entire stunning collection for free every first Thursday of the month. What are you waiting for? Mark your calendar!