Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Our Town"

An American classic celebrates the beauty of everyday-ness

"I’ve married two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know. I suppose I do. M marries N. Millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford — the first rheumatism — the grandchildren — the second rheumatism — the deathbed — the reading of the will. Once in a thousand times it’s interesting." _Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Poignant with humor aplenty, Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town feels ageless. It's the simple story of a small town called Grovers Corners — a snapshot of the people who live there, their daily lives, their milestones, and their demises. The play unfolds in three acts, spaced apart in time: Daily Life (1901), Love & Tradition (1904), and Death & Eternity (1913). 

Beautifully written, with minimal sets and moments that suggest the characters are aware of the parts they're playing, this is a wonderful and enduring work of dramatic art — and one that the Milwaukee Repertory Theater carries out with ease. 

The main characters include the all-knowing Stage Manager (the narrator), The Gibbs family, and the Webb family. George Gibbs and Emily Webb are young lovers whose lives we follow from adolescence in Act One to marriage in Act Two to heartbreak in Act Three.

The Rep has assembled a diverse, knock-out cast of 31, including (but not limited to) Laura Gordon as the Stage Manager, Di'Monte Henning as George Gibbs, Cher Desiree Alvarez as Emily Webb, Rana Roman as Mrs. Webb, Matt Zambrano as Mr. Webb, Chiké Johnson as Dr. Gibbs, and Elizabeth Ledo as Mrs. Gibbs. 

Gordon does an exquisite job of keeping rapt attention through all her narrative exposition, her presence warm and comforting in its omniscience. Henning and Alvarez are simply adorable as the young lovers. From bright-eyed childhood to heart-aching adulthood, theirs is a delightful and affecting journey to behold.

Among the rest of the Grovers Corners townsfolk, there are notable Milwaukee favorites: James Pickering, Carrie Hitchcock, Jonathan Wainwright, and Jonathan Smoots, to name a few. In an especially cool move, the Stage Manager introduces much of the local talent as they file on stage in the first moments of the show. As the 31 actors pour in from the back of the house and down the aisles, they set up sparse props and even costume themselves on stage, as if admitting up front that it's all for show.

This is part of what makes Our Town so singular. The artful staging and breaking of the fourth wall celebrates the wonder of theatrics — actors stepping into another's shoes, creating a world that exists only on stage, and using play to drive an audience's thoughts and feelings. There's something remarkable in that.

The other part of what makes Our Town singular is the stories it shares. Stories of real, everyday people. People dealing with generational differences, the fear of progress, a longing to grow up, and an aching to stay young. People who perhaps never got to see Paris, but always enjoyed "pleasures of a kind." Ordinary people whose message is a timeless one: "Happiness — that's the great the thing. The important thing is to be happy." 

Though Our Town is not, perhaps, a risk for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, that doesn't make it any less special and satisfying. Sometimes, there's nothing better than a play that inspires laughter, sweet tears, and a warm-fuzzy feeling. "Once in a thousand times it's interesting," the Stage Manager says. With a classic as beloved and far-reaching as Our Town, the Rep succeeds in making things more than a little interesting indeed. 

*Photos courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Milwaukee Ballet presents "Beauty & the Beast"

World premier ballet casts its magic spell

Roses wave hello, storybook pages spring to life, the townsfolk are actually nice, and the troupe of orphan children are a little creepy. This isn't Disney's Beauty & the Beast. There are no singing teapots or yellow ballgowns to be found. Instead, Michael Pink gives us a world premier Milwaukee ballet inspired by the 1796 adaptation by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Per the show notes: "Our Belle is the hero of her own story; a voracious reader, quick-witted, and the maker of her own destiny." 

Though this hardly strays from the Belle many of us know and love, there are some unexpected changes to the story that might leave you scratching your head if you don't read the synopsis before the curtain rises (always read the synopsis!). The powerful enchantress (the spellbinding Lizzie Tripp)is backed by a small army of orphans clad in white — a rather ghostly sight, brought to life by students from the Milwaukee Ballet School. 

When we meet Belle (the graceful Nicole Teague-Howell*), the townsfolk adore her. She's reading Aladdin and his Magic Flying Carpet aloud, and all are swept up in the tale. Belle's pair of fussy, frivolous sisters (Marize Fumero and Lahna Vanderbush) offer an amusing foil for our heroine. They'd rather fawn over the latest fashions and be courted by a couple of peacocking, candy-colored dandies (Parker Brasser-Vos and Randy Crespo) than read a book.

Belle's loving father, Maurice (Patrick Howell*), is en route to the city when he gets lost in the forest and stumbles upon the Beast's castle. The enchantment on display is sheer magic: Statues come alive and whirl about the stage (Janel Meindersee and Josiah Cook), the banquet table has a mind of its own, and out in the garden, the hedges bloom with smiling roses that wave merrily. They warn Belle's father not to pluck one of the buds, for fear of the Beast. You might guess what happens next. 

The Beast (the vigorous Isaac Sharratt*) bears down upon Maurice, his crimson cape commanding the stage and making the monster appear larger than life. This is just one of the many stunning and effective bits of costumed wizardry by designer Paul Daigle. 

Color plays a definite part in the narrative, with townsfolk dressed in muted, neutral tones. Rich colors are reserved for the castle, as Belle dons her provincial blue throughout most of the ballet. When she shows up in the final scene, wearing crimson to match the Beast's own cape, it's clear which world she's chosen. While there are surely a slew of other subtleties to praise in the costuming, sometimes it's just as simple as this: The costumes are pretty. The dancers' skirts twirl beautifully. The colors pop. It's all-around gorgeous to behold. 

In this Beauty & the Beast, the biggest departure from Disney's "tale as old as time" is an interlude at the end of Act One and beginning of Act Two, where characters step from the pages of Belle's storybook. There's Rapunzel (Alana Griffith*), the Three Little Pigs (Carly Bartel, Lindsay Crivello & Madeline Rhode*), and Little Red Riding Hood (Zoe Maxwell*), among others. 

These particular characters seem handpicked to echo Belle's own plight: A princess held captive, pigs terrified of a huffing-puffing beast, and a provincial girl who, in this production, tames the Big Bad Wolf by showing some kindness. Michael Pink wanted his Beauty & the Beast to be thought-provoking, and to that I say — success!

Naturally, this glorious achievement comes down to movement and music. The original score by Philip Feeney is strong: equal parts ominous and mysterious, sweeping and joyful. Set to these storied notes, Michael Pink's choreography dazzles the eye and moves the spirit. The build up to Belle and the Beast finally dancing together is thick with tension, her movements hands-off and palpably apprehensive before welcoming this creature into her personal space. It's mesmerizing to watch the progression, from warming up to each other to playful friendship and flirtation. 

The company as a whole danced exquisitely on Thursday night — a particular favorite being scenes that featured the Milwaukee Ballet School. These young performers played more than just spine-chilling orphans and jolly rosebuds — they also cheerily followed the Pied Piper out of Belle's storybook to much delight. Though one might crave more such delight — a whirl of color and a stage full of spinning ballerinas — as a grand finale, Michael Pink offers something even better. The final moments capture the heart of this fairytale: Belle and her prince, moving beautifully together as one.

*Indicates dancers for Thursday's performance

Photos of Nicole Teague-Howell and Isaac Sharratt by Mark Frohna

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Café at the Pfister

One of downtown Milwaukee's best brunch secrets

If you haven't waltzed through the Pfister Hotel lobby, working your best "We've Got Elegance," you're missing out. And if you didn't know there's an adorable café in said lobby, open for everyone and not just fancy-pants hotel guests, you're also missing out.

Brimming with old school charm, The Café at the Pfister is open daily for seated breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch from 6am to 2pm. Until 8pm daily, you're welcome to snag coffee and a pastry from the barista & patisserie counter, then help yourself to a seat. For seated dining service, there's either in a nice-sized dining room or, my favorite, a row of tables along large street-facing windows. The space is sunny and cozy-casual with just a hint of fancy. After all, it is the Pfister.

I've only ever been for Sunday brunch, and I've never been disappointed. Hot coffee is served promptly, with a little porcelain jug of cream on the side. The Eggs Florentine, my go-to dish, is the kind of tried-and-true deliciousness you can depend on. By and large, you won't find hipster mumbo jumbo at the Pfister — though I did spy avocado toast on the menu, upon my last visit. So I guess there really is something for everyone!

As if the food and ambiance weren't enough, you're welcome to park in the Pfister structure. Take your ticket with you to the café, and your server will have it validated. That's right: Free and easy downtown parking. It's every bruncher's dream!  

Oh, and did I mention that you can snap your fingers and make a reservation? Show me another brunch spot that accepts reservations — and for just a party of two even! (No really, do you know of one? Because I don't.) Truly, you couldn't ask for a more delightful, non-stressful Sunday brunch than the Café at the Pfister — and sometimes easy breezy is better than hip and trendy. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Next Act Theatre presents "I and You"

A brave & beautiful story of human connectedness

"I and this mystery, here we stand." – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Anyone who's taken a poetry class knows that there's so much more to poetic words than meets the eye. If you look the right way, there's often something grand underneath — a hidden meaning waiting to be discovered through focused reading and an open mind. Lauren Gunderson's soul-stirring I and You is indeed a poetry all its own. 

It's the funny, heartwarming, and — eventually — mind-blowing story of a day in the life of Caroline and Anthony, a pair of high school students assigned a Walt Whitman poetry project for English class. Caroline, who has suffered illness her entire life, has been homebound for months. Despite her spunk, whip-fast wit, and dreams of someday being a magazine photographer, she's losing her will to care about a life so threatened by disease. Anthony — a devotee of Walt Whitman, Coltrane, and Pop Tarts, with boyish charm for days — wants to both finish the poetry project and crack Caroline's hard outer shell.

The two-person I and You takes place exclusively in Caroline's bedroom, making for an intimate experience that leans nearly all its weight on the actors. Luckily for the Next Act Theatre, they've found an exceptional pairing in Cristina Panfilio and Ibraheem Farmer. Panfilio's teenaged Caroline is utterly spot-on, from her snarky tone to her iPhone fixation. The audience rides along with Panfilio on Caroline's roller coaster of emotion: defiant, vulnerable, hopeful, and despairing. It's an intensely-felt and fearless performance; hats off to Panfilio, one hundred times over. 

Farmer's Anthony is every bit the charmer who appears to have it all figured out. He's one part popular jock, one part jazz-loving and poetry-spouting sensitive type. With Farmer in the role, it's easy to believe this kind of guy actually exists. His sweet performance is laced with hints of mystery, as one wonders what truly makes this seemingly-perfect specimen tick. What comes to light in I and You's heart-pounding final moments is indeed an underlying, poetic grandeur that was ever-present from the start. But through Farmer's subtle portrayal, under the smart direction of David Cescarini, Anthony's secret is safe until the very end.

To say any more would risk spoiling what playwright Lauren Gunderson has so brilliantly crafted. During a Talk Back following the performance, Panfilio and Farmer raved about Gunderson's writing. She writes real people, precise in her verbiage down to every last "like," "um," and "but." Such superb writing, Panfilio says, invests an actor in the story, so that the ensuing emotions come easily. 

This is a genuine play by genuine people — people who care enough to thank the Talk Back audience for choosing to spend an afternoon at the Next Act Theatre when they could have been anywhere else in Milwaukee. But it's really Milwaukee who should be thanking the creatives behind I and You for bringing such beautiful and brave poetry to one local stage. This awe-inspiring production is as Walt Whitman writes: "Surely far different from what you suppose." 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Tribeca Gallery Café & Books

Coffee, gifts & hard-to-find books in Walker's Point

Say it with me: Coffee and books. Yes, friends, there's a place in Milwaukee where you can sip lattes and browse shelves of unique reads — and it's not a Barnes & Noble Starbucks. It's Tribeca Gallery Café & Books, located on 1st Street in Walker's Point.

The café's original location is still in operation in downtown Watertown. It's been around since 2007, with the owner having opened a second location in Milwaukee in late 2017. At Tribeca, they're pouring Madison's Ancora Coffee and Milwaukee's own Pilcrow Coffee. Upon my most recent visit, I was informed that, once it's warmer out, Tribeca will indeed serve Pilcrow's beloved cold brew.

Up at the coffee counter, you'll find a selection of baked sweets. Though I have yet to grab a bite at Tribeca, there's always something scrumptious noted on the the resident chalkboard sign — usually a soup of the day and other light lunchables.

But my favorite thing about Tribeca: Books and gifts. There are a handful of goodies for coffee and tea lovers, an enticing little collection of greeting cards, a variety of pocket-sized notebooks, and books for both kids and adults. The book selection certainly isn't basic. There are hard-to-find and little-known titles, plus a solid selection of collectible classics. 

Point is, you'll never be bored while waiting for your coffee at Tribeca. Though the place is airy and spacious, there's lots of treasures to discover. And thus far, it's a rather quiet spot, ideal for hunkering down and getting some work done. So as you drive through Walker's Point to one favorite coffee shop or another, consider giving the new kid on the block a bit of local love. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Broadway's "Les Miserables" comes to Milwaukee

After 32 years, Les Miz continues to bring it home

This musical and I go way back. By age five, I could sing every word to "Lovely Ladies" and had deemed Cosette my ultimate idol. Twenty-five years later, Les Miserables (Les Miz for short) holds the same power over me — and I know I'm not alone.

Les Miz, based on the book by Victor Hugo, is now in its 32nd year, having played to more than 70 million people in 44 countries and 22 languages. It's the fifth-longest-running Broadway musical of all time. And if the enthusiastic reception at the Marcus Center on opening night is any indication, Boubil and Schonberg's masterpiece continues to keep a strangle hold on Milwaukee-area hearts. 

Set in 19th century France, Les Miserables is a story of redemption, revolution, unrequited love, and sacrifice — an ode to the human spirit. It's simultaneously tragic, uplifting, and soul-stirring. The central figures are Jean Valjean, the fugitive ex-convict on a journey to become an honest man, and the pious Inspector Javert, who has hunted Valjean for decades in the name of law and duty.

Then there's Fantine, a young factory worker forced to turn to prostitution to support her sick child, Cosette — who is eventually taken in and raised by Valjean. Fast forward 10 years and there's Marius and Enjolras, young men and students on the verge of revolution, and Eponine, a girl from the streets who loves Marius and must watch him fall for the now-grown Cosette. Oh, and don't forget the fan favorites and comic relief, innkeepers and cons Monsieur and Madame Thénardier. 

It's a lot to digest in a nearly three-hour show, but this superb national touring casts makes every moment worthwhile. Rather than operatic vocals, Nick Cartell brings a four-octave frontman vibe to Valjean, in the best and most exciting way. In softer moments, his voice entrances, and his rendition of the moving "Bring Him Home" is absolutely exquisite — as good as anything you'd find on Broadway. Fantine, the angel-voiced Mary Kate Moore, gives us a beautiful "I Dreamed A Dream" — her voice big, clear, and effortless.

The women of the revolution — a grown-up Cosette and Eponine, played by Jillian Butler and Emily Bautista, respectively — are each incredibly strong. With one a sweet soprano and the other a sky-high belter, these parts can sometimes play out as shrill or try-hard. Butler and Bautista consistently strike the perfect chord. 

Bringing the laughs, Allison Gunn nails Madame Thénardier, perfectly lacking in any kind of finesse. J Anthony Crane's Monsieur Thénardier, though plenty animated, left me wondering if his talk-singing was intentional or due to illness.

If there were time and attention span to heap praise on each and every member of the cast, I would. Alas, let's talk about the gorgeous sets and lighting that brings the world of Les Miz to stunning life. Artful lighting lends all the drama of a Renaissance painting. The freshened set design is based on Victor Hugo's own sketches. Scene transitions from city streets to a factory floor to an ivied courtyard to a towering barricade — it's all seamless and larger than life.

But it's the little things in this production of Les Miserables that truly make it a master work; things that are either new additions or simply things one notices upon repeat viewings. For instance, there's such palpable tension between Valjean and Javert (shout out to understudy Steve Czarnecki) just before "Who Am I?" The two fix each other with a nose-to-nose stare, menacing and silent — one of the only moments in the show not backed by the orchestra. It's chilling.

Even the supporting characters deliver on nuance. There's the booze-loving revolutionary, Grantaire, and his particular fondness for the little street urchin, Gavroche. Keep an eye on these two during "Drink With Me" and the moments following the fall of Gavroche at the barricade — and keep a Kleenex handy. Better yet, keep a Kleenex handy throughout. There's such richness in the small moments and rapture in the production as a whole, it's easy to be swept away in a tide of emotion. Ugly crying? You bet.

Following the resounding and emphatic standing ovation for this touring production of Les Miz, it's a great comfort to know that a show that so speaks to me also speaks to my fellow theatergoers. Though she's pushing 33, Les Miserables stands the test of time and trends. Magnificent performances, dazzling sets and staging, soaring orchestrations — these things are as timeless as the show's central message: "Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise." 

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Always... Patsy Cline"

Music, laughs & a remarkable friendship fill the cabaret

Welcome to a 1950s kitchen. A collection of retro salt and pepper shakers lines the windowsill, colorful dishes air dry in a rack beside the sink, and a vintage radio lies in wait. In the corner of the Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret sits an upright piano, a set of drums, a chair for a bass guitarist, and a mid-century microphone for Ms. Patsy Cline. Now, how does Patsy get from that mic at the Grand Ole Opry to a fan's humble kitchen? Ted Swindley's Always... Patsy Cline tells that story — and it's based on a true one.

It’s the story of two women — a Star and a Fan. The star of course is Patsy Cline (the brilliant Kelly Faulkner), the country music pioneer whose voice stole America’s hearts in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She gave us timeless tracks like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Crazy.” 

The fan who falls for Patsy in Always... is Houston housewife Louise Seger (ball-of-fire Tami Workentin). She’s the storyteller, taking us from the moment she first heard Patsy on TV to the time she saw her live at the local honky tonk to the night Ms. Cline spent at her house, cracking up in the kitchen until all hours and planting the seeds of a true friendship. 

As Patsy, Faulkner is a natural. She’s played the role once before at the Rep — back in 2012 to rave reviews and sold-out performances. Six years later, Faulkner steps into the star’s shoes with easy-breezy grace — cool as a cucumber and effortless vocals to boot. There’s warmth and the occasional country cry in her voice. Out of the spotlight, Patsy’s spunky, delightful spirit shines through Faulkner. It’s no wonder she and Louise Seger developed a genuine bond. 

Workentin is indeed the fangirl in all of us as Louise. In her, we see the moment a voice first stops you dead in your tracks, transports you, and makes you feel alive. An unstoppable, hilarious force, commanding the cabaret stage in her bodacious high-rise jeans and cowboy boots, Workentin is pretty much the quintessential mom you’d find at a favorite concert, groovin' like nobody’s watching. 

Unbridled enthusiasm — that’s what this show’s got. Even if Ms. Cline isn't your personal hero, the entire Patsy package is still guaranteed to leave you grinning. A tender ending gives Always... Patsy Cline just the right pinch of poignancy that enriches the production and takes it from good plain fun to something unforgettable. It’s just like Louise Seger says: “That country gal, she’s a winner.” 

Always... Patsy Cline is playing now through May 20th at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Information & tickets at