Monday, August 19, 2019

Bad English

A Milwaukee food truck at Boone & Crockett 


I really want to love the Bad English food truck, so I'm going to need your help. The truck has been a new fixture at Boone & Crockett since June, giving Taco Moto a Filipino-style run for its money. Some of the Asian-inspired dishes look amazing. Others (the ones I tried) left me rather underwhelmed. Sad trombone. 



First up, the truck itself takes a good photo. The food is also photogenic. Purple rice topped with a veggie rainbow feels like a healthy choice, but it lacked a zing that would make me crave it. For a truck that says "Feeling Saucy?" I wondered: Where is the sauce? 



Then there were these little egg rolls. Listed on the menu board as featuring "Velveeta, sweet & spicy chili sauce & pickles," I was intrigued. Well, the rolls were straight-up filled with melty American cheese. That's it. Which is fun in a Velveeta-y way, but I dunno. 

I also tried a couple bites of noodles in a sweet & sour sauce — pretty good. But honestly, I've never been that into sweet & sour sauce, so I might be the wrong one to judge. 

Is this my most wishy-washy food review yet? Probably. The thing is, I want to want to go back to Bad English the next time I'm at Boone. I just haven't figured out what their stand-out dishes are. Please, for the love of all that's delicious, tell me: What should I be eating the next time I find myself at Bad English? 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents "Unnecessary Farce"

Slapstick laughs open the 2019-2020 theater season


Buffoonery and horseplay. Crude characterizations. Ludicrously improbable situations. Thank you, Merriam Webster, for giving us the pillars of any farce. I’d like to add that farces are also often unnecessary. They’re the result of mistaken identities, tangled lies, and absurd circumstances that prompt characters to say things like “there’s a very simple explanation...” — but that explanation never comes until the very end. 

In this particular Unnecessary Farce at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, there’s a lot of  people running in and out of rooms, slamming doors, hiding in closets, and taking off their clothes. “That hardly passes for a plot,” winks Officer Billie Dwyer (Rachel Zientek) to the audience. But Unnecessary Farce pulls out a pretty hilarious little plot — one involving two wannabe “real” cops, an accountant who keeps stripping, a featherbrained mayor, an agent sworn to protect, and a Scottish hitman named Todd (Rick Pendzich). 




Set in a Sheboygan motel, Unnecessary Farce sees two officers, the aforementioned Dwyer (Zientek) and Eric Sheridan (Ben Yela), hoping to prove themselves through a successful sting operation. The two are armed with a tower of donuts and recording equipment in the room next door to where Mayor Meekly (Jonathan Gillard Daly) is set to meet with accountant Karen Brown (Amber Smith) to talk finances. The mayor is suspected of snitching a cool 16 million from city funds, and our daring, donut-fueled duo hopes to capture his confession on tape. 

The plot informs clever staging and scenery by Martin McClendon: mirrored hotel rooms connected by an adjoining door, each room complete with doors to closets, bathrooms, and the hallway. That’s eight doors total, and they’re all flung open, slammed, inadvertently weaponized, and locked in ill time — repeatedly. A farce like this one relies heavily on funny physical stunts, comedic timing, and actors leaning on their environment to snag big laughs. It can’t be easy. In fact, many actors say comedy is the hardest genre of all. Yet director Ryan Schabach and his troupe of comedians has pulled it off. 

There isn’t an unfunny one in the bunch. From the Highland Hitman, AKA Todd, whose Scottish brogue grows progressively incomprehensible the angrier he gets to the bumbling mayor who innocently walks in at the most awkward moments, this hilarious script by Paul Slade Smith is put into laugh-aloud action by the actors assembled by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (MCT). 

Pendzich’s Todd is uproariously funny, never breaking from “stern assassin.” In a kilt. Who serenades his victims by bagpipe before pumping them full of lead. Playing off him as the earnest Officer Dwyer, Zientek won a quick round of applause for her mile-a-minute translation of a boiling mad, long-winded, and incomprehensibly Scottish Todd. Are these two ever not hilariously scene-stealing? I would (and do!) make a beeline for any comedy featuring Zientek and Pendzich. 

As the half-clothed accountant and half-brained Officer Sheridan, Smith and Yela nail both comedic intimacy and genuine affection. They’re funny and they’re cute together. Jonathan Gillard Daly plays the sweet, absent-minded Mayor Meekly to his signature Daly perfection, backed by bodyguard Agent Frank (Tim Higgins). Frank is actually a double agent suffering an escalating crisis of conscience; Higgins enjoys laughs galore. Lastly, in the interest of no major spoilers, let’s just say Jenny Wanasek is a hoot as Act Two’s Mrs. Meekly. 

Farces aren’t for everyone. They’re silly and can be tiringly convoluted. But that’s the point. According to the MCT audience guide, most farces “feature the convention of comic near-misses — usually around six. Unnecessary Farce sports eight.” So yes, this is farcical theater to the extreme, aimed at testing your reflex for laughter. What a fun and funny way to kick off the 2019–2020 theater season here in Milwaukee. I’d say this Farce is anything but unnecessary.

Photo credit: Paul Ruffolo

Monday, August 12, 2019

Under the Moon

Lunar art installation moves Milwaukee


This past weekend in the Third Ward, Milwaukee welcomed a traveling art installation called Under the Moon. The main feature was a 23-foot-wide replica of the moon, lit internally day and night. It's made from NASA lunar images printed on hot air balloon-esque material that's stitched together for a gorgeous, glowing orb. Hoisted above Catalano Square by crane, the sight caused quite the stir.



Throughout the weekend, various performances took place beneath the moon: live music, poetry, talks by folks from our local planetarium. My friends and I were lucky enough to stumble upon a contemporary dance performance by Water Street Dance — a dreamy celebration of the mystery and majesty of the moon. 

The coolest thing about the entire experience was the sheer number of Milwaukeeans who came out just to sit and gaze in awe at what is, essentially, just a fancy balloon. The atmosphere was artful and open, and it was cool to feel that shared sense of wonder. I hope it was as successful an event in the coordinator's eyes as it was in mine. To have more such experiences bringing people together would be a giant leap for Milwaukee. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Wisconsin State Fair 2019

Quick takes on fair food 


When you only have time for a weeknight trip to the fair, you have to choose your food wisely. How much can you pack in to your typical Tuesday night without instant regret? Here's what topped my list.

First up, the Buffalo Cheese Curd and Chicken Taco from Poncho Dogs. The textures are divine, the cheese melting into the chicken topped with blue cheese slaw and a drizzle of buffalo sauce, all in a chalupa-esque shell. Would get again and might not share.



My second-favorite pick is simple and delicious: Hot Wisconsin Cheese, from the booth plastered with the words "Hot Wisconsin Cheese." Melty and scrumptious as ever. Get the jalapeño ranch for dipping. 

Another crowd pleaser is the Deep Fried Italian Stallion at Water Street Brewery: thin slices of Italian beef, cheese, and giardiniera wrapped in a golden wonton. Ask for the au jus on the side.

We also went for the Dill Pickle Pizza from Rick's — a yummy-enough experiment, but we agreed it needs a drizzle of hot sauce. 

Don't bother with the Chicago Dog Nachos at Slim's PBR Park. 



For dessert, we went for the Brownie Waffle Stick from Waffle Chix. It was solid, but left me wondering if I should have gone for the deep-fried banana bread bites instead. Next year, maybe I'll move cream puffs onto my list of must-haves instead. Or deep-fried cookie dough, as I've never had it before. 

Don't forget to wash it all down with flavored milk! The peanut butter chocolate milk is pretty tasty — like the bottom of a bowl of Reese's Puffs. The mint, I'm told, is weak. At 50-cents a glass, it's worth trying them all just to say you did. 

I wonder: What tried-and-true deliciousness am I missing at the fair? Every year we collectively go for the novelties, while surely there are some simple pleasures flying under the radar. Take Hot Wisconsin Cheese — it's not making any lists, but it's firmly planted at the top of my list. So what other foods exist at the fair that don't need gimmicks to stay delicious? Please enlighten me in the comments.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Milwaukee's Skyline Music Series

Tuesday nights in Kadish Park


You know that bend on the east side of North Avenue where you can glimpse a gorgeous view of the Milwaukee skyline? Usually you're too busy driving to really appreciate it, but you know it's there and you know it's pretty great. Tuesday nights in summer are a chance to slow down, stop at Kadish Park for the Skyline Music Series, and take in this scenic spot with hundreds of your best buds from Riverwest. 



The lineup tends to be musically diverse, with styles this season including Afro-Caribbean, soulful reggae, alternative pop-rock, upbeat 80s covers, and Latin jazz. Hungry? The line is always longest at Pedro's South American Food, where saucy-scrumptious arepas, yummy empanadas, and creamy corn cups are all crave-worthy. 

Music starts at 5:30 and goes until about 8:30 each week. There's always a break in between sets, where the event organizer says a few words and invites some local youth talent to the stage to perform a song or two. It was during this little interlude that I learned how out-of-state musicians repeatedly ask to be part of the Skyline Series, but the organizers turn them down. It's all in an effort to keep things truly local. How cool is that? 



Some other live music to keep on your radar as summer winds down: Mondays and Wednesdays there's live music in Lake Park. Tuesdays are Bay View's Chill on the Hill. Washington Park Wednesdays happen, well, Wednesdays in Washington Park. Jazz in the Park happens in Cathedral Square on Thursdays, and the lakefront Colectivo hosts live music every Thursday and Friday. Am I missing your favorite spot? Share in the comments!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A long weekend in Charleston

The Holy City is here to charm your socks off


Cobblestone streets, trees that flower in high summer, pastel homes dating to pre-Civil War, lush gardens and greenery, seafood and southern staples. Charleston, South Carolina, oozes charm and quaint sophistication that’s at once dreamy and accessible. Of the handful of U.S. cities I’ve checked off my bucket list in the past year or so, Charleston is my top pick for weekenders. Allow me to break it down.



Logistics & lay of the land 
Flying into the Charleston airport, it’s about a 30-minute ride to the heart of the downtown. What I love about Charleston is that once you get to the historic district, you really don’t ever have to leave. The main streets to explore are King, Broad, and East Bay. If you shoot for those, you’ll find plenty to entertain. A good central landmark is Marion Square. We stayed on Cannon Street in a small but perfectly-situated Airbnb. Would stay there again in a heartbeat. 

If you’re up for a healthy hike, you could walk from the top of King Street all the way down to the Battery, where stately antebellum homes meet the water. The only trouble with all that walking comes with 90-something-degree days zapping your energy. Luckily, should you need them, Lyft and Uber are always an option to get from one end of downtown to the other. 

Things to do downtown
Start on King Street. If in doubt, begin at the centrally-located Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and walk toward Marion Square, which has a Saturday farmers market that’s worth a trip. The aforementioned Broad and East Bay, as well as Queen Street, are good to aim for and chock full of shops, eateries, galleries, and lovely architecture. 

Looking for photo ops? First up, the famous pineapple fountain in Waterfront Park. It's a nifty sight, and the surrounding park and boardwalk are good for a leisurely stroll. That’s the thing about Charleston — the heat gives you permission to slow down. Hurrying simply isn’t an option when it’s this hot. (Or you could just not plan a southern vacation in peak summer like we did!)



Nearby the pineapple fountain is a spot that’s very popular with bachelorette parties: rainbow row on East Bay Street. A fun game is to count how many definitive bachelorette parties you can spy in a day. Are they all wearing bedazzled fanny packs? Matching swim suits (really)? T-shirts with a bad photo crop of the groom’s face? We saw all of the above and then some, eventually losing count. 



At rainbow row, the ladies like to snap group photos in front of the house that best matches their color scheme. I made Andrew play the same game. Myself, I prefer a pop of color. Sweaty and awkward, let’s just say neither of us feels especially cut out to be an Insta star. 



If historic homes are what you’re after, there are lots to see and tour near White Point Garden (worth a stop) and the Battery. This promenade along the shore enjoys full-sun, so stay away in the heat of a blue-sky day. In this part of town, you’ll see many horse-drawn tours of historic homes — as well as yard signs advocating for humane treatment of carriage horses. In short, we opted to walk. 



To get out of the sun, we joined a tour at the Nathaniel Russell House. Our guide was a dear lady with scads of facts and architectural knowledge in brain. We learned about rainy day doors, necessary chairs, and that it was common to only go all-out decorating the rooms that guests would see. Tours of homes come with a price tag in the range of $12–20, but we learned that you can visit the grounds for free. The Calhoun mansion is a good spot to wander through manicured gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures. 

For next time: I’d like to do the Gateway Walk. It's an informal trail through the heart of Charleston, snaking through urban gardens, churchyards, and cemeteries in all their gothic glory. However, we learned that many churches shut their gates by late afternoon and some may be closed indefinitely for construction. If you’re interested in exploring this hidden gem, go earlier in the day and keep your fingers crossed that all construction has ceased. 

Get out of town
Although historic downtown Charleston is supremely walkable, there are some neat things to see just outside of town, too. You could take a Lyft or Uber to these spots, but each is about 30 minutes one way. In the end, Andrew and I did the math and decided it would be more cost effective and pleasant to just rent a car for a couple of days. Finding a rental was crazy convenient. We booked a car Friday night, then walked to pick it up at noon the following day. 



First up, the car took us to Shem Creek Park in the town of Mount Pleasant. We walked along the boardwalk among tall wetland grasses, rubbed elbows with local fishermen, admired the boats, and snapped a pic of one very brave bird. We spied kayaks passing by as well, so if it’s water sports you’re after, give Shem Creek Park a whirl. 



During our second full day in Charleston, we packed in two half-day trips. First was a trip to the beach. It was between Sullivan Island and Folly, which we heard was a touristy, party beach. A couple of locals recommended Sullivan and we were glad they did — the breeze felt incredible on that near-100-degree day. 



In the afternoon, we set out for Cypress Gardens. The gardens were made famous in The Notebook, but that’s not why we went. I mostly just wanted to get my fill of southern swampland in its all majesty (no really!). Turns out, Cypress Gardens is one part naturally incredible, one part still rebuilding from a devastating hurricane. It also didn’t help that we were there in the most oppressive heat of the day, not a breeze to be had. Although beautiful, our next priority was to sit awhile in the sweet, sweet AC at our Airbnb. Sigh.  



Note: There are other Cypress-esque spots you can visit, all about the same drive-time from downtown Charleston. Check out Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place to see if one of those speaks to you! 

Eating & drinking 
What good is a vacation if it’s not delicious? For breakfast, we walked up King Street to The Daily twice because we liked it so much. It’s a coffeehouse serving Stumptown brews plus a menu of toasts, salads, and fresh bakery. We went for the whipped feta, smoked salmon, and avocado toast, and also went gaga over a sample of The Daily’s croissant loaf — croissant dough baked in a loaf pan. Imagine the possibilities! The coffee drinks were yummy, too.

Our other breakfast stop was Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. Worth the hype? Absolutely. Get there early to avoid waiting in too-long of a line. If said line is 10-or-so people deep outside the door, don’t fret — it moves quickly. If it’s longer than that, *shrug*. The egg, sausage, and pimento cheese breakfast biscuit is where it’s at. 

We also bopped into Queen Street Grocery one day, an old-fashioned corner shop recommended to us for a quick breakfast. At the time, however, we were simply in need of water after being in the sun for hours on end. But we spied a menu of scrumptious sweet and savory crepes. Noted for next time. 



Our one official lunch stop was at a French café on Broad Street called Gaulart & Maliclet. ”Fast and French” is their tagline. Don’t let the outdated website fool you — this place charmed my socks off. The interior is unassuming and seating is largely at the bar. Lunch specials are served with your choice of house wine. We shared an open-faced baguette sandwich topped with goat cheese and green olive tapenade, as well as a plate of cheese and charcuterie. The soundtrack? The likes of Louis Armstrong. Swoony vibes all around. 



Ready for dinner? On our first night, we filled our bellies at Xiao Bao Biscuit, a trendy spot set in a converted gas station. It was pretty neat and plenty delicious. Our favorite thing (hands down, highly debated going back to get it again) was the Okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage pancake. Top it with egg and pork candy. Drool. 

In search of fresh seafood, we stopped at both 167 Raw on East Bay and The Darling Oyster Bar on King Street. Both are charming and notoriously packed. We did 167 Raw for dinner on Saturday and ended up with an over-two-hour wait. We bopped down the street for a mojito in the meantime. When we finally got inside, we saw why the wait was so long: the dining area is no bigger than your average living room. The Darling, on the other hand, is bigger and more beautiful than rustic. We stopped in for their happy hour deal — a nice way to check another yummy spot off the list. 



One of my favorite dinners was at a spot called Leon’s Poultry and Oyster Shop. It’s located on King Street, but a bit of a walk away from the heart of it all. The interior is rustic and cozy, and as I had been craving fried chicken, it really hit the spot. To me, it doesn’t get much better than a really good fried chicken sandwich, sufficiently sauced and topped with pickles and slaw. Washing it down with a Pimm’s Cup? Yes please!  



For dessert, wait in line at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. And then when your flight home ends up being super delayed, take it as a sign from above that you’re meant to go back for more. See, when you find your perfect ice cream (browned butter almond brittle in a house-made waffle cone), you don’t ask questions. You indulge. Twice in 24 hours.

Specifically for drinks, we stopped at Revelry Brewing, a container-style bar with a killer rooftop and a crowd of the bachelor and bachelorette party variety. It’s a bit out of downtown, so take a car to get there. On Saturday night around 5pm, there was a bumpin’ DJ and wall-to-wall people. We snagged a seat at the bar and really did revel in the shift in energy. The other watering hole we enjoyed was Prohibition on King Street. Any bar with fancy egg white drinks on the menu is all right in my book. The vibe at Prohibition is wonderfully vintage, buoyed that night by live music and swing dancers. 

Next time: I’d add The Ordinary (a gorgeous seafood restaurant set in a 1920s bank), Babas on Cannon (an old-world café and bar), and Husk (southern signatures in a restored Victorian home) to my list of places to hit. And I’m sure that list could just keep growing. 

As you might have gleaned, Charleston stole a bit of my heart. Although it will be hard to justify going back to the Holy City any time soon, I sure do hope we meet again someday. 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Broadway's "Anastasia" comes to Milwaukee

A show that dazzles while drawing comparisons

From the regal shimmer of tsarist Russia circa 1917 to the gloom of post-revolution St. Petersburg to Paris in all its 1927 effervescence, Anastasia is indeed a journey to the past. But it’s not quite the same past that fans of the 1997 animated film have come to adore with cultish fervor. If you’ve come for Rasputin in all his comic-bad-guy glory, be warned: he’s not here. Not even a mention. That goes double for talking bats.

This Anastasia is much more rooted in reality. In brief, how in the final days of Imperial Russia, revolutionists captured the entire Romanov family — Tsar Nicholas II, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children — and shot them dead. There really were rumors that the youngest daughter, Anastasia, somehow survived. People love an urban legend. Our collective intrigue over this young princess and the fantasy of her escape has manifested in movies and stage productions that continue to feed our fascination. Even without Rasputin, the Romanovs’ creepy spiritual advisor and arguably one of the most chilling chapters in their family biography, there’s ample history to support a Broadway musical.


So why does it feel like there are some loose threads in Anastasia and a bit of an identity crisis? This is a show that leaves one wondering whether its creators hoped to drive home history, revolution, and the aftermath of tragedy, or a princess story and fairytale romance. Not saying both can’t be achieved, but if you have to ask the question in the first place, that says something.

Being a devotee of the 1997 film myself, I recognize my own bias. Yet I feel it’s safe to say that the weakest link in Anastasia’s stage story is the villain, Gleb. Instead of a snarling Rasputin, we’re given a soviet police inspector that’s so Javert-lite, the best thing about his character is to pick out the similarities: sung inner monologues, a sense of duty, a crisis of conscience, even the cadence of his songs and vocal tone. As the touring Gleb, Jason Michael Evans has a lovely voice to be sure, but the character itself feels underdeveloped and too derivative to leave a lasting impression.

That said, the existence of Gleb points to an Anastasia leaning into reality more than fantasy. Just as there’s no undead Rasputin with a batty sidekick, the on-stage Anya (Anastasia) is much more raw and real. She’s zapped of her animated character’s humor and lightness, as well as her playful, sarcastic rapport with love interest Dmitry. Instead, Anya is portrayed as a girl who has lived a tragedy — a little glum, but a fighter, brave and bold.

Given the horrors she’s endured, I can see why the show’s creators chose to give Anya more realistic emotions at the onset. Yet despite this critical change in tone for our titular character, her story’s final chapter ends up the same as in the animated film. I’m all for a fairytale ending, but this Anastasia was not really set up to be a fairytale — rather, a historical fiction. Hence the disconnect.

For all my quibbles and overthinking of character development and motivation, Anastasia is certainly an entertaining night of theater. Dazzling costumes range from twirling, glittering royal garb to the lush, flirty sparkle of 1920s Paris. It’s all so divine, you quickly forget about all those drab Russian rags worn in the bulk of Act One. When it comes to choreography, dancing happens in the palace and in Paris — a purposeful choice to exclude post-revolution Russia from all joy, perhaps. A special moment comes when our protagonists attend the Russian Ballet and we’re treated to a snippet of Swan Lake as a ballet-within-a-play.

The sets are, for the most part, rendered through digital effects. Skyscraping screens depict everything from the imperial palace ablaze to lightly-falling snow to the streets of St. Petersburg and Paris. Many times the images on the screens rise and fall like physical set pieces would, and their digital nature allows for visuals to flow between scenes for quick, seamless transitions.

Last but certainly not least, this touring cast deserves the highest of praise. Lila Coogan’s Anya has a pristine, powerful singing voice and plenty of spunk. Our Dmitry on opening night was understudy Matt Rosell — solid vocals and adorable to boot. As Anya’s grandmother the Dowager Empress, Joy Franz repeatedly tugs at emotional heartstrings. She’s simply wonderful. Most outstanding is Edward Staudenmayer as Vlad, Dmitry’s cohort. His voice is next-level greatness, and his presence lends a lightness of spirit to the stage. As Vlad’s romantic interest, Countess Lily, Tari Kelly lights up her scenes with humor and huge vocals. She’s just plain fun, and she and Staudenmayer together are stand-out favorites.

As the curtain fell, I was struck with mixed emotions. This Anastasia is impeccably performed, gorgeously rendered, and entertaining to be sure. Still, to me, the new songs don’t soar alongside the old ones. I wonder how I’d feel if I didn’t already know those old songs by heart. That’s the risk the show’s creators took in translating Anastasia for Broadway. The question, in the end, is whether or not they improved upon the source material and made this new journey worth everyone’s while. Fans of the film, go and see for yourself. See if you can hear the ode to “In the Dark of the Night.” Sigh over Anya’s signature blue evening gown. Swoon a little over Dmitry. Then come find me. We’ve got a lot to talk about.