Monday, December 18, 2017

Luminaria Weekend in Galena, Illinois

Smells like Gilmore Girls and Christmas

Does twice make a tradition? Last weekend, my mom and I did our second annual trip to Galena, Illinois, for their weekend of Luminaria and Living Windows. As we're already buzzing about next year, I like to think it's officially a new tradition. A very Lorelei-and-Rory-esque tradition. You know: "I smell snow," and coffee, and an inn, and a quaint town, and mother/daughter antics. Am I giving you a toothache? Involuntary twitches? Eye rolls? Sorry, not sorry — my mom is the cat's pajamas, and what can I say? We know how to have a deliciously-cheesy Hallmark movie kind of weekend. 

For our combined mother/daughter sanity next year, allow me to log our perfect itinerary for a Galena Luminaria weekend. This may not be exactly how everything went down during year two, but Mom and I like to think we (hopefully) worked out all necessary scheduling kinks. Must make note for year three. 

First off, we stayed at the Lamberson Guest House, a four-bedroom inn up on the hill, overlooking Main Street. It's the perfect location in terms of views and access to the harrowing staircase that takes you from the top of the hill to the heart of downtown Galena. While we were there, the house was celebrating its first anniversary of being an inn — meaning it feels very clean and new, while still being historic, as are most of the B&Bs in town. 

The ambiance preserves that old world charm, but you can tell the paint is fresh, the linens aren't worn, and there's not a whiff of that musty smell. There are also two pups, Murray and Jack, to cap off the cuteness. The owner Michelle is not only warm and delightful — she's superwoman. Her dear husband passed away unexpectedly just six weeks after they opened the inn last year. Can you imagine? Her spirit and perseverance are truly an inspiration.

But back to the preferred itinerary: Ideally you'd want to arrive at Lamberson Guest House by 4pm on Friday evening to take full advantage of Michelle's wine and cheese happy hour. Call ahead (like, a few weeks ahead) to make a 6pm reservation for dinner at our favorite spot in town, Fritz & Frites. This German and French bistro is quickly becoming the only dinner spot in town for my mom and I. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The schnitzel is heaven. 

After said heavenly dinner, I recommend heading back to the inn, warming up by the electric fire, and popping in a favorite Christmas movie (White Christmas for the win!). In the morning, hopefully it will have magically snowed over night (it did for us!). Breakfast is served promptly at 8:30 and lasts about an hour. 

The food was delicious, but exceedingly rich. Pace yourself. After breakfast, take a little walk around the hilltop neighborhood before bopping back to the inn for some noon-time coffee, reading, relaxing, and (maybe) napping. You'll need your energy to stay out all afternoon and evening for the various Luminaria activities. From 2–4pm, $10 gets you a tour of a number of historical B&Bs — something my mom and I didn't make it to this year, but intend to do in year three. 

Then from 4–6 on Main Street, it's the Living Windows. This is also when you can bop in and out of shops to do some Christmas shopping (though it's surprising how few truly great shops there are... many lean tacky or country). The Living Windows are the real draw, with everything from magicians to cute kiddos to a slew of kittens beckoning folks to peer inside. Carolers move along the street, serenading as they go, and a four-piece brass band plays traditional carols on a street corner. Charm. For. Days. 

Starting at 6pm, it's time for the Luminaria. The streets and hillside steps are lined with paper lanterns, setting the whole town aglow. It really feels like you've stepped into one of those ceramic Christmas villages. In the future, I would probably ask Michelle at the inn, or someone in town, where you might find the best vantage point to take in the Luminaria scene. While my mom and I enjoyed just moseying around, having a more fixed destination might be nice. 

Oh, and if at any time during the Living Windows or Luminaria  you need some sustenance, bop into Devour for a coffee or hot chocolate — the ambiance is cool and the people are super friendly. 

Saturday's end goal is to be at Fritz & Frites, enjoying dessert, when the carolers make their final stop. This year, my mom and I managed this by sharing an apple strudel for over an hour — a very silly thing, but totally worth it. In the future, we decided we're just going to have an entire meal there, dessert and all. Remember: If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and the food at Fritz & Frites is just so good! Plus the owners are super sweet; they gave us a complimentary flute of Turtle Bourbon to top off our coffee. 

In a perfect world, make a dinner reservation for 8:00 or 8:30, as the carolers come in after 9pm (it was about 9:15 to be exact). Follow this itinerary, and you're living the Luminaria dream! 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Next Act Theatre presents "The Secret Mask"

A story of fathers, sons, and forgiveness 

It's the holiday season, and around the Milwaukee theater scene there is no shortage of show-stopping good cheer and merriment to be had. 'Tis the season for a feel-good extravaganza! But at the Next Act Theatre, there's something much more subtle, raw, and real now on stage; no spunky red heads or theatrical snow showers here. 

It's The Secret Mask, a play by Rick Chafe, rife with heart and a lovely smattering of humor. It's the story of an estranged father and son and their journey to (we hope) reconciliation. Ernie, the father played by James Pickering, has just suffered a stroke, and with no one else to turn to, calls on his son George, played by Drew Parker, for help. Ernie is struggling with memory and speech loss; George is struggling with 40 years of hurt feelings. 

Each party delivers intense, believable performances from start to finish, and that's the real joy in this Secret Mask. I especially love how Pickering can break your heart with just a look. Parker, on the other hand, really nailed every distressing, anger-ridden, and sorrowful scene. This is a man who has hit rock bottom, while coming to grips with a lifetime of abandonment issues. Parker makes us feel every emotion right along with him. Pair him with Pickering for two hours of intimate theater, and it's deeply moving. I spied many tearful eyes in the crowd that night — myself included. 

Rounding out the cast and giving us moments of levity and humor is Tami Workentin as Mae, Ernie's speech therapist. She's warm, comforting, and just who you'd want helping your own father after a stroke. She also switches gears to a delightful slew of bit parts: a nervous bank teller, a chatty waitress, Ernie's old fisherman pal. Workentin moves effortlessly from one character to the next, and it's great fun to watch. The simple set design also transports us with ease from a hospital to a local diner to seaside cliffs.

The bottom line, good theater is good theater, whatever the season. There was a time when James Pickering — a Milwaukee living legend — would be playing Ebenezer Scrooge during the holiday season; he holds the 14-season record as the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's longest-running Scrooge. Pickering has now moved on to something more nuanced and much less flashy, and it's a good move. These are the kind of fine performances that stick with you, and if you're an avid theatergoer, that's one of the best gifts you could receive this season. 

The Secret Mask is playing at Milwaukee's Next Act Theatre now through December 10th. Info and tickets at

Milwaukee Rep presents "A Christmas Carol"

A holiday classic spreads tidings of comfort & joy

Last year at this time, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater debuted its all-new 41st anniversary production of A Christmas Carol — a feat then three years in the making. The Rep boasts the second-longest-running professional production of the Charles Dickens classic in the country, and given the magnificent caliber of its set and costume design, stage direction, original score, veteran actors, and touch of Panto-style (interactive) theater, this is one Carol that will undoubtedly continue to be sung for decades to come. 

The most noteworthy changes and upgrades in this still-new Christmas Carol, directed and adapted by Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements, are the towering, rotating sets, the return of the Rep's newest Ebenezer Scrooge — the brilliant Jonathan Wainwright — and a slew of decidedly ghostly touches. After all, though this is a story of Christmas and redemption, it's all courtesy of three otherworldly spirits. When the spirits appear, that's when this Milwaukee Rep production really comes to life. 

I admit, the first few scenes of A Christmas Carol are often the hardest for me. The lines are so fixed in my brain, I can recite every "Christmas a humbug, uncle?" and "Are there no prisons, no poorhouses?" like the back of my hand — and that's a distracting thing. But as the massive set spun from ceiling-scraping London facades to Scrooge's interior bedroom, my mind finally started to leave behind all previous Carol conceptions. Jonathan Smoots' haunting Jacob Marley snapped my senses to rapt attention — his rich, ghostly bellowing delivering thrills and chills. 

To round out the riveting cast of Act One spirits, cue Milwaukee favorite Deborah Staples, returning as the ethereal Ghost of Christmas Past. Although I remember Staples' Ghost coming off a bit severe last year, I feel she dialed it back just a hair this time, making her performance all the more spellbinding. In her celestial, LED light-lined gown, Deb Staples doesn't just ask a question of the audience in Panto style — she commands an answer. It's delicious. 

Also delicious: The whole of Christmas Past. As we enter Scrooge's childhood, real (theatrical) snow floats down upon the Pabst Theatre audience to delighted gasps, wide-eyed wonder, and children reaching to grasp the soapy flakes. That little dusting of snow was enough to fill my head with warm nostalgia of Christmases past — as Scrooge himself would soon also be. The young Scrooges, played by Jack Trettin and Gabe Smith, sang the wistful carol In the Bleak Midwinter with angelic purity and grace. 

Watching as Scrooge grows to an apprenticed young man, we meet Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Always a favorite duo, the merry couple are played this time by Michael J. Farina and Angela Iannone to charming effect. I should note that the two also play the pair of donation collectors in Christmas Present, finishing each others' sentences with, to my memory, a better rhythm than last year, thanks to the new addition of Farina. The spectacularly diverse Iannone also plays Scrooge's crotchety housekeeper in Act Two — a bit part that nearly steals the show for all the comedic flair she brings to the stage.

As the curtain rises on Act Two, we find ourselves in Christmas Present with Todd Denning as Scrooge's jovial tour guide. Last year, the character had a Jamaican influence — this year, he's Scottish, and the accent is much easier to decipher. It's here we visit the home of Scrooge's faithful clerk, Bob Cratchit, and get a slice of Scrooge's nephew Fred's own Christmas with family and friends. 

In both scenes, we're faced with tender moments: young Tiny Tim, played by the darling Ashley Bock (you go girl!), sings a wishing song, and Fred's party pays tribute to the miserly Scrooge with a moving reprise of In the Bleak Midwinter. Fred and wife Clara, played by Jesse Bhamrah and Annelyse Ahmad — both clear-voiced — lead the entrancing ensemble. The Rep, once again, has gathered a sublime choir of vocalists, and it's heaven on the ears.

Walking with Scrooge into the foreboding, oppressive darkness of his Christmas Future, it's here that the ghostly feel is most striking. Although, there are two prior moments (not counting Jacob Marley) that deserve a shout-out: At the end of Christmas Past, the ghosts of Scrooge's own past swarm about him, reciting all their targeted, hurtful truths until Ebenezer is left cowering on the ground — and at the end of Christmas Present, personified ignorance, want, and poverty close in around him. Chilling, affecting creative choices. 

But any production of A Christmas Carol — however flashy — is only as good as its Scrooge. Luckily for the Milwaukee Rep, they've found a remarkable talent in their twelfth Ebenezer, Jonathan Wainright. He navigates Scrooge's well-earned transformation with marvelous zeal: reacting to spirits both regal, merry, and downright spooky, gazing with a heavy heart at his own pitiful past, shaking with the fear of a doomed future, and eventually exhibiting an all-encompassing mirth at the promise of a second chance at life. 

While James Pickering holds the record for 14 seasons of bringing Scrooge to life at the Milwaukee Rep, I for one hope that Wainright is up for usurping that record. It would be a pleasure to watch as he continues to grow into this most iconic role. The good news is, this Christmas Carol isn't just a great night of theater — it's also not going anywhere. This Milwaukee tradition does, as Christmas Carol composer John Tanner wrote, "bring good cheer," marking that "Christmas has begun — God bless us, everyone!" There's really no better way to kick off the holiday season here in Milwaukee. 

A Christmas Carol is playing now through December 24th at the Milwaukee Rep. Information and tickets at

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Pumpkin chocolate chip oat muffins

Gluten-free & mostly wholesome 

In search of a yummy muffin recipe for Thanksgiving weekend, I circled back to one I'd drooled over on Instagram a while back — Pinch of Yum's favorite pumpkin muffins. Note that you do need a food processor or blender for this recipe. 

I liked that the muffins were free of flour and refined sugar, so they're packed with (mostly) wholesome ingredients — something we could all use more of after all the Thanksgiving over-eating. These muffins turned out really tasty! Delicious right out of the oven, and yummy the next day — especially if you zap 'em in the microwave for about 15 seconds. 

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2 cups rolled oats
1 cup pumpkin purée (canned works!)
6 oz. or 1 small container plain Greek yogurt (I subbed sour cream)
1/2 cup real maple syrup
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp cinnamon 
1/8 tsp salt 
1 cup semi-sweet or dark chocolate chocolate chips (optional)

*Note: Though the muffins were plenty tasty as-is (all those chocolate morsels!) I may try adding more spice next time (starting with 1/8 tsp each clove, nutmeg, or pumpkin pie spice) and/or 1/4–1/2 tsp of vanilla, because why not?

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a muffin tin. 

2. In a food processor or blender, pulse the oats until they're mostly smooth. 

3. If your food processor is large enough, add all other ingredients (minus chocolate chips) and pulse until just combined. If your food processor is small, transfer the pulsed oats to a large mixing bowl, add the remaining ingredients, and beat with an electric mixer until just combined. Stir in chocolate chips.

4. Pour batter into prepared muffin tin. Bake for 15–20 minutes. Let cool 5–10 minutes in the pan before removing. Enjoy warm! 

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These muffins disappeared in no time, and I have to say it was nice knowing they're made with such a short list of simple ingredients. Will definitely make again — give 'em a whirl, friends! 

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Skylight presents "Annie"

A beloved family favorite delivers a dose of optimism 

Before opening weekend of Annie at Milwaukee's Skylight Music Theatre, I'd only seen and heard snippets of the iconic 1977 musical. Sure, I could sing along to "Tomorrow" and the chorus of "Hard Knock Life" like any good musical theater fan, but my knowledge of our red-headed, orphaned heroine pretty much stopped at face value. Before the curtain rose, I admit I worried a little that even for a self-identifying optimist like me, Annie would turn out to be a bit too syrupy and lean heavily on its one hit song. 

Boy were those worries cast aside in no time. But first, a quick run-down of the plot for those who've never even heard "Tomorrow." Annie, a plucky orphan who sees a world full of sunshine and possibility, gets the chance to spend Christmas with billionaire Oliver Warbucks. What starts as a charity case turns into an inseparable duo — but Annie still dreams of finding her real mom and dad. Toss in some shenanigans to threaten the happy ending, courtesy of crooked orphanage owner Miss Hannigan, and you've got the gist. 

Waiting for the show to begin, dozens of families trickled into the Skylight's Cabot Theatre, toting little girls in their Sunday best. Eyes gleaming, some of them were lucky enough to snag a booster seat, while others hung over the orchestra railing to sneak a peek at the conductor during Annie's overture. I remember being that little girl myself. Cue the fond nostalgia. 

We saw the Sky cast that day, starring the spunky KyLee Hennes as Annie. This young lady quickly stole my heart and, I admit, brought me to tears singing "Maybe" — a ballad in which orphan Annie wishes her parents would come back for her, musing: "Betcha they're good, why shouldn't they be? Their one mistake was giving up me." We weren't 10 minutes into the show, but this little girl had such heart and honesty in her song that I needed a Kleenex. A good sign. 

I was equally floored by the kids cast and youth ensemble, the girls who play Annie's cohorts at Miss Hannigan's orphanage. Each one brings their own special vim and vigor to the stage, and it's insanely fun to watch. I'd say "Hard Knock Life" is my clear favorite, but then I remember there's also a phenomenal adult cast. 

Carrie Hitchcock's Miss Hannigan is pitch-perfect in her blend of comedy and callousness. She delivers the kind of coarse, vaguely bawdy old crow audiences love to hate. Rounding out the sleazy scumbags are Matt Crowle as Hannigan's brother, Rooster, and Samantha Sostarich as Rooster's dame. Put all three together singing about "Easy Street" and it makes for a highly-entertaining trio.

As for the good guys, our mighty billionaire with the soft underbelly, Oliver Warbucks, is brought to life by the charming, wonderfully robust and strong-voiced Andrew Varela. Diane Lane plays Warbucks' smart, steadfast assistant, Grace Farrell. The strength of Lane's operatic vocals pairs beautifully with Varela's tenor and sweetly fills out Annie's collective sound. 

The Skylight's Annie isn't just a treat for the ears — it's also one for the eyes. I counted no less than seven scene changes, each rendered in a sort of winsome, picture-book style. When you add up everything from the stellar kids cast to the rich, jewel-toned costuming to the real dog on stage (Annie's dog Sandy is played by Skippy in the Sky cast), you get the quintessential family-friendly holiday outing — and the perfect story to inspire young girls. 

Director Molly Rhode says it best as she recalls her first infatuation with the movie Annie back in 1982: "I had a small obsession with it. A story with a kid at the center, and that kid was a girl, and that girl had a fierce and fiery spirit. That girl was tough as nails, and though the world had only given her hardship, she remained full of optimism. She persisted. Annie is her own agent of change. She doesn't wait for things to happen to her, she seizes the opportunity. What a stunning role model." 

35 years later, girls of all ages still need an Annie — a role model who embodies that "though she be but little, she is fierce" mentality. Annie will forever be a shining example that even the smallest of us can affect positive change, and with gumption, fortitude, and kindness, a new tomorrow is only a day away. 

Annie is playing now through December 27th at the Skylight Music Theatre. Tickets available at

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Holmes & Watson"

A heart-pounding drama of mystery & murder

Suspense, plot twists, believability, a dash of humor, a satisfying finale — that's what successful murder-mysteries are made of. When a play possesses all of these hallmarks and even boasts the company of everyone's favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes, a surefire hit seems elementary, my dear Watson. So what of Holmes & Watson, a new drama making its midwest debut at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

Let's examine the evidence, starting with a spoiler-free gist of the play by writer Jeffery Hatcher: Following Sherlock Holmes' "death" at Reichenbach Falls, Dr. Watson must travel far and wide to disprove the many charlatans who now claim to be the real Sherlock. When we meet Watson, he has just been called to a remote mental asylum housing three men, each claiming to be the late detective and matching his physical description. Now it's up to the sidekick to solve the mystery and determine which of the three gentleman, if any, is the real Sherlock Holmes. 

Without giving anything away, I can safely say that although Holmes & Watson is a new work, it's still a mystery that plays out as other classics of this genre tend to — with all the aforementioned suspense and plot twists. I brought my brother along to the theater on opening night, and we shared more than one suspicious, nervous, or wide-eyed glance over the course of the play. At one point I even gasped and grabbed his arm for dear life — a testament to the caliber of acting, directing, and writing on display. 

There really isn't a sour apple in the bunch, as far as actors go. The three Sherlocks are especially fun to watch, probably because it's always a treat to see someone new don the iconic — and in this case, figurative — double-brimmed hat. Ryan Imhoff plays a Sherlock most akin to Benedict Cumberbatch's quick-witted, brooding BBC iteration — and he's tall, dark, and handsome to boot. Grant Goodman gives us a straight-jacketed Sherlock, crazed but smart and convincing in his portrayal's originality. 

I have to say my favorite of the three goes to Rex Young, whose deaf, mute, and blind Sherlock held my attention in a sort of straight jacket of its own. Now that's stage presence. Norman Moses delivers a solid, likable Dr. Watson, though I must admit there were times in the doctor's investigation that lagged just a little. With an 80-minute, intermission-free show, one would hope to be on the very edge of one's seat for each precious moment. 

Still, I'd argue that almost every classic murder-mystery suffers from a smidgeon of wordy exposition — a momentary detour from the suspense. But when those suspenseful moments present themselves in Holmes & Watson, they'll have you holding your breath and clutching your neighbor's arm. To me, that's what makes Holmes & Watson feel like a new classic — one that lovers of traditional Sherlock Holmes will no doubt enjoy. 

One final favorite I have to acknowledge: The remarkable staging and set design, as well as direction by the Milwaukee Rep's former Artistic Director, Joseph Hanreddy. The multilevel set mixes practical effects — mainly chilling mists — and multimedia projections to flesh out the scenes to marvelous effect. 

So what's the final verdict? As the house lights came on after the wonderfully dizzying final scene, my brother and I left the theater saying, "That was fun!" If you ask me, that's just what an evening of "whodunnit?" should be. 

Holmes & Watson is playing through December 17th at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Info and tickets at

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Murder for Two"

Laugh-out-loud murder & mayhem in the Stackner Cabaret

Confession: They had to resuscitate me before I could write this post because I had died from laughter. Somehow the Milwaukee Repertory Theater keeps one-upping itself with the sheer joy it's bringing to the stage at the Stackner Cabaret. Murder for Two, running now through January 14th, is a mix of music, murder, and mayhem — or as Joe Kinosian, the show's co-author and Milwaukee High School of the Arts alumnus, calls it: "a love letter to musical theater, screwball comedy, and partnership." 

The 90-minute, intermission-free musical comedy features a whopping 13 characters played by just two actors. Sweet-voiced and charming, Matt Edmonds plays would-be detective Marcus Moscowicz. Aforementioned Milwaukeean and co-author of Murder for Two, Joe Kinosian, plays the zany lineup of most unusual suspects. Both fellas play the piano and sing and sweat their faces off. As far as musical talent goes, these guys are good — really good. 

In a nutshell, the story pays homage to classic murder-mystery plots: A mixed bag of folks holed up in a giant house, a sudden lethal gunshot, a new detective on scene, and the big question — whodunnit? I'm happy to report that Murder for Two keeps you guessing 'til the end. It's hilarious fun to watch Kinosian tackle his own spectrum of suspects — the merry widow, the quarreling married couple, the melodramatic ballerina, the cagey psychiatrist. 

I don't dare name them all, as half the fun is watching Kinosian pull character after character out of his magic hat. How one man can not only keep all those personalities straight but also bring them to life with such rapid-fire fluidity is absolutely astounding. At bow-taking time, I couldn't jump to my feet fast enough to give the Milwaukee native an insanely well-deserved standing ovation. 

Of course, as Kinosian said, Murder for Two isn't just a love letter to screwball comedy — it's also an ode to partnership. Though one might deduce that Kinosian's multiple personalities will forever steal the show, such characters would surely fall by the wacky wayside without a more cool and collected foil. 

Enter Matt Edmonds' "Detective" Moscowicz, an officer on a quest to solve the mystery and prove his worth. Edmonds lends a dash of heart to the otherwise crazy-funny plot and rides the wave of Kinosian's antics without skipping a beat. It's a marvel that he can make it through the show without bursting out laughing; I know the opening night crowd in the Stackner Cabaret could barely contain their own hysteric bursts. Kinosian calls it "Marx Bros.-style escapism." I call it a must-see. 

Murder for Two is playing through January 14th at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Info and tickets at

Monday, November 13, 2017

"Hamilton" in Chicago

In the room where it happened — with Lin-Manuel Miranda 

Blow us all away. I always knew that’s what finally seeing Hamilton would do. Two years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about why the then relatively-new Broadway sensation had me feeling helpless. Like so many others, I obsessed, gushed & freaked the hell out over the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer prize-winning hip hop musical. 

But when they announced Hamilton was coming to Chicago, I didn’t pull the trigger immediately. Figured I’d wait for it, wait for it, wait. And Alexander was wrong — I didn’t get nothing by waiting. By some stroke of luck or cosmic intervention, the crowd at the November 11th 2pm show in Chicago got so much more than we ever bargained for. 

You see, Lin-Manuel Miranda was there. Just there. Sitting center-orchestra, somewhere around Row N. Him and his lil’ burgundy beanie. The murmur started small. I looked up to see folks in the balcony leaning over, iphones blazing. The murmur grew. “Some celebrity,” the lady next to me said. 

Then the rumor reached us in orchestra-left — Lin-Manuel. “No, it couldn’t possibly,” I scoffed. But then he rose to his feet. I rose to mine, in complete fangirl hysterics. Lin-Manuel smiled and humbly waved at the adoring crowd, his genuine spirit palpable. It lasted all of 10 seconds, maybe 20. He then sat back down and snapped a selfie with the lucky lady sharing his armrest. Can. You. Imagine.

We all tried to play it cool, knowing the man himself was sitting right there as the curtain rose on his own masterpiece. Getting swept up in Hamilton takes all of two seconds — “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman…” It took my friends and I hours to digest all the things we loved and felt about this show, and while I won’t subject you to each and every nuance, I can’t fathom writing a traditional review either. There’s no point. You already know it’s going to be all fawning and flattery. So instead, for the sake of my personal memory bank, I’ll share some of what struck me most. 

First, there’s the visual spectacle, which all the incessant listening and lyric-memorizing in the world couldn’t have prepared me for. The delicious cocktail that is Hamilton’s Tony award-winning choreography, lighting design, scenic design, and costume design gives the audience a buzz like no other. The action is non-stop. There’s so much happening on the rotating stage that it’s hard to know where to look — in the best way. The dancers' movements are modern and precise, often framing the scene, acting as props, or serving to bring physical props on and off stage with artful grace.

One of the most effective and riveting bits of choreography is the manipulation of time throughout the show. Dancers reel backward to suggest a rewinding of time, move in slow-motion to suspend moments in time, and freeze to halt the clock altogether, giving certain doomed characters more time than they’d otherwise have. It’s spell-binding. 

What I noticed first about the lighting is the way in which it serves to highlight the strong curves of the dancers’ bodies and their cream-colored costumes. There are moments when the blinding white of the illuminated troupe beautifully punctuates the scene. The second thing to note about lighting is the way it highlights key moments in the story — mainly death. There’s a single bright light on Philip following his duel, reminiscent of the death of Enjolras and Gavroche in Les Miserables. And the final moment of the show hinges entirely on a bright, heaven-sent light shining down on Eliza — an inspired and unspeakably moving finish. 

Seeing Hamilton as a whole work of art, it becomes so much more than voices on a recording. The experience of it flows so effortlessly that time positively flies and you wish that, like the actors on stage, you too could manipulate the minutes and make them last. 

Reflecting back, it struck my friends and I that the first and second halves of the show differ entirely in tone — the first feeling lighter and full of promise, and the second delivering a slew of tender, tearful moments. What’s remarkable is the way in which Lin-Manuel Miranda paced these moments, never failing to keep up the energy of the show. He even winks at the audience when things are feeling a little too bleak: “Can we get back to politics? — Please!” 

While I could go on and on about Hamilton in the abstract sense, I have to close with a shout out to the phenomenal Chicago cast. Miguel Cervantes, be still my heart. Pure-voiced with the perfect blend of smarts and swagger, the man is a quintessential Alexander Hamilton. Sorry Lin-Manuel, but Cervantes wins this rap battle! We also swooned for Ari Afsar, whose softer take on Eliza hit all the right notes. 

Chris De’Sean Lee, Wallace Smith, and José Ramos as Lafayette & Jefferson, Mulligan & Madison, and Laurens & Philip, respectively, killed it. I’ve got a new place in my heart for “The Story of Tonight” thanks to those fine gentleman. Finally, I’ve gotta give it up for Alexander Gemingnani, our pouty, petulant King George. This is a character whose delivery remains mostly a mystery when just listening to the original cast recording; seeing the expressions and twitches from Gemingnani made an already-funny part all the more hilarious. 

It’s safe to say I’ll never forget my first time. I mean, as if the show wasn’t unforgettable enough on its own merits, there’s also the Lin-Manuel Miranda factor. It blows my mind that I’ll always be able to say that the first time I saw Hamilton, Lin-Manuel was there. And I truly see this as just the first of many Hamilton viewings. After all, this show is going to run forever. I like to consider the very last lines Eliza sings as a sort of invitation for us all: “Oh I can’t wait to see you again — it’s only a matter of time.” 

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Home, apothecary & lifestyle boutique in Bay View

I recently wandered into one of Bay View's newer storefronts, Ursa. I have to say, it's a breath of fresh air for Milwaukee's shop-local scene. The gorgeous, historic King building, located on KK next door to Bay View's Public Library, invites you in with its floor-to-ceiling windows and a lofted ceiling. The vibe is at once airy and welcoming - a spacious environment you'll be glad to get lost in. 

Following an impeccable first impression, enter the merch itself. Countless treasures await at this Bay View boutique — jewelry, vintage clothing, home décor, pottery & planters, wall art, soaps & scrubs. Yet the place isn't cluttered. Rather, you you feel you can breathe, take your time browsing, and ride with Ursa's thoughtful flow.

That's the key word really: Thoughtful. I got the sense that Ursa's goodies are highly curated and placed throughout the interior with intention. It's refreshing. I was actually lucky enough to chat a bit with owner Emily Kopplin during my pop-in, and she confirmed my suspicions — thoughtful is the name of the game. 

Emily told me that while some local artists are indeed represented, that's not Ursa's main objective. There are other shops in the area — like Waxwing and Sparrow Collective, to name a couple — who already make local artists their mission. Ursa isn't out to compete with that, rather compliment it by showcasing artists, designers, and collections that Emily feels are under-represented in the Milwaukee community. 

I'm a big fan of what Emily has set out to bring to Bay View. It's a veritable recipe for fresh finds that will keep Milwaukeeans coming back for more. With Christmas shopping just around the corner, I'll be stopping back at Ursa for sure. It's a breeze to shop local when there are quality boutiques like this one on the map. Check it out! 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Estes Park, Colorado

Rocky Mountain drives, yodeling cowboys & ghost sightings

After spending a handful of days near Colorado Springs with my Uncle Jack this September, my family said goodbye to Crockett the dog and Whiskey the horse, crammed ourselves and our luggage into the rental car, and drove the almost-three hours to Estes Park. For the last four nights of our Colorado trip, we hung our hats at the Ridgeview Lodge, a VRBO located within walking distance to downtown Estes. Loved staying there — would absolutely stay again!

En route to Estes, we stopped in Nederland to stretch our legs and enjoy some coffee and pastries. The town is very small, but it's a cute spot to escape the car and walk around for a bit. 

When we got to Estes, we settled into the VRBO, bummed around Elkhorn Ave (the town's main street), and worked up an appetite for an early dinner. We headed for Mary's Lake Lodge, which my dear friend and Estes aficionado, Rachel, had recommended. In fact, we have Rachel to thank for lots of our Estes memories, as they came from her suggestions. So thanks, Rach!

Mary's Lake Lodge was one such suggestion, due to its gorgeous view from the patio and yummy beer list. Mary's did not disappoint — but make sure to bring a jacket. That mountain wind can blow a little chilly around sunset.

After a solid night's sleep, we laced up our boots and headed out for real Rocky Mountain hike. Remember to pack: Water, trail snacks, sunscreen, and layers. Following Rachel's advice for pretty views and relatively-easy walking, we took the trail that hit Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park. The main parking lot fills up early, but there is overflow parking with shuttles running regularly to the trailhead.

Hands down, this hike was my favorite thing we did in Estes. I can't get over the postcard-perfect views of far-off peaks, shimmering aspens, rushing streams, towering evergreens, and glassy mountain lakes — three of them! It was unreal. I understand now why some people would rather hike alone. The freedom it affords you to just pause and take it all in, to move as fast or as slow from minute to minute, must be nice. I wish I'd had many more minutes on the Emerald Lake trail — but hiking with family isn't so bad either.

Post-hike, we needed a nap. And after a nap, we needed tacos and avocado margaritas from Ed's Cantina & Grill. Tip of the hat to Rachel for telling us about avocado margaritas. They may sound off-putting, but really the avocado just brings a creaminess to a blended marg that's a little bit of heaven. Our favorite tacos: pork with grilled pineapple salsa — yum!

On our second full day in Estes, after sleeping off the margs, it was time to drive Trail Ridge Road, the highest road in the U.S. While we could have stopped at the Alpine Visitor Center and turned around, the fam decided to keep on keepin' all the way to Grand Lake — about a two-hour drive from Estes.

We had our sights set on lunch and bopping around another little mountain town. Unfortunately, lunch was just okay and the whole main street was under noisy construction. C'est la vie! Regardless, Grand Lake itself was gorgeous, and the town was super cute, despite the main drag being blown to smithereens.

After driving back to Estes and succumbing to more naps, it was time for our date with ghostly destiny. My mom booked us a night tour at the Stanley Hotel, which inspired Stephen King's The Shining. Was it a super-scary tour? Not really. So if that's your angle, you may be a bit disappointed.

But I'm not someone who gets a pleasant thrill from being scared, so it worked for me that our tour guide was a real hoot. He told some great ghost stories, some firsthand experiences, and let us in on the history of the hotel — all fascinating. I say it's worth the price of admission, even if you don't leave feeling spooked.

Our last day in Estes started with a parade. It was the annual Scottish Irish Highland Festival, and a huge parade of Scottish clans and musicians came bagpiping down Elkhorn Ave for a solid hour or more. The turnout was seriously impressive — who knew such Highland pride existed in the Rockies?

We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon lunching and browsing at various shops — candy shops, shops with tourist swag, and my absolute favorite: a coffee and card shop called Inkwell & Brew. I think I could live there very happily. We also stopped at the Rachel-recommended Kind Coffee, an adorable spot with delicious drinks and some of the best pumpkin bread I've ever had.

To cap off our final night in Colorado, things got campy. We'd booked a table at the Lazy B Chuckwagon & Show. What's that? It's a cowboy dinner theater where you eat brisket, pulled pork, baked beans, buttermilk biscuits, baked potatoes, and peaches from a can. The night is emceed by cowboys telling dad jokes, and in the middle of the show you can dress up in cowboy garb and snap some pics.

Told you it was camp! But it was also plenty entertaining. Yes, the jokes were silly and some were at the expense of young whippersnappers (anyone under 35), but the music was legitimately good. The troupe played a slew of cowboy standbys, yodeling, foot-tapping, and fiddling away — with lovely voices to boot. It was pretty remarkable to find such real talent in a cowboy dinner theater — who knew!?

Bottom line, if you can check your pretensions at the door, then the Lazy B is a terrific way to bid a fond farewell to Estes Park. Add it to the memory bank! Happy trails, y'all.