Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Gypsy Taco

Bay View's unapologetically un-authenic taco truck

If out-of-town guests want a Milwaukee meal that's atmospheric, low-stress, unique to our city, and knock-your-socks-off scrumptious, I don't hesitate. My first thought is always Gypsy Taco. To be honest, it's baffling to me that I've gone this long without giving my favorite tacos in Milwaukee a shout out. Maybe it's because I always wolf them down before I can snap a picture. Maybe I secretly want Gypsy to remain a little bit of a secret. 

But it's really not a secret at all. The Gypsy Taco truck, which is permanently parked on the patio at Boone & Crockett in Bay View, topped Milwaukee Magazine's 2017 Reader's Choice list for best food truck/cart. And with good reason. 

Let's start with the starters, shall we? The corn cup. Always the corn cup. If you're a fan of hot, melty queso, the chips & queso make an amazing app, while the pickled veggies are awesome for eating by the forkful or piling atop your tacos. Plus, the veggies are just gorgeous to look at. Try them — it's a life- and taco-altering experience. 

As for the tacos themselves — drool. The slogan doesn't lie, as they are unapologetically un-authentic. Taco meats include Dr. Pepper pulled pork, braised beef tongue, fried oyster mushroom, grilled chicken thigh, and seared ahi tuna. There's also a rotating seasonal selection; I've tried the roasted root veggie and the fried fish.

So you think the meaty part of the taco is aces? The fixings are next level. This is why I love unauthentic tacos. Don't get me wrong — a simple, pure garnish of cilantro and onion can really hit the spot. But at Gypsy, the tacos are topped with things like pickled red onion, goat cheese, creamy sauces, arugula, and a magic blend of spices. 

These are some seriously thoughtful tacos, crafted by hand and with love by people who seem to understand the science behind delicious. Too gushy? Too bad. I've been a Gypsy fan since they opened in 2016, and I'm finally unleashing my obsession on you fine, hungry people. Gypsy Taco is open daily from 4pm (noon on weekends) to 2am (woo!) on the Boone & Crockett patio, even in winter. Eatin' pants: On.

Do you have a favorite taco spot in Milwaukee? Holler in the comments! A little diversity in one's taco diet never hurt. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Guys & Dolls"

The house wins with this musical classic

Considering the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's core mission of igniting positive change and inspiring meaningful dialogue, I initially wondered where Guys & Dolls fits in with such a narrative. Past Milwaukee Rep musicals include Ragtime and The Color Purple — shows that certainly have a lot of cultural significance and a lot to say. 

But a show like Guys & Dolls is no less culturally significant, really. The musical comedy about two small-time gamblers and the women who love them topped Entertainment Weekly's list of the "Greatest Musicals of All Time." When the show opened on Broadway in 1950, it garnered unanimously rave reviews, ran for 1200 performances, and won the Tony for Best Musical.

Though Guys & Dolls might not offer deep self reflection, it continues to be a staple of the American musical tradition for accomplishing the one thing musical theater set out to offer in the first place: An escape. A sense of sheer joy. A break from the monotony of reality and our own personal problems. A chance to be part of a fantasy world of song and dance for a few hours — where the laughs are rehearsed and the guy gets the girl — and leave with a smile. 

While certain plot points are certainly squirm-worthy by today's standards (women patiently waiting 14 years for a promised marriage, or being duped into one-night flings in Havana — all at the hands of two gambling schmucks), it's best to check your feminism at the door and let a nearly 70-year-old musical do its thing. At this Milwaukee Rep production, the Guys & Dolls "thing" is to wow audiences with superb talent, gloriously dizzying choreography, electric set design (literally), and hilarity to boot.

The four leads are expertly cast, bringing knockout voices, humor, and heart to their respective roles. The veritable Don Juan of the crew is Sky Masterson, played by Nicholas Rodriguez with charm for days and a voice worth swooning over. It's easy to see why the timid Sarah Brown, played by Emma Rose Brooks, would follow him all the way to Havana just for a dinner date. It's in Cuba that Brooks' comedic side comes out to play, singing "If I Were a Bell" with adorably tipsy flair. 

Bringing another dose of humor is Kelly Faulkner as Miss Adelaide — the doll who's been waiting 14 years to wed gambler Nathan Detroit, played by the golden-voiced Richard R. Henry. Faulkner is an absolute delight, working the ditzy chorus girl persona to perfection, and with a stellar voice and pair of dancing shoes to back it up.

In fact, spectacular dancing shoes back up this entire Guys & Dolls production, taking the show to next-level greatness. Choreography by Stephen Mear is a treat to watch at every juncture, especially the scintillating Havana scene with its flurry of ruffles, high kicks, and seduction. I dare say there is better choreography and talent on stage now at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater than in some of the touring Broadway productions I've seen in recent years. 

It's little wonder that a standing ovation followed the finale on opening night. The crowd not only thundered for the aforementioned favorites, but a couple other characters who threatened to steal the show: Michael J. Farina as the likably smarmy Nicely-Nicely Johnson and David Hess as the fatherly Arvide Abernathy. Farina and the Guys & Dolls company drew uproarious applause following the joyful, gospel-style show-stopper "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." Hess took a quieter approach, beautifully delivering the most poignant tune of the evening, "More I Cannot Wish You."

While Arvide Abernathy wishes that Sarah Brown find her "own true love this day," it's my wish that Milwaukee-area theatergoers take time out of the busyness, the humdrum, the reality, and gamble on a night of musical comedy at the Milwaukee Rep. This one's a sure winner. 

Guys & Dolls is playing through October 29th at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Info and tickets at milwaukeerep.com.

*Photos courtesy of Michael Brosilow

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 americanplayers.org.

*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 milwaukeerep.com.

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 americanplayers.org