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