Monday, December 17, 2018

Lux Domes at Café Benelux

Winter on top of the Ward

Step aside, Brooklyn. Who says Milwaukee can't do winter-chic? 

A metal igloo, zippered-up plastic, and a space heater are all that stand between you and the Benelux rooftop in December. But yes, I swear it's chic! I was lucky enough to be one of a handful of Lux Domes guinea pigs earlier this month, and boy did we have a blast. 

Reservations are $200 for a dome that seats eight, and that cost includes one drink package, also for eight. Eight is the magic number to maximize resources. Benelux doesn't encourage bopping between domes; that's how things get drafty and unpleasant. Trust that the folks in charge have thought this through, and embrace the experience they've crafted. Eight or fewer, no moving between domes. 

You can add additional drink and food packages on top of the $200 — things like a platter of local cheeses, meats, pickles, seafood, oysters, and dessert bites. For drinks, sip mulled wine, hot toddys, hot cocoa with Rumchata, or a bier sampler package. Yes, you must be over 21 to visit the Domes. No, you can't order things from the regular menu; bite-sizes noshables are where it's at. 

While imbibing, the domes lend a lovely, wintry, outdoor-yet-cozy vibe. The temperature inside hovers around 50–55 degrees; warm enough to cast off coats, cool enough that we were all glad to be in layers, hats, and scarves. So dress for the cold, knowing you can always lose a layer if the space heater-supplied weather permits. 

As a package deal, the Lux Domes really do deliver a super dreamy time. Sitting around with friends, enjoying delicious food and drinks, further warming the dome with laughter and conversation — it's a real treat. The problem is, reservations are selling like hotcakes. Time slots are limited, spaced out in 1.5-hour increments throughout the holiday season and beyond. Good luck getting one.

The Benelux folks are also, understandably, working through any hiccups, as this is their first year attempting a rooftop winter wonderland. How will the domes fare in high winds? A snowstorm? Bitter cold? Some of these questions are, as yet, unanswered, so hopefully Milwaukeeans will be understanding of that. I'd wager that this experience will only become more luxurious as time goes on. 

Check out for details, and sign up for the Lowlands email newsletter to be the first to hear about any new reservation time slots. To all you fancy-pants people who already secured your spot in the domes: enjoy that winter-chicness!

Thursday, December 6, 2018

I ❤️ Eating in NY

Taking the proverbial bite out of the Big Apple

My favorite things about having best friends who live in NYC are: 

a.) they already have public transportation figured out 
b.) they know where to eat in a city that's overwhelmingly delish 

Like, where do people who don't have besties in New York even start? I feel panicked just thinking about it. 

So here I am, logging two scrumptious spots these friends of mine brought into my world during my last trip to New York. Why log a measly two? Because I don't want to forget how tasty these meals were, and passing along even a couple recos to the wide world is better than not passing on any recos at all. So here goes.

Can I get more picturesque Mediterranean brunch in my life? Shuka made my eyeballs and tastebuds so happy. "One of the most warm and inviting rooms in the city" and "fresh and local food" — that's what the Shuka website promises. And does it deliver? 

Well, I felt plenty warm and invited, so yes, I'd say so. This place has ambiance for days! Even the bathroom is stylish as all get out, so you know this is a quality establishment. The website also claims a "friendly staff," which is notably true per our experience. 

The eating was scrumptious. We ordered a chicken kebab, the shakshuka, a killer kale salad, cucumbers, and assorted dips on the side. Can we eat this every day? 

Xi'an Famous Foods
On days when we're not eating Shuka, can we eat Xi'an Famous Foods? Oh my gosh, noodles and dumplings and sauces and so what if it's a chain? It's a New York chain, so. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. 

The location we went to had space for about four or five hungry folks to sit elbow-to-elbow at a small ledge facing the window or a wall, so no points for ambiance. Though I guess you could count cramped as a sort of authentic New York City ambiance in itself. 

Still, all the points go to this meal I can't stop craving. We had pork "Zha Jiang" hand-ripped noodles, spinach and lamb dumplings, and spicy noodles in soup — all amazing, all things I will be dreaming of until I get them back in my belly again.

New York, thanks for being so tasty. New York friends who always show me a good and delicious time, thank you for knowing where to go. Now what's for dessert? 

Milwaukee Rep presents "A Christmas Carol"

A merry holiday tradition that's as good as ever

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

So wrote Dickens in this moment that snuck up and grabbed me last Friday at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 43rd annual premier of A Christmas Carol. There’s something about the idea of the holidays being a great unifier among men that, these days, feels especially relevant, important, and profound. Thinking back, I don’t recall Nephew Fred’s festive little speech sticking with me at last year’s 42nd Christmas Carol, but that just goes to show what makes repeat viewings of this holiday tradition such a delight.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s story is ever familiar and warms the soul, and the Rep consistently delivers production value you can count on. Yet even knowing that this is a Christmas Carol steadfast and true, there’s always something new to glean — whether it’s actually new or just new to your memory. Of course Nephew Fred has defended the spirit of Christmas for over forty years, but this time, for me, it resonated anew.

In other newness: I don’t recall in years past that Scrooge shouts at a young caroler to “shut up” as he does this year. His swift reaction to a child’s sweet singing felt particularly jarring, which is as it should be. Positioning Scrooge as so very outwardly cruel allows him an even more dramatic transformation.

New notable cast members include the spine-tingling, booming-voiced Mark Corkins as the spectral Marley and James Pickering as Fezziwig, among other smaller parts. Pickering’s Fezziwig is rosy-cheeked and jovial — a fun departure from the 14 years he played the Rep’s Scrooge. There’s a spring in his step and warmth about him, and partnering him with Angela Iannone as Mrs. Fezziwig makes for a darling pair. The Rep’s newest Tiny Tim, Eliel Pozos Lopez, instantly tugs at heartstrings and makes it easy to believe that Scrooge could be so affected by the plight of this little boy with a heart of gold.

Not new, rather three years running, is Jonathan Wainwright as Scrooge himself. He’s settling wonderfully into the role, bringing an emotionally-charged, woeful, then mirthful Ebenezer to the Pabst stage. Wainwright is especially captivating whenever he interacts with shadows of the past. His heartache over the loss of both his sister, Fan, and true love, Belle, is keenly felt. It’s especially stirring to watch Wainwright’s Scrooge retrace his steps, dancing alone with Belle’s memory. His changed demeanor come Christmas morning is blithely felt throughout the theater, face muscles aching, as Scrooge’s do, from the sudden influx of smiling.

The sets and costumes, like Wainwright, are also gifts from Christmas Carols past, but they are still nothing short of impressive and gorgeous, respectively. The monstrous rotating London set, designed by Todd Edward Ivins, is jaw-dropping in its magnitude. As for the costumes, designed by Alexander B. Tecoma, they’re rich and luscious with plush textures and sumptuous colors, like something plucked from the cover of a Christmas card. Special hats-off to the three spirits, each one whose ensemble boasts a light feature. It’s enchanting even as an adult, so just imagine a child’s reaction to Christmas Past’s luminous gloves or Christmas Present’s glowing torch.

Also playing to the willing child in all of us is the continuation of Panto-style theater, where audience participation is a key component. Two years ago, with the debut of this new Christmas Carol, some folks found the amount of audience interaction to be a bit much. If you fall into that camp, rest assured that the Rep has dialed it back. During an Alphabet of Scrooge, where two narrators run A to Z rattling off synonyms for “avaricious,” the audience is consulted on adjectives for letters M and N, so come prepared.

Other than that, there are just a few instances of shouting a hearty “yes!” when the moment presents itself. My theater date, perhaps younger at heart than even I am, would have liked more audience participation. For me, the Rep has reached the Goldilocks zone in terms of Panto — though I do selfishly wish for more snow. Each snowy moment is just that enchanting.

Rounding out the childlike wonder at work, this Christmas Carol begins and ends with the characters on stage addressing the audience as if reading Dickens aloud. We’re aren’t simply watching events as they happen; we are being told a story. As with any story, there is always a takeaway or moral. In A Christmas Carol, there are so many morals to choose from, and if this Milwaukee Rep production is a yearly tradition for you and yours, it may be fun on the drive home to pick apart one of the many morals with each passing year.

This time, I’m choosing to latch onto Dickens’ endorsement of frivolity, as seen in Fezziwig and Nephew Fred’s jolly Christmas parties. A Christmas Carol is a chance to make merry and escape into the company of family and friends, leaving worldly work and worries at the door. This holiday tradition and masterful work by the Milwaukee Rep already has and will surely continue to stand the test of time, and so it invites you to start a new tradition of your own — one of making space in our busy lives for good times and good cheer with those nearest and dearest.  
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Next Act presents "The Twelve Dates of Christmas"

One woman's rom-com-esque story of singledom 

Twelve (largely-failed) meet-cutes, four performers, two backup singers, and one very chatty partridge in a pear tree suffering from a year of aloneness. Those are the numbers behind Ginna Hoben's The Twelve Dates of Christmas, a play whose simple, rom-com-esque premise is greater than the sum of its parts.
In Next Act's Twelve Dates, we spend one hour and forty minutes, no intermission, with Mary, a struggling New York actress in her thirties who has, in a nutshell, been dumped by her fiancé on Thanksgiving Day. Thus begins a year in the life and holidays of Mary and her many suitors: the perfect-but-too-soon guy she meets almost immediately at Aunt Kathy's Christmas Eggnog Party, the mid-20s bartender and one night stand on St. Patrick's Day, the over-planner, the ghoster, the asshole who skips out on date six without a word, the dude in the band who's moving to Prague next week. The usual suspects.
One might think the dreamboat from Aunt Kathy's party will wind up being Mr. Right by the same time next year, but The Twelve Dates of Christmas smartly leaves Mary's story loosely wrapped in the end, rather than tied neatly in a big red bow of predictable rom-com happily ever after. The fun of Twelve Dates is navigating each encounter and anticipating the next one. As Mary, Susie Duecker is funny, approachable, and smartly harnesses the many feelings associated with moving on.
Lending backup and festive vibes are the musical stylings of The Doherty Sisters and Jack Forbes Wilson. The Dohertys sing, coo, and serve up intermittent reactions to Mary's many tales, at one point wrapping her in gold tinsel garland in an attempt to get her into the Christmas spirit. They're fun, funny, and lend the right amount of support to Duecker's otherwise one-woman show. Forbes Wilson's piano accompaniment never skips a beat, bringing moments of musical sound-effect humor, too.
This is a script and a show that will no doubt most resonate with thirty-something singles, or recently-singles. I know because I'm smack dab in the middle of that target demographic. Mary's string of potential love interests certainly sounds familiar — the witty one, the one who's perfect on paper, the one with whom you could talk for hours, the one who can also quote Macbeth. Duecker ignites with the excitement one feels over these little signs of promise found in a potential partner, then turns and embodies the emotional roller coaster that is moving on after a breakup. Hers is a relatable versatility.
It's a different kind of Christmas show, to be sure. Simple in its premise and more of an introspective snapshot of one woman's life, rather than the sweeping "good will toward men" sentimentality that often accompanies such holiday fare. For some, the unconventional, chatty script will be a refreshing change; the chance for a fun evening spent with your best girlfriends, the newest of which is up on stage telling you about her last twelve dates. For those with Buddy the Elf-caliber Christmas tendencies, however, this feels more like a story that's set at Christmas, rather than a Christmas story through and through.
That said, Twelve Dates does indeed serve up laughs and the rush of new love — a yummy buffet of the warm feelings one craves at the holidays. It also wisely make you think about how the holidays affect those who are vulnerable, insecure, and grieving, wherever that grief stems from. Mary's breakup is one example of how a person might feel emotionally mixed-up and uncharacteristically alone at this time of year, and her story serves as a reminder to reach out to those people — and maybe stop asking about their love life at the family Christmas party.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

First Stage presents "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever"

Musical re-telling heralds humor & joy for the holidays

Where a “perfect little town” meets “the worst kids in the history of the world,” that’s home to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. First published as a book by Barbara Robinson in 1971, it’s the story of the horrible Herdmans, a brood of delinquent kids who bully their way into the school Christmas pageant and usurp every last leading part, from Mary to Joseph to the Angel of the Lord. What will the Herdmans learn along the way? And what can perfect little town folk glean from this band of horribles? The answers await — in song and dance! — at Milwaukee’s First Stage Theater.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever has been a staple of First Stage since the play debuted in Milwaukee in 1990. In fact, this 2018 production, now a new musical adaptation, welcomes the return of two alums from those early years: Director Molly Rhode and actor Karen Estrada. Back in Pageant circa 1990, a young Rhode played Mindy the narrator, and two seasons later, Estrada made her First Stage debut as Imogene Herdman. For each of these women, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever was when they “fell so hard in love,” as Estrada puts it, with theater.

Now as a musical set in the 60s, this Pageant is an opportunity for a whole new cast of youngsters to fall so hard. Key parts in the young Holly cast include Liam Jeninga as Ralph, the eldest Herdman, and Isabella Hansen as Imogene, the toughest Herdman. Hansen nails the rough-and-tumbled rebel vibe, ruling the Herdman clan and the rest of the school through a dense cloud of intimidation and cigar smoke.

When Imogene insists on playing Mary in the pageant, it isn’t until rehearsal that she learns Mary is “with child.” Hansen’s reactions to this bit of news had the audience, kids and adults alike, busting a gut at lines like, “Where is her social worker?” and “What kind of cheapo king gives OIL as a present?” and the one that leads to a hilarious musical number: “My God! They were gonna kill a BABY??” Cue the rousing “Die, Herod, Die!”

Hansen, Jeninga, and their fellow Holly cast Herdmans, played by Iker Velasco, Benjamin Nowacek, John Daniels IV, and Lina Singh, snag lots of laughs and instill a lot of fear throughout the show — but it’s the tender moments they bring to the story that make these parts dynamic and all the more memorable. Bullies though they may be, we’re asked to consider why these kids act out in the ways that they do. Per the Director: “The importance of compassion, empathy, inclusion, and community are central themes to the show.”

The bulk of this compassion comes courtesy of Estrada’s character, Grace Bradley, and Jonathan Gillard Daly’s kindly Reverend Hopkins. When the usual director of the Christmas pageant, Helen Armstrong (Lachrisa Grandberry) lands in the hospital with broken limbs galore, Mrs. Bradley has no choice but to step in and run the show, much to the chagrin of her husband (Chase Stoeger) and two children.

Overwhelmed at the task ahead of her — mainly, wrangling the horrible Herdmans — Estrada at one point uses an entire table runner as a handkerchief. But she presses on, realizing that the Herdman kids lash out at school for lack of love and understanding in their own home. “This is a high-energy, funny, and sweet show about not giving up on kids, even kids that are not your own,” Estrada says. “Hope, purpose, and a sense of community help the Herdmans feel they matter, and it might be okay to let some of their anger go.”

At the pageant itself, Imogene hams up Mary’s labor pains and Lamaze breathing to shrieks of laughter. All of the pageant costumes, from makeshift cardboard angel wings to crocheted sheep ensembles, are an absolute delight — but the Herdmans take makeshift to the next level. The shepherds roll in with hockey sticks and brooms for staffs, and the youngest Herdman, Gladys (the phenomenal Lina Singh in the Holly cast), dons pink tinsel wings, a football helmet, and a halo made of rainbow Christmas lights to play the Angel of the Lord. Singh’s vocals are strong, her stage presence natural and confident; she’s one to watch.

Singh and Hansen lead the Herdmans in the sweet song “Basket of Cheer,” a moment that reminds us that bullies feel pain and hurt, too. This is one of the only truly sentimental moments in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. The other songs lean much more into cleverness, both in choreography and how they move the story along. When the young cowboy-hat-wearing Charlie Bradley (firecracker Abram Nelson in the Holly cast) sings a lunchroom ode to Sunday School — the one place the Herdmans never go — the kids all back him up, using lunchboxes as percussion. Unfortunately for Charlie and the gang, the song points out the many wonderful snacks one can find at Sunday School, thereby luring in the horrible Herdmans.

Another clever tune is “My Mother Said,” sung by schoolgirls Beth, Alice, and Ivy (the Holly cast’s Ryann Schulz, Miranda Cesarini, and Sanaa Harper, respectively). It’s a he-said, she-said gossip battle sung to the tune of “Carol of the Bells” — quick-paced and witty. The finale’s exuberant “Let There Be Joy” wraps up the story with optimism and cheer, filling the theater with a hopeful message: “Let there be peace, let there be joy, in every girl, in every boy.”

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever sets a merry tone for the holiday season — a season that, in the world of this Christmas pageant, challenges kids to focus on something other than just Santa and presents, a topic not mentioned once throughout the show. Whether rooted in religion or a more general sense of good will toward our fellow man, the holiday season is all about renewed faith and finding something good and peace-willing to believe in. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever reminds us of that, and such reminders are always a gift for kids young and old.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents "Christmas in Babylon"

An anxious family holiday unpacked with humor & heart

Season’s greetings from Babylon, Long Island, where last year’s Christmas lights are wadded up tight, there are one too many camels crowding the nativity, and plain cheese is the festive pizza topping of choice.

Playwright James DeVita, Director Michael Wright, and the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (MCT) invite theatergoers to spend the holidays with the McShanes, a blue collar family with a father whose uniform is flannel and sarcasm, a live-at-home daughter that’s “finding herself” by way of shifts at the local diner, and a mother who, though she seems a little checked out, rules the roost when push comes to shove.

In a lot of ways, it’s not hard to identify with the McShanes, Long Islanders though they may be. Writer James DeVita is a Long Island native himself, and although he says he worried that early versions of Christmas in Babylon were filled with too much “New York humor,” the laughs in the MCT’s intimate Studio Theater on opening night surely laid any such fears to rest. To be sure, this hilarious, heartwarming, conflict-ridden family comedy holds up in the midwest.

Bringing the McShanes to life are three MCT alums: Tom Klubertanz as husband Terry, Mary MacDonald Kerr as wife Denise, and Sara Zientek as daughter Abby. Babylon opens to Terry’s prolonged nervous rambling as he anxiously tries on three different shirts before landing on a comfortable plaid. Denise spends the entirety of Terry’s initial monologue seated at the kitchen table, puttering around on the family laptop and tuning out her husband’s tangent. What has Terry so flustered? His ex-fiancé of 25 years, Kathleen, is back in town and wants to catch up.

Kathleen O’Rourke, now a new age-y self-help guru, is played by another MCT alum, Laura Gray. Complicating the family dynamics is Kathleen’s daughter, Kelly, played by Eva Nimmer, who is making her MCT debut. While the McShanes can be abrasive and crass, the O’Rourkes swoop in as couple of calm, accomplished, well-spoken women; though, not surprisingly, even these two have their own baggage — and lots of it.

Luckily for audiences, all that baggage is unpacked with humor aplenty. As the central figure, Klubertanz embodies the easily worked-up Terry; his volume escalates and brow glistens as he fends off both comedic and concerning asthma attacks with great believability. It’s certainly a particular brand of humor — one rooted in this character’s wittily-written defensiveness and exasperation — and it’s a brand Klubertanz delivers with ease.

Perhaps even more hilarious is Zientek’s Abby, who had the audience in hysterics upon her first breathless rant about a seemingly-atrocious man in line at the grocery store who wrongly accused her of coughing and rudely asked for “some space.” This is a girl prone to anxiety played for laughs, foul-mouthed back-talking, and hilarious physical comedy as she starts to overheat in an itchy wool holiday sweater. Zientek has the audience chortling in anticipation of her antics the moment she bursts upon the scene.

Then there’s Denise, the more even-keeled McShane. As many mothers do, she’s the one working diligently behind the scenes to keep the family afloat and her two constantly-lit fuses from exploding. MacDonald Kerr brings an honesty to the role of Denise; she can be just as funny, without teetering into outlandish outbursts like Terry and Abby. As the family peacemaker and glue, MacDonald Kerr plays very naturally off Klubertanz, their snarky-yet-loving dialogue seamless and real. It’s a testament to DeVita’s writing as much as the actors’ embodiment.

Written to be more than a little “out there” is ex-fiancé Kathleen. She’s on a speaking tour touting the benefits of letting go of the past, forgiving yourself, embracing gifts of the universe, and releasing negativity in the interest of self actualization. Sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo to the down-to-earth McShanes, but Gray plays Kathleen with spot-on hilarity, particularly in scenes where she speaks to the audience as if they were seated at one of her self-help conferences. From hokey affirmations to hippie-dippy drumming to release our demons, Gray nails the drink-the-kool-aid vibe.

Such outrageous laughs and oddness are made better by a foil, and in Christmas in Babylon, that foil is the very normal, doctor-in-training, largely level-headed Kelly. Though Nimmer doesn’t snag a huge amount of laughs, she brings just what she should to the part: she creates a Kelly that’s likable, endearing, and one whose happiness audiences are pleased root for. Her scenes with Klubertanz bring an unwavering tenderness in the midst of all the hollering, and such touching moments are all but required of any story that wraps up on Christmas Eve.

It’s truly the Christmas factor that helps drives the story, too. The stakes are always higher and the timeline is always tighter at holiday time, motivating characters to act in ways they maybe otherwise wouldn’t. What results in Babylon are lessons in forgiving others, forgiving yourself, and moving forward — lessons that, for some reason, we are all more willing to embrace at this most wonderful time of the year.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Skylight presents "Hairspray"

Dousing Milwaukee with energy & optimism

Rat that hair, lace those groovin’ shoes, and get ready for the rhythm of a brand new day. The Skylight’s musical Hairspray is Milwaukee’s bigger, bolder, bowl-you-over show for the holidays, celebrating diversity of all kinds, from the color of your skin to the inches in your waistline. Set in the 60s, it’s the upbeat story of plucky and plump Tracy Turnblad, a teenager who just wants a shot at the spotlight and for people to see past her above-average size.

Once discovered, Tracy winds up a quick sensation on the Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand-esque variety program. But it’s not just her killer moves that make big waves. Tracy also takes a spin on her activist training wheels, standing up for the rights and talents of her fellow black Corny Collins cast members, who are featured on TV just once a month on Negro Day. 

Hairspray dares to dream that dancing can secure diversity, and that the pudgy girl can win the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray and snag the dreamy crooner to boot. It's unabashedly idealistic and optimistic — a look at what great strides we might make if we put down our prejudices and picked up our dancing shoes.

As the Skylight’s Tracy Turnblad, Maisie Rose anchors the show from her first “Oh-oh-oh!” with a clear, pitch-perfect voice and spunky attitude. She’s the kind of bright and bubbly Tracy that audiences are eager to root for. As pigtailed sidekick Penny Pingleton, Ann Delaney is adorably gawky, nervous, and naive. Tracy and Penny’s nemesis, blond bombshell Amber Von Tussle, is hilariously embodied by Skylight alum, Amber Smith. Slightly shrill and majorly funny, Smith brings the type of non-threatening mean girl audiences love to hate. It’s a blast to see these three side-by-side in “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” — a song that didn’t make it into the 2007 movie version of Hairspray

As Amber’s beau and Tracy’s daydream, Colin Schreier’s Link Larkin croons ever-so-sweetly and carries off all the smoothness required of a bobby soxer’s crush. His voice is especially easy on the ears in the slow jam “It Takes Two” — a darling little number guaranteed to stir up anyone’s inner school girl. While Link elicits sighs, his counterpart and star of Negro Day, Seaweed J. Stubbs, played by the fantastic Gilbert Domally, delivers high energy, crazy-slick dance moves, and a sizzle that balances Link’s cool. Domally more than nails the fan favorite “Run and Tell That.”

Quick shout out to twelve-year-old Terynn Erby-Walker as Seaweed’s sister Little Inez. To see her on the Cabot Theatre stage is to glimpse a star in the making. From vocals and dancing to overall poise and presence, Erby-Walker is one to watch. 

Stand-out performances aren’t limited to Hairspray’s younger characters; Doug Clemons charms as Corny Collins and Rick Pendzich takes his few bit parts and makes them unforgettably funny. Tracy’s parents, played by Tommy Novak and David Flores, are an utterly delightful duo. Big and brawny Edna is at her best when Novak leans into his character’s more abrasive qualities for big laughs. Flores’ Wilbur makes for a darling counterpart, and you can’t help but smile at the Act Two duet, “You’re Timeless To Me.” It’s a sweet little ditty that earns an immediate mini reprise. 

It’s performances like these that make Act Two of Hairspray especially strong. While, at times, some disparity is felt in Act One, between the earnest youth ensemble and the superstar professionals, Act Two really brings it home and shows the entire cast in their best light. For starters: Huge thanks to Bethany Thomas and the ensemble who backed her in “I Know Where I’ve Been.” This anthem of black suppression and hope is performed by Seaweed’s mother, Motormouth Maybelle, played by Thomas. It comes as Tracy and her newfound friends prepare to fight against segregation, and it’s one of the only truly somber moments in all of Hairspray

Maybe it was Thomas’ soulful, thundering vocals, her commanding presence, or the entire ensemble’s emotional performance — were those real tears from young Erby-Walker, or just really good acting? Whatever the formula, “I Know Where I’ve Been” resulted in something incredibly powerful — a moment that will no doubt reign among my top in Milwaukee theater this season. I would gladly have given up another 10 or 20 seconds of applause. I hope, going forward, the Skylight will allow this deeply moving song a little room to breathe, giving the audience a few more seconds to both sound their praise and collect themselves before pivoting back to Miss Teenage Hairspray. 

The finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” takes us out on a crazy-high note, thanks in large part to immersive staging and undeniable energy from the entire cast. That energy and inventive choreography is on display throughout the show: in the clever dream sequence “I Can Hear The Bells,” in a slow-motion dodgeball scene, and in a jailbird tap dance, just to name a few. Hairspray has no shortage of fun, from start to finish — and like I said, oh what a finish! Everyone from Tracy to her parents to the Von Tussles get to, as the song says, “shake their fanny muscles.” To top it off, they bring the celebration into the aisles, showering the scene with confetti and relentless optimism. It’s a musical theater high that, much like the Hairspray beat, you simply can’t stop.

Photo credit: Ross Zentner

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Milwaukee Rep presents "Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley"

A witty, wonderful Austen-era romance

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a...” — scrap that, fast forward. Welcome to Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a play set in the world of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, following Elizabeth "Lizzie" Bennet and Mr. Darcy’s happy ending. With their romance confined to the pages of Austen’s novel, the Darcys take a turn as supporting characters in this story that focuses on the Bennets’ forgotten middle daughter, Mary.

For those unfamiliar with these characters, their backstory isn’t terribly necessary to the plot of Christmas at Pemberley, though it would no doubt let you in on certain jabs and jokes. Playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon do a nice job of getting the audience up to speed: Lizzie and Darcy are happily married. Eldest sister Jane and Mr. Bingley are also in matrimonial — and pre-paternal — bliss. Younger sister Lydia is feigning happiness with husband George Wickham. And middle child Mary is resigned to remain a precise, bookish, facts-first and feelings-never spinster.

Being Austen-inspired and set at Christmas, one might guess that Mary’s story is about to take a turn for the romantic. Enter Arthur de Bourgh, a distant relation to Mr. Darcy who is set to inherit a very large estate and just happens to also be spending the holiday at Pemberley. He shares Mary’s fondness for science, world maps, and speaking literally. It’s a no-brainer of a match.

In this Milwaukee Rep production, Rebecca Hurd as Mary and Jordan Brodess as Arthur bring the lion’s share of amusement to the Quadracci Powerhouse. These two make such a funny and endearing match, their awkward interactions carried out with spot-on comedic timing and the sweet timidity of cautious impending romance.

Hurd conveys with aplomb everything from the brainy intricacies of the script to the heart-aching plight of an outsider longing for companionship and understanding. For Brodess, when he’s not matching Hurd’s intelligence and wit, he’s leaving the audience in stitches over his hilarious physical comedy and the physiological effects of falling in love — ”a rather uncomfortable feeling,” Arthur says.

Seemingly never uncomfortable is Lydia, played to rambunctious, bombastic perfection by Netta Walker. This flirty, flighty schoolgirl of a character is meant come off as just obnoxious enough — a challenging line to walk without crossing into cringe-worthy annoyance. Walker hits the right note with Lydia, playing to all her signature silly qualities while maintaining her humanity.

Rounding out the Bennets are Jane (Sarai Rodriguez) and LIzzie (Margaret Ivey). Both ladies bring warmth and humor to their parts, as they step out of the spotlight of Pride and Prejudice and into supporting roles for middle sister Mary. It’s a pleasant shift in dynamics and focus, while still giving fans of the original work a sort of “where are they now?” peek into the lives of these women. Pemberley is proof that Jane and Lizzie’s stories do indeed extend beyond the thrill of courtship.

As delightful as it is to catch up with the eldest Bennets, it’s the Darcy-Bingley bromance that’s especially entertaining. Played by Yousof Sultani and Fred Geyer, respectively, these two gentlemen become wingmen for the love-clumsy Arthur, bestowing all their best-learned advice from their own days in romantic pursuit: mainly that, per the world of Pride and Prejudice, an orchestrated coupling isn’t any less real.

One final casting shout-out must be paid to wrench-in-the-plan Anne de Bourgh, whose uptight, mechanical demeanor comes courtesy of Deanna Myers. She’s high-and-mighty and pitiful all at once, and although intended to be a sort of circumstantial villain, Myers succeeds in showcasing Anne’s complexities.

That’s part of what’s so refreshing about Christmas at Pemberley: It’s clear that each woman has been shaped by her own unique circumstances. Whether fate has dealt her beauty, a great fortune, an alluring disposition, or curiosity enough to question the norm, these women play to their strengths and do what they must to survive in a male-dominated society. We glimpse each woman’s perspective and motivation, allowing for camaraderie and compassion, rather than cattiness.

As refreshing as Pemberley’s many takeaways are on the roles and relationships of women in the era of Austen, equally fresh are its set, soundtrack, and movement choreography. The soundtrack features instrumental renditions of Top 40 tunes, from Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to Britney’s “Baby One More Time.” Choreographed sequences — sometimes danced, sometimes staged in a series of artful vignettes — lend a sort of movie-montage whimsy.

The first time such a montage happened was, admittedly, a bit off-putting when one considers the source material and vibe of traditional Austenian period pieces. However, it didn’t take much coaxing to hop on board with these artistic choices and appreciate what the showrunners are going for.

The overall design of the show is one that marries early 1800s sensibilities and contemporary style: jewel-toned costumes, bright yellow and hot pink accent furniture, and rainbow bookshelves like something lifted from a lifestyle blog. It’s a fun kind of refinement, and the color play between the set, props, and Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes is, quite simply, very pretty. Shout out to Scenic Designer Courtney O’Neill for creating a covetable Pemberley.

And let’s not forget that most signature element of holiday décor: a towering spruce. A Christmas tree is quite the novelty at Pemberley, as this is the first year Lizzie has attempted to introduce the newfangled indoor-tree tradition. Such holiday elements keep the story seasonal, and although the themes aren’t confined to winter or Christmas, it’s interesting to reflect on — and challenge, as Mary Bennet does — who our families expect us to be, both at the holidays and all year through. If Christmas at Pemberley sends us home with one heart-warming moral, let it be this: to find your happy ending, you must be true to yourself.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow