Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Our Town"

An American classic celebrates the beauty of everyday-ness

"I’ve married two hundred couples in my day. Do I believe in it? I don’t know. I suppose I do. M marries N. Millions of them. The cottage, the go-cart, the Sunday afternoon drives in the Ford — the first rheumatism — the grandchildren — the second rheumatism — the deathbed — the reading of the will. Once in a thousand times it’s interesting." _Thornton Wilder, Our Town

Poignant with humor aplenty, Thornton Wilder's 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning Our Town feels ageless. It's the simple story of a small town called Grovers Corners — a snapshot of the people who live there, their daily lives, their milestones, and their demises. The play unfolds in three acts, spaced apart in time: Daily Life (1901), Love & Tradition (1904), and Death & Eternity (1913). 

Beautifully written, with minimal sets and moments that suggest the characters are aware of the parts they're playing, this is a wonderful and enduring work of dramatic art — and one that the Milwaukee Repertory Theater carries out with ease. 

The main characters include the all-knowing Stage Manager (the narrator), The Gibbs family, and the Webb family. George Gibbs and Emily Webb are young lovers whose lives we follow from adolescence in Act One to marriage in Act Two to heartbreak in Act Three.

The Rep has assembled a diverse, knock-out cast of 31, including (but not limited to) Laura Gordon as the Stage Manager, Di'Monte Henning as George Gibbs, Cher Desiree Alvarez as Emily Webb, Rana Roman as Mrs. Webb, Matt Zambrano as Mr. Webb, Chiké Johnson as Dr. Gibbs, and Elizabeth Ledo as Mrs. Gibbs. 

Gordon does an exquisite job of keeping rapt attention through all her narrative exposition, her presence warm and comforting in its omniscience. Henning and Alvarez are simply adorable as the young lovers. From bright-eyed childhood to heart-aching adulthood, theirs is a delightful and affecting journey to behold.

Among the rest of the Grovers Corners townsfolk, there are notable Milwaukee favorites: James Pickering, Carrie Hitchcock, Jonathan Wainwright, and Jonathan Smoots, to name a few. In an especially cool move, the Stage Manager introduces much of the local talent as they file on stage in the first moments of the show. As the 31 actors pour in from the back of the house and down the aisles, they set up sparse props and even costume themselves on stage, as if admitting up front that it's all for show.

This is part of what makes Our Town so singular. The artful staging and breaking of the fourth wall celebrates the wonder of theatrics — actors stepping into another's shoes, creating a world that exists only on stage, and using play to drive an audience's thoughts and feelings. There's something remarkable in that.

The other part of what makes Our Town singular is the stories it shares. Stories of real, everyday people. People dealing with generational differences, the fear of progress, a longing to grow up, and an aching to stay young. People who perhaps never got to see Paris, but always enjoyed "pleasures of a kind." Ordinary people whose message is a timeless one: "Happiness — that's the great the thing. The important thing is to be happy." 

Though Our Town is not, perhaps, a risk for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, that doesn't make it any less special and satisfying. Sometimes, there's nothing better than a play that inspires laughter, sweet tears, and a warm-fuzzy feeling. "Once in a thousand times it's interesting," the Stage Manager says. With a classic as beloved and far-reaching as Our Town, the Rep succeeds in making things more than a little interesting indeed. 

*Photos courtesy of Michael Brosilow

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Milwaukee Ballet presents "Beauty & the Beast"

World premier ballet casts its magic spell

Roses wave hello, storybook pages spring to life, the townsfolk are actually nice, and the troupe of orphan children are a little creepy. This isn't Disney's Beauty & the Beast. There are no singing teapots or yellow ballgowns to be found. Instead, Michael Pink gives us a world premier Milwaukee ballet inspired by the 1796 adaptation by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Per the show notes: "Our Belle is the hero of her own story; a voracious reader, quick-witted, and the maker of her own destiny." 

Though this hardly strays from the Belle many of us know and love, there are some unexpected changes to the story that might leave you scratching your head if you don't read the synopsis before the curtain rises (always read the synopsis!). The powerful enchantress (the spellbinding Lizzie Tripp)is backed by a small army of orphans clad in white — a rather ghostly sight, brought to life by students from the Milwaukee Ballet School. 

When we meet Belle (the graceful Nicole Teague-Howell*), the townsfolk adore her. She's reading Aladdin and his Magic Flying Carpet aloud, and all are swept up in the tale. Belle's pair of fussy, frivolous sisters (Marize Fumero and Lahna Vanderbush) offer an amusing foil for our heroine. They'd rather fawn over the latest fashions and be courted by a couple of peacocking, candy-colored dandies (Parker Brasser-Vos and Randy Crespo) than read a book.

Belle's loving father, Maurice (Patrick Howell*), is en route to the city when he gets lost in the forest and stumbles upon the Beast's castle. The enchantment on display is sheer magic: Statues come alive and whirl about the stage (Janel Meindersee and Josiah Cook), the banquet table has a mind of its own, and out in the garden, the hedges bloom with smiling roses that wave merrily. They warn Belle's father not to pluck one of the buds, for fear of the Beast. You might guess what happens next. 

The Beast (the vigorous Isaac Sharratt*) bears down upon Maurice, his crimson cape commanding the stage and making the monster appear larger than life. This is just one of the many stunning and effective bits of costumed wizardry by designer Paul Daigle. 

Color plays a definite part in the narrative, with townsfolk dressed in muted, neutral tones. Rich colors are reserved for the castle, as Belle dons her provincial blue throughout most of the ballet. When she shows up in the final scene, wearing crimson to match the Beast's own cape, it's clear which world she's chosen. While there are surely a slew of other subtleties to praise in the costuming, sometimes it's just as simple as this: The costumes are pretty. The dancers' skirts twirl beautifully. The colors pop. It's all-around gorgeous to behold. 

In this Beauty & the Beast, the biggest departure from Disney's "tale as old as time" is an interlude at the end of Act One and beginning of Act Two, where characters step from the pages of Belle's storybook. There's Rapunzel (Alana Griffith*), the Three Little Pigs (Carly Bartel, Lindsay Crivello & Madeline Rhode*), and Little Red Riding Hood (Zoe Maxwell*), among others. 

These particular characters seem handpicked to echo Belle's own plight: A princess held captive, pigs terrified of a huffing-puffing beast, and a provincial girl who, in this production, tames the Big Bad Wolf by showing some kindness. Michael Pink wanted his Beauty & the Beast to be thought-provoking, and to that I say — success!

Naturally, this glorious achievement comes down to movement and music. The original score by Philip Feeney is strong: equal parts ominous and mysterious, sweeping and joyful. Set to these storied notes, Michael Pink's choreography dazzles the eye and moves the spirit. The build up to Belle and the Beast finally dancing together is thick with tension, her movements hands-off and palpably apprehensive before welcoming this creature into her personal space. It's mesmerizing to watch the progression, from warming up to each other to playful friendship and flirtation. 

The company as a whole danced exquisitely on Thursday night — a particular favorite being scenes that featured the Milwaukee Ballet School. These young performers played more than just spine-chilling orphans and jolly rosebuds — they also cheerily followed the Pied Piper out of Belle's storybook to much delight. Though one might crave more such delight — a whirl of color and a stage full of spinning ballerinas — as a grand finale, Michael Pink offers something even better. The final moments capture the heart of this fairytale: Belle and her prince, moving beautifully together as one.

*Indicates dancers for Thursday's performance

Photos of Nicole Teague-Howell and Isaac Sharratt by Mark Frohna

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Café at the Pfister

One of downtown Milwaukee's best brunch secrets

If you haven't waltzed through the Pfister Hotel lobby, working your best "We've Got Elegance," you're missing out. And if you didn't know there's an adorable café in said lobby, open for everyone and not just fancy-pants hotel guests, you're also missing out.

Brimming with old school charm, The Café at the Pfister is open daily for seated breakfast, lunch, and weekend brunch from 6am to 2pm. Until 8pm daily, you're welcome to snag coffee and a pastry from the barista & patisserie counter, then help yourself to a seat. For seated dining service, there's either in a nice-sized dining room or, my favorite, a row of tables along large street-facing windows. The space is sunny and cozy-casual with just a hint of fancy. After all, it is the Pfister.

I've only ever been for Sunday brunch, and I've never been disappointed. Hot coffee is served promptly, with a little porcelain jug of cream on the side. The Eggs Florentine, my go-to dish, is the kind of tried-and-true deliciousness you can depend on. By and large, you won't find hipster mumbo jumbo at the Pfister — though I did spy avocado toast on the menu, upon my last visit. So I guess there really is something for everyone!

As if the food and ambiance weren't enough, you're welcome to park in the Pfister structure. Take your ticket with you to the café, and your server will have it validated. That's right: Free and easy downtown parking. It's every bruncher's dream!  

Oh, and did I mention that you can snap your fingers and make a reservation? Show me another brunch spot that accepts reservations — and for just a party of two even! (No really, do you know of one? Because I don't.) Truly, you couldn't ask for a more delightful, non-stressful Sunday brunch than the Café at the Pfister — and sometimes easy breezy is better than hip and trendy. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Next Act Theatre presents "I and You"

A brave & beautiful story of human connectedness

"I and this mystery, here we stand." – Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Anyone who's taken a poetry class knows that there's so much more to poetic words than meets the eye. If you look the right way, there's often something grand underneath — a hidden meaning waiting to be discovered through focused reading and an open mind. Lauren Gunderson's soul-stirring I and You is indeed a poetry all its own. 

It's the funny, heartwarming, and — eventually — mind-blowing story of a day in the life of Caroline and Anthony, a pair of high school students assigned a Walt Whitman poetry project for English class. Caroline, who has suffered illness her entire life, has been homebound for months. Despite her spunk, whip-fast wit, and dreams of someday being a magazine photographer, she's losing her will to care about a life so threatened by disease. Anthony — a devotee of Walt Whitman, Coltrane, and Pop Tarts, with boyish charm for days — wants to both finish the poetry project and crack Caroline's hard outer shell.

The two-person I and You takes place exclusively in Caroline's bedroom, making for an intimate experience that leans nearly all its weight on the actors. Luckily for the Next Act Theatre, they've found an exceptional pairing in Cristina Panfilio and Ibraheem Farmer. Panfilio's teenaged Caroline is utterly spot-on, from her snarky tone to her iPhone fixation. The audience rides along with Panfilio on Caroline's roller coaster of emotion: defiant, vulnerable, hopeful, and despairing. It's an intensely-felt and fearless performance; hats off to Panfilio, one hundred times over. 

Farmer's Anthony is every bit the charmer who appears to have it all figured out. He's one part popular jock, one part jazz-loving and poetry-spouting sensitive type. With Farmer in the role, it's easy to believe this kind of guy actually exists. His sweet performance is laced with hints of mystery, as one wonders what truly makes this seemingly-perfect specimen tick. What comes to light in I and You's heart-pounding final moments is indeed an underlying, poetic grandeur that was ever-present from the start. But through Farmer's subtle portrayal, under the smart direction of David Cescarini, Anthony's secret is safe until the very end.

To say any more would risk spoiling what playwright Lauren Gunderson has so brilliantly crafted. During a Talk Back following the performance, Panfilio and Farmer raved about Gunderson's writing. She writes real people, precise in her verbiage down to every last "like," "um," and "but." Such superb writing, Panfilio says, invests an actor in the story, so that the ensuing emotions come easily. 

This is a genuine play by genuine people — people who care enough to thank the Talk Back audience for choosing to spend an afternoon at the Next Act Theatre when they could have been anywhere else in Milwaukee. But it's really Milwaukee who should be thanking the creatives behind I and You for bringing such beautiful and brave poetry to one local stage. This awe-inspiring production is as Walt Whitman writes: "Surely far different from what you suppose." 

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Tribeca Gallery Café & Books

Coffee, gifts & hard-to-find books in Walker's Point

Say it with me: Coffee and books. Yes, friends, there's a place in Milwaukee where you can sip lattes and browse shelves of unique reads — and it's not a Barnes & Noble Starbucks. It's Tribeca Gallery Café & Books, located on 1st Street in Walker's Point.

The café's original location is still in operation in downtown Watertown. It's been around since 2007, with the owner having opened a second location in Milwaukee in late 2017. At Tribeca, they're pouring Madison's Ancora Coffee and Milwaukee's own Pilcrow Coffee. Upon my most recent visit, I was informed that, once it's warmer out, Tribeca will indeed serve Pilcrow's beloved cold brew.

Up at the coffee counter, you'll find a selection of baked sweets. Though I have yet to grab a bite at Tribeca, there's always something scrumptious noted on the the resident chalkboard sign — usually a soup of the day and other light lunchables.

But my favorite thing about Tribeca: Books and gifts. There are a handful of goodies for coffee and tea lovers, an enticing little collection of greeting cards, a variety of pocket-sized notebooks, and books for both kids and adults. The book selection certainly isn't basic. There are hard-to-find and little-known titles, plus a solid selection of collectible classics. 

Point is, you'll never be bored while waiting for your coffee at Tribeca. Though the place is airy and spacious, there's lots of treasures to discover. And thus far, it's a rather quiet spot, ideal for hunkering down and getting some work done. So as you drive through Walker's Point to one favorite coffee shop or another, consider giving the new kid on the block a bit of local love.