Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Wabi Sabi North Woods 2018

When college friends convene in the sugar bush 

Prior to this August, my last trip to Phillips was in January of 2017. That time, we toured an honest-to-goodness maple syrup farm (maple trees = sugar bush), took an icy walk on Price Lake, and spent a Sunday morning writing to our senators because: nasty women. 

This time at my friends' up north cabin, our aim was the Japanese wabi sabi, which means finding beauty in things imperfect and impermanent. So zen. There were a few new faces, a pontoon, the occasional portrait mode, and arguably the best grilled corn in creation. 

No really, the subject of corn was actually argued vehemently. Fritz's Korean barbecue — which included said corn — was delish indeed. She also made her famous margaritas and grilled jalapeƱo poppers

For my part, I came prepared with rice krispie treats and curry chicken salad, plus fixings for tortellini pasta salad, lemon bars (which I turned gluten free for sensitive stomachs), and scrumptious lemon poppyseed pancakes with blueberry sauce

To move our bodies between eating sessions, we hiked to some of the local falls, then later had a swimming and floating party on Price Lake. "Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch!" 

The diva pup, Gia, got a lift from the pier to the pontoon in queenly style. Not pictured: Mason, the black lab who prefers to stay out of the sun and out of the spotlight. 

As the sun went down, there may have been a throwback to college with a quick game of beer pong. There also may have been birth chart astrology readings by our hostess with the mostest, as well as some debate over whether or not s'mores are terrible. They're not and anyone who disagrees can leave now. 

Before our last sleep in the north woods, we had an impromptu group sing of Paul Simon and attempted to floss (as in the dance). In the morning, we enjoyed the aforementioned pancake breakfast, snapped a group pic, and headed for home, our brains full of new memories and our hearts a little fuller too, let's be honest. Until next time, all you wabi sabi sugar bush friends! 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Songs for Nobodies"

One dazzling star sings five legendary divas

The stage at the Stackner Cabaret sits in wait with a chaise lounge, a dressing room mirror, an upright piano, a chair for the cellist, and a silver microphone for the star. Well, five stars and five ordinary people - the "nobodies" in Joanna Murray-Smith's Songs for Nobodies. The kicker? These ten historical figures are brought to life by just one incredible performer.

Would you believe that one woman could embody the likes of Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday, and Maria Callas? Milwaukee Rep alum and diva in her own right, Bethany Thomas, does just that, moving seamlessly from Garland's singular belting to Cline's cry to Piaf's thundering French ballads. She nails the signature tone in Holiday's iconic jazz instrument, then ends the show with Callas' soaring operatics. Thomas delivers one powerhouse vocal after another, as breathtaking a songbird as she is a captivating storyteller.

At its heart, Songs for Nobodies is about the stories just as much as the music. This isn't a musical review, after all. Rather, there's anywhere from one to three songs paired up with each diva's narrated snapshot. Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith hits a string of emotional high notes in these snapshots - sometimes sweet, sometimes sad, sometimes laugh-aloud, but always candid and beautifully crafted.

The play starts with musings on happiness - that it's "the temporary illusion that nothing is about to change for the worst." The woman philosophizing said happiness is Bea Appleton, a bathroom attendant who had a chance meeting with Judy Garland while she was "havin' a pee." Next up is Pearl Avalon, a waitress turned backup singer, thanks to Patsy Cline. Edith Piaf's "nobody" is a British librarian whose father escaped Dachau thanks to the grace and split-second actions of the Little Sparrow, following a performance at a nazi prison.

Then there's Gwendolyn, AKA "Too Junior," a reporter for the New York Times who aches to stop writing about hemlines and start writing about something of value. Her big break: an interview with Billie Holiday in a hotel bar. And finally we meet a young Irish girl, a humble nanny living the high life on a boat with Maria Callas and Aristotle Onassis, the two in the thick of a fiery love affair. The ties that bind each of these somebodies to their nobody are beautifully affecting, showing how a seemingly insignificant moment of human interaction can change the course of a life.

Watching Thomas flip the switch from the modest everywoman to the diva is incredible. One moment she's meek, soft spoken, and in awe of these musical icons. The next, the audience becomes the everywoman, utterly transfixed and in awe of our star. Thomas is a true talent to be treasured apart from the luminaries she's portraying, for as Bea Appleton says of Patsy Cline, she also possesses a "personality that catches the light."

Part of the joy of watching Thomas on stage, backed by the marvelous Abdul Hamid on piano and Alicia Storin on cello, is just how personal the experience feels. Although the Stackner Cabaret has just undergone an impressive facelift, leaving it with 35% more seating, the space remains wonderfully intimate. To be in the presence of such a voice, such a radiant spirit - and to have that spirit be mere feet away - is immensely special. Thomas gives us more than a taste of history's great divas; with this tour-de-force performance, she proves to be one such diva herself.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow