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

Friday, November 16, 2018

Totes the Sloats: A quintessential New York wedding

That one time two beautiful book lovers got married in a freakin' NYC book store

Say hi to my super-terrific, MFEO friends, Rebecca and Ian!

They're married now (#TotesTheSloats). And their wedding weekend was cooler than your wedding weekend. Friday night, us girls hit up Marie's Crisis for some good old-fashioned Broadway sing-alongs. A delight, but next time: less Miss Saigon, more Hairspray, please

Saturday's rehearsal dinner was held at Ample Hills Creamery, where the bride and groom had Shake Shack burgers and fries catered in before treating us to four kinds of ice cream. Ooey Gooey Butter Cake for the win — also drawing on brown craft paper table runners.

Rehearsal night ended with karaoke at Gagopa Karaoke; a natural Wedding Eve progression. If you don't know, karaoke bars with private rooms are a popular thing in Asia, so of course you can find such delights in the cultural mecca that is NYC. We had two private rooms, thus singing only for those nearest and dearest. It's truly the best experience, and I wish Milwaukee would get on board. Don't forget the champagne, hype lights, and tambourines! They're a must.

Enter: Wedding day. For those of you keeping score at home, yes, this was a Sunday wedding. So on Sunday, the bridal party primped and prettied in none other than the penthouse of the NoMo SoHo Hotel — a crazy-lucky upgrade because the bridal suite wasn't ready yet. The place had nearly 360-degree views of the city. If a better upgrade exists in life — better than being bumped up to a freakin' Manhattan penthouse on your wedding day — I don't know what it is.

The ceremony and reception took place at a book shop called Housing Works. Am I starstruck by an independent NYC bookstore? Why yes, yes I am. This one has picture books displayed on columned shelves and a shapely staircase that leads to the balcony. Bonus: 100% of venue proceeds benefit the homeless living with HIV/AIDS. 

At go time, Rebecca floated in — ethereal elf-fairy queen of a bride that she was — to the tune of "Kiss the Girl" from The Little Mermaid. She and Ian said "I do" in an alcove of books — fitting for a girl who works in publishing and a boy who runs a library. 

Cocktail hour ushered in an especially sweet hors d'oeuvre: fancy-pants cotton candy. The spun sugar was flavored with lavender and topped with edible glitter. As if that wasn't magic enough, dinner consisted of fried chicken, mac 'n' cheese, and biscuits.

For their first dance, Ian and Rebecca rummaged through the 1997 archives and pulled out Shania Twain's "From This Moment On." Kudos to the happy couple for getting ahead of the curve, as that song has somehow passed from cliché into nostalgia.

Also wonderfully nostalgic: scads of disposable cameras set about the space for all to use. Way more fun than having everyone on their phones — and also to thank for all of the photos featured here. 

Thank you to Rebecca and Ian for all the incredible memories, whether captured on film or logged in the brain bank. If this wedding weekend is any indication of things to come, it's going to be one exuberant, wildly fun, and warm-fuzzy, love-filled lifetime. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Milwaukee Rep presents "The All Night Strut"

A rollicking night of nostalgia & toe-tappin' tunes

On Opening Night in the Stackner Cabaret, a few minutes past show time, the clatter of silverware slowed and chatter turned to murmurs of anticipation. Out of the blue came an ear-piercing train conductor’s whistle—the first word of welcome in The All Night Strut

The scene is set like a glamorous mid-century dining car, the likes in which one might expect to find Bing Crosby crooning about snow. Instead, the conductor snags some laughs before taking his place at the upright piano in the corner. First stop: Chattanooga! 

Enter the remaining four in this cast of five, their bags packed for a journey through America’s songbook of the 1930s and 40s. Think this repertoire could spell a snooze fest? Think again. This is an upbeat, lighthearted musical revue that flows breezily through nearly thirty tunes from “Minnie the Moocher” to “White Cliffs of Dover” to “As Time Goes By.” For a healthy dose of nostalgia—and a reminder that these are songs worth remembering—you couldn’t ask for a better setlist. 

You also couldn’t ask for a better, more-talented cast of five. Each artist is a triple threat, belting and boogying while running through a slew of instruments: piano, stand-up bass, violin, guitar, trombone, sax, trumpet, and drums—plus fascinatin’ rhythms courtesy of snapping fingers and tap shoes. 

The Conductor, Jonathan Spivey, often holds down the piano and trombone, but breaks for the likes of “Java Jive,” a surprisingly standout, cheeky little number in Act One. At times, it’s these more obscure tunes that sneak up and delight you. If you haven’t heard “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” Brian Russell Carey’s acoustic version is the only version you’ll need. His voice has a lovely easiness to it, as does Nygel D. Robinson, who soulfully croons “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” 

For the ladies, Kelly Faulkner returns to the Cabaret to do what she does best: sing her heart out. From the terrifically fast-paced “In the Mood” to the tender, tear-jerking ballad “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Faulkner’s range, both in music and mood, shines throughout. Katherine Thomas rounds out the quintet with deep, effortless warmth in her voice. Oh the miraculous things she can do when she sings! Thomas’ rich tones are an absolute treat; her presence, radiant. 

The All Night Strut does a good job of giving each of these marvelous artists a moment in the spotlight, but it’s just as entertaining to see them play off each other. Act Two’s “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” is a frenzy of on-stage chemistry: All five performers crowd around the piano, taking non-stop turns playing solos, duets, and trios, while the upright spins for all to see the flurry of fingers tickling the ivories. At one point, Robinson and Spivey hold Carey’s legs aloft as he plays—like a keg stand, piano style. 

Like the whole of The All Night Strut, it’s just plain fun. Moving into the holiday season, isn’t that what we crave from live theater? This musical revue boasts the right kind of energy for the whole family—parents, grandparents, and even youngsters who might be primed to appreciate that music is a snapshot in time. These melodies and lyrics captured the mood of a war-time nation, and whether those songs hold up on their own merit, or whether nostalgia plays a part, it’s a pleasure to hop on board and visit the past through the songs of The All Night Strut.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Bayfield 2018

Old things, new things, Lake Superior things

Another year, another family trip to about as up north as you can go in Wisconsin. This time, Bayfield was filled with some newness — like a new wine tasting experience, a new at-home cocktail, a new coffee shop, and new opinions on the pancakes at The Fat Radish (said opinions would be mine). 

As is the Lawler family way, the weekend started with a stop at Erickson's Orchard. This is where, if they only have nine bags of apple chips, you simply buy all nine bags to stock up. It's survival of the fittest, and in Bayfield, the fittest live off apple chips. This stop takes all of ten minutes. 

Next up, it's Hauser's Superior View Farm, former home of the Bayfield Winery. Here you can sample apples and hard cider and climb the two flights of stairs to the Scenic Overlook and Jim's collection of hats, beer cans, toy tractors, and more. I'd describe for you just how many hats, but you'd probably still accuse me of underselling their sheer number upon viewing them yourself.  

Now the Bayfield Winery, which used to be housed at Hauser's, is located around a bend on a beautiful stretch of orchard land. Step inside, and it's a different experience from others in the small Lake Superior town. Wine flights are served in a waterfall of glassware, and there are bites and nibbles to share. On a nice day, there's even a small patio overlooking the orchard. 

When tummies start rumbling, it's The Fat Radish for dinner. Be sure to make a reservation! Some menu notes from our experience: Don't get the pork skewer. It sounds good, but disappoints. Do get the white fish dinner, the fish tacos, and the Fish Booyah, which is the Radish take on bouillabaisse. 

If going there for breakfast, everyone in our party loved the corned beef hash. But note to self: The pancakes aren't for me (too dense, and not even served with butter), and the Korean barbecue bowl was lacking. Next time, I'm going back to the breakfast sammy. 

Other Rittenhouse Avenue staples include a stop at the Candy Shoppe to order an apple pie, which will invariably be ready for pick-up after 3pm. Then there's Joanne's Scandinavian, my favorite little shop. I've been known to walk away with expensive socks, a red tea kettle, or a gift for expecting friends. Sweet Sailing is where you go to get fudge, fancy mustards, and two-for-one pounds of saltwater taffy.   

Also new this year: Kickapoo Coffee! This really is like having a taste of the city — not surprising, as there is a Kickapoo in Milwaukee, too. It's nice to have a spot where you could hunker down and use the wifi, buy a cool Kickapoo t-shirt or mug, or just come out of the chill for a few over a salted caramel latte. 

When at home — er, our rented condo with a view — we like to get pizza to-go from the Manypenny Bistro. Just think twice next time before asking me to carry it home solo, because I will most likely walk the two-blocks back to the condo with the box tilted just enough to ruin half the pizza. But hey, it still tasted good! This year, we washed it down with a scrumptious peppery ginger cider

As for getting outside and stretching our legs, we made time for the Brownstone Trail, affectionately called The Path in our family. But the weather this time did not inspire other long walks. Next time, we must make room for cemetery bingo and a trip to the Iron Bridge trail. So little time, so much nothing-urgent to do!