Wednesday, November 27, 2019

"The Band's Visit" comes to Milwaukee

“Nothing is as beautiful as something that you don’t expect.” 


On this Thanksgiving week, I for one am thankful for traveling musicals that make it so easy to write a review. For The Band’s Visit, I have nothing but praises to sing. This is a small, simple tale, for as the show’s bookends remind us, “You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t very important.” 

This seemingly-unimportant story tells of one night in the middle of the Israeli dessert, where a troupe of musicians from Egypt end up in a tiny, unsuspecting town due to a travel mix-up. There’s no hotel in this little village and no bus back until morning, so the gentlemen in the band lean on the kindness of locals to get through the night. 



The band’s conductor is Tewfiq, an older man, quiet and reserved. He’s marvelously played here by Sasson Gabay, who is reprising the role he originated in the 2007 film. He’s also played the part on Broadway. To Gabay’s infinite credit, he succeeds in making one wonder at and care for this stoic character, even on a stage as large as the one at the Marcus Center. 

Opposite Tewfiq is Dina, owner of the town café. She’s beautiful, sensual, and tough as nails. On this warm dessert night, she attempts to awaken some long-lost feeling — not only in the traveling conductor, but herself. Critically-acclaimed actress Chilina Kennedy plays Dina, and she is exquisite. Kennedy’s voice soars and enchants as her movements transport us to that hot, sticky, dessert with its jasmine- and spice-scented breeze. She is, in a word, bewitching.

Alongside these two central figures stands a mighty ensemble of characterful personas. Bandmates and townsfolk alike, these are not one-dimensional parts. Rather, each one lures you in to make the audience feel a sense of connection. These are human stories and snapshots of life: a tired young mother, a young man who’s never kissed a girl, a clarinet player who is writing an original concerto, a boy waiting by a payphone for his girl to call. Some mourn the loss of loved ones; others celebrate the lives of those lost.  

Even in its simplicity, The Band’s Visit packs a lot of narrative into its one-and-a-half-hour, no-intermission runtime. Yet, somehow, this show takes its time as well. Characters and moments have room to breathe. There are silences, pauses, and stuttered attempts to bridge gaps in language between the Egyptian band and their Israeli hosts. One might find it slow, but I say this unhurried storytelling is positively charming. 

Filling some of the silence is a glorious Tony- and Grammy-winning score by David Yazbek. The band itself plays on stage throughout the show, lending authentic dimension to the characters and plot. It’s spellbinding to watch these musicians play so feverishly. Vocal performances are, across the board, equal to the music. 

Brilliant set design aids in the changing of scenery and flow of the story. A rotating stage takes the cast from a café to a series of apartments to a park. We even go to the newfangled town roller rink, complete with a spinning mirror ball that bathes the audience in shimmering flecks of light. It’s a gorgeous set and lighting design that makes inventive use of space and perspective. 

What kind of perspective are you bringing as you settle into your seat at the Marcus Center this holiday weekend? The Band’s Visit celebrates the intimate, authentic, and real; the facets of life that connect us and make us all human. It’s an uplifting reminder of all that we share and of what good and beauty can come when we open our doors and hearts to the unknown. This is the Thanksgiving show Milwaukee needs, and I’m so glad we’ve got it. 

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

You too can go to Fiji!

From Milwaukee to Nadi, here's how we did it


If you want to bowl people over with shock and awe, just tell them you’re going to Fiji. That’s the response Andrew and I got from friends, family, and near-strangers. To be fair, I’d never traveled that far before. The flight is a cool 11 hours from LAX. But it’s doable! So stop looking at us like Fiji, though exotic, is some unaccessible Eden. You too can go to Fiji! Here’s how we did it. 



Getting there
Step one: Pounce on credit card deals that can earn you airline miles and hotel points. Last year we were lucky to land a one-year Companion Pass (two flights for the price of one) through a Southwest limited-time offer. Andrew trusts The Points Guy for hot tips on credit card and flight deals. 

Step two: Watch for cheap flights. Andrew and some of his travel-hungry friends subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights (the free version). Every so often he’ll send me a cheap flight to ogle. This time, we not only ogled — we purchased. Within ten minutes of him texting me a deal for, roughly, $395 round-trip to Fiji from LAX and me confirming that we had no plans in early November, our tickets were booked. We used Southwest credit card points coupled with our Companion Pass to get to and from LAX for nothing. That means we each got from Milwaukee to Fiji and back for under $400 round-trip. 

Due to timing of flights, we did spend one night in LA — a fun way to work a mini trip into the bigger one. We had about 36 hours there. Our flight was direct from LAX to Nadi, Fiji. From the Nadi airport (stock up on duty-free booze here!), we hopped on a tourist bus through a company called Awesome Adventures. Andrew organized our bus transportation easy-peasy with the help of our first resort, the Octopus Resort on Waya Island. 

The bus took us to Port Denarau (stock up on snacks + drink mixers here!). From there, we took the ferry that runs daily to and from the Yasawa Island chain, making a dozen or so stops total. The journey, depending on your destination, is anywhere from half-hour to four hours. The ferry flyer is as good at any at home, with a bar, bathrooms, and a top deck where they keep the killer views. 

Where we stayed
We stayed four nights at the Octopus Resort — which, more on that experience later, but for now let’s just say it was a delightful stay and we would recommend it to anyone! We found this spot on Hostel World, but it was so much more than a hostel. Tip: Weigh the pros, cons, and price of booking through a site like Hostel World vs. booking through the resort itself. Booking directly may open up perks like “stay four nights, get the fifth free!” or room upgrades. 

Most, if not all, resorts require you to purchase a meal plan or eat in designated resort restaurants. This is partly because procuring your own food on such a remote island is physically impossible, unless you fancy scavenging for fallen mangos. 

If we could do the trip all over again, we would have done more island hopping in the Yasawa Islands. We heard great things about the sister resort to the Octopus: Blue Lagoon. Staying at the Octopus for four nights was wonderfully relaxing, giving us the chance to really feel at home there. That said, you could probably have a similar experience in just three nights, then move on to another location. 

For us, after our fourth night, we hopped back on the ferry to the main island for the second half of our stay. For this leg of the trip, we stayed at the Marriott because loyalty points made it a wallet-friendly choice. Again with the points! The trouble with the Marriott is it felt very man-made and Americanized. Lovely and luxurious, of course, with an infinity pool, spa, and swim-up bar — but sort of sterile. It was certainly nice for what it was, but we’d recommend opting for something more authentic. 

On our last day, the hotel front desk coordinated taxi for us back to the Nadi airport. Really, the getting-around was very simple! 

Language & currency
Most everyone we encountered spoke English very well, so language was barely an issue. In terms of money, we took out cash from an ATM at the airport. Andrew has a checking account and debit card through CapitalOne 360 which has no foreign transaction fees for ATM withdrawals. That’s where he stores travel-specific funds and only uses the card when traveling abroad. 

Taking out $400 Fijian (about $200 US) at the airport when we arrived, we got through our 8 nights with money leftover. Resorts tend to charge everything (drinks, excursions, meals) to the room bill, meaning there’s never any money exchanged during your stay. We only needed cash for cabs and service tips. 

Speaking of tips: We learned it’s best to tip your waiter, waitress, or bartender directly in cash. Apparently some resorts (the Marriott, in this case) keep a staggering percentage of tips for themselves, leaving the staff with next-to-nothing. That’s surprising and, frankly, disappointing. Be better, Marriott! 

That about sums up the logistics of our trip. Now for some drive-by bonus tips! 

Boat shoes
When you arrive at a smaller island in Fiji, there is no traditional port or pier. There is a little boat that meets the larger ferry. The little boat then drops you off in knee-high water to wade up to your resort. Dress accordingly. 

Bring your big purse to the buffet
I don't mess around with buffet food. You pay an arm and a leg for it, so get your dang money's worth! Bring your big purse and snag a croissant for later. Or a whole wheel of cheese and pile of salami. *Pats self on back* 

Plan for the weather & activities
There may be a daily passing shower. It may cool off enough at night where you'll wish you had some kind of fetching shawl to toss about your shoulders. If you do a hike deemed "for those with good physical fitness," that might be code for "bring your hiking shoes" (more on that another time).

Overpacking
Try not to do it. Going to two resorts for four nights each? Pack four outfits and wear each twice. Fancy sandals are not necessary, ladies. The wedges and block heels I packed didn't see the light of day. I quickly learned resort life is super casual, often barefoot. Save the suitcase space and your strength — don't haul around a bunch of stuff you don't need.

BYO booze
As alluded to up top, stock up on booze and mixers before you hit the resort to avoid overpriced cocktails. If there's a happy hour deal, that's the time to snag a piña colada or two. Cheers!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Utterance" promises the eerie & beautiful

A new work by Milwaukee Opera Theatre this Halloween


Utterance will be like nothing you’ve seen before!” promises the Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT). If any other theater in town made such a wild claim, I’d probably shake my head. But with MOT at the helm, I don’t doubt it for a moment. 

Utterance is a new work that blends 16th century motets (sacred choral pieces) by Orlande de Lassus with a 2019 companion piece composed by Amanda Schoofs

In the case of the motets to be featured in Utterance, Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik says, “Each section is set to text spoken by a different sibyl. The sibyls were oracles of Ancient Greece, prophetesses said to ‘utter' their revelations… Once we had set our sights on the de Lassus motets, we asked composer Amanda Schoofs if she would write a companion piece that could be entwined."


Bringing that music to life is vocal ensemble Aperi Animam alongside flute, cello, and dance trio Cadance Collective. A Milwaukee-based vocal ensemble specializing in sacred music from the Renaissance, Aperi Animam is Latin for “open your soul.” This group of young vocalists has been praised for their innovative programming, and Utterance will surely be no exception. Lending instruments and dance to piece, Cadance Collective is a champion of music informing dance and dance informing music. 

Together, these art forms will coalesce in Utterance at the Calvary Presbyterian Church, under the aforementioned artistic direction of Ponasik and stage direction of Danny Brylow. Choreography comes courtesy of the ever-marvelous MOT favorite, Christal Wagner. 

Utterance will weave the early with the modern for a “kaleidoscopic musical tapestry.” Another big promise to make, but one I’m confident in the Milwaukee Opera Theatre to uphold. Says Ponasik: “Utterance is a truly strange and ambitious endeavor. I think people will find it inspiring. It’s spooky, eerie, and beautiful.” 

It’s also just in time for Halloween. Catch Utterance October 29th and 30th at 8pm, and October 31st at 5:30 and 8pm at Calvary Presbyterian Church.

Photo credit: Donna Miller

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Skylight presents "Oklahoma!"

A beautiful, stripped-back revival of a classic


Is there a top-notch rummage sale happening at the Skylight or is it just a backdrop for a musical? Waiting for the lights to dim, take in the marvelous clutter of instruments and antiqued-farmhouse aesthetic that fills the Cabot stage. There are rows of hanging windchimes and cowbells, percussionist pots and pans, a wooden piano, a stand-up bass, and a violin. All lay in wait as musicians and actors slowly trickle in to fill the scene with song. 

The year is 1906 and Oklahoma is on the cusp of statehood. The story mostly follows a day in the life of cowhand Curly McLain and his attempt to court Miss Laurey Williams to the box social. The two play a game of cat-and-mouse — brazen flirting one minute, cold shoulders the next. At first, the cold shoulders win out as Laurey agrees to go to the social with the sullen, unsettling Jud Fry, the hired hand at Laurey’s farm, just to spite Curley and make him jealous. There’s also a delightful secondary love story between the coquettish Ado Annie and the goony Will Parker. 




Hailing from 1943, Oklahoma! was a revelation in its day. Per the Skylight’s handy-dandy audience guide, “Most musicals were stories with songs added in where convenient, but they didn’t really advance the plot. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was the first fully-integrated musical play, using every song and dance to develop the characters and the plot… After Oklahoma! the musical would never be the same.” 

It’s neat to know how critical Oklahoma! was in terms of how it helped shape musical theater as we now know it. See this show and you’re seeing a bit of history. That said, you’re also seeing something a little dated. That’s the trouble with musicals from this era — there’s usually something that will make your skin crawl. The lurking, looming Jud was always meant to do just that, so that’s as it should be. 

But when our hero Curly sings “Poor Jud is Daid” in a casual attempt to convince his oafish, slow-witted enemy to commit suicide, one can’t help but cringe. Are we rooting for this guy? Is this just some twisted, dark humor that we all need to accept for the sake of the story? Maybe. And, to remain spoiler free, what about that ending and how quickly everything gets wrapped up so neatly? The narrative choices in Oklahoma! certainly inspire discussion in 2019.

At the Skylight, the show itself, under the ever-awesome direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, also inspires laughter, sighs, and much-deserved ovation. The set is simple: just the aforementioned artfully-staged collection of instruments set against a backdrop of open sky. The cast of 12 is small but strong, each character thoughtfully cast and pulling their weight. 




As our leads, Lucas Pastrana’s Curly and Brittani Moore’s Laurey are a darling duo. Pastrana makes for a strapping young cowhand — confident, clever, and amorous. He’s got that witty, knowing glint in his eye, the kind you’d expect from a charmer. Pastrana sings the bass-baritone part with wonderful warmth and apparent ease. An all-around solid pick for Curly. 

The relationship between Curly and Laurey hinges on a lot of coy affection and banter, which Pastrana and Moore deliver nicely. I wouldn’t call their chemistry all-out fireworks, but the two portray a courtship that’s sweetly charming. As Laurey, Moore is at once wide-eyed and winsome, sassy and steely. She’s wonderful. Moore is also a songbird with a lovely, impressive range and pretty quality to her voice. At times, she was sadly just a little hard to hear over the music. Whether that was due to the occasional softness of singing or to the mics, I’m not sure. (Edit: I've since learned that Ms. Moore had been very sick and wasn't at full throttle during the performance I saw — a worthwhile reminder that even seemingly-untouchable actors are vulnerable to bugs.

Supporting our two young lovers are Laurey’s Aunt Eller, played by Cynthia Cobb, and friend Ado Annie, played by Hannah Esch. Cobb makes for an Aunt Eller who is feisty and strong in both voice and attitude. Esch’s Ado Annie is a definite crowd favorite — a downright hilarious, firecracker of a performer with a powerful belting voice and spot-on comedic instincts. 

Ado Annie waffles between two suitors: the aforementioned townie Will Parker (Sean Anthony Jackson) and the worldly, sleazy traveling salesman Ali Hakim (Ethan D. Brittingham). With two funnymen this likeable vying for Ado Annie’s affection in this low-stakes secondary romance, it doesn’t much matter which of them wins the girl in the end. The fun is all in the wooing.

Also deserving of a shout-out is Jeremy Peter Johnson, this Oklahoma!’s Jud Fry. He’s both fearsome and pathetic, making one wonder if you aren’t supposed to feel a little sorry for the guy. Regardless, kudos to Johnson for giving such a layered performance. It can’t be easy playing the character everyone hates — or, to use my mother’s choice of words, the resident “slime bucket.” 




Altogether, the cast puts on a tight musical performance. The few true dancers are exceptional, namely the duo of Shephanie Staszak and Christal Wagner. Simply enchanting. A momentary music battle between percussionist Michael “Ding” Lorenz and violinist Pamela Simmons is a fun way to really make the musicians a part of the story. The entire ensemble shows their combined power through some glorious harmonizing in the show’s titular song. 

Some of this unbridled delight is a credit to how Rodger’s music and Hammerstein’s lyrics hold up so well over the decades. While the narrative may have its flaws, just like most narratives from over half-a-century ago, it’s hard to argue with gorgeous melodies and sweet sentiments. Romance and music stand the test of time, maintaining Oklahoma! as a musical theater classic. 

How will it stand up to the next 75 years? Impossible to say. I know they’re doing something newfangled in the 2019 Broadway revival, setting the story in more modern times. And this Skylight production is certainly more stripped down, relying on simple orchestrations, bare-bones sets, and a small ensemble to achieve something great. A production like this allows the strongest bit of Oklahoma! — the music — to shine. It’s creative decisions like this and give shows like Oklahoma! the best chance at survival. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Blueberry Basque cheesecake

Simple & stunning cake in a puff pastry crust


I've learned the hard way not to make a new dessert for a party. You've gotta do a test run. I know I can stand by this simple but super-impressive Blueberry Basque Cheesecake from Half-Baked Harvest because I made it twice in one week to the same glorious effect. 




Here I go divulging secrets: The crust is just store-bought frozen puff pastry. The filling comes together in one bowl with an electric mixer. Minimal patience or technique is required, aside from making sure everything you're mixing ends up smooth and creamy. 

Also, this is a cheesecake that embraces those dreaded cracks on top. You can't mess this one up! It's rustic and divine and will, I think, become a regular in my dessert rotation for its ease of preparation and the "ooh"s and "aah"s it inspires. 

– – – – – – – 

BLUEBERRY BASQUE CHEESECAKE

WHAT YOU'LL NEED
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed 
2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar 
3 large eggs, at room temperature 
3/4 cup heavy cream 
1 tsp vanilla 
1/2 tsp salt 
3 TBS flour 
2 cups fresh  blueberries 
extra sugar for dusting 

WHAT YOU'LL DO
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease a 9-inch spring-form pan and line the bottom with parchment paper. 

2. On a lightly-floured surface, gently roll out the thawed puff pastry, trying to maintain an even square. Press the rolled pastry into the prepared pan. If it doesn't go all the way up the sides, that's okay. *Note: If some of the dough spills over the top of the pan, tear the excess and press up the sides to fill in any gaps. 

3. Place the pastry-lined pan in the fridge while making the filling. 

4. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese and 3/4-cup sugar until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until well-incorporated and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add cream, vanilla, and salt and beat until combined. 

5. Sift 3 TBS flour into the batter and beat until smooth. Pour the batter into the pastry-lined pan. Gently sprinkle the blueberries over the filling (it's okay if some sink). Gently fold the corners and edges of the puff pastry over the filling. Sprinkle the top with 2 TBS sugar, hitting the top of the crust as well as the blueberries. 

6. Bake in the heated oven for 55 to 65 minutes until golden brown on top and still jiggly in the middle. Let cool for 5 minutes, then un-mold and allow to cool completely. Serve at room temperature or chilled. 

*Note: Let cool for a couple hours if you can before storing in the fridge. Best to bring it to room temperature before serving, and best served within 1–2 days of baking. 

– – – – – 

This cheesecake was scrumptious the next day, but it was especially heavenly just a couple hours out of the oven. If possible, bake this cake the same day you're serving it for the best crust and filling texture. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Broadway's "Dear Evan Hansen" comes to Milwaukee

Mixed feelings, but climbing into the sun


Every so often, a Broadway show comes along that speaks to the present generation. A show that resonates with a powerful, relatable message for the here and now. People lose their minds over such a spectacle because they feel heard and see a glimmers of themselves — their struggles, hopes, fears — reflected in art. For that reason, Dear Evan Hansen is an important piece of theater in 2019. 

The story, which is a true original by book-writer and Tony Award-winner Steven Levenson, isn’t cheerful. But it’s more than what it appears at face value, so keep an open mind. Evan Hansen, a high school senior and anxious outsider, is tasked by his therapist to write a letter to himself detailing why today is going to be a good day. The letter begins “Dear Evan Hansen…”

Evan’s letter falls into the hands of rage-ridden school bully, Connor Murphy, who absconds with the letter to Evan’s chagrin. A few days pass, and we learn that Connor has taken his own life. All that was found on his person: Evan’s letter. Confusion abounds as Connor’s grieving parents bring Evan the letter, assuming these were Connor’s last words to this “Dear Evan Hansen” they’d never heard of before. 



What starts as a misunderstanding turns into a lie Evan tells to help the Murphys cope with their sadness and confusion over the loss of their son. The situation snowballs from there — a string of lies to keep close to Connor’s pretty sister Zoe, a hastily-crafted backlog of fake email correspondence between Evan and Connor, and so on. The question raised: If a lie draws smiles and hope, is that lie such a bad thing? 

Evan’s lies eventually affect much more than the Murphy family. He becomes co-president for The Connor Project, a school organization that goes viral, spreading the message that everyone matters, nobody deserves to be forgotten, and if you fall, you will be found. See? All this good coming from a lie. But you know the other shoe is bound to drop and drop hard. 

To dispell the myth, the themes in this show are more than just mental health and suicide. There’s a lot to do with parenthood, especially motherhood. Between Evan’s mom and Connor’s, one is trying to make ends meet while the other is trying to make sense of her circumstances. There’s the idea of mothers and sons, or children in general, finding their way back to each other and learning how and when to let go. Grief is another theme, bringing to light that we all process tragedy in our own time and manner. 

So can one pack all of this into a musical that works and works well? Dear Evan Hansen won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2017, so that tells you something. Songs with music and lyrics by award-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are certainly memorable, though some more than others. Those “some” — like chart-topping “Waving Through a Window,” “For Forever,” and “You Will be Found” — soar incredibly high and have the power to deeply move. It’s wonderful to hear those fan-favorite hymns live. 

Bringing those songs to life on this Evan Hansen tour is Stephen Christopher Anthony. He’s every inch a sympathetic lead and believable nerd — sweaty palmed, fidgety, full of nervous laughter and introverted body language. It’s a brave way to play a leading man, leaning so hard into the “loser” (Evan’s word, not mine). This isn’t one of those teen movies where the geek takes off their glasses to reveal a suddenly-confident bombshell. Anthony embodies an Evan that’s an anxious outsider through and through. 

Somehow, through all this nervous introversion, Anthony also nails the reason we’re all here: the songs. His delivery rarely feels all-out, rather he kind of sings into himself as you’d expect a shy teen to do. How he can effortlessly flow between octaves without belting his lungs out is astonishing. One wonders what his instrument could do if he turned the dial up a few notches. Still, it’s admirable to stay so true to character. Anthony is especially captivating in quiet moments — a credit to his magnetism, even when playing a kid who feels invisible. 

As Connor’s sister Zoe, Stephanie La Rochelle is certainly sweet voiced — so much so, I wish we’d heard more of what her voice could do. Like Anthony, La Rochelle plays a sixteen year-old with lots of realness and subtlety. She too doesn’t seem to be singing all-out, rather she’s often quiet and a little hard to hear. It’s interesting to downplay the drama when the stage and stakes are so big. Whether that’s a purposeful creative choice or the fault of the notoriously dicey sound quality at the Marcus Center, I can’t say. 

For the rest of the cast, they’re strong and don’t disappoint. Interactions between the spirit of Connor (Noah Kieserman) and Evan are especially fun. The set design relies almost entirely on big black projection screens hanging from the ceiling to create depth and dimension. Sometimes the screens are there to set a mood, projected with words or vague imagery. At the best times, these screens become a dynamic part of the action, flooding the stage with light and movement. 

Leaving the theater, I listened hard for the buzz around me. One woman said “fabulous!” The general consensus seemed positive. For me, I enjoyed myself. But I think I was expecting to feel more of an emotional pull than I did. The first act was stronger than the second in both song and feeling — literally a tough act to follow. That said, people love this musical. People are bowled over with emotion, and I’m an emotional person. What am I missing? 

Upon reflection, there are two camps of people who might find Evan Hansen particularly cathartic. One: people who can relate to Evan’s sense of isolation. Two: parents, particularly mothers. I conferred with a new-mom friend of mine who was sitting Orchestra Row H at the same performance as me. She said she came away “obsessed” and that the parents angle really got to her. So maybe there’s something to my theory. 

Either way, this is a musical that speaks to a generation and fills a need for a lot of people. To me, it more so fills a need for a handful of amazing songs to belt in my car. But that doesn’t mean I appreciate Evan Hansen’s existence any less. It’s just that some shows really hit you, while others are left waving through a window. 

The Milwaukee Rep presents "West Side Story"

A must-see revival full of heartbreak and hope 


There's a rumble from the orchestra as the lights dim in the Powerhouse. That rumble brings you into the story — a place, a time, a city. There's anticipation and foreboding. Even if you've seen West Side Story twenty times before — even if you know it's based on Romeo & Juliet and therefore tragedy is imminent — the Milwaukee Rep has succeeded in giving every theater-loving person countless reasons to come out and see it once more.

First up, the leads. To have a really good West Side Story, you need a really good Tony and Maria. Boy has the Rep nailed it with this casting. Jeffrey Kringer's Tony is stunningly sweet-voiced, displaying a seemingly effortless, surging range as smooth and rich as cream. For me, his voice is the one to which all other voices will be compared this Milwaukee theater season. His "Something's Coming'" and "Maria" are the standout solos of the show. He also plays Tony with every ounce of boyish earnestness and hope. To put it plainly, he's cute as can be and you can't help but root for him.



Liesl Collazo as Maria is every inch Kringer's equal. She steals scenes by virtue of her innate radiance — the glint in her hopeful eyes, the fire in her spirit, the singular spark that lights up the stage whenever she's present. She's remarkable. Her voice is a strong soprano — a worthy match for Kringer's tenor. Their chemistry together? Off the charts and into the stratosphere. Collazo and Kringer really sell the love story. The two gaze into each other's eyes with such honesty, it stirs something in you. It's an electric, first-love feeling that engulfs the entire audience.

Then there's choreography by Jon Rua. It's not just Rua's thrilling, eye-popping, pin-pick precise moves, but the execution — somehow both smooth and sharp, heart-racing and entrancing. This is easily some of the best dancing I've ever seen on a Milwaukee stage. In the opening number, the Jet and Shark dancers offer immediate assurance that what will follow will be the highest caliber. During "The Dance at the Gym," the Shark and Jet ladies are looped in, bringing a jolt of female energy, the rush of twirling skirts, and an "I'm feeling myself" air. When it comes time for "Cool," the choreo more than lives up to its name.

Shout outs must be paid to the leaders of rival gangs, the Jets and Sharks. Jacob Burns as Riff is absolute aces. From his attitude to his strong singing voice to his agile moves, Burns is a deserving leader of the Jets. Opposite Riff is Bernardo, played by Jose-Luis Lopez Jr. The two engage in fight choreography by Chuck Coyl — a stand-out, as the action feels natural, high-stakes, and real. There's actual threat behind these dance-fights, and that's a credit to Burns and Lopez Jr. as much as the man behind the moves.



Another praise-worthy performance come courtesy of Courtney Arango as Anita. Fiery and likeable, her strong belting alto is a nice change of pace from Collazo's soprano. Anrango packs a lot of heat and heartbreak into her scenes, doing so with breezy believability. There are also two Milwaukee greats playing smaller parts in this West Side Story: Jonathan Wainwright as Lieutenant Schrank and James Pickering as Doc. Wainwright could play the role of a hard-nosed copper in his sleep, so suffice it to say, he's as great as expected. Pickering's part is even smaller, but he makes it plenty mighty.

One last standout moment and performance comes in Act Two's ballet and "Somewhere." Having only ever seen the movie myself, and so not knowing there even was a ballet sequence in the staged West Side Story, this dreamy sequence served as a wonderful surprise. Drenched in light and hope, this ballet clad in peaceful white is beautiful beyond belief. Carrying the vocals is Hope Endrenyi as Anybodys — powerful, lovely, and sincere. This is heart-soaring stuff. Thank you to Director Mark Clements for collecting all the right pieces and creating moments worth remembering with this West Side Story.

As the house lights flicked back on, it took all my concentration to compose myself. I left the theater searching my brain for the last time I'd been so moved. So bowled over by choreography. So impressed by staging. The last time I was so caught up in the thrill of the action and romance that I kept holding my breath. I know I've felt similarly at other Milwaukee-area productions, but the specifics escape me. All I know is this West Side Story is unforgettable.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Monday, August 19, 2019

Bad English

A Milwaukee food truck at Boone & Crockett 


I really want to love the Bad English food truck, so I'm going to need your help. The truck has been a new fixture at Boone & Crockett since June, giving Taco Moto a Filipino-style run for its money. Some of the Asian-inspired dishes look amazing. Others (the ones I tried) left me rather underwhelmed. Sad trombone. 



First up, the truck itself takes a good photo. The food is also photogenic. Purple rice topped with a veggie rainbow feels like a healthy choice, but it lacked a zing that would make me crave it. For a truck that says "Feeling Saucy?" I wondered: Where is the sauce? 



Then there were these little egg rolls. Listed on the menu board as featuring "Velveeta, sweet & spicy chili sauce & pickles," I was intrigued. Well, the rolls were straight-up filled with melty American cheese. That's it. Which is fun in a Velveeta-y way, but I dunno. 

I also tried a couple bites of noodles in a sweet & sour sauce — pretty good. But honestly, I've never been that into sweet & sour sauce, so I might be the wrong one to judge. 

Is this my most wishy-washy food review yet? Probably. The thing is, I want to want to go back to Bad English the next time I'm at Boone. I just haven't figured out what their stand-out dishes are. Please, for the love of all that's delicious, tell me: What should I be eating the next time I find myself at Bad English? 

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents "Unnecessary Farce"

Slapstick laughs open the 2019-2020 theater season


Buffoonery and horseplay. Crude characterizations. Ludicrously improbable situations. Thank you, Merriam Webster, for giving us the pillars of any farce. I’d like to add that farces are also often unnecessary. They’re the result of mistaken identities, tangled lies, and absurd circumstances that prompt characters to say things like “there’s a very simple explanation...” — but that explanation never comes until the very end. 

In this particular Unnecessary Farce at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, there’s a lot of  people running in and out of rooms, slamming doors, hiding in closets, and taking off their clothes. “That hardly passes for a plot,” winks Officer Billie Dwyer (Rachel Zientek) to the audience. But Unnecessary Farce pulls out a pretty hilarious little plot — one involving two wannabe “real” cops, an accountant who keeps stripping, a featherbrained mayor, an agent sworn to protect, and a Scottish hitman named Todd (Rick Pendzich). 




Set in a Sheboygan motel, Unnecessary Farce sees two officers, the aforementioned Dwyer (Zientek) and Eric Sheridan (Ben Yela), hoping to prove themselves through a successful sting operation. The two are armed with a tower of donuts and recording equipment in the room next door to where Mayor Meekly (Jonathan Gillard Daly) is set to meet with accountant Karen Brown (Amber Smith) to talk finances. The mayor is suspected of snitching a cool 16 million from city funds, and our daring, donut-fueled duo hopes to capture his confession on tape. 

The plot informs clever staging and scenery by Martin McClendon: mirrored hotel rooms connected by an adjoining door, each room complete with doors to closets, bathrooms, and the hallway. That’s eight doors total, and they’re all flung open, slammed, inadvertently weaponized, and locked in ill time — repeatedly. A farce like this one relies heavily on funny physical stunts, comedic timing, and actors leaning on their environment to snag big laughs. It can’t be easy. In fact, many actors say comedy is the hardest genre of all. Yet director Ryan Schabach and his troupe of comedians has pulled it off. 

There isn’t an unfunny one in the bunch. From the Highland Hitman, AKA Todd, whose Scottish brogue grows progressively incomprehensible the angrier he gets to the bumbling mayor who innocently walks in at the most awkward moments, this hilarious script by Paul Slade Smith is put into laugh-aloud action by the actors assembled by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (MCT). 

Pendzich’s Todd is uproariously funny, never breaking from “stern assassin.” In a kilt. Who serenades his victims by bagpipe before pumping them full of lead. Playing off him as the earnest Officer Dwyer, Zientek won a quick round of applause for her mile-a-minute translation of a boiling mad, long-winded, and incomprehensibly Scottish Todd. Are these two ever not hilariously scene-stealing? I would (and do!) make a beeline for any comedy featuring Zientek and Pendzich. 

As the half-clothed accountant and half-brained Officer Sheridan, Smith and Yela nail both comedic intimacy and genuine affection. They’re funny and they’re cute together. Jonathan Gillard Daly plays the sweet, absent-minded Mayor Meekly to his signature Daly perfection, backed by bodyguard Agent Frank (Tim Higgins). Frank is actually a double agent suffering an escalating crisis of conscience; Higgins enjoys laughs galore. Lastly, in the interest of no major spoilers, let’s just say Jenny Wanasek is a hoot as Act Two’s Mrs. Meekly. 

Farces aren’t for everyone. They’re silly and can be tiringly convoluted. But that’s the point. According to the MCT audience guide, most farces “feature the convention of comic near-misses — usually around six. Unnecessary Farce sports eight.” So yes, this is farcical theater to the extreme, aimed at testing your reflex for laughter. What a fun and funny way to kick off the 2019–2020 theater season here in Milwaukee. I’d say this Farce is anything but unnecessary.

Photo credit: Paul Ruffolo

Monday, August 12, 2019

Under the Moon

Lunar art installation moves Milwaukee


This past weekend in the Third Ward, Milwaukee welcomed a traveling art installation called Under the Moon. The main feature was a 23-foot-wide replica of the moon, lit internally day and night. It's made from NASA lunar images printed on hot air balloon-esque material that's stitched together for a gorgeous, glowing orb. Hoisted above Catalano Square by crane, the sight caused quite the stir.



Throughout the weekend, various performances took place beneath the moon: live music, poetry, talks by folks from our local planetarium. My friends and I were lucky enough to stumble upon a contemporary dance performance by Water Street Dance — a dreamy celebration of the mystery and majesty of the moon. 

The coolest thing about the entire experience was the sheer number of Milwaukeeans who came out just to sit and gaze in awe at what is, essentially, just a fancy balloon. The atmosphere was artful and open, and it was cool to feel that shared sense of wonder. I hope it was as successful an event in the coordinator's eyes as it was in mine. To have more such experiences bringing people together would be a giant leap for Milwaukee. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Wisconsin State Fair 2019

Quick takes on fair food 


When you only have time for a weeknight trip to the fair, you have to choose your food wisely. How much can you pack in to your typical Tuesday night without instant regret? Here's what topped my list.

First up, the Buffalo Cheese Curd and Chicken Taco from Poncho Dogs. The textures are divine, the cheese melting into the chicken topped with blue cheese slaw and a drizzle of buffalo sauce, all in a chalupa-esque shell. Would get again and might not share.



My second-favorite pick is simple and delicious: Hot Wisconsin Cheese, from the booth plastered with the words "Hot Wisconsin Cheese." Melty and scrumptious as ever. Get the jalapeño ranch for dipping. 

Another crowd pleaser is the Deep Fried Italian Stallion at Water Street Brewery: thin slices of Italian beef, cheese, and giardiniera wrapped in a golden wonton. Ask for the au jus on the side.

We also went for the Dill Pickle Pizza from Rick's — a yummy-enough experiment, but we agreed it needs a drizzle of hot sauce. 

Don't bother with the Chicago Dog Nachos at Slim's PBR Park. 



For dessert, we went for the Brownie Waffle Stick from Waffle Chix. It was solid, but left me wondering if I should have gone for the deep-fried banana bread bites instead. Next year, maybe I'll move cream puffs onto my list of must-haves instead. Or deep-fried cookie dough, as I've never had it before. 

Don't forget to wash it all down with flavored milk! The peanut butter chocolate milk is pretty tasty — like the bottom of a bowl of Reese's Puffs. The mint, I'm told, is weak. At 50-cents a glass, it's worth trying them all just to say you did. 

I wonder: What tried-and-true deliciousness am I missing at the fair? Every year we collectively go for the novelties, while surely there are some simple pleasures flying under the radar. Take Hot Wisconsin Cheese — it's not making any lists, but it's firmly planted at the top of my list. So what other foods exist at the fair that don't need gimmicks to stay delicious? Please enlighten me in the comments.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Milwaukee's Skyline Music Series

Tuesday nights in Kadish Park


You know that bend on the east side of North Avenue where you can glimpse a gorgeous view of the Milwaukee skyline? Usually you're too busy driving to really appreciate it, but you know it's there and you know it's pretty great. Tuesday nights in summer are a chance to slow down, stop at Kadish Park for the Skyline Music Series, and take in this scenic spot with hundreds of your best buds from Riverwest. 



The lineup tends to be musically diverse, with styles this season including Afro-Caribbean, soulful reggae, alternative pop-rock, upbeat 80s covers, and Latin jazz. Hungry? The line is always longest at Pedro's South American Food, where saucy-scrumptious arepas, yummy empanadas, and creamy corn cups are all crave-worthy. 

Music starts at 5:30 and goes until about 8:30 each week. There's always a break in between sets, where the event organizer says a few words and invites some local youth talent to the stage to perform a song or two. It was during this little interlude that I learned how out-of-state musicians repeatedly ask to be part of the Skyline Series, but the organizers turn them down. It's all in an effort to keep things truly local. How cool is that? 



Some other live music to keep on your radar as summer winds down: Mondays and Wednesdays there's live music in Lake Park. Tuesdays are Bay View's Chill on the Hill. Washington Park Wednesdays happen, well, Wednesdays in Washington Park. Jazz in the Park happens in Cathedral Square on Thursdays, and the lakefront Colectivo hosts live music every Thursday and Friday. Am I missing your favorite spot? Share in the comments!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

A long weekend in Charleston

The Holy City is here to charm your socks off


Cobblestone streets, trees that flower in high summer, pastel homes dating to pre-Civil War, lush gardens and greenery, seafood and southern staples. Charleston, South Carolina, oozes charm and quaint sophistication that’s at once dreamy and accessible. Of the handful of U.S. cities I’ve checked off my bucket list in the past year or so, Charleston is my top pick for weekenders. Allow me to break it down.



Logistics & lay of the land 
Flying into the Charleston airport, it’s about a 30-minute ride to the heart of the downtown. What I love about Charleston is that once you get to the historic district, you really don’t ever have to leave. The main streets to explore are King, Broad, and East Bay. If you shoot for those, you’ll find plenty to entertain. A good central landmark is Marion Square. We stayed on Cannon Street in a small but perfectly-situated Airbnb. Would stay there again in a heartbeat. 

If you’re up for a healthy hike, you could walk from the top of King Street all the way down to the Battery, where stately antebellum homes meet the water. The only trouble with all that walking comes with 90-something-degree days zapping your energy. Luckily, should you need them, Lyft and Uber are always an option to get from one end of downtown to the other. 

Things to do downtown
Start on King Street. If in doubt, begin at the centrally-located Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and walk toward Marion Square, which has a Saturday farmers market that’s worth a trip. The aforementioned Broad and East Bay, as well as Queen Street, are good to aim for and chock full of shops, eateries, galleries, and lovely architecture. 

Looking for photo ops? First up, the famous pineapple fountain in Waterfront Park. It's a nifty sight, and the surrounding park and boardwalk are good for a leisurely stroll. That’s the thing about Charleston — the heat gives you permission to slow down. Hurrying simply isn’t an option when it’s this hot. (Or you could just not plan a southern vacation in peak summer like we did!)



Nearby the pineapple fountain is a spot that’s very popular with bachelorette parties: rainbow row on East Bay Street. A fun game is to count how many definitive bachelorette parties you can spy in a day. Are they all wearing bedazzled fanny packs? Matching swim suits (really)? T-shirts with a bad photo crop of the groom’s face? We saw all of the above and then some, eventually losing count. 



At rainbow row, the ladies like to snap group photos in front of the house that best matches their color scheme. I made Andrew play the same game. Myself, I prefer a pop of color. Sweaty and awkward, let’s just say neither of us feels especially cut out to be an Insta star. 



If historic homes are what you’re after, there are lots to see and tour near White Point Garden (worth a stop) and the Battery. This promenade along the shore enjoys full-sun, so stay away in the heat of a blue-sky day. In this part of town, you’ll see many horse-drawn tours of historic homes — as well as yard signs advocating for humane treatment of carriage horses. In short, we opted to walk. 



To get out of the sun, we joined a tour at the Nathaniel Russell House. Our guide was a dear lady with scads of facts and architectural knowledge in brain. We learned about rainy day doors, necessary chairs, and that it was common to only go all-out decorating the rooms that guests would see. Tours of homes come with a price tag in the range of $12–20, but we learned that you can visit the grounds for free. The Calhoun mansion is a good spot to wander through manicured gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures. 

For next time: I’d like to do the Gateway Walk. It's an informal trail through the heart of Charleston, snaking through urban gardens, churchyards, and cemeteries in all their gothic glory. However, we learned that many churches shut their gates by late afternoon and some may be closed indefinitely for construction. If you’re interested in exploring this hidden gem, go earlier in the day and keep your fingers crossed that all construction has ceased. 

Get out of town
Although historic downtown Charleston is supremely walkable, there are some neat things to see just outside of town, too. You could take a Lyft or Uber to these spots, but each is about 30 minutes one way. In the end, Andrew and I did the math and decided it would be more cost effective and pleasant to just rent a car for a couple of days. Finding a rental was crazy convenient. We booked a car Friday night, then walked to pick it up at noon the following day. 



First up, the car took us to Shem Creek Park in the town of Mount Pleasant. We walked along the boardwalk among tall wetland grasses, rubbed elbows with local fishermen, admired the boats, and snapped a pic of one very brave bird. We spied kayaks passing by as well, so if it’s water sports you’re after, give Shem Creek Park a whirl. 



During our second full day in Charleston, we packed in two half-day trips. First was a trip to the beach. It was between Sullivan Island and Folly, which we heard was a touristy, party beach. A couple of locals recommended Sullivan and we were glad they did — the breeze felt incredible on that near-100-degree day. 



In the afternoon, we set out for Cypress Gardens. The gardens were made famous in The Notebook, but that’s not why we went. I mostly just wanted to get my fill of southern swampland in its all majesty (no really!). Turns out, Cypress Gardens is one part naturally incredible, one part still rebuilding from a devastating hurricane. It also didn’t help that we were there in the most oppressive heat of the day, not a breeze to be had. Although beautiful, our next priority was to sit awhile in the sweet, sweet AC at our Airbnb. Sigh.  



Note: There are other Cypress-esque spots you can visit, all about the same drive-time from downtown Charleston. Check out Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place to see if one of those speaks to you! 

Eating & drinking 
What good is a vacation if it’s not delicious? For breakfast, we walked up King Street to The Daily twice because we liked it so much. It’s a coffeehouse serving Stumptown brews plus a menu of toasts, salads, and fresh bakery. We went for the whipped feta, smoked salmon, and avocado toast, and also went gaga over a sample of The Daily’s croissant loaf — croissant dough baked in a loaf pan. Imagine the possibilities! The coffee drinks were yummy, too.

Our other breakfast stop was Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit. Worth the hype? Absolutely. Get there early to avoid waiting in too-long of a line. If said line is 10-or-so people deep outside the door, don’t fret — it moves quickly. If it’s longer than that, *shrug*. The egg, sausage, and pimento cheese breakfast biscuit is where it’s at. 

We also bopped into Queen Street Grocery one day, an old-fashioned corner shop recommended to us for a quick breakfast. At the time, however, we were simply in need of water after being in the sun for hours on end. But we spied a menu of scrumptious sweet and savory crepes. Noted for next time. 



Our one official lunch stop was at a French café on Broad Street called Gaulart & Maliclet. ”Fast and French” is their tagline. Don’t let the outdated website fool you — this place charmed my socks off. The interior is unassuming and seating is largely at the bar. Lunch specials are served with your choice of house wine. We shared an open-faced baguette sandwich topped with goat cheese and green olive tapenade, as well as a plate of cheese and charcuterie. The soundtrack? The likes of Louis Armstrong. Swoony vibes all around. 



Ready for dinner? On our first night, we filled our bellies at Xiao Bao Biscuit, a trendy spot set in a converted gas station. It was pretty neat and plenty delicious. Our favorite thing (hands down, highly debated going back to get it again) was the Okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage pancake. Top it with egg and pork candy. Drool. 

In search of fresh seafood, we stopped at both 167 Raw on East Bay and The Darling Oyster Bar on King Street. Both are charming and notoriously packed. We did 167 Raw for dinner on Saturday and ended up with an over-two-hour wait. We bopped down the street for a mojito in the meantime. When we finally got inside, we saw why the wait was so long: the dining area is no bigger than your average living room. The Darling, on the other hand, is bigger and more beautiful than rustic. We stopped in for their happy hour deal — a nice way to check another yummy spot off the list. 



One of my favorite dinners was at a spot called Leon’s Poultry and Oyster Shop. It’s located on King Street, but a bit of a walk away from the heart of it all. The interior is rustic and cozy, and as I had been craving fried chicken, it really hit the spot. To me, it doesn’t get much better than a really good fried chicken sandwich, sufficiently sauced and topped with pickles and slaw. Washing it down with a Pimm’s Cup? Yes please!  



For dessert, wait in line at Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. And then when your flight home ends up being super delayed, take it as a sign from above that you’re meant to go back for more. See, when you find your perfect ice cream (browned butter almond brittle in a house-made waffle cone), you don’t ask questions. You indulge. Twice in 24 hours.

Specifically for drinks, we stopped at Revelry Brewing, a container-style bar with a killer rooftop and a crowd of the bachelor and bachelorette party variety. It’s a bit out of downtown, so take a car to get there. On Saturday night around 5pm, there was a bumpin’ DJ and wall-to-wall people. We snagged a seat at the bar and really did revel in the shift in energy. The other watering hole we enjoyed was Prohibition on King Street. Any bar with fancy egg white drinks on the menu is all right in my book. The vibe at Prohibition is wonderfully vintage, buoyed that night by live music and swing dancers. 

Next time: I’d add The Ordinary (a gorgeous seafood restaurant set in a 1920s bank), Babas on Cannon (an old-world café and bar), and Husk (southern signatures in a restored Victorian home) to my list of places to hit. And I’m sure that list could just keep growing. 

As you might have gleaned, Charleston stole a bit of my heart. Although it will be hard to justify going back to the Holy City any time soon, I sure do hope we meet again someday.