Friday, February 15, 2019

The Milwaukee Ballet presents "Genesis"

Competition creates the future of dance for our community

Origin. Source. Root. Outset. That, broadly, is "genesis." This weekend for the Milwaukee Ballet, the word takes on something of great significance to the dance community here in town. Genesis is a world-class choreographic competition, offering dancers and audiences alike the chance to break from tradition, experience something more contemporary, and discover new talent that will shape our local ballet scene in the year to come.

How It Works
This is the eighth Genesis: International Choreographic Competition hosted by the Milwaukee Ballet. To enter, choreographers from around the world submit footage of their work. The only credential: a current contract with a professional classical or contemporary dance company.

Three hand-selected finalists then showcase new works and vie for the prize of commissioning a piece for the Milwaukee Ballet. “Last summer, 46 choreographers submitted entries from all over the globe,” says Artistic Director Michael Pink. Of the 46, three finalists were chosen: Cass Mortimer Eipper (Australia), Aleix Mañé (Spain), and Kenneth Tindall (Scotland).

“These choreographers were challenged to create their world premieres in only three short weeks, working with eight randomly-chosen dancers,” Pink explains. “It’s a process that tests them artistically and empowers them to produce a truly unique performance.”

The 2019 Competition
This year’s choreography offers three very different moods, themes, and movements. It’s an experience that has to be seen and felt firsthand. The order of appearance changes with each night of performances, but on Opening Night, we were treated first to Tindall’s abstract, pebble-inspired piece (pictured above).

His choreography stems from the idea that “we were all part of one rock before and we all got smashed down in time and splintered and sent around the Earth.” Tindall’s work is gorgeously fluid, the graceful dancing continuing on even through silent breaks in music. There’s a sense of intimacy and connection in his moody, modern dance.

Up next was Aleix Mañé’s ExiliO. It’s the story of thousands of families displaced from their homeland following the Spanish Civil War in 1939. “The roads were overcome with those who were exhausted, sad, enraged, and grieving for the loss of loved ones.” This anguish is certainly felt in Mañé’s strong, often-stuttered choreography. The movements are jagged, warlike, and entrancing in their unconventional beauty. Mañé succeeds in what he’s set out to do, both in execution and emotion.

Bringing it home on Opening Night was Eipper’s Spur — “an investigation of the human condition. Where we came from and where we are going. How we have evolved and how we haven’t.” Cue the strobe lights; of the three, this piece is, to me, the most wild and unsettling. Haunting, even. That’s what’s great about the work being done through Genesis. It’s the chance to see something unexpected, thrilling, and maybe even startling.

Your Vote Matters!
Well, at least it matters for the Audience Choice Award. There is actually a panel of well-qualified and esteemed judges who make the all-important decision of who will win the chance to commission a piece for the Milwaukee Ballet. That said, filling seats is a key component in Genesis, as the whole point is to explore and find the next wave of dance — what speaks to people, what do they want to see, what makes them sit up and take notice.

Being an active participant in experiences like Genesis is vital to the growth of the arts, not only in the Milwaukee community but in the arts world at large. “Past Genesis winners have all gone on to establish themselves as professionals,” Pink says. “Some have become artistic directors and formed their own dance companies. One has choreographed for Olympic athletes. I’m very much looking forward to the futures of these finalists.”

Genesis is where that future is born. This is the outset, and we’re invited to participate in the creation of what’s to come. Join the Milwaukee Ballet for Genesis through February 17th at the Pabst.

Photo Credit: Nathaniel Davauer.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Broadway's "Fiddler on the Roof" comes to Milwaukee

Exuberant revival upholds & evolves tradition

From a score that transcends time to the iconic bottle dance to Tevye’s lovable wit, Fiddler on the Roof remains a sensational, spirited tradition. This touring production, on stage now at Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, comes from the 2016 Tony-nominated Broadway revival directed by Tony-winner Bartlett Sher.

A 1965 classic by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof is so beloved and enduring among musical theater enthusiasts, it requires minimal updating to retain audience enthusiasm. This particular revival delivers little in the way of sweeping changes that fall far outside of the box. Rather, the most obvious change is the way the story is framed by modernity. More on that shortly; let’s start with the story itself.

Fiddler follows the journey of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman with five daughters who are coming of age in the Russian village of Anatevka circa 1905. In short, his daughters require husbands — husbands that are traditionally arranged by a matchmaker and approved by the father. But times are changing, and the idea of marrying for love is a radical one, shaking things up and challenging Tevye’s commitment to the traditions of his people and faith.

It’s a beautiful narrative, chock-full of witty and well-rounded characters. As Tevye, Yehezkel Lazarov particularly shines in his comedic moments, as well as any time he shares the stage with wife Golde, played by Maite Uzal. She’s a firecracker, tough as nails, and the way she and Lazarov play off each other is as laugh-aloud funny as it is heartwarming.

Other stand-outs include Tevye’s three eldest daughters (Mel Weyn, Ruthy Froch, Natalie Powers), who form a solid and sincere sisterly trio. Of their suitors, the adorably jittery Motel (Jesse Weil) is a favorite. On opening night at the Marcus Center, his impassioned and unforgettable, “even a poor tailor is entitled to some happiness,” was answered with a burst of applause.

It’s moments like Motel’s that continue to endear Fiddler on the Roof to avid fans of the show — plus humor that’s still funny after 50 years and songs that never get old. For newcomers, I suspect their initial obsession will lie in the choreography by acclaimed Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter.

From Russian acrobatics to a frenzy of long black coats whirling in unison to the dreamy “Chaveleh” ballet, there is familiarity in Shechter's Jerome Robbins-inspired movements. Yet he has given the tried-and-true a perfect refresh, achieving something even more awesomely exuberant than before. This is dancing you can’t tear your eyes from. How fitting that, in a show centered on the pull of tradition vs. change, certain famous Fiddler traditions are upheld, yet they continue to evolve for the better.

The biggest evolution in this revival production happens in the span of a minute: the aforementioned modern framing. It’s a short addition that packs a punch. At the very start of the show, a man in a red parka emerges with a book in hand. He’s presumably a contemporary Jewish man, perhaps in search of his own history. The man quickly sheds his parka and becomes our Tevye, launching seamlessly into the opening “Tradition.”

At the end of the show, Tevye exits the stage, then reemerges, dressed in his red parka once more, and joins the procession. Without completely spoiling the ending for any Fiddler newbies, let’s just say that this is meant to draw parallels between past and present. It’s effective and thought-provoking, though purists might argue it’s unnecessary. I suppose if it starts a meaningful dialogue, such changes to tradition certainly don’t hurt.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Broadway Across America, Milwaukee 2019–2020

The Marcus Center announces a dynamite season

Be prepared. Milwaukee is not throwing away its shot. Not waving through a window. Rather, the heat is on. The Marcus Center's 2019–2020 Broadway Across America season is loverly and couldn't possibly go wrong. (Insert The Band's Visit reference here; I'm exhausted). 

But really, the Marcus Center just announced its next season, and while there's been plenty of buzz over the promise of Hamilton making its way to Milwaukee, there are other killer shows in the lineup that already have me itching for fall. 

September 24–29, 2019

"A letter that was never meant to be seen, a lie that was never meant to be told, a life he never dreamed he could have. Evan Hansen is about to get the one thing he’s always wanted: a chance to finally fit in. DEAR EVAN HANSEN is the deeply personal and profoundly contemporary musical about life and the way we live it."

My two cents
I find it impossible not to fall for the original cast recording of Dear Evan Hansen. The things Ben Platt does with his voice... Good luck not crushing hard. So excited to experience this one! 

October 22–November 17, 2019

"HAMILTON is the story of America's Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, an immigrant from the West Indies who became George Washington's right-hand man during the Revolutionary War and was the new nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Featuring a score that blends hip-hop, jazz, blues, rap, R&B, and Broadway, HAMILTON is the story of America then, as told by America now."  

My two cents
You can read about how much I love Hamilton here. It's really cool that Milwaukee has secured this masterpiece for almost a month — the problem is, tickets are going to disappear. Honestly, now that Milwaukee has its Hamilton dates set, I'd use the potential lull in supply/demand to snag tickets in Chicago. The Milwaukee run will sell out with or without your single ticket purchase.

November 26–December 1, 2019

"In an Israeli desert town where every day feels the same, something different is suddenly in the air. Dina, the local café owner, had long resigned her desires for romance to daydreaming about exotic films and music from her youth. When a band of Egyptian musicians shows up lost at her café, she and her fellow locals take them in for the night. Under the spell of the night sky, their lives intertwine in unexpected ways, and this once sleepy town begins to wake up."   

My two cents
I haven't seen this show or listened to the music. But any musical that starred Green Bay native Tony Shalhoub on Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical is a must-see in my book. 

February 5–March 1, 2020

"Giraffes strut.  Birds swoop.  Gazelles leap.  The entire Serengeti comes to life as never before.  And as the music soars, Pride Rock slowly emerges from the mist. This is Disney’s THE LION KING, making its triumphant return to the Milwaukee!"

My two cents
If you're a Lion King alum thinking "been there, done that," think again. I kinda felt that way the last time I saw this show in Milwaukee, but walked away feeling like it really, truly, never gets old. I, for one, am looking forward to experiencing that sense of Lion King wonder all over again.

March 17–22, 2020

"What would happen if Sherlock Holmes and Monty Python had an illegitimate Broadway baby? You’d get THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, Broadway & London’s award-winning smash comedy! Welcome to opening night of The Murder at Haversham Manor where things are quickly going from bad to utterly disastrous. With an unconscious leading lady, a corpse that can’t play dead, and actors who trip over everything (including their lines), it’s 'TONS OF FUN FOR ALL AGES' (HuffPost) and 'COMIC GOLD' (Variety) – sure to bring down the house!"

My two cents
I've had my eye on this one for a while and am crazy-thrilled that Milwaukee gets to welcome this wild romp of a murder-mystery. 

April 14–19, 2020

"Boasting such classic songs as 'I Could Have Danced All Night,' 'The Rain in Spain,' 'Wouldn’t It Be Loverly' and 'On the Street Where You Live,' MY FAIR LADY tells the story of Eliza Doolittle, a young Cockney flower seller, and Henry Higgins, a linguistics professor who is determined to transform her into his idea of a 'proper lady.'  But who is really being transformed?"

My two cents
Confession: I thoroughly enjoy the movie My Fair Lady. I found the touring show, the last time it came to Milwaukee while I was in college, to be a little dull. Could it be solved with better seats? New staging? Fresh costumes? Maybe! I'm excited to give it a go.

June 16–21

"Experience the acclaimed new production of the legendary musical MISS SAIGON, from the creators of Les Misérables. This is the story of a young Vietnamese woman named Kim who is orphaned by war and forced to work in a bar run by a notorious character known as the Engineer. There she meets and falls in love with an American G.I. named Chris, but they are torn apart by the fall of Saigon." 

My two cents
My parents raised me on a handful of big Broadway musicals, and Miss Saigon is one of them. The score is soaring, moving, entrancing. The story is, admittedly, a downer. What do you expect from the creators of Les Miserables? But I am jumping out of my skin at the chance to finally see this show firsthand. 

In a nutshell, I don't remember the last time I've been this excited about what's coming to the Marcus Center. Fingers crossed that the touring productions and the acoustics inside the venue hold up their end of the bargain. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

NYT Monster Cookies

Morsels with M&Ms, Reese's, oats & nuts 

Sometimes, you need a January Saturday where you pull the comforter out into the living room, plop down to binge Netflix for nigh 12 hours, do face masks, eat chili, drink bloody marys in the morning & hot toddies in the evening, and break only to bake a sweet smackerel. 

These monster cookies from the New York Times are great because they come together easily and always turn out super yummy — a little crisp, a little chewy. And they're big. The addition of nuts and oats give some great texture, and cute, colorful candy pieces are, in my opinion, good mental therapy for a dreary winter's day. Like Winnie the Pooh said, "Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon." I say, nobody can be uncheered with a monster cookie. 

- - - - - 

(makes 12 hefty cookies)

1 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder 
1/2 tsp salt 
1 cup rolled oats 
9 TBS butter, at room temperature (I used 5 TBS salted, 4 TBS unsalted, because that's what I had)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar 
1 large egg 
1 tsp vanilla 
3/4 cup chopped pecans (I used walnuts in a pinch) 
1/2 cup M&Ms 
1/2 cup Reese's pieces (you can do just one candy or the other, but I prefer the mix) 

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, and oats. Set aside. 

2. In a larger bowl, beat together butter and sugars until creamy. Add egg and vanilla and beat again until smooth. 

3. Add flour mixture to butter mixture and beat until smooth. By hand, fold in nuts and candy pieces. 

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or grease it. Using a measuring cup, scoop out 1/4-cup balls of dough. Place on the prepared baking pan, then flatten slightly into fat disks, about 1/2-inch high. Bake six cookies at a time to give them room to spread. 

5. Bake until very lightly browned, 14–20 minutes (I took mine out at 14, so start checking then). Let stand a few minutes to harden a bit, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. The bottom of the cookies should have a nice soft golden color. 

- - - - - 

I originally tried making these cookies smaller than the recommended 1/4-cup size, which turned out to be a mistake. The ratios of nuts and candy are simply better in a bigger cookie! So feel free to go big. I also love how you can adapt these for most any holiday by using festive M&Ms. But who needs a holiday? Winter in Wisco needs all the festive feelings we can get. Stay happy, stay warm, bake something! 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

7 Things to love about "Zie Magic Flute"

Geeking out over the Milwaukee Opera Theatre

The Milwaukee Opera Theatre never ceases to amaze. It's opera for people who think opera isn't for them. There's crazy amounts of wit and artistry behind every production dreamt up by the marvelous Jill Anna Ponasik and her team of fellow creatives. 

This is the company's second mounting of Mozart's Zie Magic Flute beneath the Tripoli Shrine dome, and it's every bit a singular, wonder-filled spectacle. Let me tell you why.

(1) Location, location, location. 
The Tripoli Shrine Center, where architectural eye candy awaits! Open seating features simple banquet hall chairs encircling the shimmering, gilded, mosaic-laden dome. Arrive early to snag seats. Dare to sit front row for optimal views. Also, stay clear of the aisles, as performers and puppeteers flit in and out throughout the course of the show.

(2) The story.
Quick rundown: Princess Pamina has been kidnapped. Prince Tamino must seek to rescue her. There's a sidekick bird named Papageno who comes along for laughs. There's also some confusion as to whether Pamina's kidnapper, Sarastro (the great Mark Corkins), or Pamina's mother, the Queen of the Night, is actually the villain. Mayhem ensues! But happy endings (spoiler) are imminent. Gotta love a classic fairytale that ends in merriment.

(3) Oh Em Gee! Modern language makes you lol.
At the onset of Zie Magic Flute, we meet three supernatural emissaries of the Queen of the Night. You wouldn’t expect their beautiful voices to intone things like “No way, José!” or call our prince a “sexy boy” — but they do, to much laughter. So if you thought that opera equals seriousness, you’ll quickly learn that you thought wrong. 

That said, there are a number of songs that retain their native German, sometimes with actors holding up signs to give the audience the gist of what’s being sung about. Other times, you can read the translation in your program — or just relish in the transcendent beauty of the voices and forget worrying about what it all means. I tend toward the latter.

(4) Props to the props. And costumes! 
Bird kites, a toy viewfinder, duck calls, a jack-in-the-box, plush puppets, a shower of Raggedy Ann & Andys — many of the props used in Zie Magic Flute are actual toys, and that’s loads of fun. Others, from the cut-paper projected overture to larger-than-life puppetry, are absolutely enchanting in their fanciful artistry. Costumes are equally charming: a Bjork-inspired swan on roller skates, classic sorceress drag for the Queen, a bejeweled fez for the Sarastro — a nod to the Shriners. Eye-popping creations are everywhere.

(5) Those voices, though.
For all the humor and playfulness on display, Mozart's score still demands some serious skill. Across the board, the cast assembled here delivers with ease. Benjamin Ludwig's princely Tamino brings the most modern sound, nailing every classical note, while proving he'd make a killer frontman. Lydia Rose Eiche is a worthy Pamina for our prince, a mighty voice emanating from her petite frame. Lending support is the hilarious Nathan Wesselowski as the lovable dunce, Papageno, his sound classic baritone perfection. 

But step aside mortals — she's not called Queen for nothing. There's something otherworldly at work in the pieces of music written for this part. The Queen's solos elicit a sort of out-of-body awe can only be achieved by a voice that's up to the task. Sarah Richardson's Queen of the Night is downright fierce. Her vocal gymnastics leave jaws on the floor and souls soaring to the tippy-top of the Tripoli dome. In Richardson, Zie Magic Flute has indeed found its Queen. 

(6) Shout-out to all those spirits! 
Give it up for the spirit ensemble! They're a delightful, witty, wonderful chorus, guiding our protagonists on to their happy ending. Their blend of sweet song and laugh-aloud physical comedy is a joy.

(7) A chance to give in.
Zie Magic Flute requires that you give in. Give in to the whimsy. Give in to the playfulness of it all. Give in to the moments when you're not sure exactly what they're singing about (whether in German or sometimes-still-befuddling operatic English). Just embrace the beauty, the oddities, the menagerie of wonder of display. Bask in such an opera being sung so up-close and personal. Laugh along with this cast who so clearly delights in the magic they're making. This is theater that fills you up, if only you let it.

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Mark Twain's River of Song"

Delightful trio soothes & inspires through Mississipi music in the Stackner Cabaret 

Whitewashed towns, forests of green, golden fields. The snapshots of landscapes and life depicted in Mark Twain's River of Song are stitched together by the mighty Mississippi and woven in song. This world premier production by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman features three fantastic entertainers bringing over 20 tunes from the days when riverboats ruled the The Big Muddy. Those songs tell the stories of farmers, lumberjacks, boat captains, gamblers, and runaways — their songs often optimistic, sometimes somber.

From the first chords they strum, the terrific trio of Harvy Blanks, David Lutken, and Spiff Wiegand plant smiles on faces and set toes a-tappin'. The three performers take turns on an impressive lineup of instruments: guitar, washboard, mandolin, fiddle, accordion — even a makeshift woodwind whiskey jug and a percussive tap-dancing little wooden man. Special nod to Wiegand, the real master of music-making; the range of instruments in his repertoire makes for lots of fun.

While Wiegand brings a youthful, rollicksome energy, Harvy Blanks brings a jovial presence laced with subtlety and soul. His "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child" is easily the most stirring hymn of the bunch. In other moments, Blanks lights up so brightly, it's impossible not to beam right along with him.

For all the others' charms, David Lutken is the most rousing storyteller of the bunch. Honest and approachable, a natural friendliness shines through his performance. His comforting vocals and soothing cadance inspire cozy feelings of kinship.

Mark Twain's story of Huck and Old Jim was indeed the longest and meatiest of any of the tales Lutken told. Funny, but the titular character of Mark Twain's River of Song doesn't make an appearance until the latter half of Act Two. In the end, I found myself entranced, wishing Lutken would tell just one more story.

This wish for stories to last a little longer carried over to the music, too. I found there were some songs that, just as I began to fall for them, they were over. Though disappointing in the moment to say goodbye to melodies you've only just met, that's the sign of a something good. Leave the audience wanting more.

We actually did get a little more when technical difficulties wreaked havoc in the Stackner Cabaret on opening night. The troupe improvised through a 10-15-minute mic malfunction and played on, filling the space with music and laughter — a testament to not only their talents but to their sticktoitiveness and regard for this work, its creators, and the audience.

It was a treat to spend a couple hours rolling down the river for Mark Twain's River of Song. In a frigid Wisconsin winter, it's nice to take a little journey to the south, accompanied by songs and stories both moving and merry — but mostly merry. There's a wonderful sense of freedom in enjoying a musical theater performance that seems uncomplicated in its mission to lift spirits and bring folks together for a good time.

Be sure to check out the Hootenannys on tap at the Cabaret, where members of the community are invited to bring their instruments out for a post-show jam session with David Lutken! There will be Hootenannys following the January 31, February 21, and March 14 performances, plus a special gathering in the Back Room at Colectivo on Prospect on Saturday, February 9th, from noon-1pm.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Milwaukee Rep presents "Junk"

Play by Brookfield native unpacks corporate power & greed 

"When did money become the thing?" That's the central question unpacked in Ayad Akhtar's Junk, the latest work by the Brookfield, Wisconsin, native and Pulitzer Prize winner. In our capitalist society, money has been the thing for ages, but this play direct from Broadway focuses on the junk bond era of 1980s Wall Street.

In brief, the plot focuses on the fate of Everson Steel — a family-owned business at risk of falling victim to financial sharks and junk bond traders. Tom Everson, the third-generation owner, is desperate to preserve the integrity of the company founded by his grandfather, despite the fact that numbers show that their Pennsylvania steel mill is steadily declining in value. 

Enter Bob Merkin, a slick, cutthroat investor, intent on using his pawn, Israel Peterman, to win the majority shares in the publicly-traded Everson and gut the company of its steel roots — slashing 1,500 jobs and laying waste to Tom's family legacy in the process.

That, in Merkin's mind, is the cost of progress. Out with the old, whatever the consequence, to make space for the new. Whether Merkin and his associates are vultures or visionaries, that's something to be debated after sitting edge-of-your-seat through the entirety of Akhtar's two-hour, no-intermission script. Those hours zoom by, packed with 20+ actors, dozens of tightly-written scenes, fluid transitions, and fast-paced dialogue requiring the utmost attention — especially if all of that Wall Street lingo isn't a regular part of your vocabulary.

Falling into the stock-market-illiterate camp myself, I was thrilled at the wealth of digestible information included in the Rep's play guide for Junk. It's a must read before you go. For instance: What is a junk bond anyway? Per the guide, bonds are debt in which loans that are given to a company, city, or government are backed by private investors, rather than a bank. Bonds are considered "junk" when they're especially high-risk. "They are more likely to default and end up worthless," the guide explains, "but if they work out, they have the possibility of very high payouts to investors."

It's cool that Junk will force some of us to do our homework and learn a bit more about the big money that drives our society. It's also cool that Akhtar is bringing to light a world not often shown on stage, perhaps attracting a different type of theater audience than usual. I imagine anyone who already speaks the Wall Street language, invests in the stock market, or finds capitalism a fascinating, even fearful beast, would be especially drawn to this play.

Even if some of the financial verbiage sails over some heads, Junk succeeds in entertaining on a purely theatrical level. Upon entering the Quadracci Powerhouse, a staggeringly tall, angled, grey backdrop looms ominously. That stony facade eventually gives way to a rush of color and motion, thanks to Projection Designer Jared Mezzocchi. Video and still imagery usher in new scenes — New York skylines, west coast palm trees, wood-paneled meeting rooms — and trigger new tones.

Working in tandem with Mezzocchi's projected imagery, clever lighting design by Thom Weaver and sound design by Lindsay Jones sets scenes and moods often without the use of tangible props. Clandestine dialogue held in a cavernous projected parking garage is given the echo treatment. Phone calls across country are simulated with single spotlights. Voices in a conference call between 12 board members sound appropriately distant. The effects are, to put it plainly, neat.

In a cast as large as this one, it's equally neat and impressive to find fine performances throughout — actors with parts big and small pulling their weight and delivering Akhtar's cerebral script with unflustered ease. Special praise to the two men at the heart of Junk: Tom Everson and Robert Merkin, played by Gregory Linington and James Ridge, respectively. Ridge's desperate Everson is one of, if not the only, character in the lineup who earns any real sympathy. Linington's Merkin is indeed complex, but ultimately displays mainly, as Akhtar calls it, "fancy rationale for heroic greed."

In this financial faux-religion ruled by men and their outrageous egos, Akhtar adds a few strong women to the world of Junk. From Merkin's wife Amy (Rachel Sledd) to brilliant Harvard lawyer Jacqueline Blount (N'Jameh Camara) to investigative writer Judy Chen (Rebecca Hirota), each is smart, accomplished, savvy, and no-nonsense — though, unsurprisingly, flawed.

Akhtar has a knack for writing real people with real flaws, though given the sheer number of characters here, Junk features fewer truly developed individuals than his other works. What Akhtar does achieve, as usual, is taking a hard look at tough, often-uncomfortable issues in our society. Per a WUWM interview, Akhtar asserts that Junk is not pessimistic, just real. "It's bleak but it's realistic, unfortunately," he says. "If you're coming to the play and you're expecting something uplifting, just be prepared."

It's spot-on to suggest that any realistic portrayal of the wolves of Wall Street is bound to deflate some moral hope and crush, as Merkin calls it, our "Norman Rockwell sentimentality." But what Junk creates from the rubble of human greed is a conversation and examination of the pursuit of wealth and the sacrifices made to attain it.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Tandem

Down-to-earth food you can feel good about

If you haven't heard about the incredible things happening at The Tandem in Milwaukee, it's time to grab your friends and get some fried chicken and feel-good vibes in your life. OnMilwaukee's Lori Fredich very thoroughly told the Tandem story last September, but to sum up: Owner Caitlin Cullen is a badass lady, using down-to-earth food and an encouraging, yet no-nonsense managing style to legitimately change lives and help revitalize an entire community. 

The Tandem is located on Fon Du Lac Avenue, just far enough northwest of downtown for some folks to raise an eyebrow and opt to stay in their bubble. It's time to pop those bubbles, people. This little gem is just a four-minute drive from the Fiserv Forum, to put location into perspective — and it's worth the drive.

The Tandem atmosphere is homey, warm, and inviting. It was bustling on a Friday night with a catfish fry on the chalk Specials board. The fish fry was yummy — golden brown crust, white and flaky inside, and served with a pile of crinkle-cut fries and purple cabbage slaw. We started with fried okra (would repeat!) and hushpuppies (strangely bland, though a satisfying texture). 

Their signature Milwaukee Hot fried chicken is indeed hot, so proceed with some caution. The fried breading was crisped to perfection — for me, a deciding factor in repeat visits. The Tandem's plates of chicken are served with a drumstick, a thigh, and three sides. The potato salad was a runaway favorite at our table, and I personally enjoyed the mac 'n' cheese — creamy and saucy, not baked and congealed. 

We did wait a while for our food, but that's not to say the service was poor. The cool thing about Tandem is how genuine everyone is and how upfront and honest they are about the goings-on in their establishment. We saw owner Caitlin Cullen in the trenches with her staff, running to and from the kitchen and making sure each guest felt seen and tended to. We felt both.

When we arrived, her team needed 15 minutes to set up a table for our party of six (we didn't know they accepted reservations). Standing awkwardly by the door, Cullen personally welcomed us and offered to snag us drinks while we waited. She also invited us to hang out at a reserved table in the mean time, with the understanding that we'd have to move if the scheduled party arrived. Cool with us. 

After taking our proper seats and ordering dinner, the fryer ended being super backed up. Instead of leaving us in limbo, they told us the news and we took it in stride. We were in no hurry, and even if we had been, their transparency would not have gone unappreciated. 

There really seems to be a beautiful synergy happening at The Tandem — between the members of the staff and the way they treat their clientele. Here, everyone is in it together; it takes a village, and that's okay. A place that's so open about its mission, the folks it hires and serves, and about its own growing pains — that's a place worth supporting. And let's not forget: damn good fried chicken. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

First Stage presents “Matilda: The Musical”

Roald Dahl’s classic brings big magic to a small stage

Alphabet blocks the size of shipping crates sit about the stage, as words like read, cake, maggot, phys-ed, escapologist, and rebellion lie scrawled along the length of a giant chalkboard, rife with foreshadowing. Kids in the audience wriggle in anticipation as a tuneless smattering of chords fills the Todd Wehr Theater, soon giving way to the raucous three-part opening number, "Miracle."

As an ensemble of lucky youngsters sing emphatically of being found exceptionally exceptional by their parents, their exuberance at being so one-in-a-million soon shifts focus to our heroine, Matilda, and her good-for-nothing parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood. To sum up, the Wormwoods certainly don't find Matilda to be a miracle, and their colorful vocabulary of vile name-calling is appalling in its poetry. As Matilda grows to the ripe old age of five, she escapes into storytelling and books — and what books! She zooms through the likes of Jane Austen, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky in a week's time. This child's brain really is an extraordinary miracle, if anyone would take the time to notice.

Enter Miss Honey, Matilda's new teacher — kind, beloved, and immediately in Matilda's corner. She, along with everyone else at school, must answer to Miss Trunchbull—a tremendous, towering, menacing, monster of a headmistress, whose motto is "Children are maggots." Can Matilda, Miss Honey, and a ragtag crew of kiddos finally stand up to The Trunchbull and reclaim their miracle status?

As the villainous Miss Trunchbull, Kelly Doherty might shake your faith in a happy ending. We first encounter her foreboding form seated in an ominous control room of blinking TV monitors. Her tone ranges from deliciously dry and disdainful to downright diabolical. She's the kind of baddy one loves to hate, and that is sheer perfection.

Other hateful types, like Matilda's parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, played by Jackson Evans and Molly Rhode, respectively, are just as perfectly cast. Both Evans and Rhode have a history with First Stage — Evans with a string of acting roles for the company and Rhode having just directed First Stage's delightful Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

As the Wormwoods, these two are smarmy, self-centered schmucks, ignorant and indifferent. Yet in spite of their genuinely unpleasant natures, each character is primed for laughs, and Evans and Rhode nail their comedy of terrors. Between Mr. Wormwood's "Telly," an ode to the glories of television, and Mrs. Wormwood's "Loud," a salute to "a little less brains, a lot more hair," Evans and Rhode are dynamite.

Bringing some sweetness to all of the slime is Elizabeth Telford as Miss Honey. Telford's demeanor is every inch believable in her complex blend of self-doubt, wide-eyed hope, and determination. Moreover, her lovely voice rings clear as a bell-especially beautiful in Act Two's touching "My House."

Even with the fantastic song, dance, and comedy on display from the grown-ups in Matilda, it's fitting that the kids still are — no question — the runaway stars of the show. There are two ensembles, the Diligent and Determined casts, and three Matildas — 7th graders Taylor Arnstein, Reese Bell, and Marina Evans.

The production I so thoroughly enjoyed starred Arnstein as Matilda, backed by the Diligents. Arnstein is a fierce firecracker of a performer; she's spunky, pitch-perfect, and a spot-on little professional. From the mischievous "Naughty" to the tender "Quiet," Arnstein moves to laughter and misty-eyed amazement. What a joy!

In fact, all of the young performers stun with their level of skill and professionalism. The ensemble features a range of local middle schoolers and high schoolers, and it's thrilling to see such a talented batch of young triple-threats command the stage. After all, they may very well be the future of Milwaukee theater.

Quick shout-out to sixth grader Max Larson as Bruce Bogtrotter, who, in the story of Matilda, is famously challenged to eat an entire chocolate cake as punishment. Larson later unleashes his inner superstar with the show's final showstopper, "Revolting Children," his soulful wails a jaw-dropping delight.

Just as delightfully staggering is the incredible amount of creativity — from costumes and sets to choreography and bits of theatrical magic — that so clearly went into every single moment of Matilda. Choreography by Jayne and Michael Pink (yes, of Milwaukee Ballet fame) is especially ingenious in Act One's "School Song," and the young cast carries it off with sensational attitude and aplomb.

Indeed, Director Jeff Frank's team of all-star creatives and actors is serving up a Broadway-caliber production, made all the more special with First Stage's signature small-scale intimacy and kid-friendly flair. Stay for one of the post-show talk-backs so your youngster can ask their burning questions. Purchase a Roald Dahl book from the merch stand to further encourage a singular Matilda-ish imagination. Snag a cookie and juice box in the lobby during intermission. Truly, you may need sustenance — this show is the most ambitious yet at First Stage, clocking in at over 2.5 hours. You'd better believe they are over 2.5 hours well spent.