Thursday, February 28, 2019

Skylight Music Theatre presents "Things That Go Ding!"

Music & mayhem delight in this "wacky little show" 

“Oh my stars!” exclaimed the lady behind me on more than one occasion. Yes, Michael “Ding” Lorenz boasts crazy talent alongside an outrageous instrument collection that warrants awe-inspired sighs and, as the Skylight Music Theatre proves, a show all its own. Things That Go Ding! played to sold-out audiences in 2012, and now it’s back and bigger than ever in the Cabot Theatre. 

Before the show starts, audiences can ogle the glorious mess of instruments that lay in wait: Tuned cowbells, bellhop bells, and jingle bells. Things that whiz and womp. Then it’s off to the races, as Michael “Ding” Lorenz (let’s call him Ding) runs about his playground of percussion like a marvelous madman — more of a Wonka than a Wagner. From the get-go, this high-energy spectacle delights. 

Ding is joined on stage by two great performers: pianist Jamie Johns and singer, actor, funnyman, and Skylight Artistic Director, Ray Jivoff. Through all the mayhem, Johns and his piano nimbly keep the melody going. His part might feel subtle in comparison, but there's nothing elusive in the way Johns plays with such agility and aplomb. He is both a world-class pianist and a class act.

Jivoff is hilariously unsubtle, bringing consistent energy and humor to the stage — not to mention a vocal quality and range that’s supremely easy on the ears. Milwaukee needs more stage time with the brilliant Mr. Jivoff, as well as Ding and his odd, astounding collection. 

Now for a taste of the sounds in store at Thing’s That Go Ding! 

Music by Marimba
A relative to the xylophone, this instrument earns a mention because of its versatility. Ding turns to the marimba during classical music medleys, featuring the likes of Beethoven, Offenbach, and Rossini. The most thrilling, however, is Liszt’s ever-accelerating “Hungarian Rhapsody,” during which Ding and pianist Jamie Johns keep excellent and impressive pace.

For the Birds 
A moaning rubber chicken wearing a kilt. A squawking duck-call kazoo. A whistle that sounds like a pack of twittering cartoon birds. No sooner had these fine-feathered antics made me muse how Things That Go Ding! feels like being inside a Looney Toons soundtrack, when lo and behold: Ding and Johns treated us to something extra-special and, quite literally, cartoonish. 

As a projection screen lowers from the ceiling above the Cabot stage, a 1931 cartoon plays silently. Johns leaps into action, accompanying the cartoon with feverish piano mood music, while Ding provides the sound effects: gusting wind and rain, lightning, a train rolling down the tracks, click-clacking footsteps, and the rattle of dancing skeleton bones. It’s an ode to silent movies and the live instruments that once lent them their soundtrack. The entire cartoon, though no more than five or ten minutes, is a singular experience. To me, this is the segment that really makes the show.

Close on its cartoon heels is a segment powered by the charming, chiming sounds of a celesta. This instrument looks like a miniature upright piano, except inside there are little hammers striking a graduated set of metal plates. It sounds like a music box. As Johns points out, the Jeopardy theme, “Mr. Sandman,” and the theme to “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” all come courtesy of the celesta. 

The Mr. Rogers reference is the one that sticks, as Ray Jivoff bursts upon the scene in a bright green cardigan to sing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel,” and “It’s You I Like.” It’s just the sweetest, most heart-warming thing, and Jivoff carries it off splendidly. 

Shiny Tuned Taxi Horns
Can (and should) a row of more than a dozen tuned taxi horns play Carmen’s famous aria? For Things That Go Ding!, there’s no more fitting way to present the famous “L’Amour est un Oiseau Rebelle.” The piece is made even more memorable with a hefty dose of Ding in drag.

At one point in the production, Johns and Jivoff leave their pal Ding alone on stage for a very special musical moment. Ding introduces us to a relatively-new addition to his collection: the handpan. The handpan might be confused for a flying saucer or Weber grill, but it’s actually a drum that, depending where you strike it, emits a different note. 

Backed by his handpan, tuned wind chimes, two gongs, and the crazy-cool waterphone, Ding plays an original composition. (Note: The waterphone is a wild and eerie little instrument featured in suspense and horror films the world over.) This original piece of music is where Michael “Ding” Lorenz truly shines as a master of his craft and collection. His percussive playing is mesmerizing. 

Chime Slide
“Oh my God, there’s more,” gawked the lady behind me as Act Two opens to reveal the full extent of Ding’s collection — bigger, louder, and more wacky than before. There’s a stairway of drums, a line of (untuned) rubber chickens, a row of dangling pots and pans, giant spiralized cymbals, a traditional drum kit, and — my favorite! — a full-size slide with chimes on either side, so as you zoom down you can stretch out your arms and make sweet music. See? This collection really is a veritable playground. Join in the fun at Things That Go Ding!, now through March 3, 2019!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Milwaukee Rep presents "The Chinese Lady"

An invitation to see & understand each other

Curiosity is part of our humanity. It is also “human nature to forget,” writes playwright Lloyd Suh. Thanks to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s New Play Development Program, Suh’s The Chinese Lady imparts an utterly unforgettable piece of theater, while also embedding the fascinating and extraordinarily troubling story of Afong Moy into Milwaukee hearts and minds.

Who is Afong Moy? In 1834, she was brought from Beijing to America at the tender age of 14 to 16 (historians aren’t sure) to be put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” Until that point, Chinese immigrants to the U.S. were strictly male laborers, so it’s true that Afong Moy may well have been the very first Chinese woman to set foot in New York.

The museum exhibit catered to New Yorkers’ fascination with foreign traditions like foot binding, chopsticks, tea, and “Chinese curiosities.” Silk trimmings, lanterns, and intricately-carved furniture filled the fabricated “authentic” room where Afong Moy would sit, day in and day out. Kudos to Scenic Designer Collette Pollard's ravishing vision for this Milwaukee Rep production: a larger-than-life painted box, which opens through a series of pulleys to reveal a cage masquerading as a finely-furnished space.

Don't mistake Afong Moy's history for performance art. She was essentially sold by her family to be objectified as a novelty, not understood as a human being. It was originally planned that Afong Moy would return to China after two years, but that’s not how her life played out. The truth is, little is known of her life, yet that’s just what The Chinese Lady endeavors to imagine.

In Suh’s clever, riveting script, we see Afong Moy as she might have been at various stages of her life: Brimming with endless possibility and hope at age 14. Optimistically viewing her daily performance as a “great responsibility” to bridge cultures at age 16. Her sense of feeling “less and less Chinese” at age 17. Intense disillusionment with being a woman on display by age 29, and so on.

As Afong Moy, Lisa Helmi Johanson captivates, superbly embodying the shifts in her character’s thoughts, feelings, and age. When youthful, Johanson delivers an Afong Moy who is adorably earnest and exceedingly curious about America and the people in it — people who wear shoes indoors, sleep three feet off the ground, and eat with forks. Her enthusiasm and trust of those in control of her fate is, of course, naive. As her translator Atung (the excellent Jon Norman Schneider) says, Afong Moy has “so much hope and so little reality.”

This hope starts to crumble upon a meeting with President Andrew Jackson, a conversation enacted to squirm-inducing perfection by Schneider, the other half of this two-person play. President Jackson is the first to casually call Afong Moy a “freak show” to her face — a comment that, no wonder, changes the tone of The Chinese Lady. Johanson navigates this gradual awakening to reality with grace and poignancy, her performance and range nothing short of exquisite.

The play goes on to imagine Afong Moy growing old alongside other Chinese-American immigrants. While she has always been speaking directly to the Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio audience in telling Afong Moy's own story, Johanson now dives into the broader history of Chinese-Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s, submitting her captive audience to a much-needed refresher in the history of the atrocities European-Americans committed against the Chinese.

These were hope-filled people used as pawns to blast deadly holes in mountains for railroads — as Suh writes, “to execute a vision even as it executed them.” In 1882, the Chinese people were smacked with the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring any Chinese immigration to the United States for 10 years. Then 10 more years. Then permanently instated in 1902, only to be repealed finally in 1943. It’s a sad and sickening story, and one that demands retelling.

As Afong Moy reminds us in The Chinese Lady, the great task remains before us. That task is to never forget; to take the time to examine the past to inform the present and shape the future. Experiencing The Chinese Lady is a magnificently moving way to reacquaint ourselves with an uncomfortable, haunting part of our nation's history and be sucker-punched by how relevant Afong Moy's legacy is today.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

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.