Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Milwaukee Rep Presents "Every Brilliant Thing"

Tackling a tough subject with resilience, joy & laughter

The warm glow of swagged cafĂ© lights. Chairs situated in the round, a plush oriental rug resting center-stage. One remarkable storyteller. Dozens of audience members waiting to participate in the magic. 

When a play is as aptly named as this one, it makes my job a breeze. It’s not just the “brilliant” part; it’s also the “every.” From the supremely engaging Scott Greer to the perfectly-sentimental script by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe to the overall format of the evening, under the direction of Terrence J. Nolen, there’s no end to the brilliance of Every Brilliant Thing

It’s the story of a young boy who seeks to cure his mother’s depression by creating a master list of all the wonderful things in life: ice cream, hugging, staying up past your bedtime, the even-numbered Star Trek movies, and so on. Through the years, the boy grows up and grows his list to the hundreds of thousands, including things like the smell of old books, nearly dropping something but catching it at the last moment, and falling in love. Everything on the list is read aloud by members of the audience, the chosen ones having received a cue card upon entering the Stiemke Studio. 

Clocking in at just over an hour long (no intermission), this play is a wholly immersive experience shared in a space that the Milwaukee Rep has made to feel truly safe. As the people seated in the black box theater change nightly, so too must any moment where performer Scott Greer plays off what the public gives him. Whether he’s looking to borrow a book, prompting a woman to use her own sock as a hand puppet, or coaxing folks to join him on the oriental rug to give a speech or play a prop, Greer conducts the audience with kindness and encouragement. He is terrifically gracious, good humored, and witty. But don’t worry — if participation isn’t your thing, just keep your head down. Greer isn’t here to pick on anyone. 

Like its lead actor, Every Brilliant Thing is honest, heartfelt, and abounding with persistent hope, even in somber moments. A word of warning: Those who have encountered depression or suicide should be aware that these themes are central to the story. As Greer’s character admits, it’s naive to think that a list of brilliant things — or a play about a list of brilliant things — could cure the complexities of depression. Yet this is an uplifting night of theater that celebrates resilience and invites both open dialogue and a sincere human connection. 

There’s something magnificent in the simple way this play calls out common joys: surprises, hair stylists who listen to what you want, the smell of bacon. During its short engagement at the Milwaukee Rep, there will surely be countless faces beaming and eyes brimming in the Stiemke Studio. Truth be told, it’s tempting to go back for another round, in the round. Every Brilliant Thing is just that good for the spirit. 

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Broadway's "The King and I" Comes to Milwaukee

Musical revival does justice to a classic

Take a 1950s musical classic with the names “Rodgers and Hammerstein” attached and you’ve got a lot to live up to, even in 2019. These beloved stories, songs, and performances are seared into people's brains, and it can be tough to top the nostalgia. Happily for the national tour of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The King and I,  the cast holds their own and the story stays, mostly, as compelling as ever.

The King and I is based off the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam, which was in turn based off the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, English governess to the children of the king of Siam (present day Thailand) in the 1860s. The Siamese King really did have 39 wives and 82 children. Wanting to move Siam toward modern ways of thinking, the King brought in “Mrs. Anna” to teach his children and wives in Western, scientific subjects.

Leave it to Rogers and Hammerstein to romanticize Anna’s relationship with the king, though there is less of that love-struck undercurrent in this 2019 touring production. Anna (Angela Baumgardner) and the King (Pedro Ka’awaloa) tend more toward a mutual admiration than a romance. Intentional? The clever rapport between Baumgardner and Ka’awaloa bring some of the strongest moments to this King and I. If the leads wanted to inject more romantic tension throughout, they have the chops for it. Still, these two play easily off each other in friendliness, and that’s great fun.

Taken on their own, Baumgardner strikes the right note as the nurturing and knowledgeable Mrs. Anna. Her “Hello Young Lovers” is sweet and sincere. She delivers the well-known tune “Getting to Know You” with cheery optimism, while still coming at the King with believably bold, courageous honesty in more heated moments.

Ka’awaloa’s King of Siam is largely likable and, strange as it sounds, endearing in his arrogance. In what may be squirm-inducing moments, like the ways the King talks about slavery or his many wives, the audience is made to feel like we’re all in on the joke — the joke being that the King’s notions may be so obviously backward and naive in their logic, but at least we all know it.  

This sense of The King and I being largely self-aware is what makes it easier to delight in the King, rather than despise him. We see in Ka’awaloa a King who, for all his charm and confidence, is secretly lost and desperate for guidance in what’s right. His eventual willingness to change is what makes this character’s faults tolerable and his demeanour likable in 2019.

Backing up the leads are two ladies who deserve some special praise: Paulina Yeung as Tuptim and Deanna Choi as Lady Thiang, both who are making their national tour debut. Yeung’s first solo, “My Lord and Master,” sends excited chills for all her voice’s beauty and ease. Choi’s “Something Wonderful” simultaneously brings sweetness and strength. Such lovely voices are a treat. Also, a shout-out must be paid to Timothy Matthew Flores as Prince Chulalongkorn for his seriously commanding entrance and sympathetic take on a young and puzzled king-to-be. The childrens cast is also, not surprisingly, adorable.

It’s intriguing to examine how a show from 1951 holds up after nearly 70 years. The relationship between Anna and the King is at the heart of this story, and since our fascination with such relationships stands the test of time, so too does the central plot of The King and I. When it comes to the musical aspect, however, some of the songs really soar, while others fall a little flat. It may be that the evolution of musical theater makes certain styles of song feel dated to today’s ears. That, or it takes real Broadway-caliber performers to take those songs to the next level.

Also, The King and I doesn’t have stunning amounts of choreography to fall back on; it’s mostly story and song. Yet the moments where dance is featured are a joy. Tuptim’s play-within-a-play, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” has always been a favorite. The dancers in this national tour enchant with their splendid execution of Asian classical dance, with dazzling costumes to complete the dreamy scene.

There is also a short bit of choreography surrounding a ceremony celebrating a white elephant — a good omen for the kingdom. This sacred moment of dance feels fresh and is made all the more special by dramatic backlighting and the dancers’ ethereal, snow-white attire. More such staging and interpretation would be welcome.

Even so, this King and I will surely satiate those who already adore this classic. Will it bring in new fans? One can hope. There is enough in the King and I that could well survive another fifty years, as long its best parts are amplified and future creatives remain open to reimagined possibilities.

Photo credit: Zach Stevenson

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Milwaukee Ballet presents "Lambarena"

Mixed program of classical, contemporary & African dance

When the Milwaukee Ballet presents a trio of works in one mixed program, odds are something will resonate — if not the haunting music of one piece, then the vibrant rush of costumes in another. Aesthetics aside, one can always appreciate the power and poise of the Milwaukee Ballet Company dancers and the skill and grace with which they execute such a range of choreography. This weekend’s selections feature world premieres by choreographers Enrico Morelli and George Williamson, plus the much-buzzed-about Lambarena, choreographed by Val Caniparoli.

The evening works its way from Morelli’s moody Compieta to the exuberant Lambarena — a nice progression that leaves audiences on a high note. Morelli’s dreamlike sequence features a cast of sixteen. “There is no narrative to this piece,” says Morelli. “No linear timeline. There is a universe of memories; of future intentions, of fears, of dreams or nightmares, constantly ruined by reality.” Morelli achieves an evocative, anxious, surreal experience. Movements are ever-entwined and fluid with an intentional push and pull. Morelli also designed the costumes in shades of dark green, rust, black, and grey; a solemn yet pleasing palette made more intriguing by the use of sheer fabrics and, sometimes, skirted men.

Williamson’s Albatross may be a surprise favorite. The 10 dancers featured each don simple white bodysuits to become a veritable flock of albatross. Per the choreographer’s note: “This piece evokes the passing of seasons, which is in itself a metaphor for the milestones we reach between life and death. The title references the albatross, a bird which mates for life.” The choreography tells of a pair of birds, their love, their offspring, and that offspring leaving the nest. The depth of this pair’s bond, the weight of their love and the life they’ve built — it all comes through in exquisite choreography and dancing. Albatross is beautiful, moving, and incredibly mesmerizing.

For the finale comes Caniparoli’s high-spirited Lambarena, blending traditional African rhythms and dance with compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach and classical ballet. “I wanted to show that you can do either kind of movement to both kinds of music,” Caniparoli says. This juxtaposition is a singular experience and a true joy to watch. If anything, the breaks between songs are more jarring than the mix of African and classical; there really isn’t a story here, rather a study of music and movement. Costumes by Sandra Woodall are stunning, especially the gorgeous sweep of brightly-dyed skirts, whose movement is a dance all its own.

What the Milwaukee Ballet excels at is making room for different styles of dance. There's always space for fully-classical pieces (A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be on stage this May), but dance is so much more than tutus. In showcasing contemporary choreographers alongside the classics, the Milwaukee Ballet taps into trends that speak to the evolution of dance and grow a more diverse audience. The pieces in this Lambarena mixed program sum up the overarching goals of Artistic Director Michael Pink and the Milwaukee Ballet: to commit to the future of dance through new work, education, and collaboration.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Milwaukee Ballet hosts African dance class for the community

Educating & engaging Milwaukeeans ahead of Lambarena

Dance is universal. That’s what the Milwaukee Ballet hopes to highlight with its upcoming performance of Lambarena, an innovative work that weaves classical ballet and African movement into one glorious celebration of dance. The piece by Val Caniparoli, which first premiered in 1995, was inspired by a musical composition that merges Bach with melodies from the Gabon region of West Africa. Consider these ears perked.

“The score is a marriage of these two kinds of music, and I wanted the choreography to be the same thing,” Caniparoli said. “I wanted to show that you can do either kind of movement to both kinds of music.” By joining forces with distinguished African dancers and choreographers Zakariya Sao Diouf and Naoi Geo Johnson-Washington, Caniparoli ensured that his choreography for Lambarena was authentic and crafted with the blessing of these experts in African dance.

In the days leading up to Lambarena, the Milwaukee Ballet has taken great care to educate its own dance company and the Milwaukee community in the art of African dance. Roxy Kess and Yaya Kambaye of local ensemble Xalaat Africa Drum and Dance for Life taught a class to the Company and Milwaukee Ballet II (MBII), as well as all Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy locations. Kess and Kambaye also attended two of the rehearsals for Lambarena to offer feedback. 

Last weekend, a free class was held for the public: ”No previous African dance experience is necessary,” claimed the Facebook event. Well sign me up!

The dance class took place at the Milwaukee Ballet headquarters on National Avenue, soon to be relocated to the Baumgartner Center for Dance in the fall of 2019. About 50 people from all corners of town poured into the rehearsal hall: eager little boys and girls, older gals in socks, tall and toned dancers, average joes like me, and gorgeous women in vibrant skirts for whom African dance is clearly already a passion.

For one hour, we learned by doing. There was hardly any verbal instruction, rather we simply followed Kess and her team of dancers. Dance itself was our communication, and we all grew a little that day in the ways we understand each other and move our own bodies. The class certainly served the Milwaukee Ballet well in its message surrounding Lambarena: that dance really is its own language.

“We hope people had a fun hour trying something new or connecting to something they already love, and being part of something communal,” says Alyson Chavez, Director of Community Engagement for the Milwaukee Ballet. “While we’re experts in ballet, we are always looking for new ways to connect people to our Company and our art form.”

I was so overjoyed (and sweaty) by the end of our one-hour session that I had to ask Chavez about their plans for other such experiences in the future. “The Baumgartner Center for Dance will have a Community Studio in it,” she explained. “While it will be the Milwaukee Ballet’s new home for the Company, MBII Program, and Milwaukee Ballet School & Academy, we also want the community at large to feel welcome. We will be celebrating the new space with community offerings — all of this planning is still in the works. Next season is also our 50th, so we hope to have people coming in to celebrate that as well!”  

In the meantime, the ballet will be back this summer with their third annual Ballet Beat, where the dancers literally take it to the streets in June and July. Per Chavez: “We’re hoping to pack that month with free workshops, pop-up performances, and mainstage shows featuring seven of our Company dancers and two of our MBIIs.” Stay tuned to the Milwaukee Ballet website and Facebook page for more information.

The reach of such initiatives is no small potatoes. Milwaukee Ballet’s Community Engagement programs serve more than 38,000 people each year. “There are still so many people who don’t know about ballet, who might think they have nothing in common with it, or just have no experience seeing it or being exposed to it,” Chavez says. “We want people to know that ballet is fun, athletic, relevant, and interesting! Our programs seek to break some of those barriers that surround ‘classical ballet’ and open a door to the arts.”

Come see what wonders arise from the barriers being broken in Lambarena, on stage April 4th–7th at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Information and tickets at

Photo credit: Milwaukee Ballet