Thursday, May 9, 2019

Broadway's "Come From Away" Rocks Milwaukee

Uplifting true story earns a standing ovation

“You are here, at the start of a moment,
On the edge of the world, 
Where the river meets the sea.
Here, at the edge of the Atlantic, 
On an island in between there and here.”

Come From Away tells the true story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, in the days following September 11th, 2001. Due to the US closing its airspace, this middle-of-nowhere on the edge of the world went from 9,000 residents to 16,000 overnight as no less than 38 planes were diverted to the Gander airport.

Because Newfoundland is the easternmost point in North America (so far east, it has its own time zone), the Gander airport was once a bustling hub for jets taking off across the Atlantic during World War Two. Following the war, it became a must-stop for commercial airlines to refuel before reaching their final destinations. Over time and with newer, more efficient airplanes, refueling slowly became a non-necessity, rendering the Gander airport nearly obsolete. Now it sits as a sort of time capsule and inspiration for a 2017 Tony-nominated Broadway musical.

The 7,000 people diverted to Newfoundland on 9/11 spent something like 28 hours on their planes, confused and without connection to loved ones or a hint of news. Remember, this was a time before cell phones were commonplace. As people had traveled from all corners of the world, there were language barriers aplenty — barriers that, at times, could only be broken by referencing an ancient common tongue: the bible.

The people of Gander opened their homes to these displaced people, emptying their store shelves, providing phones and clothing, and cooking casseroles and cod au gratin to feed thousands. Theirs is an incredible example of kindness, humility, and compassion.

Irene Sankoff and David Hein wrote the book, music, and lyrics for Come From Away based on hours of interviews with Gander locals. Hein has said that “every character that you see is inspired by a real interview or several interviews.” Many characters are an amalgam of several people, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Sankoff and Hein have achieved an immensely compelling piece of storytelling, one made whole through exuberant, heartfelt music and lyrics and seamless staging.

Come From Away has about a one-and-a-half-hour run-time, no intermission. The format works perfectly, never lagging or leaving one wondering what’s next. There’s fluidity from the simple set transitions — mainly the use of chairs and other common furniture on a rotating stage — to the way in which the cast of 18 plays both the Newfoundlanders and the visitors.

The only thing missing from this constantly-flowing staging is the chance to applaud. Save for the show-stopping jig, “Screech In,” there’s no other momentary pause for praise — even though Becky Gulsvig deserved some for her exquisitely-belted “Me and the Sky.” Hopefully for the actors, the audience’s easy laughs and rapt attention are some consolation; everyone in this touring company is deserving of praise.

So, do we need a 9/11 musical? Is that what people want? Based on the energy at the Marcus Center on opening night, the answer is a resounding yes, topped off with an immediate and well-earned standing ovation. If ever there was a way to shine a light on a national tragedy, doing so through a lens of hope is surely the ideal.

Though panic, sadness, and uncertainty are felt in Come From Away, there’s very little all-out gloom. Rather, this is a story that celebrates the best of humanity and how, in a time of crisis, we have the capacity to come together as friends and neighbors above all else. One line in the show reflects on 9/11 with a simple truth: “So many stories gone just like that.” Come From Away preserves one such story — a story that’s uplifting and deeply worthy of its musical retelling.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Homemade poptarts

Pre-made pie crust & jarred jam make it easy

Poptarts sure are nostalgic for many of us. If there's someone in your life that's a particular fan, what better treat for a special occasion than a homemade version? With the help of refrigerated pie crust and a jar of your favorite jam, it couldn't be easier. 

I initially tested three flavors: strawberry, blackberry, and Nutella. While the blackberry and Nutella were good enough, take my word for it that strawberry is the only flavor you need. There's just something about the potency of that scrumptious strawberry flavor that works best in a poptart. Why mess with perfection? 

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Yield: 6 poptarts

2 whole refrigerated pre-made pie crusts
1/2 cup fruit jam, plus 1 TBS for icing (I used strawberry)
1 TBS cornstarch 
1 egg 
1 cup powdered sugar
1 TBS heavy cream (more as needed) 

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. 

2. In a small bowl, mix jam with cornstarch. In a second small bowl, whisk the egg. 

3. Flour a work surface and roll each pie crust into circles, about 11 inches across. Cut the edges from the circles to make 9-inch squares. Cut each square into three even strips. Note: My dough was not a perfect square and my strips were not exactly even. That's okay! 

4. Spoon 1–2 TBS of jam on one end of each strip. Brush egg around the edges of the dough to act as glue, then fold the strip over to form a pocket for the jam. Use a fork to crimp all sides. Repeat to make six poptarts. 

5. Move the poptarts to the prepared baking sheet (a spatula helps). Bake 15–18 minutes, or until golden. Cool completely on a wire rack. 

6. To make the icing: Whisk powdered sugar, 1 TBS jam, and 1–2 TBS cream together to create a glaze. Spoon on top of each poptart and immediately top with sprinkles. Let the icing dry.

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Think poptarts are a touch juvenile? Don't let the name fool you. These really have more of a hand-pie consistency. I'm also happy to report that while these are super scrumptious right out of the oven, they hold up overnight, too. You can always reheat them in the oven before digging in, but they are plenty yummy at room temperature — a fact I wouldn't have believed until I lived it. 

Shout out to Sommer Collier at The Pioneer Woman for bringing these babies into my life! 

Monday, May 6, 2019

5 Reasons to fly to "Tinker Bell" at First Stage

See Peter Pan through Tink's eyes

“When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about. That was the beginning of fairies.”

From pixie dust to tick-tocking crocodiles, sneaky pirates to Lost Boys, Peter Pan is a beloved story that’s been told every which way. There are movie, musical, and ballet versions. Versions told from the perspective of Wendy, playwright J.M. Barrie, even a grown-up Pan. In First Stage’s Tinker Bell, we see Pan’s journey through the eyes of his tiny, trusty sidekick. Here are 5 reasons her point of view is worth a peek.

(1) Inventive staging lights up imagination
With Tinker Bell’s inner light at the heart of her story, imaginative effects by Lighting Designer Jason Fassl find ample time to shine. When the figurative curtain rises on the Todd Wehr black box theater, a lone edison bulb beams from center stage. The fairies hold brilliant orbs that flicker, dim, or glow something fierce with the press of a button. Showers of golden light act as a luminous sprinkling of pixie dust for actors and audience alike.

As the island of Neverland comes alive, simple props bring the stage to life. Pop! opens one polka dot umbrella after another (whimsical mushrooms, of course). Pop! comes a bouquet of floral-lined umbrellas (tremendous Never-blooms, naturally). Scenic design by Sarah Hunt-Frank hits the perfect playful note.

Whenever the children take flight, they either brandish sweet little puppets, acting out their skyward journey in miniature, or they’re carried by the ensemble. Director Jeff Frank explains in his director’s note: “We took inspiration from Japanese theater techniques, using kokens (actors who set elements, props, puppets, and even other actors to bring moments to life) to lift our actors and create not just the illusion of flight—but a magical life to the entire show."

(2) Young leading ladies shine mighty bright
On Sunday afternoon of opening weekend, I had the pleasure of seeing the Dream Cast, starring Meguire Hennes as Tinker Bell and Anna Fitzsimmons as Peter Pan. What spot-on, poised, and powerful performances. Fitzsimmons is as good a Pan as any — immensely likable, confident, and brash, but also endearingly innocent and lost.

As for Tink, Hennes makes for a feisty, nervy little fairy. From shouting-match anger to quiet contemplation on what it is to be a friend, Hennes and her big swings of emotion command attention. You can tell she’s having fun playing the famous fairy, and that contagious energy is a real treat.

(3) Laughs that surprise and delight
One of my favorite things about seeing theater at First Stage is finding out what really gets kids laughing. First off, this is a smart play that bandies about words like “ennui” and “epiphany” — words that surely sail over younger heads. But what’s not lost on the kiddos is slapstick humor and well-paced fight scenes, smartly choreographed by Christopher Elst.

For instance, on that Sunday afternoon when the yellow-bellied villain Captain Hook (Ryan Schabach) stubbed his toe and fell flat on his face mid-skirmish, the kiddos in the Todd Wehr audience shrieked with laughter.

When Tink suggested to a homesick Peter that she could be his mother, a little one a few rows over burst out laughing at the very notion. I found myself chuckling not only at the witty writing of Tinker Bell, but also at the reactions of the youngsters in the audience. Be sure to stick around for the post-show talk back; it’s just as fun to hear the kids’ questions as it is to hear them laugh.

(4) A story of friendship that speaks to kids
“Children know such a lot now,” wrote Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie. They do know an awful lot, and they are capable of grasping more than adults sometimes give them credit for. First Stage does an incredible job of bringing works to life that not only entertain but also get kids thinking and relating the events on stage to their own lives and big emotions.

There’s a moment where Tinker Bell sits quietly with Mr. Smee (Chris Klopatek) and ponders friendship. How can you be cross with someone and still care for them underneath it all? That, Smee explains, is friendship. Being there for someone, loving someone, and caring even when you’re cross. In moments like these, one might think the young audience would get impatient for another battle or bit of pixie dust. But they pay attention and, surely, retain “such a lot.”

(5) Peter Pan never gets old
Peter Pan is truly eternal. It’s a story that has charmed people young and old for over 100 years. Fairies, flying, an enchanted island, swashbuckling pirates, sassy mermaids, the thought of staying young forever — such magical themes never grow old. Kids still eat it up, and parents can take comfort in the nostalgia of it all. Do you believe in fairies? Clap if you believe!

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A long weekend in Austin

Streets to explore and things to see & eat 

Approachable and artsy. Southern meets Tex-Mex. Hidden gems galore. Austin is, to me, every bit as cool as people say it is, especially when it comes to eating, drinking, and boutiquey retail therapy. It's way easy to spend a long weekend there, even when the weather is less than ideal. I speak from experience. 

The city's hot spots are broken up into streets and neighborhoods that make it simple for tourists to find the kind of vibe they crave. Whether quirky-cute or down 'n' dirty, Austin's got it. Here's a walk through our long weekend. 

Rainey Street
Rainey Street is where the (relatively) laid-back go to bar hop. It’s a street of renovated bungalows that have been turned into bars, with restaurants and food trucks and trailers sprinkled throughout. The vibe is warm and welcoming, even on a chilly weekend in March. 

From a circus theme to dives to classier establishments, each bar on Rainey boasts its own personality and patio. We started at Alibi for champagne cocktails, then bopped over to Lustre Pearl — a fast favorite of mine for its neon “Ici tout est bon.” Next came the kitschy Un Bar Lievable with its blue and red circusy interior and a patio out back complete with an adult-sized slide, hula hoops, and a claw machine full of sex toys (yup). Also Castaway playing on the TVs. How congruous! But it really was fun.

By then we were a little peckish. Luckily our next stop, brewery Craft Pride, has the highly-recommended Via 313 Pizza out back in a food truck. Via 313 is Detroit-style pizza. Wisconsinites, think Rocky Rococo, pan-style and scrumptious. Our group of four shared one pizza — the perfect amount, as our goal was to graze all day. We kept the graze going at G’Raj Mahal with some curry and naan. Yum.

Our night out on Rainey ended with a stop at Lucille, a spot with a more sleek and modern vibe than the other places we’d imbibed. We sat on the sprawling patio beneath heat lamps (the atmosphere really was nice), sipping cocktails that were too strong for my taste. So if you like that kind of thing, get thee to Lucille!

We also returned to Rainey one morning to hit up Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden for their weekend Man-mosas. It’s basically a mimosa served in a stein the size of your head. Our group shared one between three of us, and that was sufficient. The vibe at Banger’s hit that Goldilocks zone: not too rowdy, not too quiet, but just right. 

South Congress
When asked my favorite thing we did in Austin, my first thought was “the carrot cake French toast at South Congress Café.” Maybe I was just hungry at the time of questioning, but that French toast really did leave us all gobsmacked. Imagine a spiced, cake-y loaf, thickly sliced and griddled French toast-style, serve with a side pecan cream cheese frosting. Heaven. The eggs Benedict was also scrumptious.

There are lots of other yummy-looking spots to eat on South Congress (SoCo), plus oodles of shops to get lost in and murals to ogle. I could easily spend all day browsing unique giftables and vintage goods. Drool. Note: You can walk from downtown to SoCo, but I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you find gas stations and strip malls scenic. We found the South Congress Café to be a good place to start your journey; walk up and down from there and see what lures you in.

Dirty 6th
Rowdy and raucous to say the least, this stretch of 6th Street is infamous. Here you'll find bawdy entertainment and street performers (a loose term) doing things like fitting their entire selves into a suitcase. Watch out for carry-ons with protruding arms! We likened it to a war zone: bodies slung about and mounted police patrols.

We ventured to Dirty 6th with a destination in mind: Midnight Cowboy, a genuine speakeasy in which to escape the madness. In the midst of all the debauchery on Dirty 6th, there’s a nondescript door and a code to get inside. Once there, the long, alley-shaped bar offers a different vibe entirely from the cesspool just outside. The cocktails are impressive and feature the likes of frothed egg whites, dried blood orange to garnish, and flames. Note: You can pretty much only get into Midnight Cowboy with a reservation, and only with small groups. A party of four is ideal. 

East 6th 
First off, East 6th is nothing like Dirty 6th. Here you can find the scrumptious VooDoo Doughnuts (so doughy and delicious!) in the morning and a slew of buzzy bars and patios at night.

Our first stop of the evening was at Shangri-La. This place had a super cool vibe with a photo booth, phone charging station inside an old telephone box, and an enormous patio out back with merry strings of lights hanging from the trees. We then sauntered down East 6th to Latchkey, where we snagged some seriously scrumptious tacos and queso from the food truck out back, the Smokin' Rose Taco Joint. We probably could have spent more time on this stretch of street, but there are only so many hours and so many drinks one can stomach.

The barbecue 
Not everything worthwhile can be pigeonholed to a given neighborhood. One night, we ventured a bit off the beaten path to Terry Black’s Barbecue, where we waited in line for a good half-hour or more for plates of brisket, ribs, mac ‘n’ cheese, creamed corn, banana pudding, cornbread, and so on. Scrumptious and worth the wait. We also stopped at Stubb's Bar-B-Q for lunch; the pulled pork was super tasty and the mac ‘n’ cheese was served with shell-shaped noodles and a sauce so oozy, some dripped in my hair. It was so worth the extra shampoo. 

All the rest
When we weren’t eating, drinking, or shopping our way through Austin, we did a short jaunt to the lookout at Mount Bonnell, followed by a trip to Lake Travis. The problem: It was incredibly foggy, so the views were nearly non-existent. But if you’re lucky find yourself in Austin on a beautiful day, a trip to these two scenic spots would be worth your while. Lake Travis has a sort of resort feel with a brewery for kicking back with a beer and enjoying the scenery.

We also caught some live music at The Craftsman (yes, more drinking — that gin fizz was so dang delish!). It was the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, so the place was decked out for Mardi Gras with carnival masks and beads scattered willy-nilly. The band was the Boss Band, playing traditional New Orleans jazz plus covers of pop songs. Sometimes silly, but there was an awful lot of energy and brass prowess in this ragtag group. 

In the end, Austin really won me over — a tough thing to do in mediocre, misty weather. Of the handful of comparable stateside cities I've been lucky enough to explore this past year (specifically Nashville and New Orleans), Austin is the one I'd be most eager to return to. First stop: French toast.