Thursday, October 24, 2019

"Utterance" promises the eerie & beautiful

A new work by Milwaukee Opera Theatre this Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Donna Miller

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Skylight presents "Oklahoma!"

A beautiful, stripped-back revival of a classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Blueberry Basque cheesecake

Simple & stunning cake in a puff pastry crust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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