Friday, October 16, 2020

Meet me in the "Enchanted Park(ing lot)"

Milwaukee Opera Theatre & Danceworks stage a COVID-era spectacle

Leave it to Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT) and Danceworks to beautifully contort themselves to keep up with the times. In their sixth collaboration, Directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Dani Kuepper take the theatrics to an Enchanted Park(ing lot). Finding a way to go out of doors—now that’s thinking outside the black box. 

For those of you just tuning in: Live theater is suffering big time thanks to COVID. Moving productions outside simply isn’t a viable option for many companies. But MOT and Danceworks dared to do it. Both groups are small enough to pivot, renowned enough to draw a crowd, and plucky enough to pull it off. In fact, anyone who’s seen a Danceworks/MOT collab likely wasn’t surprised to learn that their next locale would be a parking lot along the river, where patrons are asked to BYO blankets, chairs, and warming beverages. 

How does it work? Purchase tickets ahead of time at You’ll be assigned a numbered parking space in which to set up your chairs and enjoy. Enchanted Park(ing lot) features just eight pieces of music and dance for a 45 minute performance. For a near-hour of live entertainment—a joy that’s increasingly impossible to come by these days—it’s so worth it to mask up and brave an October night.

As for the show itself, it lives up to its name. It’s also haunting, which is fitting for the season. Most of the eight pieces feature a mix of song and dance. I find that movement helps to drive home a mood in those songs not performed in English. Some of the dancing is frantic and disjointed, which feels relatable nowadays whether or not that was the intention. In other pieces, dancers seemed to play catch with energy and push away shadows. 

“Danse Macabre” features a flurry of dancers, sweeping through the brush to take their places on the pavement. With Becky Schulz on violin and Joe Riggenbach lending both his baritone and mandolin, the song-and-dance troupe delivered a spectacularly spooky little showstopper. Here’s a snippet of the translation: 

The winter wind blows and the night is dark; 
Moans are heard in the linden-trees. 
Through the gloom, white skeletons pass, 
Running and leaping in their shrouds. 

See? Told you it was haunting. Other standouts include a structured improvisation by the Danceworks Youth Performance Company, a gorgeous Copland song-and-dance duet by soprano Tiana Sorenson and dancer Maggie Seer, and a transfixing finale by tenor Emanuel Camacho. Another favorite: “Sixth Sense,” a structured improvisation featuring the gorgeous movements of Christal Wagner and Michael “Ding!” Lorenz playing tuned crystal glasses. You read that right. Unreal. 

Of course don’t forget the many other musicians, singers, and dancers, as well as those behind the lighting and costumes, tech and audio. As I walked back to my car, sad to leave and wondering when my next live show would be, I marveled at the artists who brought this Enchanted Park(ing lot) to life. How do they feel about this work? Is it fulfilling? Full of strangeness? To me, it was a gift.

Together, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Danceworks took an eerie moment in theater history and found a way to make magic. While I hope the days of parking lot performances will soon be behind us, I’m grateful to these companies for their unrelenting innovation. 

So snag a ticket, grab a chair, and head to the Danceworks parking lot. Support these local artists, and keep an ear out for other ways to (safely) support our entertainers. It’s only through our engagement as audiences that live theater will survive. If this industry occupies a room in your heart, as it does mine, show it by showing up in whatever way you can. 

Photo credit: Mark Frohna

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Lift up your hands for "Hedwig & The Angry Inch"

This is one of the Milwaukee Rep's very best

You enter beneath the red glow of poster-plastered walls like a dank and storied New York cabaret. A ticket-taker clad in grunge points in the direction of a table with a framed command: “Take the damn ear plugs.” Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in the Stiemke anymore. 

But when you get inside and look up, it’s there outlined in rope lights: STIEMKE. Beneath the unmistakable proof that you are indeed at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, there sits a stage and a cluster of small tables to complete the cabaret illusion. We lucked out with a table smackdab front and center — a table that came with a warning from one of the aforementioned ticket-takers: Hedwig may interact with you. She may touch you. But unless invited, do not touch Hedwig. 

I put on a front of being totally at ease with the notion of Hedwig coming into my personal space, nodded, and said something like, “Sounds great, bring it on!” I then nervously munched  the gummy bears piled in a bowl on our table. Beside the dish, a note: “Eat me, we’re real gummy bears. Don’t be an asshole and steal this sign.” I didn’t steal it, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t tempting to pocket something so small yet so clever as a memento of this brilliant production. It’s arguably one of the very best the Rep has ever staged. 

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the brainchild of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, made its Off-Broadway debut in 1998 and has enjoyed a cult following ever since. It wasn’t until 2014 that the rock musical finally made it to Broadway, starring Neil Patrick Harris and going on to win four Tony Awards. There’s also a 2001 film adaptation. 

Hedwig is a far cry from mainstream musical theater fodder. The show’s formula follows Hedwig, a genderqueer performer, who shares her story through songs and monologues of growing up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, undergoing a botched sex change operation, coming to America as a G.I.’s wife, hitting rock bottom, picking herself up, falling in love, and falling apart. 

The show blends rock and cabaret with introspective speeches, comedy, and even improv. Hedwig demands audience reaction and interaction, and if you fall short, sneak away to use the bathroom, or are responsible for a rogue cell phone ringing, the titular star will call you out. So come present and wide open — or, as Hedwig says, “fully dilated.” 

Embodying Hedwig in this Rep production is Matt Rodin, creator and host of The Red Carpet Challenge on and The Come Up on the Broadway Podcast Network. Milwaukee, lift up your hands for this outstanding, unparalleled performance. Rodin runs the gamut from a “slip of a girly-boy” to punk rock queen to sweetly-sung emotion to comedian to gyrating sex fiend. 

The character of Hedwig is certainly fleshed out, and Rodin bravely nestles into every corner of her being. His is an honest, heartfelt, and dryly humorous Hedwig. In terms of vocals and rock ‘n’ roll, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts — Rodin is as killer as they come, and he does it all in glorious wigs, sky-high platforms, and ten pounds of glitter. Shout out to the exceptional Mieka Van Der Ploeg, Costume Designer. 

The only other character called out in the playbill is that of Yitzhak, Hedwig’s second husband and member of her band, The Angry Inch. In his heart, Yitzhak is a drag performer. Threatened by Yitzhak’s talent, Hedwig agrees to marry him on the condition that he never wear another wig. 

The incomparable Bethany Thomas plays the Rep’s Yitzhak, quietly stewing and smoldering throughout the show as tension builds between herself and Rodin. Without drag, Yitzhak is incomplete, and Thomas’ brooding over the loss of her true self is felt even silently. There are a handful of moments throughout the show where Thomas gets to sing, and these are moments to treasure. Her voice is at once powerful and lovely. 

In the final moments of Hedwig, she unleashes the full power of her instrument and exuberant stage presence in a shower of glitter and wholeness. It’s that moment that sticks with me and makes me teeter on the edge of scooping up more tickets to this show. Thomas is just that superb. 

The rest of the cast is made up of badass bandmates (Maxwell Emmet on guitar, Tommy Hahn on bass, and Patrick Morrow on drums) and a slew of young roadies who listen intently from the sidelines and occasionally mob the stage. Their presence adds to the immersive quality of Hedwig

If you’re seated in one of the two-seater bistros like I was, you may feel particularly drenched in this production. A couple to my right had Hedwig straddling their table and a pair of ladies to my left were playfully called out as “stinky.” A guy named Ezra wound up being a repeat target, and I myself enjoyed a fringed car-wash lapdance from Hedwig herself. Hey, if I can handle the theatricality of it all, so can you. Don’t fear the front row. It’s all part of the immersion.

Says Scenic Designer Scott Davis, “You are plummeted into the world we are trying to experience the minute you walk into the Stiemke theater. The lobby is designed to feel like a grunge club. We redid the bar and there are non-gender bathrooms. By the time you are sitting in your seat, you already have a feel of what the world is. You already understand where we are trying to put you.”

Where Davis alongside Director Mark Clements, Lighting Designer Jason Fassl, and Projection Designer Mike Tutaj have put us is an intimate space, at once as edgy and moody in its lighting as it is spectacularly glam. This is a show that sends you back into the world reeling from the pageantry, the thundering music, the raw and tender moments, the palpable experience of it all. 

Days later I’m craving the songs, the performances. To witness the staging once more. To see what else I can pick up on, or to experience what new twist Rodin will bring to another evening’s show. No two will be alike. But I feel I can confidently say that each one will end with a standing ovation, hands lifted in openness and praise.  

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

First Stage's "A Wrinkle in Time" Coaxes the Imagination

A little wrinkled, but still worth your time

“It was a dark and stormy night,” begins Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 Newberry Award winner — an iconic start to an iconic piece of young adult literature. A Wrinkle in Time, it turns out, is a challenging story to tell in any medium other than its original form. Disney certainly struggled to tell it in their star-studded 2018 feature film. The stage play, adapted by John Glore for a 2010 debut, also proves tricky at times, but by and large, Milwaukee’s First Stage is up to the challenge. 

In quick summary, A Wrinkle in Time follows teenager Meg Murry, her younger brother Charles Wallce, and fellow teen Calvin O’Keefe on a fantastical journey through space and time — a rescue mission for the Murrys’ father and the whole of the universe. The three are guided across galaxies by the supernatural trio of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. 

In this cast of characters, three adult actors not only take on the roles of the magical guides, but each grown-up also plays two to three additional smaller parts. This way, the adult cast in this First Stage production remains quite small. Matt Daniels, arguably the most theatrical of the three, is marvelously unexpected as Mrs. Whatsit. At first the character is funny and eccentric, then later transforms into a mighty, towering being with a regal air and otherworldly cadence. 

Elyse Edelman plays both Mrs. Who, the Murrys’ mother, and a gentle giant by the name of Aunt Beast. Edelman seems to have the most fun with the character of Mrs. Who, cheerily twittering scientific mumbo jumbo to make your head spin. Parker Gaspar Muñoz takes on the part of Mrs. Which, who is merely a glowing orb of light crafted, so it seems, through clever use of a flashlight. For a ball of light, Muñoz’s presence is plenty commanding. 

These three are matched by our main child leads as well as en ensemble cast of eight kids. First Stage splits the young performers cast in two. The performance I saw featured the Time Cast, with Selma Rivera as Meg, Milo Elliott as Charles Wallace, and Liam Jeninga as Calvin.  Elliott is a standout as Charles Wallace, who possesses a genius-level brain. Elliott makes that brain believable. He’s also especially good at being super creepy when under the possession of a certain all-evil demon called It. 

As Meg, Rivera captures the heroine’s turbulent moods as well as her smarts. The character of Meg is a brainiac when it comes to math and science, and Rivera leaves you no doubt that she’s as intellectual as the story claims. Jeninga’s Calvin brings a solid fix of everyman energy to the trio — good for the overall balance of dynamics. 

This Wrinkle in Time also makes living, breathing parts of the lighting, sound, staging, and puppeteering. Director Jeff Frank has a talented crew assembled: Scenic Designer Martin McClendon, Costume Designer Samantha C. Jones, Lighting Designer Greg Hoffmann, Sound Designer Joe Cerqua, and Puppet Designer Marissa Ashlyn. 

Put all of these together, and it makes for a dynamic piece of theater. The ensemble cast, shrouded in black, are used to push props and people about the stage. Whether our heroes are catapulting through space and time or confronting an immense, pulsating brain, the use of physical movement and intense lighting effects help propel the story. Simple physical props — swaths of fabric, a wheeled platform — fuel the imagination as these simple forms become magnificent creatures and evil specters. 

Yet for all its inventive staging and good performances, this is a wordy show with lots of narration and brainy fast-talking. Not a show for very young children. And it was a little tough to hear at times. Also, the scale of this story is, quite literally, out of this world. Is the stage the right place for a tale as big as this? 

Rose-colored glasses on: A Wrinkle in Time winds up being a good exercise in imagination. Due to the limitations of the stage, much of the visual beauty and ominousness of the worlds L’Engle created must been seen through one’s own inner eye. Without a Disney-sized movie budget or the book’s deluge of descriptive language, it was always going to be impossible to recreate those settings in our physical realm. But First Stage has met the challenge of L’Engle’s material head-on. Although this isn’t my favorite First Stage endeavor, if you go into their staging with a spirit of play and a mind readied to imagine, it will be worthy of your time.   

Photo credit: Paul Ruffolo

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Milwaukee Rep stages one helluva drag show in "The Legend of Georgia McBride"

An Elvis impersonator turned drag queen

Milwaukee, have your dollar bills handy! Though it’s only been on stage since 2014, Matthew Lopez’s Georgia McBride is on its way to becoming a bonafide dragtastic legend. Now on stage at the Milwaukee Rep, under the fantastic direction of Meredith McDonough, the heat and heart in this play about an Elvis impersonator turned drag queen is the uplifting, energizing show audiences need right now. 

The Legend of Georgia McBride is the story of Casey, the aforementioned Elvis impersonator, who works at a seedy nightclub in Florida. In an attempt to liven up the joint, the gruff bar owner hires a couple of drag queens and says adios to Elvis. The problem: Casey has a wife at home, a baby on the way, and overdue rent to pay. Desperate, the former King becomes a queen, and the show goes on to be a sequined, feathered confection.

Kevin Kantor, last seen at the Rep in the heart-wrenching Things I Know to be True, does a one-eighty in this exuberant, joyful tale of acceptance and fabulosity. Their montage-style transformation from straight man to drag queen — from “Who is Edith Pilaf?!” to fervidly lip-syncing “Padam Padam” — is seamlessly staged and a delight to behold. Kantor sells the loving-husband side of Casey to be sure, but they’re at their best when dressed in drag. Theirs is a phenomenally glittering, firecracker performance, full of glorious capes, wigs, and high-kicks to “Woo!” over. 

The incoming act features veteran drag queen Miss Tracy Mills and her stage partner Rexy, played by Courter Simmons and Armand Fields, respectively. Each of these queens is larger than life in her own way. Tracy is old-school drag in the vein of Judy Garland and Rexy brings the Beyonce. Both Simmons and Fields light up the stage — and the audience — by their sheer presence. But let’s start with Simmons. 

Simmons is spectacular beyond belief. In scenes both backstage and in the spotlight, his Tracy is like butter — smooth, rich, and keeps you craving more. He has so thoroughly fleshed out this character, there’s scarcely a whiff of “acting” in his performance. It’s hard to pick a favorite moment — the Judy Garland quick-change number, the leprechaun puppetry, Tracy’s dynamic with Casey. It’s a toss up because Simmons is just so uniformly impeccable. 

Fields’ Rexy has a smaller part relative to the other queens, but her impact is no less felt in the story of Georgia McBride. As the hilarious and hot-mess Rexy, Fields gives a powerhouse performance. And I’m not just talking about their killer take on Queen Bey, shade-throwing one-liners, and memorable exits. There’s a point in the show where Rexy educates Casey on the deeper meaning of drag — that it’s an act of protest as much as a form of entertainment. Fields’ impassioned manifesto hits a necessary nerve and acts as a reminder for us all that drag is about so much more than just the spectacle. 

Love must also be given to James Pickering as club owner Eddie and Shavanna Calder as Casey’s wife, Jo. Calder’s role feels like a bit of an accessory to the plot of Georgia McBride, still she brings warmth, humor, and plenty of spitfire to the part she plays. 

As for Pickering, mighty distinguished man of the Milwaukee theater scene that he is, seeing him in the role of Eddie is an all-out blast. The moment he shuffled on stage in his khaki shorts, tight white tank, and flung-open tropical shirt, the audience lost it. Pickering in a trucker hat and a rattail — who would’ve thunk! 

Finally, I can’t conclude a review touting the exceptional nature of the Rep’s Georgia McBride without mentioning costumes. Costume Designer Patrick Holt has a side career in drag, and his devotion to this artform is clearly felt in his lavish, joyful designs. The looks he’s created from tip to toe are larger than life, full of shocking color and costume reveals that elicit delighted gasps and applause. From a risqué box of chocolates to an ultra-glittering American flag reveal, it’s tough to pick a favorite. 

To sum it up, The Legend of Georgia McBride is a straight-up world-class drag show with all the glitz and glam — and a plot to boot. Should you see it? Finger snaps to the high heavens and a big ol’ “yaaas queen!” Georgia McBride is only playing at the Rep through February 9th, so slip into your best shapewear and sequins and come out to applaud the best drag show in town. 

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Skylight & MOT present Gilbert & Sullivan's "Ruddigore"

A comic opera to charm your socks off

Is there anything the Milwaukee Opera Theatre touches that doesn’t turn to gold? Their latest collaboration with Skylight Music Theatre is Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore, a sweet, hilarious, melodramatic comic opera made exceedingly charming under the inspired watch of co-directors Jill Anna Ponasik and Catie O’Donnell. With these creative cohorts in tow, I swear there’s nothing attached to Ponasik’s name that I’ve not adored. Her vision is a special kind of magic, and Milwaukee is lucky to have her. 

So what’s a Ruddigore? It’s a town where a long line of Baronets are plagued by a witch’s curse: they must commit one crime each day or die in agony. Generation after generation, these gentlemen have each suffered painful deaths after no longer being able to bring themselves to commit atrocities day in and day out. See, the Baronets are not bad men — they’re merely doomed to choose between a life of crime or death by torture. Ah me, c’est la vie!

The show is rife with twists and turns and plot devices like mistaken identities, good guys becoming bad guys and vice-versa, and characters giving romance the runaround. The central duo is Robin Oakapple, secretly the rightful Baronet of Ruddigore, and Rose Maybud, an eligible and love-hungry maiden. There’s also Sir Despard Murgatroyd (the unwitting false Baronet), Richard Dauntless (a troublemaking goon — also rather unwitting), Mad Margaret (who pines for Sir Despard), Old Adam Goodheart (Robin’s faithful servant), and a trio of professional bridesmaids whose job it is to be on standby each day for any potential weddings. Got all that? Tip: Read a thorough synopsis before you go. 

In this Skylight/Milwaukee Opera Theatre production, the cast also plays the part of the orchestra. Music Director Tim Rebers (who also single-handedly tackles the six-part ghostly harmony in Act Two) actually took Ruddigore’s original orchestral score and adapted it for a chorus of voices singing acapella. There are very few actual instruments played, save for a chiming music-box-like celeste, an eerie waterphone, the ding of a triangle, the woe-is-me of an accordion, and a duet between a guitar and viola. The overall musical direction is quite genius. High-five, Tim Rebers! 

And high-fives to this all-around phenomenal cast. Our leads, Robin and Rose, are played by Skylight alums Doug Clemons and Susie Robinson, respectively. Ms. Robinson’s voice is utterly sublime, her lovely stage presence perfectly befitting a leading lady. Clemons, for his part, sings beautifully clear as a bell and brings adorable charisma to the bashful, good-natured Robin. Their chemistry is sweet, their comedic timing on point. There’s nothing about this pair that doesn’t delight. 

As for the others, standouts include Adam Qutaishat as Richard Dauntless, a seafaring schmoozer with a lusty heart and dim-witted brain. This character’s heart speaks to him often, like a lovesick conscience on his shoulder. Qutaishat delivers his heart’s inner musings with an overly-dramatic French accent, inhaling deeply from imaginary cigarettes. He’s a hoot. 

The ever-awesome Diane Lane plays Mad Margaret with ample glorious insanity. Lane always slays her vocals and characterizations, but her role in Ruddigore is especially fun to watch. 

In fact, there isn’t a part in Ruddigore that isn’t fun to watch. It seems as though all of the folks on stage are having a genuine blast, and that kind of energy is infectious, especially in the intimate Studio Theatre. There’s nothing better than a show with big heart, talent, and vision performed on a small stage. 

The staging itself, as well as the costumes, takes its cues from 1920s silent films. Costumes are rendered in black and white as a projection screen lends scenic backdrops. Lighting/Projection Designer Nathan W. Scheuer nails the use of light and shadow for scenes that that, though stripped down, are plenty atmospheric. 

It’s in how these elements play together that makes Ruddigore a delicious, joy-inducing cocktail to be savored. In a nutshell, the whole thing is freaking adorable. Laughter rings hearty and true. Romance elicits little sighs. The actors are immensely amusing and strong-voiced; the acapella chorus, a delight. And sometimes, this Ruddigore is just plain lovely. Consider the bar set skyward for Milwaukee theater in 2020. 

Photo credit: Mark Frohna