CBS’ The Nanny ran through much of the 1990s. The six-season sitcom had over 140 episodes. A series with that kind of longevity creates an emotional spot in the pop culture consciousness that presents itself in interesting ways. This weekend, Purse String Productions presents a live parody of the series for the small stage of Sunstone Studios. It’s a TV sitcom living and breathing in a space that is simultaneously more. and less intimate than a domestic living room somewhere in the midst of the Bill Clinton era.
It’s a live sitcom...with a twist. The show plays like a fusion between sketch comedy and a drag show. Everyone in the show gets an opportunity onstage alone in drag-style lip-synching in a plot that draws a little bit from a few different episodes of the series including the pilot. In all the show is 90 minutes long, but with the musical numbers there’s actually more like...a couple of episodes’ worth of comedy and some rather well-choreographed extended musical moments.
To her credit, Samantha Sostarich doesn’t go for an overly grating spoof of the iconic Fran Drescher in the role of the nanny named Fran. Anyone looking to do an impression of Drescher will tend to crank-up the grating intensity of the voice. Sostarich takes an approach that embraces the distinctive nasal quirks of Drescher’s Queens-based New York accent. Sostarich is a lot of fun alone onstage in character in a nightclub with a Britney Spears song.
The male lead of Mr. Sheffield is played by Lee Rydzewski, who has been performing primarily as a drag queen. This is his first time performing as a man in over a decade. There’s a clever and clean precision to Lee Rydzewski’s performance that serves the comedy well. Rydzewski’s feels kind of like...meta-drag. He’s usually onstage in drag, so being onstage as a man means is more of a drag for HIM as he’s not usually playing a man. His song comes at the end of the show and plays cleverly on the expectations an audience is going to have for a performer like him. It’s a fun moment.
Brandon Herr plays Mr. Sheffield’s business partner C.C. Babcock. There’s a very engaging and emotionally sharp energy about her that takes some of the edge off of the nastiness of the character.
Parker Cristan applies a very crisp presence to the role of the butler Niles. His charm suits the role well in a way that adds considerably to the ensemble dynamic of the show.
Ceci Rodriguez is great fun in the role of the title character’s best friend from way back. Rodriguez has got remarkably striking comic timing and energy that works well with Samantha Sostarich’s endearing presence.
Corey Richards is an audience favorite in drag as Fran’s mother Sylvia. There’s a charming friction between her Richards and Sostarich as mother and daughter that fits the tone of the sitcom perfectly.
Purse String Productions’ The Nanny: A Fine Parody runs through July 16th at Sunstone Studios on 127 E Wells Street. For more information visit Purse Strings Online.
I was given 300-400 words for a Shepherd-Express preview on the upcoming debut of playwright/director Tim Backes’ coming-of-age drama Embers. Backes was nice enough to take some time out to answer a few questions for me about the show. And since he was SUCH a cool guy about it he had given me a lot more than I could possibly use for that preview...SO...I’m putting the entire thing in as a Q&A for The Small Stage
RUSS: Before we get into it...it occurs to me that I don’t even really know the setting side from a get-together between people who have just returned from college and I’d assumed that it was around a campfire. That’s not actually in any text that I’ve found, though. I guess I must have gotten that idea from the title and the image in the ad...and the fact that it’s being staged in a park. What exactly IS the setting?
TIM BACKES: The play is taking place around an actual live bonfire! We're holding it in Grant Park for the space (audience members are bringing in their own camp chairs), but it is being held around a very cool fire pit at a facility called Wulff Lodge, which is primarily used for scout group retreats.
RUSS: It’s a coming-of-age story is one that’s been explored quite a lot from a lot of different angles. Ensembles of characters are about to graduate from high school or college or they’re all going through one final thing before moving on. EMBERS is a different approach. A group of people meeting for the first time AFTER all of that on their way to the future. Where did the idea come from?
TIM BACKES: When I graduated from college in 2010, it was the height of the recession. I'd been accepted to grad school, but rather than take on the additional debt I opted to move back home with my parents and figure out where to go from there. I spent about a year and a half back home, looking for a "real job" (whatever that means), and hanging out with a lot of my high school friends. It was a really strange time in my life. I felt stuck in between two worlds. Even though I'd only been gone for four years, I suddenly felt out of place, and noticed that even the nature of some of my relationships had changed. I felt a societal pressure to move forward and continue the momentum from college, but couldn't help feeling "stuck" back in my hometown. This play features characters in that same situation. They're back home after four years of college with their old friends again, but nothing's exactly as it used to be.
RUSS: It can be difficult to craft a drama around a group of similar people. It appears as though the entire ensemble here is all the same age from the same background. EMBERS sounds like a very active (sometimes explosive) dynamic. Is there a great diversity of personalities between the characters?
TIM BACKES: Yeah, I think it's fair to say they all have very similar backgrounds. I think that reflects my own upbringing, really--it wasn't until college and after that I really branched out in my relationships. At the same time, I really wanted to avoid writing characters that felt too cliche or trope-ridden. You've got the girl with rich parents who went out of state to an Ivy League school, but you learn that she's actually very self-aware of her privilege, and it's been eating at her. You've got a character who didn't go to school and stayed at home to take care of her ill mother. There's the guy trying desperately to recapture his high school days because he's anxious about embracing the future, and a guy who hasn't yet been able to move past college partying. My goal was to create characters that really felt real and unique from each other, even if they're in a group that feels relatively homogenous (and perhaps familiar, depending on your upbringing).
RUSS: There’s the challenge in an ensemble in making the group seem cohesive too. Make them seem too different from each other and it wouldn’t seem realistic that they would WANT to hang out together for a get-together after college. How are you holding together the connections between everyone?
TIM BACKES: Absolutely. I was very intentional about this as well. There are plenty of references to the "old days," which helps to accentuate the connections that are holding these characters together. There are also a few moments where the plot itself gives way to just general jokes and banter that would feel right at place in a bonfire among old friends. In these moments, the connections among the group become more understandable, but they're countered by awkward silences and brewing conflicts that show just how much some of the people of the group have changed as well.
RUSS: Judging from some of what’s already been written about the show, the cast seems to be pretty close in age to the characters in the ensemble. How familiar are you with the actors that you’re working with?
TIM BACKES: Two of the cast members (Jessica Calteux, Alex Trevithick) are actually former theater students of mine from South Milwaukee High School, so it has been really cool to bring them into a performing environment with other young adults who have studied or are studying theater in college. It's been a great opportunity for them, and a point of pride for me to see them holding their own among some really outstanding performers. Three of the cast members I've worked with through Greendale Community Theatre and invited them to be a part of the show because I knew they'd be fantastic (Alyssa Higley was Jo March in Little Women, Gio Greco was Mary Poppins last summer, Bella Zeimet was in the Poppins ensemble). Daniel Persino was recommended to me by Bella, who was a student with him at UWM, and Matt Gould is an acting student at Parkside who was recommended by Rachael Swartz, who runs UWP's musical theatre program.
RUSS: You’ve had a lot of experience working with big ensembles. How has working on this show been different? I don’t recall you having had a whole lot of experience working on your own shows before. Obviously that’s going to be a more emotionally involved experience for you what with it being a script that you’ve written.
TIM BACKES: You're correct--this is actually the first full-length show of mine I've ever staged. I did write an original virtual production for my high school students during the pandemic. This has been the most unique theatrical experience I've ever been a part of. First, there's the fact that this was indeed my own writing. It was a really scary thing to share my own writing with other people, and I had to get past that vulnerability. The process itself is also unique. We've been rehearsing in my backyard to get used to being outside and working with a fire. I've never been a part of any outdoor production before, but I wrote this play with an outdoor performance in mind. And yes, emotionally, this process has hit me hard. From receiving praise about the script to hearing the words spoken aloud for the first time, and now seeing it all come together for a performance, it's incredibly fulfilling and I'm so grateful. I lost my dad unexpectedly in December and he was a writer himself, and that served as some inspiration for me to get this play finished and out into the world, and the combination of that with the unique experience of seeing your own work come to life has been really powerful. And I've had some really emotionally powerful theatrical experiences (Next to Normal in 2017 with All In Productions comes to mind, as does our SMHS production of Tuck Everlasting on the eve of the pandemic), but I'm not sure I've ever had one that filled me up quite like this.
RUSS: And, of course, working on a script that you’ve written holds open the option of being really dynamic with the script as well. You could change the script in the rehearsal process. Has the script changed at all in the process of putting the show together?
TIM BACKES: Honestly, not as much as I expected. There have been a few small adjustments, but it's mostly stayed as written. What has been really cool is watching my own understanding and perception of some characters or scenes change based on the way the actors have delivered their lines or embodied their characters. Like, I wrote the play, but they've made me think about the characters from different perspectives than I'd initially done, which has been really awesome and unexpected.
Tim Backes’ EMBERS opens tonight and runs one weekend only: July 13 - 15 at Wulff Lodge in South Milwaukee. For mor information, visit the show’s Facebook Events Page.
The crowd was packed at The Best Place Tavern. It was 7:30 pm and it looked like everyone was wearing horns. It must have been something to do with the summer. Or maybe it had something to do with The Merry Wives of Windsor. Boozy Bard Productions’ Shakespeare Raw is hosting a decidedly unprepared staging of the classic comedy at the beginning of this week. It opened last night.
Stephen M. Wolterstorff serves as a warm and welcoming host for the evening. Opening night had suspiciously perfect casting. Nick Firer found himself in the role of arrogant bastard Sir John Falstaff. Firer had mentioned online that he hadn’t acted in 4 months, but the man has some excellent comic instincts which served him well in the middle of the ensemble. Firer had a very relaxed approach to this stage. There was a casually drunken fatigue comically lounging about his portrayal that served the role well. Falstaff’s total confidence, mixed cleverly with an exhaustion that amplified the subtle end of a very-unsubtle Shakespearian sitcom.
Brian Bayer showed similarly sharp comic instincts in the role of Falstaff’s sidekick Pistol. Brian also continued his tradition of performing a song at intermission inspired by the show. ‘90s pop twisted its way around a the comedy of Falstaff in the Thames in a laundry basket. Bayer’s sharpest moment involved a rather unexpected Johnny Cash parody song that fit almost perfectly into the comedy’s climax.
The free and open environment of the improv-style Shakespeare works well with the sitcom-like energy of Merry Wives. Dramas can have a tendency to be a bit hit-or-miss with the Shakespeare Raw format, but a light comedy like Merry Wives feels like the perfect fit. The tragedies can occasionally strike it brilliant onstage with Boozy Bard, but the comedies are reliable fodder for the group.
As always, the cast reads directly from scripts throughout the course of the performance. There’s a delightful sense of informality about that which is better suited to comedy than it is to tragedy. Characters seem somewhat lost in their own thoughts somewhere between the page and the stage. There is clearly a sense of playfulness about it. A story of trickery and deception seems to ricochet around the stage all the more wildly without any sense of elaborate preparation. At its best moments, it really DOES feel like anything can happen.
Director Drea Roedel-Schroeder does a really good job of holding everything together. The energy on opening night of this particular run felt coherent and cohesive. That doesn't always happen. There are a lot of elements that go into well-executed stage chaos. Roedel-Schroeder has fostered a really fun energy for a really fun show. Early-on in the evening before the show gets started, the cast assembles in the space’s balcony for one final huddle. Opening night Drea could be seen leaning over the balcony and looking directly an actor sitting below as all the rest of the actors were assembled above. There's a light tone in her voice: “Don’t make me come down there.” The actor in question moved more or less immediately. It’s a fun atmosphere. The energy moved quickly and fluidly opening night.
Boozy Bard’s. Production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Raw) continues through Wednesday,, July 12th at The Best Place in the Historic Pabst Brewery on 917 West Juneau Avenue. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook Events Page.
July is going to be kind of a weird month in local theatre. Yes, there IS going to be the traditional visits with Shakespeare. (And this month I get to see two Shakespeare shows on consecutive nights, which should be fun.) Also...there IS going to be at least one Broadway-style musical, but...things get a little weird as well. Sir John Falstaff, Helen Keller, the Nanny Named Fran, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch of the West. Here’s a look at some of what lies ahead the month of July.
Optimist Theatre returns to Milwaukee area parks this summer with a production of Shakespeare’s romance Cymbeline. As in years past, Optimist has put together a remarkable cast for the production including Ken Williams, Libby Amato, Michael Stebbins, Susie Duecker, and Zachary Woods. Ron Scot Fry directs the show. Optimist always does such a good job of putting together stylish productions that can easily sneak into a section of a park, weave a little Shakespeare and then...vanish like they were little more than a strange dream. The show runs for an hour and a half without intermission and it explores innocence, jealousy and love. The show runs July 9 - Aug. 13. For more information, visit Optimist Theatre online.
Shakespeare RAW: The Merry Wives of Windsor
Y’know...Sit John Falstaff’s natural habitat would appear to be a bar. The legendarily comic knight makes his way to The Best Place Tavern this month courtesy of Boozy Bard in its production of The Merry Wives. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect fit for a casual night at a bar. So...who’s playing Falstaff? That’s going to depend on the night and the whims of the casting director...that just happens to be a hat. Roles are determined at random at the beginning of each performance in a fun sort of an improv kind of an atmosphere. The. show runs Monday through Wednesday July 10th -12th. For more information, visit the show’s
This month, playwright Tim Backes debuts a coming-of-age drama at Wulff Lodge in Grant Park. The Milwaukee County Park lodge should serve as a warm and inviting place for Backes’ coming-of-age story of a group of friends who meet-up four years after high school graduation. What was intended to be an opportunity for the group to meet-up and get nostalgic turns into something altogether more dramatic as secrets are revealed and friendships shift. The showm which is produced by Backes in partnership with Milwaukee County Parks, runs July 13 - 15 on 215 S. Lake Drive in South Milwaukee. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook events page.
The Miracle Worker
William Gibson’s adaptation of the real-life story of Helen Keller welcomes outdoor audiences courtesy of Summerstage of Delafield. The peaceful space of Lapham Peak State Park should match the overall mood of Colbert County Alabama in the late 19th century. Helen Keller’s relationship with her teacher Annie Sullivan should be a very natural fit for the organic feel of outdoor theatre. The drama is directed. by Elaine Rewolinski. It runs July 13th – 29th in Delafield. For more information, visit Summerstage online.
The Nanny: A Fine Parody
Purse String Productions will be staging a spoof on the popular 1990s sitcom. Typically TV sitcoms are kind of a weird thing to try to put on the local live stage, but...this one looks like it’s got a really fun cast Samantha Sostarich is brilliant with light comedy. She’s going to be playing the Fran Drescher role. Parker Cristan plays the butler Niles. Ceci Rodriguez plays Fran’s longtime friend Val. The show runs one weekend only July 14 - 16. For more information, visit Purse Strings’ Facebook Page.
Greendale Community Theatre celebrates its 20th anniversary Summer show with The Prom--a really cool idea for a musical based on real-life events. Back in 2010, a student at a high school in Mississippi planned to attend her senior prom with her girlfriend. The school banned her from attending. With the aid of the ACLU, she successfully sued the school district, which promptly caused the school to cancel the prom altogether. The drama continued from there. Six years later, a Broadway musical was based on the real-life drama. At the end of this month, GCT stages a production of the musical. The show runs July 27th - August 5th at Greendale High School Auditorium on 6801 Southway in Greendale. For more information, visit GCT online.
The Wizard of Oz
Courtney Denzer stars as Dorothy in Bombshell Theatre Co.’s upcoming production of the beloved fantasy The Wizard of Oz. The land of Oz heads. to the stage of the Broadway Theatre Center in a big staging featuring costuming, puppetry. (The crows that popped-up on Bombshell’s Facebook feed look adorable.) Those crows and a whole lot of other elements that should have little difficulty bringing the fantasy to life onstage. The show runs July 28th - August 6th. For more information, visit Bombshell Theatre online.