Gabriel Hammer jangles along on Casio set to piano mode as people filter in to the bar of the Astor Hotel. It's a sleepy, little Thursday night mood in the shadow of MSOE and where the East Side and Downtown might meet and somehow aspire to become each other.
It's Cabaret Milwaukee's opening of Clockwork Man: Origins. A fusion of music, comedy, drama and history. Nick Firer hosts the show in character as vintage golden age radio host Richard Howling. Dora Diamond opens the show with some suitably silky torch songs and we slide into the drama. In the course of the show we also get a very delicate sitar accentuating the mood accompanying the serial’s many scenes set in India.
The central story features the origin of the title character of Cabaret Milwaukee's current trilogy. Kirk Thomsen plays Dr. Boggs--a World War I-era physician studying in India. A very sharply intense Andrew Parchman plays a traditional native doctor who saves a dying man using a technique unknown to modern science that ultimately serves as tragic origin for a sinister villain. Thomsen manages to ride a very tight line between over-the-top melodramatic serial villain and something altogether more sophisticated. Thomsen weaves-in some reasonably sophisticated psychological layering for character. This is villainy that clearly has something deeper going on beyond the simple “bad because it's evil” motivation that so often plagues dark genre drama.
The ongoing dramatic serial is broken up periodically by comedy and music. The most notably funny comedy makes it to the stage courtesy of Laura Holterman as a depression-era housewife giving helpful household advice on how to make those leftovers last. Funny stuff. Later on she's delivering contemporary political satire in at comedy bit that draws subtle parallels between concerns about women in the workplace in the 20th century with immigrants in the work place in the modern era. Throughout the show, bits of script draw interesting parallels between contemporary events and historical events from the early 20th century. It's a pleasantly disorienting mixup which feels like a warm handshake with history amidst mixed drinks and variety acts.
Comedy fuses with music in bits performed by Haley San Fillippo, Sarah Therese and Kira Walters as the Howling Sisters--irresistible three part harmony punctuating the show with pretty, little ad jingles. They open early on by doing the old Pabst Blue Ribbon and song. (What’ll You Have?) The old familiar tune establishes Andrews Sisters-style three-part harmony. From there on-in they’re deliver some ads for Cabaret Milwaukee sponsors in the style of classy jingles from the golden age of radio. It's surprising the range they manage. The Astor hotel gets a smooth and moody atmospheric sort of a number. Twisted Path Distillery gets a really clever and sharply-written poetic ad.
In the course of things, a villain is born. The central narrative is wrapped around and the birth of villainy, which involves his discovery of a secret love affair between the villian’s wife (played with wistful passion by Abigail Stein) and his assistant (a charismatic Paul Fojut.)
The birth of the villain is bookended by the birth of a hero. Audwin Short is humbly charming as Sinfan--a valiant and mysterious dealer of rare books who finds himself on the front lines of World War I in search of an artifact. David Rothrock shows promise as a soldier named Pelonius who is enlisted by Sinfan into a secretive organization looking to turn back the darkness. With two chapters left to go in the serial, it’ll be fun to watch Sinfan and Pelonias set-up for what is likely to be an eventual showdown with Dr. Boggs.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s production of The Clockwork Man: Origins runs through Oct. 1 at the Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit the show’s page on Brown Paper Tickets.
A couple of years back Amber Smith performed in a show that she’s now directing a production of. It’s a comedy. A farce. And it happens to be the single most-produced French play in the entire world. Smith to a few moments to answer a few questions about the show for The Small Stage.
A couple of years back you were in a production of BOEING BOEING with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Now you're directing a production of it for Racine Theatre Guild. What are your feelings on a farce that you've lived with in a couple of different ways from a couple of different angles?
I really hold this show near and dear to my heart, which I think is interesting for a woman to say given the subject matter we're working with in this script! I had such an amazing experience working with Michael Cotey and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, but it's so different to experience the show with a completely different group of cast members. I've approached the material in a similar way as when we worked on it at MCT - allowing the actors to play and have us collaboratively come to what we put together as an end product. My opinion is that it's the most fun way to approach this show and make it different with every cast you might see do it. This group has brought such a different perspective to the material, so that's been really fun to see.
Like DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER, Marc Camoletti's BOEING BOEING can be a bit of a challenge to live with whether directing or acting in a production. It's fun, breezy comedy, but it's easy to fall into sort of a love-hate relationship with a farce. Bits of the story or the dialogue might be a bit frustrating to have to work with. Is there anything about Camoletti's work that you find irritating?
Farces are VERY easy to develop a love-hate relationship with, regardless of the playwright, in my opinion. I don't know that anything about Camoletti's work specifically irritates me, but I do think that farces at times are pretty predictable, which isn't my favorite thing when it comes to theatre in general.
One of the things I love about your work as an actor is the delicious precision. Your movements motions, emotions and dialogue have such a crisp clarity onstage. When you were Gabriella in the Milwaukee Chamber production back in 2016 it felt like every single hand motion had a very definite rhythm and meaning to it. That kind of precision can be beautiful from a director's chair (particularly with the timing and precision required in a farce.) You might feel less control not actually being onstage, though. What's it like directing a show that you've recently acted in?
SO CHALLENGING! I truly didn't prepare myself for how tricky it would be! There are so many things I loved about the MCT production that I would love to just bring to this show - but what fun is that? It was tempting to want the actors to approach their characters in similar ways as we did at MCT, but I also wanted this to be different and really reflect the choices of the cast in this production. And this cast is fabulous!
But as far as the precision, I've said to the group multiple times in rehearsal, "this is truly choreography we're doing here". I think I drive them nuts by saying that repeatedly! But for farces, that precision and comedic timing is so necessary - jokes won't land, the pace will drag, and you'll lose the entire audience.
As an actor, do you feel like more of an "actor's director"? Here you're also working with sound/set/lighting/props/wardrobe etc. in greater depth than an actor often has. For the right person, this is a lot of fun. Are you diving deeply into those ends of the production or are you giving tech its space to work its magic while you do yours with the actors?
It truly depends on the company I'm working with. I love learning about all of the different aspects of the process - being on the Board of All In Productions has taught me so much from the production perspective. It really helps you become a better actor when you know and understand more about all that goes into staging a show. But I also think I bring good perspective to those other team members about what the actors need and what can help all of us be successful in pulling off a great show, since I am an actor as well.
The memory of the Chamber show is probably still quite fresh for you. Do you find that at all distracting as you work on this production? How much do you feel like you're working on this show in the shadow of your memory of the one in which you appeared?
Kind of similar to what I said above. It's definitely tricky when I loved that production so much - I want to steal moments from that to insert into this one, but I've tried to purposely make different choices that still make sense in the context of the show. But there are definitely some classic moments that I think all BOEING directors stick into this show that I just HAD to keep in because they're just too dang good! But like I said, we really played together as a group to make this come together for this specific production - lots of the ideas have also come from the actors, which automatically makes it more RTG.
The opening of the show is only a few days away. It IS the most-produced French play in the world. You KNOW there's going to be another opportunity to work with BOEING BOEING again. Would you consider getting involved in another production?
I wouldn't even think twice. Absolutely. Whatever anyone else says, I love this show and think it's hilarious. With all of the heavy stuff out there lately, everyone needs a show like this to just laugh. And the girls win in the end in this one, which of course is just icing on the top of the cake! :)
Racine Theatre Guild’s production of Boeing Boeing runs Sep. 15 - Oct. 1 at the RTG on 2519 Northwestern Ave. in Racine. For more information, visit Racine Theatre Guild online.
Cabaret Milwaukee is a unique and distinctive local variety show sculpted around a retro-contemporary style. The show features an drama/adventure serial accompanied by quite a lot of other acts. The group’s latest show THE CLOCKWORK MAN ORIGINS opens this week at the Astor Hotel. Cabaret Milwaukee’s Josh B. Bryan took a few moments to answer a few questions about the group’s latest outing.
A Cabaret Milwaukee show is very distinct. How would you describe it for people who haven’t been to a performance?
Cabaret MKE is a is a live theatre company that writes and produces original material drawing inspiration from radio shows of the 30's & 40's. We stage our sit down cabaret shows with attentive period accuracy and detailed stagecraft. There's our host, house band, crooner, a jingle crew, stand up comedians, bit segments like Mrs Millies innuendo-laden domestic tips, local and world news of the day drawn straight from newspapers dated the year we're going for (1937 for this series), and even a tap dancer because that's the sort of thing that folks of yesteryear did. Of course no show was complete without it's radio play and that's our anchor that keeps the show flowing. The show that our audience watches swings back and forth between radio segments and scenes of the radio play; a play within a play. It's a format that allows us to use various performance mediums, the sort of eclectic mix you might otherwise only see in a Vaudeville production, but still script and compose them to all contribute to a linear story. While the show bits don't share the characters or time frame as the play, they do reflect each other in theme, tone, or juxtaposition.
You’ve done shows at a number of different locations. For THE CLOCKWORK MAN ORIGINS you’re returning to The Astor Hotel. It seems like a very good fit for vintage radio-inspired drama. What’s it like working out of the Astor?
The Astor has been fantastic! The 20's art deco theme and antiqued finish of the bar (not the ballroom) is the perfect setting for us, even the pictures of actors off the old silver screen hanging on the wall reek of the era we reach for. Even the layout of the bar fits our format well, cabaret tables and seating on either side of the space almost feels like theatre in the round. There is comfortable seating for close to 60, 80 if we fill in the gaps, and even high top tables and chairs for people in the back. The odd pillars around the room give us perfect stage boundaries that, with minimal set dressing, serve as any backdrop we choose to take you to. We did our second show of last season here at The Astor for two weeks and this season we're able to do two shows for three weekends each. That's a first for us! It will also be particularly rewarding to have have one space to present in for two shows in a row. As always, our Valentines show will be at Best Place which is conveniently also on Juneau Ave, right across downtown.
Not much information is available about your new Clockwork Man trilogy. Could this be a sort of a hardboiled detective-meets-steampunk sort of a thing? The title has me picturing Philip K. Dick’s ELECTRIC ANT or the electric Lincoln from WE CAN BUILD YOU. What have you drawn from for inspiration in the script?
Not so much of the gangsters or detectives this time around. This season we're taking you on a Lovecraftian romp circa WWI! An otherwise melodramatic romance takes a turn for the sinister when the villain of the story, while traveling on a humanitarian mission in India, discovers a way to pull the soul out of a body and put it into a powder. Meanwhile the heroes of the story share an unlikely meeting in the muddiest and bloodiest of WWI trenches.
You’ve done extended multi-part serial fiction for Cabaret Milwaukee in the past. How set is the story for all three parts by the time the first one has made it to the stage? Is it all rigidly set down or do you adjust over the course of a season?
Our trilogies are always set in terms of story and arc trajectories however fleshing them out in time for rehearsals has at times been nail biting. Writing our own stories over the course of a trilogy does afford us the layer of being able to taylor to the cast somewhat.
You start a story in September that you won’t be finishing until February. Do you expect to draw artistic satisfaction from each episode, or is there going to be a gradually mounting stress until the whole thing is finished on February 17th?
It would be awfully rude of us to string one story out that long! It is a triology in so much as some characters overlap from one episode to another. As any good soap opera does, however, every episode we tie and untie a new knot in the greater stories thread.
What can you tell us about the talent assembled for this month’s show? What are some of the supporting features you’re using to back-up the main story this time around?
From the radio show you will recognize Richard Howling, Dora Diamond, Mrs Millie, and Micheal Palmisano with all new material for their characters. The jingle crew is still a 3 part harmony but with some rotation of the singers. One of them in fact was a lead in the radio play last season. A new sports caster character is being introduced this episode. Another new character will be introduced later this season as well. Dani will be doing a duet with another tap dancer who is also a former radio play actor. Our band this episode will include a sitar to compliment the radio play setting. In the radio play we have almost a whole cast who havent even seen a cabMKE show. This is pretty exciting as they have almost no idea what the other half of the production they are in is.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s production of The Clockwork Man: Origins runs Sep. 14 - Oct. 1 at the Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit the show’s page on Brown Paper Tickets.
Next to Normal is a bit of a paradox. It’s light and heavy. It’s serious and casual. It’s structured with great formality in a formula that climbs out of a soul of emotional chaos. The musical drama about a family dealing with mental illness in suburban America briskly sprints through some of the heaviest themes imaginable. All-In Productions’ staging of the show this month manages a fleetly deft dance through the passions and aggressions of middle-class life without compromising the thematic depth of suburban madness. From the intimate stage of the Next Act Theatre space, the energy of the rock musical can hit a full, crushing blast when it needs to. In other moments, it delicately reveals very subtle, unspoken and ephemeral human emotions.
Carrie Gray is strikingly witty as Diana--a wife and mother suffering from mental illness. She’s extremely articulate in the motions and expressions, fears and anxieties of a vividly bi-polar reality. Gray is a heroically vulnerable as she supports the character in her journey through treatments which challenge her understanding of her own past. It’s a touchingly sympathetic portrayal at the center of the ensemble.
Steve Pfisterer plays her husband Dan. He brings strength and compassion to the stage as a very human emotional anchor for Diana who struggles against his wife’s condition while battling his own inner conflicts. Pfisterer and Gray have a very earthbound chemistry about them that serves as a really solid foundation for some of the more aggressive songs in the show. His performance of “I Am the One,” ignites an emotional/musical intensity that would overpower the action were it not for Gray’s silent strength contrasting against his. He’s trying to get her to trust him and she wants to do so.
Writer Brian Yorkey and composer Tom Kitt follow-up “I Am the One,” with “Superboy and the Invisible Girl.” Two of the best songs in the whole show launch themselves into the story back to back. I love the fusion between those two songs. No dialogue. No rest. No space to breathe. We go straight from one explosive expression of rock’n’roll frustration to the next. As Diana and Dan are trying to connect in one room of the house, their daughter Natalie is in her room dealing with feeling distant and insubstantial in the shadow of her brother Gabe.
Austin Dorman is an intermittent force of nature as Gabe...appearing quite dramatically and then vanishing. Hailey Hentz sculpts a fascinatingly textured portrayal of Natalie. The character is under tremendous stress at a time in high school when her schedule is filled with studying and practicing piano and million other concerns. There’s real passion written into the dialogue, but Hentz cleverly plays that passion with listless frustration until a song like “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” comes along. Then the passion shoots out into the music. Listless, nuanced frustration in spoken dialogue. Passionate emotion in song. It’s not an exaggerated contrast by any means, but it’s distinct enough to feel like a really sharply thoughtful connection between actor and character. In her bio, Hentz mentions this Natalie has been a dream role for her. It shows.
Adam Qutaishat handles some of the more challenging bits around the edges of the production as Diana’s doctor. The character is kind of an abstract medical professional, but Qutaishat is able to imbue that with some distinct personality. Connor Dalzin has a tender persistence about him as a boy who has come to care about Natalie.
Rock musicals can be really difficult to bring across on a technical level. Director Tim Backes has done an admirable job of keeping the immense intensity of a show like this from overpowering the space. A few brief and minor sound issues aside, the energy of the piece is kept relatively well-balanced.
My wife and I teared-up numerous time over the course of the show.
For extra intensity sit where we sat: in the front row right next to the kitchen table on the side.
True...the marginally annoying visual of those body mics that everyone is wearing IS that much more visible from the front row, but the tech fades into the background right away in the rush of the show’s energy. One rarely gets a chance to be this close to a musical of any kind, but a rock musical like this. . . it’s really, really powerful. Pfisterer launches into “I Am the One,” and you’re right there at the kitchen table with him. Moments like that are that much more powerful from the front row.
All In Productions' staging of Next to Normal continues through Sep. 16 at the Next Act Theatre space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit All In online.
There's a work factor in seeing a show for review that can fundamentally distance a critic from the rest of an audience. I arrived at the Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove last night from a Gold Line bus. At 41 years of age, I was on the younger edge of an audience that was there for casual entertainment. Everyone else was well-tuned to a light family sitcom and I was there for the work I love. The trip out had me thinking about politics and headlines and things that I read on the hour long commute. It took me a little while to synchronize-up with the mood of the rest of the audience.
The ensemble for the show is quite well-integrated. The family dynamic feels right. The director has brought them together in clever social modulation. A young guy is trying to tell all four of his grandparents that he's moving away to the other side of the country. He's younger than me, but I identify with him because he’s closer in age to me than anyone else in the story. This is an older audience, though. They’re going to identify with the larger end of the ensemble. This guy tells his grandparents that there isn't anything to keep him there in New Jersey and the whole audience gasps. The line hits all of them as a shock. To me it seems obvious. It's a nice family, but they’re driving him crazy and he wants to live somewhere other than Jersey his whole life. I’m with him and they’re with them. (The family I mean.) It's always weird to have that kind of distance from the rest of the audience. Just as the younger guy begins to realize what a good family he’s got, I begin to feel a bit more integrated with the rest of the audience. We’re starting to laugh at the same things. It’s fun.
During an intermission I overheard somebody (who was presumably a regular at the Sunset) mentioning something along the lines of it being really a good choice for the company. It's hard to disagree with that. This is really a play about family. It’s really a drama about family on a couple of different levels. There’s a family of actors here playing a family of characters. Most of the actors feel totally at home in the roles of retirees. Raffaello Frattura puts in a truly engaging performance, but that’s no surprise: this guy’s been performing for over THREE DEACES...and they ALL have that kind of experience onstage. They may not have always been playing a single family like this, but they all sink into a very organic relationship with the stage that feels very authentic BECAUSE IT IS. People with great comfort onstage play people in a very comfortable home. Family plays family. Familiarity plays familiarity. That guy I overheard during intermission was right: this IS a really good choice. I’m there for work. They’re there for the community in this community theatre. It’s nice to be a tourist in a space like that. It’s really satisfying to have been pulled into the gravity of a show like this even if doing so pulled me away from MY family for one more night and in the interest of exploring the nature human connection.
Sunset Playhouse's production of Over the River and Through the Woods runs through Sep. 24 at the Furlan Auditorium on 800 Elm Grove Rd. For ticket reservations, visit the Sunset Playhouse online. My comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd-Express.
Last night I saw a third Summer 2017 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The season opened with Voices Found Repertory’s 1980s pop-inspired production in May. Then in July Door Shakespeare opened it’s production. This weekend Bard & Bourbon stages its Twelfth Night (drunk) at the intimate space of the Tenth Street Theatre. It's slyly directed by Dylan K. Sladky. The production is set in a pleasant 1920s. Design elements lock-in the feel of the era without overpowering the comedy. Robert Sharon’s beautiful costuming for the show feels very organic.
Bard & Bourbon issues a fun farewell to the summer on these first days of September with the show. Brittany Curran plays romantic lead as the lovely Viola who disguises herself as a man and promptly falls for a man who wishes her to woo another for him. It’s fun to see Curran in a central role this time around. There’s a heartwarming honesty in her portrayal of someone falling in love. The man in question is the Duke Orsino played here by Alexandra Pakalski. Honestly, I’d always found the character of Orsino to be a little flat. It’s difficult to understand why Viola is so taken with him. Shakespeare doesn’t offer much in the way of charm. Seeing Pakalski play the role...I get it. With her in that role I can relate to Viola. Pakalski has an irresistibly roguish appeal about her in the role that makes Viola’s emotions feel really really well-justified.
Alas, Orsino’s eye has fallen on someone else--the countess Olivia played with an impressively casual diva’s charm by Ashley S. Jordan. Shakespeare gives Olivia quite a bit more personality than Orsino, so she’s always come across as being more appealing to me. Jordan saunters into the role of aristocracy with sultry assertiveness, making Olivia’s appeal that much more palpable.
The more comic ends of the comedy are so well-executed that they almost threaten to overpower the drama of the romance. Adam Czaplewski is a diva all his own in the role of Olivia’s servant Malvolio. He glides and slices through a comportment and poise with microtome’s precision. There aren’t many people who can generate laughter by simply standing onstage with a perfectly straight face. Czaplewski is one of those people. He takes a graceful tumble into madness due to cruelty played upon him by Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria, played with sharp clarity by Madeline Wakley. Her cleverness is pursued by the comic swagger of Brittany Boeche as the brashly robust Sir Toby Belch .
The heavy comedy of the show falls on Sir Andrew Aguecheek, his good friend Sir Toby Belch and Feste the jester...all three of whom are really impressive here. Brandon Herr has great comic instincts as Sir Andrew. A few relatively flat lines come across with great comedy simply due to Herr’s tiny inflections and punctuations. Of course, his biggest moment lies in Sir Andrew’s duel with Viola over a gross misunderstanding. Comic fisticuffs involving a baseball bat come fluidly to the stage courtesy of fight choreographer Tawnie Thompson who once again does an amazing job bringing very compelling action to the stage. Thompson’s fight scenes have a speed, rhythm and style to them that are quite distinctive. (Someone please give this woman more work.)
Naturally there are going to be those who end up collecting around the edges of a production who are WAY more talented than what they’re given to do. All the same it’s nice to see Zachary Dean as the Sea Captain and a few other minor roles. Local stage veteran Joel Kopischke has potential for serious gravitas in the role of Antonio. The night I attended, he was one of the two getting drunk for the show...(this IS Bard & Bourbon, after all.) Kopischke embraced the gimmick with great energy and enthusiasm, adding one more element to a very fun show. Keegan Siebken was similarly poised (though completely sober) in the role of his friend and Viola's brother Sebastian.
It’s deeply, deeply satisfying to see Grace DeWolf in any show. She always ends up being my favorite in any cast. Here she’s playing Feste the jester with characteristically expressive glances and punchy charisma. There’s such a deftness of delivery with her. Here that deftness Grace-fully bounds through the jaunty wit of a jester with captivatingly textured nuance. Her work here serves as the centerpiece for the comic end of a show that may dip a little heavily into the laughter, but not at the expense of a fun, breezy Shakespearian romance.
Bard & Bourbon’s Twelfth Night (drunk) runs through Sep. 3 at In Tandem’s Tenth St. Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more visit Bard & Bourbon online.