It’s the weekend before Christmas. Leading-in to the last couple of days before the 25th, a group of actors is cozying-up a conference room in Oak Creek for a staged reading of the Patrick Barlow adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s an enjoyably breezy, little evening in Oak Creek that includes complimentary cider, hot chocolate and doughnuts. There’s an elevated stage, but the space feels distinctly like a conference room in a convention center until things get going. With no artificial amplification and no accompaniment aside from a few bells, the cast does an excellent job of painting a story with dialogue and narration alone. There’s no snow outside, but for a couple of hours it feels like a classy, classic Christmas thanks to a few actors.
Jim Pickering plays Scrooge. A longtime Scrooge for the Rep, his bio sets the count at 450 individual performances in the role over the course of 14 seasons. He inhabits the role quite nicely. George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart had made memorable turns in the role on video in the past, but Pickering is who I picture whenever I visualize the character. Without all the trappings of a full production, Pickering has a chance to really focus on precise intonations and vocal characterization which is a great deal of fun to watch and listen to.
Josh Scheibe plays a formidably tremulous Bob Cratchit to Pickering’s Scrooge. There’s a wit about him and his delivery of the comedy in the script that adds to the staging considerably. He’s bends characterization in a different direction as young Scrooge...a man on the verge of losing his empathy in Christmas Past.
Amie Losi isn’t given a whole lot of time to make much of an impression in the roles given to her. With what little she is given, she radiates considerable warmth in a few different roles including the Spirit of Christmas Past. Mrs. Cratchit and the wife of Scrooge’s nephew Fred.
Gretchen Mahkorn is striking as the Ghost of Christmas Present. She a roguish Cockney Dickensian party girl...which works a lot better than it sounds like it might. The role is more traditionally played by jolly giant Father Christmas-type. A younger woman in the role is fun and not entirely without precedent. (Who could forget a young Carole Kane mercilessly beating-up Bill Murray as Christmas Present in Scrooged?) Mahkorn also plays Scrooge’s first love and a number of Cratchit children all at once, each with distinctly different voices.
William Molitor has a voice that can be both quite gruff and quite tender. There’s the glow of compassion in his voice as Mr. Fezziwig. He conjures a much tougher edge in the role of Scrooge’s sinister, old teacher in Christmas Past.
Casey Westphal rounds out the cast as Tiny Tim...punctuating things quite capably at the end of the show.
The staged reading of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol has its second and final performance tonight, Saturday 22nd at the Oak Creek Community Center on 8580 S. Howell Ave. The doors open at 6:30 pm. The show starts at 7:00 pm. For ticket reservations and more, visit Oak Creek Community Center online.
Doug Jarecki makes sitcom writing look easy. Seen from a certain perspective, ’Twas the Month Before Christmas is a fun splicing of pilot episodes for three different TV sitcoms that will never air. Taken individually, each of the three storylines runs for about the length of a standard sitcom. This is the type of stuff we've all come to associate with the casual comfort of our own living rooms. It might seem strange going to a cozy, little theatre to watch light comedy, but there’s a great warmth about laughter in a live setting that simply isn’t there with a laugh track, bumpers and commercials.
What’s more...Jarecki has crafted three episodes of three different non-existent TV sitcoms far from the soullessly grinding machine of Hollywood. Any one episode of any major network show seems to always have at least a couple of different writers tripping over each other in desperation for success. (New York and Southern California are littered with writers who would all LOVE to work on sitcoms.) ’Twas the Month Before Christmas comes from a Writer’s Room For One. It’s one guy coming-up with three really satisfying shows with a really great cast. Here’s a look at what a typical prime-time line-up might look like on the Jarecki Comedy Network:
Mary and Joe (another title might be "Made by Joe")--Jarecki and Sara Zientek star in a touching comedy about an unwed pregnant woman who marries a down-on-his-luck carpenter. They’re living in the desert, which is difficult for a carpenter. She’s got a rather unique explanation for her pregnancy. The idea of fusing the story of Jesus’ parents with a contemporary romantic comedy is strikingly clever. The dialogue between the two of them feels really authentic. It’s fun to see such universally-known characters tethered to an earthbound comedy like this.
Magi Road (or maybe...”Magi Nation”?...)--A buddy road trip comedy about three kings traveling to Bethlehem for the big birth. Doug Jarecki plays Melchior--the crass and confident alpha...uh...king who brings the gift of gold. He’s reluctant to go along, but he’s going on the trip in hopes of helping-out his friend Gaspar. Mitch Weindorf is compellingly sympathetic as Gaspar--a man who is hopelessly in love with a servant girl. The other two travel with him to Bethlehem just to get his mind off of his love for her. John Cramer is comically human as Balthasar--the one of three who is least-suited to the physical demands of travel. Jarecki nails the comic camaraderie of three guys who happen to be employed as royalty. Again--classic characters from an old story are given new life in a light comedy in which three guys get to know each other just a bit better.
Hotel Bethlehem (or..."Manger Strangers")--Lindsey Gagliano and John Cramer play daughter and father in charge of a hotel that is, strangely enough, attached to a manger. Gagliano and Cramer have a palpable connection. Cramer is charming as a widower father trying to find some sort of meaning in the world through reaching for something more than the mundane. Gagliano has a sparkling sense of empathy about her as a woman trying to live up to the memory of her mother by making the most of a hotel that constantly smells of farm animals due to its proximity to the attached manger.
It’s three episodes of three different non-existent sitcoms that all come to meet in the end. Really it’s worth the price of admission just to see how Jarecki managed to craft such satisfying light comedy out of such familiar characters and settings without resorting to hack comedy cliches more than once or twice. This is a fun alternative to more traditional holiday fare.
’Twas the Month Before Christmas runs through Dec. 23 at the Next Act Theatre on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act online.
Off The Wall Theatre ends 2017 with a production of the classic 20th Century comedy thriller Arsenic and Old Lace. Mark Neufang is charismatic as Mortimer--a theatre critic who has just proposed to a lovely girl (Brittany Meister)
The excitement of the occasion is compromised when it becomes apparent that his aunts (an emotionally endearing pairing of Marilyn White and Michelle Waide) have been fatally poisoning a series of lonely, old men who have come looking to rent a room from them. Things get complicated as a shady, old son (Dale Gutzman) returns with his sinister plastic surgeon (Robert Zimmerman) to impose his will on the household which with a basement full of corpses buried by Mortimer’s crazy brother (Lawrence J. Lukasavage) who evidently believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt.
Taken on its own, the comedy is and pleasant, little dark ensemble comedy on a small stage. Taken in the context of the holiday season, it’s a refreshing bit of counter-programming. Nice to see a few corpses moving around onstage for the holidays. This is my kind of counter-festiveness. It’s fun. Having it contrasted against the warmth and sentiment of the holiday season, Arsenic and Old Lace feels remarkably out of place for a light comedy that would have been written in 1939. Seen from one angle, making light of death and mental illness feels tone-deaf and dated, but seen from an entirely different angle, this feels like one of those weird British indie comedies that could have been written in the past decade or so.
There are moments where the ensemble kind of feels like a stylishly retro-contemporary British indie drama. The standard mix of elements come into play in an Off the Wall ensemble with various elements sparkling in the comedic mix. Neufang is excellent as coherent center around which all of the chaos of the story plays out. Meister is strong and assertive as the future wife of a critic. Michelle Waide and Marilyn White are fun as a couple of old women who don’t mind jumping the gun a bit on the whole euthanasia thing. White’s got brilliantly nonchalant delivery on the dialogue. She really wants to be nice and help people and for her that also happens to mean mercifully killing-off lonely, old men. White’s total innocence in delivering the lines is deeply satisfying comedy. White, Waide, Neufang and Meister are a comically engrossing center to a show with lots of interesting bits around the edges including an unexpectedly enjoyable Dale Gutzman playing a man with no regard for human life. It’s more fun than it probably should be.
Off the Wall’s production of Arsenic and Old Lace runs through Dec. 31 at the cozy, little studio theatre space on 127 E. Wells St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Off the Wall online.
The best-selling single in history is Bing Crosby singing Irving Berlin’s, “White Christmas.” The single was released in 1942. The film of the same name starring Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and others wouldn’t be released until 1954. The idealized mid-20th century Christmas has become enshrined as a popular retro holiday mood over the decades. Matt Zembrowski and Milwaukee Entertainment Group celebrate the era with Bing Crosby Christmas on the Air—a live tribute show to the golden age of radio. Zembrowski plays Crosby welcoming guest performer Lori Nappe as Rosemary Clooney. The pair are joined by Paula Foley Tillen as pianist Skitch Henderson and Michael Skocir as radio announcer Ken Carpenter. Songs included on the program find a variety of influences as mid-twentieth century songwriters experimented with different locales and musical inspirations. Standards like “The First Noel,” “The Christmas Song,” and “White Christmas” are joined by less traditional mid-century stuff like “Mele Kalikimaka,” and “Christmas in Kilarney.”
It takes a lot of courage to play such recognizable celebrities in an intimate theatre setting. Zembrowski and company glide onstage with confidence in a live theatre approximation of a live Christmas NBC radio show circa 1950-something. Zembrowski and Nappe have very distinctive voices that are distinctly unlike Crosby and Clooney. More often than not, there are moments when their voices come strikingly into synch with memory of old recordings. Time and again, old Christmas songs dreamily resonate into a life somewhere between memory and the moment.
Michael Skocir brings the precise diction and deliver of a mid-20th century radio announcer with uncanny fidelity. The over-the-air ads for Philco radios and Chesterfield cigarettes are clever additions to the show from an era when ads were polished, formal and ingratiating.
It’s interesting to dive into the basement of an old mansion for this kind of show. Crosby’s recordings have been around for half a century. It was a much different time back then. Aside from the big radio on many living rooms, radio was much more of a fixed medium during the era of live radio. Granted, there were car radios back then, but the first in-car FM radio had just been introduced in 1952. The only popular form of record was a phonograph. People listening to Bing Crosby Christmas music back when it was first released would have been pretty tethered to one location.
Things are so sophisticated with media these days. People listen to holiday music on phones with earbuds while casually shoveling snow or cutting down a christmas tree. There can be music from several decades on shuffle at a Christmas party where everyone’s taking pictures and video that can be seen on phones all over the planet instantaneously. Christmas music from over half a century of recording is available in just about any environment while doing just about anything. Quite often the music is a minor wallpaper in the background. It’s nice to get back to an era when a holiday pop music show was something that required some kind of focus. Zembrowski and company present an evening celebrating an era when a Christmas radio show was a reason to make plans with the family. It’s charming.
Milwaukee Entertainment Groups’s Bing Crosby Christmas On the Air runs through Dec. 23 at the Brumder Mansion on 3046 West Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Entertainment Group online.
The Alchemist Theater seems to have perfected the perfect, little boutique theatre show for a chilly night in Bay View. Randall T. Anderson’s The Bartender returns for another cozy, little evening of 8 mixed drinks mixed with stories from biography, history and something else. The show sold-out not long after tickets became available.
I count myself lucky. This weekend I was able to go to the show for a second time...this time to review for the print edition of the Shepherd-Express. The set-up of a show is a lot to describe in 300 words for print. Stories are told and drinks are served amidst an immersive multimedia atmosphere. . . there’s a lot to set-up and establish. So I didn’t really get a chance to go into detail on the character of the Bartender that Anderson does such a good job of rendering in the intimacy of the Alchemist Theatre bar.
The character introduces himself at the outset of the evening. He’s the archetype of the Bartender throughout history. There are a million different kinds of bartenders in a million different kinds of bars. Anderson plays one who feels like he could casually pick-up a shift at any bar in the world. Anderson is a mid-century classic of a guy...a throwback to an era that was featured in history likely just before he was born. Naturally his Bartender is going to be a bit of a throwback as well...the clever wit and wisdom of a man who always knows another story and always knows just how to deliver it.
There’s no way to write about Anderson’s performance without making it sound kind of exaggerated and theatrical. Anderson is perfectly natural in the role, though. Nothing feels forced. There’s no cheesy dialect or over-rendered character voice for The Bartender. It’s just Randall T. Anderson telling stories from the perspective of an endlessly charming archetype. Anderson’s rendering of the character works so well because he’s simply introducing the character to the audience. No further flash is needed from Anderson. It all comes together amidst mixed drinks Antishadows and Aaron Kopec’s atmospheric sound and video. Lost in the narrative and suddenly there's Erica Case popping out of the shadows with a tray of drinks that Anderson was just telling a story about. It's all kind of magical.
Anderson’s Bartender tells stories from history and bits of biographical narrative for the character he’s playing. The stories he’s telling may be really specific to the character. but Anderson manages to make them universally relatable. (One of the stories involving a palm reader on a train even manages to be a story ABOUT universally relatable themes. It’s all very cleverly-conceived stuff.)
It's remarkable how well-balanced this show is from every angle. The balance of the narrative is just one aspect of that balance, but it's easy to overlook in a lounge theatre experience where one element of production fuses into the natural gravity of the next. With just a single performer, great lighting, a little video in a tiny, little snuggery a show like this can seem deceptively simple. There's no reason why there shouldn't be a show like this running every single week in every single neighborhood in Milwaukee. It's easy to think like that with a show that is this well-execute, but then a show like this is rarely executed this well. Anderson and company have found the perfect balance here.
The Bartender continues its sold-out run through Dec. 17 at the Alchemist Theatre. Alchemist has plans to welcome Randall T. Anderson back for another run in the future. For more information on this and more (including the Alchemist’s upcoming Soviet-themed New Year’s Eve party) visit thealchemisttheatre.com.
I’ve seen something like 3 or 4 different live productions of Menken’s Beauty and the Beast. The Sunset Playhouse presents the latest adaptation of the classic musical in Elm Grove this month. This is the first live version that I’ve seen since watching the live-action film version on home video with my wife and daughters. (I saw the touring Broadway production a few years back with my little daughter Amalia, who fell asleep halfway into the show.) Stephanie Staszak has great energy as Belle-a woman who accepts imprisonment with a cursed Beast to save her father.
There are problems I’ve always had with the basic premise of the musical. I’d be tempted to outline some of these basic problems here, but YouTuber Jenny Nicholson did a brilliant job of this in a vlog earlier this year.
It’s always fascinating to see a very specific 1991 visual of the animated film echo into yet another live iteration. Dan Haskett, Glenn Keane and company’s character designs are as clever as ever echoing into Joanne Cunningham’s costume design with particularly clever bits for the candle Lumiere and the Beast himself. Keane’s visualization of the Beast is probably one of them most iconic character designs to come out of the 1990s. It’s simple enough to look powerful on just about any actor...which brings up kind of an interesting point about the production that I didn’t have a chance to get into in my upcoming print review in the next Shepherd-Express...
A More Vulnerable Beast
Robby Benson voiced the original 1991 animated character with power, anger and animalism (doubtlessly aided by really, really top-notch sound design.) The Sunset Playhouse production has tall, thin Keith Smith in the role of the Beast. Far from having the booming animalism of Benson’s voice, Smith has something of a steel detachment in his stage presence that make for a dramatically different dynamic between the Beast, the Beauty and nearly everyone else in the production.
Keith Smith has the brooding solitariness of the character down perfectly, but the lack of believable anger and menace makes him a LOT more vulnerable than he’s usually portrayed. So here he comes across as far less of a monster and far more of a victim. Those who love the original animated version of the musical might have some difficulty with it, but it makes for a much more moody and nuanced piece that actually works A LOT better than any attempt to stage the animated film in live performance.
As powerful as the big budget touring production of the live musical had been, the Beast could never be as physically dynamic onstage as he was in the animated movie. (Even this past year’s live action attempt felt pretty weak when compared against the animated original.) Smith and director Karl Miller had may not have actually planned the Beast’s amplified vulnerability in rehearsal, but it gives the live musical added depth that the even the animated film would have had difficulty with.
Here the Beast is more of a fragile, pathetic outcast than a monster who would rather not be a monster. The lack of gruff, beastly menace makes him more likable and adds an interesting dynamic to the relationship between himself and his cursed servants. The tradition is to have the cursed servants of the Beast fearful of him and what he might do. A more vulnerable Beast lends the cursed servants greater strength. They’re looking after him more out of concern for his own wellbeing. In advancing his love for the captive Belle, they ARE looking out for their own self-interest, but they’re also really concerned about the psychological health of the Beast as well. It makes more sense that they wouldn’t tell Belle about the curse if they’re concerned that doing so would harm the sullen furry loner that they’re tasked with looking after. There’s almost a sense that they’re protecting him from Belle every bit as much as they are protecting Belle from the Beast.
The fascinating thing about this is that the exact same plot and dialogue can make for such a drastically different dynamics simply by having the Beast be a bit less....beastly. He’s not the only man in Belle’s life who is (perhaps inadvertently) portrayed against tradition in this production.
Vanity Versus Confidence in Gaston
Voice actor Richard White trumpeted dialogue from a pompous baritone in the role of Gaston in the original animated film. The animators seem to have taken great pleasure in visually rendering this narcissism to comic effect. The Sunset Playhouse has Tim Albrechtson in the role. Albrechtson effortlessly looks the part of the attractive man even if he tragically lacks unrealistically animated qualities found in his cell animated predecessor. Albrechtson strides tall and confident across the stage in the role of Gaston. There’s a calm confidence about him that almost seems to lack any desire to prove itself to the rest of the world. He's strong and influential. No need to broadcast it any more than the dialogue does.
Calm, quite confidence might seem a little incongruous given the character is as boastful as he is. Albrechtson is able to breathe the lines with calm assertion that almost seems intrinsically disinterested with everything that's going on. In a weird kind of a way, this actually works much better than having him trying to make a show of his prowess. The alpha jerk’s interest in Belle always seemed kind of strange, but portraying him as someone who is actually kind of bored with everything gives it some believability. He’s half-heartedly looking for the one challenge left in the whole village and THAT ends up being the one woman who couldn’t possibly be interested in him.
The lack of enthusiasm does interesting things to other aspects of the story as well. When the village people sing to Gaston in the interest of cheering him up after his initial rejection from Belle, they seem to also be trying to interest him in . . . something . . . anything. So naturally they’re going to try to catch his attention by singing to him about...himself. It’s kind of an interesting angle on a song about what a great guy he is.
The boredom of the character seems all the more menacing in context as the play reaches its final climactic battle. Gaston seems to be interested in killing the Beast...simply because it’s something to do. The big, climactic end comes about simply because a powerful, charismatic guy is...kind of bored. It’s much more of a compelling and terrifying concept than the idea that Gaston wants to kill the Beast for another trophy or to force Belle to love him or whatever. Intended or not, the performances of Keith and Albrechtson make for an approach to the story that amplify the interpersonal dramatics in a way that takes advantage of the unique strengths of live theatre. If you want to bring an animated story to life on the live stage, it’s better to go with the strengths of the live stage than to try to make stage reality look like rubbery technicolor. Even the big budget touring show can only do so much to make the stage look like a cartoon. We all know the animated movie. Now through the end of the month, Sunset gives us something new.
Sunset Playhouse’s production of Beauty and the Beast runs through Dec. 23 at the Furlan Auditorium on 800 Elm Grove Rd. For ticket reservations call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com. A concise, comprehensive review of the show runs in the next print edition of the Shepherd Express.