This month Cabaret Milwaukee presents another classy evening of variety somewhere between downtown and the east side. History, drama and musical comedy mix in a show inspired by old-timely radio. (Vintage-inspired entertainment that feels contemporary enough to be timely.) This month’s outing features jaunty Evan Nicholas Maruszewski as radio host Richard Howling who serves as a wiry charismatic anchor for the evening.
The show opens with Dora Diamond singing “The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Stylish crooning sachets the show into the first of the scenes in the central melodrama. The World War One horror fantasy “Clockwork Man’s Heart” stars tall, powerfully-voiced Marcus Bayer as the hero Pelonius Brigman who joins occultist Sinfan on the trail of a darkly sinister doctor played with respectable depth by Kirk Thompson. It’s nice to see Audwin Short return as Sinfan, but the script doesn’t seem to allow him enough of an opportunity to really explore the mystery of the character. Instead of getting an intrepid explorer of the unknown and his traditionally alpha-heroic ex-soldier sidekick, we get something more traditional in adventure hero and his resident expert in the field.
Aside from Sinfan as sidekick, there are other more traditional tropes being used for the action. We get Clarence Sammy as an asian opium lord. We get a very sweet Ava Danzer as the innocent, precious little girl victim of evil. Story writer David Law and producer Josh B. Bryan keep it all interesting enough in spite of the pulpy clichés. They are aided by particularly strong and fleeting performances by the whole cast.
Michelle White holds a certain amount of strength as the mother of the unfortunate little girl. She also shows-up between the acts as one of the Howling Jinglers. It’s always nice to see the three-part harmony of White, Kira Walters and Sarah Therese adding to the atmosphere. The trio sing old ad jingles (including that classic PBR song) and new period-perfect songs written in honor of the show’s real-world sponsors. Walters also makes a notable appearance sweetly singing in an opium joint prior to a major showdown with the villain. Walters has a touching vulnerability even in comic moments as a Howling girl between acts.
The Howling Jinglers help ground the vintage feel of the show. The Clockwork Man story is set during World War I, but the fictitious Milwaukee radio show they’re a part of is set right before World War II, allowing Cabaret Milwaukee a double retro show that echoes present events at various moments. This particular episode is set in May of 1937, so we get history in radio reports of the Hindenburg and local news of local Milwaukee streetcars being replaced by trolleybuses among other things.
Once again, the best comedy in the show comes courtesy of Laura Holterman In the role of helpful homemaker Mrs. Milli giving early 20th century advice for Thanksgiving. Holterman’s comic instincts are as sharp as ever here. Danni Webber also adds to the variety in a tap dance. Fascinating to see performance tap done in a studio theater environment. It adds immeasurably to the vintage variety show feel. Elias Holman provides a appealing back-up for it all as the house piano guy.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s Heart of the Clockwork Man runs through Nov. 19 at the Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.