Cabaret. Milwaukee swings into the final chapter of its Jealous Revolver serial. The bar at the Astor Hotel once again serves as the perfect venue for a retro variety show done in the style of an old live radio show. Chris Goode brings a distinctive (And distinctively energetic) old-timey radio voice to the stage as show’s host Richard Howling.
This time around Howling introduces a very evenly-mixed evening of entertainment with the final chapter of the original Milwaukee-based crime thriller starring a suitably dramatic Dora Diamond and Maura Atwood as business partners who have taken over a speakeasy in the wake of a few homicides in earlier episodes. The tradition with old-style crime drama (going all the way back to the original old radio shows) is to over-play the dramatic intensity. To their credit Diamond and Atwood keep the energy of the drama on a very believable range that makes for an engaging tension not often seen in gangster thrillers. Randall T. Anderson makes a striking appearance as the sinister visiting villain from Chicago--a gangster who plays a man known as Happy Memories. The cast is rounded-out by a dashing Andrew Parchman as a police detective and a comically inept cop played by Michael Keiley.
The show is separated into two halves...each opened by the classy crooning of Cameron Webb, who does a hell of a job with a Billie Holiday tune. Cabaret Milwaukee newcomer Anna Brink is a classy addition to the show. Her agile piano work throughout the show provides a jazzy background for the show that fits in perfectly around the edges of all the rest of the action. (She's appeared various place over the years. It's fun to see her add to the dynamic of a theatrical show.) Allen Russell adds to the atmosphere with period-perfect violin that lingers around the edges with Brink’s piano.
Michelle White sharply shifts to comedy this time around. She’d been delivering some of the drama in earlier episodes. Here she’s filling-in for comic 1940s "helpful hints" housewife Laura Holterman in a bit of clever retro comedy based on an actual 1939 “Marital Rating Scale” by one Dr. George W. Crane that appears in the program. Elsewhere, White joins Lindsay Willicombe and Marina Dove as the three-part harmony of the Howling Jinglers, who also engage in a bit of fun comedy between the music. Michael Palisano reappears as the slyly alliterative comedian in a particularly deft tongue tangle tango with witty anxiety. In one of the more clever bits of staging in the show, tap dancer Danielle Joy Webber performs her second set onstage with the corpse of a murder victim still onstage as a tied-up police office Micheal Keiley serves as captive audience. Elsewhere in the story, dance comes in an altogether different form as Maria Pretzl and Jullian Williams perform a burlesque for the cops.
So to review: Burlesque, tap, vaudevillian stand-up, jazz crooning with keyboard and violin, drama and suspense. It's a classy time at the Astor.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s The Jealous Revolver: Episode Three runs through March 2nd at the Astor Hotel on 924 E. Juneau. For ticket reservations and more, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.
Theatre Gigante’s adaptation of Enemy of the People covers a tremendous amount of ground in allegory. Isabelle Kralj has put together a really tightly-focused, little ensemble for their adaptation of Ibsen’s classic. At the center of it all is a doctor played by Emmitt Morgans. Morgans’ journey as the doctor is a fascinating one that takes him from being a simple consultant with an idea to being something far better and then...far worse in the eyes of the people.
At the opening of the story, Morgans is consulting with the mayor of a small town (played with seedy, duplicitous officiousness by David Flores.) The mayor suggests using a local water source to bottle natural spring water, but Morgans suggests something much more substantial: a health spa which could promote a tourist economy in the town. The mayor approves and the musical proceeds. At this stage, Morgans could have been playing a minor, supporting character--just a casual guy with an idea that happens launch the plot on its course.
As plans for the spa develop, the doctor suggests drawing water for the spa from a pure place that turns out to be cost prohibitive to the mayor, who has the final say. Lacking any real power, the doctor must relent to the wishes of the mayor. Here Morgans is still playing someone who could have theoretically ended-up as a minor character in a much larger plot.
The spa opens and everyone is celebrating. Somewhere in the background in and amidst it all, Morgans stands a a counter regarding a few test tubes. Having done some rather official-looking sciencey-stuff in the background, he addresses the people of the town (represented by a very energetic ensemble.) Sadly, the water is being drawn from a toxic source and the entire spa may have to be shut down for quite some time in order to protect people. Here Morgans is playing the doctor as a hero everyone respects. Things get complicated from there. The doctor’s fortunes reverse when he brings the health hazard to the attention of Flores’ corrupt mayor.
Morgans cleverly treads the path of a man who shifts from some minor character in the background to prominence as a hero, then an activist and a vilified scapegoat for the bad decisions of others. Kralj has framed the journey of the hero with remarkable complexity for a tiny allegorical musical. What starts-off as a desire to help others shifts into a self-defining journey as well. And though the doctor is not without his own arrogance, the negative side of the character is a slight shadow around the edges of someone who really IS extremely selfless and willing to sacrifice himself for the benefit of the public.
Morgans brings clever nuance to a role that could have easily played as more of a gleaming heroic altruist. He’s aided at a crucial moment by a cleverly-written Jason Powell song. The doctor is consulting with the people about the dangers of environmental hazards of the spa. They are grateful for his interest in the public health, happily praising him as a hero. In the course of the song, Morgans is allowed brief flashes of pride which grow into open acceptance of the hero label even as he shies away from it. It’s a tricky balancing act to portray a character tacitly accepting adulation that he is openly shying away from. More than simply showing subtlety, Morgans allows the moment to be a major turning point in the personality of the character without making it overwhelmingly obvious that he is doing so. The doctor’s rise to prominence casts a shadow over everything that he does from that moment on. Powell gives Morgans just enough space to play to a few different angles of heroism in remarkably clever moment in a provocative look at the politics of survival in an increasingly complex world.
Theatre Gigante’s Enemy of the People runs through Feb. 16 at Kenilworth 508 Theatre on 1925 East Kenilworth Place. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theatre Gigante online. A more complete and concise review of the show runs in this week's Shepherd-Express.
Cooperative Performance’s Allusion/Illusion is an intellectually exhilarating 45 minutes of experimental theatre. Like anything that’s truly experimental, it is many different things in many different ways. For 45 minutes the tiny, little improvised space in the Third Ward just down the street and around the corner from the Milwaukee Public Market becomes a fun existential playground cast in the emptiness of a vacant warehouse with vast expanses of plaster and Cream City brick.
On one level, Allusion/Illusion feels oddly like a video game. Emily Elliot and Caitlyn Nettesheim are enjoyably confrontational as a pair of abstract entities in conflict who are debating whether or not to reveal the artifice of reality to the audience. There are multiple levels that the audience is ushered through in the course of the show as Allusion and Illusion guide us through the central question of morality in reality versus perception. The conflict progresses as curtains are raised, each one revealing another performance at a different level. Each level ends in a kind of climax, building on the levels before it.
On another level, Allusion/Illusion is a simple intellectual funhouse. The show is introduced by a lovable blue fuzzy puppet named Little Blue who is brought to life by Billy Ray Olsen. Olsen delivers the character of Little Blue to the performance in a casually friendly tone. There's little done to separate puppet from the puppeteer. Olsen changes his voice very little for the character, appearing in plain view right behind him. Little Blue even makes reference to the guy standing behind him. It’s a really sharp introduction to the show. Much like everything else in the show he’s introducing, Little Blue can be taken for face value as a character...or as a puppet...or as an abstract symbol for something else entirely. It’s all so deeply open to interpretation.
On another level, Allusion/Illusion is a variety show. There’s drama. There’s music. Jo Kerner from the prog rock band Rocket Paloma sings and plays guitar beautifully amidst the strange abstraction of it all. There’s dance and drama and shadow puppetry. (Here the show is being playfully literal. We see Plato’s Allegory of the Cave rendered in actual shadow puppets on the cavernous wall of an empty warehouse.) There’s multimedia mutation as well. One of the better moments in the entire show has Kerner’s face as a visage of inner turmoil broadcast onto the body of Raja Zafar. It’s weird. It’s disjointed. And it’s all in the service of subjectivity in reality.
On another level still, Allusion/Illusion is an abstract existential fairytale. Emily Elliot is Allusion...a gritty, aggressive de-constructivist trying to guide the audience through artifice into something more real even though she knows that there isn’t anything beyond it. She’s a compelling nihilist in a tie and a black leather jacket. She’s contrasted against Caitlyn Nettesheim as Illusion...the gracious hostess who wants us all to be happy in the world that’s been constructed for us. I love the idea that two of the most powerful forces in the universe are present onstage as a couple of young women. On an aesthetic level this makes a lot of sense to me. The script makes pretty extensive reference to the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies, but so much of the dreamlike fairytale nature of the show reminds me of Gaiman’s Sandman right down to powerful forces taking the form of young women. We don’t have the pleasure of the company of a Goth girl death or a mismatched, pleasantly scattered Delirium, but it’s endlessly cool that Nettesheim and Elliot are opposing Order and Chaos-like forces in the title roles of Allusion and Illusion.
One of most fascinating moments in the narrative a brief scene where the audience is led out of the space and into the cold reality of the Third Ward at night. Traffic is going by in the distance. There are the sounds of a weekend just south of downtown in late winter. There’s a whole world out there. But how real is it? As tired as the overall premise is, there’s still a phenomenal amount of electricity in the theatre calling attention to its own reflection. It’s powerful stuff. It’s also playful and bizarre. It’s rare when something this abstract and philosophical dives into view in local theatre. It's a show that needs to be seen.
Cooperative Performance’s Allusion/Illusion runs through Feb. 23 at a storefront space in Historic Third Ward on 329 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.
This month Alex Hoffmann and Jessica L. Sosnoski debut Pure Enough to Drink—an original drama of addiction and redemption set in Milwaukee. Kerric Stephens is endearingly flawed as Alex— a successful businessman suffering from alcoholism which is mirrored in his son’s heroin addiction. Markaz Q. Davis is toweringly aggressive as his nihilistic, self-destructive son names Shay. Kellie Wambold cuts a very composed figure as Alex’s wife Judy. Wambold is the picture of exhausted poise trying desperately to keep it all together.
The drama plays out in percussive aggression. Anger thrashes out in restless shouting. The drama starts at a very high intensity and maintains without much more than an intermission for break. It can be kind of breathtaking at times.
The constant intensity of the tension causes characters tend to consist entirely of the substance of their conflicts. The audience doesn’t get much of a chance to see what might have held husband to wife to son. The characters ARE allowed some life outside all of the anger and shouting, but the aggression and frustration in the drama are overpowering.
Amidst the intensity there is a varied spectrum of aggression. Things get particularly physically brutal when Alex enters Huber. The brawl choreography amidst convicts feels remarkably brutal and authentic on such a small stage, but the emotional edge of the aggression feels every bit as powerful as Stephens and Wambold tangle through a complex emotional dynamic of husband and wife dealing with father and son in the grips of addiction.
The plot gains complexity as Alex deals with life in incarceration. Alex deals with oppression from a bully with clever sympathy. Things get complicated for Alex when a friendship with the fellow inmate leads to an offer to have the gang kill his son’s dealer. Alex’s pacifism is out to the test in a conflict that becomes a defining moment in the drama.
The drama spends a great deal of its time in Huber with the convicts. Some of the most interesting moments in the drama happen amidst a diverse group of prisoners. A boisterous game of Monopoly in prison is perhaps one of the single most memorable scenes in the entire drama as it feels incredibly natural with characters talking over each other in the cagey dynamics of a group of people forced to spend way too much time together.
The subtle and not-so-subtle aggression in prison forms some of the most intricate moments of the play. So much of the dialogue in the script fits the confrontational energy of the plot. The overall plot are being covered in the drama is not a clean and easy sweep from beginning to end. Reflecting life as it does, and the pacing is uneven and there aren’t any easy answers.
The script stops short of discussing greater problems with the US prison system and a country with the highest rate of incarceration as well as issues involving the political aspects of substance-abuse and prohibition of illicit drug use. All of the bigger political issues are safe we avoided in favor of working at the human element and its rawest emotional form. It’s a deeper gaze into the abyss of emotional complications of addiction and recovery from a deeply human angle. It’s ugly. it’s uneven. It’s every bit is ragged around the edges as the life it seeks to reflect.
The Company of Strangers’ Pure Enough to Drink runs through Feb. 9 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit The Company of Strangers online.
Clearing-up racial tensions in the U.S. should be easy. We should be able to look around and identify that we’re all essentially the same in a tiny, dangerous world in the big, scary vacuum of the universe. We should acknowledge our past and get on with the complex nature of survival in a precarious socio-economic world with an environment on the brink of collapse. We should realize that there’s a hell of a lot of work to do. We should realize that we need to grow-up if we’re going to survive. We live in an intellectual world that’s a lot more complicated than that, though. Playwright Dominique Morisseau’s Blood at the Root explores the complexity of racial relations in the U.S. with a cleverly-constructed script that reaches into a big, messy issue with a tender scalpel. Marti Gobel directs a sharp production of the drama for Next Act Theatre this month.
Chantae Miller makes a vulnerably heroic appearance as Raylynn--the first African-American student to run for class president at a small school in Louisiana. She challenges unwritten norms by hanging out beneath an old tree near the school that has been the exclusive domain of white students. Tensions flare when the action evidently provokes a few foreboding nooses to appear on the tree in an act the school principal dismisses as a prank.
Gobel applies a deft hand to a very intricate script. It’s far too easy to think in simplistic terms of Good vs. Evil when dealing with racial tensions in the U.S. It’s far too easy to stage a drama in and around a high school that features the time-worn two-dimensional archetypes that litter so mean teen exploitation comedies and dramas in TV and pop cinema. The archetypes can make for decent drama, but they don’t do justice to the true complexities of modern society. Morisseau recognizes the sophisticated complexities of high school students, allowing the drama to reach a striking emotional depth not often seen in pop drama on any flat, glowing screen.
Miller is joined by a thoughtful, talented ensemble. Justin Lee has a charmingly relatable gravity about him in the role of De’Andre, who plays in the school’s football team. Ibraheem Farmer cleverly encumbers himself with a lightly brooding pragmatism as Justin--editor of the school newspaper. Justin runs into some occupational friction with student journalist Toria, played with passion tempered with a smartly muted intellectual frustration by Grace DeWolff. Cultural complexities are vividly brought into the ensemble by April Paul, who plays Asha: a white student who only feels at home in African-American culture. Paul has shown great versatility in a number of productions. Here she disappears into a captivating role around the edges of a very interesting ensemble. Casey Hoekstra compellingly rounds out the cast as a high school quarterback who has transferred-in from another school. His admiration for Raylynn adds another level of depth to an already complicated script. Hoekstra’s naturalistically composed presence keeps the added layer of complexity from feeling too extraneous to be explored in an already dense script.
The action of the scenes is fused together by dance that’s been engagingly choreographed by Alicia Rice to powerful music composed by Kemet Gobel. It’s doubtlessly difficult to find the right movements for six people to fill a small stage dominated by a rather large tree, but Rice makes it work. Scenic/lighting designer Jason Fassl’s huge, imposing rope-covered tree is beautifully ominous, but it poses interesting challenges to movement in and around the stage in the very concrete and earthbound reality of an American high school. As the show’s movement director Marti Gobel has found a way to make the small space onstage feel big enough to hold the tense drama of a very satisfying script.
Next Act’s production of Blood at the Root runs through Feb. 24 at Next Act’s space on 255 S. Water St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Next Act Online or call 414-278-0765.
Renaissance Theaterworks explores the life of a pioneering chemist as it presents Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51–the story of Dr. Rosalind Franklin. A driven explorer of the microscopic world of overlapping patterns is brought to the stage by the stunning energy of Cassandra Bissell.
Bissell plays a woman working on a male-dominated field. University authority pushes her in the direction of examining DNA in a lab shared with Dr. Wilkins. She’s understandably upset about this as she had expected to be working alone at the head of her own lab. Neil Brookshire is boldly fragile as Dr. Franklin's unexpected colleague Dr. Wilkins. Wilkins and Franklin get off on the wrong foot. Initial impressions echo into future engagements and before long the two are drawn into a race to discover the double helix. Their major competitors are a couple of guys at another university named Watson and Crick played with style and determination by Nick Narcisi and Trevor Rees. Narcisi plays reckless intellectual energy and enthusiasm that is tempered by the more reserved Rees. The two balance each other out in an active dynamic that is contrasted against the many obstacles (social, institutional and otherwise) between Dr. Franklin and Dr. Wilkins. Director Suzan Fete's sharp staging allows the inevitability of Watson and Crick's success to feel as heartbreaking as Franklin and Wilkins' lack thereof.
All of the action is seen through the assistance of Josh Krause in the role of Ray Gosling a PhD student working under the supervision of Dr. Franklin. His is an earthbound perspective with which to contrast the rest of the cast which is largely consistent of people who are very, very serious about very, very complex work. Gosling is shadows of the rest of us: the people who look on at those who are eternally driven to that next big discovery beyond the towering shroud of the next great mystery. Krause has no problem channeling the warmth necessary to bring the world of these intellect down to earth. Joe Picchetti rounds out the cast as American Structural Biologist Don Caspar: a charming gentleman who has fallen in love with Franklin from a distance through her work. Things get understandably more complicated as he comes to work alongside her.
Ziegler fuses the characters around each other in reflection on the life of Franklin. Dr. Franklin's colleagues speak to each other and in bits of monologue. They talk about her also to each other in the past tense as scenes from key points in her life pace through the life of a truly fascinating person. Dr. Franklin herself doesn't spend much time addressing the audience directly. She’s too lost in her work to focus much of her attention on any of the other characters either...or even her own health. There is far too much work to do for any of that. By the end of the play, the audience has finally arrived where Franklin's colleagues began: with a sense of deep appreciation for a remarkable person. The ending feels all too sudden...even if we WERE anticipating it the whole time.
Cassandra Bissell is such a marvelously strong lead as an intellectual hero. In recent memory Bissell played Sherlock Holmes with the Peninsula Players. There was a fierce and exhilarating determination about her performance there which is echoed here in yet another grippingly fierce intellect. Holmes and Dr. Franklin are completely different people, but on a raw-visceral level, Bissell’s performance here is nearly identical to her performance as Holmes in Door County this past July. I'm exceedingly okay with this. Bissell is just so endlessly cool in this kind of role. I would gladly watch her as the central intellect in a stage drama 4 times a year and never find it anything other than charming. She’s a delight even for those in an audience who might not have a terribly firm grasp of the significance of what's being covered in the show. Much of the drama around the edges might feel a bit too "sciency" for all audiences, but Bissell's appeal is universal and totally magnetic.
Renaissance Theaterworks' production of Photograph 51 runs through February 10th at The Broadway Theatre Center on 158 N. Broadway. For ticket reservations and more, visit Renaissance Theaterworks online.
You can trust Milwaukee Opera Theatre. They know what they’re doing. You don’t have to know anything about opera. You don’t even have to look a the title of the show. Just buy a ticket, find a seat and let the show start. MOT’s Jill Anna Ponasik has mastered the art of bringing together an impressive array of cleverly disparate elements that tap into the talents of so many different people without compromising the integrity of the composition of that which she’s bringing to the stage. This weekend, Ponasik opens a production of Zie Magic Flure that lives-up to Ponasik’s reputation. For the produciton, Ponasik collaborates with talented local theatrical visionary Brian Rott of Quasi Mondo Physical Theatre and Cadance Collective is staged in the round at a gorgeous space in the Historic Tripoli Shrine Center with a playfully modern English adaptation by Daniel J. Brylow.
A prince and a bird catcher find love with a princess and an illusive love in a mythical world between the sun and the moon which is brought into a hypnotically detailed performance space. There’s a rich visual diversity at work. A plushy triceratops and a menagerie of other puppets (including a giant dragon) exist in a world of disco balls, crushingly beautiful Wagnerian warrior ladies, birds cast about the sky on fishing rods and so much more. The Prince falls in love with the princess having only seen her image in View-Master®. Even THAT seems to makes sense stylistically. Ponasik and company fill every corner of the space. Look closely and you’ll see the unmistakable Zachary Dean silently watching it all from a balcony...a bearded inverted homage to Raphael’s cherubim in a powdered wig. It’s a clever visual signature that adds to the spectacle of a truly captivating show that cleverly packs so much into such a small space.
Sitting down to write a review of the show I feel a bit like a barker in front of a circus tent:
"Come into the round folks and don’t be shy. Witness love conquering all in a tale of magic and mystery breathtakingly brought to the stage with the music of a legend. You will see shadow puppets...a plush menagerie so diverse as to include a playful triceratops. You will see opera on roller skates gliding an arc of passion around the heart of comedy. You will see a valiant hero armed only with a flute staring down a massive dragon. You will even see Mark Corkins...in a fez!"
At the heart of it all are some impressive performances. Corkins commands wisdom and authority in the role of the sorcerer Sarasto--arch-enemy of the Queen of the Night, played by Sarah Richardson. Richardson delivers brilliantly on the challenging Der Hölle Rache...probably the single most recognizable piece of music from the opera. (One of the most recognizable arias ever written.) Benjamin Ludwig is suitably charismatic as the hero Prince Tamino who falls deeply in love with princess Pamina, charmingly played by Lydia Rose Eiche. Comedy is capably brought to the foreground Nathan Wesselowski as the bird catcher Papageno.
Much of Ponasik and Rott's success with the show lies in giving every person working on the project their own little corner of the double-tiered circle to play with. Jessi Miler, Jenni Reinke, Andrew Parchman and the physical theatre types from Quasi Mondo bounce and bound around the edges of everything as spirits in 18th century attire and powdered wigs. Their presence amplifies the intensity of the emotions circulating around the production. Anja Sieger’s shadow puppets deliver the backstory and set the mood with a simple overhead projector on a white banner that vanishes into the balcony the moment its movement ends. Christal Wagner glides around swiftly on roller skates as the illusive Papagena and it fits perfectly in with everything else even though she's the only one in the entire cast on wheels.
A dizzying array of different elements roll around a circular stage so cozy and intimate that it feels like everything could easily come crashing into everything else. It all runs so smoothly, though. There’s an impressively playful stylistic balance about the show that keeps it all slicing swiftly from movement to movement in moment after moment of magic.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Quasimondo Phyiscal Theatre and Cadance Collective’s production of Zie Magic Flute runs through Jan. 27 at the Triploi Shrine Center on 3000 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.
The musical adaptation of Fellini's 8 1/2 makes it to Elm Grove this month courtesy of Theater RED. In honor of the acclaimed movie that inspired the musical, Theatre RED's Marcee Doherty-Elst and Director Eric Welch answered 8 1/2 questions about the upcoming production.
1: How did the idea for staging NINE come about? What drew you to the story?
Eric: It came around when Marcee Doherty-Elst and I decided to watch the movie after I had told her how great the musical was. We watched it and immediately thought that this would be a perfect show to put on here in Milwaukee. It hadn’t been done in a really long time and there are LOTS of roles for women. The music is so beautiful and I think that’s what really drove me but the characters are very relatable for an audience.
Marcee: NINE was Eric’s idea completely! He and I have a big stack of movies queued up and NINE was on it and we watched it one night, as I had never seen it (also, I’ve never seen the stage production, but did know some of the more well-known musical numbers from the show). Eric really loves the music in NINE and even though the movie is quite different from the stage production, he really wanted me to see it. It’s not a show that is done very often and I was also drawn to the many female characters in the story.
At Theater RED we had been in discussions about the possibility of adding musicals to our seasons, following the success of A CHORUS LINE with Milwaukee Opera Theatre and our own love of seeing musical theater. We had also been talking about adding additional personnel to Theater RED as more permanent fixtures, so those 2 ideas sort of came together nicely at the same time was we were co-producing I’LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS with Eric Welch. He’s been an HonoRED collaborator with Theater RED for some time now, as our resident Hair and Make Up Artist and he expressed a desire to join the production team, so it felt like a great opportunity to take that leap and when we did, Eric knew that NINE was the perfect musical for Theater RED with so many roles for women and his unique vision for how the story could be told with only 9 female performers in NINE. See what he did there? He really saw it as an intimate and up-close examination of Guido at this time of crisis in his life and wanted to do it in a film noir style on stage, stripped down with the beauty of the music, powerful storytelling by a talented cast, and a single grand piano (ivories tickled expertly by Chris Wszalek).
For me, I was interested in hearing from these women in Guido’s life and was excited to realize Eric’s vision that really puts the emphasis on them. As Maury Yeston himself said, “The great secret of NINE is that it took “8 ½” and became an essay on the power of women by answering the question, ‘What are women to men?’ And NINE tells you: they are our mothers, our sisters, our teachers, our temptresses, our judges, our nurses, our wives, our mistresses, our muses.”
2: NINE is a staged musical that was based on a movie that also became a movie. What sources do you find most inspiring in drawing from sources for the show?
Eric: The musical itself is wonderful. Truthfully, I’ve never seen 8 1/2, which the musical is based off of, and I do intend on watching it, but I don’t want it to influence me in any ways with how I’m directing this musical. I have seen the musical movie, which is very different from the stage production. Reading the script, I felt like it was such a powerful story. One that could stand on its own without a heavy set and costumes. I’m trying to make this show very film noir, which seems fitting.
I want to show an adaptation of an adaptation, which we think Fellini would be in favor of. Yeston said the movie “8 ½” had a certain impact on him, and it was NINE the musical that had a similar impact on me. I’m interested in the concept at play here of adaption and moving forward from works as they affect us.
Marcee: I’ve never seen the musical, but have listened to the music – it is beautiful (and complicated!). I’ve seen the movie version with Daniel Day Lewis and I enjoyed it, but it is very different from the musical. I also recently watched “8 1/2)” as part of my preparation for rehearsal this week and it was interesting to see the film that so heavily influenced Yeston and see what parts resonated with him and made their way into NINE. Eric’s vision is very different from any of these 3 in that he is stripping the production down artistically to black boxes, hand painted banners, and lighting with a film noir feel. Being done in black and grays, color will be important in signifying moments, characters, or other important shifts in the story and will be used sparingly for effect. I think the choreographer, Ashley Patin, has drawn inspiration from aspects of the movie but like Eric, she is looking to put a fresh and modern spin on it by emphasizing the women and their stories and the music. For me, I often avoid watching movies or seeing shows if I know I’m about to portray a character in a movie or musical because as an Actor, I like to put my own interpretation of the character forward and avoid influence by how it’s been done in the past. That’s not always possible – some characters are just too iconic!
3: I’m familiar with the musical, but the full reality of the ensemble didn’t become totally clear until I saw that cast list. It really is a whole bunch of women and just one guy. What was the casting process like for this show?
Eric: The show is supposed to be almost a cast of 30 people. One man and the rest women. I decided to merge the ensemble with the main characters to keep the cast smaller. Going in, I had some ideas of what people I wanted to see for some of the characters. I held invited auditions and was able to cast the show that way. I had asked about two to three people per character to come in. It’s such a music heavy show that I had to think carefully on casting with such a short rehearsal process.
Marcee: Eric knew he wanted a smaller cast than what is traditionally done for this musical and in Theater RED’s production, the principals are also the ensemble. The Actors sing ensemble for every song that they are not singing solos in – it is a lot of music to learn and cover with a lot of tricky harmonies, but it is beautiful music and we have a cast of solid singers with a great deal of talent and experience – they are up for the challenge! We started with a pool of Actors who have auditioned for Theater RED before or that have expressed an interest in auditioning and looked at the requirements of the various characters, especially knowing that some dance would be involved and every single actor would be required to learn a lot of difficult music. The characters are onstage nearly the entire time in our version. Auditions were held and the show was cast based on the alchemy of Actors and how well they fit into the overall fabric of the show and its needs. Also, given that we have a very compressed rehearsal period, we needed to cast actors who could arrive having prepared their music, dialogue, and characters and we weren’t able to accommodate as many conflicts as longer rehearsing productions can sometimes absorb.
4: There is quite a lot of talent in the cast. I would imagine a cast with the level of experience makes for a wide array of different possible decisions to be made on staging during rehearsal. What have rehearsals been like?
Eric: We haven’t even started rehearsals yet. We start January 7th. Just from the auditions, I knew this cast would be able to pull this show off and I’m so excited to get started and see what they bring to the table. I know that each of these actors are fully capable of putting on an amazing performance.
Marcee: We actually haven’t started rehearsals as a group at the time of this writing! We had a cast read-through and Actors have done individual music work with the Music Director, Lydia Rose Eiche. Some Actors have had individual choreography rehearsals with the Choreographer, Ashley Patin, as well. We all come together officially to start rehearsing on January 7th, so depending on when this run, we will have had a limited number of rehearsals. When casting, we were looking for Actors we knew could arrived prepared so that we are spending time in rehearsal crafting the scenes and putting everything together versus teaching music or drilling lines – folks have to arrive prepared on Day 1 to be on their feet and off-book. I think rehearsals will be very exciting – it is one thing to learn your music by yourself, but quite another to layer all the harmonies together or get to interact with your scene partners with dialogue or dance instead of running those sings solo at home in preparation. I think because the cast is experienced and talented, we have the ability to do this and have a compressed rehearsal period for a show of this magnitude. No doubt about it that we can rely on the talent we have here to jump start rehearsals ahead of “square one”!
5: There are some really strong women in the story. But on one level this is really just a large group of women orbiting around one guy. How do you keep the dramatic dynamic balanced-out between the entire ensemble?
Eric: The plot very much follows Guido, yes. But the story is all about the women and their relation to Guido. The women are telling their stories and kind of run the show. It’s interesting to watch this show as Guido is a bit unlikeable at times and you find yourself really rooting for the women.
Marcee: This question is a great one because that is one thing we talked about as far as NINE and Theater RED’s founding principles. We look for shows that have substantial roles for women, and we often clarify that we mean roles of substance, not just leading female roles that center on a man. And here with NINE, the story does center on Guido Contini, so we talked at length about how we feel that guiding principle plays out. What kept coming to the forefront in our discussions was the importance and influence of these women in his life and their voices. It’s really powerful when you look across the many women in his life and see their hold on him, past, present, or even future. What is wonderful about this production and Eric’s vision is that by telling the story with 9 women who represent many characters in Guido’s life, you get a highly concentrated and personal connection with each of them – their voices are not diluted across a large cast and ensemble. The principals are also part of the ensemble fabric of Guido’s life and the women step in and out of ensemble to make their voice and story heard or fade back into the larger landscape of his life and current crisis. Each of the 9 women get her moment to shine (or 2 or 3) and I think that will really present NINE as an ensemble piece and strengthen the collective impact of the women in Guido’s life and how they have shaped his road to his current state and how they will help him move past it.
6: The studio theatre space at Sunset Playhouse poses all kinds of interesting challenges for a production. If used in the wrong way, it can feel like a conference room in a hotel, but I’ve seen some really inspiringly moody shows there. It’s such a blank slate. You have a lot of freedom to choose your own layout. How is the space being used for NINE?
Eric: We are having it set up in a cabaret setting. Audiences will be seated at tables and enjoying the show that way. I’ve decided to use minimal props and sets for the show as the most important elements in this show is the music and the story. We are painting portraits of each of the actors that will be hung up for the set. They are turning out great!
Marcee: It is kind of interesting to note that Theater RED’s very first production was at the Studio Theater at Sunset Playhouse, so in a way it feels like a homecoming! There have been some updates to the room since then and I believe we may be the first group performing on the new stage they will have in the room! As an itinerant theater company, we have performing in a number of spaces, including theaters of varying sizes and a ballroom in a hotel! The room will be set up cabaret style with seating at tables and the Actors will move through the entire space. We think this will help us create that intimate connection with the audience that we are aiming for and really bring this story up-close to them in a way that they may not have experienced before, even if they have seen the musical done on stage. The stage itself will have minimal dressing. We are using black cubes and painted banners and backdrops (by Andrea Klohn with images taken of the cast by Traveling Lemur Productions). The concept is very film noir and intentionally minimal so the music and storytelling are the feature. Props are minimal and there are no costume changes.
7: There’s a classy stylishness in promotional materials for the production. How does that stylishness translate to the stage for the show itself?
Eric: Like I had mentioned before, we’re going for a film noir feel. Everything will be in black, white and grey. There will be color with special lighting. I want to keep this show feeling very dramatic as Guido, our central character, is going through a midlife crisis. And it seems also fitting because Guido is a film director.
Marcee: Traveling Lemur Productions did a fantastic job with the promotional photography and Eric Welch hit hair and makeup out of the park, as always (insider scoop: every female character is wigged in the show). And Briana Rose Lipor’s costumes are spot on for each character and how Eric wants to represent them to the audience. Theater RED and Eric have worked with Nate and Maria of Traveling Lemur a lot, so we work really well together. Eric shared his film noir vision and talked about the concept and it really was them, along with Christopher Elst (co-founder and Producing Director of Theater RED), that packaged that together into the look and feel that you see today! Each character has their own single-word descriptor printed on individual promotional business cards and we believe that adds to the intrigue of the show!
PS – Never would I ever have thought that I would be handing out business cards with my photo on them that simply said “Prostitute” on them (show information is on the other side, but still!). Quite the holiday conversation-starter!
8: There’s a Facebook post from December 19th. Eric Welch and Tim Albrechtson both working on a very, very large painting for the production. What’s it like working that closely on a set for a show that you’re also directing?
Eric: I love it. I love being involved in every aspect. I’m really able to see my vision coming to life working that closely with the designers and crew. They are all doing such an amazing job. Putting on a show is a team effort and I’m helping in every way I can.
Marcee: Using Traveling Lemur’s individual character photographs, Scenic Designer Andrea Klohn is paining individual character banners that will dress the Studio Theater space and flank both sides of the stage. She is also paining a series of banners that will serve as the backdrop. We are using banners versus single backdrops for artistic reasons, one of them I won’t spoil for you here (you’ll have to come see the show)! But, for example, the broken visual of banners represents Guido’s broken spirit and the many pieces of his life that are falling apart. The banners are being hand painted (beautifully) by her and a number of friends are pitching in to help out (so far, Eric Welch, Tim Albrechtson, and Marcee Doherty-Elst have all helped Andrea paint, but we’re still painting so I’m sure more will be added to this list).
Fun “you heard it here first” tidbit: the banners are also being used as a semi-fundraiser for the show itself to allow friends, fans, and family to Sponsor a Character! For a $100 donation you can Sponsor one of the characters and take the hand-painted banner home with you after the show closes! It’s a great way to own a 1-of-a-kind piece of the production and support Theater RED! Only 1 sponsorship per character is available, so interested parties should let us know! We’ll be sharing details on social media soon!
For me, this is the norm and not the exception. As a small theater company, I’m used to wearing lots of hats. Producer, Actor, Media/PR/Communication, Props, Paining, Costumes, Wardrobe, etc. – the list goes on and on. For Eric and Christopher, the same is true! Eric is directing, helping to paint, performing producer duties as Theater RED’s Artistic Associate, styling and designing wigs, hair, and make up, etc. and Christopher is doing sound design, web, graphic design, performing producer duties, handling violence, etc. Many people would describe me as a “Type A” personality who has a hard time delegating and gets involved in details anyways, so even if I wasn’t forced to wear so many hats, I’d probably still be overly involved in many of the aspects of the production. As a small company, it’s something you often have to do and then it becomes something that is hard to let go of …
8-1/2: How would you … ?
Marcee: How would you...“be Italian” in January? To which I’d answer, join us for NINE the musical at Sunset Playhouse’s Studio Theater January 25, 26, and 27th! Savor a beverage while you sit back in our comfortable and intimate cabaret seating and enjoy the show!
For ticket reservations and more, visit Theater RED online.
So often theatre wants to be dazzling. It wants to stun with emotional pyrotechnics, jaw-dropping music, dance numbers and big paroxysms of splashiness. Theatre doesn’t often give itself enough time to just...silently breathe onstage. When a show like You Got Older comes along, it can feel refreshingly silent. The comic drama of a young woman going back home to be with her father lives in moments just outside the hope and tragedy of everyday human existence. Characters rest on the edge of drama reflecting on it all. The place between the major events in life doesn’t often get its time onstage. It’s a place that the small, intimate stage of the Underground Collaborative is perfect for. It’s a place that Outskirts Theatre Co. brings to the stage with charming emotional energy.
Emmaline Friederichs is heartbreakingly human in the role of Mae--a woman between jobs who has returned to her hometown for a little bit of downtime between major chapters in her life. Greg Ryan delivers one of his best performances in recent memory as Mae’s father. Ryan resides quite comfortably in the still serenity of a widower playing host to his adult daughter. Moments between Friederichs and Ryan electrify in silent wistful moments occasionally punctuated by the slow movements of a plot that is steadily pacing forward.
Maddi Conway makes a haunting directorial debut with You Got Older. Playwright Clare Barron’s script plays with delicate moments that would be all too easy to overwhelm with overpowering staging. Fantasy scenes between Mae and a rugged imaginary cowboy (played with muted nuance by Rob Schreiner) could have easily bleed into a cheesy soft core porn tackiness. Conway has fostered an environment for Schreiner and Friederichs that lends Mae’s fantasy life a captivating depth.
Eddie Curran adds to the comic stillness of the show as Mac--an old schoolmate who Mae runs into at a bar. There’s kind of a soulful cluelessness about the character that might have read as one-dimensional stupidity. In Curran’s hands, Mac is sympathetic. He’s restless and distracted as someone who never quite left home. Curran shines flashes of charm around the periphery of a character who is frustratingly close to being someone Mae could actually connect-up with on a meaningful level. Some of the most brilliantly awkward comedy rest in the silence between moments between Curran and Friederichs.
Conway shows considerable talent for the challenges of a bigger ensemble scene deep into the play as Mae and her siblings visit their father in the hospital. Amidst conventions of staged drama it can be easy to forget how much work we’re doing as an audience bridging that conceptual gap the makes a group of actors feel like a family onstage. Familiarity, particularly among siblings is very, very difficult to fake. I don’t know what Conway did to bring the cast together, but whatever she did...worked.
Part of the work is done by really a naturalistic script by Barron. The dialogue sounds like a group of people who have known each other their entire lives. Part of that naturalism comes from a really talented cast that has been allowed to develop a distinct personality for each of the characters without exaggeration. There's a very organic dynamic in the ensemble. Ava Bush is emotionally resonant as Mae’s sister Jenny who is happy to be there with everyone but really has somewhere else to be. Teddi Jules Gardener plays her brother Matthew as someone who wants to be okay visiting his ill father. Francesca Steitz has her own momentum the nutritionally-conscious sibling who brought food to the hospital. Everyone has very distinctive wit in one of the most memorable scenes in a very satisfying show.
Outskirts Theatre Co.’s production of You Got Older runs through Jan. 20 at The Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit the show’s Facebook events page.
This month The Greendale Community Theatre stages an aesthetically enticing production of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago. The classic musical sensually comes to life in shadow and light, line and form without a hint of the superfluous exaggeration that so often encumbers classic musicals. Lighting Designer Ryan Barry’s photons caress a potently iconic visual world that includes impressively textured costumes by Jess Liebherr. Director Brian Bzdawka assembles the story with brisk pacing and a very sharp execution.
Amber Smith vamps it up into full diva mode as the jailbird celebrity Velma. There is an elegantly sculpted, high-density power radiating from her. Smith wields her voice with expert precision in a range of moods. Smith has quite a range and she allows it to be seen here in a spectrum of different moods. She explosively delivers passionate musical passion. She delicately hints at comic bits of dialogue and clever silences.
Grace Yeager plays with different energies as the newly imprisoned murderer Roxy. Yeager has a sweet softness around the edges of her voice and stage presence. She seems smartly aware of the fact that a little bit of that soft sweetness goes along way. The character is crude and brutal and kind of ugly on the inside. Yeager allows those qualities to rest in the forefront of the character while allowing the dazzling appealing nature of the character’s presence to lounge seductively around the edges of her performance.
Kassandra Novell has a classy authority about her in the role of prison matriarch Mama. All of the power in the dramatic dynamic of the plane needs to run through her initially. It does so by virtue of the fact that she is simply there. To her credit, Novell never reaches too far attain a sense of mastery over everything. Novell has a sense of mastery over everything that requires no overt show of menace or force. Novell's is a very strong presence onstage.
George Marn plays Billy— in this case a young highly-paid lawyer. Marin has the feeling of a finally sculpted model about him. His precision in the role feels less like a product of experience and more like a product of raw radiant talent mixed with a fair bit of luck. The youthful energy that Marn lends Billy is reflected in a similarly young ensemble.
There’s no excessive essence of inexperience about the men and women of the background. Shadows and tight black fabrics slide around with skin and muscle in shifting colors slicing into the darkness through thin columns of vertical light. All the form and execution feel very crisp and thanks no doubt in no small part to the work of choreographer Stephanie Staszak. Her work and the effort of the entire ensemble deliver a really solid evening of musical theater to the stage which is a sensual and beautiful even when things get ugly in a captivating story of murder, need and desperation.
Greendale Community Theatre’s staging of Chicago runs through January 19th at the Henry Ross Auditorium inside Greendale High School on 6801 Southway in Greendale. For ticket reservations and more, visit Greendale Community Theatre online.