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.