Cabaret Milwaukee’s unique blend of crime drama, history and music materializes from the ether once more this month for the first live episode of a new trilogy as it presents Cream City Crime Syndicate: Politics & Anarchy. Marcus Beyer returns as golden age radio host Richard Howling of the Howling Radio Hour. The variety show includes music, drama, comedy and the 32nd mayor of Milwaukee as an impressively compelling hero. The ensemble assembled by writer/producer Josh B. Bryan for the first part of the new Cabaret Milwaukee season seems particularly well-developed in this first part of a new trilogy.
Beyer opens the show with a smooth voice straight out of the early days of radio. His cool presence is a remarkably vivid centerpiece to the rest of the variety. The first act he introduces is Cameron Webb. Accompanied by Maggie Deagan, the jazzy soulful singer opens the show with “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” He comes around after intermission for a classy glide through “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” Hayley San Fillippo and Sarah Therese continue to charm in old-timey commercial vocals as the Howling Jinglers, accompanied by Michelle White.
The central drama is written by David Law, who also wrote Cabaret Milwaukee’s Clockwork Man series. It’s a clever fusion between history and crime/suspense drama that frames Mayor Daniel Hoan as the central hero in a political drama with themes which hauntingly echo into current events. Max Williamson plays Hoan as a cool, charismatic figure who heroically steps into a great deal of danger in order to serve the people. Rob Schreiner plays to the rough and tumble action hero archetype as a hard drinking Milwaukee cop who finds himself drawn into the dangerous life of the mayor. Williamson’s heroism as a politician genuinely trying to bring everyone together contrasts well against Schreiner’s gritty selflessly self-destructive action heroism. Without irony Willaimson and Schreiner play to an ideal of public service...those willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. It's a refreshing fantasy.
Also making notable appearances around the edges of the ensemble are a couple of talented guys better known for their work with Shakespeare RAW. Stephen M. Wolterstorff lends both weight and levity to the stage as Hoan’s assistant. Jim Donaldson plays to a more volatile energy in his appearance. The more aggressive darkness of the drama comes in the form of Connor Blankenship as a sinister political figure named Wheeler Bloodgood. He’s accompanied by a couple of ragged accomplices played with a pulpy sense of villainy by Michelle Paura and Nicole Allee.
Though it's clearly drawn for a vintage radio style of entertainment Law’s script highlights aspects of the early days of Hoan that mirror some of what’s going on today. Bryan’s work amplifies that in the world of the variety show beyond the radio play. History has a very frustrating way of repeating itself which comes across much better here than it has in previous outings with Cabaret Milwaukee. As “Mrs. Millie,” seriously funny actress/comedy writer Laura Holterman slices into the frustration of this with a very sharp bit of satire that conjures shadow precursors to Hollywood predators like Harvey Weinstein. Some of the best comedy comes from frustration and there's nothing more frustrating than watching the same mistakes made over and over again throughout history. Holterman, Bryan and Wallsich (who wrote sketches for the Holing Jinglers) cleverly tap into the comedy of that fraustration. Joined by Michelle White as Billie, Holterman discusses US immigration policies of Herbert Hoover which hauntingly echo those of the current administration. With clever precision Holterman and White help to bring together the fusion of comedy and history in a show that glides along quite swiftly from beginning to end.
Cabaret Milwaukee’s Cream City Crime Syndicate: Politics & Anarchy runs through Nov. 22 at the Hotel Astor on 924 E. Juneau Ave. For more information, visit the show’s Facebook site.