Milwaukee’s theater companies take to the boards this season with a staggeringly wide range of productions. From the largest venues to the smallest, the city’s theater companies have something on the schedule for audiences of all stripes.
Mark Clements, artistic director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, begins his seventh season with a one-two punch of a timeless jazz piece and a musical theater classic.
Author Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill chronicles one of the last performances of jazz legend Billie Holiday, featuring some of the songs that made her famous, including “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” The show runs Sept. 9–Oct. 30 in the Stackner Cabaret. There will be an Out-n-About LGBT Night at the Oct. 12 performance.
Also on tap for the Stackner this season: Irving Berlin’s I Love a Piano (Nov. 4–Jan. 15); author Dick Enberg’s McGuire, about legendary Marquette University basketball coach Al McGuire (Jan. 20–March 19); and the return of Frank Ferrante in An Evening with Groucho (March 24–May 28.)
The Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre opens its season with Man of La Mancha, the Tony Award-winning musical about misguided errant knight Don Quixote and his noble quest and love for the “kitchen slut” Aldonza/Dulcinea. The show, which features the song “The Impossible Dream,” runs Sept. 20–Oct. 30. Man of La Mancha also has an Out-n-About LGBT Night scheduled for Sept. 28.
This Quadracci season also presents Milwaukee author Larry Shue’s The Foreigner (Nov. 15–Dec. 18); Milwaukee native Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced (Jan. 17–Feb. 12); Tennessee Williams’ “memory play” The Glass Menagerie (March 7–April 9); and a theatrical version of Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre (April 25–May 21.)
The Rep’s Stiemke Studio fills out the bill with The Royale (Sept. 28–Nov. 6) written by Marco Ramirez, a writer for TV’s Orange is the New Black and Sons of Anarchy.
Next up is George Brant’s Grounded (Feb. 22–April 2), about an F16 fighter pilot whose unexpected pregnancy leads to her grounding.
Finally, Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim and all those troublesome ghosts reappear once again in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The annual holiday haunt, as always, plays on the historic Pabst Theater stage (Nov. 29–Dec. 24).
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater complex is at 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. The Pabst Theater is adjacent to the Rep at 144 E. Wells St. 414-224-9490; milwaukeerep.com
NEXT ACT THEATRE
Politics is in this fall, which might explain why Next Act Theatre starts its new season with Lauren Gunderson’s The Taming (Sept. 29–Oct. 23). Miss Georgia has more than just the Miss America contest on her mind in this play. She and a group of female friends hatch a hilarious plan to give the U.S. government a makeover.
The season continues with unSilent Night (Nov. 17–Dec. 11), author John Kishline’s suspenseful holiday tale of a Milwaukee radio DJ who, on Christmas Eve of 1953, finds himself faced with an unusual latenight guest — a troubled intruder in search of redemption.
Next Act starts the new year with Sharr White’s The Other Place (Feb. 2–26), a psychological and emotional thriller in which a medical researcher finds herself adrift among family and professional peers without knowing whom to trust.
The season ends with the Milwaukee premiere of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday (April 6–30), an Irish time travel love story — there aren’t many of those — that blends wit, humor and heartache in a familiar tale about the one who got away.
Next Act Theatre is located at 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. 414-278-0765; nextact.org
MILWAUKEE CHAMBER THEATRE
The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre got its season off to an early start on Aug. 11 with Christopher Durang’s Tony Award-winning comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. But there’s much more in store from artistic director C. Michael Wright and his crew.
Leda Hoffmann directs A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (Sept. 21–Oct. 16), a rarely produced Tennessee Williams drama that looks at the comic side of heartbreak.
The rest of MCT’s season includes Kenneth Lonergan’s Lobby Hero (Nov. 23–Dec. 18); The Few, a drama by MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant awardee Samuel D. Hunter (Feb. 23–March 19); and Gale Childs Daly’s fast-paced and suspenseful adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (April 13–30).
The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre performs at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. 414-276-8842; milwaukeechambertheatre.com
OFF THE WALL
Dale Gutzman’s Off The Wall Theatre is tackling a broad range of works this season.
OTW opens with A Passage to India (Sept. 22–Oct. 2), the stage adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel exploring racial and class tensions in British-controlled India. Next up is David Ives’ Venus in Furs (Nov. 3–13), the award-winning adult drama in which the goddess appears as a sadomasochist.
OTW welcomes the holiday season with Gutzman’s own work The Last Holiday Punch! (Dec. 14–31), which is filled with music, mirth, mayhem and more than a stocking full of political incorrectness. OTW turns serious again with Women of Troy (Feb. 16–26), a new translation of the Euripides classic.
The stage brightens in the spring with The Fantasticks (April 22–30), at one time Broadway’s longest running musical and the model for many subsequent stage productions. OTW wraps it up with Titus Andronicus (June 14–25), a radical new version of Shakespeare’s early tragedy of love, loyalty, honor and family set amid a gory Roman Empire-era war.
Off the Wall Theatre is located at 127 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. 414-484-8874; offthewalltheatre.com
Renaissance Theaterworks opens its season with a taut thriller perfectly designed for the Halloween season.
The Drowning Girls (Oct. 21–Nov. 13) is a true-crime drama told from the point of view of the victims of early 20th-century serial killer George Joseph Smith. He married three women and drowned each one in the bathtub. In the play, the victims meet and share their chilling tales.
Renaissance next stages Luna Gale (Jan. 20–Feb. 12), which focuses on a social worker’s struggles to safely place an infant in a family with a shadowy past.
The season ends with The Violet Hour (April 7–30), a hilarious tale about a small-time publisher facing a big decision.
Renaissance Theaterworks performs at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. 414-291-7800; r-t-w.com
IN TANDEM THEATRE COMPANY
In Tandem Theatre Company also opens during the Halloween season, presenting Dracula vs. The Nazis, a romp that has two actors playing 20 characters in a tale of evil versus, well, more evil.
The irreverence continues with Holiday Hell: The Curse of Perry Williams (Dec. 1–Jan. 8), penned by local playwrights Anthony Wood (A Cudahy Caroler Christmas) and Mondy Carter (A Twisted Carol). In Tandem also presents its bawdy annual fundraiser The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, in which eight of Santa’s most trusted associates charge him with sexual harassment.
Things get serious with Time Stands Still (Feb. 23–March 19), a tale about two war correspondents tired of living in imminent danger. The season ends with Carnival, April 20–May 14), the musical best known for the song “Love Makes the World Go ’Round,” produced in collaboration with Milwaukee Public Theater.
In Tandem Theatre Company performs in theater space provided by Calvary Presbyterian, “The Big Red Church,” on Wisconsin Avenue, with its entrance at 628 S. 10th St., Milwaukee. 414-271-1371; intandemtheatre.org
Soulstice Theatre opens its season with Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (Sept. 23–Oct. 8), Michael Friedman’s comic rock musical about America’s seventh president and the founding of the Democratic Party. The season continues with Bess Wohl’s American Hero (Jan. 27–Feb. 11) and concludes with Copenhagen (April 29–May 14.)
Soulstice Theatre is located at 3770 S. Pennsylvania Ave., St. Francis. 414-481-2800; soulsticetheatre.com
First Stage, one of the nation’s most acclaimed children’s theaters, offers a full slate of productions starting with Goosebumps: Phantom of the Auditorium — The Musical Oct. 14–Nov. 13 at the Todd Wehr Theater in Milwaukee’s Performing Arts Center.
The season continues with Mole Hill Stories (Nov. 5–20 at First Stage’s Main Stage Hall); Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (Nov. 25–Dec. 31, Todd Wehr Theater); Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (Dec. 9–18 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center); Welcome to Bronzeville (Jan. 13–Feb. 5 at the Todd Wehr Theater); and Lovabye Dragon (Jan. 21–Feb. 19 at the FS Main Stage Hall).
The troupe also produces Robin Hood (Feb. 17–March 12 at the Todd Wehr Theater); Txt U L8r (March 10–19 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center); Mockingbird (March 24–April 9 at the Todd Wehr Theater); Julie B. Jones is Not a Crook (April 28–June 4 at the Todd Wehr Theater); and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (May 12–21 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center).
First Stage is headquartered at 325 W. Walnut St., Milwaukee. 414-267-2900; firststage.org
Theatre Gigante, the self-proclaimed “theater of big ideas,” is fresh from its Aug. 28 appearance at the Milwaukee Fringe Festival and ready for a new season.
The troupe’s upcoming performances include Mark Anderson’s Quorum (Oct. 7–15 at Plymouth Church); Gigante Reads Excerpts from Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell (Nov. 17 at the Whitefish Bay Library); David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries (Dec. 9 at Boswell Book Company); Little Bang Theory & Laugh, Clown, Laugh (March 3–4 at Kenilworth 508 Theater) and Anderson and Isabelle Kraj’s Lysistrata (April 21–29 at Alverno College’s Pitman Theater).
Theater Gigante is located at 1920 E. Kenilworth Pl., Milwaukee. 414-961-6119; theatregigante.org
Milwaukee-based Theater RED is producing the world premiere of Bonny Anne Bonny (Oct. 27–Nov. 12), a new play by Milwaukee writer Liz Shipe about the infamous female pirate captain.
For this production, Theatre Red is partnering with Wisconsin Lutheran College to provide students the opportunity to work alongside professionals. Performances are at the Raabe Theater at the WLC Center for Arts and Performances, 8815 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee. theaterred.com
Given that the legendary pianist Liberace was a Milwaukee native, the Milwaukee Repertory Theater had reason to believe local audiences would embrace its 2010 biographical cabaret performance starring local musician Jack Forbes Wilson as Mr. Showmanship himself. But Liberace! more than earned its explanation point, wowing critics and audiences alike, and it was only a matter of time before an encore hit the boards (and the ivories).
Now, four years later, Forbes Wilson is hauling out the furs and bedazzled long-tailed tuxes once again to tell the story of the native Milwaukeean who was once the highest paid entertainer in the world.
WiG spoke to Forbes Wilson about the origins of the show and how he manages so convincingly to embody Liberace’s unique persona.
How did the Rep decide to produce Liberace!? Did director Brent Hazelton have you in mind for the role from the start? I think the answer to that is no. … They were originally going to do something (already) written, and they were going to use somebody who had done that show before, maybe even the writer. I believe it was more along the lines of what you might call a “Liberace act.” When they decided that the original production was maybe not what Milwaukee Rep wanted to do, and perhaps when he decided that was not the venue for him, I think Brent said to (artistic director) Mark Clements, “We can write this ourselves.”
Had you worked with Brent or Mark before? Brent knew who I was. Mark was brand-new; it was the spring before his first year. So he might have been called the artistic director but he hadn’t started directing plays. But he was in charge of the spring gala, and they hired me to play the piano for that. And so in fact, those rehearsals sort of became an audition.
But you’d worked at the Rep before? Yeah, in that space mostly, the Stackner Cabaret. … I’d done at least 10 shows there, I think. I would venture to say I’ve performed on that space more than anybody — in various roles, sometimes just as a pianist.
How was the rehearsal process? Was Brent working on the script simultaneously? He was. I had gotten started selecting music based on what we thought I could do and what we thought would still carry with an audience 20 years later. … But I don’t think I had the end of the script on the first day of rehearsal. And the end of the script is the hardest part, because … (he’s) dying of AIDS. And this is a man who never even admitted he was gay. That’s hard.
How does the play deal with details that the real Liberace kept private? Well, the first half is a play about that denial — actually, I wouldn’t say denial. He created such a strong role for himself, that I bet he never felt he was denying anything. It was his performance persona, and that’s who he became. It’s only when we get to the last 20 minutes of the play that something imposes itself on him, in front of this live audience, that forces him to confront that.
What changes has Brent made to the script since 2010, if any? With a play like this, sometimes just a little tiny word change can make a difference. When we went into the first rehearsal, I said, “You know, I had so much trouble with those last 20 minutes of the play. Literally, if I could add one word, and the word is ‘just.’” I thought we were going to battle on this for hours, and he said, “Oh, no problem, add your ‘just.’” To me, it makes a big difference.
How much of the show would you say is Liberace performing, versus speaking to the audience? Well, if you see it as him always performing, it’s 100 percent performance. But if you’re asking how much is music and how much is narration, I might say that 75 percent of it is music, 75 percent is narration — there’s a lot of overlap. There are times when Brent wants me to be telling a story as I’m playing. That’s something I can do with a lot of work, but that’s taken a lot of practice.
What are the elements of Liberace you absolutely have to get right in portraying him? The thing I have to get right off the bat is the piano playing. (Liberace) wasn’t all glitter and feathers. That was a big part of it, but the only reason he could do what he did was that he was phenomenally talented. My problem is I’m not phenomenally talented as a pianist. So that’s where I feel inferior. I think that’s a really important part of his story, that despite everything else, he was a great piano player.
What reason does the play give for Liberace’s return? It’s hard to know exactly why he comes back. That was part of what Brent had to struggle with. Is it just to confront some of these things that he ignored — you’ll notice I used the word “just.” That was where I needed that word. I think it is to confront some of those demons. But I think he wanted to play the piano because it was important to him — but to play the piano in a way that was sincere. If he could have made the career without all the feathers and without all the fur, and without all the jewels — that’s the question: Would he have tried to do that if he could?
Between your two productions of Liberace!, HBO unveiled its Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, a very different look at Liberace. Has that film impacted your portrayal? I never watched it; I can say that honestly. Here’s the thing: That sort of venue can do something that we can’t do, because it shows Liberace behind the scenes. That’s the name of it, Behind the Candelabra. So it can go backstage, and it can focus on private things. Which we might have been able to find a way to do, except we went for a continual interaction with the audience. That’s something that a movie can’t do. It can’t give the audience that real feeling of being at a performance. And we can.
Liberace! runs through Jan. 11 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $40, and can be purchased at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater has opened all 11 shows in their season, but still has one more offering for patrons. The annual End-of-Season Garage Sale serves as spring cleaning for the Rep’s costume, prop and production departments, but for you it’s an opportunity to take home a piece of this season’s plays, including puppets from Forever Plaid, posters from I Left My Heart, furniture from Noises Off — and more.
At the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, 108 E. Wells St.
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sat., April 19
Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man opens with a wounded Confederate soldier returning to his ancestral home after the Civil War to find his family gone and two former slaves remaining. The soldier and the now-emancipated slaves are Jewish, and they find themselves celebrating Passover in a world that has changed forever. At the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $25 and can be ordered at 414-224-9490 or milwaukeerep.com.
Sat., Feb. 8 through Sun., March 16
Music direct to your ears from the singers’ lips and from plucked strings — without electrical intervention — is crucial to the aura of naturalness that permeates Woody Sez. Amplification, if there is any for this Milwaukee Rep Stackner Cabaret revue, is so subtle as to be undetectable.
The natural sound fits as a crucial element in a show that posits Woody Guthrie, the iconic figure in American folk music, as a natural and even inevitable voice of the American masses in the first half of the 20th century.
David M. Lutken, the lanky, Texan co-creator and music director of the show, bears quite a resemblance to Guthrie. He doesn’t so much to impersonate Guthrie as represent him. Lutken drifts in and out of first and third person as he speaks Woody’s words and tells Woody’s story. Lutken also tells a little of his own story, including how he came under the spell of Guthrie’s music as a kid with his first guitar.
Lutken comes off as an easygoing Southern gentleman with a generous heart, putting the audience instantly at ease.
For the rest of this review and others by Tom Strini, visit striniwritesblogspot.com.
Woody Sez continues at The Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret through March 9. Call 414-224-9490 or visit www.milwaukeerep.com. Cast members host free hootenannies in the bar adjacent to the Stackner following each Thursday night show. Bring a guitar, banjo, fiddle or instrument of choice and join the fun.