Groucho Charms Audiences at Next Act Theatre

“What shape is the world?” Groucho Marx asks of his brother Chico, who then responds: “It’s better with a brother like you.”  Milwaukee will better shape their holiday season with a trip to Next Act Theatre’s endearing production of Groucho: A Life in Revue that opened last weekend. The multi-faceted comedic ability of five Jewish boys brought up in a New York tenement relates a poignant tale of Marx brotherly love despite their family’s personality differences and life’s inevitable difficulties. 

Arthur Marx, Groucho’s son from his first marriage, and Robert Fisher wrote the books, lyrics and music in the 1986 production to critical acclaim. The script delivers the lives of the Marx Brothers, using their given nicknames, Chico, Gummo, Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo, that spans decades and includes highlights from their careers. While Groucho sustained a successful career in his later years through the television medium on You Bet Your Life, the brothers made their names in more than ten classic movies during the 1930’s and 40’s, years when people needed to laugh.

In this production, only three brothers, Groucho (Norman Moses), Chico (David Cecsariini) and Harpo (Chris Klopatek) were portrayed, along with their various women friends who influence their lives. A stunning Alexandra Bonesho easily rotates these roles. One exquisite scene places Bonesho dressed as a harp, a delightfully choreographed number, where Harpo pulls her strings (tied from arm to ankle) with loving affection.

Moses radiates Groucho’s innate, insulting humor with casual affection. The actor knows Julius “Groucho” Marx intimately, having mastered the icon numerous times in Milwaukee theaters, his musical skills front and center when singing   “Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.” When paired alongside Cecsarini playing the likeable but often less responsible, women loving Chico, the two make brotherhood seem imminently possible despite very disparate temperaments.

Klopatek’s Harpo adds significantly to the upbeat ambiance on the small Next Act Stage, wandering into the audience to position his playful antics with certain members. One can only be obliged to smile, and wonder has there ever been another wordless comedian quite like Harpo? Only by remembering the routines of Marcel Marceau, a mime that worked under the framework of another skill set. Also feature into the evening’s mix Music Director Jack Forbes Wilson, who continually mines the magic on the keyboard, especially in a wild piano duet with Chico.

Pam Kriger directs this well composed cast, including great cameos by Chase Stoeger, with a delicate hand, plumbing the family connections and classic comedy routines from the Marx brother’s past. Demonstrating the perseverance the Marx brothers faced, while often facing discrimination because of their Jewish heritage. Perhaps as Groucho believed, “There is a fine line between sadness and comedy.”

Groucho: A Life in Revue might be the perfect end of year theater, sometimes laugh out loud funny in spite of the dated humor with sincere underpinnings to how family can save family. That a disagreement rarely matters over a lifetime and brother to brother, or sister to brother, sibling rivalry can be put aside, because one would truly miss each other when they finally separated. How similar to Groucho and his own brothers!  

Perhaps this delightful play can help someone see their brother through fresh eyes, with humor instead of criticism, even if only within their family. Whether in poverty or wealth, enjoying Groucho for one night can imply, “the shape of the world can indeed be better with a brother like you.” Perhaps, this might be an imperfect world, yet infinitely livable when shared with family. Too nostalgic for any audience? Never. Only appreciate Next Act’s impeccably charming production that places the irascible Groucho in his rightful theatrical perspective to earn a place in the audience’s heart.

Next Act Theatre presents Groucho: A Life in Revue at the company’s theater home located on 255 South Water Street through December 8. Also watch for their other holiday selection, a reprise of last year’s “It’s A Wonderful Life Live Radio Show” beginning December 12 through January 5. For further information or tickets, please call 414.278.0765 or click the link to the left (                by Peggy Sue Dunigan



McGivern & Moses Haunt Next Act Theatre’s Irma Vep

In a special seasonal presentation, Next Act Theatre presents two beloved Milwaukee veterans---John McGivern and Norman Moses---in Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep, a penny dreadful.” The 1984 play reprises the company’s production from about five years ago with male actors in drag. Because as Ludlam writes in his script, “Any man who dresses up as a woman can’t be all bad.”

And what an understatement! McGivern and Moses each play four roles, men and women, while Matt Zembrowski sits above the audience barely seen, accompanying the performance with his melodramatic organ music to add to the eerie and campy mood, a nod to black and white film noir.  

Ludlam’s “Irma Vep,” and the strange “mystery” surrounding her death, references famous cliches, choice bits and pieces from multiple literature, movie or theater genres mixed together to make a nutty fruit cake to go with the tea the characters take when performing on this very classy set. Scenic Designer Rick Rasmussen allows for all the special effects in the richly detailed drawing room and split second costume changes courtesy of Marsha Kuligowski under David Cecsarini’s direction and sound design.

The loosely based “mystery” concerns the head of Britian’s Mandacrest Estate, Lord Edgar (Moses), whose first wife Lady Irma Vep suddenly died, and afterwards, Edgar leaves his estate under the care of his housekeeper Jane (Moses) .When Lord Edgar remarries to bring Lady Enid (McGivern) back to his home, the how and who and why’s, exactly what happened at the time of Irma Vep’s death, twists and turns the humorous story into a whirlwind adventure.  

During the first act, this leads Lord Edgar and his trusted guide Balthazar (McGivern) to an Egyptian tomb, with the audience playing the relics and artifacts hidden inside. A fabulous gilded mummy case holds the Princess Per Amri, (a great, sexy version of McGivern) who was brought to life when Edgar recites a chant. After the intermission, the mystery deepens to the audience’s delight.  

McGivern and Moses will certainly have this award winning play perfected, tightened throughout the run. Comedy, costumes and sound were fine tuned on Friday's opening night with only the slightest timing lags. Who would notice when watching the actors’ facial expressions and over the top gestures recreating these characters from an entertaining past?

Revel in the ridiculous at Next Act’s “Irma Vep.,” Enjoy pure folly for an evening of marvelous fun. Be sure to sit in the center section, or as close as possible, to catch every flick of McGivern’s long hair, or glint in Moses’s eyes. The madcap McGivern and Moses will chase away Milwaukee’s cold spring nights for a haunting evening of laughter to solve the comic mystery of Irma Vep.

Next Act Theatre presents Charles Ludlam’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep a penny dreadful” at the 255 South Water Street through May 26.  For further information or tickets, please call 414.278.0765 or click the Next Act link to the left.    by Peggy Sue Dunigan





The word “grace” conjures many definitions and scenarios taken from the legal system, the lovelorn and then religious jargon and law. Playwright Craig Wright holds a Masters of Divinity degree from United Theological Seminary, which definitively influences his award nominated play recently produced on Broadway he titled Grace. To close the subscription season, Next Act Theatre stages the production for what Artistic and Sound Director, and then Director, David Cecsarini names, “Theater with a bite.”

Cecsarini carefully directs a compelling and talented cast of four---Libby Amato, John Kishline, Rick Pendzich and Jonathan Wainwright---in a complex drama that converges in one space an exterminator, a genius IT professional with a devastating injury, an attractive and lonely wife and her over expectant husband trying to make a living in hotel management. The husband bases his business plans on advice from Christian financial advisors instead of perhaps God’s actual spiritual principles, all in the name of grace. And the play's questions infer in certain characters’ experiences if there is or why there is any God at all.

In Wright’s story, Steve (Pendzich) and Sara (Amato) move to Florida and pursue their dream of hotel development after “planting seeds of a financial harvest” and then scoring 14 million from an unseen and unspoken to business partner. Steve prefers the name Crossroads Hotels, a chain of hotels perfectly attuned to the “Christian”, in Wright's interesting nod to some of the business plans that commercial religion proposes.

Next door in the couple’s apartment complex lives Sam (Wainwright), a depressed NASA scientist who streams data between time and space, from the heavens, and recently lost his fiancé in a tragic accident that leaves his face disfigured. Enter the philosophical holocaust survivor, Karl (Kishline), an older man who now exterminates the hundreds of bugs, even terminates, that infest Florida buildings and houses. Steve in his enthusiasm for his new-found investment riches often “witnesses” to Karl and Sam, trying to convince them to believe in God.

How actual grace and the word’s meaning unfolds for each character throughout the performance will fascinate the audience. Hotel plans may come and go, hope grasped for a moment and then pulled from reach numerous times in the performance as Amato creates a believing, innocent wife who eventually determines her own spiritual direction in the course of the play. Pendzich and Wainwright provide the compelling counterpoints as Kishline’s cameo appearances rivet the audience’s attention when he steps on the sparse stage. Rick Rasmussen’s white wicker furniture cools off the Florida heat on this ghostly pale living room set.

While the ending may resolve these various issues perhaps too easily and expectedly, the audience may think otherwise. What anyone with any religious beliefs may be capable of when faced with difficult circumstances underscores this definition of what true grace requires from a person.  And asks the audience to construct their own meaning to grace and what they believe about God.

Tragically and unfortunately, Next Act’s Grace uncovers timely contemporary context as famed Christian pastor Rick Warren’s 27-year old son recently committed suicide that causes heartbreak, similar to circumstances in the  play and imparts even deeper meaning, importance to the production. Discover this powerful play and then vow to determine genuine grace in one’s own life.

Next Act Theatre presents Grace through April 28 in their new theater at 255 South Water Street. For information or tickets, please call414.278.0765 or click the Next Act link to the left.       by Peggy Sue Dunigan




A sensual and surreal evening arrives at Next Act Theatre in their first production for 2013 titled The Clockmaker. This mystical play presents Heinrich Mann as a son who inherits his father’s clock shop in some bygone era, although Mann believes he will forever be a failure to his father's artistic legacy. When a woman in need named Frieda walks through his shop door one rainy afternoon to have a very important timepiece repaired, this one moment in time changes the course of the couple’s lives.

The dimension of time literally rearranges the following scenes throughout Stephen Massicotte’s intriguing play directed by Mary McDonald Kerr. Audiences need some patience in the first half so they can fully appreciate the unusual staging of the action. The rearrangement of unknown places and time reflects a nonlinear storytelling and changes at the playwright’s whim. Only afterwards, in the final scenes, will the audience actually realize what has supposedly occurred. 

Somehow Massicotte’s (author of the company’s 2009 Mary’s Wedding) coherently pieces this haunting love story written with a fairy tale sensibility while using sparse poetic dialogue that holds the audience's attention. Massicotte delves into the sensuality of fragrance, the smell of bread and rain and you, which Mann and Frieda represent. Drew Brehl and Molly Rhode characterize Mann and Frieda by displaying delightful innocent charm through these insecure personas. 

Richard Halverson appears to play “an inquisitor” as Monsieur Pierre and gives the audience an actor who will eternally (to rephrase the play’s language) be welcome on a Milwaukee stage. Dan Katula’s Aldolphus adds an impressive turn as Frieda’s destructive husband, who tires to the thwart the kind affection between Mann and Frieda.

Without revealing too much of the mystery in this production, The Clockmaker entertains on several visual and intellectual levels. Rick Graham’s scenic design, Jason Fassl’s lighting and Aria Thornton’s simple costumes add to the performance’s unique enchantment. While one wishes the pace moved slightly quicker (a one hour, forty minutes without intermission), the deliberate delivery and direction allows the surprise ending to fascinate the audience even more.

At the end of the evening, the audience might remember that when one person desires to make a difference, even in only one person’s life, they can by showing love and reap magnificent rewards. How wonderful to see this proven in McDonald Kerr’s and Rhode’s personal careers, professionals who have enriched Milwaukee theater as actors, choreographers and directors as distinctive women in the theatre, a pleasure to continually see develop over the years The entire cast in Next Act's appealing The Clockmaker defines how passion for one’s career or a particular person transforms events and time for good even into eternity.

Next Act Theatre at 255 South Water Street presents The Clockmaker through February 24. For information or tickets, please call 414.278.0765 or click the Next Act link to the left to visit the company’s website.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan




In a welcome twist on a holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life Live Radio Show brings a touch of old time Milwaukee to the stage this season. Next Act Theatre produces Mary MacDonald Kerr’s adaptation with warm life at WNAT Radio in 1957. An era when on the air radio shows were changing to playing music 24 hours, full time.

At the station this particular Christmas Eve, Judy stops in on leave from her current acting tour to wish her former co-workers Merry Christmas. They all prepare for the retelling of A Christmas Carol and at the last minute the station owner decides to run It’s A Wonderful Life for their grand finale.

With snow falling softly in the studio and stage background, a romantic touch for the audience, Judy substitutes for two “stuck in the storm” co-workers and agrees to play the part of Mary Hatch. The crew patiently waits for a tipsy James to change into that famous everyday hero George Bailey at a last minute entrance. And the guiding force Clarence arrives to show the couple the way accompanied by old time Foley sound mechanics through which Next Act delivers a mesmerizing version of the beloved holiday story.

Kerr’s play adaptation sings on stage, complementing the 50’s costumes (in which Kerr looks charming) and the tension she creates between Judy and the disillusioned James, a perennial 'Scrooge" that Norman Moses captures with boyish antics. As former lovers, James and Judy still secretly cherish each other, which becomes apparent in a scene between Mary and George that reignite their latent passion.

Jack Forbes Wilson’s piano gives its own life to the story's music while he recreates Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel waiting for his wings after 200 years. Director David Cecsarini coordinates the inspirational tale with all these radio antics while he acts miscellaneous parts, including Mr. Gower, and adds realistic sound effects to present a magical evening.

These well known Milwaukee actors do multiple duty playing several characters, while the production adds city specific commercials (note Usinger Sausage)  to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. As if these story’s characters rounded out by versatile actors Debra Babich and Bo Johnson are completely adept at doing this entirely by themselves.

Applaud Kerr, perhaps a new woman playwright in the making, for the imagination to bring these warm, wonderful “Lives” to Next Act. The world could appreciate remembering more George Bailey’s in the public eye. Then be sure to appreciate both Kerr and the marvelous Milwaukee cast in this “Live Radio Show” for the short holiday season, a winning combination to melt the city’s winter’s cold.

Next Act Theatre presents Mary MacDonald Kerr’s adaptation of It’s A Wonderful Life Live Radio Show” at the 225 South Water Street through December 9. For further information or tickets, please call:414.278.0765 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan