PORGY AND BESS: A Masterpiece for the Gershwins' and the Skylight

A rare theatrical experience occurred at the Skylight Music Theatre this weekend when after nine years Artistic Director Bill Theisen said good-bye at his last production. The preeminent evening reigned as a pinnacle to the Skylight’s distinguished history because the Gershwins’ masterpiece Porgy and Bess premiered as one of the company’s incomparable performances.

The remarkable 1935 musical The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess was revolutionary in featuring an all African American cast and revering the uniquely American blues, jazz and spirituals that came alive thought South Carolina’s Gullah culture, circa 1920’s. George and Ira Gershwin originally discovered a novel written by DuBose Heyward, and then collaborated with his wife Dorothy, to write the opera based on this true-life character of a recluse who was born with physical defects in a Southern tenement, Catfish Row. 

This character became Porgy, who sings “I Got Plenty of Nothing” in his tiny coastal village, except his gal, his song and his Lord. When a man is killed by a controlling, strung out Crown over a crap game dispute, Porgy invites Crown’s wayward girlfriend Bess, hooked on happy dust, into his home. The unlikely couple, “the beautiful” Bess and “unwhole man" Porgy discover their fulfilling, unique love allows them acceptance and comfort in this depressed yet spirit filled neighborhood.

A tremendous cast mesmerizes the audience, transfixed to what is being sung on stage every moment. When Clara  (Cecilia Davis) opens the performance singing “Summertime” from atop a balcony, the audience’s spine tingles at this memorable beginning. Then Clara serenely walks down the circular staircase to the stage where Scenic Designer Ken Goldstein’s imaginative backdrop comprised of dilapidated overlapping doorways and shutters frames the performance, to let the characters and story shine. Listening to Jason McKinney’s Porgy or Kearstin Piper Brown’s Bess, especially in their emotional duet Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Love You, Porgy,” lights the Gershwin’s music with a burning fire of American rhythms.   

America’s soul lies in these melodies, plucked from George Gershwin working all summer on an island off America’s Southeastern coast. Where he captured a previously unheralded ethnicity and their several music genres for opera, giving them an uncensored platform with reverence for their musical heritage. The songs rise from the lives of a culture suffering and struggling for survival, even against nature. 

The Skylight’s compelling production resonated partially because Theisen and Musical Director Richard Carsey downsized the musical for the Cabot Theatre. Including reducing the number of live musicians to a bare eight or nine, a miraculous feat alone. This intimate setting allows the audience to experience Catfish Row as if they were bystanders on the street.  While the musical’s Bess is double cast, and Rhea Olivaccé alternates with Brown, well known Milwaukeean Sheri Williams Parnell also served as Assistant Director. She has several standout scenes playing Maria as does Adrienne Danrich's Serena and Anthony P. McClaun's Sporting Life.   

And while Porgy And Bess was penned in the 1930’s, the clothing and names could be changed so this then groundbreaking story of drugs (now perhaps meth instead of happy dust), poverty, violence and the lure of the good life to the marginal cultures might be mined in many contemporary, especially Milwaukee, neighborhoods. In the past year or two, near 32nd and Lloyd, eight fatal shootings included a grocer murdered for $64.00 in his cash register, similar to the murder in the Gershwin’s story after a crap game. 

This is why the Gershwins’ opera transcends a singular culture, a particular neighborhood, and when seen, has the power to make all humanity whole again, similar to when Porgy rises from his cart and walks away to search for Bess at the finale. When McKinney’s grand stature appears to fill the entire stage as he walks off, the dignity to his physical limitatiions and music fills one's spirit with perseverance. The Gullah community’s hearts are similar to many cultures in this world, singing out for comfort, compassion and companionship, to ease the difficulties of everyday life, the pain of loss and sorrow. The Gershwiins’ Porgy and Bess is indeed also a Skylight masterpiece, the beloved music and story essential for every generation. 

The Skylight Music Theatre presents The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Complex through June 9. Season subscriptions are also available for their upcoming 2013-2014 season themed “Revolution.” For information or tickets please call: 414.291.7800 or click the Skylight link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan








Skylight’s Foot Stomping Musical Road Trip

The first ever county production for the Skylight Music Theatre brought the audience to their feet with a standing ovation on opening night. Reviving the 1982 Broadway musical Pump Boys and Dinettes reprises this country based concert mixed with gospel and rock and roll rhythms to recall the All American, cross country road trip.

In Pump Boys and Dinettes, the road travels on Hwy 57 sometime during the 1950’s through Frog Level and Smyrna, North Carolina where a gas station, perhaps a Mobil, serves up more music than auto repairs. The four “mechanics” would rather be strumming their guitars and string bass then cranking a wrench. Or perhaps eyeing the Cupp sisters, Loretta and Prudence, who dish out coffee, meatloaf and pecan pie to anyone who stops along these back byways at the Double Cupp Cafe instead of moving swiftly on the freeways.

What a fabulous place to stop for an evening! The vague plot line only provides a ready excuse for the musicians to romp between diner and gas station while these talented actors cavort on stage with their instruments. Campy sets designed by Brandon Ribordy are lit with bright neon signage that marvelously changes color throughout the performance to add kitschy ambience.

The production's six actors---Andrew Crowe, Greg Flattery, Tommy Hahn, Paul Helm, Molly Rhode, and Samantha Sostarich---act and play to foot stomping perfection. Director and choreographer Bil Theisen’s attention grabbing choreography fixes the audience’s eyes to the stage, so they can sit back and merely enjoy the theatrical ride while listening to the clever lyrics accompanying the down home dancing.

Has a Milwaukee audience ever seen such a magnificent Helm “strut his stuff” while also playing the piano in “Serve Yourself?” Or when Helm dons those red cowboy boots in the very humorous “Farmer Tan?” Rhode certainly delivers the entertainment goods in her standout “Be Good or Be Gone,” and while in tandem with Sostarich during the funny play on words tune “Tips.” A great song these two sisters rock on stage that might hint why they named their diner the Double Cupp. The Pump Boys create enough magnetism of their own in “Before Fisherman’s Prayers,” “Catfish," and the title tune, “Pump Boys.” 

Each company member in the Skylight's rollicking ensemble production makes this musical trip two hours of fabulous fun on Milwaukee's chilly March evenings. This brilliantly colored Southern rest stop provides a jolt of energy, from the pots and pans used for percussion to the softer ballads interspersed between the rock and roll jive. An evening of pure joy for every age, resting in the seats at Pump Boys and Dinettes will surely put the heartfelt into this country inspired evening because as Retta says, "Where else can you get music with your meatloaf?”

The Skylight Music Theatre presents Pump Boys and Dinettes on the Cabot Theatre Stage at the Broadway Theatre Center through March 24, and be sure to stop and enjoy pie after the show in the Cabaret. For information or tickets, call 414.291.7800 or click the Skylight link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan






PIAF: Fitzwater's "Sparrow" a  Final Reprise on the Skylight Stage

For three weeks only at the Broadway Theatre Center, the Skylight Music Theatre reprises the beloved Leslie Fitzwater in Edith Piaf Onstage. This expanded 2013 edition features a mature and wiser chanteuse on an elegantly designed Cabot stage from Scenic Designer Rick Rasmussen. The stage surrounds Fitzwater’s scintillating presence so the performance affords an evening to remember and captivates the audience into the rapture of pin dropping silence.

The name Piaf loosely meant “a sparrow,” one plucked from the streets, because Edith was as she said, born under a street lamp.  However humble Piaf’s beginnings, she wrote over 80 melodies and included more than 200 in her repertoire during her 50 plus years in the spotlight. These songs grip and haunt the audience, retelling with raw emotion the life and loves of the common Parisian.

Piaf’s own life was ultimately overcome with numerous personal tragedies, although this petite “sparrow” discovered singing could save her sanity during most of her career. So when Fitzwater sings to close the second act leaving the audience breathless with “Lovers For One Day,” the performer literally does what she sings and, “brings tears to the eyes, and tears to the heart.”

Returning from the intermission, the lights rise so the audience catches Fitzwater lounging on an ivory chaise for an English version of the melancholy “Autumn Leaves.”  Afterwards, Fitzwater plumbs Piaf’s misfortunes, the death of her lover, boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, and serious car accidents that quickly followed. These events further spiraled Piaf into a life of more alcohol and morphine addiction, which Fitzwater poignantly portrays during the evening. When Fitzwater talks and then offers the audience, “Non Je Ne Regrette Rein” the voice of the Skylight singer merges effortlessly and completely with Piaf’s soul.

To complement the production, long time arts compatriot Paula Foley Tillen accompanies the evening revue while three other musicians offer their own gifted talents. Lighting Director Holly Blomquist miraculously filters color to chosen areas that illuminates the set, yet focuses the attention on Fitzwater’s Piaf. Dramatic staging provided by Director Jim Butchart allows Fitzwater’s persona to seduce the audience’s mood so they immerse themselves in the melodies, whether sung in English or French, and do what Piaf intended when she said: “I want to make people cry."

Piaf remains a 20th century icon, her unforgettable celebrity and music influencing contemporary young performers such as Madeleine Peyroux. The audience might have chosen to spare Fitzwater her own personal misfortunes that delayed this reprise where she plays this "later in life" musical genius. Yet, one can only surmise these experiences infuse Fitzwater’s portrayal with more powerful empathy.

To miss the Skylight’s Edith Piaf Onstage would be a misfortune in itself, an overlooked opportunity to celebrate a culminating moment in Fitzwater’s legendary career, perhaps her final reprise of this electrifying French personality. When Fitzwater closes the production with “La Vie en Rose, she marries Piaf’s and her own great capacity to give an audience a love for herself and this distinctive music. With affectionate gratitude, the audience accepts this love and then applauds as Fitzwater returns after a standing ovation to finish the evening with an enthusiastic encore.

The Skylight Music Theatre presents Leslie Fitzwater in Edith Piaf Onstage on the Cabot Stage at the Broadway Theatre Center through February 10. For information or tickets, please call: 414.443.8802 or click the Skylight Theatre link to the left    by Peggy Sue Dunigan




Director and writer Dale Gutzman puts the hanky panky in the Skylight Music Theater’s January show Here’s A Howdy Do: The Mischievous World of Gilbert and Sullivan. In the company's 54 year history, The Skylight has produced over 55 of the famous duo’s comic operas,  and comic opera perpetually adores G & S. 

Four Milwaukee performing favorites, NIffer Clarke, Paul Helm, Ray Jivoff and Diane Lane, give this “off the wall” script on Gilbert and Sullivan a blend of accomplished skill with plenty of Gutzman’s planned silliness. Only top quality acting and singing could carry the evening that inspires spontaneous laughter. 

While the opening scene finds the quartet without any sheet music, the performers finally begin singing, thanks to downloading the information and lyrics on their I Phones. However, some of the best numbers from the first act come near the end. Clarke solos in “The Willow Song," a ballad composed by Sullivan while Lane reads a Gilbert poem, which Helm and Jivoff mime to great effect.

The grand finale presents “The Amazing Eight Minute Mikado” and reaches out to the audience with quick-witted humor, including ending in a tribute to Yokahoma (or Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma).  In fact, R & H get their acclaimed due throughout the show with quirky references to the Skylight’s holiday show, The Sound of Music. 

Throughout the performance, Clarke and Lane play the petulant divas that Helm and Jivoff try to reconcile. Sometimes this slim plot line works; at others the songs stand better without any kibbitzing. A true unconventional producer such as Gutzman might carry the "thoughtless folly" (in the words of G & S) a little too far, yet, these talented professionals work their own brand of magic. 

Jivoff performs the poignant “Sad is the Women’s Lot” (from Patience) while Helm beautifully addresses “A Tenor’s Lament" (Utopia Limited). Perhaps the scene where two audience members come on stage to drink high tea provides unabashed and unreahearsed silliness. And all accompanied by Music Director Helm’s 'twinking' (the choice of words understood after seeing the show) the ivories on the grand piano with songs featured from The Sorcerer. 

Traditional Gilbert and Sullivan fans may find this production more than they bargained for. The chilly New Year deserves the warmth of laughter (if one overlooks some of the more sophomoric one liners). So grab someone who loves to laugh, smile and appreciate Gutzman’s joy ride through his wacky Gilbert and Sullivan revue. 

The Skylight Music Theatre presents Here’s A Howdy Do: The Mischievous World of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Broadway Theatre Center through January 18. For information or tickets please call: 414.291.7800 or click the Skylight link to the left.               by Peggy Sue Dunigan







Why revisit a 50 year old Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical (with a book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse) in 2012? Because the Skylight Music Theatre unwraps a gorgeous and moving production of the multiple Tony and Oscar winning The Sound of Music for Milwaukee’s gift giving season.       

In the Skylight’s visually lavish production, the city’s well-known actor Molly Rhode showcases her directorial premiere with talented style, together with the First Stage Academy Theatre Young Performers in the enchanting roles of the seven von Trapp children. The familiar story finds the heroic and lonesome father of seven children, Captain von Trapp, meeting his musical love match in the winsome Maria Ranier, a homeless would be nun living at an Austrian Abbey. Together they forge through life to live happy ever after, and the how becomes as important as the why.

A entire choir of sisterly nuns inhabit every floor and niche in the Cabot Theatre to bring their Alleluias to a heavenly crescendo for the opening, a prelude to the audience eventually watching a wedding scene complete with white dresses and blue satin sashes. Elizabeth Telford plays the problematic Maria to exude energy and surely will tighten those beginning scenes after opening night. While radiant and winning, she seemed to find her true persona in the second act.

Steve Koehler’s Captain von Trapp offers a staunch and exciting foil to Telford while transforming brilliantly into a man who discovers his true love that confronts a horrific political truth, all marvelously put into song by Koehler and Telford. Something Good happens in every scene on the intimate stage, where the choreography and use of theater aisles expands the space, inviting the vastness of those Austrian mountains the setting speaks to.

While the audience will know the words to every song, this only endears the Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies to the audience throughout the evening. An accomplished orchestra (under Jaime Johns direction) accompanies a worthy supporting cast. Memorable once again as this musical has created memories in people’s lives for over half a century, especially when the Mother Abbess (a tender Cynthia Marty) sings Climb Every Mountain. Whether the von Trapp children say So Long, Farewell, or the Maria calms her brood with the holiday tradition My Favorite Things, the Young Performer Snowflake Cast performed with magnificence, including Erins Stapleton's Liesl. Treasures in this extensive production that demands and absolutely wraps a satin ribbon around the audience’s heart.     

Ultimately, the story revisits truth, truth to one man’s courage in Captain von Trapp, who made a difficult, single stand against an evil force invading his country and comfortable life. Most compelling are the final scenes where the von Trapp family repeats the phrase “tea with German bread” from the song Do-Re-Mi on stage at the Salzburg Music Festival against the backdrop of Nazi banners stretching from floor to ceiling on either side.

This paradox presents the crux of the production, the innocence of children, the love of country and the fight for their survival amid the terror of an oppressive force looming. A man's unstoppable determination to forge through the status quo to find the love of his life and tackle the mountains of Switzerland to freedom presents a story worth repeating in every generation. 

The Skylight gives Milwaukee a splendid gift for the year's end, this musical story where courage and love against all odds can overcome the world through one beautiful voice at a time.Treasure these The Sound of Music performances with loved ones and make indelible memories. The captivating evening will inspire any holiday celebrations.

The Skylight Music Theatre presents the Sound of Music in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through December 31. Also read Points to Ponder: Young Performers Shine. For tickets or further information, please call: 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan