Need inspiration to change in the New Year? Niffer Clarke and Richard Carsey give song and story to the power of transformation in the Skylight Opera Theatre’s production Beyond the Ingénue.

The uplifting musical revue opened Friday night presenting Clarke fresh from finishing her run as Marian Paroo in the Skylight’s popular The Music Man. In this performance, Clarke and Carsey channel the careers of Julie Andrews, Shirley Jones and Barbara Cook. Actresses who were once naïve and wide-eyed young women intent on finding Rodgers and Hammerstein’s happy ever after while playing these roles on stage.  

Over the course of their lifetimes, each of these actresses faced disappointments and downturns in the prestigious careers. Andrews offers only one example, reinventing her image from Maria, a young nun in training seen in the Sound of Music, where she matured by marrying her handsome Captain Von Trapp.

Afterwards, Andrews claimed a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Mary Poppins when she was overlooked for the film lead in My Fair Lady with an Eliza Doolittle that won acclaim on Broadway. Ultimately, she lost her voice and identity later in life due to necessary throat surgery, but charged back to become an actor and author.

Clarke uncovers the resilience in these women through the music they sang and personal photos portrayed on a small screen that detail similar moments in her own life, which has also recently transformed. Women lose the luxury of remaining the guileless young ingénue in performance art or real life. 

Age, men, motherhood and loss transform women’s lives. Clarke emotionally illustrates this journey in a tribute to her daughter Hannah (who was in the audience) at the evening’s end along with performing an original melody by Jeff Blumenkrantz.

Carsey and Clarke inhabit these inevitable changes through a delightful duet titled “Past My Prime” from the musical L’il Abner. The dapper Carsey usually was seen at his piano, accompanying an ebullient Clarke with humorous chatter when not sliding his fingers over the ivories.

Yet, it's Clarke’s exciting medleys that center the show with familiar tunes. These included selections from memorable Barbara Cook musicals that featured the familiar “People” or My Fair Lady with renditions of  “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Show Me.”

Clarke sparkled in an apricot sheath during the second act. Smile and voice alive with the possibilities that lay beyond the innocence of the ingénue in her crumbling Rodgers and Hammerstein world. Life goes further than that first blush of romance, represented by the complex composer Stephen Sondheim.

Women (along with the astute man) will gladly travel with Clarke into that other world. Where individuals reinvent their own happy ever after through strength and wisdom to reveal true inner beauty. One's "prime"in life waits in the precious moments here and now, 2012. Applaud this very personal and enchanting 90 minutes to inspire the New Year ahead.

The Skylight Opera presents Beyond the Ingénue only through January 8 at the Broadway Theatre Center. A CD by Niffer Clarke is available for purchase in the lobby ($10.00) or may be downloaded on iTunes or CDBaby. For information call: 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan






 The Skylight Parades A Gift of Seventy Six Trombones this Holiday Season

Who doesn’t enjoy a parade? Bold, brassy bands and a warm, summer July come to Milwaukee this December. The grand holiday spectacle began when the Skylight Opera Theatre opened Meredith Wilson’s award winning The Music Man for the first time in their 50-year history. Produced more than 50 years ago, followed by an award winning movie in 1962, Wilson's book, music and lyrics still sets an audience’s hands to clapping or humming his classic melodies. 

His humorous tribute to the Midwest’s Iowa at turn of the 20th century provides plenty of opportunities to admire the lavish costumes by Designer Gregory W. Slawko. A colorful feast for the audience’s eyes with the huge cast necessary to complete Wilson's memorable choruses. Here in River City, Iowa, conman Professor Harold Hill (Norman Moses) sells band instruments and bright red uniforms to the unsuspecting citizens when he knows not one melodic measure himself. Yet, when he arrives he inspires them to find the music unheard in their hearts.  

Choreographer Pam Kriger and Stage Director Bill Theisen pull out all the stops that has Wilson's brass band literally marching through the Cabot Theatre aisles during the rousing number Seventy Six Trombones. Or when the cast sings Marian The Librarian while Professor Hill woos Marian Paroo (Niffer Clarke) among the book stacks. The two stars end up center stage atop the tall library steps in a comic flirtation.   

The wonderful River City Barbershop quartet comprised of actors Michael T. Black, Tommy Hahn, Paul Helm and Parker Cristan give nostalgic charm to the production in familiar numbers, especially Goodnight Ladies and Lida Rose. Which provides the perfect backdrop for local talent Mark Bucher who hits the right note as Mayor George Shinn, a perfect paring with the ebullient Debra Babich’s Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn. A complete cast of youth rounds out the musical in touching moments that include Keely Alona Savitt’s Amaryllis and Cole A. Winston’s Winthrop Paroo, who sings the song with very few s sounds, Gary, Indiana. 

By staging this iconic American musical accompanied by Richard Carsey’s 12 piece orchestra, the Skylight honors Moses with his 50th production at the company along with a host of Milwaukee actors in a wonderful present to the community. While Moses and Clark definitely spark on stage as Hill and Marian, at times one wishes that they had played these roles 15 years earlier for the fireworks to truly come alive and capture the youthful energy that Wilson’s score embodies. 

It’s a minor distraction to this big band, River City musical performance at the Skylight Theatre. Who will be able to resist these kids in gold trimmed uniforms with white stripes? After the evening, everyone will leave with a smile on their face, singing Seventy Six Trombones, waiting to orchestrate a festive parade in their own lives. An exhilarating performance gift the Skylight gladly gives Milwaukee during this holiday season. 

The Skylight Opera Theatre presents Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man through December 18 in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center. The Skylight also offers a New Year’s production Beyond the Ingenue starring Niffer Clarke beginning December 30. For information or tickets: 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan







Mechem Premieres His Irresistible Comic Opera at the Skylight


Skylight Opera Theatre’s world premiere production The Rivals opened on the Cabot Theatre Stage like an enticing box of bonbons wrapped in satin ribbons. With music and libretto by Kirke Mechem, his American adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals unveiled an exquisite cast and performance to Milwaukee audiences. Lisa Schlenker’s candy colored sets highlighted Brian Hemesath’s 1890 Gibson inspired costumes to provide enough heartfelt sentiment to satisfy even the die hard opera skeptic.

 Mechem transported Sheridan’s 18th century English farce to America’s late 19th century Newport, Rhode Island society where new money wanted to marry those old, important social names. Class and status prevail when the debutante heroine Lydia Larkspur (Alicia Berneche) exclaims in frustrtion, “Girls are only chattel, sold like cattle.” 

Lydia would rather marry her penniless opera composer Waverly and detests anyone her guardian aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Diane Lane), would approve of. The mistaken identity of her lover Waverly, who is also the rich Jack Absolute (Christopher Burchett) in disguise, proves to be the plot twist that provides numerous hilarious moments. Lydia’s cousin Julia (Katherine M. Pracht) also loves the elite but neurotic Nicholas Astor (Zach Borichhevsky).Although Astor is never secure enough to know that Julia loves him instead of his vast fortune. 

Mechem discovers the comic and satirical dialogue in Sheridan’s play of manners while adding his own unique idioms that create this stylish American opera filled with Mrs. Malaprop’s delightful misuse of the language. Elegant sets, especially the circular Casino, America’s first country club, enhance the scene changes with quick pacing to move these characters through the musical story that captures the audience’s attention. Orchestration by Musical Directors Richard Carsey and Jamie Johns that features more than 20 musicians centers the performance perfectly. Under Dorothy Danner's nuanced direction, Skylight’s production appears as a delectable, humorous dream from New England's past. 

The gifted cast carries this dream with the absolutely essential timing to the often over the top story exactly as the farce requires. Burchett and Borichevsky chat about their romances in several hilarious scenes as do the love sick Bernache and Pracht, all using their unrivaled opera voices for the performance. These four leads together with Milwaukee’s versatile Lane provide a quintet that offers irresistible entertainment. Add in the all-knowing servant Lucy (Christine Robertson) who “finds these lovers an endless source of profit,” unrequited love and honorable duels (a great slow motion stage moment) all before the matrimonial endings to create a worthy theatrical confection for a fall evening. 

Mechem’s gift for composing new works clearly abounds in The Rivals, especially through his either charming or clever libretto. Fresh, classical work will be a significant factor to the art’s future, and his revised tribute to the foibles of romance and rivals will enrich the opera fan while tempting those who might like to try this performance art for the first time. His world premiere musical treat had the audience standing on their feet opening night with well-deserved appreciation for the renowned Mechem and the Skylight cast at The Rivals final curtain call. 

(The Skylight Opera Theatre presents Kirke Mechem's world premiere of The Rivals at the Broadway Theatre Center in the Cabot Theatre through October 2. For tickets call:414.291.7800 or click the link.)                                                                                                                                             By Peggy Sue Dunigan



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