Entries in Bill Theisen (3)


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








Childhood entertainment and wonder take command on the Cabot Theatre Stage at the Skylight Music Theatre this fall. In his final season as the Skylight’s Artistic Director, Bill Theisen opens with a tour de force production by Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx, and Jeff Whitty in the multiple Tony award winning Avenue Q.

Avenue Q sparks the imagination and senses on every level. Director Donna Drake flawlessly merges the personalities of nine puppets with their human counterparts alongside three adult human actors in perfect sync. The effect mesmerizes the audience while including mature subject material.

Within seconds from when the performance begins, the audience visually connects the puppet to its puppeteer because the actors expertly synchronize emotionally and physically to their puppet’s character. While Jim Henson’s early 1970’s The Muppet Show for television bridged all ages and featured human guests, Avenue Q’s puppets get down and dirty yet bring that same sophisticated humor to the theater. In this very adult production that reflects an innocent Sesame Street format, the juxtaposition of childhood antics with worldly subjects heightens the meaningful content.

The results unleash a cast performing with fantastic voices, especially the stunning Kate Margaret McCann, who was last seen in the Skylight’s Rent. The actress does double duty as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut. Her teacher Kate and skanky alter ego, Lucy, become infatuated with Princeton, the college graduate who is left unemployed. In McCann’s soloes, “Special,” a pole dancing, sexy torch song, or her bittersweet ballad to love, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” the singer seduces the audience with her onstage presence.

McCann only leads other stellar performances by Ben Durocher as Princeton/Rod, Tiffany Yvonne Cox playing the human celebrity, Gary Coleman and Jason Jacoby in the role of Nicky/Trekkie Monster/ Bad Idea Bear. Maya Naff charms the audience playing Christmas Eve, an Asian American (instead of an Oriental as they sing “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist”) who dazzles the audience in “The More You Ruv Someone.” She’s a great counterpoint for Rick Pendrich’s Brian, the husband to Christmas Eve. 

All the technical production elements star in this production, even when a fire drill unexpectedly went off opening night while the cast completed every line and cue unfazed. Costume Designer Barry Link and Lighting Designer Jason Fassl fashion an amazing confection for Christmas Eve’s wedding dress in one number. Set Designer Lisa Schlenker seamlessly incorporates videos into the street scenery, effective and unobtrusive while Milwaukee’s Music Director Jamie Johns conducts a five-piece band that bars none in accompanying the performance.

As adults sitting in the audience realize, transitions from childhood to college and from college to a professional identity dealing in capital ventures (or perhaps merely a consultant like Brian) incorporates a journey rift with unplanned challenges. Avenue Q brings them to light on stage sparing few niceties or euphuisms through dance, music and incomparable personal talents. Commandeering a puppet, acting, singing and dancing require the highest level of excellence, and this cast shines in every scene. 

Perhaps best of all, while these monsters, puppets, and personalities encounter the ups and downs to charting purpose and success they remember dreams eventually do come true. With "doing good," hard work, professionalism and perseverance, dreams appear when they least expect it. The Skylight knows this scenario well after surviving until its 54th season. So until “our dreams do come true,” find unlimited entertainment and inspiration alive on stage at the Skylight’s spectacular Avenue Q.

The Skylight Music Theatre presents the Tony award winning Avenue Q at the Broadway Theatre Center on the Cabot Theatre Stage through October 14. When the cast goes into the theater aisles to "pass the hat" during the The Money Song, please contribute because any donations will go to the Cream City Foundation, one of the productions sponsors. If you appreciate what you see, give generously. For further donations, information or tickets please 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