Entries in Broadway Theatre Center (8)


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







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 blank page, canvas or even the stage confronts a possibility. Possibilities described through a musical written by the award winning team of composer Stephen Sondheim and  James Lapine. Possibilities to create art, pictured through the eyes of painter Georges Seurat in the team’s Pulitzer Prize winning drama Sunday in the Park with George that closes the Skylight Music Theatre’s 2011-2012 season.

Sunday in the Park with George fictionalizes the account of neo-impressionist artist Seurat and his struggles to complete his grand scale masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette. The painting places “flickers of color and light” together by using tiny dots of different hued paint (renamed pointillism) so the eye optically creates another color when seeing separate dots. By this distinct mingling of art and science, the minute dots reassemble into a discernable image and portray the people who lingered in the Paris Park on Sunday afternoons.  

Seurat claimed the dots merged into “what the eye arranges beautifully.” Sondheim does this musically by transforming Seurat’s color and light into innovative theater. The Skylight indeed unveils a visually stunning production honoring his paintings from the 1880's through Van Santvoord’s impressive sets, which breathe life into Seurat’s artwork for the audience. Similar to Shima Orans’ bustled, confection colored period costumes. Or Milwaukee’s Jason Fassl, who dazzles audiences in the second act with a light show that represents a legacy to the acclaimed painter through the work of his distant grandson. Musical Director Richard Carsey and Conductor Jamie Johns also accompany the evocative performance with an eight-piece orchestra. 

Gifted Broadway actor Sean Allan Krill plays Georges and his progeny to emotionally capture the enigmatic life of an artist. How an artist’s love and passion conflicts with his personal life and meaningful relationships, often leading to social isolation. Seurat’s mistress Dot reflects another conflict, carried out on stage by the compelling Alison Mary Forbes in a memorable career role. While Dot admires and loves Georges, her alliance with the likeable Louis the Baker played by Tommy Hahn promises her attention and security. To provide a dependable father for Seurat’s baby waiting to be born.

Sondheim and Lapine change the historical dynamics to grant the audience a glimpse of 20th century art. While Seurat’s renowned masterpiece now hangs in a prestigious collection of late 19th century paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, his son birthed by his mistress died shortly after Seurat did, two lives cut tragically short. Sondheim gives the audience Seurat’s daughter Marie so the creative lineage continues while the lyrical wit and wordplay connect in the number Putting It Together, or The Art of Making Art. 

Any actor, artist, choreographer, composer or writer understands these dilemmas Sondheim discusses with sublime theatrics. The complex sacrifices and dedication required to completing a project in this decade, financial and otherwise, includes obsessing over ‘cocktail conversation.’ Lapine and Sondheim upend the perceived romantic life supposedly lived by artists. An artist’s compulsion to dream something, create something special and worthwhile from a blank space when obstacles appear. Making art constitutes hard, valuable work although the world might denigrate that worth. 

That blank page or stage, a clean canvas, produces fresh optimism from dark circumstances in this musical, which provides redemption for the audience. Despite life’s losses and changes, Seurat’s love and passion for color, flecks of light and dark, crystallized into beauty. Seeing something else no one else could see, an artist’s unique contribution. Seurat proclaimed, “This gave greater intensity to the all color and light… that shimmers from the heart.”

Skylight’s marvelous production emotionally shimmers from the heart, a must see performance to end their performance season. Which encourages the audience to purchase a subscription for the coming year. Exceptional art will rarely be easy or inexpensive to create, which then requires unparalleled determination and vision to produce in any medium. Connect with Seurat’s color and light at the Cabot theatre. Find its beauty seen through artists’ eyes that in love stare at a blank white space and think: “So many possibilities.” 

The Skylight Music Theatre presents Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George at the Broadway Theatre Center through June 10. For information on a subscription for the 2012-2013 season or to purchase tickets please call: 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.       By Peggy Sue Dunigan













Make a night "ding" at the Skylight Music Theatre in the Broadway Theatre complex! The Company’s original percussion and piano production Things That Go Ding opened last weekend to standing ovations for the passionate performances of Michael Lorenz, Jamie Johns and Ray Jivoff.

An audience will completely succumb to a performance’s thrill whenever musicians play an entire evening with such consuming passion. Passion combined with wild and crazy fun that blings, dings, pings, sings and rings with Johns’ piano and approximately 170 (per the Skylight Staff) modern and vintage percussion instruments at Lorenz’s finger tips and visible on the set. Throughout the zany evening this trio of performers changed hats almost as fast as Lorenz changed instruments, which added to the stage excitement experienced right before the audience’s eyes.

Whether Lorenz is clinking wine glasses, clashing cymbals, tinkling pots and pans or tooting his horns, Lorenz amazed the audience with his exceptional ability and energy. In fact, he made playing these instruments appear so easy that his stage presence hid how proficient Lorenz remained after more than 100 performances at the Skylight Theatre. This statistic omits the hundreds of other venues where he's valued for his percussion. Milwaukee’s Jamie Johns presented the same persona. He is so masterful at tinkling these ivories the audience becomes so focused on the entertaining humor in the production while each person’s incredible theatrical gifts eventually fade into the background. 

This phenomenon occurred when the production offered a screening of a 1931 silent Tom and Jerry cartoon titled “Wot A Night.” To recreate the 30’s movie theater, the cartoon ran on the stage while Johns and Lorenz completed all music and sound effects. One forgot that the two played in perfect sync while viewing this delightful animation from the past.

Jivoff interspersed more comic relief and narrated the show with his own unique personality. He immortalized childhood favorite Mr. Rogers by dressing in a green cardigan and singing several songs from the award winning television series to showcase a keyboard called a Celeste. (A Celeste sounds like bell chimes.) His songs visibly touched one woman so that her throat knotted up with memories when she said softly, “I was born in the ‘60's. I loved Mr. Rogers.”

Another incredible moment came in the second act when Lorenz performed a personal composition on the Caisa, a hand pan drum or steel drum a musician can play by touching it with his palms. His mesmerizing music for wind chimes and the nine-note hand made Caisa literally took one’s breath away in this fabulous tribute to the exotic instrument and Lorenz’s talent.

One will think of any ding in a completely different way after watching these three performers. Go to the Skylight’s incredibly magic production. Laugh and sing (they do encourage this at times) and listen to every ding a ling while admiring this vast array of percussion instruments. Then remember that this evening with Lorenz, Johns and Jivoff may linger in musical memory forever.

The Skylight Music Theatre presents the fabulous Things That Go Ding only through May 6. Their next production Sunday in the Park with George begins May 18 with lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, and book by James Lapine. For further information or tickets, please call: 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.    by Peggy Sue Dunigan