Entries in Milwaukee Theater (3)


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




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













To begin the new month on February 1, the Skylight Opera changes its name to the Skylight Music Theatre ithat will redefine the company’s mission. American music definitely defined that mission last weekend when the Skylight reprised an enhanced production of the revue from December 2010, Gershwin and Friends.

The performance begins in the home of George Gershwin when he’s celebrating his birthday with a grand party off stage. Cynthia (Cynthia Cobb) and Parrish (Parrish Collier) work as caterers in a back bar where they sing and dance while Paul (Paul Helm) plays the musician who always finds himself the second fiddle to the real Gershwin at the ivories on the piano. 

Helm beautifully accompanies Cobb and Collier through a first act comprised completely of Gershwin melodies. Most of them encourage spooning and wooing: “Embraceable You, Someone to Watch Over Me” and a classical suite of songs taken from the show Porgy and Bess. Several evocative duets from Gershwin’s opera will culminate in an upbeat number used in the Gene Kelly showpiece, An American in Paris, the popular "Our Love is Here to Stay.” 

Cobb radiates in these stage performances while Collier provides the cool machismo. Especially when the second act opens by moving the musical action to a Harlem nightclub that introduces tunes by Gershwin’s friends...Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, which adds the expert Tom McGirr on Bass and Michael Lorenz on Drums and Vibes. 

Cobb’s rendition of “Hit Me With a Hot Note And Watch Me Bounce” sizzles along with McGirr's bass solo. When she croons “Ain’t Misbehavin'” written by Waller, Cobb suanters into the theater aisles to flirt. One certainly wishes that Cobb would have magnified that voice and soloed on Arlen’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” a song that brings memorable longing to the soul. Lorenz embellished this melody by playing his haunting marimba, very good vibes.   

The entertaining evening ends with a sing a long to showcase all four fabulous composers who helped define the Great American Song Book, those less familiar tunes along with old favorites: “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (Ellington), “Sin to Tell a Lie” (Waller), “It’s only a Paper Moon” (Arlen) and “They All Laughed” (Gershwin). 

After the audience finished the evening with this rousing chorus, applause greeted the trio, with Cobb leading the way to this pleasurable two hours. Her hot notes accompanied by Collier and Helm will heat up a night to woo that special someone before Valentine’s Day. 

Or extend the romance after the performance by taking in the “Hot Jazz on a Cold Winter Night” in the Skylight Bar and Bistro, which features Jamie Johns (great piano) Michael Lorenz, (amazing percussion) and Olusegun Sijuwade (smooth saxophone) to Shari Williams Pannell’s sultry vocals. Enjoy a cocktail with a dessert provided by Indulge, who also offer their frosted cupcakes and chocolate truffles during the evening performance's intermission. 

The Skylight Music Theatre presents Gershwin and Friends in the Cabot Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center through February 12, with special promotions for Valentine’s Day. For more information, call 414.291.7800 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan