Thursday, April 24, 2014

UWM Music Faculty Plays New and Newest

Wow. I heard something cool.
Living composers, two of them in attendance in the UWM Recital Hall, reaped the benefits of excellent work by five members of the UWM music faculty and two guest artists Wednesday evening.

Geoffrey Gordon, a Cedarburg composer with an international career, heard the premiere of his Duo Sonata. Horn players Gregory Flint, of the UWM faculty, and Neil Kimel, of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, commissioned the four-movement sonata. They played it with Chicago pianist Kuang-Hao Huang.

Gordon opens this swashbuckling work with a fanfare of the sort that could signal a five-alarm fire. The two horns swoop upward again and again in arpeggios to plateau on intense trills in all three instruments. The three instruments chase one another upward in these passages before arriving in vibrating knots of harmony.

Ominous scuttling in the cavernous depths of the piano and creepy, vague sustained stretches of almost melody in the horns give the second movement a tinge of horror. Assorted muting effects in the horns add grotesquerie to the mix.

In the second movement especially but throughout the sonata, Gordon plays the master of suspense. He makes us feel that the music has a tonal center, but then he refuses to land on it -- maybe once in the last movement, and then not at the end. The relentless, subtle tension of that device is a big reason this music puts you on the edge of your seat.

So also do the many startling effects, the most striking being the machine-gun repetitions that Flint and Kimel miraculously energized with very little respite in the electrifying third movement. Or the way the piano seemed to tumble down a dark well at the outset of the fourth movement.

Flint, Kimel and Huang gave this music just the rip-roaring reading it needs. Exciting stuff.

Jonathan Monhardt wrote a much lighter set of five miniatures for Flint and flutist Jennifer Clippert. His witty ostinato variations sound like twittering machines whose complex interlocking parts sometimes mesh smoothly and sometimes go comically awry. The flute part often plays disjunct repeating patterns suggestive of computer noises as conceived in sci-fi films of the 1960s. Monhardt gives a little needed relief from the comedy with a bit of veiled, mysterious night music in the fourth movement. Monhardt holds the piece together by basing the last four movements on some element drawn from the percolating first movement. Flint and Clippert breezed by its formidable rhythmic challenges and made the music fun.

Daniel Asia's Why (?) Jacob, an elegy for a friend who died in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, alternates versions of a wan little folk song with dissonant Expressionist outbursts that run wild up and down the piano keyboard. In Elena Abend's hands, it sounded like the improvised expression of sorrow and cherished memory. Which was exactly right.

Abend and soprano Tanya Kruse Ruck have been working with composer Lori Laitman (b. 1955) and intend to record a full CD of her songs. The six they performed Wednesday suggest that this is a worthy project. In these "Days and Nights" songs, on poems by Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, Francis W. Bourdillin and Christina Rossetti, Laitman draws on American vintage pop idioms. Several feature Latin beats, and one sounds like Gershwin. But a some clever twist -- a developmental extension, a tangent into something completely different, a rise to an unlikely level of intensity, outbursts of vocal and pianistic virtuosity  -- lifts these compositions beyond imitation. They sound at once familiar and new, borrowed yet personal.

Kruse Ruck has a big, operatic voice and was quite overwhelming in this intimate hall. I'm wondering if she might follow Laitman's lead and drop into a more vernacular sound here and there, and save the artillery for when Laitman goes off the pop-music tracks. The contrast might be interesting.
Claude Monet The Water Lily Pond: Green Harmony (1899),
oil on canvas
. Paris, Musée d'Orsay

Baritone Kurt Ollmann, Clipper and pianist Jeffry Peterson performed the Poèmes de Jade song cycle by Thérèse Brenet. Brenet, born in 1934, is alive and well and living in Paris.

This cycle, on French translations of old Chinese poems, is the stuff of dreams. Take No. 5, for example:

Their green dresses are so like water lilies
that we take their dresses for leaves and their faces for flowers
Then we realize that young girls are bathing among the water lilies

The dreamy harmonies and melodies extend the language of Debussy. The songs pass as clouds or aromas, even the one about the madman plucking the stars from the sky. Brenet writes full-blown melodies, drops into Sprechstimme and at the end to speech.

Ollmann made it all languid, luxurious, exotic, hallucinatory, hypnotic, and very French.

More Tom Strini music reviews here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Dancers Dream On, Post-Milwaukee Ballet, with Arrowhead High Project

Promotional Content

Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty of ballet and fairy tales, dozed for a century before Prince Charming's kiss roused her from slumber. What dreams did she dream during those 100 years?
Aurora's Dream Artwork by Kaleigh Kvool.

Karl von Rabenau and Jennifer Miller,
in Lisa de Ribere's The Nutcracker back
in the day. Milwaukee Ballet photo by
Richard Brodzeller.
That question intrigued Jenny Miller and Karl von Rabenau, important Milwaukee Ballet dancers not so long ago. It sparked their Aurora's Dream Project, which caught fire at Arrowhead High School, where it will culminate in  performances on May 2-3. The project brought together Miller, von Rabenau, Arrowhead art teacher Sherry Moseler, dozens of Arrowhead art students, Milwaukee Ballet School students and Milwaukee Ballet II professionals, four additional choreographers, and more pro dancers from Milwaukee and elsewhere.

The art students created images based on their ideas of Aurora's century of dreams. The choreographers looked to those images to inspire the dances to premiere on May 2-3. The May 2 event is a sneak preview for Arrowhead students; the second is open to the public. All the artwork will be on view in the lobby, and the student artists will participate in a talkback after the concerts.

Miller and von Rabenau have been married since 2003. Von Rabenau is a principal teacher at the Milwaukee Ballet School. Miller teaches there, at Danceworks and elsewhere. Aurora's Dream is part of their ongoing Lake Arts Project, aimed at collaborative works that introduce young people to all the arts.

"As we worked with dancers, we'd refer to art and famous artists to get an idea across, and we'd get blank faces," von Rabenau said. "That shocked us. Dancers should be immersed in all aspects of art. We started thinking of what we could do about that."

Miller recalled an idea that the late Maurinda Wingard, executive director at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, had shared with her many years ago.

"She said that 'Somebody ought to make a ballet about what Aurora dreamed during that 100 years,'" Miller said.

Somebody has. As of May 2, five of such dances will be on the boards.

Sherry Moseler
As Miller and von Rabenau brainstormed their Aurora's Dream proposal, he mentioned the idea to his mother. She mentioned it to a friend who happens to be a professional fund-raiser. The friend helped them launch a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded brilliantly. By this spring, donors had kicked in $8,735, which enabled them to commit to four choreographers. They submitted the Aurora's Dream proposal to three area high schools. Moseler, an Arrowhead art teacher they had never met, jumped on it.

"I liked the idea of bridging the different types of arts," Moseler said, in a separate interview. "I embedded it in the curriculum of two different classes, with about 40 students. The majority were excited and understood where we were headed. They took it as inspiration. "

Miller and von Rabenau came to Moseler's classes and danced a little for them and discussed the project on several occasions. Moseler immersed her students in the Sleeping Beauty tale. They watched videos of the ballet; looked at and discussed dreamed-based art, such as Surrealism; watched the Disney version; read the Brothers Grimm and Perrault editions and looked a little further into the origins of the tale. Some versions are a little gruesome.

"The student work is on both sides of the coin, the fairy tale and the dark side," Moseler said.

As word of Aurora's Dream spread, the school paper and yearbook staff took an interest and did stories. Students in the commercial art class created the posters for the project. The music department contributed three student musicians, who will play entr'actes during the show.

"It's incorporated much more of the school than we originally thought," Moseler said.

Von Rabenau and Miller also needed the cooperation of the Milwaukee Ballet School.

"We approached Rolando (Yanes, the school's director) and Renee Griswold (general manager of the school and academy), and they opened the upper-division dancers to us," von Rabenau said.

Von Rabenau and Miller are co-choreographing one piece for the show. They engaged Thom Dancy, of the Nomadic Limbs Project; Petr Zahradnicek, of the Milwaukee Ballet; Catey Ott Thompson, proprietor of the Catey Ott Dance Collective of New York and Milwaukee; and Bonnie Watson, a senior dance major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, to create dances. The choreographers selected a total of 26 student-created artworks as starting points for their dances.

Twenty-two Milwaukee Ballet School dancers, age 15-17, will appear in works by Zahradnicek, Ott Thompson, Jenny and Karl, and Watson. Dancy is working with Nomadic Limbs professionals.

"We wanted one professional performance on the program," Miller said. "We wanted to really raise the level. However, all the pieces and dancers are looking very strong."

Jenny and Karl today.
Aurora's Dream is a substantial enterprise in any setting, much less a high school. Miller and von Rabenau, and Moseler, too, are surprised and delighted at the level of support from the Arrowhead administration.

Miller and von Rabenau were a little nervous last September, when they ventured to Arrowhead to pitch the project to associate principal Debra Paradowski. Not to worry.

"They said they'd work in into the curriculum right away and offered the theater to us," von Rabenau said, with some lingering astonishment after all these months. "Oh my gosh! We couldn't have picked better collaborators. When we thanked Debra, she said, 'We like to make dreams come true.'"

Tickets for the Aurora's Dream May 3 performance are on sale here, $10. You can keep up with developments at the project's Facebook page. More info at the project website.

The Arrowhead ArtistsCasey Beck, Natalie Bichler, Samantha Bruening, Jace Demski, Kira Erickson, Max Ferro, Jessica Fischer, Emily Fitch, Patrick Gralewicz, Ashlyn George, Halie Kritner, Andrea Krummer, Kayleigh Kvool, Emily Landry, Emily Lesch, Michael Makowski, Katie Powers, Morgan Proudlove, Wyatt Warell.

The Milwaukee Ballet School Dancers: Claire Buehler, Madeline Bruss (Arrowhead student),  Sage Feldges, Lilly Leech, Allison Maginot (Arrowhead student), Rachel Raasch, Madeleine Rhode, Maria Stahl, Alice Svetic, Kassi Tiedjens,  Kylie Treacy,  Brittany Tripp,  Lizzie Tripp. Another participating Arrowhead student, Kristin Farina, studies at the Dance Arts Center, in Racine.

Milwaukee Ballet II Dancers: Andrea Chickness, Israel Garcia Chenge, Cory Mangum, Carlos Ruiz.

Catey Ott Dance Collective Dancers: Danielle Allen (former MBS student), Elisabeth O'Keefe.

Nomadic Limbs Dancers: Elissa Eggers, Tara Gragg, Sara Swenson, Lisa Barrieau (former MBS, MBII, former Atlanta Ballet), Acee Laird (former MBS, UWM student). 

More Tom Strini Dance Stories Here.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Coming Soon April 23-28: Music, Dance, Art, Theater

After a bit of an Easter Weekend respite, Milwaukee artists are back at it. So I'm back at it, too.
Music, dance, more music, art, theater.
Write, write, write, write, write. Oh, and
more music. So I need one more "write."

My schedule:

Faculty Chamber Music, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 23, UWM Recital Hall: Horn players Gregory Flint, of the UWM music faculty, and Neil Kimel, of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, with pianist Kuang Hao Huang will premiere Geoffrey Gordon's new Sonata for Two Horns and Piano. Gordon, a globe-trotting composer based in Cedarburg, is best known here for his terrific trombone concerto for Megumi Kanda and the MSO.

Also on this program: Baritone Kurt Ollmann, pianist Jeffry Peterson and flutist Jennifer Clippert perform Poèmes de Jade, by Thérèse Brenet (b.1934); soprano Tanya Kruse and pianist Elena Abend will sing and play "Days and Nights," by Lori Laitman (b. 1955); and Abend will play "Why (?) Jacob" by Daniel Asia. Admission is free. Review to come late Wednesday night.

Dani Kuepper and Kim Johnson-Rockafellow
wired up for Plugged In. Dan Bishop photo for
Danceworks Performance Company, Plugged In, 8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 24, Danceworks Studio Theater, 1661 N. Water St. The official description: " interactive music and dance concert that is entertaining, experimental and set in the Danceworks Studio Theatre—reinvented as DPC’s own dance club! Local artist, Tyrone 'DJ Bizzon' Miller performs live in an improvised conversation between sound and movement, directed by DPC’s Joelle Worm and featuring hip hop guest dance artists alongside the company. Artistic Director Dani Kuepper revisits a work from the past, …in the night, set to remixed Mussorgsky. Temptation’s Snare’s devil, Jason Powell, returns as the hilarious front man for a set inspired by the music of The Talking Heads and The B-52s, and 'dancified' by DPC."

Sounds like fun. I'm pleased to see DPC maintain its relationship with composer-actor-comedian Jason Powell, after his stellar breakthrough work in Temptation's Snare, a joint project with Present Music. Plugged In runs through May 10. Tickets and a complete schedule here. I will publish the review late Thursday night.

DPC Dancers: Melissa Anderson, Alberto Cambra, Kim Johnson-Rockafellow, Dani Kuepper, Gina Laurenzi, Liz Tesch, Christal Wagner, Jöelle Worm, Liz Zastrow. Guest Artists: Richard Brasfield, Tyrone “DJ Bizzon” Miller, Rasheeda Panniel, Samantha Patrick, Jason Powell, Andrew Zanoni.

Joyce Yang. KT Kim photo courtesy of the
artist's website.
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, 11:15 a.m. Friday, April 25, Marcus Center Uihlein Hall: Joyce Yang, the formidable young pianist, has been making her way through the Rachmaninoff catalog with the MSO over the last several seasons. She returns to play the Piano Concerto No. 4. Music director Edo de Waart is fond of Rachmaninoff's music and shows it further respect with another of his all-Rach programs. De Waart and Yang reach well beyond the Russian composer's greatest hits this weekend. The Fourth is the least-performed of his concertos, and performances of the Symphony No. 3 and the youthful Prince Rostislav, a symphonic poem after a poem by Tolstoy, are rare. I will publish the review late Friday afternoon.

Repeat performances are set for 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Visit the MSO website for tickets and further information, or call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605.

Gallery Night, Friday, April 25: I'm not too sure where Lee Ann Garrison and I will stop Friday night -- the Gallery Night list of participating galleries and institutions is dauntingly long -- except for one certainty. We will drop by the Portrait Society, in the Marshall Building in the Third Ward, for a preview of the Memories in the Making/Treasure event for the Alzheimer's Association of Southeast Wisconsin. The Association teams professional volunteer artists with Alzheimer's patients to make art. The program has been highly successful with patients.
"The Wild Disguise," by Lucille Krug, of St. John's on the Lake.
"Treasure" signature piece for 2014.

The culmination of the project is Treasure, a fund-raiser at which patient and professional art works, along with many other items, are auctioned. That event is set for Wednesday, June 4, at Cuvée Champagne Bar in the Third Ward. Lee Ann and I emceed Treasure last year and will again in June. We are happy to participate in this worthy cause and delightful event, and we invite you to participate, as well.

In Tandem Theatre, 1959 Pink Thunderbird, Saturday, April 26. James McClure's comedy comprises two interlocked one-acts, Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star. The first focuses on three women as they chat about their lives and the men in them. In Lone
Star, two of those men try to regain their youthful zeal for carousing. With Libby Amato, Lindsey Gagliano, Matt Koester, Rob Maass, Mary McClellan and Matt Zembrowski. Jane Flieller is directing Laundry and Bourbon; Chris Flieller is directing Lone Star.

The show opens at 8 p.m. Friday, but I will attend one of the two Saturday performances and publish the review on Sunday. 1959 Pink Thunderbird runs through May 18 at the Tenth Street Theatre, in the lower level of the red church at Tenth and Wisconsin. For tickets and further information, visit In Tandem's website. 

Prometheus Trio: Stefanie Jacob,
Timothy Klabunde, Scott Tisdel.

Prometheus Trio, 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 28, Wisconsin Conservatory of Music:  Pianist Stefanie Jacob, violinist Timothy Klabunde and cellist Scott Tisdel play Haydn's Trio,
Schoenberg's (arr. Steuermann) Verklarte Nacht, Brahms' Trio in B Major, Op. 8. Repeat performance at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. This is the final Prometheus program of the season. For tickets and further information, call the Conservatory, 414 276-5760.

Also of interest: The Milwaukee Choristers are singing Friday and Saturday at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Details here.

Still Relevant Reviews of Ongoing Shows: The Rep's History of Invulnerability and Ain't Misbehavin', Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's Lend Me a Tenor, Next Act Theatre's Three Views of the Same Object, Renaissance Theatreworks' Skin Tight.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

MSO: Rossen Milanov, Frank Almond, Shakespeare, Actors and More

Rossen Milanov
A sword fight broke out at the Milwaukee Symphony concert Friday night.

That's what you get when bring Shakespeare and actors into it. Michael Cotey and Nicholas Harazin, as Tybalt and Mercutio, and then Max Mainwood as Romeo, gave a most convincing account of the first fatal scene from Romeo and Juliet. The theatrical excerpt, directed by Mark Clements, set the image for the ensuing musical excerpt from Prokofiev's famous ballet score.

But with Rossen Milanov conducting and the MSO playing with such ferocity, the music alone captured the energy of the combat vividly. Milanov reached deep into a score we're accustomed to hearing with a pit-sized orchestra as we watch a ballet. To hear the full might and virtuosity of the Milwaukee Symphony applied to it with a conductor so well-attuned to its drama is to hear it anew.

In Michael Pink's Milwaukee Ballet R&J, the Capulets' ballroom number is no mere dance, but a collective dagger ritual. Milanov went to similar extremes, but purely in sound in that episode. He drew enormous, pendulous weight from the MSO's stellar basses and low brass. The Capulets sounded like some marauding monster of a family, which is of course exactly what they are.

In all versions of the ballet (I've seen many), Juliet enters this scene like a dove gliding placidly unaware a few yards above the fires of Hell. Milanov and the MSO brought special grace to this arresting moment. In the music from the Balcony Pas de Deux, they made us hear puppy love grow into something grand and then distill into something intimate and profound.

All seven musical excerpts played this vividly and this specifically. The actors, with Erin Stapleton as a disarmingly natural Juliet, did not disrupt the music. On the contrary, their just-long-enough scenes set the stage for the music and prepared us to hear it more keenly. The only stumble in this risky enterprise involved the sound system; reverberation made the actors difficult to understand, especially at first.

I like Milanov's style. He holds a wide battery of expressive gestures at his command, and he understands body language exceptionally well. He's expressive and interesting to watch without being flamboyant. Tightly bound shoulders elicit one sound; free and easy carriage elicits another. He employed the entire range with purpose to every bar of this program, and the MSO's musicians reacted with charged, nuanced playing.

In Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, the tiny, taut 1-2 beat of Milanov's baton prompted high energy and very low volume from the strings in the speedy, skittering lead-in to the principal theme. He relaxed and beat time as if he were spreading icing on a cake to capture the suave, legato second theme. This fresh, committed reading charmed until the very last chord, when someone's pitch went awry somewhere in the woodwinds.

Milanov and violinist Frank Almond harmonized beautifully in Bartók's Rhapsody No. 2 and Chausson's Poème.

Frank Almond
The MSO had never performed the 11-minute Rhapsody, which I do not recall hearing before. This piece, from 1928, came on the heels of Bartók's field recordings of folk music in Eastern Europe and North Africa. Earthy, crunchy dissonance, declamatory melodies, propulsive rhythms, toe-stubbing syncopations and meter changes abound.

Almond perfectly parsed the gruff recitative at the outset as it rambled and sprawled like a clever best man extemporizing a long wedding toast. Milanov and the orchestra sidled in and took over the solo line without a missed syllable. The orchestra doesn't so much accompany the soloist in this piece as supplement him and expand his voice. Milanov picked up the momentum of the violin phrase and aligned the orchestra with it without fail.

The first movement, in terms of structure, is about transformation of a meaty idea into an ethereal one, and then the combination and further transformation of those two different but related ideas. The second movement, by contrast, unfolds in a series of dance episodes, each one wilder than the next. If the first movement was the eloquent wedding toast, this second in the increasingly drunken reception dance.
Peter Brueghel the Younger, Peasant Wedding Dance, 1607. Oil on panel.
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Almond and the MSO ripped through slews of tricky rhythms and split-second exchanges with enormous gusto and impressive precision. Margaret Butler notably twined a snaky English horn line through a violin solo running at full tilt, to me THE wow moment in a movement bursting with them.

Even more than in the Rhapsody, in Poème the orchestra extends and amplifies the solo violin rather than accompanies it. Again, Milanov and his players listened acutely and matched Almond's timbres and fell in step with his momentum. Orchestra and soloist merged and parted ways seamlessly. They rode the same waves.

Almond was splendid with the vigorous, hearty Rhapsody, but the Poème lies precisely in the heart of his strength as a violinist. He is all about beauty, and not only the sheer beauty of sound. He has a special way with the pliant, poignant, lyrical line. Poème comprises one long, pliant, poignant, lyrical line after another, many of them for violin alone. To hear Frank Almond play this piece on that gorgeous Stradivarius is to be struck dumb with the beauty of it all.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday (April 19). For tickets, call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

More Tom Strini music reviews.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Kenilworth Open Studio, Nice Numbers, Coming Soon

Kenilworth Square East
Every Spring, UWM's Peck School of the Arts opens the doors of its wonderful Kenilworth Building to the public. Saturday is the day, April 19, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

The massive building, at 1925 E. Kenilworth Place (at Prospect Avenue), was once a munitions factory. UWM owned it for decades, but used it primarily for storage. Some faculty and graduate students had caged studios there, and the UWM Motor Pool lived there for a while. Until the 2006 renovation, war-time blackout paint covered the windows. I was in there a few times in those days -- Kenilworth was a dark, forbidding place.

A public-private partnership transformed it in 2006, in a $68 million effort that removed a linking building and split the two-city block complex into separate buildings, as it was originally built. Kenilworth West is now apartments for graduate students on the upper floors, two floors of parking and some street-facing private businesses. Kenilworth East, which will be open Saturday, houses wonderful art studios for faculty and graduate students, an animation studio, dance studios, theater spaces, the guitar program and more on the upper floors and the Inova Gallery and retail businesses on the ground floor.

Daylight floods the upper floors, which are usually closed to the public. The studios will be open, and artists will be on hand to show and discuss their work. Musicians will play, singers will sing, dancers will dance, film and video will roll. Anyone can drop in and explore six floors of art and participate in hands-projects including T-shirt printing and pewter casting. Advisers will be on hand to talk with prospective students and their parents. Student jewelry and art will be on sale.

I never miss Kenilworth Open Studio. Wandering amid all those energetic students doing what they love is exhilarating, and you'll be surprised at the varied work going on in the faculty studios. It's an art party.

As most of you know, I'm married to Lee Ann Garrison, of the UWM art faculty. We'll be hanging out in her painting studio on the fifth floor, Room 551. Do drop in and say hi.

Admission is free, no tickets required. Just come on down.

Have you picked up the April Milwaukee Magazine yet? Please do. And check out my piece on the Florentine Opera's Casa di Opera. It starts on page 56.

Tom Strini Writes topped 50,000 page views last Thursday, and as I write this the all-time number stands at 51,779. Those aren't Huffington Post numbers, but not bad for a six-month-old local arts blog with a marketing budget of zero. Thanks to all of you not only for reading but for passing on links to my stories via social media and word of mouth, especially Facebook and Twitter (@striniwrites). Please continue to spread the word. I want a million.

If I weren't attending the Milwaukee Symphony concert Friday night, I'd be home watching the national telecast of the Milwaukee Ballet. That's right, PBS will air Michael Pink's airborne and very charming Peter Pan from coast  to coast in prime time. So tune in if you can, 8 p.m. on Channel 10. More on Peter Pan here, from Steve Kabelowsky at OnMilwaukee.

Coming Soon: The Milwaukee Symphony will stage -- yes, stage -- an especially interesting program at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (April 18-19) at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. Concertmaster Frank Almond will be the soloist in both Bartók's Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra and Chausson's Poéme for Violin and Orchestra. I'm a big Bartók fan, but I don't know this piece, from 1928, at all. I look forward to hearing it.

Rossen Milanov
Guest conductor Rossen Milanov, who did very well here in 2010, will lead the MSO in the violin works, the Overture to Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream and selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet music. Shakespeare will be in the house as well as in the notes. Actors Max Mainwood, Michael Cotey, Nicholas Harazin and Erin Stapleton, with the Milwaukee Rep's Mark Clements directing, will put on scenes from R&J between musical episodes. Tickets and further information at the Milwaukee Symphony website; or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

The MSO is my only review event this weekend, unless I'm missing something. (I'm sure I'll hear about it something's slipped by me.) But I would like to bring your attention to an under-the-radar event set for Wednesday, April 23:

Geoffrey Gordon, the talented and tireless globe-trotting composer based in Cedarburg, has composed a new work for two horns and piano. (He's best-known here for his terrific trombone concerto for Megumi Kanda.) Horn players Gregory Flint, of the UWM music faculty, and Neil Kimel, of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra, and pianist Kuang Hao Huang will premiere Gordon's Sonata in a free concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the UWM Recital Hall. Kimel, by the way, graduated from UWM with a degree in film, though he studied horn there with the retired Barry Benjamin.

Also on this UWM faculty program: Baritone Kurt Ollmann, pianist Jeffry Peterson and flutist Jennifer Clippert perform Poèmes de Jade, by Thérèse Brenet (b.1934); soprano Tanya Kruse and pianist Elena Abend will sing and play "Days and Nights," by Lori Laitman (b. 1955); and Abend will play "Why (?) Jacob" by Daniel Asia.

Still-Relevant Reviews of Ongoing Shows: The Rep's History of Invulnerability and Ain't Misbehavin', Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's Lend Me a Tenor, Next Act Theatre's Three Views of the Same Object, Renaissance Theatreworks' Skin Tight.

Also Coming Soon: The controversy about the Milwaukee Art Museum's $15 million renovation and addition has not escaped my notice. I'll have something to say about it next week.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Pitch-Perfect in "Lend Me a Tenor"

Hannah Klapperich-Mueller, Linda C. Lov-
ing and Peter Sisto in Lend Me a Tenor.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre photo by Mark
We've met all the characters in Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor before the curtain even rises on the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's sparkling new production. The star-struck ingenue, her befuddled suitor and blustering father, the loose woman, the wolfish star and his jealous wife, the wise-cracking bellhop, the randy matron -- we know them from any number of vintage movie comedies that aimed for wit and sophistication.

Ludwig set his 1986 farce in 1936, the golden age of such comedies. He wasn't out to break new ground, but to tread familiar ground with a footstep of air. He crafted an amusing and delightful genre piece that has found a lasting place in the repertoire for very good reasons. Great one-liners and ample opportunity for physical comedy abound in his snappy script. And Ludwig makes the zaniest situations just plausible enough and the characters and relationships just real enough to let us care about them without worrying about them. The result is engaging rather than idle fun.

This deft script doesn't play itself. Lend Me a Tenor requires a director and cast with a profound grasp of its airy style, of the rhythm and lilt of its phrasing, of the split-second timing of its physical action and of the hint of real personalities behind the stock characters.

Director C. Michael Wright, his winning cast and his design team get all of that exactly in a production that wraps goofiness in elegance in a satisfying package.

Rick Pendzich is at the dizzy center of things as Max, the put-upon assistant of Saunders (Drew Brhel), the volcanic general director of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company. Brhel's slow burns leading to explosions are among the greatest pleasures in the show.

Pendzich plays Max as harried, uptight, panicky, eager-to-please. His tense body language and pleading vocal timbre tell us who this fellow is without annoying us. We can sense his endless good intentions. Because we know how these stories go, we anticipate that he will grow and bloom. He does, in interesting ways. We feel for poor Max as he pours his heart out to Maggie (Hannah Klaperich-Mueller), Saunder's daughter and the love of his life.

Maggie only has eyes for Tito Merelli, the star tenor imported at enormous expense as a make-or-break risk for the Cleveland Grand. Steven M. Koehler plays Tito perfectly, as a womanizer but not really a cad. He's a village paisano who by some quirk has a great voice and has become a star. Koehler's Tito relaxes and accepts what comes his way, the exact opposite of Max -- who, disastrously as it turns out, is charged with keeping Tito out of trouble in Cleveland.

Steven M. Koehler, as Tito, inspires Rick Pendzich's Max.
Mark Frohna photo for MCT.
Nothing can perturb Tito except Maria, his spitfire Italian wife. Rána Roman cuts through him with a laser-beam evil eye and terrorizes all the other characters. Wrapped tight in a sexy little red and black suit and holding herself taut as a snare-drum head, the pint-sized Roman is a walking hand grenade with a loose pin.

Roman is all sharp edges. Physically and vocally, Alexandra Bonesho is all soft, voluptuous curves. She is Diana, a soprano set on bedding Tito for fun and for profit. ("One word from Tito, and I'm at the Met!") Bonesho didn't impersonate Mae West, but clearly took her cues from that comic blond siren of the 1930s. Her Diana is hilarious and dead sexy at the same time. And Bonesho should wear that platinum wig all the time -- what a bombshell!

Peter Sisto and Linda C. Loving emerge from one of the six doors (I told you it was a farce) now and then to deliver nifty little sub-plots and jokes that throw the plans of the principals off kilter. I like Sisto's decision to make the autograph hound bellhop sly and insidious rather than openly aggressive. Loving, like Bonesho, reminds us of a Hollywood legend without imitating her -- Margaret Dumont's legacy continues!

Alexandra Bonesho, Drew Brhel, Rick Pendzich. Frohna/MCT.

The entire cast meshes beautifully as doors open and slam shut, people hide in closets, clever dialogue zips by and the action rises to a predictable but nonetheless charming and satisfying climax. All this occurs on Rachel Finn's elegant hotel-room set and clothed in gorgeous period garb by costume designer Debra Krajec. It's all just perfect.

Lend Me a Tenor runs in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center through April 27. For tickets and further information, visit the company's website.

More Tom Strini Writes Theater Reviews.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Rep's "History of Invulnerability"

JJ Philips, Luke Brotherhood, and Bob Amaral in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s The History of Invulnerability. Rep photo by Michael Brosilow.
The moral wrongs wrought by the Nazis during the Holocaust dwarf the moral wrongs that the American comic book industry inflicted on Jerry Siegel, creator of Superman. Playwright David Bar Katz conflates the two in The History of Invulnerability, and that is the central problem with this play, which the Milwaukee Rep opened Saturday at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

Katz juxtaposed scenes of Nazis brutalizing helpless Jews at concentration camps with scenes of Siegel pleading for his just share of royalties from the Superman franchise. Given the imbalance in stakes, one cannot possibly care about the whiny guy who wrote corny dialogue and ridiculous plots for an iconic character that his partner drew.

That is the fatal kryptonite, but just the first of a long list of problems with this messy play. Katz set it in Jerry Siegel's mind as he lay dying in Los Angeles in 1996. I can't recall all the subjects of the many vignettes that occur in this disordered brain, but the list includes the Eureka moment with artist Joe Shuster (Michael Kroeker); various versions of an abortive uprising at a concentration camp; projected/enacted panels from comic strips; a sub-plot involving an estranged son; a court scene; scornful treatment from rotten DC Comics execs; Ukrainian Jews suffering during a pogrom; and Siegel working in the Los Angeles Post Office. These vignettes orbit ongoing dialogues between JJ Phillips' Man of Steel and Bob Amaral's Siegel, which sometimes veer into pop-psychology daddy issues between figment and creator.

Michael Kroeker, Bob Amaral, Greg Wood, Angela Iannone
and JJ Philips. Michael Brosilow photo for the Rep.
In addition to playing the welter of brief scenes on a sliding scale between naturalism and comic-strip zap and pow, the actors deliver yards and yards of explainery directly to the audience. They must, as the dramatic action leaves many blanks. The dull monologues fill us in on biographical facts, sales figures for Superman-related kitsch, the number of newspapers that carried the Superman strip, the numbers of comic books sold and on an on, long past the point where we stop caring. When actors stop acting and start telling you things, drama fails.

Director Mark Clements, designer Todd Edward Ivins and a hard-working cast of 18 tried mightily to make this turkey fly. Ivins, with lighting designer Thom Weaver, video production designer Jared Mezzochi and lighting and video director Ryan Bertelson, made a cool set with many suspended panels perfect for projecting comic-strips. Costume designer Rachel Laritz came up with enormously clever layered, tearaway costumes that allowed not only Clark Kent to become Superman instantly, but also allowed ensemble actors to take on new characters in the blink of an eye.

In the end, that heroic effort failed to save the day. The sketchy plotting and dialogue forced the ensemble actors to play everything broadly to get information across quickly; the play has no nuance. Amaral did what he could with Siegel. But what's to be done with an annoying little man who had one good idea and spent the rest of his life ticked off about allowing himself to be cheated out of it? It was like spending the evening with Mort Goldman.

OK, Jerry Siegel, you're right -- it wasn't fair. But enough, already.

The History of Invulnerability runs through May 4. Tickets and further information right here.

Coming Wednesday (sorry for the delay): Review of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's Lend Me a Tenor.

More Tom Strini Writes theater reviews here.