Tag Archives: classics

Rep actors talk ‘Of Mice and Men’

John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella Of Mice and Men captured the hearts of Depression-era America with its tale of George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant drifters and farm hands who formed an unlikely bond in their search for a home. A simple, poetic work, the book was intended to be what Steinbeck called a “play-novelette,” easily transferable from the page to the stage — a goal achieved with much success nationwide over the decades since its printing.

The Milwaukee Rep this month becomes the next theater to take on the work, with a production running Jan. 19-Feb. 21 in its Quadracci Powerhouse. It’ll be the second time British-born artistic director Mark Clements has staged the dramatic version of Steinbeck’s novel, having previously directed a production at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Playhouse in 2007. 

Clements says the play speaks to him on a personal level and that it also will resonate with Milwaukee audiences the way it has for generations. 

“I think people often view me as very confident and forthright, but it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me. So I related to all the protagonists in the play, who are all very much isolated,” Clements says. “The other key aspect to the play is the relationship between George and Lennie. It’s their friendship and their efforts in seeking a way to escape the isolation and find validation.”

In the Rep’s production, the pivotal roles of George and his companion Lennie will be played by Milwaukee actor Jonathan Wainwright and Scott Greer (who played Lennie in Clements’ 2007 production as well). WiG caught up with the actors between rehearsals to talk to them about their characters.

When were you first exposed to Of Mice and Men? What was your reaction?

Scott Greer: I read the novel in eighth-grade and it had a huge impact on me. Once I discovered theater in high school, Lennie became one of my “must play this before I die” roles. I feel very fortunate to get to work on it again. 

Jonathan Wainwright: I honestly can’t remember if I read the novel in school. So really my journey has begun right now and the work is new to me. My reactions are still unfolding, but at this moment the play is very personal and personally relevant. 

How would you describe your character to someone unfamiliar with the story? What fatal flaws have led him to his current situation?

SG: Lennie has a disability. He is emotionally and intellectually a child, but physically he is a very powerful, grown man. He doesn’t understand his own strength or have the maturity to control his emotions. 

JW: George is loyal, thoughtful, angry, isolated, scared and untrusting. His best characteristics could also be his fatal flaws, especially regarding his relationship with Lennie. It’s like that with so many of us. 

What approach did you take in developing your character?

SG: The first time I did this play, my daughter was 4 years old. Watching how she processed information, experienced joy and fear and struggled to control her impulses was invaluable to me. I also read a lot about mental retardation, especially a condition known as Fragile X syndrome. Lennie exhibits many traits that are symptoms of that disorder. 

JW: Research-wise, I developed a general understanding of the time and place, economic situations, race and gender issues. But really for me, the play is all about the relationship between George and Lennie. It’s about the relationships we all have in this life, those that both feed us and tear us down. 

What about the story appeals to you? What lessons did you learn about humankind in preparing for your role?

SG: I love the full-frontal humanity of Steinbeck’s characters. Even the villains are vulnerable. I also learned that we’re all capable of great compassion and great cruelty. In this play, it’s hard to see the difference sometimes. 

JW: The appeal is, again, all in the relationships. The language of these characters is rich and telling. There are secrets, layered thoughts between the lines, and a day-in-the-life sort of feeling that spirals into profound, life-changing actions and reactions. Making daily life suddenly extraordinary, as life itself often happens. 

The story epitomizes a distinct place and time in American history, but are there universal truths or characteristics that carry over to today?

SG: Without getting into a wealth disparity debate, I think people are as worried as ever about the American Dream.

JW: Loneliness, isolation, poverty, racial inequality, gender issues, care of the mentally handicapped, friendship, deep love and respect, life-changing decisions, life-ending decisions and loyalty. The more we change, the more we stay the same. The things these characters deal with, are the things we all deal with, always. 

ON STAGE

The Milwaukee Rep’s production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men runs Jan. 19 to Feb. 21 at the Quadracci Powerhouse, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. Tickets start at $20. To order, dial 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.

The Milwaukee Symphony embarks on the hunt for Edo de Waart’s successor

It’s transition time for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. For several years, the company has been led by internationally renowned music director and conductor Edo de Waart, with the aid of associate conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, but 2015 marks the beginning of the end for that partnership — and the beginning of the hunt for a new leader to guide Milwaukee’s premier orchestra.

De Waart, who joined the MSO in 2009, announced in February that he would step down from his position at the end of the 2016–17 season, becoming the company’s conductor laureate. In June, Lecce-Chong announced his own departure, leaving to join the larger Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra this season.

Lecce-Chong’s successor, Yaniv Dinur, is in place, but MSO president and executive director Mark Niehaus says he and the official search committee are taking their time seeking out and appointing someone to follow de Waart.

“What’s really been quite wonderful in this particular process is how thoughtful Edo was in discussing his future plans,” says Niehaus, “and that we have over two years to plan for his departure which gives us the time to do a thoughtful search and really look at a lot of candidates.”

So what will it take to choose de Waart’s successor? For the search committee — consisting of musicians, board members and other staff — the process will be one of evaluation. Every possible perspective will be explored in the vetting process of each candidate, from ensemble members’ reviews of prospective candidates’ time on the podium to evaluations by audience members, who will see likely candidates perform as guest artists throughout the coming seasons. 

“We do 18 weekends of subscription classical music concerts. Edo has done eight of those weeks, which means we have 10 weeks available for guests,” explains Niehaus. While the MSO’s schedule and candidates’ schedules need to be aligned, he suspects candidates will be invited to perform more than once, to make an educated choice.

Niehaus says the potential candidates’ qualifications vary. Some will be conductors who have worked with the MSO and demonstrated chemistry with the ensemble. Others are specialists who prefer a particular repertoire that would work with the MSO. And some are talented conductors who have established careers. “It’s really about inviting conductors who we think have a musical voice, have a strong sense of community entanglement and will do great artistic work for the city of Milwaukee and our orchestra,” Niehaus says.

To be sure they’re doing all they can to make an educated selection, Niehaus says he and other members of the search committee will be hitting the road, observing candidates with other ensembles and talking to their peers in the orchestral community. “We’re going to depend on the wisdom of our colleagues in other cities to inform our process,” Niehaus says. 

And Dinur, an Israeli conductor coming to Milwaukee from Washington, D.C.’s American University, will be a particularly important colleague to consider. 

“His energy is amazing,” says Niehaus. “Yaniv is an accomplished pianist. He speaks eloquently about music, He has a body language as a conductor that is familiar to our orchestra and I think he is going to be an inspired choice for us.”

It’s a process that will stay largely behind the scenes, unfolding week by week even as the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra continues performing with its world-class musicians. But if you keep a close eye on them, you should be able to catch the occasional glimpse behind the curtain — a precursor to the new era only a couple of years away.

Wisconsin Film Festival unreels a week of flicks

Movie buff Jim Healy’s life is governed by a single credo: There are no new films or old films, only films that he hasn’t yet seen.

The sentiment aptly describes the Wisconsin Film Festival, Madison’s annual cinematic blowout that this year will unspool some 160 films of varying lengths for a growing body of rabid film fans. 

Healy has been the festival’s head of programming for about four years, and started as the first programming director of the UW-Madison Cinematheque, the longstanding on-campus film program. He’s deeply steeped in the cinematic arts — before coming to Madison, he worked at Chicago’s International Film Festival and spent time as an assistant curator at the George Easton House film archive, and he says he watches 650 films a year, only about 150 of those repeat viewings. At the Wisconsin Film Festival, in its 17th year, he and his fellow programmers will be featuring what he says is one of the best film lineups in several years. 

“We try and show the best possible films from around the world that otherwise might not be available to Madison audiences,” says Healy. “We’re looking for film artistry and craftsmanship that provide greater insight into the human experience.”

Multiple themes emerge throughout the 2015 festival’s short films and full-length features. There are internationally known documentaries and a “Wisconsin’s Own” section, which honors the work of local filmmakers and those with Badger State roots. There are titles from the new German cinema, as well as a handful of films from emerging French women directors.

This year’s lineup also features an homage to Orson Welles, one of filmmaking’s first great auteurs. Welles was born 100 years ago this May in Kenosha, and spent part of his childhood in Madison. 

The biggest Welles picture in the bunch is 1966’s “Chimes at Midnight,” which depicts Shakespeare’s character Falstaff in a mashup of the Bard’s three Henriad plays, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Richard II,” and is rarely screened due to ongoing legal battles. The festival will also show the documentary “Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles,” romantic drama “Crack in the Mirror” and even “Too Much Johnson,” Welles’ first film, which was made in 1938 and has been lost and unseen for more than 70 years. (A silver nitrate print was discovered in Italy in 2013 and preserved by the George Eastman House.)

Healy urges fans to look for new films from countries or done in styles the viewers may not have seen before, and there are certainly a great many of those. Some films are presented in partnership with each other for added effect. “Gunman’s Walk,” a 1958 western that makes innovative use of CinemaScope and features ‘50s teen heartthrob Tab Hunter, is paired with “Tab Hunter Confidential,” a 2015 documentary that examines the decline of Hunter’s career after the public discovered he was gay. Hunter himself provides some of the candid narration.

Healy admires many films on the program but, when pressed, identified three must-see features:

La Sapienza (2014) is a joint French/Italian production, which celebrates art, architecture and human relationships in a very unusual way, Healy says. In the film, a childless French couple encounter teen siblings while visiting Italy. The younger girl is subject to fainting spells, so the elder woman stays to watch over her while her husband takes the brother, an aspiring architect, to see the great buildings of Rome.

“It’s a little bit off the traditional narrative path,” Healy explains. “It’s almost rigorously straightforward in the way it tells the story of artistic and spiritual renewal by an architect who has reached a rut in his life.”

The Great Man (La Grand Homme) (2014), a French film that’s part of the French women director’s series, is deeply moving and very compelling, Healy says. Its main characters are a pair of French legionnaires, one of whom saves the other’s life, and the savior’s son, whose status in the country is jeopardized when his father chooses not to leave him again and return to war.

“This strikes me as one of the most urgent contemporary films about undocumented immigrants and friendship and parents raising children and international issues,” Healy says. “The film’s great strength is that you’re not quite sure where the story is taking you, and that’s best left unsaid because of all the surprises in the film.”

White God (2014) is a Hungarian film that reimagines Lassie Come Home as a canine revenge movie, says Healy.

“This is another unpredictable film that begins like a coming-of-age story and ends as a violent revenge fantasy told from the viewpoint of a dog,” Healy says. “With its great use of sound, imagery and filmmaking technique, it’s a film of surprises that successfully changes its tone halfway through.

“It’s one of the best and most entertaining movies I’ve seen in the last year,” he adds.

And for someone who sees as many films as Healy does, that’s saying a lot.

Wisconsin Film Festival: by the Numbers

Now in its 17th year, the Wisconsin Film Festival attracts a very strong following locally, as well as from around the state and the Midwest. We’ve crunched some of the festival’s more important numbers so you can appreciate its magnitude. For a full schedule, visit wifilmfest.org.

Dates: April 9-16, 2015

Number of films: 160 films of varying lengths shown in 107 programs, many of which repeat twice.

Number of venues: Eight screens in six different venues, including three screens at Sundance Cinema. The venues are:

• UW Cinematheque, Rm. 4070, Vilas Hall, 621 University Ave.

• UW Chazen Museum of Art, Auditorium, 750 University Ave.

• UW Union South, The Marquee, 1308 Dayton St.

• Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Overture Center, 201 State St.

• Capitol Theater, Overture Center, 201 State St.

• Sundance Cinema, Hilldale Shopping Center, 730 N. Midvale Blvd.

Ticket prices: A festival pass is $300; individual showings are $10 each, $8 for students, seniors, UW affiliates and military. All venues are general admission, but festival pass holders get priority seating.

Total attendees: Arrive early for each showing to be guaranteed a seat. Past festivals have attracted upwards of 30,000 people annually.

‘Enhanced’ e-book of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ out

Oprah Winfrey and Tom Brokaw are among the featured commentators for an “enhanced” e-book of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

The e-book was released this week by HarperCollins. It also features a 1964 radio interview with Lee, who rarely speaks to the media. The regular e-book for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Lee’s only novel, came out in July. She had been one of the last major authors to withhold electronic rights.

HarperCollins spokeswoman Tina Andreadis says the new “Mockingbird” edition had received 6,500 pre-orders, far more than for the usual “enhanced” book. She says the publisher has sold 80,000 copies of the regular e-book, a figure comparable to print sales. Total worldwide sales exceed 30 million copies since the book’s 1960 release.

Both e-book editions are priced at $8.99.

Aretha takes on divas, comes out swinging

Aretha Franklin, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” (RCA Records)

Aretha Franklin sings the sound of America like nobody else alive — a point of unceasing pride for Detroit, the place she was raised and remains near today. So the release of “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” raises one question right off: Does the singular Queen of Soul really need to borrow from other divas?

The answer is she doesn’t need to do anything, but a dive into the realm of other divas is a solid move.

Taking on standards is a common, often lucrative, move for career artists of a certain age and older. But it can be risky, revealing unfavorable comparisons and weaknesses brought on by the march of time. Yet in her uniquely Aretha way, she emerges largely ready for the challenge and more often than not scores commercial and artistic points.

The next question many prospective listeners will ask is if the 72-year-old Franklin can still bring it. The answer is, for the most part, yes, and she makes a strong case on “At Last.” The demanding range of the song made famous by Etta James can lay bare deficiencies, and Franklin reveals none — nailing the opening line and even coming back at the end for some swoops to show she’s got chops to spare.

Aretha goes into the domain of a 21st-century soul diva and returns with a thumping disco version of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” While it doesn’t eclipse the original, it offers some new perspective as well as an inspiring mash-up with Motown Records’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The result shows the timelessness of both Aretha and Adele’s new classic.

Somewhat less deep is “I’m Every Woman/Respect,” which seems to be a battle to a draw with Chaka Khan’s original — at least until “Respect” pops up in the middle. It’s a groovalicious and welcome update of her own classic — so much so that many listeners might wish it didn’t disappear so quickly and return to the pleasant but by no means persuasive “Woman.”

“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” is another Motown throw-down — a disco take on the gem by Diana Ross and The Supremes. Franklin, who didn’t sing for the hometown label, comes confidently and in full voice as if to say, “Diana, you may be Supreme, but I am the Queen.” That said, it could have benefited from a different arrangement, built on soulful funk or jazz found elsewhere on the album.

To that end, one of the finest moments is the straight-up swing of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” written by Prince and popularized by Sinead O’Connor. Franklin expertly recalls the First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald, with some spot-on scatting. It’s light and tight all at once — a fitting way to close out the collection.

Aretha’s latest clicks by spanning genres and generations. And even if it wasn’t her intention, it’s hard not to see the album as part compliment, part competition. “Divas” proves Franklin’s still got it, and it shows that we’ve still got her.

Putting banned books on the reading list

Banned Books Week 2014 provides the material for another chapter in the campaign against censorship.

The week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers and readers — and the civil rights community to celebrate the freedom to read and to challenge efforts to restrict access to books.

Banned Books Week is observed Sept. 21–27 with films, lectures, seminars, contests, protests and, perhaps most importantly, the reading of banned or challenged books. One such “reading of banned books,” presented by the ACLU of Wisconsin, takes place at 5 p.m. on Sept. 24 at the Stonefly Brewery, 735 E. Center St., Milwaukee. Other events in Wisconsin were being planned as WiG went to press.

Additionally, readers can participate in a virtual read-out by posting videos to the Banned Books Week channel on YouTube.

Wondering what to read?

• The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression tracked challenges to more than 300 books in the past year. The most recent was an effort to stop students involved in a summer reading program at a high school in Pensacola, Florida, from reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a New York Times best-seller and finalist for the Hugo Award for best novel. It’s a story about four teenagers who defend themselves against the Department of Homeland Security after a terrorist attack in San Francisco.

• Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom records hundreds of attempts by individuals and groups to remove books from library shelves or classrooms. Some of the most challenged classics: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, George Orwell’s 1984 and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

• The most challenged authors of the century include Ellen Hopkins, Aldous Huxley, Harper Lee, Peter Parnell, Robert Cormier, Toni Morrison, Stephen King, Katherine Paterson, Maya Angelou, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Judy Blume. Five of Blume’s books are on the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–1999: Forever, Blubber, Tiger Eyes, Deenie and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

ON THE WEB

Banned Books Week: www.bannedbooksweek.org

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Year in Review: Top 10 in U.S. theater in 2013

This year’s best-in-theater list is overstuffed: There are revolting children, classic plays and circus acrobats. There are two knights playing two clowns and a guy in a one-man show, which somehow also features Barbra Streisand. Even a production that never actually made it onstage gets some applause. What? Our Top 10 list of the best in theater in 2013:

1. “The Glass Menagerie”: There’s magic from start to finish in this new production of Tennessee William’s great play about regret starring a superb Cherry Jones and a revelatory Zachary Quinto. It’s evocative, sometimes surreal and sublimely organic – the perfect package for a play about faded and frayed memories.

2. “Pippin”: The revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical led by director Diane Paulus packs plenty of bang, lots of flips and real value for your money: A ticket buys you not just a musical but also a trip to the circus. There are fire jugglers, teeterboards, knife throwing and contortionists, as well as Bob Fosse-style dancing and great performances.

3. “Matilda”: Great sets, choreography and songs make this British import hard to resist. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin stick with you – especially “Miracle,” “Telly,” “When I Grow Up” and “The Smell of Rebellion” – and the whole show thrillingly reminds you of the darkness of being a kid.

4. “Kinky Boots”: The new Tony Award musical winner with infectious songs by Cyndi Lauper and a sloppy kiss of a story by Harvey Fierstein is unabashedly sentimental, with a classic message of acceptance. Billy Porter, as the drag queen at its heart, can make tears fall down your cheeks and he’s sticking with the show into 2014.

5. “The Sound of Music”: This Carrie Underwood-led show was on TV, of course, but Broadway was in its DNA, from the supporting cast – Christian Borle, Laura Benanti and Audra McDonald – to co-director Rob Ashford. It was the first full-scale musical staged live for television in more than a half-century and drew an impressive 18.6 million viewers. (By way of comparison, total attendances for all of Broadway last season was 11.6 million). It was simply a brilliant advertisement for live theater.

6. “The Last Five Years:” A revival of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle about a troubled marriage was a highlight of Second Stage Theatre’s last season. But if you missed it, look out for a movie version soon with “Smash” star Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick from “Up in the Air.” It’s good to see this fabulous show get another bout of attention.

7. Mark Rylance as the white-faced and trembling noblewoman Olivia in “Twelfth Night.” Rylance, sharing his Shakespearian skills on Broadway for the first time, is also playing the evil title monarch in “Richard III” in repertory, but seeing his Olivia get unglued in the presence of a young man, who is, in fact, a young woman in disguise, is a pure delight.

8. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” may not be your double cup of existential tea, but watching Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart at the top of their game make these the definite versions to see, despite the obtuseness and angst. You’ll be applauding loudly even while scratching your head.

9. “Buyer & Cellar:” Michael Urie plays a struggling actor who goes to work for Barbra Streisand as a clerk in her underground mall of quaint shops, which no one but Streisand goes to. Over 100 minutes, Urie plays out more than 30 scenes in which his character has a fraught tango with the fictional Babs. It’s moving and sweet and funny. Urie also helped the off-Broadway one-man show do something few can boast: recoup.

10. The look of “Macbeth:” The acting led by Ethan Hawke may be uneven, the addition of creatures that look like rejects from “Cats” is unfortunate and the use of three scenery chewing men to play the Three Witches breaks the spell, but there’s no denying this is the most handsome show on Broadway. Scott Pask’s sets include giant moveable slabs, a vase of flowers that suddenly loses its petals and a bright, airy, leaf-covered canopy. Japhy Weideman’s stunning lighting turns everyone into rock gods. And Catherine Zuber’s timeless, ultra-sexy costumes make everyone gorgeous.

Honorable Mention: “Fun Home”: A rich, clever and moving musical adapted by the playwright Lisa Kron and the composer Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about growing up with a gay dad. This show at the Public Theater is refreshing and intimate and satisfying.

Wisconsin holiday stages sparkle with tradition

It’s time to celebrate the season onstage, and Wisconsin offers a theatrical Christmas stocking full of choices to get you in the holiday mood.

Bah! Humbug!

The Milwaukee Rep brings back Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, everyone’s favorite morality tale of greed and redemption. Dickens penned the original novella over a six-week period in the fall of 1843 because he needed the money, but it was an immediate success and remains the English-speaking world’s most popular Christmas story. Scholars see it as an indictment of 19th-century industrial capitalism. 

Now in its 38th year, The Rep production was adapted by Joseph Hanreddy and Edward Morgan. Aaron Posner, who directed last year’s lauded production, is once again at the helm. A Christmas Carol runs through Dec. 24 at Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre. (www.milwaukeerep.com).

Children’s Theater of Madison brings its annual production of A Christmas Carol back to the Capitol Theater at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts Dec. 13–23. American Players Theatre’s James Ridge reprises his role as Scrooge. (overturecenter.com/production/a-christmas-carol.)

The West Bend Masonic Center will host a community theater production of the Dickens classic performed in the round and with an accompaniment of Victorian Christmas carols. Performances run Dec. 5–8 and Dec. 13–15. (www.westbendchristmascarol.com)

The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton will host Nebraska Theater Caravan’s traveling production of A Christmas Carol on Dec. 4. (www.foxcitiespac.org/events/christmas-carol)

Wausau Community Theater performs its version of the holiday favorite Dec. 13–15 (www.wausaucommunitytheatre.org).

For a less-than-reverent look at Ebenezer Scrooge, try A Kick in the Dickens 2 at The Alchemist Theatre in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. Some original songs and comedic skits create an impromptu one-act “lost Charles Dickens play” based on audience input. There’s a full bar for a not-so-silent night of holiday frolic. The show runs Dec. 5–28 (thealchemisttheatre.com).

Many gappy returns

Anyone unfamiliar with It’s a Wonderful Life, film director Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday tearjerker, must not own a television. Those who want a slightly different take on the story can catch Next Act Theatre’s It’s A Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show. Actor Mary McDonald Kerr’s adaptation takes audiences to a vintage 1940s radio production studio for a performance that’s complete with live music, sound effects and a little Milwaukee nostalgia. The play runs Dec. 12 through Jan. 5 (www.netxact.org).

Ready for a little M’waukee Christmas dere, hey? In Tandem Theatre Co. is bringing back A Cudahy Caroler Christmas for youse guys dat know how to celebrate Cream City style. Join Stasch, PeeWee, Edna and Trixie as they warble their way through all your holiday favorites, including “We T’ree Guys from Cudahy Are,” “O, Bowling Night” and other seasonal favorites that will surely brings tears of laughter and put lumps in your eggnog. The production runs Nov. 29–Jan. 5. (intandemtheatre.org)

For those who like their Christmas Carol with a slightly more colorful spin, Madison’s Stage Q is producing Scrooge in Rouge, the perennial favorite that pits three actors against the 23 roles in Dickens’ holiday classic. In addition to the true meaning of Christmas, audiences will learn that “Ebenezer” rhymes with “geezer,” “teaser” and “squeeze ’er.” The show has nine weekend dates Dec. 6–21 at Madison’s Bartell Theater. (www.stageq.com)

For a little off-base humor, Chicago’s Second City is bringing its Nut-cracking Holiday Revue to Madison’s Barrymore Theatre on Dec. 18. The sketch comedy artists promise to capture all the magic, mystery and mayhem of the season with new bits and classic favorites. (www.barrymorelive.com).

O, Holy Night

Christmas operas are few and far between, but Gian Carol Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors surfaces every now and then. The one-act opera tells the story of a shepherd boy and his mother who receive a visit from the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. This production features the students of Viterbo University at the Fine Arts Center Main Theater in La Crosse. The opera is presented on Dec. 7 and Dec. 8 (www3.viterbo.edu/Templates/three-col-menu-fac.aspx?id=17179869419).

Not quite the holidays, but somehow appropriate

Door County’s American Folklore Theatre helped the late writer and lyricist Fred Alley become a star, and one of Alley’s and composer James Kaplan’s favorites is back for a limited run at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre. Guys on Ice tells the uniquely Wisconsin tales of buddies Marvin and Lloyd and the trials and tribulations of life in an ice fishing shanty. The show, featuring performers Doug Mancheski and Steve Koehler, runs for five weekend productions Dec. 19–29 (www.barrymorelive.com).

And all those ‘Nutcrackers’

Ballet is not a common family entertainment, but that hasn’t stopped Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker from becoming entertainment’s top holiday draw. Maybe it’s the sword-wielding Mouse King, the Christmas tree that grows to giant proportions or all those kids in the cast, but you can find productions of the ballet just about anywhere snow falls on the Badger State in December. Here is a list of choices:

Milwaukee Ballet, Dec. 14–27, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, Milwaukee (www.milwaukeeballet.org)

Madison Ballet, Overture Center for the Arts, Dec. 14–24. (www.madisonballet.org)

Green Bay Nutcracker Ballet, presented by the Northeastern Wisconsin Dance Organization at Meyer Theatre, Green Bay, Dec. 7–9 (www.meyertheatre.org)

Central Wisconsin School of Ballet, Wausau’s Grand Theater, Dec. 7–8. (www.cwschoolofballet.com/nutcracker)

La Crosse Dance Center, Viterbo Fine Arts Center, Dec. 13–14 (www.lacrossedancecentre.org)

Nutcracker in the Castle, Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Nov. 22–Jan. 6, (www.thepaine.org)

The Dance Factory, Young Auditorium at UW-Whitewater, Dec. 14. (www.uww.edu/youngauditorium/season/nutcracker)

Valerie Harmon in Milwaukee Ballet’s 2012 production of The Nutcracker. Photo: Jessica Kaminski

WiG Holiday Gift Guide: Tinsel Tunes

The reissue of the Cotillion Records compilation Funky Christmas gets off to a fabulously funky start with “May Christmas Bring You Happiness” by a quintet called Luther. Led by the late Luther Vandross (shortly before his disco breakthroughs with Bionic Boogie and Change, and his subsequently soaring solo career), both of Luther’s tracks (including the other Vandross original “At Christmas Time”) are the main reasons to unwrap this disc. Margie Joseph’s “Christmas Gift” and “Feeling Like Christmas” also rank high on the list. 

Comprised of songs culled from Gladys Knight & The Pips’ Christmas discs The Christmas Album (1975) andThat Special Time of Year (1982), The Classic Christmas Album make the season bright. Knight and company’s renditions of “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” “It’s the Happiest Time of the Year” and “That Special Time of Year” are standouts. Cuts featuring Johnny Mathis, including “When a Child Is Born” and “The Lord’s Prayer,” wrap everything with a pretty bow.

Speaking of Johnny Mathis, the legendary (and out) vocalist has been releasing Christmas albums since 1958. His latest, Sending You A Little Christmas, is a delightful addition. More than half of the seasonal selections are duets with a stellar array of guests, including Billy Joel (“The Christmas Song”), Natalie Cole (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), Gloria Estefan (“Mary’s Boy Child”) and Jim Brickman (the title tune, co-written by Brickman), to mention a few.

From snowballs to matzo balls

Mary J. Blige’s A Mary Christmas could be included in the above category, but her bright “When You Wish Upon a Star” duet with Barbra Streisand (featuring Chris Botti on the horn) puts her in this category. Blige earns kudos for her choice of duet partners throughout the disc, including bi Brit Jessie J (on the popular “Do You Hear What I Hear?”), gospel goddesses The Clark Sisters (on “The First Noel”) and Marc Anthony (on the bilingual “Noche De Paz/Silent Night”). Blige’s “The Little Drummer Boy” is also spectacular, and her reading of “My Favorite Things” suggests that she should do an album of standards.

What self-respecting homosexual doesn’t have both of Barbra Streisand’s Christmas albums — 1967’s A Christmas Album and 2001’s Christmas Memories — in their holiday music collection? So as not to make Streisand’s The Classic Christmas Album completely superfluous, think of it as a good way to initiate the next gay generation in the joys of Barbra at the time of the winter solstice. The disc, featuring 16 selections, is split almost evenly between the two source albums. It would also make a lovely gift for straight friends and family members.

Nice Jewish boy Joshua Bell fiddles with friends on Musical Gifts. Bell jingles the holiday songbook with Alison Krauss (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”), Straight No Chaser (on the “Nutcracker Medley”), Kristin Chenoweth (“O Holy Night”), Renee Fleming (“I Want an Old-Fashioned Christmas”), Placido Domingo (“O Tennenbaum”), Branford Marsalis (“Amazing Grace”), fellow NJB Michael Feinstein (“The Secret of Christmas”) and Steven Isserlis and Sam Haywood (“Baal Shem, Simchat Torah”).

Released in time for Hanukkah, the double-disc set It’s A Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba, subtitled The Latin-Jewish Musical Story: 1940s-1980s, tells the tale of “Jews falling in love with Latin music.” From resorts to bar mitzvah parties and weddings, from mambo to limbo to cha-cha, Jews and Latin music go way back (can you say “Spanish inquisition”?). The 41 tracks compiled here feature Latino and Jewish musicians, such as Xavier Cugat, Ruth Wallis, Perez Prado, Carole King, Tito Puente, The Barry Sisters, Celia Cruz, Mickey Katz, Willie Colon, Eydie Gorme, Eddie Palmieri, Abbe Lane, Ray Barretto, and, of course, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass. The spicy collection is perfect for playing at any winter holiday gathering. 

Christmas (past)

Andy Williams’ name is synonymous with Christmas music. Williams’ three Christmas recordings, The Andy Williams Christmas Album from 1963, Merry Christmas from 1965 and Christmas Present from 1974, along with a few singles and unreleased tracks, have been compiled on the two-disc set The Complete Christmas Recordings. Questionable politics aside, the late Williams had one of the most distinctive singing voices in popular music, and these renditions of seasonal favorites are classics.

You may already have The Original Sound Track of the CBS Television Special A Charlie Brown Christmas, by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, in one of its previous configurations. However, the latest one includes a make-your-own Snoopy doghouse, complete with festive trimmings and Peanuts characters cutouts. Of course, the music, consisting of jazzy renditions of “O Tannenbaum” and “What Child Is This,” as well as Guaraldi originals “Christmas Time Is Here” (both the instrumental and vocal versions), “Skating,” “Christmas Is Coming” and “Linus And Lucy,” are the real reason to make this part of your holiday music library. 

If you have a hankering for some country this Christmas, then The Classic Christmas Album by George Jones & Tammy Wynette should fill the bill. Bookended by a pair of duets — “Mr. & Mrs. Santa Claus” and “The Greatest Christmas Gift” — this set mainly consists of Jones and Wynette’s solo recordings from the ’60s and early ’70s.

Almost worth owning for the cover alone, Christmas with Patti Page, “the singing rage,” is as much of interest for such novelty music as “The Mama Doll Song” as it is for Page’s renditions of traditional holiday music. Six bonus tracks, including three songs from her short-lived The Patti Page Show, fill up this musical holiday stocking.

Patti Page wouldbe at home on the 12-song compilation soundtrack Mad Men Christmas: Music From and Inspired by the Hit TV Series on AMC. Mostly comprised of vintage holiday recordings, such as “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” by Darlene Love, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” by Teresa Brewer and “White Christmas” by Rosemary Clooney. The disc also features newer recordings, including “Christmas Waltz” by Nellie McKay, “Zou Bisou Bisou,” sung by cast member Jessica Paré, and RJD2’s Mad Men theme “A Beautiful Mine.” 

Christmas present(s)

Along with the Mary J. Blige disc, Kelly Clarkson’s Wrapped In Red ranks among the best of this year’s new seasonal music offerings. The original tunes, including the title cut, “Underneath The Tree,” “Winter Dream (Brandon’s Song),” and “4 Carats,” are worthy of standing alongside the standards. Clarkson is radiant on “Silent Night” (on which she is joined by Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood), as well as her jazzy readings of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “My Favorite Things” and “White Christmas.” 

Is there anything better than holiday music sung phonetically? You can answer that for yourself when you hear Buon Natale — The Christmas Album, by Italy’s trio of teen tenors Il Volo. Combining traditional Christmas fare (“Silent Night,” “Ave Maria,” “O Holy Night”) with more contemporary titles (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree”), Il Volo continues to aim for crossover success, this time with an accent on the holidays.

Contemporary country diva Mindy Smith must love Christmas. The five-song EP Snowed In is her second holiday-themed release this century. Smith’s lighthearted originals (“Tomorrow Is Christmas Day” and the title track) balance out the seriousness of the more traditional selections. including “Silent Night” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

File this under: Oh, no she didn’t! Susan Boyle opens Home For Christmas, her second Christmas CD in three years, with “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” a duet with none other than Elvis Presley (gulp). Not her best idea. Johnny Mathis reprises his “When a Child Is Born” duet with Boyle. It’s one of the more pleasing moments on the album. Also a joy is Boyle’s version of “The Christmas Waltz” (written by two Yids, no less!).

Not sassy or brassy enough, despite the implied wackiness of the cover, Christmas Time Is Here, by Canadian Brass, features thoroughly delightfully playing throughout. The horns shine, particularly on Guaraldi standards, such as the title cut and “Christmas Is Coming.” “Bach’s Bells” trumpets the arrival of the holidays, and you could even say “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” glows. But when all is said and done, it’s a bit too restrained.

“YouTube sensations” (now that’s a gift you can’t return!) The Piano Guys take the holidays seriously on A Family Christmas. It’s not clear what it is about the song selection — including traditional Christmas favorites and a handful of originals by piano guy Jon Schmidt — that qualifies this as a “family” event, but everyone will find something to like here. 

Not their first time at the Christmas music rodeo, the four Celtic women of Celtic Woman come to your home for Christmas with their fittingly named CD/DVD set called, you guessed it, Home for Christmas. The 12-song studio CD features their renditions of beloved Christmas selections. Expanding considerably on the CD, the DVD, recorded live in Dublin, adds more songs and also features four more songs from an “intimate acoustic” performance.

Not quite The Nutcracker, the Broadway musical Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical has the potential to become an annual holiday theater event. Consisting of recognizable songs written by Dr. Seuss and Albert Hague (i.e., “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) and new tunes by Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin, the Grinch lives on (stage).

It isn’t specifically a Christmas album, but the self-titled debut album by multi-cultural America’s Got Talent finalists Forte does close with the trio’s version of “Silent Night” and includes their interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu.”