American Song is a well-written play. Star James DeVita proves once again he’s a master of the one-man show, and the Milwaukee Rep deserves credit for taking a chance on this world-premiere work, which forces its audience to consider two of the greatest issues facing 21st-century society: rampant gun violence and school shootings.
For much of the audience — perhaps most of it — that will be enough. If so, then you should stop here and pick up tickets before someone else snatches them.
It was not enough for me.
For 80 minutes, DeVita portrays a bereaved father, Andy. He’s in the process of building a stone wall on his property as he tells the audience about the moments in his life leading up to the day his beloved son walked into his high school and committed an unthinkable act of violence. It’s a play the company promises will be “moving and provocative,” sparking conversation among audience members and forcing them to question the beliefs they walked in with.
Walking out, I had several questions, but they all shared the same sentiment: Why?
Why did talented Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith — writer of Bombshells, which ran at the Rep during artistic director Mark Clements’ first year with the company — present us with this particular story, and this story alone? There’s a subtle twist to DeVita playing the parent of a gunman rather than a victim, but that choice loses its potency after we’ve spent an hour listening to Andy flip through memories from the family scrapbook, putting off the elephant in the room. Andy’s story is powerful and sad, but is it more so than the stories of his son’s victims? Should his voice be the only one we hear?
Why, if this is the voice Murray-Smith and director Clements have chosen to give us, have they chosen one with nothing more to offer than uncertainty and contradiction?
To be clear: I see nothing wrong with Andy having uncertain, contradictory feelings about his son’s actions. Such a response makes perfect sense for a grieving father, and DeVita balances those conflicting emotions with laser-tight efficacy.
But I wonder why the script forces him into doing so at all. I understand the impulse to make Andy an everyman with no extreme, a man with whom any viewer can identify. He’s not a religious man, but he calls it human nature to suspect a post-life moral reckoning; he has liberal and conservative friends; he buys a gun after his wife is mugged but buries it in the yard after a coworker’s wife he’s sleeping with tries to shoot him and her husband at the office. Unfortunately, making Andy unsure of anything does not challenge us to reconsider our beliefs — it simply unsettles us for having any.
Much of the play revolves around Andy’s story before the shooting. Murray-Smith’s narrative seems constructed around a singular need: to show us that the way you think and feel about your children is unlike how you think or feel about anyone else. This is why Andy still loves his son, the school shooter; this is why Andy is so unconcerned about his son, whom he should have intuitively known needed help. But parents in the audience know this already, and those without children cannot understand this feeling as more than theory.
Why does the story of a life that begins with so much hope and ends with so much sorrow compel me to neither smile nor cry?
Why did the opening night “Act II” talkback come off so didactic? Inviting local community leaders to comment on the play is a good idea, but not if it’s done as haphazardly as the effort I saw, in which a representative from the Zeidler Center stepped on stage practically as soon as DeVita stepped off. The wise words of that night’s guest, MPS superintendent Darienne Driver, were undercut by the shallowness of “Act II’s” execution.
How did a play that is objectively good, with perhaps the best cast and crew possible, on an issue I’m extremely passionate about, leave me so cold and unfeeling?
I don’t have the answer after seeing this play — which may, I suppose, be the Rep’s point.
School shootings are nothing but whys. “Why did they do it?” “Why was no one able to catch this before it was too late?” “Why can’t our politicians and civic leaders stop the violence?”
The problem is we already know how to ask these questions. So a production that tackles these issues needs to do more than simply ask them again.
It is an undeniably good thing to spend 80 minutes thinking about being a parent in a dangerous world, or how we can stop violence from hurting those we love. And it’s better to spend 80 minutes at American Song than not think about those things at all.
But just thinking about it isn’t enough. If those 80 minutes don’t motivate you to do anything once they’re over — except keep asking that same old “why?” — then what’s the point?
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of American Song runs through April 10 in the Quadracci Powerhouse, at 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20. Visit milwaukeerep.com for more details.
The synopsis of Five Presidents is simple on paper: “Obliged to gather together on the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral, four “exes” and one “current” (president) vent frustrations, revisit old grievances, and reveal the toll that it takes on any person foolish enough to seek the highest office in the land.”
If that sounds like your cup of tea, grab your seats fast before they’re taken by savvier policy wonks. But if you’re an everyday passerby for whom 90 minutes of inside-baseball about recent American history would be a slog, trust your gut. Five Presidents is an exemplary — perhaps even near-perfect — play for its intended audience, but there are no surprises in the wings that make it a strong American play in its own right.
Five Presidents presents itself as a work of dramatic fiction. In truth, it is really neither. Its dramatic potential is limited by the fact that we already know what has already to these presidents in the 20 years prior, and we know what will happen to them in the 20 years yet to come. And while playwright Rick Cleveland has assembled these gentlemen under false pretenses (there’s no evidence that the five presidents present at Nixon’s funeral shared more than a few moments together), much of his dialogue comes from actual conversations that the five of them have reportedly had elsewhere, reconfigured to fit into a conversation as close to truth as Cleveland can possibly get it.
The play is in a sense a false documentary, with an emphasis on what we could have heard, were these five men left alone in a room on the day of Richard Nixon’s funeral.
Cleveland has chosen a singular moment to depict. When Nixon died in April 1994, Bill Clinton (Brit Whittle) has only been in office a little more than a year and is just coming to know what his predecessors faced. George H.W. Bush (Mark Jacoby) is still licking his wounds from losing his re-election campaign. Ronald Reagan (Steve Sheridan) is showing the first signs of Alzheimer’s and is unknowingly about to make his last major public appearance before being diagnosed with the disease in the fall. Jimmy Carter (Martin L’Herault) and Gerald Ford (Jeff Steitzer) have become close friends, despite their political differences, although his pardoning of Nixon haunts Ford still.
One of the play’s attempts at a narrative arc follows Ford deciding not to give a eulogy for Nixon, and the other presidents trying to convince him to change his mind. It doesn’t truly work as more than a rhetorical device to provoke the presidents into conversation (other efforts, such as a recurring bit where Reagan offers to speak and Bush tries to talk him out of it, or the constant sniping between the conquering Clinton and vanquished Bush, are slightly more effective and interesting to watch), but it does get those conversations flowing.
The presidents spend most of the play rehashing foreign and domestic policies, along with each others’ individual flaws and foibles, and it’s to Cleveland’s credit that there’s enough candidness thrown in that it doesn’t usually feel like a history lesson. He also throws in a number of forward-looking zingers that feel superfluous — a gag about how Clinton cheats (at golf, for now), a lengthy aside about how Bush’s son George Jr. can scarcely manage the oil business or a baseball team, let alone Texas (little did we know, etc.) and a cringingly pedantic discussion of whether a black man or a woman will join their ranks first.
Director Mark Clements has done an exemplary job of shaping this work of pseudo-documentary into a production well-worthy of a Milwaukee Rep stage. Just make sure you vote — with your pocketbook — according to your conscience.
What was the biggest show unveiled at the Milwaukee Rep’s 2015-16 season announcement event Monday night? That probably depends on your point of view.
My pick — one I suspect is shared by many members of the Rep’s artistic staff and one that I think looks to bear the most fruit for the company — is The Invisible Hand, a provocative recent work by Milwaukee native Ayad Akhtar, the playwright who ricocheted to fame when his play Disgraced won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2013, that will open in the Stiemke Studio in spring 2016.
The play, about an investment banker kidnapped by an Islamic terrorist cell forced to teach them to game the stock market, is exciting in and of itself. Artistic director Mark Clements’ revelation that it represents only the first in a series of Akhtar plays the Rep will do in the coming years (likely including Disgraced, about a dinner party that explodes into racial and ethnic conflict) is the true achievement here, and his final reveal that the cycle will end with a new commission from Akhtar is a cherry on top.
But for better or worse, the Rep is measured by what shows up in the Quadracci Powerhouse, and this year’s slate looks especially promising.
Clements built his announcement around the dramatic revelation of his sixth musical since taking over the company: Dreamgirls. The Tony-winning, sort of inspired by the Supremes tale is a near-automatic blockbuster, and a smart pick for the Rep’s increasingly diverse lineup of plays. It’s also a nice bookend to the season when paired with August Wilson’s Fences, the powerful ’50s era drama about an African-American family’s hopes and dreams that Clements calls “the masterpiece” of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle.
The Quadracci Powerhouse will also host one of three Rep world premieres this year: American Song (the other two, a musical celebration of John Denver and a three-woman tribute to female music throughout history, will premiere at the Stackner Cabaret). The one-man show, to be performed by Jim DeVita, was commissioned by the Rep from Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, and depicts a man whose life is forever changed by a school shooting.
And no discussion of the Rep’s 2015-16 season would be complete without the show that got one of the biggest rounds of applause upon its announcement: Guys on Ice. The Fred Alley/James Kaplan musical about Northern Wisconsin fishing buddies will be returning to the Stackner Cabaret for the first time since 2001, ready to repaint a comic portrait of the pure Wisconsinites living in far colder climes and singing far wackier songs than their Milwaukee brethren.
For a full list of shows announced at the Rep’s season announcement party, read on. Subscriptions for the season are now available, starting at $99. Call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com to order.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Back Home Again: On the Road with John Denver (World Premiere)
By Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman
September 11 – November 8, 2015 — Stackner Cabaret
Created by the writer and music director of the 2014/15 Stackner production Low Down Dirty Blues, this world premiere event is a celebration of folk musician John Denver’s life and music, and includes hits like “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Leaving On a Jet Plane.” Back Home Again offers a rare glimpse of the man behind the music and the stories behind the songs.
Music by Henry Krieger; book & lyrics by Tom Eyen; orchestrations by Harold Wheeler
Directed by Artistic Director Mark Clements
September 22 – November 1, 2015 — Quadracci Powerhouse
Following on the success of sold-out runs of Ragtime and The Color Purple, the Quadracci Powerhouse kicks off with the groundbreaking musical, Dreamgirls. Winner of six Tony Awards and loosely based on the career of The Supremes, the musical features such hits as “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” “One Night Only,” and the show stopping “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” Dreamgirls celebrates the music of the 1960s and ’70s with dynamic performances and a moving look at the behind-the-scenes reality of the entertainment industry.
Written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer; directed by Sean Daniels
September 30 – November 8, 2015 — Stiemke Studio
Some stories have to be sung. The Lion is a true story of love, loss, family, loyalty, and the redemptive power of music. Writer/performer Benjamin Scheuer shares his gripping coming-of-age tale in a candid, poignant, and charming new solo musical from a next-generation troubadour. Currently playing a limited return engagement in New York, where The Huffington Post called it “the best new musical of the year,” The Lion kicks off its National tour at The Rep where Milwaukee audiences will be the first around the country to hear The Lion roar!
Guys On Ice
Book & lyrics by Fred Alley; music by James Kaplan; conceived and researched by Fred Alley and Frederick Heide
November 13, 2015 – January 17, 2016 — Stackner Cabaret
Back in the Stackner for the first time since 2001, the hit musical Guys On Ice takes you inside a Northern Wisconsin ice shanty. Lloyd and Marvin brave the cold as they dream big dreams about catching big fish, while enjoying the simple luxuries of a faithful fishing-pole and a warm snowmobile suit — and hoping against an unwelcome visit from Ernie the Moocher! The show will feature Steve Koehler and Doug Mancheski reprising their roles, and Bo Johnson (The Doyle and Debbie Show) as Ernie the Moocher.
By Agatha Christie
November 17 – December 20, 2015 — Quadracci Powerhouse
Playing in London’s West End for over 60 years, The Mousetrap has been released to American audiences through a limited number of authorized productions – including Milwaukee Rep! A murder is committed at a newly opened rooming house, and the snowbound hosts and guests – with the aid of a police inspector – must determine who the killer is before he or she strikes again. Agatha Christie’s masterful whodunit weaves an intricate plot filled with nerve-rattling suspense, all leading up to an unforgettable final twist!
Of Mice and Men
By John Steinbeck
Directed by Artistic Director Mark Clements
January 19 – February 21, 2016 — Quadracci Powerhouse
One of the most celebrated works in American literature, Of Mice and Men is a compelling tale of friendship and survival. George and Lenny are migrant workers who dream of settling down on a farm where the land stretches on forever and the soft rabbits need tending. This classic drama is a touching portrait of two underdogs in pursuit of the American dream. Mark Clements brings his acclaimed production to Milwaukee after a record-setting run in Philadelphia, where it won eight Barrymore Awards (including Best Production), and played to sold-out audiences.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
Book by Angelo Parra; conceived & originally directed by Joe Brancato; musical arrangements by Miche Braden
January 22 – March 20, 2016 — Stackner Cabaret
Laughter and bawdiness come together to deliver an entertaining and unforgettable evening as “The Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, gives an after-hours show and recounts a life as large and outrageous as her talent. Featuring the incomparable Zonya Love, last seen at The Rep as Celie in The Color Purple, The Devil’s Music features songs including, “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Baby Doll,” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.”
The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
February 24 – April 3, 2016 — Stiemke Studio
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee playwright Ayad Akhtar, The Invisible Hand investigates the relationship between terrorism and world financial markets. When an unnamed Islamic Pakistani terrorist group kidnaps Nick Bright, a highly successful player at a major investment bank, his captors demand he raise the money for his ransom by trading in the financial markets. Nick ends up teaching them how to manipulate the market, and, in doing so, changes the relationship with his captors fundamentally.
American Song (World Premiere)
By Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Artistic Director Mark Clements
March 15 – April 10, 2016 — Quadracci Powerhouse
Andy Mancheski’s child left for school one morning and never came back. A Milwaukee Rep commission from award-winning Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, American Song asks what it means to be a father, a husband, and a citizen in a complex and changing world. It tells the story of an ordinary man, who turned on the television news and knew the story of his happy life was about to take a shocking and insurmountable turn. American Song, featuring the extraordinary Jim DeVita (An Iliad), is one man’s deeply moving examination of guilt and innocence, parental bonds, and life here and now.
Sirens of Song (World Premiere)
Written and directed by Kevin Ramsey
March 25 – May 29, 2016 — Stackner Cabaret
Created especially for The Rep’s Stackner Cabaret, Sirens of Song is a musical celebration of the songs and stories that defined the consciousness of women throughout history. Three powerhouse and versatile female singers take us on an uplifting journey through fantastic heart-on-the-sleeve standards, like “Phenomenal Woman,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “Natural Woman.” Part Concert. Part Play. All Heart.
Directed by Lou Bellamy
April 26 – May 22, 2016 — Quadracci Powerhouse
The beloved Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama, Fences explores a family’s hopes and dreams in a rapidly changing 1950s America. Troy Maxson, a former Negro League baseball player, must grapple with the reality of his life as a sanitation worker in Pittsburgh. Fences is August Wilson at his best: challenging the American dream through a poetic, powerful, and deeply personal story.
A Christmas Carol
By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Joseph Handreddy and Edward Morgan
December 1 – December 24, 2015 — Pabst Theater
January 8 – January 11, 2016 — Stiemke Studio
Back for its sixth season, Rep Lab features the Artistic Intern Company in a series of short plays.
As the last show of its Stackner Cabaret season, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre is staging Ain’t Misbehavin’, a musical revue that celebrates the work of Harlem Renaissance icon Fats Waller.
It’s a unique production, featuring five actor/singer/dancer/instrumentalists who take the entire show on their shoulders. Guiding them is Dan Kazemi, a regular Milwaukee Rep guest as music director. He gets the opportunity with Ain’t Misbehavin’ to be director as well.
WiG talked to Kazemi about the opportunity and the show.
What did you think when you were asked to be both director and music director for Ain’t Misbehavin’?
It was a little bit of a surprise to me. I had musically directed Blues in the Night last season, which has a similar concept. Mark (Clements, The Rep’s artistic director) asked me if I’d be interested in taking on both roles, and, at the time, I just agreed wholeheartedly. Having never done both before, perhaps it was a little bit foolish to assume I could handle it all. But I knew that I could, and it’s all music. I have a great stage movement director I’m working with — Jenn Rose.
Are you dividing your work between the two roles you play or approaching the job solely as a director?
At the start of rehearsals, I approached it as a director. I was pointing everyone’s brains in the right direction of what our concept is and how we’re going to approach the material. But we had to focus on the music right away and learn all the vocal music, so that’s what we did (next). With this kind of show it’s all about layering. You learn all the vocal music and see what’s there. We talk about character and see what’s there. We start layering in the instrumental stuff. But after that stuff is laid out, it does become one comprehensive thing. The musical choices and the directorial choices and the staging choices are one and the same. It’s this big jigsaw puzzle of who’s available where, to do what when.
How have you designed the Stackner Cabaret to accommodate this production?
In our production, because of the design team’s wonderful work, hopefully you’re transported to a whole other era as soon as you walk in. It’s a wraparound design idea, so you are inside our Harlem basement as you get there. What we’ve done is we’ve set it up as if it’s a rent party in Harlem, after-hours — this is after all the players have played their gigs in another location and are coming here to earn a little extra money to pay their rent.
Is that the traditional way the show is presented?
Not at all. I think that traditionally the show is kind of a glossy musical revue of Fats Waller tunes. Which doesn’t mean that it isn’t packed with fun and energy and emotion, but it’s not necessarily about an intimate connection between actor and audience. And that’s totally unavoidable in the Stackner Cabaret. You’re so close, you have to create an experience where you feel in the room with the actors.
What music is featured?
They’re all either tunes written by Fats Waller himself or they’re tunes Fats Waller made famous. The way I look at it, we’re having our Harlem rent party, and it’s as if it’s Fats Waller night. So what does that mean? It’s a lot of Tin Pan Alley-type stuff, stride piano — Fats Waller made stride piano famous — and some of the tunes go in a more bluesy direction.
This is not necessarily a museum piece, where we’re trying to give you a lot of information about Fats Waller. There are some moments where extra information is given, but I’ve kind of shied away from those, because it wasn’t consistent. This is about learning about the spirit of this era and of this music more than learning from a textbook.
Your actors also serve as singers, dancers and instrumentalists. Did that require you to approach the show differently?
It’s always a challenge. There’s so many more layers to building the show itself. It’s definitely difficult. But it’s immediately amazing. When you watch someone go and tap dance and then pick up a bass and then pick up a violin and then sing a number and then play the piano — I mean, there’s nothing like it. It’s just packed with surprises and showcases the amazing talent that’s onstage.
How have you divided up the different performing roles during the show?
We try to maximize our sound. It’s a different sound than you might normally hear with Ain’t Misbehavin’, but hopefully we’re capturing it as a pared-down version that’s still very exciting, because we’re doing everything that we can to make it rollicking and live and big and huge. Sometimes it’ll be just a piano and everyone singing, sometimes it’s drum and bass for a while with a solo singer. It’s constantly changing and moving and there’s so many textures. It’s all about creating a broad fabric of music.
Would you direct this way again — or would you simply direct?
Yeah, absolutely. … I’d be open to both sides of things, although as a music director I’m pretty persnickety. Although maybe that would strengthen the production.
The Milwaukee Rep wraps up its season with this innovative memory play exploring the life of Jerry Siegel, the man who invented Superman. As a Jewish comic-book writer on the verge of World War II, Siegel finds himself increasingly aware of the atrocities in Europe, even as he’s mired in a battle for the rights to his own creation. This production marks only the third time The History of Invulnerability has been produced. As director, Mark Clements has put together a technical, multimedia production that pays tribute to Siegel, his greatest creation, and the war years.
At the Milwaukee Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse Theater, 108 E. Wells St. Tickets start at $20. Call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.
April 8 to May 4
In 1975, I had dinner with Judy Garland’s fourth husband Mark Herron at the sagging Hollywood bungalow he shared with his partner — veteran character actor Henry Brandon. The invitation came via my boyfriend du jour, who’d appeared with Herron in a summer stock production.
Gerold Frank’s biography of Garland, titled simply Judy, had just been released. As Herron grew increasingly drunker over the course of the evening — clearly a nightly ritual — he fell into a darkening rage. Frank, he shouted, had unfairly dismissed his marriage to Garland as little more than a footnote to her life.
Herron certainly seemed to have enough anecdotes about Garland to fill a book. In fact, Garland anecdotes seemed to be all that was left of his life. The most interesting one that I can remember was his story about having an affair with Liza Minnelli’s first gay husband, Peter Allen, while he was married to Garland. He recalled having sex with Allen at a Singapore hotel while the men’s mother and daughter wives were out shopping.
My boyfriend and I escaped Herron’s pity party while he was sobbing over the heartbreak of walking past bookstore windows where the face of his one true love stared at him from the cover of a book that barely mentioned him. The five months that Herron and Garland spent together before separating clearly had a disproportionate impact on his life.
Born with the gay Garland-worshipping gene, I left Herron’s home that evening deeply troubled that the world’s most brilliant performer had married such a maudlin loser. And why was a man who appeared to be a Kinsey six — at least —still pining for the woman who got away?
It wasn’t until The Milwaukee Rep’s mesmerizing production of Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow that I felt some insight into the strange intimacy and sense of ownership that passed between Garland and her gay fans. The play dramatizes the final unraveling of Garland’s legendary career during a six-week appearance at a London cabaret. In a scene toward the end, the character Anthony (Thomas J. Cox), a fictional gay music director, asks Garland (Hollis Resnik) to marry him. It’s a last-ditch attempt to save her from the ruinous end that she’s rushing toward at full tilt — the full tilt of pills and booze.
Anthony plants a tender kiss on Garland’s lips. The kiss is less than passionate but more than brotherly. Then they stare at each other with the wonder of two people who have magically forged a connection that’s soul deep but utterly impossible.
Watching this connection enacted with such honesty and commitment by two immensely talented performers, I finally understood how essential her gay fans were to Garland, and she to them. The connection defies all conventional forms of love. But it is, if anything, more powerful and alluring than romantic love.
I can’t describe the feeling of this connection in words, except to say that I felt as if someone had dropped a house on my heart.
Born on a cruise ship
Ironically, the writer responsible for this epiphany never set out to write about Garland. In fact, Quilter avoided collecting too much information about her and Mickey Deans (Nicholas Harazin), Garland’s fifth and final husband, who was her fiancée and manager at the time the play unfolds.
“When you’re creating drama, the worst thing you can do is have too much information,” Quilter told me. “If you’ve gathered all this information, all you’re trying to do in each scene is accommodate the situation, and what you’ve got isn’t real drama. You have to create the characters and let them breathe. Real, live people don’t sit around discussing facts and dates and (personal anecdotes).”
Quilter, 48, was a toddler when Garland died. Prior to penning the play, he knew little about her life. So he’s amused to find his name now on Garland’s Wikipedia page.
“What I wanted was to have enough information so that I felt I knew Judy and Mickey well enough to write them as characters and make them breathe and make them real. You do have to have a picture of her and the sound of her voice and the feeling of what she would say. (But) I didn’t give a shit where Mickey Dean was born and what his mother fed him for breakfast. I was making it up. I was taking these characters and making up what might have happened.”
End of the Rainbow actually evolved from an earlier play that he’d written titled Last Song of the Nightingale. Quilter conceived it while traveling with his partner, who was performing on a cruise ship. Another performer on board — a male singer — was a raging alcoholic, Quilter said. Every night the performer’s wife struggled to sober him up enough to appear onstage. An explosive fight offstage preceded every performance. Some nights the singer was unable to go on. He desperately wanted to retire, but his wife said the couple needed the money to survive, Quilter said.
Nightingale opened in a 90-seat London fringe theater. “People would come to me afterward and say, ‘This is very Judy, isn’t it?’ The critics said, ‘Peter Quilter has his eye clearly on Judy Garland.’ So I researched and found that what I had was very similar to Judy’s (final act). Once every 10 years as a playwright, you stumble on an idea and you wonder why hasn’t anyone done this before?”
Quilter decided to start the play at the beginning of the very end by dramatizing Garland’s final professional meltdown as she attempts to stage a comeback with a six-week cabaret stint at London’s Top of the Town club. The play opens with Garland and Dean’s arrival at London’s Ritz Hotel. It then moves back and forth (seamlessly, under the deft direction of Rep artistic director Mark Clements) between the hotel suite and the Talk of the Town stage.
Garland arrives with her 29-year-old boy toy in hand. She’s dried-out, cleaned-up and raring to go. Over the next two and one-quarter hours, the audience watches as Garland’s insecurities and addictions catch up with her, unraveling her career, her relationship with Dean and estranging her gay fans, as embodied by Anthony.
Quilter punctuated the play with some of Garland’s best-known songs, used strategically to illustrate the state of Garland’s mind at various points during the narrative. Resnik’s spot-on recreation of Garland’s unique vocal style provides the show’s strongest moments.
But the play’s humor also is central to its success. Fortunately for Quilter, who’s a born comedian, Garland was famous for her quick wit and barbed repartee. “It was fantastic to discover that she was funny, because it meant I could make her funny in the show,” Quilter said.
The zingers that Resnik so skillfully bats around the Quadracci Powerhouse Stage make this Greek-level tragedy LOL funny with its character-driven gallows humor.
As a veteran playwright who worked mostly with fringe theaters before Rainbow, Quilter was aware that only “one in 5,000 scripts get produced,” he said. So he was unprepared for the journey the play has taken him on. “The first time it was going to be performed in Sydney, Australia, in a small 200-seat theater,” Quilter said (coincidentally, Australia’s nickname is Oz). Caroline O’Conner, who was a big star Down Under at the time, was slated to play Garland. “About six months before it was to go on in 2005, I got a call from the Sydney Opera House asking me to do it there,” Quilter said, his eyes still growing wide with the memory. “Suddenly, I’m at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney, and the play was a real sensation — a real sellout and amazing reviews.”
Because the opera house is such an iconic venue, Quilter found himself besieged by producers.The play has since been done in 20 countries and translated into 14 languages. The London production was nominated for multiple Olivier Awards and won one for star Tracie Bennett. The Broadway production received three Tony nominations, but Bennett, who also starred in New York, lost the best actress Tony by 20 votes.Quilter, however, has been more impressed by the play’s worldwide appeal than its high-profile recognition.“When the show was in Krakow, no one there even knew who (Garland) was, but the play’s been there four years,” Quilter said. “It’s in year five in Germany. It’s been on in places like Bulgaria.” Even though it’s been all over the world, End of the Rainbow has not been seen in many U.S. cities. In fact, The Milwaukee Rep’s production is the first ever starring an American actress.
After Los Angeles, the play’s producers wanted to release End of the Rainbow in just a few cities before the film version, scheduled to go before the cameras this fall starring Bennett.
“The producers said, ‘Where do you want to start?’ And I said, “In Milwaukee, with Mark Clements.”
Although Clements didn’t remember it until Quilter reminded him, the two go back about 20 years. “Mark gave me my first commission as a playwright. And he’d forgotten about it. This was when I was in my 20s, and I had just started out with being a playwright and he was running a theater called Darby Playhouse.”
Quilter said the women playing Garland have all been quite different, with each bringing distinct strengths to the role. Resnik’s Garland best captures the diva’s fragility in her final months, he said.
Quilter believes the play’s universal appeal stems from the fact that “it’s the classic Hollywood story of the burned-out performer. It’s the Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston story as well. It’s Norma Desmond.”
It’s also the classic story of alcoholics and their enablers.
But for gays, it’s so much more. The play dissects the complex, impenetrable relationship that gay men have with their divas. Quilter brilliantly uses the character Anthony as an emblem for all those fans. But unlike the garden-variety gay fan, Anthony’s complex personal relationship with her, much like Herron’s, has a devastating impact on his life.
Dean embodies all of Garland’s husbands, and his conflict with Anthony reflects the fight for ownership that Garland’s gay fans waged with the straight establishment. In many ways, Dean represents the studio bosses who set Garland’s life on a ruinous course by addicting her to drugs in order to exploit her talent. Anthony’s belligerence toward Dean is the outrage of all gays toward Garland’s handlers.
Unsurprisingly, Quilter said that gays have been the play’s most unpredictable audience.
“The (English) gays were all over it like a rash, as we say in London,” Quilter said. On the other hand, “In New York, the queens are very protective of her. She’s untouchable in New York. They wanted the Meet Me in St. Louis Judy.”
Los Angeles gays were more like their English counterparts. “In L.A., the gay community was all over it and celebrating it,” Quilter said.
Garland’s daughters Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli have not commented on the play. “They don’t like anybody doing anything about Judy that they’re not involved with,” Quilter said.
It’s understandable. Of all the collateral damage left in the wake of Garland’s storm, they have to be the most wounded. At least her fans still have the rainbow.
Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of End of the Rainbow runs through Feb. 9 in Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. For details, please visit www.milwaukeerep.com. WiG is the production’s media sponsor.
In the winter of 1968, Judy Garland was on the ropes personally and professionally. Plagued by addictions, drowning in debt and just entering her fifth marriage, she desperately hoped that a six-week engagement at London’s Talk of the Town would revive her dying career. She planned to recapture the energy of her 1961 Carnegie Hall comeback performance, which had catapulted the former star from obscurity back into the limelight.
But in show business, lightning rarely strikes twice. On June 22, 1969, the fading chanteuse was found dead in her rented London home. Authorities said her death was the result of “an incautious self-overdose” of barbiturates.
She was 47 years old.
Garland’s untimely demise coupled with her enormous talent sealed her legend. The final months before her star finally fell forever are chronicled in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, which opened on The Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse stage on Jan. 10.
Rainbow is a snapshot of a period that, for Garland, was most certainly the worst of times. Set in a suite in London’s Ritz Hotel and the nearby Talk of the Town nightclub, Quilter’s musical drama dissects the disintegration of Garland’s massive talent. Each day depicted in the play is overladen with the suspense of whether Garland is too strung out on alcohol and pills to perform
In the play, Garland, portrayed by Chicago-based actor Hollis Resnik, is propped up by new husband Mickey Dean (Nicholas Harazin) and gay, Scottish-born pianist Anthony (Thomas J. Cox). Both are fighting a losing battle against Garland’s growing appetite for Stoli and Seconal. What they don’t realize is the erratic nightclub performances, far from her best, would be among her last.
“At its core, this play is a moving story about a woman fighting through her difficult life with incredible passion and attempts by the people who loved her to help her,” says Rep artistic director Mark Clements, who also is directing the production. “With this story and the powerhouse songs woven into the story, this will be a great production for Milwaukee.”
Quilter was drawn to the material by Garland’s legendary status and the drama of her final years. Garland, who first became hooked on barbiturates fed to her by MGM studio executives during the rigorous filming schedule of the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney, was an enormously complex character who truly was larger than life.
“She was both ferociously difficult and incredibly loved, financially broke and yet world famous, married several times but still searching for love, capable of singing beautifully one night and terribly the next,” Quilter says. “Those final years of her life were incredibly dramatic and compelling, and I was just fascinated by the kind of car crash of emotions and situations in her life.”
The narrative is not without its lighthearted moments, however, often in the form of zingers spoken by Garland, who was known for her wit. Still, the play’s main draw for Garland fans will be the music.
Rainbow contains some dozen or so of Garland’s greatest hits, including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” “For Me and My Gal,” “You Made Me Love You,” “The Trolley Song,” “Get Happy,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.” The combined musical and dramatic demands of the role place enormous pressure on the actors who fill Garland’s shoes, Quilter says.
“You need a performer with a great singing voice, the ability to play a huge range of emotions, plus a terrific sense of humor,” Quilter says. “Garland was very funny, even when things were falling apart. Playing tragedy while being funny at the same time is a real tightrope walk and requires a brilliant performer. Hollis Resnik has all the necessary qualities.”
Garland’s greatest post-mortem role may be that of gay icon. Theories abound as to why she has attained iconic status in the LGBT community, but several themes are consistently cited, Clements says.
“Many people say that, in addition to her incredible talent, her appeal to gay men is as someone with an incredible public life but also hidden secrets,” says Clements. “Many of her personal struggles at the height of her fame relate to the personal struggles of gay men in America.”
Quilter agrees. “The LGBT community always recognizes people that have that extra star quality,” he explains. “And that voice! She brought huge pain, joy and emotion to a song.”
Some historians point to her gay fans’ anguish over Garland’s funeral on June 27, 1969, in New York City as the flashpoint that led to the Stonewall riots, which are considered the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Others, including gay historian David Carter, refute the theory, saying the rioters were not the type to moon over Garland records and mourn her demise.
But End of the Rainbow doesn’t delve into the historical implications of Garland’s death. Instead, it captures the dying gasps of a dynamic career and a life that may have been lived too fully.
“She died tragically before her time and that gives celebrities more of an iconic status,” Quilter says. “Plus, of course, her performances at the Carnegie Hall concert, in A Star Is Born and The Wizard of Oz are still regarded as among the best ever given. That doesn’t fade. Time makes her bigger, not smaller.”
Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of End of the Rainbow runs Jan. 10-Feb. 9 in Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. For details, please visit www.milwaukeerep.com. WiG is the production’s media sponsor.
When Mark Clements signed a new, four-year contract with Milwaukee Repertory Theater earlier this year, civic leaders should have breathed a sigh of relief. Like the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Calatrava addition, Clements has done wonders for the city’s cultural profile.
Since taking the helm as The Rep’s artistic director in 2010, Clements has steered the organization to new heights. His cinematic precision as a director, his international industry connections and his embrace of more diverse and intellectually challenging works have resulted in box-office records and unprecedented critical acclaim.
Clements’ programming has drawn new audiences, including the younger and more diverse people crucial to the theater’s future. Selecting works that have targeted demographic appeal but also conform to The Rep’s emphasis on strong storytelling, Clements’ has grown individual ticket sales, adding a new revenue stream to the traditional subscription-based model. During Clements’ time at The Rep, ticket sales have grown overall by 12 percent and individual ticket sales have risen by 49 percent.
“A theater that is not growing and responding and changing with the times is not going to be in business for very long,” Clements said.
In addition to presiding over all the group’s programming, which includes 13 productions scheduled for the 2013–14 season, Clements has directed some of The Rep’s highlights of the past four years. Those include the production of Ragtime that opened the Rep’s 60th anniversary season this fall and broke the standing box-office record held by Cabaret, his 2010 directorial debut at The Rep. (Cabaret was also the group’s first musical production since 1986.)
Of course, the Rep was a highly regarded regional theater long before Clements came on board. But the company had been losing money since before the recession started. The Rep faced the challenges that all regional theaters today face — dependency on philanthropy and the risk of growing culturally irrelevant.
The Rep’s board brought on Clements specifically to turn that situation around — to shake things up and move them forward. That’s a risky assignment for an outsider coming into an institution — and a city — where the status quo often seems paradigmatic. It probably didn’t make it easier for Clements that he has the physical bearing of a linebacker and is accustomed to speaking his mind — and with a British accent, no less.
“The city was a learning curve for me,” Clements acknowledged. “I struggle with the Midwestern politeness still. I find it distracting and annoying, but I understand it now.”
One of the first issues Clements had to address was that the company’s creative choices were hamstrung by one its greatest assets, its brilliant resident acting company. The Rep’s was one of the few remaining such companies in the nation.
“With a resident acting company, you’re (limited to) choosing your plays around the strengths and desires of those performers,” Clements explained.
So he did some creative rearranging to create a company that’s “production-driven rather than actor-driven,” as he put it. He launched an associate artists program, modeled somewhat on the successful program of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. The 19 actors, directors, writers and technicians who are part of this core group form a pool of talent that Clements can call on for advice and employ to work on productions as the need for their specific expertise arises.
Another order of business for Clements was to upgrade the Rep’s technical abilities so he could put on large-scale musicals. The Quadracci Powerhouse Theater — the largest of The Rep’s three stages — got a $120,000 sound upgrade to equip it with new speakers, a new sound playback operating system and wireless mics.
His ongoing tech improvements culminated in Ragtime, Clements said. Not only did it feature the Rep’s largest cast ever (35), but it also required 43 set changes through automated wagon moves — each one of them into a unique configuration.
But perhaps Clements’ largest challenge has been to broaden and diversify the group’s programming. The result has been some unpredictable choices, including the surprise hit musical Next to Normal, about a woman suffering from bipolar disorder.
Clements said he’s driven not only by his artistic vision but also his commitment to Milwaukee. Despite his international background and resume, the city fits him like a leather glove in many respects. A big motocross fan, Clements appreciates living in Harley-Davidson’s hometown. He’s also an avid sports fan who once considered a career in professional soccer, despite growing up in a theatrical family.
Milwaukee became dearer to Clements when he truly settled down here, marrying longtime girlfriend Kelley Faulkner, a highly regarded actor who now appears frequently at The Rep (her next performance is in The Rep’s upcoming production of the landmark farce Noises Off.) After initially living in Brewers Hill, the couple moved to Fox Point after the birth of their daughter two years ago. He loves it there.
“I grew up near water, so being near water has always been a very calming and restorative thing for me,” said Clements, who drives along the lake into the city whenever he has the time, he said.
Clements, like many Brew City transplants, sees more in the city’s potential than longtime residents sometimes do. Like a native, he finds himself becoming angry and defensive when outsiders unfamiliar with Milwaukee dismiss it as some sort of Rust Belt anachronism.
Clements said his role as a local cultural leader comes with the obligation to address some of the area’s thornier social issues.
“It’s not the most progressive city I’ve ever lived in,” Clements said. “One of the things that strikes me working in the community is that I never wsee a gay couple holding hands in the street. That’s still a shock to me. And the city is still segregated racially, unfortunately. There are two fundamental things I have a zero tolerance for — homophobia and racial prejudice. I don’t understand them at all. It’s the way that I was brought up. My parents were in the theater. I don’t think my mother had a single male friend who wasn’t gay. I think my mother was the only one who’s son turned out not to be gay.”
Clements added, “The other thing I don’t get at all — I don’t understand the Americans’ obsession with gun ownership.” He explained that his confusion stems from the insistence among Americans that guns make them safer, while irrefutable data demonstrates exactly the opposite — a correlation between gun ownership and gun violence.
But Clements said the things that bother him are also a huge motivator. “They fuel me to find pieces of work so that I can be an influence,” he said. “Like Arthur Miller, I just want my play to broaden people’s horizons. People don’t want to investigate or delve too deeply. Owning our own truth is possibly the hardest thing we have to do.”
It’s hard but Clements said he’ll doggedly continue to use his theatrical influence to prod audiences in that direction, even though becoming a father has lightened his theatrical taste quite a bit.
“I used to be a real Neil LaBute freak,” Clements confessed. “But now I struggle with his work. Now I prefer plays with redemptive qualities.”