Tag Archives: performance

The Sets List: Colors and Chords, Local H, Louis Prima Jr. and more

On stage in Wisconsin: Colors and Chords, Local H, Louis Prima Jr. and more

Colors and Chords 

7 p.m. Nov. 24 at Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee. $25. pabsttheater.org.

Want to help children and young adults on the autism spectrum develop graphic design skills with the help of professionals in the field? Of course you do. So you should stop by Colors and Chords, the fundraiser that pairs seven local bands (including Nineteen Thirteen, Testa Rosa and Jon Mueller and Chris Roseneau of Volcano Choir) with seven local artists, who’ll create works on the spot inspired by the bands’ 20-minute sets. You can discover more about the nonprofit they’re supporting, Islands of Brilliance, at islandsofbrilliance.org.

Local H 

9:30 p.m. Nov. 28 at High Noon Saloon, Madison. $13, $15 day of show. high-noon.com.

Chicago-based punk rock duo Local H has been performing with new drummer Ryan Harding for two years and so far he and original guitarist/vocalist Scott Lucas are living up to the 25-year reputation set by the band, cranking out singles, covers and a new album (Hey, Killer). And, most importantly, their live shows are still as chaotic and exciting as ever. They’ll return for a set to High Noon Saloon, with Madison acts The Hussy and Dumb Vision opening.

Louis Prima Jr. & The Witnesses 

4 p.m. Nov. 29 at Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee. $40. pabsttheater.org.

Ready for a full day of big band and swing music? That’s what WMSE is offering for its second annual Big Band Grandstand, a fundraiser to support its operations. Headlining the day is Louis Prima Jr., heir to one of the swing era’s biggest names and a fine jazz and pop musician in his own right. He and his big band The Witnesses will be joined by the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra’s Rhumba ensemble.

Kid Cudi 

8 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Orpheum Theater, Madison. $45, $50 day of show. madisonorpheum.com.

Kid Cudi burst on the hip-hop scene in 2008 with “Day ’n’ Nite,” but as his career’s progressed, he’s shifted from breakout star to cult favorite. That’s arguably a good shift for him — it’s given him the opportunity to experiment with unique sounds including frequent flirtation with indie rock. His latest record, Speedin’ Bullet to Heaven, is set to drop in less than a month, so glimpses of it should be visible in his set at the Orpheum.

Best Coast 

8 p.m. Dec. 2 at Turner Hall Ballroom, Milwaukee. $17. pabsttheater.org.

Sophisticated, sparkly and psychedelic — that’s Best Coast in a nutshell. The LA-based duo released its third studio album, California Nights, earlier this year, revealing it to be yet another dreamy yet dark exploration of the West Coast aesthetic they’re surrounded by. Hopefully they can bring some of that California sunshine along with the gloom to their Turner Hall gig. Midwestern indie rock band Cloakroom opens.

Married actors Jim Pickering and Tami Workentin tell ‘Love Stories’ at MCT

This holiday season, local actors Jim Pickering and Tami Workentin are going to get up on the stage of the Broadway Theater Center’s Studio Theater and tell some love stories — as themselves.

The two are perfectly suited for the task, being both longtime members of the Milwaukee theater community and more recently partners off stage as well. They met several years ago during a production of The Exonerated at Next Act Theater and married a few years later. Love Stories, directed by Paula Suozzi, uses as its conceit the idea that the two are in rehearsal for a trio of one-act plays about love and relationships, which causes them to reflect on their marriage. Suozzi previously directed Madison actors Colleen Madden and Jim Ridge, also married, in the world premiere production at Forward Theater in 2012.

With a play in which the lead actors play themselves, there seems no better way to get at the heart of what it’s all about than to ask them directly. WiG sat down with the couple to learn about the show and what they’ll be bringing to the stage.

How did you get involved with this production?

Tami Workentin: Michael came to us. I had him over for dinner one night and I had said to him, “I think it would be a really nice idea if Jim and I did something together.” With that, he suggested this show, which we had heard dear friends of ours, Colleen Madden and Jim Ridge, had done at Forward Theater. 

Jim Pickering: It was when I was in Spring Green, a year and a half ago. Michael plans ahead. 

What about the idea appealed to the two of you?

TW: Working together. 

Because you’ve only worked together once before?

JP: And never to this extent. The only time we worked together before, I played a cop who arrested her for murder. 

TW: (The Exonerated) was about death row inmates. So not nearly as happy. It was together, but it was in a cast. 

JP: There was a lot of people. 

TW: So this one is really a two-hander.

JP: It’s a cage match.

How would you describe the structure of Love Stories?

TW: There are the three one-acts: “Village Wooing,” by George Bernard Shaw; “The Jewish Wife,” which is by Brecht; and “Here We Are,” by Dorothy Parker. 

JP: It was Jen Uphoff (who put the plays together).

TW: Jen Uphoff Gray had done this when she was in college; she put these three together. To say that we have a full understanding of what the framework is yet — not really, because we’re still figuring it out.

JP: We’re still forming it.

TW: But the framework is that Jim and I — as Jim and I, as ourselves — are coming to a rehearsal process where these interns are there in attendance. We’re going to give part of our own life and all of that stuff in between.

JP: It’s weird. It’s taking place in the theater itself, so we just decided the rehearsal process is at the place where we’ve left the rehearsal hall and we’re just getting into the theater for the first time. There hasn’t even been tech and stuff like that. So it’s rehearsal props and rehearsal furniture, though some of it’s the “real stuff,” the way you would do with a regular rehearsal process for a play. 

I think it’s going to be really easy to identify that that’s the stage (of rehearsal). But exactly what our interaction is with one and other, and with the stage manager and with Bobby (Knapp, acting intern) and Erika (Kirkstein-Zastrow, acting/dramaturgy intern) and Megan (stage management intern) is evolving. We’re figuring that out as we go.

Why these particular plays? Why do you think they go together?

TW: Why (Gray) picked them would be a better question for her. But I think…

JP: They’re all about…

TW: Love at different stages. Relationships. What I love about “Village Wooing” is that this couple are at a later point in their lives. His wife passed away and this woman is past her prime a bit. So she’s feeling a desperation to get married and she finds this man. He doesn’t know yet that he should be in love with her.

JP: But she does. (laughs)

TW: So there’s something about that kind of love, and that kind of pursuit of love, that’s different from younger people’s. Certainly that abandon they have. “The Jewish Wife” takes place in 1935, in Germany, and she’s Jewish and he’s not. So she’s making a choice to leave and he’s not fighting for her to stay. 

JP: So “Village Wooing” examines the very beginning of a relationship, the progress of a relationship. “Jewish Wife” is the end of a relationship. And it’s not a comedy. 

Then, Dorothy Parker, who wrote all kinds of satirical and scathing stuff about men and relationships — all her poetry is kind of about that — is writing a partly satirical but very poignant comic piece about two newlyweds on a train on their way to New York for their honeymoon. And the tensions that go along with that. It’s three real different angles of looking at love stories between two people. 

We’re playing people who are younger than we are, but so what? (laughs) Michael wanted to use us because we got together late in life and after things that happened during the earlier part of our lives. There’s something harmonic about that.

Would you say those plays contain situations that are similar to your own life or vice versa?

(Both laugh)

JP: You can write down “They laughed, heartily.”

TW: Oh, hell yeah.

JP: Which is just — I mean it just tells you how good the plays are. 

TW: We’ll be in a conversation — and I’m going to use the word “conversation” very loosely (Jim laughs). There’ll be something that harkens back to the play, and Jim — more often than I, because I’ll be in the middle of it — he’ll go, “Baby this is just like in the play.” And it really is.

JP: “But shut up while I make this point.”

TW: Or, “Shut up because I’ve got to be right about this one.” (Both laugh) Yes, yes and yes.

How has it been for you as actors to prepare to reveal elements of your personal lives to an audience that may not know anything about you off stage?

TW: We don’t know the answer to that yet.

JP: It’s not going to be like — This ain’t like Real Housewives of Bay View, we ain’t opening up that far. Just hinting, I think.

TW: A crack in the door.

JP: For peeping Toms.

What has the rehearsal process been like? How would you describe getting to work together this closely?

JP: It’s exciting. It really is exciting.

TW: And you’re learning each other’s way of going. It’s interesting. When you work with someone, there’s a point at which you have to stop working. 

JP: Cause you’re going to go home and you have to live with this person.

TW: Or you’re going to kill each other. So there’s a point on the trip home where we have to open the windows of the car and let everyone out.

JP: Let everybody else out.

TW: Except for he and I. And we really have parameters for when we can talk about it.

JP: Yeah. There’s a point at which we ask permission to talk shop. You just have to set up rules like that, otherwise it’s chaos.

TW: We also have a younger son who’s home too, who’s 13. He comes home with his life, and you’ve got to be ready to hear about his day too.

Would you say you’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work together more closely?

TW: I think it’s a gift.

JP: It certainly is.

TW: It’s a crazy world; you (usually) don’t get to go to the theater for your job with your spouse. It’s kind of nice, to share it. So much of what you do in front of people is a shared experience, and it’s great that we then can get in the car and go “Wow, that felt great.” Or whatever. Art is evolving. It isn’t a movie. It changes every night. And a look or a gesture or a breath makes it different. When you’re up on the stage with someone, it’s scary. And if you’re up there with somebody who has your back, is in it with you, and you know them on a whole other level too, that’s pretty outstanding.

JP: We’ve done two plays together. Fifty percent of the plays that we’ve done have been just the two of us. That’s pretty good, I think. When Michael (asked), we were so glad. We wanted to do something together, we just didn’t know what it would be. This was the perfect situation.


Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Love Stories will run Nov. 25 to Dec. 20 at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $34 to $38, and can be ordered at 414-291-7800 or milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

Music critic Greil Marcus’ ‘10 Songs’ will rock Alverno

When it comes rock ’n’ roll journalism, few writers boast a greater pedigree than Greil Marcus — many argue the veteran Rolling Stone contributor invented the genre.

But where the San Francisco native outpaces the pack of music writers and fans is in his view of what rock music means from a cultural perspective. Marcus’ 1975 book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’n’ Roll explores the impact of rock on American culture and mythology through the stories of Harmonica Frank, Robert Johnson, the Band, Sly Stone, Randy Newman and Elvis Presley. Time recognized Mystery Train in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential nonfiction works published since 1923.

Marcus’ latest book is The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, published in 2014 by Yale University Press. In this history, Marcus selects 10 songs — some familiar, others perhaps not — and dramatizes how each embodies rock ’n’ roll. The songs, the writer says, contain the whole DNA of rock.

Forget Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” Marcus says. Listen instead to “Transmission” by Joy Division, “All I Could Do Was Cry” performed by Etta James (and later, Beyoncé) and Phil Spector’s “To Know Him is to Love Him,” first recorded by the Teddy Bears and covered much later by Amy Winehouse, among others. 

Like a good rocker, Marcus is touring. His road show arrives in Milwaukee on Nov. 20, part of Alverno College’s Alverno Presents series. Joining the author will be Jon Langford and Sally Timms (The Mekons), who will provide additional commentary and musically illustrate aspects of the songs that led Marcus to place them on his list.

WiG recently talked with Marcus about rock criticism, his book, the history of rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs and who and what didn’t make the list.

What prompted you to define rock ’n’ roll in 10 songs? I was asked by Yale University Press to write a history of rock ’n’ roll. I said it was a terrible idea, had been done to death, that there was a master narrative of all the people from Elvis to Nirvana and beyond that you had to talk about, of all the events from Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show to Woodstock and beyond that you had to talk about, and who would want to do all that again?

But I kept thinking about it and the idea of telling the whole story in just a small number of songs — I originally thought of 16, a nice rock ’n’ roll number — interested me. Especially, if you left out everything you otherwise couldn’t leave out. So, no Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Tupac or Nirvana. Name someone who had to be there and rest assured he or she wouldn’t be.

That was the premise, along with a kind of secret list. A lot of people have realized that if you could find the whole history of the form in 10 songs, you could also find it in one song, almost any song. I succeeded, except for the Beatles. There was just no way to keep them out. They are the history of rock ’n’ roll in one band.

Your choices are unorthodox, or at least none that I would have expected to be included on the list. How did these particular songs fit the bill? When I started there were only two songs I knew I would write about: The Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” and Joy Division’s “Transmission.” The others made their way into the book while I was writing it.

I never would have even thought about “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” an embarrassing No. 1 1958 hit by the Teddy Bears, if I hadn’t heard Amy Winehouse’s version on the radio after she died. I knew I had to write about it. The song sailed into the book from out of nowhere.

The book organized itself around songs I wanted to write about — or songs I’d always loved and had never written about, like the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night.” I wanted to see if I could find a story in them that I could tell.

Did you consider lyrics, melody/harmony, social implications or a combination of those and other factors when you made you choices? None of those things. If the history of rock ’n’ roll could be found in any one interesting song, then I could write about any song I wanted to write about, if I could tell its story.

I wasn’t in any way interested in what influence a song might have had outside of itself. “Shake Some Action” has probably influenced a lot of hearts, but perhaps no other songs. The Beatles’ version of “Money” is so big it couldn’t have influenced anyone, unless it was to convince them to quit before they started.

Jon Langford and Sally Timms from The Mekons will be on hand to perform during your Alverno presentation. Why did you choose them to participate? Jon and Sally are old friends. I actually appeared — I don’t know if I can say performed — with the Mekons some years ago at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. We did a show based on my book at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago last year. And we had so much fun we wanted to do it again.

I will talk and read from the book, they may talk and read from the book, but also play songs from it. There will likely be analyses from them directly, but their interpretations of the songs are analyses of the songs. 

Are there any rock songs and artists that people might consider a serious omission from your list? Of course there are. I dedicated the book, “To everyone I left out.” But the 10 songs are not meant to be the 10 best songs, the 10 most important songs, the 10 anything songs. They are a constellation of songs, all rushing off in different directions, bumping into each other, just missing each other, smashing together and coming out differently.

Given your extensive body of work, does this presentation/book represent next-generation thinking for someone who clearly looks beyond the current music scene? For me the book is a kind of conversation, with the different songs and performers talking to each other, listening to each other, as we might hear any of these songs in a single day on the radio. (And there are stations at the back of the end of the dial that might even play Christian Marclay’s “Guitar Drag” soundtrack).

So for that conversation, I wanted men and women, black people and white people, people from the 1950s and people from the 2000s. I really do believe they all speak the same language and would have no trouble understanding each other. When Jon and Sally play, I think that is what their performance will say.

Greil’s Ten Songs

“Shake Some Action,” by the Flamin’ Groovies

“Transmission,” by Joy Division

“In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins

“All I Can Do Was Cry,” by Etta James and

“Crying Waiting Hoping,” by Buddy Holly

“Money (That’s What I Want),” by the Beatles 

“Money Changes Everything,” by The Brains and Cyndi Lauper

“This Magic Moment,” by The Drifters

“Guitar Drag,” by Christian Marclay

“To Know Him Is To Love Him,” by the Teddy Bears and Amy Winehouse


The History of Rock ’n’ Roll in Ten Songs, featuring Greil Marcus, Jon Langford and Sally Timms, will be performed Nov. 20 at Wehr Hall, 3400 S. 43rd St., Milwaukee. Visit alvernopresents.alverno.edu for more information.

‘Big Fish’ director and First Stage change lives through theater

It didn’t take long for Jeff Whiting’s mother to realize sports were not his thing. In fact Whiting, a New York theater director and choreographer currently directing First Stage Children’s Theater’s production of “Big Fish,” credits his mother for launching his career.

“My mom recalls watching me on the soccer field like my brothers, but unlike my brothers I was bored out of my mind,” says Whiting, who grew up in Salt Lake City. “Luckily, my intuitive mother said, ‘There must be something else out there for Jeff.’”

Bette Whiting took her son, then age 10, to audition for a local production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” Whiting won the role of Dopey and was soon hooked on an activity that became his life’s work.

“I came to life and found my calling: to tell stories in the theater,” says Whiting. “Theater saves lives. At least, it saved my life.”

Since then, Whiting, now 43, has amassed an impressive resume. His past work includes numerous roles as an actor, assistant director and choreographer for productions in Orlando and New York. First Stage’s production of “Big Fish” marks a return to familiar material: Whiting was the associate director and choreographer for the show’s Broadway production, based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” and the 2003 film adaptation by director Tim Burton. 

The play, built around the relationship of a father who lives in a world of fantasy and myth and the son who seeks to understand who the man truly is, is perfectly suited for children’s theater, Whiting says.

“Younger audiences will be thrilled to see the enormous amount of fantastical stories that come to life right before their eyes,” Whiting says. “And along the way they will be transported to understand the bond between parent and child in a way that will surprise them.” 

First Stage is both a theater for young audiences and an academy for young performers, and multiple casts of young actors ensure the maximum number of performers can enjoy what is often their first taste of the stage and the benefits the experience offers, says First Stage artistic director Jeff Frank.

“First Stage experiences at the theater, in our academy or in the classroom all allow young people opportunities to learn more about themselves and the world around them,” Frank says. “It helps promote empathy and understanding and urges them to think for themselves, to collaborate, and to be prepared to tackle the obstacles that life inevitably presents.”

It can also change lives, Whiting says. One specific instance in which Whiting taught young actors in Harlem had a profound, lingering effect on the director.

“There was a young girl who participated in the class,” Whiting recalls. “I was told ‘She doesn’t talk — she just likes to participate — so don’t ask her to speak or anything,’ and I never did.”

During the exercise, Whiting instructed his students to pretend they were seeds and plant themselves in the dirt. They were then instructed to grow into trees that swayed in the wind. The little girl’s transformation, he said, was remarkable.

“As we all started swaying in the breeze, this young girl who had never before said a word, suddenly began to chatter and sing,” Whiting says. “All the students, and me, were completely shocked to hear her speak. But there she was, and from that day forward, she spoke as if she had always spoken.”

With an emphasis on performance and education, the troupe isn’t afraid to tackle the classics as a way to expand their older actors’ reaches. Those high school-aged actors make up First Stage’s Young Company, which will tackle Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” this spring.

“Our nationally renowned Young Company has a long history of taking on the classics,” Frank says. “It is a great training opportunity for them, and a tremendous opportunity for our teen audiences and their families to experience these classic shows being performed by some of the best young actors this nation has to offer.”

This season’s production of “Hamlet” runs May 15 to 17 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

But right now, “Big Fish” is occupying most of the company’s time, and Whiting couldn’t be happier with his involvement.

“First Stage offers a unique environment where young actors are given the opportunity to work side-by-side with the best in the business creating many original works,” Whiting says. “I worked on the original Broadway production of “Big Fish,” and to have the opportunity to re-create the show for First Stage has been a truly wonderful experience.”


First Stage’s production of “Big Fish” runs May 8 to 31 in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. For more information and tickets, call 414-273-7121 or visit firststage.org.

Orchestras welcome a month of ‘May-thoven’

Something classical must be in the Wisconsin water supply. This May, Beethoven-lovers practically can’t walk out of the house on a given weekend without stumbling on an orchestra performing one of the composer’s epic, groundbreaking symphonies.

The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will take up programs featuring Beethoven symphonies in the weeks to come. Madison’s single concert series, running May 8-10, will highlight his Ninth Symphony, and serve simultaneously as a tribute to the 10th anniversary season of their performance venue, Overture Center (see sidebar).

Milwaukee’s orchestra, on the other hand, will be performing in a distinctly different location than usual. In two concert series running May 14-17 and May 21-24 (featuring Beethoven’s Eighth and Fifth symphonies, respectively), the company will leave their home at the Marcus Center’s Uihlein Hall and perform down the street at the historic Pabst Theatre.

It’s a venue audiences have seen the MSO traveling to more frequently of late and associate conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong says it’s perfect for programs like these two.

“The Pabst is this unique space, and these concerts are a chance to really try it out,” he says. “Every hall has its quirks and every hall brings out things in the music. One of the things we knew right away was that any smaller-scale, Classical-era stuff would sound great in the Pabst.”

Each of the two symphonies has its own character. Beethoven’s Eighth is short and simple, with a buoyancy to its four movements. The Fifth, on the other hand, is known for its powerful, forceful energy. 

While both concerts will culminate with the Beethoven works, Lecce-Chong says it was equally important to precede them with works by modern composers who share Beethoven’s progressive spirit and flare for innovation. He says the Pabst’s intimate atmosphere is arguably one of the most ideal locations to experience contemporary works like these.

“Acoustically you feel very close to the performance,” says Lecce-Chong, “and I think that is a great way to experience newer music. It helps bring the audience closer to the music.”

Newer compositions by the composers sharing the bill with Beethoven will include Vivian Fung’s Violin Concerto (May 14-17); “These Particular Circumstances,” a set of seven small pieces by Sean Shepard; Nico Muhly’s “So Far So Good” and the short work “Madame Press Died Last Week” by Morton Feldmen, written in memory of one of his earliest and most influential teachers (all for May 21-24). 

“Vivian Fung, Sean Shepard, Nico Muhly, Morten Feldmen … they are really the composers of today,” says Lecce-Chong. “If you come over these two weeks you’re going to hear how the sounds of the orchestra are being dealt with today.” 

In many ways, despite hundreds of years of historical displacement, the composers whose works will be performed across these weekends represent the fearlessness of creators who push the limits of sound design and find success in their willingness to go where others might not.

“Beethoven stood out because he was always pushing the boundaries of what people thought he was going to do,” explains Lecce-Chong. “Every time they tried to pin him down to something, he was off to the races, onto the next idea. You’re hearing music that was incredibly edgy when it first came out, paired with music now that we probably consider very edgy.”

Featured soloist Kristin Lee, who will appear over the first concert weekend, will perform Vivian Fung’s Violin Concerto. Fung’s concerto is heavily influenced by Balinese Gamelan music, which she incorporated into the concerto while on tour in Indonesia. Throughout this insanely virtuosic work, Fung combines the percussive presence of the Gamelan tradition with all of the virtuosity available to the violinist, resulting in a highly colorful showpiece for the violin. 

Kristin Lee will not be the only guest on the stage. The MSO will be led each weekend by a different guest conductor. Daniel Cohen will be on the podium for concerts featuring Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, followed by Edwin Outwater at the baton for the program featuring Beethoven’s Fifth.

“My great hope is that over these two weeks that this very adventurous programming around the Beethovens will heighten the senses because you’re going to be so close to the colors, the sounds of these contemporary composers,” says Lecce-Chong. “It will be a way to experience them up close, there’s an extra chance to really connect with this music.”


The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra will perform Beethoven’s Eighth May 14 to 17 and Beethoven’s Fifth May 21-24 at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25-$90 and can be ordered at either pabsttheater.org or mso.org.


Milwaukee isn’t the only city getting in on the Beethoven action. The Madison Symphony Orchestra will conclude its season with Beethoven’s own concluding masterpiece, his Ninth Symphony.

The “Ode to Joy” concert, conducted by John DeMain, will feature a full performance of the choral symphony, with four guest artists singing alongside the Madison Symphony Chorus. Also on tap is Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade,” considered one of Bernstein’s own best works. Concertmaster Naha Greenholtz will perform the violin solos of the latter.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is considered one of the greatest works ever to come out of Western culture, but it took a bit of time to be recognized as such. As program annotator J. Michael Allsen writes, several reviewers who attended the 1824 premiere openly questioned whether Beethoven was too old and deaf to produce quality work, and the musicians were under-rehearsed on the day of the event. 

History has proven those early critiques off-target. In addition to being a dynamic, captivating work in its own right, Beethoven’s introduction of choral elements to the symphony form (as he does in the fourth movement, with the poem “Ode to Joy” made famous by its inclusion) and its dynamic evolution over the course of the four movements served as an inspiration to artists of the subsequent Romantic period and beyond.

In this case, its selection is as much a tribute to the venue as it is the composer. In 2004, the Madison Symphony Orchestra ended its first season in Overture Hall with a performance of the work, which it hasn’t touched since. This time around, the symphony will conclude the MSO’s tenth season at Overture Center.

The program will be performed three times, at 7:30 p.m. May 8, 8 p.m. May 9 and 2:30 p.m. May 10. Tickets are $16-$84 and can be purchased at 608-258-4141.

— Matthew Reddin

Joshua Radin’s musical journey travels ‘Onward’

Most singer-songwriters start early, taking up instruments in their teens or early 20s and using them and their voices in tandem to forge their path in the music business.

Joshua Radin, on the other hand, didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 30, and says he became a musician “totally by chance.” All he wanted was to learn enough chords to play a Bob Dylan song and it snowballed from there. “Pretty shortly thereafter I started writing my own songs and stopped learning cover songs,” he says.

He didn’t have to wait long to earn public attention. Radin’s song “Winter” was used on a 2004 episode of Scrubs, and the exposure launched Radin’s career. He’s been performing ever since and this month will return to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater, a personal favorite venue, for the first time in three years.

Radin says his career has been on a “slow organic build for the past 10 years.” He’s continued to write his own material, with key inspiration from “classic, great songwriters” like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Drake and Elliott Smith, among others. Vocally, though, he says he thinks his biggest influence has been Paul Simon, both in Simon’s solo work and his earlier collaborations with Art Garfunkel.

Radin’s current tour supports Onward and Sideways, his sixth studio album and second self-released record, issued in early January. He says the album was inspired by his effort to tell a woman in his life about his love for her. “We had been friends for about five years, platonic friends, and I finally got up the nerve to tell her how I felt,” he says. “But I didn’t have the nerve to do it in telling her; I had to do it in song.”

So far, it’s worked, he adds, but don’t be afraid romantic bliss will eliminate Radin’s need to write love songs. “With the right woman,” he says, “you have to woo her for the rest of your life.”

Radin recorded his first four albums with Columbia and then independent label Mom + Pop, but he decided to step out on his own with 2013’s Wax Wings. “I just like to be the only cook in the kitchen,” he says, and being on a major label didn’t afford him that ability. Releasing albums on his own terms lets him determine how it sounds, and he says his fan base has been loyal enough that he doesn’t need a major label for the sales.

He also doesn’t need them to reel in big guest stars. Onward and Sideways features a new recording of Radin’s “Beautiful Day” (first released on Wax Wings) as a duet with Sheryl Crow.

The duo connected when Radin performed as an opening act for Crow six or seven years ago. When he was approached by a car manufacturer to use “Beautiful Day” as the background for a commercial, he decided to change things up a bit and reached out to his former tourmate. “I’ve always been a fan of her music,” he says, “but then I became a big fan of her personally as well. … I just called and asked if she would do it, and she said yeah, and she nailed it.”

Radin says his live show is “about as intimate as you can possibly get,” especially now that he’s broken his touring band down to a trio. “I try to make the show feel like you’re in my living room, as cozy and intimate as possible, and I tell stories about the songs,” he says. “I really try to take the walls down between performer and audience.”

Yet while Radin’s songs are beloved for their personal feel, his goals for the future include steering away from that sort of narrative. While he says his work up to now has been similar to journal entries, he’d like to move on to taking on the personas of other people in his music — as he puts it, “jumping into the skin of someone else and looking out through their eyes.”

It’s a bold new aspiration for the songwriter as he embarks on the second decade of his singing career — and one Milwaukee audiences will surely hope they don’t have to wait another three years to see.


Joshua Radin performs at the Pabst Theater, 144 E. Wells St., at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 19. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at 414-286-3663 or pabsttheater.org.

Opera’s Kurt Ollmann returns for a Milwaukee cabaret

Singing the role of Riff in Leonard Bernstein’s “operatic” 1984 recording of iconic musical West Side Story is a highlight that pretty well sums up lyric baritone Kurt Ollmann’s career: a balance of musical theater and opera performances that adds up to quite the impressive legacy.

Ollmann’s career and artistry have deep roots in Milwaukee. He began his career with jobs at the Skylight before moving away and, after returning to Milwaukee in the ’00s, Ollmann, alongside partner Bill Lavonis, was a professor in UWM’s vocal department.

While the performer recently left the city, moving south to Georgia, he’ll return for an evening of cabaret on Feb. 27 alongside pianist Jack Forbes Wilson, a longtime friend and collaborator. You Don’t Know What Love Is will feature the two men performing a selection of love songs — from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes to French chansons and contemporary indie ballads. Ollmann also will perform at UWM with pianist Jeffery Peterson on March 6.

I spoke via phone with Ollmann while he enjoyed a morning of Benjamin Britten recordings at his new home in Savannah, Georgia, to converse with him about his upcoming performance with Forbes Wilson.

How did you and Jack Forbes Wilson first meet? I met Jack when I moved back to Milwaukee. I was in Milwaukee from 1978 to ’82, and then I was in New York and then Santa Fe. That was when the most intense part of my career happened. I moved back around 2000 because Bill and I had become partners at that time and he was going to finish up his teaching career at UWM. An old friend with whom I had sung back in the ’70s and the ’80s introduced me to Jack. She said she thought we should know each other. He invited me to sing with him at the Unitarian Church, where he is one of the music directors, and which I subsequently joined.

How did you come up with the idea for You Don’t Know What Love Is? What sort of songs did you select for the show? You Don’t Know What Love Is is also the title of a song, and one of the lyrics of that song goes, “You don’t know what love is until you’ve learned the meaning of the blues.” (The selection) is some of our favorite songs and then a few new songs, which we haven’t done before, loosely arranged around the very inclusive subject of love. Which pretty much allows you to do almost anything you want! 

I grew up partly in France and my undergraduate degree is in French literature, so we often do a few songs in French or songs by French or French-speaking composers. We’ve started doing the song “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup,” which was made famous by Hildegarde, who was a great cabaret star and who was from Milwaukee! Since I’ve moved to Savannah, I have a new area of experience, so we’re doing a Georgia section, with “Georgia on My Mind” and a song called “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah).” And there are songs of Gershwin and songs of Sondheim and songs of Cole Porter. It’s a potpourri. It’s not arbitrary, but it’s wide-ranging. 

Is that the way most cabaret performances are arranged? Sometimes a cabaret can be organized around some subject or a composer, (like) a cabaret of Sondheim songs. It can be one composer or “Music of the ’20s” or it can have some other, more limiting theme — “Songs of Spring,” or whatever. But this one is quite broad: “Songs We Like to Sing or Songs We Want to Try!” Everything comes under those two headings. 

Why does that style of cabaret arrangement work for you? I find that a much better way to go than to come up with some obscure subject, then try to find music to fit it. Then you end up doing music for, from my perspective, not the best reason. I think the best reason is when you connect to the piece, you want to spend time with it, and you want to communicate it to other people — that’s a really good reason to do a song. 

How are you and Jack approaching the rehearsal process, given that you no longer live in the same city? First of all, we have the advantage that we’ve worked together a lot — something like 10 to 12 years together — so we have a lot of repertoire. I was back in town in the summer to do a program with Jack that I had agreed to do before I moved. And that’s the case with these two gigs too; they had been scheduled before I moved. Having moved to Georgia, I would not have chosen to come back to Wisconsin in the middle of winter, but these predated my move. 

So when Jack and I were together in the summer we mapped out this program. The song list has existed now for several months, and we have talked on the phone several times since (making) a few changes. I am going to be coming a week early, and that should be enough time. 

When you perform songs from different shows, do you perform those in character? Or do you sing them from your own perspective? One of the things that I love about any kind of song concert is characterizing the song and yes, acting. I think of storytelling as acting. When I sing “Marry Me a Little” from Company, which is one of the songs we’re planning to do, I don’t necessarily think about the character of Bobby particularly. I don’t try to make it a little vignette from the show. But I definitely try to go to a place in my own spirit that connects to the subject at hand. I’m thinking in acting terms, but not necessarily the character from the show. 

Sometimes people will come back and I’ll have sung for an hour and they won’t say anything about my singing. They’ll say, “I really liked your acting! You’re really an actor!,” and I consider that a high compliment because I’m trying to tell a story.

Songs from the Golden Age of Broadway and Tin-Pan Alley seem to have an unbelievable staying power, even decades after their first appearance. What do you think gives them that quality? Well it’s sort of a chicken or egg (debate). The songs that we consider to be the American Songbook are the songs that have lasted. There are all those songs from all those composers from all those shows that we don’t remember. … But I think that with any song, you have a combination of a lyric and a melody and they both have to have strength independently, but then they also have to serve each other. They have to be greater than the sum of their parts. When you have Larry Hart writing lyrics for Richard Rodgers, the words do have genius about them. I’m drawn to songs where the text can be grasped on one listening. I think that a narrative element or an emotional moment has to be crystallized; there has to be something precise and clear about what’s going on.

Are you planning to attend any local shows while you’re in town, or visit places you’re nostalgic for? At this point, I don’t have any plans to go to any performances, although I probably should. Savannah is a very beautiful and very interesting city with a lot of history — it was actually just voted the seventh most beautiful city in the world — but it doesn’t have a lot of performing arts, not compared to Milwaukee. In the absence of it, I appreciate the density of stuff in Milwaukee. 

Florentine Opera sings to the heart for Valentine’s Day

From a little light music to A Little Night Music, Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera will once again celebrate Valentine’s Day by offering a selection of songs that speak directly to the heart.

From Vienna to the Great White Way, a Valentine’s Day-themed concert at the Marcus Center’s newly renovated Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall, will take listeners from English and Viennese light opera and operettas to the best-loved music of Broadway.

The song list stands as a “best of” selection of familiar favorites, like Franz Lehar or Lerner and Loewe, and also offers less well-known numbers that will be brand-new to most listeners, according to Florentine Opera general director William Florescu.

“I particularly like the melodic content of the early 20th century American musical theater composers like Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern,” Florescu says. “A lot of popular singers from the ‘40s and ‘50s have taken those songs and turned them into own popular works of their day, and we try and do that as well.”

The company’s February recital, which Florescu first staged in 2008, is designed to feature the Florentine Opera Studio Artists, four rising talents selected to temporarily join the ranks of the Florentine.

Now in its seventh season, the Studio Artists program is designed as a steppingstone for young post-conservatory singers ready to become full-time professional performers. It’s also a chance for Florentine patrons to have a first look at American opera’s future stars, Florescu says.

“These are front-line ambassadors for the company and they have to be able to perform at a very high level,” says Florescu, who interviewed a field of 60 performers chosen from a national pool of 200 applicants for the four slots. “We’re looking for that spark, for performers who have a natural stage presence and a lot of potential.”

This year’s Studio Artists include soprano Julie Tabash, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger, tenor Aaron Short and baritone Pablo Siqueiros. Metzger is in her first year as a Studio Artist, while Tabash, Short and Siqueiros are all in their second and final years with the program.

“We try and exploit the strength of the singers in choosing our material,” Florescu says. “This year’s group sounds so good together that we’ve tried to include as many ensemble pieces as possible in the program.”

Early 20th century arias like Victor Herbert’s “’Neath a Southern Moon” and “Live for Today,” both from Naughty Marietta, top the playlist, as does Lehar’s “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles) and “Wie eine Rosenknospe” from Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow).

There also are more familiar numbers, including Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Lullaby of Broadway” and “42nd Street” from Gold Diggers of 1935 and 42nd Street, respectively, and Stephen Sondheim’s “Agony,” from Into the Woods, and “In Praise of Women,” from A Little Night Music.

The February recital has become very popular both among Florentine regulars and people unfamiliar with opera but interested in expanding their musical horizons, Florescu says.

“I’m a real sucker for the musical areas we’re covering,” Florescu says. 

It also helps both the general director and his audiences to have a themed approach to the performances, he adds.

“Being able to move thematically from the Viennese epicenter to the Great White Way give me a pretty broad brush with which to paint,” Florescu said. “But I think it’s the breadth of material and the level of talent of these young singers that makes the show as good as it is. Frankly, this year’s group is phenomenal.”


The Florentine Opera’s production of From Vienna to the Great White Way runs Feb. 13-Feb. 15 in Vogel Hall’s Wilson Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $27 to $55 and can be ordered at 414-273-7121 or visit florentineopera.org.

Death Blues re-meditates on mortality at Alverno

Jon Mueller and William Ryan Fritch used to be complete strangers. 

Mueller, a percussionist best known for his work with post-rock groups Pele, Collections of Colonies of Bees and Volcano Choir, and Fritch, a San Francisco-based film score composer and experimental multi-instrumentalist, shared only a record label when they crossed paths by happenstance. The two took a chance on collaboration, diving into each other’s worlds. 

The result? The ongoing Death Blues project: an edgy, up-front examination of the mortality inherent in the human condition, set to reveal its latest incarnation at Alverno Presents on Jan. 31.

Mueller’s Death Blues project was first seen at Alverno in 2012. Then, Mueller says, it was in the form of an elaborate, hands-on presentation, spanning multiple rooms and requiring audience members’ participation.

This time around, Mueller and Fritch’s project will be staged in a more traditional concert setting. They’ll perform a version of their September release Ensemble, a record and essays compilation that caps several years of Death Blues releases. But while the structure of the concert is different, its nature remains the same, Mueller says, a study of how we react to realizing our lives will ultimately end.

“What happens when we thoroughly hold and understand that our lives are finite?” Mueller says. “How does this understanding of our end shape our present?  How do we become more ‘present’?”

Although the score for Ensemble is entirely through-composed, for this performance it will be reduced and reworked to suit a smaller instrumentation, including Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Jaime Fennelly on harmonium, Jim Warchol on hammered acoustic guitar, Marielle Allschwang on vocals and Nathaniel Heuer on upright bass. 

In order to transform the album, originally created by Mueller and Fritch alone, Mueller says he asked the collaborating musicians to listen to the album and synthesize a way in which each of their individual instruments will fit into the texture of the work for live performance. The result, he expects, will be a surprise for both audience members who’ve already heard the record and the performers themselves, with some on-the-spot reimagining likely in rehearsal for the performance. 

While this version of Death Blues won’t be as interactive as the original, Mueller says there will be nonmusical elements for the audience to engage with, including visual imagery during the performance. 

It’s all meant to coincide with Mueller’s central thesis: that the beauty of having an expiration date forces you to live with the present in mind and in action, and live mindfully in the face of shared human hardships.


Jon Mueller’s Death Blues will perform on Jan. 31 at 8 p.m. at the Pitman Theatre, 3431 S. 39th St., Milwaukee. Limited-edition copies of the book/LP Ensemble will be available at the event, including a digital download of the album with two exclusive tracks. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at alvernopresents.alverno.edu.

‘Kreutzer Sonata’ a duet of lust and obsession

A performance of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata requires two artists: one on violin, one on piano. A performance of Nancy Harris’ Kreutzer Sonata, adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s novella of the same name, requires a third: a gifted actor who can stand within the gaps of that sonata and tell a tale of a man driven to obsession by the passions such a work of art can evoke in its performers and listeners.

At Renaissance Theaterworks, director and co-founder Marie Kohler has such an actor: Jim Pickering, a veteran of Milwaukee’s stages since he joined the Milwaukee Rep’s resident company in the ‘70s.

In The Kreutzer Sonata, Pickering will play the narrator Pozdnyshev, the play’s only speaking role. He’s a 19th-century Russian, fresh out of prison, and he’s found himself on a passenger train with the show’s audience, inexplicably compelled to share his story with them. Beethoven’s sonata, and the act it inspired, haunts him, and fragments of it — performed by pianist Colleen Schmitt and violinist Joe Ketchum — drift in and out from behind a series of scrims. 

It’s a boldly theatrical start, one of the many reasons Pickering says he was so attracted to the role. “I love music. I love Beethoven. I love Russian literature. I love working with Marie,” Pickering says. “And I needed a job. What a great combination.”

He and Kohler found that the novella is unlike Tolstoy’s more famous works Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Written in the later years of his life, The Kreutzer Sonata came at a time when Tolstoy was growing into a religious eccentric, turning away from things of the world like music and sensuality, Kohler notes. It’s an opinion she says is often shared by his narrator, who blames a blend of the two for driving him to commit his great crime. But Tolstoy and his narrator aren’t always in sync.

“Ever since it was written,” Kohler says, “people have struggled to figure out how much is Tolstoy, and how much is the piece of art. … But the more I study not only the play, but the background material, the more you can see it’s very carefully crafted. He knows when he’s setting his narrator up to be an idiot and he knows when he’s obsessive.”

Kohler believes Pozdnyshev’s obsession is the focal point of Harris’ adaptation, which makes the titular sonata as much a character as the narrator himself. That’s in part why she’s decided to hire live musicians, rather than use recordings, and invited music director Jill Anna Ponasik to collaborate closely with Pickering as well as Schmitt and Ketchum on where to insert portions of the sonata. “Jim has an innately musical sense … an instinctive sense of when to enter, after a musical phrase. And that’s something you can’t always count on,” she says.

The Kreutzer Sonata is an interesting choice for Renaissance at first glance, a one-man show adapted from a male author’s novella produced by a company dedicated to women’s roles and women’s stories. But Kohler says it’s precisely in that imbalance that Harris’ words and her own direction can access issues of male jealousy and a woman’s desires. “(Pozdnyshev) faces all his decisions and actions from his perspective, and there’s a good chance that those are inaccurate.”

And even when it goes to unsettling places, there’s still that cornerstone: the “Kreutzer” Sonata, a thing of beauty as hauntingly compelling as Pozdnyshev’s tale.


Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of The Kreutzer Sonata runs Jan. 24 through Feb. 15 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $36 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or r-t-w.com.