December 14th, 2009

Wisconsin Cream City Chorus, "The Tree of Life: Reflections of Family"

Saturday, December 5, we went to the Wisconsin Cream City Chorus'
holiday concert at the Unitarian Universalist Church West, which was
entitled "The Tree of Life: Reflections of Family." This was billed as
another of the Chorus' "choral theatre" productions, but was very light
on the theatre portion as compared with some recent shows.

The conceit was a sort of mildly alternate history, in which there had
been an all-inclusive musical review in Milwaukee doing holiday shows
since 1934, which made this the 75th Anniversary season for the
supposedly now struggling group. The writers provided an extensive and
very plausible history, including an insert to the program book with
bios of all the major characters, and a "retrospective" board with news
clippings and posters from past concerts, which made excellent use of
the graphic talents of Emory Churness. Therefore, it's rather a pity
that due to last minute shuffling with the church the display was placed
out of any traffic area and so didn't get the attention it deserved.

Other changes evidently resulted in cutting most of the supporting plot
for the theatrical elements, which must have been confusing to anyone
attending who wasn't paying attention: there were sincere tributes to
the non-existent "founders" and other people part of the story line, and
a few more "kitschy" songs included non-ironically ("White Christmas"
medley) than one might otherwise expect from the Chorus we know.

That being said, the musical portion of the concert was very well done.
Particularly notable were Lindsey Tauber's solo on "Tree of Life," the
Chorus on hymn to Persephone "Kore Evohe," the multi-lingual "Silent
Night for All the World," Kwanzaa song "We Are the Breath of Our
Ancestors," and "Chanukah Suite," which was a very difficult piece but
flawlessly performed. Guest artist Corky Morgan (a.k.a. "Tree of Life
Players" alumnus "Donnell Udamu) showed off a very fine voice and a lot
of charisma in his featured numbers, and was a nice addition to the

While very enjoyable, I found that the very earnest framing device
caused the show to lack some edge and energy I am used to seeing for
this group. However, I must admit I was not in the best frame of mind,
my "seasonal blues" having chosen that night to kick in, and this may
have colored my judgment somewhat. The Chorus, under Kristen Weber's
direction, continues to grow and expand musically, and they are always
well worth listening to.

Off-The-Wall Theatre Company, "La Cage Aux Folles"

On Sunday the 13th, we went downtown to the Off-The-Wall Theatre
Company's production of the musical "La Cage Aux Folles" ("The

We are very fond of this show. We first saw it in Scotland in 1992. We
were there in August, which is the time of the Edinburgh Festival and
its "Fringe" which draws in arts groups from all over the world,
performing in every venue and hall that can be found, ranging from the
grounds of the castle (which hosts the famous Military Tattoo) to a
converted school bus. We had gotten in line for Fringe tickets at the
central box office and were intrigued by members of the Cambridge
College group who were promoting their show to the queue, one of whom,
in a long evening gown, was doing a vigorous if precarious dance atop a
concrete bollard at the streetside. We took one of their flyers, and,
when the show we had intended to ask for was sold out, decided to take
tickets for "La Cage" as next choice.

The show ended up being a long trek across town and staged in an
upstairs schoolroom with bleacher seating, but it was magical and we've
never forgotten it.

For those not familiar with the plot, Georges (Dale Gutzman, in the OTW
production) runs "La Cage Aux Folles" a San Tropez nightclub famous for
its drag review, which stars Albin/ZaZa (Karl Miller), Georges' "wife"
of more than twenty years. Georges also has a son, Jean-Michael, the
result of a heterosexual experiment 24 years ago. Jean-Michael has
become engaged to Anne (Jacqueline Roush), the daughter of a notoriously
homophobic politician (Lawrence J.Lukasavage). In order to gain Anne's
parents' consent to their wedding, Jean-Michael demands that Georges and
Albin help him conceal the fact that he has been raised by two gay men.
"Hilarity ensues" in a French-farce inspired fashion, but "La Cage" has
a lot more heart and sincerity than the typical farce.

In fact, I said, "Look, for the holidays we want something sweet and
sentimental with lots of family values" --which describes "La Cage Aux
Folles" perfectly--. There is the self-affirmation of "A Little More
Mascara" and "I Am What I Am;" songs about love and loving, "With You On
My Arm," "Song on the Sand," and "Look Over There;" and the inspiring
"The Best of Times Is Now." It really is hard to find a show with a more
uplifting set of lyrics.

Although Dale Gutzman has been a feature of the Milwaukee theatrical
scene since I got here, I'm more used to him in the
Impresario/Producer/Director role, and was glad to see he's still got
'chops' for performing. He's a good actor, did a decent soft-shoe, and
sang Georges' role with strength, emotion, and precision. It would be an
overstatement to say he has a beautiful voice, but then the role doesn't
call for it. (The cast album you can get stars Gene Barry as Georges,
who is not exactly famous as a musical star--). Karl Miller as Albin
quite steals the show as the character ought. He's wonderfully comic as
Albin, but when "in character" as ZaZa, has the drag star mannerisms
down pat, and is mostly quite passable in character, unlike some of the
"Cagelles," for whom a certain lack of realness has valuable comic
effect. (Not to say that all the Cagelles were in bad drag, quite the
opposite, most were quite good. (One of the more thankless jobs in
theatre must be to be a member of the Cagelles when you are a real woman
as some in the cast were. You do everything the males do but don't get
any extra points for it--.)) Miller is a powerful singer, and absolutely
the high point of the show was the first act finale, when he lets it all
out on "I Am What I Am." We are used to hearing and seeing Albin's
defiance in this song, but Miller also gave us Albin's raw hurt and
anger, and it was truly affecting. In the second act big number "The
Best Of Times," Miller showed a charm and charisma that made you
understand and believe why "ZaZa" is the most beloved performer on the
Cote d'Azur. (It is a pity that the movies adapted have all been
non-musical, since a lot of Albin's best material is in the music.)

Another long-time Gutzman associate, Jack Forbes Wilson, provided the
musical accompaniment, and also interacted with the cast as "Jacques,
the pianist," and did a marvelous job that made you forget the "band"
was only a piano and some occasional percussion.

The principals were very well supported by the rest of the cast, with
special kudos to the "Cagelles"; Mercedes (Jeremy C. Welter), Phaedra
(Parker Cristan), Chantal (Ben George), Hanna (Christopher Elst), Fifi
(Paul Pfannensteil), Angelique (Liz Mistele), Paulette (Annie Mater),
and Soupcon (Sharon Rise); all of whom danced enthusiastically and often
acrobatically in the theatre's cramped quarters. (Located in a former
storefront, I often think of it as the "Hole-in-the Wall Theater." It is
amazing what they do in there.)

The show drew a well-deserved standing ovation, and we overheard that it
is sold out for the rest of its run. We left feeling very happy and
humming the music.

The Dreaded Annual Review

That's what I've come to call this time of year, with its pretty much
inevitable summing up of the past year's events. Since I've determined
that I have a mild tendency toward Seasonal Affective Disorder which
tends to kick in about the first week of December, being aware of that
helps keep me on an even keel and pull myself out of it most times. No
question, there's been some rocky Decembers--I've lost jobs, had family
members ill, had aged relatives die, the usual things, but not lately.

This year has been an annus horribilis in a lot of ways for a lot of
people, particularly given wide spread problems like the economy and the
flu. The main issue for us has been tension, first dealing with the AT&T
labor negotiations, which are just now getting into final stages for the
Southeast and East regions. There was the question of whether there
would be a strike at all, having to travel for strike training, and
worrying about having to actually try to perform my new duties should I
be called upon to. Then, in the last quarter, came the announcement that
there would be job cuts in my workgroup. For my team, 3 of 12 managers
were laid off. That I was not, and actually got a raise, is at least one
thing that I can count to my personal credit, having worked to obtain
and maintain a good opinion among my supervisors. We also managed to get
H1N1 vaccinations with relative ease through a City of Milwaukee Health
Department clinic, so that's a load off the mind.

For the rest, the fact that we and my immediate family have all retained
our jobs and reasonable good health is of course out of my control, and
my biggest problem seems to be a kind of "survivor guilt," as figurative
lightning has struck all around us. Nearby, we've had two very close
friends die, one after a long hard struggle, and one with shocking
suddenness. Both have left behind families devastated in different ways.
In another degree of separation, one of Georgie's co-workers had both
parents die within a month; a couple of mine lost parents as well, and
my supervisor had his brother make a serious attempt at suicide, and his
wife diagnosed with cancer. We've got numerous friends suffering
long-term job loss who are scraping by.

So, while I suppose that it's appropriate to feel some modest
satisfaction at my accomplishments, thankfulness that tragedy has passed
by (albeit closely), and cautious optimism for the coming year, it's
hard to feel really jolly.

That being said, I hope that every one who reads this will have a happy
holiday of whatever sort you celebrate, and a MUCH BETTER New Year!