June 28th, 2010

Historic Concordia Neighborhood Home Tour, 2010

Saturday, June 19th, was a lovely day in Milwaukee, and so a lovely day for a walking tour of homes in the Concordia neighborhood, the 20th annual such tour of open houses in that historic area.  We had ordered our tickets on-line and picked them  up at the Tripoli Shrine Temple just before the 11:00AM start time.

As usual, the tour included a good mix of the houses in the area ranging from very grand houses at 2834 and 2825 West Kilbourn Avenue to more modest homes such as 945 North 29th.  As with several of the tours we have been on,  there was one house, 915 N. 28th, that was very much a work in progress of being restored, something we always find interesting.

Several of the houses had been converted into rooming houses or duplexes and were since converted back. One different case was the house at 1016 N. 29th, which had been constructed as a side-by-side mirror-image duplex, and was in the process of being converted into a single-family home. The owners of this property had also done much with the large lot, adding both substantial off-street parking space, and an attractive rain garden to compensate for the runoff.  

We are always interested to see what people do with the houses they have, in the way of decorations and furnishings, and on this tour, 836 N. 34th St. took the prize for “coolest” with its children’s rooms featuring raised beds built to look like galleons. We agreed that we would have cheerfully given eyeteeth to have had them when we were kids--.

This was a particularly pleasant and tour of this always interesting neighborhood.

Cream City Chorus Concert: “Dancing Through Life.”

Saturday evening,  the 19th, we drove out to the Unitarian Universalist Church West for the last concert of the Wisconsin Cream City Chorus’ season, titled “Dancing Through Life.”  The theme of the concert was not just songs about dancing, although there were a lot of those, but songs about making one’s way through life as well.

Interestingly, the concert’s two acts broke down as the first, more heavily dance themed, which had a lot of music I was familiar with, and the second, more philosophical, which had a lot of music that was new to me.

It was kind of a daring theme for a group that doesn’t include any serious dancers and usually has pretty basic choreography. Nevertheless, a lot of good energy, motion, and timing made up for almost any perceived shortcomings.

The first half opened with “Dancing Through Life” from Wicked, and then went on with “Shine” from Billy Elliot, and “Razzle Dazzle ‘Em,” from Chicago.   “Tap Your Troubles Away” from Mac & Mabel was a really cute duet for Shirl Greeb and Hillary Giffen, but this was one song about dancing where it was particularly noticeable that no dancing was included.  This was followed by a medley of songs by Richard Rodgers and collaborators Sondheim, Hammerstein, and Hart, which was familiar and fun.

Tim Ruf’s solo, “Last Waltz for Dixie,” (from Civil War by Murphy and Wildhorn), with its elegy for the “lost cause”, might have seemed an odd choice for a group dedicated to diversity and tolerance, but was delivered with feeling and a sensibility for the pain of loss which gave some grounding to the set.

Shirl Greeb followed with another solo, “It’s an Art,” from Working, which all of us who had ever worked in food service applauded heartily.

The set built up to a big finish with “I Could Have Danced All Night,” “Tango Maureen,” (from Rent) and closed with the infectious “Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray.

After a short intermission, the second half began with “Human Heart” from Once on this Island, and continued with “I Feel So Much Spring” (A New Brain) and “Can You Find It In Your Heart” (Footloose). One of the highlights of this section was “Song of Purple Summer” from Spring Awakening. ( I was a bit surprised that this cheerful and upbeat piece came from the musical adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s dismal and sordid play.  Looking up the musical, I see the plot’s the same, and “Song of Purple Summer” is the “hopeful” finale piece.)

The act continued with “Times Like This” from Lucky Stiff, a medley from Next to Normal,  and “To A Dancing Star” (musical of the same name). And how could anyone resist ending their show and their season with a song called “The Last Curtain Call” (from Everyman)? 

This was a very enjoyable, mostly upbeat, and fun concert which showed the group’s talents to good effect.  We have ordered our tickets for next season.

Optimist Theatre: “The Tempest”

At various times Milwaukee has had free professional theatre; Shakepeare (quite a lot); and outdoor theatre, but to my recollection we have not had free Shakespeare “in the park” before.  This changed with the Optimist Theatre production of The Tempest which was performed not actually in a park, but on the grounds of Alverno College near us.

For the first major production of a new theatre company, The Tempest was a remarkable artistic collaboration, pulling together as it did James Pickering, the dean of Milwaukee’s theatrical community; Angela Iannone,  one of our premier leading ladies; a number of other very experienced actors; and resources such as those of the Milwaukee Mask and Puppet Theatre, which created some of the “special effects.”

Although philosophically and linguistically dense, The Tempest is actually a good Shakespeare play for a production using minimal resources:  other than the storm at sea in the first scene, the rest of the play is set on Prospero’s more or less desert island, with even the interior of Prospero’s ‘cell’ and the bog Ariel leads Caliban, Stephano, and Trinculo into off stage. The cast is small by Shakespearan standards, and costume changes minimal.  The show was staged on a layered platform with no set pieces. Instead, setting was supplied by “The Tribe”, actors who represented the host of spirits at Prospero’s command and who became winds, waves, trees, and rocks as needed. In the storm scene, ‘thunder’ was creatively suppled by the beating of Tribe feet on the stage platform, which not only sounded good, is quite appropriate when knowing that it is these spirits who are actually making the storm.

Pickering as Prospero was a sturdy and commanding presence most of the time, but showed us many human sides to the wizard. He is angry and bullying when commanding both Ariel and Caliban; mischievous when spying on Miranda and Ferdinand;  and when he kisses “dear Ariel,” it is implied that not all his fleshly appetites have been laid aside, and that Ariel has served him in other ways than just flying hither and yon.

Angela Iannone’s Ariel is a strong, graceful and sensual presence. She can flash her eyes and teeth in a most feral fashion,  reminding us that Ariel is neither human nor civilized by our standards.

Tom Reed created a brutish Caliban by means of simple makeup, expression and stance that was quite effective, but played more for humor than anything else. This Caliban, while good in context, never seemed to be really dangerous, nor was there any particular pathos in his speech describing how Prospero stole his birthright from him.  It must be said, however, that the scenes with clowns Trinculo (David Flores) and Stephano (Ken T. Williams) were as funny as any “Tempest” production I have scene.

Jocelyn Fitz-Gibbon gave us a bright, charming, and sparky Miranda, with a couple of enjoyable “Pippi Longstocking” moments in her interactions with Ferdinand, the Prince of Naples. Andrew Voss as Ferdinand was handsome and princely, and acted well in response to the many strangenesses of the enchanted isle.

The ‘heavies’ were well represented by Jacque Troy as ‘Antonio’, Prospero’s treacherous sibling; T. Stacy Hicks as Alonzo, King of Naples; and Neil Haven as Alonzo’s suggestible brother, Sebastian.  Hicks showed as much genuine grief at the presumed death of his son as any Alonzo I have seen.  Making the character of Antonio a woman in the script (references to “brother” were changed to “sister”) made Antonio’s corruption of Sebastian a physical as well as spiritual seduction that worked perfectly well with Shakespeare’s text.  Flora Coker rounded out the principals as ‘Gonzalo’ and played the ethical nobleman well.  ( ‘Gonzalo’ wears skirts but carries a sword; ‘Antonio’ wears pants but carries only a dagger. These choices puzzled me and seemed one of the few flaws in the production.)

The Tribe was fast, flexible, and effective in their functions, including manipulating the masks and puppets.  I have some reservations about the mask used to represent Ceres and the puppet of Juno supposedly conjured by Prospero as a masque in honor of his daughter’s betrothal; while amusing, their primitive aspect seemed too literal, as though we were seeing a ceremony by South Sea Islanders (whom the Tribe vaguely resemble) instead of spirits.

The play was further enhanced by live incidental music from the “Full Fathom Four”, an ensemble comprised of piano, two violins, and woodwind,  who also did some sound effects.

As with any outdoor production, “Mother Nature” is a player whether you want her or not. This evening, predicted showers held off, and, as the evening drew into night, the stage lighting illuminated wisps of falling dew, such that some scenes were furnished with artistic drifts of mist, which only enhanced the experience.

We definitely hope that this project proves sufficiently successful to carry on into future years.