May 24th, 2016

Milwaukee Metropolitan Voices, “Ten Years Together, Ou

On Friday evening, May 20th, we went to Next Act Theatre for the 10th Anniversary concert by Milwaukee Metropolitan Voices.

This was a very energetic and joyous vocal concert. The company opened with a medley from the Strauss operetta A Night in Venice: “The Party of the Year,” “Gaiety in Venice,” and “When You’re in Love.” They continued in the operetta mode with a piece from Franz Lehar’s The Land of Smiles, “One More Ball.”

Then, they introduced “The Hard Knock Kids,” a group of students from Zablocki school, “wrangled” by chorus member Barbara Czarkowski, on “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music.

One of the featured soloists, Geraint Wilkes, was unfortunately ill that night, so Artistic Director Trefor Williams filled in with a solo on a traditional Welsh ballad (I’m afraid I didn’t catch the title), which he juxtaposed with the “South Wales pub version,” which had humorous English lyrics to the same tune.

The chorus then continued with a very lively version of “When the Saints go Marchin’ In,” followed by “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” by Eric Idle, from The Life of Brian.

The group had a very upbeat and interesting arrangement of Route 66, which has been a past favorite, and ended the first half back in The Land of Smiles, with “Patiently Smiling,” and “You Are My Heart’s Delight.”

The second half opened with ‘We’ll Keep a Welcome,” by Jones, Joshua, and Harper, followed by a lovely solo by Claire Bilicki on “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from the opera Gianni Schicchi.

Next, was a nice version of “Follow Me,” by John Denver, and a rousing rendition of “Seize the Day,” from the musical Newsies.

Then, the kids were back for, “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” from Annie, which was simply charming.

Mr. Williams soloed again with “If I Can Help Somebody,” a very moving anthem. The chorus took over again with “At the End of the Day,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables.

Next up was “Rhythm of Life,” from Sweet Charity, and an audience sing-along on “Edelweiss” from Sound of Music.

The concert wound up with “King Champagne” from Die Fledermaus, and “Goodbye!” from The Producers.

This concert was full of lovely music, very well sung. A couple of songs were accompanied by dancers Sian Davis and Matthew Nienhaus, notably “One More Ball,” and did a very nice job.

We’ve enjoyed MMV concerts before, and probably will again soon, as they have a very ambitious and interesting 2016-2017 season coming up.

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Milwaukee Ballet, Alice (in Wonderland)

On Sunday afternoon, May 22, we went to the Marcus Center to see Alice (in Wonderland), a story ballet choreographed by Septime Webre, with music by Matthew Pierce.

The story is largely based on the familiar Lewis Carroll story, with observable influences from the Royal Ballet version, specifically the prolog with Alice's family; and the recent Tim Burton movie, in which Alice slays the Jabberwock.

The ballet opens with Alice (Alana Griffith) drowsing in an armchair on an otherwise bare and colorless stage. She awakens and performs a short, poignant, pas d'ane. Then, things get chaotic as members of her family and household enter: annoying sisters (Valerie Harmon, Itzel Hernandez), domineering mother (Susan Gartell), absent-minded father (Patrick Howell), dotard grandfather (Marc Petrocci), somnolent grandmother (Lahna Vanderbush), and put-upon butler (Parker Brasser-Vos). All of these appear later as wonderland characters. Then Lewis Carroll (Alexandre Ferreira) enters and sets up for a family portrait photograph. As the picture is taken, lights change and the White Rabbit (Brasser-Vos) enters and invites Alice down the "rabbit hole," in this case portrayed as a giant keyhole.

After a falling scene cleverly done with both "flying" effects and puppetry, Alice lands in the hall of doors, which involves some clever choreography with the doors and gremlin-like beings that control them. Alice's growing was also neatly done, as she raised up on the flying wires, her skirt lengthening, eventually revealing another dancer's feet below.

There are a lot of scenes and characters, so I'm not going to go over all of them. All were very good, but particularly notable were Davit Hovhannisyan as the Dodo, dancing very powerfully and athletically; Garret Glassman and Marc Petrocci as the Fish Footman and the Frog Footman, who dance a fun, bluesy pas de tres with Alice; Timothy O'Donnell and Barry Molina as the Duchess and her Cook, who have a duet where the Duchess assumes the "male" role, lifting and twirling the Cook; and Marize Fumaro as the Caterpillar, who worked in remarkable concert with the "Guys in White" (characters, eventually "cards", who do scene shifting and other character support) who lift and move her body through the sinuous movements of the Caterpillar; and James Gilmer as the Cheshire Cat, who performed a jazzy, seductive dance with Alice.

Speaking of seduction brings up the character of the Queen of Hearts, danced with great power by Susan Gartell. This character is both sexual and dangerous. In her earlier appearances, she wields a riding crop while being carried around by bare-chested Guys in White, and sometimes literally using them as stair steps. This makes one wonder if there isn't supposed to be a bit of an "Electra complex" going on between Alice and her mother, which is a bit jarring in what's otherwise presented as a very child-friendly ballet. (Young members of the Ballet School make delightfully cute appearances as baby flamingos (inevitably parodying the "Dance of the Cygnets"), piglets, cards, and hedgehogs.)

In the second act, the Queen's croquet game goes badly when the Queen loses, blaming the hedgehogs. Alice intervenes to save them, but is forced to flee into the forest. The Queen unleashes the Jabberwock to hunt her, which is a wonderful large puppet. Alice slays it with the help of The Mad Hatter (Mr. Ferreira) and Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee (Mr. Glassman and Mr. Petrocci), and a Vorpal Sword found conveniently to hand. Alice and friends are rounded up by the card soldiers to confront the angry Queen, at which point Alice realizes they are only cards. The other characters disappear, and Alice awakes in her chair at home.

The structure of the ballet is a somewhat uncomfortable fusion between "classical" ballet and story ballet. (We are somewhat spoiled by Michael Pink's smooth transitions and through-composed choreography.) Quite a few scenes just end, with no intervening action. When characters are done with a solo, they frequently just leap off into the wings and vanish. The large dance number for the corps, semi-obligatory for classical ballet, was inserted as a lengthy dance after the Caucus Race, with the dancers costumed as Flamingos, which don't appear in Carroll until the Croquet Game. This dance did nothing to advance the story, and could have been shorter with no loss.

It was nice that the composer, Matthew Pierce, not only attended, but conducted the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra and played solo violin as well. The score was pleasant to listen to, although I recall it as being mainly rhythmic accompaniment for dancing, with nothing in the way of memorable tunes.

The costumes, by Liz Vandal were fantastical and attractive. One curious thing was that the Flamingo dancers head pieces had the beaks on backward, but that was the only really strange detail.

Criticisms aside, we enjoyed this ballet very much. It was both beautiful and amusing to watch and listen to, and we were very glad to have seen it.

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Captain America: Civil War

On Saturday evening, May 21, we went to see the latest Marvel superhero movie, Captain America: Civil War. While Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is the nominal protagonist, it is really part of the mainstream "Avengers" plotline, as most of the Avengers (with the exception of Thor and Hulk) appear, as well as some new important characters.

The plot opens in Lagos, Nigeria, where the Avengers are on stake-out, waiting for action by mercenary criminal Crossbones (Frank Grillo). Crossbones and his gang succeed in seizing a dangerous biological sample. The Avengers manage to recover the sample in a relatively low-profile exploit, but things go wrong when Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) redirects the blast of Crossbones' suicide bomb away from Captain America, but loses control and damages an apartment building, killing envoys of the reclusive nation of Wakanda.

The team gets raked over the coals, ignoring the fact that the Skrull invasion of New York, the Ultron incidents, and the Lagos situation would all have ended far worse had the Avengers not intervened. They are presented with the "Sokovia Accords", named for the East European country devastated by Ultron, a United Nations resolution which requires that the Avengers operate only under the oversight of a U.N. panel. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) supports the measure due to guilt feelings. Rogers, however, objects, arguing that individual conscience is a better guide than political agendas.

Stark and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) go to the United Nations complex in Vienna for the signing of the accords. The building is attacked by a vehicle-borne IED, which kills King T'Chaka of Wakanda. When Bucky Barnes, the "Winter Soldier" (Sebastian Stan), is implicated in the attack, a three-way manhunt begins. Cap and Falcon (Anthony Mackie), try to get to Barnes before an international task force with shoot-on-sight orders, managed by Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman, refreshingly playing a jerky government thug--), while T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), now King of Wakanda, hunts Barnes for his own revenge. This snowballs into a major confrontation, with none of the respective players knowing that they are being manipulated by another unknown hand.

Captain America: Civil War, does a nice job of encapsulating the freedom versus accountability debate that raged in the pages of Marvel comics, and handles the subject with both dignity and passion. While there is right on both sides, Captain America's position is of course the sentimental favorite. To the movie-maker's credit, the issue is not wrapped up at the end of this film, although we can see which way the wind is blowing.

I do tend to agree with other critics that this may be one of the best superhero movies made to date, although not without its flaws. I didn't find Tony Stark's berserkergang in the final combat particularly believable, it seemed out of character. It was good to see the new characters, which I thought were done generally well: Black Panther, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, new to me, not having seen the Ant-Man movie), and Tom Holland as the newest Spider-Man. Peter Parker is somewhat of a problematical characterization, since Downey's Stark gets all the wisecracks that have long been Spider-Man's trademark, and Scott Lang/Ant-Man has some of the humor, which leaves Parker as a hyper-nerdy kid. (Spider-Man<>: [to Bucky] "You have a metal arm? That is AWESOME, dude!") Time will tell if this will stand up for long--. I found the characterization of Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) to be interesting and well tied-in with the theme of the movie and totally unlike the comics' Baron Zemo, who was Marvel's second-string Doctor Doom.

Next up from the Marvel Movie Machine is Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbach, and coming out this November. Of course, they had a trailer for it along with Captain America, and it looks great, potentially. We look forward to it.

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