Little companies score big in 2018 theater awards
By Marilyn Jozwik
Published Jan. 4, 2018
Did you know what a treasure trove of theaters there is in the Milwaukee area?
In 2018, I expanded my play-going experiences to include a number of the region’s marvelous little companies. And when it comes to theater, size does not matter.
These small groups crank out some amazing performances with their combination of passion and talent. Represented among the more than 50 shows I saw were several companies whose productions I was witnessing for the first time. Voices Found Repertory, Theater Red and Forge Theater all made significant contributions to the 2018 season.
I saw three marvelous shows at Voices Found Repertory– “Macbeth,” “Titus Andronicus” and “Medea” – each doing justice to the powerful themes and characters in these classics. Theater Red presented “This Prison in Which I Live,” the second show in its Edwin Booth Series, which featured the actor brother of the famous presidential assassin. “Becky’s New Car” featured The Forge Theater’s first-rate cast as it traveled through Becky’s infidelity and mid-life crisis.
In August, I traveled to the University of Wisconsin-West Bend to see Musical Masquers’ marvelous presentation of “Of Mice and Men.”
SummerStage in Delafield had an amazing season with three strong plays – “Tartuffe,” “Trip to Bountiful” and “Pride and Prejudice.”
Sunset Playhouse fed audiences a steady diet of musicals and comedies, including successful and ambitious presentations of “Mary Poppins,” “The Producers” and “Into the Woods,” plus a first-rate “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”
Lake Country Playhouse started 2018 with the musical “Bridges of Madison County” and a couple of nicely done comedies. In summer, LCP collaborated with UW-Waukesha and made some magic in “Pippin.”
UW-Waukesha Lunt-Fontanne Ensemble also produced a stellar “Eurydice,” featuring the creative costuming of Jazmin Aurora Medina, as well as the charming “Love/Sick.”
“The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” was the highlight of Waukesha Civic Theatre’s season, which also included fine renditions of the thriller “Wait Until Dark” and the musical “Billy Elliot.”
Falls Patio Players presented one of my favorite 2018 shows, “Miss Holmes,” featuring a fantastic Holmes/Watson combo. The group’s “Anything Goes” was a sparkling rendition of the classic musical.
An all-kids show lineup filled The Box Theatre’s stage, including a charming “Peter Pan,” while Sudbrink Productions presented a well-tuned kids’ production of “School of Rock.” And speaking of kids, Mukwonago Players used a bunch of students for its production of “Scrooge: The Musical” in the beautiful new auditorium at Mukwonago High School.
A 28-piece orchestra showcased the soaring tunes in West Community Theatre’s “The Sound of Music.
West Allis Players did well with “Evita” and Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Boulevard Theatre’s “Mothers and Sons” and Next Act Theatre’s “12 Dates of Christmas” were among the year’s best.
There was hardly a bad apple in the bunch, so determining the best was difficult. My best shows had quality performances -- from top to bottom – and were solid vehicles with well-executed staging, which added up to top-notch entertainment.
Best performers were engaging and demonstrated an understanding of their character(s) and how they interacted with others, again with the aim to entertain and/or move audiences.
Drama – Top 5
“The Children’s Hour” – Outskirts Theatre Co.
Directed by Dylan Sladky
Lilian Hellman’s riveting story featured an outstanding cast that mesmerized the audience on opening night. You could barely even hear the audience members breathing, so captivated were they by the performances.
“This Prison Where I Live” – Theater Red
Written and directed by Angela Iannone
The second show in its Edwin Booth Series gave audiences a window into this intriguing character with a smart, well-tuned production.
“Medea” – Voices Found Repertory
Directed by Jennifer Vosters
Featuring a cast of 10, this show was captivating. Euripides’ social commentary on a woman’s place in society and the household seems progressive for its time, and appropriate in light of the #MeToo movement.
“Eurydice” – University of Wisconsin-Waukesha
Directed by Margot Lange
This show was truly magical, dreamlike, ethereal -- perhaps one of the most beautifully presented works I’ve ever seen, mesmerizing and full of surprises, wit and humanity.
“Mothers and Sons” – Boulevard Theatre
Directed by Mark Bucher
The cast of Mark Neufang, Nathan Marinan, Joan End and Pamela Stace honored the script with care, respect and intelligence. And the audience left with a better understanding of the LGBTQ community.
“Wait Until Dark” – WCT
Directed by Kelly Goeller
I found this a totally engaging show from start to finish, thanks mostly to a stellar performance by Kaila Rachel Casalino as Susy.
Comedy — Top 5
“Tartuffe” – SummerStage
Directed by Dustin Martin
Opening night of SummerStage’s “Tartuffe” revealed a finely-tuned, high-energy, laugh-filled rendition of Moliere’s well-aged comedy.
“12 Dates of Christmas” – Next Act Theater
Directed by David Cecsarini
Susie Duecker as Mary, a sometime actress, sometime barista, takes us on a wild roller coaster ride of holiday relationships, starting with Thanksgiving Day.
“Miss Holmes” – Falls Patio Players
Directed by Diana Alioto
Falls Patio Players’ opening season production features Sherlock Holmes at the center, solving a series of murders. Only this Sherlock is a woman, in a thoroughly smart, sophisticated, witty and absolutely delightful production.
“Becky’s New Car” – Forge Theater
Directed by Jake Brockmann
The expert Forge cast makes the audience understand the angst of a middle-life crisis while applying a deft and nuanced hand for the comedy, which goes down as easily as a hot toddy on a winter’s day.
“The Man Who Came to Dinner” – Sunset Playhouse
Directed by Brian Zelinski
This comedy had great pacing, due mainly to Hal Erickson’s quick quipping and well-placed inflections that ranged from indignant to sarcastic, from bombastic diatribes to dismissive baby talk.
“Red Herring” – Lake Country Playhouse
Directed by Rebecca Schilling
The show constitutes a delightful couple hours at the theater, thanks to Michael Hollinger’s comedy and the cast’s fine work with it.
Musicals – Top 5
“Mary Poppins” – Sunset
Directed by Nate Adams
Sunset Playhouse has included all the magic and so much more. The fantasy of Mary Travers’ popular children’s stories from the 1930s is all there.
“The Producers” – Sunset
Directed by Tommy Lueck
This musical showcases Mel Brooks’ humor in a very slick, sleek, shiny production. It runs fast, on high octane, with first-rate, well-tuned performances, most notably that of Robert A. Zimmerman as Max Bialystock.
“Billy Elliot” – Waukesha Civic Theatre
Directed by Mark E. Schuster
The show clearly articulates its themes – the solidarity of the miners through hard times, Billy’s father wanting the best for his family and Billy keeping his dream alive despite opposition.
“Pippin” – Lake Country Playhouse/UW-Waukesha
Directed by Sandra Renick and Steve Decker
The high-energy, whimsical show articulated its classic message of youth seeking to do something great and ending with a bit of “Wizard of Oz” and “There’s no place like home” for Pippin.
“Anything Goes” – Falls Patio Players
Directed by Robby McGhee
Falls Patio Players captures all the fun and joy of the show and showcases the wonderful melodies with a top-notch cast, superb orchestra and snappy dancing.
“Bridges of Madison County” – Lake Country Playhouse
Breanne Brennan and Sandra Renick
Katie Berg’s and Eric Madson’s lonely characters are stretched to peaks of longing, lust and love, carried along gorgeously -- flowing like a river with the help of guitar, bass, violin, cello and piano.
Male – Top 5
Hal Erickson – “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” Sunset Playhouse
Hal Erickson can check this plum role off his list with a highly entertaining portrayal of the cantankerous Sheridan Whiteside. Erickson displayed his comic chops as well in Sunset’s “Any Number Can Die,” as detective Hannibal Hix.
Brant Allen – “Anything Goes,” Falls Patio Players
Allen channels a bit of Groucho Marx for this thoroughly entertaining characterization of Moonface Martin.
Robert Zimmerman – “The Producers,” Sunset Playhouse
Zimmerman’s performance is perfectly pitched as he epitomizes the crusty, scheming Max. He handles the lines with precision, never losing sight of each situation. He moves with purpose and handles several dance scenes and vocals easily.
Nicholas Callan Haubner– “Evita,” West Allis Players
As Che, Haubner delivers one of several outstanding performances in 2018. His Che is fiery, in command of every scene he’s in with strong vocals that soar in tunes like “A New Argentina,” yet can get gentle in the lovely “High Flying Adored.” Haubner also excelled in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged),” Musical Masquers “Of Mice and Men” and SummerStage’s “Tartuffe.”
Mark Neufang and Nathan Marinan – “Mother’s and Sons,” Boulevard Theater
Neufang and Marinan as gay couple Will and Cal were simply superb, trying to control their exasperation at the stereotypes and mean-spirited questions they’ve had to endure through the years. Their arguments resonate with believability.
Jared McDaris – “This Prison Where I Live,” The Forge Theater
McDaris gives a remarkable performance as Edwin Booth, tortured by his infamous brother and thoughts of his dead wife. His Edwin carries himself like the esteemed performer he is.
Other notable performances
Mike Owens’ depiction of British actor Beverly Carlton in Sunset Playhouse’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” as well as the Christmas-addicted dad in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “Candy Cane Tales and Holiday Carols”
Gene Schuldt embodied the quick-tempered, crude plantation owner Big Daddy in West Allis Players “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Steven Sizer as the crazed German playwright in Sunset Playhouse’s “The Producers”
Ted Cefalu as the irritable Scrooge in Mukwonago Players’ “Scrooge: The Musical”
Ryan Vanselow’s youthful believability as Billy and Liam Thomas’ show-stopping performance as Billy’s friend Michael in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “Billy Elliot”
Best Female Performances
Katie Berg – “Bridges of Madison County,” Lake Country Playhouse
This show really showcases the considerable talents of Berg as Francesca. From the opening we can feel her longing as she stands alone onstage. Berg’s lovely, classic soprano voice easily handles the lilting melodies.
Briana Rose Lipor - “Mary Poppins,” Sunset Playhouse
Lipor is lovely and trim as Poppins, wearing Lisa Quinn’s stunning outfits in blue and red, straight and tall like a stern schoolmarm. Her character carries off all the whimsy and magic like it’s nothing at all and with a soprano voice that soars effortlessly, as well as graceful movements and demeanor.
Cara Johnston – “Medea,” Voices Found Repertory
Johnston is mesmerizing as the cool-headed titular heroine who concocts clever strategies and uses her feminine wiles to exact revenge on her unfaithful husband, Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts).
Lori Nappe and Karen McKinney – “Miss Holmes,” Falls Patio Players
Nappe and McKinney are an absolutely delightful Holmes-Watson duo. Nappe has so much fun with Holmes, ramrodding her way through danger with total delight. As Watson, McKinney is a wonderful complement – perfectly delivering her amazement at Holmes’ intelligence, her trepidation at Holmes’ recklessness and her attempts to reign in the super sleuth’s free spirit.
Amy Hansmann – “Becky’s New Car,” The Forge Theater
Hansmann takes the lead with a whole toolbox of acting skills as she rambles through Becky’s life, which seems to be stuck in neutral. She captures Becky’s frustration with body language and a whole host of expressions.
Susie Duecker – “12 Dates of Christmas,” Next Act Theatre
Duecker’s Mary is so relatable – she’s like your sister, your daughter, your friend. She could be someone you know. She takes Ginna Hoben’s lines and makes them her own.
Other notable performances
Ashley Retzlaff as the cold-hearted youngster, Mary, in Outskirts Theatre’s “The Children’s Hour”
Joan End’s riveting journey as Katherine in Boulevard Theatre’s “Mothers and Sons”
Rebecca Richards’ fine comic turn as the nosy neighbor in Lake Country Players’ “Bridges of Madison County”
Kassandra Novell as Mr. Banks’ evil nanny in Sunset Playhouse’s “Mary Poppins”
Tamara Martinsek as the dramatic Honey Raye in Sunset Playhouse’s “Christmas Belles”
Victoria Hudziak’s wonderful comic portrayal of Dorine in SummerStage’s “Tartuffe.”
Jessica Mayer as Sarah in a hilarious bit in UW-Waukesha’s “Love/Sick”
Kaila Rachel Casalino as the blind Susy confronting gangsters in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “Wait Until Dark.”