Milwaukee Rep’s World Premiere Rock Musical: Run Bambi Run

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater opened their main stage season in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater with their World Premiere of their Rock Musical: Run Bambi Run. For many of you, this will ring a bell. And yes, it is a musical developed around the dramatic events in the life of Milwaukee’s Lawrencia Bembenek, particularly her conviction in the murder of her husband’s ex-wife, the turmoil around the case, the facts and fictions, the various men in her life, and her eventual escape from prison and capture in Canada.

This all started back in 2012 when the Rep’s Artistic Director, Mark Clements, engaged playwright, Eric Simonson, to write the book for a new original musical for the Milwaukee Rep. Simonson suggested the Bembenek story and he and Clements dug into the story. But they needed some help along the way and enlisted Gordon Gano, singer/songwriter from Milwaukee’s Violent Femmes, to write the lyrics and songs for the musical. So, under the direction of Mark Clements…we now have…the World Premiere of Run Bambi Run.

Erika Olson and cast. Photographer Michael Brosilow. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

The cast and ensemble are quite an active bunch. Everyone seems to play two or more instruments…guitars, bass guitars, accordions, drums, flutes, clarinet, cornet, trombone, violin, viola, string bass, and I am missing something here…oh yes three different types of ukulele. Plus keyboards and drums on the risers at the back of the state! So all of this provides ALL of the music during the performance. And all of this happens while dancing like dervishes and singing rock songs at 11. So, hats off to Dan Kazemi for his musical direction, Jenn Rose, Choreographer, and Stage Manager Kimberly Carolus for making sense of all of this and keeping the flow moving!!

Ripped from the headlines! And it looks like the headlines are the wallpaper each side of the proscenium and back stage wall! And it is a key part of the real star of the show…the set! Anchored in a period bar with appropriately aged red and yellowed linoleum covering the entire stage including the thrust out to the audience, Scenic Designer Scott Davis gets it real. Now the bar, ostensibly the Tracks, is represented with an old time wooden bar, high back bar stools, the aforementioned linoleum and newspapers, and stage left and stage right, a pile of musical gear cases and TVs that are used as props, exposition (on TVs), and podiums for the actors, and add flexibility to the action. Of course the linoleum floor provides the ensemble plenty of space to work their magic though out the evening.

But why is the set the star? Well Davis has to present different aspects of the Bembenek story without having to remove the bar accoutrements. So one of the hardest working ensemble casts also earn their stage hand cards by the constant trading off of instruments…but also pulling on, pushing off, assembling, discarding…from back stage, down the ramps, from corners unseen…the huge variety of tables, chairs, cells, wall, beds, etc…to move the action from bar to apartment to park to police station to jail cell to apartment to home to courtroom and back…over and over and over again. Wow!

left to right: John Carlin, Tommy Hahn, Erika Olson, Matt Daniels, Douglas Goodhart. Photographer Michael Brosilow. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

But where would Run Bambi Run be without Bambi. I think the Rep found the ideal actor of the role in Erika Olson. Once we were past the big opening number and Olson could settle into the character, we got a focused and determined woman who set out to achieve a number of lofty goals…some as an idealistic young woman…and others later thrust upon her. But Olson gave us a sense of person hood and energy and intention…even when Bambi sometimes made poor choices. And Olson certainly has the voice and vocal range needed to convey the message exhibited in Gano’s music and lyrics. As I said, we have the ideal actor for the role…and Olson left us no doubt about who Lawrencia is in this musical…we get the sense of a whole real person. Olson’s achievement left many of the other characters seem like caricatures.

In the last scene, Bembenek states rather sadly: ” it’s not right, it’s just not right”. To which a narrator from the ensemble adds, so is this a comedy? or is this a tragedy? or just a travesty?

My solid vote is : Travesty

ensemble cast. Photographer Michael Brosilow. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

Run Bambi Run continues through October 22, 2023. More information and tickets can be found here!

Extra Credit Reading: Program and Playguide.

Lake Country Players’ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee!

I had heard of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but I didn’t know the actual story or format. So going in, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect of the play. What I did expect was a very professional tight presentation of the play by the very professional and skilled Lake Country Players…and I was not disappointed.

Obviously the framework for the story is a countywide spelling bee bringing together the winners of regional or citywide bees in the county…and of course the characters have been written to present us with every stereotypical student that you might anticipate being at the spelling bee. And director Phil Stepanski has cast precisely the right actors here and brought out their quirks precisely as needed to bring the characters to life! And allowing the cast to feel their roles and bring to bear the questioning and awkwardness inherent in adolescent life…even when trying to hide it…but the trick here was finding that place in life when the actors are already young adults playing back to their earlier space in youth.

One of the things I didn’t know originally, and that is, Spelling Bee is a musical. And here too Stepanski and cast nail the feelings and moods of the songs…while maintaining character…and getting the choreography just so. So props to Gwen Ter Haar as music director and Grace Scott as choreographer for their incredible contributions to making the song and dance interludes work so incredibly. And one more ovation for Ter Haar for the incredible costuming of the ensemble…each cast member’s persona and role was easily discernible from their attire. And I must mention the set and props…Clayton R Irwin is credited with set painting…and Nancy Hurd for props. These support areas are always singular and help bring out the atmosphere expected from the text. Another area where LCP excels and always amazes me! And yes, I have been in a gym in a basement.

foreground: Michael Kocken as William Barfee. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Players

There are nine characters…three adults…and six youthful spelling bee contestants…but there is a twist…more later.

So let’s start with the adults! Rona Lisa Peretti is the number one realtor in the county and is the moderator of the spelling bee…but not because of her business prowess…but because she wants to relive her spelling bee win some years (or is it decades) past. Peretti is brought to poignant life by Jenna Martinez who later effectively does double duty as Olive’s mother in a side bar. And the actual spelling bee arbiter is Douglas Panch who is back after a five year hiatus due to an incident but he’s in a better place now! And Noah Maguire is just perfect as the precise overseer with a quick trigger finger on the bell to spell the doom of a ‘loser’! And Daniel Bingham is Mitch Mahoney…yes he is…a miscreant doing community service by acting as the official comfort counselor, handing out juice boxes, hugs, or handshakes when a contestant suffers the catastrophe of a ringing bell. He also serves as one of the Logainne’s sidebars. Despite his youth, Bingham pulls off both ‘adult’ roles.

foreground: Allison Chicorel as Olive Ostrovsky. Photo courtesy of the Lake Country Players

Allison Chicorel brings us Olive Ostrovsky, whose father is late arriving for the bee, whose mother is in an Ashram in India, and who has made best friends with a dictionary. Chicorel brings us the blend of assurance and indecision and a bit of insecurity that inhabits Olive’s persona. And she is involved with just a bit of late play conflict when she and William Barfee are the last two standing. And William Barfee is the essential nerd in this piece, and Michael Kocken makes it seem like the part was written for him. He has certainly mastered his special spelling talent, the magic foot, until his resolve starts to crack when he realizes he has feelings for Olive in the final round. BTW: it’s pronounced Bar-Fay! Emily Mertens plays Marcy Park, a total overachiever in all ways adolescent and Mertens is able to make us aware of Marcy’s accomplishments quite determinedly. Yes, she knows SIX languages as Mertens beautifully explains in the song I Speak Six Languages! And she has her own sidebar when she decides she needs a harder word to spell and asks Jesus for help…and he appears to her in the person of Clayton R. Irwin! The result isn’t quite what she expected.

And an amazing Thomas Hess inhabits an over the top Leaf Coneybear, a youngster who makes his own clothes in certainly his own style, and is just just out there. He’s in this particular bee because other contestants couldn’t make it because the bee coincided with a bat mitzvah. Hess has the proper energy and lack of inhibition to play the care free Leaf! And another over the top performance…in a kinder and gentler way…is Michelle Delamatter’s depiction of Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere. Also an over achiever with apparent self confidence on the surface but a bit of self doubt when confronted by here two rather overbearing fathers. Delamatter’s exuberance in the role is contagious. And her ability to shift in focus in her sidebar with Hess and Bingham as her fathers is true to form.

And lastly…I saved Clayton R. Irwin for last. He plays Chip Tolentino as an active teen-ager…socially and athletically and for an awkward moment sexually. Irwin has the aplomb and physical sensibilities to pull this off most effectively. But as one of the songs in the first act explains very clearly, life is pandemonium…and during a musical number as a prop microphone stand started to take a tumble, Irwin reached for it and the stand over reacted and the microphone caught him in an eyebrow and opened a fairly serious cut. But he championed on later as Jesus with a prominent bandage and director Stepanski was able to make subtle scene changes to continue.

One last cast mention: if you go to see Spelling Bee, there are four other cast openings that are filled by young people in attendance. So you could make your stage debut at LCP! You will earn a juice box when you hear the dreaded bell after your own spelling error!

Here is the link with more information on performance dates and times and on how to order tickets. The show runs through October 1, 2023. The show is rated PG-13+ due to some adult content and sexual innuendo. Lake Country Players present their performances at the Lake Country Playhouse in downtown Hartland WI.

Coincidentally THIS showed up in my news feed this morning! What happens to Spelling Bee Champions When They Grow Old?

PSA: One Day Sale On Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol at the Pabst Theater!

From this morning’s email,: the Milwaukee Repertory Theater announces their one day sale for their 2023 presentation of their classic, A Christmas Carol, at the historic Pabst Theater.

The One Day Sale is this coming Monday, September 25th. Tickets can be purchased at up to 25% OFF if you use the code FALL when ordering. There is a limit of 8 tickets per order, so plan accordingly!

The Rep’s Box Office can be accessed online starting at 7 AM, here …or by calling the box office after 9 AM: 414-224-9490!

Not sure?? Here’s a message from Mrs. Cratchit: