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.

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