Milwaukee Rep’s ‘Unforgettable’: A Celebration of the Songs of Nat King Cole!

This is a great show to open the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2022/2023 season. And a show that I was looking forward to because Nat King Cole was my mother’s favorite singer. So, for me, there was a bit more nostalgia than just hearing and enjoying songs from my pre-Beatles youth. It felt just right here.

John-Mark McGaha, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

The star here is of course Nat and his huge catalog of hits…but bringing those tunes effectively to life is John-Mark McGaha. First, bringing us the back stories and then the hits…just like you remember them. And he’s dressed in a blue velvet jacket that I would have loved to wear on stage in one of my early rock bands! Wow! And man, can he pull it off!

And John-Mark McGaha is just fluid and easily moves from the mood of one song to another, just in the manner of Nat himself. The two songs that worked absolutely the best? Well, Unforgettable of course. The audience was primed for each and every song and each one garnered a healthy round of applause but, Unforgettable really hit the mark with the audience in the first act!

John-Mark McGaha with William Kurk on piano, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

And later L-O-V-E was the song that rocked the house and it seemed to me that even the band was swinging more easily and naturally than at any other time last evening. And Mr. McGaha is a multi-instrumentalist, taking up the guitar to fill out a pair of tunes. And he sat down at the piano a number of times to emphasize Nat’s real life role…and his turn back there doing The Frim Fram Sauce was a particularly enjoyable bit of music making around a silly conceit.

John-Mark McGaha, with Ryan Bennett on drums, Jeff Hamann on upright bass, and Jesse Montijo on sax and flute, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater

And Mr. McGaha was backed by a talented and supportive combo of Ryan Bennett on drums, Jeff Hamann on upright bass, Jesse Montijo on sax and flute, and last night Chuck Larkin was at the piano (Sat and Sun). On Tuesday through Friday you’ll hear William Kurk on the piano.

This was everything you would expect from Nat King Cole and the Rep’s Stackner Cabaret and the Artists Lounge Live who originated this piece. Everyone in attendance had a great time…as exhibited by the liberal chuckles and applause through out and the standing ovation at the end. This would be a great play to start your theater going season too!!

OH OH OH…I almost forgot! YES, their version of Mona Lisa is worth the price of admission!

Is there anything that I would change? Yes, given the talent of the combo, I would have opened with one of Nat’s early jazz trio instrumentals before bringing Mr. McGaha on stage. Feature the band and set the mood in one easy moment.

This show just opened and runs through November 6, 2022 at the Stackner Cabaret. Here is where you can order tickets! And make reservations for dinner before the show!

Extra credit reading: the program Unforgettable John-Mark McGaha sings Nat King Cole is here!

and one last thing…this is for my wife who was particularly charmed by this tune…performed here by Nat King Cole:

The Milwaukee Rep’s Professional Training Institute Production of Michael Rohd’s The Compass

First, a little bit of background on the Professional Training Institute!

The Professional Training Institute (PTI) is an advanced actor training program for students in 9-12 grade. The class of 2021/22 consists of 15 students from 10 different high schools including: Gabriela Bastardo (Golda Meir HS), Alexa Crump (Milwaukee HS of the Arts), Jonathan Edwards (Rufus King HS), Terynn Erby-Walker (Golda Meir HS), Ana Gutierrez (Ronald Reagan HS), Liam Jeninga (Delavan-Darien HS), Michael Loomans (Slinger HS), Kyra Mathias (Kettle Moraine School for Art and Performance), Molly McVey (Nicolet HS),
Yexuanj Rivera Melendez (Milwaukee HS of the Arts), Costello Mylott (Rufus King HS), Angel Rivera (Pius XI HS), Magdalyn Rowley-Lange (Ronald Reagan HS), Alexandria Woods (Rufus King HS), and Isabel Young (Walden III HS).

Just like last year, I went into this not knowing what to expect, and getting totally blown away by the experience. The Compass is a play as challenging as many of the others that the Rep has presented in the Stiemke Theater and the young people performed beyond what I expected of them. Just completely enthralling.

Now let’s get into the play a bit and then the performance. The Compass is billed as an interactive play…and as the Rep disclaims on their site, that doesn’t mean you will be hauled on stage to participate. But instead, in turn, the actors selected audience members as they entered the Stiemke and seated them in their designated area….and the group became their jurors and the area their jury box. So the audience is not acting, but not off the hook!

Marjan using The Compass, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

And the play’s content…a tech company has developed an app called The Compass. And after it gains access to your social media and you complete a profile questionnaire, it will make ‘decisions’ for you based on ‘your experience’ as recorded in the app, if you ask a question starting with “would i…’! And not unlike other contemporary apps, the young woman who is the main character relies heavily on The Compass to make her way through life. So as we move through the play, the questions multiply and the answers are always acted upon…and the big question that eventually gets asked after a major upheaval…is…how much responsibility does a person have for his/her actions if they are relying on this app?

Marjan and Chaz, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

So this is a very timely play. How much influence do we feel from social media or technology. And with the continued growth and development of artificial intelligence, is it inevitable that a real life app like The Compass will come to market? From the context in the play, it would seem that The Compass may be the apex of peer pressure.

So how does this play out in the play? Well we meet the characters in a rather random way it would seem. In little groups or clusters in vignettes and the time line is fluid, meaning one scene may be contemporary with the next one two years ago and the next a year from now. It is very effective story telling and the audience is kept up to date with the calendar date and relationship to the action being projected on the stage wall as the scenes change.

the trial, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

So the audience is kept a little off balance as we learn different facts in or out of order…and the reason that makes a difference…is the interactive nature of the play. At different points in the action…the action stops…and the actors visit their respective juries and ask a number of pointed questions that we discuss and the actor takes away a consensus or some pertinent quotes. These are worked into the play at different points and presented by the actors from the stage. And an interesting side note is the audience jury’s thoughts and ideas are also fluid and subject to change as new facts come into evidence as the timelines start to converge.

And the final focal point of the play is a trial, where Marjan (played by Terynn Erby-Walker) is on trial for a very serious transgression on her part…and the culpability for the event is the argument in the case. The prosecution of course puts the full responsibility on Marjan while the defense poses her as the victim of the technology that she has come to rely on to make decisions. It becomes a sticky mess…and far more complicated that it seems in my brief description here. But Michael Rohd provides us with seemingly valid reasons for both positions plus enough other data points to add additional doubt or conflict. At the end each audience juror has to vote guilty or not guilty and I’ll admit to changing my mind during the performance. And the final count at the Sunday matinee was 56 guilty and 55 not. I heard someone in the audience who had attended an earlier performance say that time it was 57 not guilty to 30 guilty.

Stand outs here start with Terynn Erby-Walker who is front and center much of the play. And although the character relies heavily on The Compass, Terynn also provides us with insight to a very thoughtful and involved high school student who takes on the adult world in a determined way…and is largely discounted. I also enjoyed Alexandria Woods as the prosecutor…very effective presence as someone who knows how to do what they need to do. Her opponent Jonathan Edwards as the defense attorney countered the prosecutor’s positions effectively and he too had the presence of a skilled and determined lawyer. And Gabriela Bastardo as Chaz, Marjan’s BFF who also uses The Compass but plays a more carefree character overall, unlike Marjan who often weighs her action. So Chaz is more of a just do it personality and unfortunately that mindset sets in motion the events leading to Marjan’s downfall.

the jury, photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

Despite the amazing 2021/22 Milwaukee Repertory season that we just experienced, I think the PTI presentation of The Compass was the most rewarding theater I have seen this year.

photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Rep.

and the rest of the creative team:

PSA: Milwaukee Rep’s One Day Sale For “A Christmas Carol”!!

A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens | Directed by Mark Clements

November 29 – December 24, 2022

Pabst Theater

Milwaukee’s Favorite Holiday Tradition

A Christmas Carol is one of the best-known and loved stories in the English language. During the course of one memorable Christmas Eve, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future help Scrooge discover that it is never too late to change his miserly ways. Enchanting music, dance, costumes, scenery and special effects will once again fill the theater to tell this timeless tale of love, hope and redemption.

“Through its dedication to this holiday tradition, Milwaukee Rep creates a Christmas Carol that feels like coming home – warm and inviting, familiar and expected.” – BroadwayWorld

IN CASE YOU DIDN’T READ THE BANNER HEADLINE: Tickets purchased on Monday July 18, 2022 for the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2022 presentation of A Christmas Carol will be discounted!! On Sale as it were. So don’t miss this opportunity to purchase tickets for your preferred date and time.

Click here to access the Rep’s ticket page!

We are pleased to announce beloved Milwaukeean Matt Daniels will perform the role of Scrooge in the 2022 production of A Christmas Carol. Trained at Juilliard, Mr. Daniels previously appeared in Titanic The Musical, Junk, Guys and Dolls and Man of La Mancha at Milwaukee Rep. He has extensive acting and directing credits across Wisconsin and Milwaukee Rep is thrilled he is taking on such an iconic role in Milwaukee’s favorite holiday tradition.