Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

This is a reprint of my remarks about “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented on their main stage Quadracci Powerhouse Theater during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on November 17, 2018!

‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’ is billed as a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice”. Now I am a guy of a certain age…so I have never read Jane Austen…so I didn’t have any expectations for Miss Bennet. And I was totally blown away by the language…the humor…and the messages exhibited through out the evening. The action is during a family reunion of sorts at Christmas in the home of the Darcy’s at Pemberley. Even I recognize the name Darcy, lol. So of course there is the usual dynamics around family and holiday as the core theme in the play. But on top of that love and romance and a bit of conflict to bring out the worst and then eventually the best in the characters.

The playwrights, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, did an amazing job maintaining the feel of 18th Century culture and language and overlaying them with 21st Century societal concerns and trends. Extremely well done!

And the central story is the developing romance around Mary Bennet and holiday house guest Arthur de Bourgh. It necessarily starts slow…unknown to the protagonists at first…and nearly disappears when a surprise third party gets involved later. But there is a happy ending and a Happy Christmas to All!

I loved Rebecca Hurd as Mary Bennet. Incredible range from quiet questioning scholar to interested suitor to angry ‘jilted’ party to romantic lead. Wow! And Jordan Brodess as Arthur de Bourgh, her love interest and interested love is remarkable. His explanation to Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley of the unusual and unfamiliar feelings he was experiencing is quite hilarious and amazingly accurate! That alone is the price of admission.

I almost ignored this play. My ‘manly’ inclination was to avoid all things Jane Austen. But my membership in the Rep’s Social Media Club let me attend a rehearsal a few weeks ago and that changed my mind on attending. (side note on that rehearsal: the activity that we saw in rehearsal for probably 40 minutes or so was cut from the play. I was watching for it. BUT: the play worked much better without it in IMHO) But this was still more than I anticipated…the humor most of all. What a fun time all the while discussing society, marriage, love, the relationships of the genders, expectations, choices and freedoms.

And to the other actors that I didn’t mention! You too are truly amazing. All of the characters come to life and are fully believable. Thank you for a wonderful evening of unexpected joy! And special thanks to Kimberly Senior who directed this cast of superb actors into a family at holiday!

And to the Rep support teams. My goodness the sets and props and most of all the costumes were perfect in every way.

My wife Rosalie said the characters and their personalities are what she expected, having read the book. And she loved the men’s wardrobes…and wished men still dressed like that. I apparently will be searching for Edwardian tailors and knee high riding boots in the new year!

So, not trying to take away from A Christmas Carol, which is coming up in a few weeks, If you can only see one show this holiday season, see ‘Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley’.

group photo during rehearsal…yes I am in there somewhere!

Guards At The Taj

This is a reprint of my remarks about “Guards At The Taj” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented on their Stiemke Studio Theater during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on October 1, 2018!

It’s a thrill when a play challenges you. It is often one of the reasons you attend live theater. But “Guards at the Taj” (The current play at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stiemke Studio Theater) goes way beyond challenging, it is brutal. Brutal to the point that another friend who attended last night called it R rated, not safe for children. “Guards at the Taj” finds two imperial guards on the dawn shift guarding the just completed Taj Mahal on the morning of its scheduled unveiling. Humayun (Yousof Sultani), an unremarkable son of a prestigious father, and Babur (Owa’Ais Azeem), a dreamer of grand imagination whose friendship with Humayun seems unexpected!

Their conversations in anticipation presents some challenges. We are faced with the opposition of beauty to banality, imagination to casual acceptance, a sense of adventure to a practiced desire for safety. Certainly topics that resonate in our century…not just in 17th Century India.

But the emperor has decreed that nothing as beautiful as the Taj Mahal can ever be built again. The resulting brutality initially destroys Babur’s mind, then his soul and finally his body…as he takes on the weight of the world under the mantle of having killed beauty. Alternately Humayun retreats into himself and relies on his careless need for safety and normality.

This. Is. a. brutal play. It was written by Rajiv Joseph but you wouldn’t be surprised to think that Samuel Beckett didn’t have some fingers in it.

Mr. Sultani and Mr. Azeem are incredible in their respective roles…and they are not easy to play. Bravo to them for their performances.

Director Brent Hazelton had staged a moving and well-orchestrated presentation that visually makes sense and is timed perfectly. The initial set is beautiful and dutifully opens to reveal a prison room behind. Unfortunately we never get to see the Taj Mahal!

The play runs through November 4th!

In The Heights

This is a reprint of my remarks about “In the Heights” at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater presented on their main stage Quadracci Powerhouse Theater during the 2018 – 2019 season. This originally appeared on my Facebook timeline on September 30, 2018!

“In the Heights” with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also wrote “Hamilton”. “In the Heights” offers singing, dancing, community, conflict, happiness, romance, turmoil, boy meets girl, girl meets boy, familia, plot twists, loss, redemption, and some sorrow…just like the best dramas…and also the best musicals. And it has singing and dancing! I may have mentioned that.

Photo by Michael Brosilow.

“In the Heights” avoids one of the things that I often find off setting in musicals. The story line leads into the songs in as natural a flow as you could hope for. In other musicals I feel the story is just filler that just can’t wait to get out of the way when the next big song looms. On the other hand, I am not sure anyone of the songs from “Heights” would be a solo chart topper but in the whole in flows incredibly well.

Now there are twelve named characters, plus others in the ensemble. So at first it takes a bit of concentration to get a grasp on who everyone is, but the first act lays it all out for us. We meet all of the characters and start to learn their various relationships and did I mention there is dancing? The central character is Usnavi (Ryan Alvarado) who runs the local bodega. The bodega is the center piece of the set and is the focal point of the neighborhood. So Usnavi knows everyone and everyone knows Usnavi! The spiritual center of the neighborhood though, is Abuela Claudia (Yassmin Alers), whose home is next door to the bodega. Everything flows through or around the bodega or Abuela and we are treated to a dozen songs in the first act…and there is dancing!

One particular thing to pay attention to. Although he seems like a minor character, watch the Piraqua Guy (Henry Gainza). He is always pushing his cart through the action, helping to stitch the community together. It is subtle thing but Mr. Gainza really stands out in the role and it helps build the play.

I was disappointed when the first act ended. I felt it should just keep rolling through to the end…the story, singing, and dancing were that compelling. But the exposition was done and the real lessons of the play were about to start. And there were changes needed for the set for the second act. The mood changes…here the personal conflicts become openly apparent and societal conflicts do as well. And there is a rip in the community that changes it forever and introduces the possibilities for a better future. I won’t divulge those but the second act evolves quickly and forcefully and there is singing and dancing. And what dancing it is. The leads and the ensemble nail it…completely nail it!

Don’t miss this! Really! And that is coming from someone who generally avoids musicals.

And one last mention. There is an orchestra. They are sequestered on the second level of the stage…just behind where some of the second level action takes place. They did an awesome job!!!

Btw: I kinda liked the dancing!