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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Skylight Opera Theatre artistic director Bill Theisen has few spare moments this fall.

The Skylight and the Rep share Bill Theisen this fall


Bill Theisen is popping up in the unlikeliest of places lately. He spent part of the summer as the comically incompetent constable Dogberry in Door Shakespeare's production of "Much Ado About Nothing" in Bailey's Harbor.

He is about to make his Milwaukee Rep acting debut, playing legendary comic actor Oliver Hardy in the American premiere of the biographical theater piece "Laurel and Hardy" in the Stackner Cabaret. And Theisen continues to be the artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre, directing and making the important creative decisions for the nationally respected company.

No Milwaukee stage artist is juggling more balls at the start of the new theater season than Theisen. While rehearsing and performing in "Laurel and Hardy" at the Rep, he is co-directing the Skylight's first show of the season, "Dames at Sea," with Pam Kriger.

The Rep show runs Sept. 26 to Nov. 14, and during that time he will also direct the Skylight's "H.M.S. Pinafore," which will be in rehearsals while Theisen is still playing Hardy on the other side of Downtown. Molly Rhode will fill in for him at Skylight rehearsals when he must be at the Rep.

"It's going to be a crazy few weeks," the artistic director said during a conversation in his Broadway Theatre Center office.

Theisen's frantic early season schedule is a testimonial to his versatility as a theater artist, and it is also a result of the management trauma the Skylight endured and survived in the summer of '09. The crisis began when the extremely popular Theisen, who started his career with the company singing in its chorus, was unexpectedly terminated and the artistic director position eliminated to save money.

When the smoke cleared after a couple of tumultuous months, Theisen agreed to return to his old job at the Skylight, but his contract is for half-time status during the 2010-11 season. The company is considering how to structure its artistic leadership in the context of tight budgets.

Theisen and I discussed the Skylight season, which opens Friday night.

"Dames at Sea" (Sept. 17 to Oct. 3) is a small and frothy confection that spoofs big movie musicals from the '30s and plots about understudies becoming stars. A New York production in the late 1960s launched Bernadette Peters toward stardom.

"In these times, I wanted to kick off the season with something that was just fun," Theisen said, adding that the Skylight last staged "Dames at Sea" about 20 years ago in its old Jefferson Street theater. "I've always thought the show would be so charming in that jewel box (the Cabot Theatre)."

The Skylight was founded on producing Gilbert and Sullivan, and it will reprise a tradition of doing G&S at the holidays with its staging of "H.M.S. Pinafore" (Nov. 19 to Dec. 19). It's a production that Theisen has mounted elsewhere, including Kansas City last year.

"When I started at the Skylight, it was a G&S every Christmas. We haven't done that in a while, and it will be nice to return to the tradition this year," the artistic director said.

The music of George and Ira Gershwin is the focus of the Skylight's smaller Studio Theatre show this season. "Gershwin and Friends" (Dec. 31 to Jan. 9, 2011) will be all
George and Ira in the first act, but the song list will broaden to such Gershwin contemporaries as Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen in Act 2.

Skylight veterans Paul Helm, Cynthia Cobb and Parrish Collier are writing and will perform in the revue, which contains a thin narrative thread.

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Talkbacks

kmrein | Sept. 16, 2010 at 11:34 a.m. (report)

...And, the Florentine Opera is very excited that we'll also be "sharing" Bill Theisen when he directs our production of The Italian Girl in Algiers in March 2011!

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