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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

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Jeff Anderson (left) and Mark Hagen star in "The Creature from the Black, Black Lagoon."
Jeff Anderson (left) and Mark Hagen star in "The Creature from the Black, Black Lagoon."

Off The Wall's "Creature" never climbs out of the black, black lagoon

There’s this thing about cheap laughs.

They can be very funny at first. But sometimes, after a while, cheap laughs become just cheap. And some of that is what bedevils "The Creature From the Black, Black Lagoon," the Christmas show at Dale Gutzman’s Off The Wall Theatre.

Make no mistake about it: This is a funny play, written and directed by Gutzman, and based on the classic 1954 horror movie. There is very little horror here, but there are a lot of sexual jokes, some songs, some very funny visuals and an audience that certainly seemed to enjoy every moment.

I enjoyed it, too. But after a while, I found myself almost worn out from waiting for the jokes and from knowing what the jokes were going to be.

When a drag queen looks at the crotch of the monster who loves her and swoons, it’s not the least bit surprising. When a slovenly and lecherous boat captain sets his sights on the long-legged jungle girl and offers her safety in the meat locker, it’s not a surprise.

To me, the thing I’ve always thought the highest – and funniest – form of comedy is both funny and unexpected. Startle me, make me laugh and I’m a happy boy.

The production certainly has its moments, and most of them revolve around Mark Hagen who plays Kay Laverne, the love object of the creature and the woman who is in love with her professional partner.

Hagen is astoundingly funny, and Gutzman wisely understands that to give her/him/whatever free reign is guaranteed laughs. Let the spotlight shine on Hagen, and he knows full what to do with it.

Early in the play, Hagen – dressed in a stunning one piece bathing suit complete with multicolored cap – drops into the water. We see her arms, legs, head, butt and hands emerge with various items from the deep black sea all while the rest of the crew on this motley ship watch. It’s an absolute riot of a scene.

And that is at least a part of the problem with this show. Hagen is so funny and so good at the glance – the bat of an eyela…

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Norman Moses is one of the stars of "It's a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" at the Next Act Theatre.
Norman Moses is one of the stars of "It's a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" at the Next Act Theatre. (Photo: Timothy Moder)

"It's a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" earns its wings

It is not often that you get a do-over in life, especially in the world of theater criticism.

Once you write something, it’s as if it’s chiseled in granite, there for the ages.

I was fortunate to get a do over Friday night when I saw the opening performance of "It’s a Wonderful Life: Live Radio Show" at Next Act Theatre.

My do over is important because the first time around, I missed something about this play. And I’m not afraid to admit it.

The first time around, I was wrong. I don’t know exactly how to explain it. Maybe I saw something that wasn’t there or didn’t see something that was. Whatever it is, a year ago I called this a play in need of equilibrium.

Here is some of what I wrote:

"The success of radio drama was dependent on one thing more than all of the others – imagination. As the listeners sat in front of that machine, they could close their eyes and be transported to a cowboy being chased by Indians, by a damsel about to open a casket in the basement or a soldier dodging bullets.

"And that may well be my problem with this production. I'm not sure I want to watch a radio play. I mean, what's the point?

"What this play lacks is some equilibrium. Ask me to listen to "It's A Wonderful Life." OK. But if you show me the actors doing it, I need to find out something about them. It can't just be "I love you, do you love me and if not, why not?"

"The point of all of this is that these people have other lives. It's a shame we don't get to see or hear much about them."

As I read this now, after having seen the show again, I am stunned at how out of touch with the reality of the play I was.

This thoughtful and very smart adaptation, by Mary MacDonald Kerr, is such an interesting story.

It’s about a group of radio actors who are on the edge between the final days of the radio drama and the new medium of television that is sweeping them into the dustbin of history. They are about to give their last performance, a rendition of the Christm…

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Dave is a month away from the greatest - or the most embarrassing - moment of his life.
Dave is a month away from the greatest - or the most embarrassing - moment of his life. (Photo: shutterstock.com)

Due date close for my probably foolish promise

It was 188 days ago that I made "The Promise" that may well turn out to destroy my self-image, mourn a milestone, make me afraid to ever show my face in public again.

Or it may well be "The Promise" that fulfills my dream, celebrates a milestone, gives a little bit of pleasure to a lot of people, provides a few laughs and a chance for cocktails, and turns out a lot better than I thought.

It is exactly one month from today when I will step on stage, armed with a guitar, and sing some songs. January 11 is the date. So let this serve as an open and free invitation. If you are a hater, come and watch me stub my toe. If you are not a hater, come and celebrate with an old man trying to check off the No. 1 item on his bucket list.

As I sit one month away, a little background ...

Performance has been a strong, present part of me for most of my life. I have acted in both amateur and professional stage plays. I have been in a movie. I have been on television and radio. I have been in a rock and roll band. I have played sports in public in front of crowds both big and small. I have given countless speeches, and taught courses and seminars.

Suffice it to say that crowds have never scared me, and I’ve always thought I acquitted myself fairly well. No starring roles, but comfortable and workman-like.

And now the bucket list has one big, big performance left.

Take a guitar, step on a stage in front of people, take a seat, tap a microphone and play some songs. Not surrounded by a band where I could look like I was playing but was really missing the strings by about a quarter inch. My guitar as a prop, so to speak.

The idea came to me after reading a book called "Guitar Man" about a British guy (Will Hodgkinson) who had done much the same thing. I started to have dreams about it, and I decided to go for it.

Lots of help was on the horizon. Jim Linneman, who runs Linneman’s Riverwest Inn was kind enough to offer his wonderful stage and sound system. He’s a wonderful guy w…

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Craig Wallace and Christopher Donahue star in "A Christmas Carol," now showing at the Pabst Theatre.
Craig Wallace and Christopher Donahue star in "A Christmas Carol," now showing at the Pabst Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Even after 38 years, "A Christmas Carol" finds a fresh take on Scrooge

Scrooge is a name, of course, but it is also a word.

When dad won’t pop for tickets to some concert, he may be called a Scrooge. If mom says you are not going to an indoor water park on Christmas Day, kids may say, "Don’t be such a Scrooge."

We all know what a "Scrooge" is: a bitter, hateful penny-pincher with not an ounce of fun, joy or charity in his cold, cold heart.

Well, watch your opinion change if you are lucky enough to see the Milwaukee Rep’s 38th consecutive production of that classic holiday tale, "A Christmas Carol," at the glorious Pabst Theater.

This Ebenezer Scrooge, under the direction of Aaron Posner and the amazing acting of star Christopher Donahue, is a man trapped by what seems expected of him, while denying the deeply buried but also deeply remembered heart of a wondrous and wide-eyed child.

The Scrooge in this production is a stunning and surprising marvel to behold. Nobody ever thought anything good about Scrooge. Donahue reveals that all is not exactly as it seems and that there are real emotions lurking just below his surface, emotions that would shock his world and change the self-portrait he has carefully drawn.

For the first time in my years of reading the classic Charles Dickens book and seeing the play, I was struck by the key contrast in the drama and comedy. You have Scrooge on one hand and the guileless Bob Cratchit on the other. They are diametrically opposed human beings, one who owns the office and the other who just tries to warm it up a little bit.

You get the sense of this dramatic conflict early with Scrooge mocking Cratchit as he toys with his pay, just for the sake of being the ass he thinks he should be. And then, at the Cratchit family Christmas Eve dinner, Bob Cratchit shocks his wife and children by proposing a toast to Scrooge. It is the ultimate act of both emotional and intellectual charity, and stands in stark relief from the humbug of Scrooge.

To make this whole thing work for two hours, you need two …

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