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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014

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A shot from Off The Wall's current production of "Romeo and Juliet," which runs through April 6.
A shot from Off The Wall's current production of "Romeo and Juliet," which runs through April 6.

Creaky bones can't stop Off The Wall's "Romeo and Juliet"

When you hear about a retirement home, the vision comes easily.

Old people sitting around, watching hour after hour of television, waiting for a visit from someone. Bibs aplenty to catch the drool. Sometimes shaky caregivers.

That’s the vision almost all of us have.

But not in the eccentric, many times brilliant and always interesting mind of Dale Gutzman, artistic director of Off The Wall Theatre.

Gutzman’s vision of a retirement home came to life in "Romeo and Juliet," which opened Thursday night and runs through April 6. And to say this version of the Shakespeare classic love story is unusual is a massive understatement.

Gutzman sets his production in Casa dei (sic) Attori di Verona, a retirement home for old actors from Verona, not coincidentally the same city where Romeo fell in love with Juliet.

The premise is simple. These actors, all of whom have seen better days, decide to put on a performance of "Romeo and Juliet." Many of them had probably done the show in their salad days, but this is different.

Gutzman could have played this as a comedy, a spoof or the sort. That surely seems like the expected way to go. But Gutzman rarely does the expected.

On this one, he plays it straight. He lets the play tell the story of family jealousies and treacheries and of a love so pure and so tempestuous that it knew no boundaries.

Gutzman, who is 69, played Romeo, who was probably 15 or 16 in the original. Marilyn White, 67, played Juliet, who is 13 in Shakespeare's play.  And after a short time, I forgot how old they really were. I fell in love, as audiences have for centuries, with the young boy and his surprisingly young love.

I knew it was going to be an unusual production when the audience came into the tiny theater. The actors were all on stage in various costumes, talking and interacting with each other and audience members. It was informality at its most obvious. 

But once the real lights came up and the actors became characters, the play took of…

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Kenney M. Green stars in the Milwaukee Rep's production of "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Kenney M. Green stars in the Milwaukee Rep's production of "Ain't Misbehavin'." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Rep's cast of musicians prove they "Ain't Misbehavin'"

Years ago, I watched a PBS documentary about Thelonious Monk, who along with Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, are piano giants in the world of jazz. Monk was asked for his feelings about the development of jazz, from its earliest roots to what he was playing at the time.

"It comes from everywhere, and it’s music for music makers," he said. "If it wasn’t for Fats, who knows what I’d be doing now."

The Fats he was talking about was Thomas "Fats" Waller, the father of stride and the star of "Ain’t Misbehavin’," the wonderful revue that opened Sunday night and runs through May 18 at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret.

The revue features about 30 songs that Waller either wrote or performed during his brief career before he died at the age of 39 from a variety of health issues, most of which came from the overwhelming gusto with which he lived his life.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Waller to the American musical journey. With the blues bringing sorrow and sex at the turn of the century, Waller came along with an upbeat piano style that had tremendous non-challenging appeal, especially to white audiences.

"Ain't Misbehavin'," which won a Tony in 1978 for Best Musical, is a testimony to the period of peace between the two world wars and the explosive pursuit of fun in America.

And when it comes to fun, Fats Waller helped provide a lot of it. Most of his songs – called swing by some and stride style by others – were bouncy with clever lyrics. He collaborated with a number of lyricists, perhaps most famously with his Harlem friend and poet Andy Razaf.

The show would not be possible without the performances from five amazing singers and musicians. Britney Coleman, Christopher James Culberson, Kenney M. Green, Bethany Thomas and Erin Willis capture the spirit of Waller and the times with incredible musical skill.

They have a lot to work with. The title track, which Waller himself performed in the movie "Stormy Weather" just months…

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Michael Scarcelle and Kirsten DiNinno star in "Hydrogen Jukebox," now at Skylight Music Theatre.
Michael Scarcelle and Kirsten DiNinno star in "Hydrogen Jukebox," now at Skylight Music Theatre. (Photo: Mark Frohna)

Glass and Ginsberg are out of tune in "Hydrogen Jukebox"

The paintbrushes came out Friday night when Skylight Music Theatre opened "Hydrogen Jukebox."

This production, running through March 30, is not so much a play or a musical as it is a portrait of poet Allen Ginsberg, whose words would change America forever.

It is difficult to understate the passion, power and provenance of his works. It was Ginsberg, and his soul mates like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, who created the first counterculture in the United States. Called the beat generation, they wrote of individualism and freedom, giving birth to what became the hippie and anti-war movements. Ginsberg especially became a soaring voice of the anti-war movement as the spiritual revolution took root in the soil of this country.

"Hydrogen Jukebox" was created by avant-garde composer Philip Glass and Ginsberg after a chance meeting in 1988. The idea was to create a musical piece that carried Ginsberg’s portrait of America on its mighty shoulders.

Glass is revered by many as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, and he has a reputation that rivals that of Ginsberg.

It is against that background that the curtain went up at Skylight.

From the opening moments, it was clear that this was not a Rogers & Hammerstein musical.

Glass is known as a minimalist composer. He has moved away from that label and calls himself more of a repetitive composer. His music is, to say the least, unusual. I’m not enough of an expert to describe exactly what it is and what it means, but it is not … tuneful.

Six beautiful singers on stage – all with wonderful voices and remarkable stage presence – work their way through a series of songs, all with music from Glass and words from Ginsberg.

There is a stark quality to this production. Costumes are stark. The stage is stark. The music is very stark. The lighting provides some depth, but it is almost lost amid the collision between lyrics and music.

I’ll elaborate on that collision in a moment. But I want …

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Beer is on the drinks menu, but it's also in most everything on the food menu, too, at Milwaukee Beer Bistro.
Beer is on the drinks menu, but it's also in most everything on the food menu, too, at Milwaukee Beer Bistro. (Photo: Milwaukee Beer Bistro/Facebook)

A blissful bite at the Milwaukee Beer Bistro

Beer has never been my drink of choice (hear that, Wild Turkey?), and I don’t know anything about craft beers. If I have three beers a year, you could say I am on a real binge. So it was with more than a little curiosity and trepidation that my wife and I went to dinner at the Milwaukee Beer Bistro.

Imagine my surprise then when I had a great dinner, including the best Brussels sprouts I have ever had. And I mean by a big margin.

The bistro, located at 2730 N. Humboldt Blvd., in the space formerly occupied by Rio West Cantina, features small plates at very reasonable prices. The menu was put together by head chef Carson Wolfmeyer, his assistant chef Brandon Julien and owner Russ Davis.

"It was a lot of trial and error," Wolfmeyer said. "Beer is part of everything we prepare, and it took some time to get it right. Sometimes a beer just didn’t taste right with what it was prepared with."

No matter how many tries it took, they have obviously been successful by creating a diverse menu where anyone could find something tempting.

But back to those sprouts.

I am not a maniac when it comes to them, but I’ve always enjoyed the dish. These came after being braised in sorghum ale and then tossed in a seasoned brown butter. They were tender with a slightly charred surface. And I don't think it requires reiterating ... but they were delicious.

The sprout dish was created by Julien, a young chef making his mark in the city.

"He’s a terrific young chef, and he learns fast," Wolfmeyer said.

I paired my sprouts with stout-braised barbecue short ribs that were tender and covered with a homemade barbecue sauce. The nice thing about it was that the sauce didn’t overwhelm the taste of the short ribs.

My wife had a very interesting shrimp carbonara tortilla pizza. It was a large flour tortilla with cherry tomatoes, spinach, marinated artichoke hearts, plump shrimp and mozzarella cheese. It was a real light and delicious dish.

The bistro is open for brunch on weekends…

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