By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Mar 18, 2010 at 5:18 AM

Milwaukee Rep managing director Dawn Helsing Wolters tossed five fabric swatches on a chair the moment I walked into her office. "Which of these do you like best," she chirped with her characteristic vigor.

Helsing Wolters was conducting an informal poll on the look of the upholstery for the new seating that will soon be installed in the Rep's smaller flexible performance space, the Stiemke Studio Theater. In nearly any other year, the replacement of the 218 Stiemke seats with more comfortable chairs would be big news.

Since moving into the Baker Theater Complex in 1987, the company has followed a successful programing formula that required its artistic director to plug plays and actors into an established format. Season announcements were interesting but predictable.

Not this year. New Stiemke seats with a greater plush factor are only a footnote in the announcement of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's 2010-11 season. The mold is being broken.

The Rep's main stage season in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater will open with the Kander and Ebb classic "Cabaret," the first full musical to be produced in that venue. The company last mounted a main stage musical during its 1979-80 season in the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater, before its move to the Baker Theater Complex.

While "Cabaret" is creating the buzz in the community, important structural changes will affect how the public attends the Rep. The Powerhouse and Stiemke theaters will each host one fewer production next season.

That means five shows will be produced in the Powerhouse and two in the Stiemke. A week-long showcase for the company's interns will also be staged in the Stiemke.

The trimming of two productions from the season is not an indication the Rep is downsizing. Some of the shows, including "Cabaret," will have longer runs than what has been standard in recent years. The company's budget will grow by about $200,000 from this year, to $8.3 million, and it will have about the same number of tickets to sell for the upcoming season, according to Helsing Wolters.

These changes are part of a new strategy to get Rep patrons to identify less with the company's specific performance venues and more with sampling the offerings in all of its spaces. Individual customers have tended to focus on only one location -- the Powerhouse, Stiemke or Stackner Cabaret -- and not cross over to attend shows in the other venues. Helsing Wolters wants to break down those barriers.

"You don't choose your theater experience based on the space," incoming artistic director Mark Clements explained.

Company management thinks two fewer productions will enable people to consume everything the Powerhouse and Stiemke venues have to offer. "We have a seven-play Rep season," Helsing Wolters said, referring to the combined schedule of the two theaters. "We encourage people to see seven."

The shows include Arthur Miller's "The Death of a Salesman," featuring Lee Ernst as Willy Loman; August Wilson's first hit, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"; the recent Broadway comic hit "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps," and a stage adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel "My Name is Asher Lev."

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" will be jointly produced with the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Audiences in Milwaukee and Louisville will see the same production. While such partnerships are not unusual in theater, the Rep has not participated in a joint venture in many years.

The American premiere of a one-woman show titled "Bombshells" is also on the calendar in the Powerhouse Theater. The piece was written to celebrate the multiple talents of Australian singer-dancer-actress Caroline O'Connor, whose lengthy resume includes a featured role in the film "Moulin Rouge!" and Velma Kelly in the Broadway production of "Chicago."

O'Connor took "Bombshells" to the famed Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, where it won a top award, and then to London's West End. She was nominated for an Olivier Award, London's version of the Tony, for her performance. O'Connor will bring "Bombshells" to the Powerhouse Theater in November.

The Rep's Stackner Cabaret has featured a steady diet of musical revues through its history, but its programing is becoming more theatrical. A play about comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, appropriately titled "Laurel and Hardy," will open the season. It will be the American premiere of the piece, which was written by the late Scottish poet and playwright Tom McGrath.

Shakespeare will appear at the Stackner next March in the guise of a hip-hop version of "The Comedy of Errors" called "The Bomb-itty of Errors." The cabaret will also offer some of its traditional fare with separate shows devoted to Liberace and Hank Williams.

Retiring artistic director Joseph Hanreddy's commitment to maintaining a resident acting company will be continued. The ensemble has 10 members this season, and everyone will return except for Rose Pickering, who has decided to assume emeritus status. She will be available for spot duty in the future.

The changes at the Rep are being shaped by its new management brain trust of Helsing Wolters, who assumed responsibility for the business side of the operations last summer, and Clements, a Brit who has directed nine shows in London's West End. Although he doesn't officially move into the company's artistic director position until July 1, the 2010-11 Rep season was planned by Helsing Wolters and him.

Clements keeps a flat in London, but he has spent the bulk of the last few years directing in Philadelphia and New York. His resume contains such large scale musicals as "Les Miserables" and "My Fair Lady" as well as classic dramas ("Richard III," "The Glass Menagerie") and contemporary plays ("Three Viewings," "Lips Together, Teeth Apart").

The two new administrators were brought to Milwaukee to give the Rep a fresh approach to attracting and maintaining audiences. We can expect to see many ancillary activities -- a DJ in the Stackner Cabaret after a "Bomb-itty of Errors" performance, for example -- surrounding next season's shows.

"All the shows will have other things going on around them," Helsing Wolters said. "Each experience will have a sense of event about them."

The Rep's move into main stage musicals has startled some of its longtime customers and concerned some supporters of the Skylight Opera Theatre, the only local company committed to big budget professional musical theater since the Melody Top went out of business more than 20 years ago. Clements and Skylight artistic director Bill Theisen are consulting with each other to avoid programing conflicts between the two groups.

"I think the Rep doing a big musical on the main stage could be a benefit for the Skylight," Theisen said when asked about "Cabaret." He added that Rep musicals may whet its audience's appetite for more musical theater, perhaps broadening the Skylight's customer base.

Clements has strong convictions about the value of musicals in the theatrical art form.

"The American musical is one of this country's greatest contributions to world theater," he said. "I chose to open our season with ‘Cabaret' because I wanted to make a statement about the new artistic direction our company is taking. ‘Cabaret' is a musical that still has something to say."

A new era has arrived at the Milwaukee Rep. The fresh breeze blowing through the Baker Theater Complex is good and healthy. The quality of the future work is what really matters.

Click here for complete details on the Rep's 2010-11 season.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.