Despite the recent loss of Milwaukee Shakespeare, Cream City still has one of the most vibrant theater scenes in the country and visitors and newcomers are always amazed that a city the size of Milwaukee is home to so many and varied stage offerings.
While we were thinking about what we're thankful for, we started talking about this fecundity of the thespian arts and each of us began to shout out favorites. So, we decided to share with you, dear reader, our favorite Milwaukee theater companies.
We hope and expect you, too, will share yours using the Talkback feature at the bottom.
Molly Snyder Edler
Pick: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
Theater X and Bialystock & Bloom remain my favorite Milwaukee theater groups of all time, but if pressed to pick a current favorite, I would choose the Chamber Theatre. Founded in 1975, the Chamber Theatre continues to offer provocative, top-notch performances. Most memorable for me was its 2004 production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Although the over-age-50 audience didn't always seem to enjoy the rock opera about a man searching for love after a botched sex change, my friends and I were blown away -- particularly by David Colbert's heart wrenching and passionate portrayal of Hedwig. Since then, I've remained interested in the Chamber Theatre's offerings.
Pick: Astor Theater
This East Side theater has such an amazing history in Milwaukee. Originally opened in 1915 as a vaudeville and movie theater, it closed in the 1950s only to be reopened as Brady Street Pharmacy in 1984 by pharmacist Jim Searles. Twenty years after that -- in 2004 -- Searles eliminated the grocery store section of his pharmacy and re-opened the Astor Theater. Although Searles' 37-seat space is a fraction of the original 950-seat photoplay parlor, his multi-disciplined theater is providing an outlet for Milwaukee artists that the original never could. Today the theater is home to avant-garde plays, films as well as music and dance workshops. Searles has reinvented a Milwaukee treasure with the "new" Astor Theater.
Pick: Milwaukee Ballet
For a city our size, we do have an abundance of major-league performing arts groups in town. Though I would hardly call myself an aficionado or a buff, I've been seen a handful of performances by the Ballet over the years (several, I admit, were "Nutcrackers") and always left thoroughly impressed and vowing to go back. Maybe it's because I spent so much time covering sports that I appreciate the athleticism of the dancers and the pure physicality of the performance. For the same reason, I have an appreciation for the "team" aspect. There are 25 professional dancers and about 17 more on the "practice squad" working their way up the ladder. Though I'd be pressed to determine the difference between a technically precise performance and one that was "sloppy," I get the impression that the Milwaukee Ballet doesn't do anything half-way. I thought the collaboration with William Shatner and Ben Folds was cool and hope that the Milwaukee Ballet continues dancing for years to come. Whether you go once a year, once every five years or not at all, it's cool that we have such a professional outfit in town and it should be a source of civic pride.
Pick: Milwaukee Rep
I grew up going to shows and plays at The Milwaukee Rep. From "A Christmas Carol" every holiday to school field trips for pertinent shows, I always love going to The Rep. Their choice of performances blend old classics with modern day adaptations. The half moon seating in the Quadracci Powerhouse brings the play to life makes the play come alive on stage.
Pick: Milwaukee Rep
I know picking the Rep seems so obvious, but I love the diversity that the Rep offers with its three venues (not counting the Pabst Theater for "A Christmas Carol"). The result is that it can do everything from grand productions in the Powerhouse to edgier stuff in the black box Stiemke and cabaret and smaller productions in the Stackner. Since it's large, it's also got the cream of the crop when it comes to talent onstage and behind the scenes. A close second would be the American Players Theater in Spring Green. Of course, it's not in Milwaukee, but it draws heavily from Brew City for talent and for crowds. Seeing Shakespeare under the stars on a beautiful summer night is an incomparable experience. I also want to send a shout of to First Stage, which is working hard not only to engage and entertain our children but to turn them into theater-going teens and adults, too.