By Russ Bickerstaff   Published Feb 16, 2006 at 5:12 AM

Under the direction of Sandy Ernst for The Milwaukee Repertory Theater, soprano Terry Palasz graces the stage of the Stackner Cabaret for "The Polish Diva From Milwaukee," a musical journey based on her own life story. Growing up in a Polish Catholic environment in Milwaukee, Palasz longs for the refined distinction of high culture, or maybe just a solid sense of identity beyond all the beer and sausage.

In a series of musical numbers, she travels away from her roots in Milwaukee to perform all over the world, but can anyone who grew up Polish Catholic in the Midwest escape the limits of their own heritage? It's a question explored at great depth in David Ives' contemporary comedy "Polish Joke," which Bialystock and Bloom produced here last season.

In "Polish Diva," Palasz has a similar sense of fun with her Polish Catholic heritage in general and her experiences in Milwaukee in particular as a framework for an entertaining evening of music featuring comedy that doesn't serve to entertain nearly as well. Palasz has an amazing voice and exceptional comedic instincts that make her a really fun performer to watch and listen to, but much of what she's written in the way of actual comedy for "Polish Diva" falls pretty flat. The territory that Ives tackled so well in "Polish Joke" fails to prop up its end of THIS production.

The more obvious end of the humor in "Polish Diva" ranges from the mildly whimsical (when she mentions the strange culinary phenomena of Jell-O molds, for instance) to the bracingly unfunny and downright annoying (like when Palasz assumes the identity of a British aunt). Where Palasz's comedic instincts really excel is in the more subtle comedy. Palasz sings pop songs and polka tunes with operatic brilliance. Her ability to shift gears between different styles of music is enjoyable. Genres mix and tumble in a dazzlingly funny way that the more obvious end of the humor fails to capture.

Palasz seems to have an excellent sense of improv, as well. Her ability to work a room shines through on those rare occasions when she interacts with the audience. One gets the impression that the show would've been far better suited to Palasz loosening-up and improvising more over the course of the evening. The narrative form of the show seems to stifle the performance. Palasz's humor works far better outside of the rigid structure of the plot she's developed for "Polish Diva." The plot itself is forgivable, however, and much of the performance can be enjoyed simply by ignoring the story and getting into the music.

Palasz is accompanied by Milwaukeean Paul Helm on piano and Toby Hanson on accordion. Hanson, who is also the show's musical director, is a pretty remarkable musician in his own right. After intermission, he does an accordion solo that shows a deft mastery of the instrument. He effortlessly shrugs off what appear to be some pretty tricky musical feats. Helm and Hanson perform with a wit that competently compliments Palasz's performance.

"The Polish Diva From Milwaukee" runs through March 12 at the Stackner Cabaret. Tickets range from $23 to $36 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (414) 224-1761.