By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Dec 02, 2010 at 5:17 AM

The state's two largest theater companies did some stretching beyond their normal comfort zones in the past week. The Milwaukee Rep opened a one-woman show of six vignettes written for and performed by an English-Australian triple-threat actress virtually unknown in this country.

The American Players Theatre in Spring Green debuted its first winter show, a company-commissioned musical, which is also a first. We may still be tip-toeing through a treacherous economy, but the Rep and the APT have not lost their nerve. They're taking chances.

"Bombshells" is the name of the Rep's new production, and Caroline O'Connor is the saucy Aussie who stars in it. Her vast credits range from training at the Royal Ballet School in London and playing Judy Garland and Edith Piaf onstage in her adopted country of Australia to appearing in the movies "Moulin Rouge" and "De-Lovely," and playing leading stage roles in London's West End.

Google her name and you get an impressive picture of her accomplishments. Check out these videos of O"Connor performing "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "All That Jazz," and you feel the magic.

But the U.S has yet to discover the diminutive brunette, and the "Bombshells" playwright, Australian Joanna Murray-Smith, is equally anonymous here. Milwaukeeans are being asked to buy this show on faith in the judgment of new Rep artistic director Mark Clements, a Brit and a chum of O'Connor's.

He was certain we would fall in like with her. He was right.

O'Connor has prodigious energy and talent. The vignettes are fun, sometimes clever and undeniably entertaining. Just as he did with his inaugural Milwaukee production of "Cabaret," Clements demonstrates Broadway caliber fluency and fluidity in directing musically infused theater.

We haven't seen anything quite like "Bombshells" on the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater stage before, and it is rather intoxicating.

O'Connor plays a different female in each of "Bombshells'" six vignettes. All but one of them are tragically comic as they attempt to maintain calm control over internal chaos. Several of the pieces are a tad racy.

The sketches that close the first and second acts make humorous use of the actress' song and dance skills, and they are the most amusing of the lot. When another competitor in a high school talent show steals an Irish teenager's "Cats"-like dance number, the girl makes a spur of the moment decision to switch her routine to "The Theme From Shaft." O'Connor's flair for intensely expressive physical acting scores big with her performance of the Isaac Hayes number from the '70s.

In the show's final sketch, the actress parodies an over-the-hill and over-the-top chanteuse -- think Judy Garland -- making her comeback from rehab. Although the character and situation are hardly original, O'Connor's unrestrained zest for the moment gives us the giggles.

The lone completely serious bit about a widow's unlikely sexual reawakening shows us the actress' versatility as a performer.

Director Clements connects the vignettes with a visually interesting device. O'Connor changes costumes in silhouette behind a screen, assisted by a dresser and an elegant clothes rack that revolves on a turntable. It's a shrewd bit of theatricality.

"The Gift of the Magi"

One hundred and twenty miles to the west in Spring Green, the American Players Theatre staged the world premiere of a musical adaptation of the O. Henry short story "The Gift of the Magi." The APT had commissioned company member James DeVita and frequent company sound designer Josh Schmidt to write the show as its first foray into producing in the winter.

The 2009 opening of the intimate indoor Touchstone Theatre allows the troupe to schedule shows year round, but most of the APT's regular patrons drive at least an hour to get to Spring Green. "The Gift of the Magi" will offer the first hint of whether there is a winter audience for the company.

Only five pages in length, "Magi" is a story of selfless love at the holidays. Set in New York shortly after the turn of the 20th century, it contains two characters, a young married couple named Jim and Della. Economic times are tough, but each person is determined to give the other a beautiful Christmas gift.

Desperately short of cash on Christmas eve, Jim sells his prized gold watch, a family heirloom, to buy his wife tortoiseshell jeweled combs for her lovely hair, and Della sells her cascading locks to purchase a platinum watch fob for her husband. The presents are unusable, but the spirit behind them is priceless.

DeVita, who wrote the script and collaborated with Schmidt on the lyrics, added a third character, the author O. Henry, to serve as narrator. Played with calm aplomb by Brian Mani, the figure sets the scene and comments on the action much like the stage manager in "Our Town."

Background material has been added by DeVita to flesh out the plot and fill two acts. We see Della haggling with merchants to save a penny here and there, and we observe Jim at work tailoring expensive men's suits that go unsold because of the sinking economy.

Mequon resident Schmidt, a nationally emerging composer with an off-Broadway hit on his resume, wrote an unusual chamber musical for cello and viola here that contains several stop-the-action songs and luscious scoring for sung-through story advancement. Old-time period tunes mix with shades of Stravinsky.

The two musicians are onstage in the center of the action, and for a buck up your spirits folk-style song, Nick Ehlinger remarkably strums his viola like a banjo.

"The Gift of the Magi" has been meticulously created and assembled, although Della's hair should be much longer and more visually arresting. Tracy Michelle Arnold particularly embodies the loving wife bursting with eagerness to treat her husband to a special gift. Arnold's real life hubby, Marcus Truschinski, is a credible Jim.

But the show is ironically short of the story's essential ingredient, heart. Perhaps it is due to the musical's aggressively optimistic tone. DeVita, who also directed, seems determined to avoid overdosing us on sentimentality.

Perhaps the slim O. Henry story loses some focus when padded out into a two-act stage musical. "The Gift of the Magi" adaptation engages the brain, but it also needs to make a primal emotional connection with us. The original short story certainly does.

This is a first production of a sweet piece that has the potential for becoming a seasonal evergreen. DeVita and Schmidt should go back to work on it.

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.