There are so many ways to tell a great story in the world of theater, but Milwaukee has never seen anything quite like "Song From the Uproar," which opened a short run Friday night at the Broadway Theater Center.
It was a magnificent evening for a full house, made even more so by the full catalogue of interesting pieces, both big and small, that moved across the stage.
The production was a cooperative venture between Jill Anna Ponasik and her Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Debra Loewen and her Wild Space Dance Company. And true to the cooperative effort, it was singing and dancing that brought the remarkable story of Isabelle Eberhardt to life – all wrapped in a splendid five instrument mini-orchestra led by the incomparable, and very visible for once, Viswa Subbaraman, artistic director at Skylight.
Eberhardt was a Swiss woman, born in 1877. With a full dose of adventurous spirit, Eberhardt dressed like a male from an early age and travelled as a vagabond through Europe and North Africa. Roaming the desert on horseback, she fell in love with and married an Algerian soldier, joined the Sufi brotherhood which excluded women from the faith and died in a flash flood at the age of 27 trying to save her husband from the sandy swamp of the storm.
This performance begins when Subbaraman, dressed all in black, enters the playing area and stares down the crowd.
"Things found," he says and turns to his musicians.
Thus begins a journey full of symbolism and open to individual interpretation.
Dancers and singers begin to fill the stage, finding bits and pieces of the wreckage of Eberhardt’s possessions – including her journals, upon which composer Missy Mazzoli created her work. Mazzoli, 36, is one of the brightest young composers working today, almost universally praised by critics.
The singers and dancers on the stage tell the stories of Eberhardt’s life, the moments and events that shaped a life of unconventional courage and curiosity.
Singing the role of Eberhardt is mezzo Colleen Brooks, who was an apprentice artist with the Florentine Opera eight years ago. She is the voice of a woman both tortured and in love with her world. Brooks, whose name was inadvertently absent from the program, is a towering singers and actor. Every moment of Eberhardt’s life is painted on her face and surrounded by her voice and Mazzoli’s haunting music.
The MOT singers, five strong, create a choral background upon which the libretto can rest comfortable and move through the story smoothly.
The Wild Space dancers – Dan Schuchart, Yeng Vang-Strath, Mauriah Kraker and Kris Radermacher Butts – moved both with the purpose and abandon characteristic of Eberhardt’s life.
The blue shirt pas de deux with Schuchart and Kraker was one of the most striking I have ever seen on a stage. It was symbolic of the boy-girl conflict in Eberhardt, and they both danced with such conviction that I felt my eyes widen in wonder at the intelligence of this dance. Once my mind grabbed onto it, my heart followed in rapid order.
A multi-purpose design on stage was served as a welcoming target for yet another spectacular lighting performance by Jason Fassl. As so often happens, his lighting becomes not just an enhancement to a story, but an individual character all its own.
Ponasik stage directed and Loewen choreographed the piece, each bringing their special brands of magical thinking to the task.
Among the moments that stand out is the passage of time moment when Brooks, using an antique teapot, pours salt into a small vessel held by Vang-Strath. First of all, it is an impossibly continued pour sure to fill the small bowl. But the pour continues well beyond all logic. Van-Strath then overturns her bowl slowly and a stream of salt pours out, caught by a light that turns the salt virtually into water that seems to never end. It is a moment of rare stagecraft.
There must also be words devoted to Subbaraman, who was the music director for the production. He and his five musicians are upstage for the entire performance, and watching him conduct is a full-blown treat in itself.
Watching him take musicians and singers through the emotional highs and lows of the music, carelessly wiping his steaming brow with the sleeve of his shirt, and demanding and offering all that the music has to offer is a sight to behold.
This production is the kind of thing that Milwaukee needs more of. Collaboration between different disciplines, all in service of a story. I hope there will be more of this kind of work.
"Song of the Uproar" has, sadly, only three performances left: Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Information is available here.
Production Credits: Music Director: Viswa Subbaraman; Choreographer, Debra Loewen; Lighting Designer, Jason Fassl; Stage Director, Daniel Brylow; Sound Engineer, Marth Butorac, Prop and Scenic Assistance; Lisa Schlenker; Visual Artist, Sally Duback.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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