By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Oct 28, 2016 at 2:36 PM

Hillary Clinton and Victoria Woodhull.

Victoria was the first woman to run for president; Hillary, it appears likely, will be the first woman to actually be president.  

Victoria fought for women to have the right to vote, just like men; Hillary fought to get women to be paid just like men.

Victoria became the first woman to operate a brokerage house on Wall Street; Hillary got lots of money speaking to brokers on Wall Street.

Victoria testified before a congressional committee on women’s suffrage; Hillary testified before a congressional committee on the Benghazi fiasco.

Victoria got arrested on obscenity charges; Hillary has avoided arrest despite the best efforts of Republicans.

Victoria’s father was a snake oil salesman; Hillary’s husband is ... oh, forget it.

Victoria Woodhull is the subject of the chamber opera "Victory for Victoria," staged this weekend by Milwaukee Opera Theatre at the Wauwatosa Woman’s Club. The preview performance Thursday night showed a story of uneven interest and one that seemed unable to leave well enough alone by having a second act to a story that would have been better served by ending at intermission. 

Sisters Peggy Peterson Ryan and Susan Peterson Holmes combined to write the lyrics and book, while Alissa Rhode composed the music. Jill Anna Ponasik, the artistic director at MOT, did the stage direction, while the music director was Brian Myers.

The story traces the tale of Victoria (Allie Babich) and her sister Tennie (Katy Johnson) from their time as shills for their father’s (Joel Kopischke) snake oil wagon selling magic elixirs.

It moves from that point through Victoria getting married, moving away, finding out she married a bum, running away, rescuing her sister, moving to New York, becoming the first woman broker on Wall Street and then starting her own newspaper before she declared, in the final moments of the first act, that she is "running for the presidency."

While the cast of 10 was filled with sterling singers and most of them capable actors as well, they were saddled with a book that was long on trite and short on insight.

This production is well staged, the music is great and the designs are without fault. But a play or opera about a historical figure must find some depth to forge an emotional connection with an audience. Otherwise, it’s just a history lecture. And this book gave us no real reason to feel anything for Victoria. It was way too much, "She did this, then she did this and then she did this," ad nauseum.

Missing was the why. What was it that gave this woman the kind of drive it took to achieve so much?

And, as it turned out, Victoria wasn’t all that nice a person. While she talked about honoring women and giving them equal rights, she was vengeful, duplicitous and angry throughout her journey. There was nothing happy about this girl, and that made it hard to latch onto any feelings for her at all. The Victoria we saw virtually all night was just different shades of angry. One dimensional people are pretty hard to pay attention to. We needed to see some depth.

As the first act came to an end, I was impressed by the facts of Victoria’s life. The book had a clarity about it that was appreciated. But it would have been better if the show had ended there. The story of her journey to the first presidential run by a woman ought to be, and in some measure is, an interesting story to tell. The factual journey was OK.

But the second act made me squirm.

The second act follows election night, spent in jail by Victoria and Tennie, while nobody in the country voted for her. Eventually, she escapes to England, where she lives a long and fruitful life until her death in 1927 at the age of 80.

There were too many stories being told in the second act, and it grew hard to sort out the players without a program. It appeared that the Peterson sisters were determined to get every single moment of Victoria's life crammed into the show.

And the lyrics dropped from occasionally clever to hackneyed and trite. 

Victoria fiercely sang, "I see a world where everyone is equal." In a dispirited moment, Tennie sang to her sister, "Hold on, hold on. It's always darkest before the dawn." Saddled with the lyrics like that the sisters seemed to wilt.

Much like the musical version of "The Color Purple," you can't tell an entire story like this without compressing things into moments that can't be treated thoroughly and which just serve to confuse.

The most important thing in the life of Victoria was her run for president and the best place to leave this story would have been right there. This evening, more than two hours long, would have been much more interesting if that had ended after the 70-minute first act.

As it is, with no emotional connection to the story, I hardly cared at all what happened to after she said she was running for president. This book was written without shading or subtlety, and the production paid a steep price. 

"Victory for Victoria" runs through Sunday and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

A few notes

  • Three of Milwaukee's best and most interesting young women actors were in the cast. Allie Babich, Katy Johnson and the splendid Samantha Sostarich all commanded the stage. Sostarich continues to prove that she is a powerful singer and actor with a special touch for comedy.
  • Alissa Rhode's music was played on piano, cello and violin, and provided a smooth and sensitive backdrop for the songs. She has a way of capturing the moment in the story and creating music that amplifies what's happening on stage.
  • Joel Kopischke once again proves that when you need someone to sing and dance and play a sleazy dissolute old man, he is the guy to call. His voice is wonderful, and his manner and appearance make you want to dig into your pocket to give him bus fare to the nearest rehabilitation center. 
Dave Begel Contributing Writer

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.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.