Anyone who wasn’t already born or old enough to process information by the early 1980s probably won’t recall details about the Milwaukee-based Lawrencia Bembenek case. Maybe the expression “Run Bambi Run” rings a distant bell or fleeting bits of information about her life are remembered. Wasn’t she the blond cop who was accused of murder and ran away with her boyfriend to Canada? was all I came up with prior to researching for a performance of the new rock musical, “Run Bambi Run.”
The Milwaukee Repertory Theater created a piece of true crime historical art that closely reexamines the details of the high-profile case while portraying Bembenek as a strong and determined woman who led a tragic, fascinating life and yet leaves it to the audience to decide if she murdered her husband’s ex-wife in 1981 – or didn’t.
“Run Bambi Run” is a wild ride. It ranges from funny to heartwrenching to corny to clever to crass and back again. It features a minimal but perfect set complete with walls plastered with what appear to be flyers for shows in 1980s Milwaukee clubs and a cast of actors who play multiple roles and play instruments while in character.
Gordan Gano of Brew City’s beloved Violent Femmes wrote the music for “Run Bambi Run" – that's based on the book by Eric Simonson – and a couple of the songs have nods to the Femmes anthemic first self-titled album as well as the second folky-meets-harrowing “Hallowed Ground.” But overall, the score is fresh, with songs drawing from rock, rockabilly, country, disco, easy listening, polka and more.
Because “Run Bambi Run” is based on a true story that took place in Milwaukee, the local references are delightfully copious. Multiple scenes are set inside Tracks Tavern, located to this day on Locust Street in Riverwest. There’s an ongoing joke set to music about how to pronounce “Kosciuszko” (Park) and a scene at Lake Geneva’s storied Playboy Club where Bembenek worked as a cocktail waitress – yes, in bunny ears and tail – for one month.
But all lightness aside, “Run Bambi Run” hangs tough as nails and is not afraid to call-out the wrongdoings of the Milwaukee Police Department (as well as the Wauwatosa PD) along with the buffoonery of Police Chief Harold Breier. The message is clear: the flimsy evidence, lack of DNA analysis and power-drunk, egomaniac men who refused to admit they might have made a mistake are most likely who and what landed Bembenek behind bars for 10 years. And yet, we will never really know who killed Christine Schultz, the former wife of Bembenek’s police officer husband and mother of his two children.
No spoiler alerts here, but Bembenek’s stranger-than-fiction life including an abduction by Dr. Phil’s staff (yes, that Dr. Phil) which results in the amputation of a portion of her leg and other incidents of “bad luck” mixed with her penchant for “bad boys” and breaking gender stereotypes create an incredibly bizarre, tragic and powerful story.
Shout-out to actor Erika Olson for her portrayal of Laurie (“Bambi” was a name forced on her by the press and one she never embraced.) Olson made her debut with The Rep in this show and although she didn’t quite realize our Milwaukee accent – few to none have been able to emulate it without exaggerating it – she truly transformed into the complicated character who, like all of us, is a mix of fine points and flaws. Olson’s relationship with her parents, played by Megan Loomis and John Carlin, is particularly wonderful to watch.
“Run Bambi Run” provides the compassion for Bembenek that was absent in real life during her trial, escape from prison and aftermath. It spells out how conventionally attractive women are often punished for it and reminds an audience who might not remember the case first-hand that if nothing else, Lawrencia Bembenek never gave up on her truth and her determination to clear her family name.
Finally, at least for the almost three-hour run time of the show, there is a shred of justice for Bambi.
The Milwaukee Rep presents "Run Bambi Run" through Sunday, Oct. 22. Recommended for ages 16 and older. Tickets are available here.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.