The cabaret show "Sing Me a Story," currently playing at the Skylight Music Theatre, could just as well be entitled "All the Ways Jack Forbes Wilson Can Play the Piano."
Because as it turns out, there are a lot of ways. While standing up, while sitting down, while on the floor changing costumes, while crouching on the piano bench, while singing, talking, laughing, joking and whistling. And we get to see them all in this effervescent two-hour showcase that highlights the singular ability of Broadway tunes to tell a whole story in just a few bars.
It’s always so awkward when one performer eclipses the other onstage, even if they share the headline, so luckily Wilson’s partner in song, Kay Stiefel, has the pipes, stage presence and grace to rival his piano gymnastics. She grabbed her fair share of the spotlight, and the duo had an adorable chemistry – both with each other and with the audience – that made it a marriage of equals.
The program says that "once upon a time, many years ago ... a girl and boy met and fell in love with singing ... with each other" and that's not overselling it; Wilson and Stiefel’s longtime friendship translates seamlessly to the stage. That is not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish, so it is to their great credit as performers.
Because what you get to see, if you go to "Sing Me a Story," is two unbelievably polished performers, gems of the Milwaukee theatrical community, kicking back and indulging their theater-geekiness (and that is said with admiration, believe me). There is no common thread between the songs performed except that they are all lively examples of musical storytelling – and they are all a bit obscure.
This is not the show for the casual Broadway fan (or, dare I say, the Andrew Lloyd Webber enthusiast). Because if you’re not well-versed in your Lerner and Lowe, Rodgers and Hart, your Kander and Ebb, and even your Allan Sherman, you won’t know any of these songs – and while they’re all lovely songs and very well-performed by Wilson on the piano and Stiefel’s polished soprano, hardly any of them are introduced or explained. Wilson and Stiefel jump from one song to the next, and there’s not a huge amount of monologue in between.
Real lovers of the theater will enjoy this show, as the audience last night very obviously did, but those seeing the words "Broadway greats" in the description and expecting renditions of "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Memory" will be disappointed.
Some of the music was original, such as the show-titled song "Sing Me a Song" written by Wilson, but again, it won’t be apparent to everyone which songs are new music and which are obscure musical theater classics, since not every song is introduced.
Wilson and Stiefel’s song-jumping, however, is not a bad thing – it creates an interesting narrative in which they leap effortlessly from character to character, and the audience can really see and appreciate their dramatic capabilities, since they accomplish this with the use of very few props.
Their comedic timing was shown best in performances of "The Begat" from "Finian’s Rainbow," "Ring Them Bells" by Kander and "Camp Grenada" by Allan Sherman. Their rapport with the audience was delightful in a lightning-fast rendition of "Ya Got Trouble" from "The Music Man," and their chemistry with one another was sweet in the number "Little Things You Do Together." Stiefel’s vocal abilities really shone on a rendition of "Fields of Gold" and Sondheim's "Getting Married Today."
And let me go on a tangent just to say how much I loved Stiefel’s knee-high leather boots. I would pay real money to have a voice like hers, but to be honest, I’d probably pay more to be able to rock knee-highs like she did.
"Sing Me a Story" runs through May 19 and the Skylight’s Studio Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. See the website for more information.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.