In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

"Waitress" might just be a musical for musical haters. (PHOTO: Joan Marcus)

8 upcoming musicals for people who don't like musicals

I grew up as a theater kid. My teenage years were spent auditioning for the school shows, learning lines and choreography (or more like stumbling over both) and, of course, loving to see a good show. And that included musicals of all shapes, sizes and song genres. Watching music, movement and performance meld into one was a dream for me.

For some people, however, it's a nightmare – a brightly lit, overly smiley, saccharine and overdramatic fake nightmare filled with weirdo people who break into song for no reason and even weirder people who join along in dancing and harmonizing to a stranger's musical ode. For those folks, sitting through the latest torture porn horror movie would be preferable to sitting through "The Phantom of the Opera." Heck, LIVING through a torture porn horror movie would be better.

And to those people, I say: I get it. But I don't want you to give up quite yet. In fact, this upcoming Milwaukee theater season has some intriguing musical options that might just open your eyes and ears to what the genre can do – or at least offer up a fun goofy time at the theater. Here are eight of those options:

1. "The Hot Mikado" at Skylight

OK, so an adaptation of an opera – the one thing maybe even MORE polarizing than musicals – would not seem to be a great place to start building bridges. But trust me: "The Hot Mikado" is a perfect way to win over a musical hater's heart.

Opening up the Skylight's season in late September, this modernization rubs together a snappy mix of jazz, blues, wing gospel, big band, zoot suits and more to light a brassy fire under the butt of Gilbert and Sullivan's supremely silly opera farce about young lovers attempting to survive the execution-happy rulers of the Japanese town of Titipu – pronounced exactly how the part of your brain that never quite grew up out of middle school would hope.

So yeah, "The Hot Mikado" is not at all to be taken seriously – except as a brash, roaring culture clash of absurdly goofy musical entertainment.

2. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Off the Wall

First, I tried converting musical doubters with an opera adaptation, and now, for my second pick on the list, I'm pulling out Shakespeare – renowned for his welcoming ease to all. Boy, I am making this hard on myself. However, I really think Off the Wall's predictably unpredictable take on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" could win some converts – both to musicals and to Shakespeare.

For one, it's Off the Wall Productions, where artistic director Dale Guzman is always cooking up something odd, peculiar and profoundly watchable – whether it's a classic Greek tale or an adaptation of a camp cinema classic – in his tiny studio space. But most importantly, it's Shakespeare classic romantic comedy matched up with ... classic crooning of Cole Porter? It's a mash-up that must be seen (and heard) to be believed, a marriage that might just turn a cynic of musicals and Shakespeare into a champion of both causes come October.

3. "Murder for Two" at The Rep

"Guys and Dolls" is obviously the big name at the Milwaukee Rep – and I almost wanted to put the season opener on here just for the sheer scale and blockbuster bombast. Then again, you don't get much more *cue jazz hands, hit the caps lock* MUSICAAAL! than "Guys and Dolls."

So how about something smaller – just a simple "Murder for Two" at The Rep's Stackner Cabaret starting in November perhaps? Though there's nothing simple about this tiny but raucous comedy, about a detective attempting to sort through a dozen murder suspects – all played by the same manic, shape-shifting performer. It's a wild duel for the truth and for the spotlight, as the lone two leads constantly flip-flop from the piano to the microphone and back again – and then sometimes share the keys, all over the course of a crazed Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery (co-written by Milwaukee High School of the Arts grad at that).

Short and sweet at 90 minutes, "Murder for Two" might make for a perfect tiny shot of musical mania – and maybe you'll like it so much, you'll want another.

4. "Next to Normal" at All In Productions

Not every musical for non-musical fans needs to be a goof or a spoof or some irreverent comedy spree. Excellently told dramas with music can also win over non-believers – take, for instance, "Next to Normal," coming this season from the up-and-coming All In Productions. The Tony-winning and Pulitzer Prize acclaimed drama follows a mother struggling with bipolar disorder and how that impacts the rest of the family around her – scored by tough but tender musical rock songs. As you can tell by that plot synopsis, you probably won't walk out humming and smiling, but you may walk out convinced singing and serious storytelling can work hand in hand hauntingly well.

5. "Scrooge in Rouge" at In Tandem

Everybody sees the Milwaukee Rep's deservedly beloved annual tradition "A Christmas Carol." But perhaps, like a mug of spiked eggnog, you want to spice things up a bit – and you're a musical Scrooge. Then In Tandem has the perfect Christmas gift for you: "Scrooge in Rouge," a zany musical comedy about a rendition of Dickens' classic holiday tale turned upside down when 20 of the cast members are knocked out with food poisoning, leaving a poor unfortunate trio behind to put the whole show on by themselves. When it was first introduced to Milwaukee in 2009, we called it "smart, clever and naughty." Sounds like the perfect antidote to all that Hallmark holiday movie schmaltz – and the perfect way to turn a grumpy musical Scrooge into a gleeful musical Tiny Tim (minus, you know, the serious illness part).

6. "Urinetown" at Skylight

Don't like musicals? Good, neither does the 2002 Tony winner "Urinetown," which does its damnedest to take the piss (sorry) out of some of Broadway's biggest shows – not to mention the entire concept of musical theater, of people busting into song at random and of characters exposition-ing at the audience.

It's not simply a self-aware goof-off, though. "Urinetown" – about a dystopian city where the impoverished have to pay to ... well, you see the title – has just as much anarchic glee tearing down politics, capitalism and populism as it does the fourth wall. It's as silly as it is smart – and snappy, thanks to its catchy tunes that never let the show get too slow or serious. So definitely take a leak – um, I mean a peak – at "Urinetown" when it wraps up the Skylight's season next May.

7. "Waitress" at Marcus Center

The Marcus Center's Broadway schedule this season is loaded up on famous names from the stage – "Les Miserables," "Rent" – but if you're a musical misanthrope, your best bet might rather be the stuff coming from the big screen. "An American in Paris" and "Finding Neverland" are both traditional musicals in tune with their source material, but there is "School of Rock," based on the 2003 Jack Black hit. However, those hoping to hear AC/DC or The Clash will be disappointed to see the decidedly un-rocking Andrew Lloyd Webber behind the show's songs (but hey, at least the title tune "School of Rock (Teacher's Pet)" from the movie made the cut).

Then allow me to point you toward "Waitress," the Tony-nominated adaptation of the late Adrienne Shelly's beloved 2007 indie hit dramedy of the same name about a small town, pie-peddling waitress who unexpectedly becomes pregnant. It's a modest blue-collar story with a uniquely modest Broadway transformation, complete with light poppy show tunes courtesy of Top 40 singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles ("Love Song," "Brave") as compared to the bombast of other musicals. It might be worth ordering a slice when it rings in the new year at the Marcus in January.

8. "Zombies from the Beyond" at Skylight

I could talk about the plot of this Skylight show, about a flying saucer landing in the middle of 1950s Cold War hysteria America and a romance put at risk. I could describe the goofy satirical tone and attempt to recreate the world of old pulpy sci-fi flicks. I could even tempt you with the knowledge that the show takes in Milwaukee.

But I think all I have to do to convince non-musical heads to check this one out is to refer back to the title: "Zombies from the Beyond." "Miss Saigon" or "Oklahoma," this is not – and that's probably music to musical haters' ears.

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