In Arts & Entertainment

Decades away don't dim Polish Diva's Milwaukee love

When "The Polish Diva from Milwaukee" debuted here in October 2004 with a performance at Divine Savior Holy Angels (the Diva's alma mater), the show marked a homecoming for Terry Palasz, the Diva's alter ego. Palasz now brings the show back to Brew City for a run at The Rep's Stackner Cabaret, Jan. 14-March 12.

Written and performed by Palasz, a Milwaukee native, "The Polish Diva from Milwaukee" is a musical comedy revue based on memories of growing up in the Midwest. That's something Palasz knows all about.

"Terry Palasz is a 40-something attractive, single gal born and bred in Milwaukee with five brothers and sisters, who is a kooky combination of a sort of New York sophisticate who loves mountain climbing, polka dancing, exotic travels, visiting small towns with character," says the Diva of her creator. "(She is) equally comfortable with fine dining or a meal of pot roast, green bean casserole and a good Jell-O mold."

"She's an opera singer turned singer comedienne who is passionate about family, friends and lifelong learning. She lived in Seattle, Wash. for 18 years and is now based in New York City."

While living in the Pacific Northwest, Palasz got the idea for the show, at the suggestion of a cabaret producer.

"When I was living in Seattle, I was singing in several cabaret revues and used to tell stories about my Milwaukee childhood to my friends and fellow actors," Palasz recalls.

"I had Milwaukee theme parties with bratwurst and beer, polka dancing and sang lots of ethnic folk tunes with a great accordionist friend of mine, Jon Persson. (When) a cabaret producer who had seen many of my performances asked me to write a one-woman show about my memories of Milwaukee, I decided to make it a semi-autobiographical musical comedy about growing up as a Polish-English-Catholic soprano from Milwaukee who struggles with the acceptance of her hometown and ethnic heritage. It debuted in Seattle eight years ago and with several rewrites in between has since performed all over the country."

But after being away from Brew City for so long, what was it about Milwaukee that resonated with Palasz so deeply?

"It's the old story about relationships and hometowns," she says. "You don't miss them 'til you leave. To me, Milwaukee is one of those rare gems that have managed to keep its ethnic traditions alive while growing as a major city in the 21st century. I only realized this when I moved to Seattle and felt there was something missing for me. Though Seattle has great natural beauty and an atmosphere great for entrepreneurs, I never felt a sense of history and diversity of culture and community there."

Palasz returns to Milwaukee -- where her mother and a brother still live -- regularly and she likes what she sees happening here.

"I have made it back to Milwaukee at least once a year, and in the last few years it's been more than that. The new additions to the Downtown area and waterfront are stunning and I still like to go to the South Side for my fish fry fix and to the Serb Hall for polka dancing!"

Even better for Palasz was the reception that "The Polish Diva from Milwaukee" received when it made its Cream City debut.

"I was really delighted to find that the show was received quite well, especially since I poke gentle fun of Milwaukee," she says. "It didn't hurt that there were family and old friends there, but there were just as many strangers who liked it, as well. There were theater lovers, polka lovers, senior citizens and teenagers in the crowd. Since it's quite an eclectic show with music that varies from polka music to opera, and quirky, colorful characters in between, there seemed to be something for everyone."

Although she admits she's yet to discover Mad Man Michaels' polish musical comedy biscuits of the 1950s, Palasz understands the lure of Milwaukee humor.

"I tend to think there is even more attention paid to Milwaukee humor than ever," she says, "Polish and otherwise, because people seem to be embracing their ethnic roots. Too many cities are becoming homogenized in their personalities, and to me, that can be certain death to individuality and uniqueness."

Last year, Palasz was working toward releasing her first polka CD when she got sidetracked.

"I got an offer from Disney to create a brand new show for the 50th anniversary of Disneyland. ... l (was) asked to perform three different shows ... Wonderfully evil parts to play and a nice change to be in tropical weather to boot!

"My contract with Disney was wonderful. We premiered a brand new stage show called 'Twice Charmed' ... I played the Stepmother, Lady Tremaine, who is a deliciously evil character. The original music was stunning, actors, artistic and production staffs top notch, and the set design amazing. I was pleasantly surprised at an all around great experience."

At the time, Palasz was also hoping to return to Milwaukee to perform "The Polish Diva" again for the hometown crowds and now she'll get her wish.

"I'm spoiled again with the terrific staff at Milwaukee Rep," says Palasz. "They're even going to add some Polish food to the menu!"

Visit The Polish Diva on the Web here.


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