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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Caroline O'Connor as a teenage talent show contestant in "Bombshells." Photo by Michael Brosilow.

In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Tracy Michelle Arnold is joined onstage by cellist Eric Miller and violist Nick Ehlinger in "The Gift of the Magi." Photo by Carissa Dixon

The Rep and the APT stretch themselves

The state's two largest theater companies did some stretching beyond their normal comfort zones in the past week. The Milwaukee Rep opened a one-woman show of six vignettes written for and performed by an English-Australian triple-threat actress virtually unknown in this country.

The American Players Theatre in Spring Green debuted its first winter show, a company-commissioned musical, which is also a first. We may still be tip-toeing through a treacherous economy, but the Rep and the APT have not lost their nerve. They're taking chances.

"Bombshells" is the name of the Rep's new production, and Caroline O'Connor is the saucy Aussie who stars in it. Her vast credits range from training at the Royal Ballet School in London and playing Judy Garland and Edith Piaf onstage in her adopted country of Australia to appearing in the movies "Moulin Rouge" and "De-Lovely," and playing leading stage roles in London's West End.

Google her name and you get an impressive picture of her accomplishments. Check out these videos of O"Connor performing "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "All That Jazz," and you feel the magic.

But the U.S has yet to discover the diminutive brunette, and the "Bombshells" playwright, Australian Joanna Murray-Smith, is equally anonymous here. Milwaukeeans are being asked to buy this show on faith in the judgment of new Rep artistic director Mark Clements, a Brit and a chum of O'Connor's.

He was certain we would fall in like with her. He was right.

O'Connor has prodigious energy and talent. The vignettes are fun, sometimes clever and undeniably entertaining. Just as he did with his inaugural Milwaukee production of "Cabaret," Clements demonstrates Broadway caliber fluency and fluidity in directing musically infused theater.

We haven't seen anything quite like "Bombshells" on the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater stage before, and it is rather intoxicating.

O'Connor plays a different female in each of "Bombshells'" six vignettes. All but one of them are tragically comic as they attempt to maintain calm control over internal chaos. Several of the pieces are a tad racy.

The sketches that close the first and second acts make humorous use of the actress' song and dance skills, and they are the most amusing of the lot. When another competitor in a high school talent show steals an Irish teenager's "Cats"-like dance number, the girl makes a spur of the moment decision to switch her routine to "The Theme From Shaft." O'Connor's flair for intensely expressive physical acting scores big with her performance of the Isaac Hayes number from the '70s.

In the show's final sketch, the actress parodies an over-the-hill and over-the-top chanteuse -- think Judy Garland -- making her comeback from rehab. Although the character and situation are hardly original, O'Connor's unrestrained zest for the moment gives us the giggles.

The lone completely serious bit about a widow's unlikely sexual reawakening shows us the actress' versatility as a performer.

Director Clements connects the vignettes with a visually interesting device. O'Connor changes costumes in silhouette behind a screen, assisted by a dresser and an elegant clothes rack that revolves on a turntable. It's a shrewd bit of theatricality.

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