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Anand Nagraj, Nate Lewellyn, Paul Helm and Adam Estes star in "Forever Plaid."
Anand Nagraj, Nate Lewellyn, Paul Helm and Adam Estes star in "Forever Plaid."

The Rep's "Forever Plaid" sweetly sings a nostalgic tune

Mark Clements, artistic director of the Milwaukee Rep, has a great big wheelhouse.

We all know what a wheelhouse is. In baseball, it’s the pitch in the perfect place for the batter. In life, it’s a place or something where you have a wonderful advantage and where you are very comfortable.

Clements has a huge wheelhouse. He can stage a play as serious as "The Diary of Anne Frank," and as musically and technologically adventurous as "Ragtime."

And he has hit his stride in the intimate setting of the Stackner Cabaret.

No further evidence is needed than to let the smooth joy of "Forever Plaid" wash over you. The trip down memory lane opened Sunday night and will run through the end of December.

In the last two seasons, Clements has staged some of the most exciting musical theater ever seen in Milwaukee at the Stackner.

Last season, he hit home runs with "Gutenberg! The Musical," "Blues in the Night" and the breathtaking "Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash."

With "Forever Plaid," he has grabbed hold of a play that has been around for over two decades. It’s been performed everywhere from Off-Broadway to Off-Podunk, USA with every city and college in between.

Most often the show plays almost more like a concert. The story of a four-boy harmony group that was killed and then comes back to earth serves as a shell around some timeless songs.

Director JC Clementz (we may overdose on people with that last name, no matter how they spell it) has decided to infuse this play and story with much more humor than you normally see in productions.  

Make no mistake about it. This play is very, very funny. The number that capsulized the Ed Sullivan show in just over three minutes is about as humorous as it gets. The audience roared.

But this show is about the music and the tight harmonies. Adam Estes, Anand Nagraj, Nate Lewellyn, who was born in Milwaukee and our own resident man for all seasons, Paul Helm, blend like they’ve been doing this for years rather than ju…

Dave's getting all set up and tuned up for his big show at Linneman's.
Dave's getting all set up and tuned up for his big show at Linneman's. (Photo:

Guitar Man: Getting in tune

We are now two and a half months away from my debut as a solo musician.

So far, not much in the way of nerves. But it is time for a progress report.

I have six songs. Maybe seven. I know what the first song will be but after that, I have no idea. I don’t even know how many of them I’m going to play. One of the few skills I have is an ability to read an audience.

If the audience is about to fall asleep and fall off their collective chairs, it may well be a two-song set. If the applause (assuming there is some) seems genuine, I may just go on for a while.

I think I’ve got six good songs. A couple that are going to be very familiar and a couple by songwriters I know which may be less well known.

My lessons are going okay. Lots of practice. As you may recall, the baby finger on my left hand is numb and the ring finger is partly numb from some open heart surgery I had in August. So I’m practicing my best Django Reinhardt impression.

Jim Linneman has not called to cancel my gig at his place, so I assume it’s still on. He’s the best, and I can’t express my gratitude. He has a great space to play, and I hope I can do it a little justice.

Lessons with John Sieger are proceeding, and I’m on the edge of starting with my friend Bill Dwyer who lives in Dillon, Mont. We are going to use Skype so he can teach me one, maybe two songs. I know he’s committed, and I expect we’ll get to it one of these days.

I still have to figure out what to do about a sound system. I have a guitar and an amp, but I think I should have a real sound system. I think there’s a chance I can piece one together from the incredible array of stuff in Sieger’s recording studio.

The latest move is that I’ve taken my Seagull guitar to be set up by Wade Starck at his guitar shop on Oakland Avenue.

Wade has what is arguably the best guitar shop in town. It’s not one of those corporate behemoths, but a small place where you get individual attention. He’s got a wonderful selecti…

Jenny Wanasek plays Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" at Renaissance Theaterworks.
Jenny Wanasek plays Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst" at Renaissance Theaterworks. (Photo: Ross Zentner)

Dickinson comes alive in "The Belle of Amherst"

Let’s get a couple of things real straight before we get to the meat of this.

I am a guy's guy. I like the idea of sitting around the campfire, chewing on tobaccy, swearing, spitting and talking about the girls we knew or want to know.

Put a book of poetry in front of me, and I’m liable to reach for a glass of Wild Turkey, Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue and a cigarette (even though I no longer smoke).

I have a lot of respect for Shakespeare. I kind of like Robert Frost, and Maya Angelou has written a few things I like.

But Emily Dickinson? Forget it. No way. Birds, harps and flowers. Not for me.

That is why I am so surprised how very much I liked ‘The Belle of Amherst," William Luce’s one person play about Emily Dickinson. The production opened at Renaissance Theaterworks Friday night.

The one person in the play is Emily Dickinson. Jenny Wanasek, a veteran Milwaukee actor, does the honors.

Emily Dickinson has long been the darling of the egghead world. Teachers and academics the world over absolutely love her.

In this production, you find out how absolutely special and interesting she is, and how serious and meaningful her poetry is.

Any one person play depends on large part on the person in the spotlight, both the character and the actor. Last year, the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre got it right with James Ridge in "Under the Lintel."

And this year, Renaissance got it so very right.

Rather than some flighty fragile creature occasionally spreading magic dust on a page and ending up with some frothy poem, this Dickinson is a woman of dignity, charm and good humor.

She has a grace about her as she takes life, in all its glory and gore, and creates poetry to either explain it or pay tribute to it.

The subjects that Wanasek's Emily deals with are endless. She talks and writes of love, childhood, parenthood, grief, sorrow, loneliness, joy, death, religion, nature, heartbreak and intellectual curiosity.

It is a journey that Wanasek travels with ab…

"Stretch MARKS" opens Thursday night with a performance of Dave Begel's "Six Days of Grace."
"Stretch MARKS" opens Thursday night with a performance of Dave Begel's "Six Days of Grace."

Six-play festival kicks off Thursday night

There could be no more fitting way to honor the memory of Milwaukeean Sally Marks than with a festival of her greatest love – theater.

Uprooted Theatre, the brainchild and nurtured company of Marti Gobel – one of the very best and busiest actors in Milwaukee – is honoring Marks’ memory with a six-play fete, called "Stretch MARKS," to be held at Next Act Theatre. The series begins Thursday night at 7 p.m. with a performance of "Six Days of Grace," which I wrote. The show hits the stage again on Oct. 26.

Marks was a child actor in Hollywood, appearing in films with Dorothy Lamour and Spencer Tracy. She acted in Milwaukee late in life and was a generous supporter of the arts. 

Uprooted is committed to helping diversify the theater world in Milwaukee and has chosen six plays – some by playwrights who have never had a work performed – with casts and subject matter that highlight that goal. 

"We all know that theatre is much better when there are people in the audience to witness our work and the stories we have agreed to tell," Gobel said. "It is particularly important when one of the primary goals is to diversify, not only as it concerns patronage but on the stage as well. We, as a group, have accomplished gathering a great mix of artists. 'Stretch MARKS' is cast with young and mature, African American, Latino, Caucasian, Native American and biracial actors and actresses. All very talented and all local. The works being presented boast a wide range of topics and points of view."

The six-show fete will run Thursday through Sunday for the next three weekends, with one of the six selected plays performed each night. 

"We must not forget, however, that the piece that receives the most audience votes will move forward to have their work presented (in similar format) locally, nationally and internationally," Gobel added. "I am pleased that the majority of the playwrights will be on hand to hear their words sprinkled with emotion and explored with pro…