Photo by Kat Schleicher
There was no mistaking Molly Rhode as she moved around the Skylight Theatre rehearsal room last month, winding her way through crowds of kids, Nazis and singing nuns. Tall and lithe, with an ivory complexion and a polished, honeyed voice, she is well known by most of the performers preparing for Skylight’s production of The Sound of Music. But they might not all know the same Molly Rhode.
Some will know her as the classical Molly Rhode remembered for her Milwaukee Shakespeare roles as Merchant of Venice’s Portia, the Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Olivia in The Tempest. Others as Molly Rhode, Broadway belter, shaking the Skylight Theatre rafters as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, or the shimmying, shaking bombshell Ulla in The Producers. There’s also the Molly Rhode, comic cutup in American Folklore Theatre’s Cheeseheads, The Musical. Or Molly Rhode, fleet-footed and elegant in the touching “dance” comedy Syncopation, and choreographer to kids and adults in a half-dozen shows at First Stage. There’s also Molly Rhode, the actor of sensitivity and depth who touched hearts in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Trying. And even the folkie Molly Rhode, member of The Rhode Sisters, singing twangy harmonies while playing the stand-up bass.
However they knew her before, this collection of singers and actors now know her as “director,” the person at the helm of the largest cast ever assembled for a Skylight show, and one of the greatest challenges of Rhode’s young career.
The road to the The Sound of Music’s musical Alps started in the much flatter land of Brookfield, where Rhode grew up in a musical family. She ventured to Milwaukee as a teen, attending the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, and studying and performing with First Stage Theater Academy. Then she was off to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to study theater directing and playwriting.
“I studied playwriting because it terrified me,” she says. “It scared me, so I thought, ‘That’s a good reason to take that class,’ and I learned so much. I kept studying it, and it became part of my major. The notion of writing a play myself is still incredibly daunting. But it was one of the best things I could do as an actor.”
And act she did, returning to Milwaukee upon winning a post-SMU slot in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s coveted internship program. It was a “conscious decision” to pass on a nomadic life and make Milwaukee a home. It’s worked.
“I’m so grateful to be able to make my entire artistic living in one place,” she says. “We meet so many artists who come through Milwaukee and are artistic nomads; they’re here a few months and are off again.”
Not that Rhode’s life is without the occasional road trip. When I meet her in a Fifth Ward photo studio in September, she’s in for the day from Door County, where she’s spent the last four months performing at American Folklore Theatre with husband Chase Stoeger. After a family gathering, she’s headed back to Fish Creek for another month of six or seven shows a week. And then back to Milwaukee and “that iconic old musical,” as she puts it, The Sound of Music.
But iconic isn’t bad. Rhode thinks the show’s familiarity shouldn’t get in the way of its real richness. “It’s easy to forget how wonderful it is,” she says. “It’s a harrowing story from a dark time in our history, and there’s a lot to mine. It’s all the more powerful because it’s inspired by very real events.”
For Rhode, it will be about both familiarity and discovery. It’s the largest professional show she’s directed. But when she walked into that first rehearsal, she saw faces from several chapters of her life: mentors from her student days at First Stage, colleagues from previous shows and former students who have now become colleagues.
“It really feels like a cycle,” she says. “That’s the cool thing about working here. We’re fostering and nurturing future generations, and I feel like I’ve been a part of that.”