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#5:  The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at UWM Theatre. Why? Because Stephen Adly Guirgis is as close to a rock star as any playwright can get. Long aligned with New York’s LABrynth theater company (which also boasts Philip Seymour Hoffman as a member), he’s been called “the most distinctive voice to emerge from New […]

#5:  The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at UWM Theatre.
Why? Because Stephen Adly Guirgis is as close to a rock star as any playwright can get. Long aligned with New York’s LABrynth theater company (which also boasts Philip Seymour Hoffman as a member), he’s been called “the most distinctive voice to emerge from New York theatre in a decade.” One look at Judas and you’ll know why: the play retries Christ’s betrayer in modern New York, putting Pilate on the witness stand, but also Mother Teresa and Sigmund Freud. It’s no surprise that UW-Milwaukee’s Rebecca Holderness, one of the city’s most innovative directors, has had this one in her sights for a while. It’s a “don’t miss” for anyone interested in cutting edge performance.

 


#4: The Bel Canto Chorus’s “Rememberance” at Christ King Church, Wauwatosa.

Why? Because Bel Canto’s innovative season continues to commemorate the 150th  anniversary of the Civil War. Joseph Baber’s requiem mass honors the memory of the war using excerpts of poems, speeches and letters, and features both the Bel Canto voices and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra. A pre-show talk features demonstrations of Civil War-era dances lead by members of the Kenosha Civil War Museum.

#3: Willie Nelson and Family at the Riverside Theater.
Why? Because Willie just can’t seem to get off the road again, and we’re not complaining. This time, Willie brings along his son Lukas, who has made something of a Nashville splash lately. And he’ll likely feature music from his recent album, American Classic, which offers another take on the great American songbook. Since April 15 is just around the corner, we’re guessing that Willie could use a little extra help. So buy a ticket and send him some love.

 


#2:
Gil Shaham and the Milwaukee Symphony at Uihlein Hall.
Why? Because Edo de Waart continues to look for big musical thrills by programming splashy symphonic works with a decided Wow Factor. Here, it’s Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique, with its opium-induced musical visions and sparkly French orchestra colors. Gil Shaham joins the orchestra for the challenging Violin Concerto of Brit composer William Walton, placing himself in the shadow of Jascha Heifetz, for whom the piece was written in 1936. Shaham is certainly up to the challenge.

 

#1: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Milwaukee Rep.
Why? Because this superb production shows why August Wilson is one of the great American playwrights. The show’s first 20 minutes makes the case on its own. Four jazz musicians, waiting for a recording session to start, hang out in a “rehearsal room” and trade barbs, philosophies and personal histories. Director Ron OJ Parson turns to four terrific actors – Anthony Fleming III, Ernest Perry, Jr., A.C. Smith and Alfred H. Wilson – to make this music. And the first thing you notice about it is its music, not only in its flow and rhythm, but in the way it initiates themes and revisits them, and in the way it crafts a unique “voice” for all its instruments. It’s no accident that Wilson put one of his earliest plays in the hands of musicians. When the characters pick up their instruments and blow a few 1920s-style blues songs, we can hear the connections between the voices and the brass.

Even though Rainey gets top billing, this quartet is really the heart of the play. Greta Oglesby plays Rainey with an understated diva sneer that highlights one of the play’s main ideas – the tense, exploitative arrangements between the musicians and their white producers. But it’s the story of Levee, the willful, damaged horn player that draws you in to Wilson’s world. Fleming plays Levee with an embodied confidence that’s breathtaking (Fleming is a company member with the highly physical Lookinglass Theatre in Chicago), and it makes his ultimate collapse all the more devastating. A brilliant piece of theatrical music that captures the true meaning of the blues, Ma Rainey is a show you won’t soon forget.

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