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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Do You Really Want to Have Some Fun?

Dale Gutzman’s Gilbert and Sullivan

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“Let me speak to the as yet unknowing world

How these things came about: so shall you hear

Of carnival, lusty, and artistic acts

Of accidental brilliance, maverick genius;

Of hits put on by airships and hard work,

And, in this upshot, musical theatre

That does Milwaukee proud.”

So Colin Cabot paraphrased Hamlet’s Horatio, in describing the first 30 years of The Skylight Theatre. Twenty years later, The Skylight Opera has invited prodigal son Dale Gutzman to direct An Evening with Gilbert and Sullivan (May 28 - June 20 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre) returning to the material of its maiden performance a half-century past.

Gutzman, a prolific producer, director, actor and playwright, is well known to Milwaukee audiences. He’s presented shows at nearly every venue in town in a career which has also seen him direct professionally in England, Russia, Thailand and the Ukraine.

Currently on Wells Street, in the shadow of the larger, and infinitely better funded Milwaukee Repertory Theater, he continues to present controversial material at his Off the Wall Theatre, often to mixed reviews, which doesn’t bother the workhorse showman. “Milwaukee audiences are particularly conservative in their theater tastes,” he says, adding “My shows have always been known for a kind of off-the-wall quality. I take risks in my work.”

Such risk-taking made Gutzman a natural fit for the Skylight, where he directed 23 shows, including many he wrote, including The Bathtub Gin Revue, Beertown Burlesque and the original Holiday Punch, which in later years became a yuletide favorite.

Then, abruptly, the phone stopped ringing. “A change of policy at the theater brought in directors and talent from out of town,” says Gutzman, “and I was not used for two decades. Nothing was ever explained to me, so I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps I was considered too local for them.”

Undeterred, Gutzman continued to produce shows abroad and locally, including a three-year stint as resident playwright at the Performing Arts Center (now Marcus Center for the Performing Arts). “I’ve admitted more often than I care to, that it always seemed to be the only thing I could really do. I did teach for almost 20 years, but teaching is in itself a kind of performance.”

However, when the idea of doing a Gilbert and Sullivan revue for the 50th anniversary came up, Skylight artistic director Bill Theisen knew who he wanted helming the project. “There was no question in my mind that he was the right man for the job. My first performing experience at the Skylight in 1981 was a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado directed by Dale.”

Theisen goes on to describe Gutzman as “one of the most creative people that I have ever had the pleasure of working with. His script for the show is very fresh, extremely funny and definitely in the spirit of The Skylight.”

Despite his already heavy schedule, Gutzman says he was “thrilled” when the Skylight approached him to return. “One of my dreams before I retire was to be able to return to the Skylight to do another show. The Skylight was a huge part of my life for many years, and I think I really connected with the Skylight audience.”

Of the show, Gutzman explains, “I was free to do anything I wanted to do, and they gave me no constraints or limitations except that I was to use three performers. I decided to take the show in a different direction from the original G and S revue upon which it was based.

This show is an actual play within a revue setting. It takes place in Heaven and Gilbert and Sullivan, who never got along in their lifetime, are faced with being together for eternity. They use 22 of their songs to explore their relationship and the times in which they lived. It explores how culture and time affect artistic creation.”

In the waning hours of the 1950s, after an impromptu performance of Gilbert and Sullivan tunes by two church musicians, Sprague Vonier turned to his business partner Clair Richardson and asked, “Do you really want to have some fun? I’ll get these guys to put on a show in the empty space upstairs.” Fifty years and thousands of performances later, The Skylight continues to entertain Milwaukee audiences with every stripe of musical theatre. Gutzman’s comic sensibilities, coupled with the madcap material of Gilbert and Sullivan, are sure to keep the fun rolling.

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