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Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012

Milwaukee Opera Theatre's Heroic Effort

'Fortuna the Time Bender' premieres in Bay View

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From 26, in which 26 unrelated opera arias were joined in an original dance-theater melodrama in 2010, to this fall's spectacular production of Astor Piazzolla's tango opera Maria De Buenos Aires in collaboration with Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, Danceworks Performance Company and the UW-Milwaukee Dance Department, Jill Anna Ponasik has made Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT) an adventurous, progressive force in Milwaukee's performing arts.

Founded in 1999, MOT had presented one or two small, family-friendly productions of familiar operas annually. Although it was not viewed, nor did it view itself, as innovative, it won enough support that when founding director Charissa York left Wisconsin three years ago, the company's board agreed to seek her replacement.

Ponasik, a Waukesha native in her early 30s, was working in New York when a former voice teacher with ties to MOT suggested she apply for the artistic directorship. She took the job because the board was game to try new things.

“I grew up here,” she explains. “My husband and I left New York for air, earth, room to breathe, for parents and ancestors, the lake, the people and the artists here. I support any art making, but if I'm going to work countless hours for little money, it has to reflect what I find fulfilling.”

She believes the city has room for a scrappy opera company that takes risks. Case in point: Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom!, a comic-book opera by Milwaukeean Jason Powell commissioned by MOT that opens in a full production this month at the comparably scrappy Alchemist Theatre and Lounge in Bay View.

Ponasik describes it as an intimately staged, very funny pop-music theater performance. Two years in the making, the script was met with “crazy enthusiasm” by audiences of all ages at public readings last winter. Some cuts, some tweaks and one cast replacement followed.

Powell composed specifically for the voices and sensibilities of a pre-cast ensemble of gifted opera, music theater and rock singers, including Jon Stewart, Melissa Kelly Cardamone, Nathan Wesselowski, Katy Johnson, Lisa Buchmeier, Rana Roman and the wonderful Diane Lane, who also originated the comic Mrs. Malaprop in the world premiere of The Rivals at the Skylight Opera Theatre this fall. Samantha Sostarich as Fortuna is the newcomer.

Ponasik and Powell are co-directing. The imaginative Ellen Kozak is the costume designer. Set and lights are by the Alchemist's driving visionary, Aaron Kopec. Donna Kummer is the distinguished musical director and keyboard accompanist.

A few months into the job at MOT, Ponasik was cast in the Alchemist production of Powell's first music theater script, Invader? I Hardly Know Her. Admiring the playfulness of Powell's lyrics, she tried to commission a children's musical from him. When months of discussion led nowhere, she asked him what he really liked.

“I was writing a comic-book blog and reading the X-Men from start to finish,” Powell says. “I had just read 20 issues. It was the only thing in my mind.”

His extensive knowledge of comics initially paralyzed him. Ponasik suggested Gilbert and Sullivan as a model. Those 19th-century comic opera masters deployed the conventions of older opera to skewer contemporary social manners. It gave Powell a way in. “They made an opera about pirates,” he says. “Now there's one about superheroes.”

Powell's Schoolgirls of Doom might be evil twins of The Mikado's Three Little Maids from School. Their villainous English Headmaster, who took to crime when his philosophy degree proved useless (“You can't make a living being thoughtful anymore,” he laments), rehearses his history in a patter song for which the very model is the modern major-general of H.M.S. Pinafore. Fortuna's superpower satirizes the convention of timing stage action to music. She can change the tempo and remain unaffected.

The story's heart lies with its identifiable lovers—an unfocused temp worker and his workaholic, somewhat resentful girlfriend. To complement Powell's work, MOT will stage Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe in late May. The company's annual winter concert on March 4 at Plymouth Church features several world premieres. Titled Home, it is partly inspired by this year's events in Madison.

Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom! runs Jan. 13-29 at the Alchemist Theatre and Lounge, 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For more information, call 414-426-4169 or visit www.alchemisttheatre.com.

John Schneider has written and directed many plays with Theatre X.
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