Saturday, June 12, 2010

Off The Wall's Cabaret At Ten

Dale Gutzman’s Off The Wall Celebrates 10 Years With A Musical Cabaert

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The Off The Wall Theatrerests in a tiny storefront space right on the edge of the biggest, most historic theatrical stages in town. Right across the street, there’s the historic Pabst Theatre, which is attached to the Patty and Jay Baker Theatre Complex with no less than three different stages for the Milwaukee Rep. On the other side of that complex is the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, where the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra plays . . . it’s massive stage home to traveling Broadway shows and suchlike. Somewhere in the shadow of all of this rests a tiny, little storefront theatre where I’ve seen exceptionally bad productions of R.U.R. and some awful Sherlock Holmes play years ago, but the theatre has more recently been home to occasionally staggeringly brilliant moments-- David Flores breathing overwhelmingly impressive life into a modern-looking production of Richard III. Liz Mistele deftly tore a brief hole in reality with her performance as Ophelia in a production of Hamlet. She starred alongside Alison Mary Forbes in a memorable production of Gypsy. Joe Fransee made for an impressively musical Superman . . .

Off The Wall celebrates 10 years this month with A Perfect 10—a casual, laid-back party of a show. OTW Artistic Director Dale Gutzman and company casually stroll through slightly more than two dozen songs. It’s a mixed bag with a fair number of hits and misses. Nevertheless, the show is, on the whole, an enjoyable evening’s casual lounge entertainment that takes some of the restless edge off the early summer.

As a celebration of Off The Wall’s ten years, the A Perfect 10 seemed like kind of a strange choice to me. A lounge musical revue doesn’t really celebrate the drama that the tiny space has been home to over the years, but a party is a party and the overall idea is to fill a program with fun little musical moments. A Perfect 10 does a pretty good job of bringing the fun for a couple of hours.

The show starts as longtime collaborators Jeremy Welter and Lawrence J. Lukasavage join Gutzman onstage for a quick series of lounge songs. It was more or less at this point that I realized that I did not have a drink. Off The Wall really locks-in the lounge atmosphere . . . and there’s no way to feel completely comfortable in there without a tux, a martini and a lit cigarette, as the tux would be uncomfortable and the cigarette would be illegal, people get by with just the alcohol. The real trick with lounge singing seems to be the art of making it look easy enough to be fun without making it sound so easy that it comes across like Karaoke night at the theatre . . . and Off The Wall does a pretty good job of riding the line between fun and complex, aided as it is by musical accompaniment from the Ernie Brusbardis Combo.

Overall, there’s a pleasantly jovial atmosphere that only feels a slightly forced. Good-natured abuse recalls something of a cross between Frank Sinatra and Don Rickles, which feels, oddly, kind of timeless. This show is at its best when it is able to plant itself pretty firmly between cheesy, stagy showbiziness and legitimate comic emotion.

One of the best bits in the entire show was a trio of songs from the Wizard of Oz. It probably sounds a bit strange, but Jeremy Welter’s soulful, serious ballad-like version of If I Only Had A Brain actually was probably my single favorite moment in the show. One really felt that Welter was actually lamenting his lack of a brain. . . which kind of works as straight faced comedy and a sad, completely serious song. Last night the rendition goto no applause . . . only to completely stage in ovation for a far more straightforward presentation of If I Were The King of he Forest. On the whole ,the Wizard of Oz stuff was a classy jab at a certain overblown, overrated, big-budget Broadway show obliviously rolling through town next month just a few blocks down from OTW . . .

The imperfections of the show maintain a texture that keeps the show from ever getting boring. I didn’t realize, for instance, how much I love the song Sixteen Tons until a gentleman inadvertently forgot a few words from a really key point in the song. I won’t identify him here, but rest assured that right now somewhere in the Milwaukee area there’s a tall, talented gentleman agonizing over the words, “If the right one don't a-get you/Then the left one will.” It’s okay—the man in question more than made up for it later on in the show with his performance of If I Were The King Of The Forest. Huge ovation there. If I’m not mistaken the very next song was a lyrically complex variation on The Girl From Ipanema that called on Heather Reynolds to effortlessly flow through what may have been the most lyrically complex song on the entire program. She did so with a great deal of charm and emotion.

The Off The Wall family puts together a pretty good show without many surprises . . . Marilyn White, Sharon Rise and Kristin Pagenkopf all put in solid musical performances—Pagenkopf does some tap. David Roper delivers a typically British monologue in a typically British fashion. There were some interesting moments that provided the kind of detail I usually like picking apart in my head. . . .Christopher Elst was performing one half of I Get A Kick Out of You at one point . . . and it’s a duet complete with the lounge-y banter between the lines typical of this sort of atmosphere. He (and I believe it was Heather Reyonolds) were taking turns with the lines and they’re adding cute, semi-cheesy comments between the lyrics. And she sings a variation on the line about cocaine, “I get no kick from cocaine,” she says. And subtly quiet but clear as a bell, he says, “have you tried meth?” Can’t really explain why I thought that was as funny as I did. Off The Wall is effective enough at developing a party atmosphere that even some of the more inane moments felt pretty fun. It’s that kind of you-had-to-be-there moment that make Perfect 10 a fun little party for a theatre company.

Off The Wall’s A Perfect 10runs June 10th – 20th. For more information, call (414) 327-3552

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