In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Chase Stoeger and Jennifer L. Shine in "Main-Travelled Roads" (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre takes to the "Roads"

Most of us spend our lives so far into the woods, we seldom see the trees. The 21st century pace of life does that to us.

So before I address this column's main topic this week, I want to have all of us stop and smell the roses that have bloomed in Milwaukee theaters this fall. I can't remember a local stage season that has started with as many must-see productions in its first six weeks.

I hope you didn't miss the Skylight's "Dames at Sea" and Next Act's "Four Places." Both shows have completed their runs. "Dames at Sea" was delicious theatrical cotton candy, and "Four Places" was quite the opposite -- a trenchant slice of life look at adult siblings attempting to deal with their aging parents' problems.

Don't allow the Milwaukee Rep's outstanding "Cabaret" (closes Oct. 24) to cause you to overlook its stunning production of "My Name is Asher Lev" (Nov. 14) in the black box Stiemke Theater. "Asher Lev" is an intense and compelling exploration of the personal price visionary artists and their families may have to pay to satisfy the burning need to create.

Renaissance Theaterworks' spot-on production of "Reasons to be Pretty" (Oct. 24) also should not be missed. The Neil LaBute drama is a tough and emotionally truthful look at body image and relationship issues in our culture.

The abundance of exceptional theater at the start of the season re-enforces Milwaukee's standing as one of the premiere theater cities in the country. That's the truth folks, and we have the proof.

"Main-Travelled Roads"

The American Folklore Theatre in Door County has been a steady engine of musical theater creativity since the early '90s, and a few of its shows -- "Guys on Ice," "The Bachelor," "Good Night, Irene" and "Lumberjacks in Love" -- have been seen here. But I have been surprised and disappointed that Milwaukee audiences haven't been offered the opportunity to see more of the AFT work.

That makes me pleased that the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre will open "Main-Travelled Roads" at the Broadway Theatre Center tomorrow night. "Roads," which debuted in Door County in 2007, is a typical AFT musical -- folk music style with a Wisconsin connection and generous helpings of poignancy and humor. Its text is based on several short stories written by Hamlin Garland, who was born in 1860 in West Salem, Wis. and grew up on several state farms.

Garland won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1922, but his first success came in 1891 with a collection of farm-related short stories titled "Main-Travelled Roads." The writing team of lyricist-librettist Dave Hudson and composer Paul Libman, who have become frequent contributors to AFT seasons, based their musical of the same name on characters and stories from that anthology. The show won the prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for Musical Theater.

Chamber Theatre artistic director C. Michael Wright was involved in the early stages of "Main-Travelled Roads'" development when he directed a workshop of it in Madison six years ago. The public was invited to a staged reading as part of the workshop, and Wright told me last week, "it was obvious it needed more work, but the audience was quite clearly engaged, and I could see much potential there."

Wright liked the show enough to keep it in mind as the musical developed, won a major national award and was staged in Door County. He chose to include it in the Chamber's 2010-2011 season, but he isn't directing it here. Wright selected actress and musician Molly Rhode, who performed in the AFT production of "Roads" in 2007, to stage the piece for the Chamber.

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