In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Milwaukee Rep veteran actor Lee Ernst is flanked by Lili Thomas (left) and Amber Rees during a rehearsal of a musical number from "Cabaret." (PHOTO: Michael Brosilow)

Revving up the refocused Rep

More than a year ago, the Milwaukee Rep began retooling, reshaping and refocusing with the intention of having a higher profile in the community. No performing arts group in the city has had more financial and organizational stability than the Rep during the past four decades, but the company's board elected to shake things up when vacancies occurred in both the artistic and managing director positions.

The idea was to pro-actively respond to the changing culture and economy before a crisis struck. Among the goals was attracting a wider swath of theater-goers with more aggressive outreach and more diverse programming. Alter the artistic formula into which the Rep had comfortably settled, and don't wait for the customers to come to you.

New managing director Dawn Helsing Wolters arrived in the summer of 2009 with an advanced degree in theater management from Yale and experience running the Court Theatre, a Chicago company smaller than the Rep. She immediately injected a breezy energy and outgoing personality into an organization noted for being rather introverted.

When British director Mark Clements was introduced to Milwaukee as the Rep's new artistic director last October, he and Helsing Wolters spent a week touring the city like campaigning politicians, shaking hands and working rooms from a luncheon in Brookfield and a reception at the Harley Museum to a Renaissance Theaterworks preview at the Broadway Theatre Center. The company's new leadership had clearly brought a different style of engaging the public to the Rep.

The announcement in March that Clements would launch his Rep career in September by directing the theater's first full-scale Broadway musical, "Cabaret," certainly heightened the anticipation of the beginning of a new era at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Few of us ever thought we would see the Kit Kat girls cavorting in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

Now show time is near. "Cabaret" opens Friday, Sept. 17, and as we look ahead to Clements' first season as the Rep's creative leader, several early conclusions can be made.

He works well with his fellow artists. The buzz from the rehearsal hall is quite positive.

He has kept his promise to emphasize collaborations with local and national stage artists. Milwaukee Ballet Company artistic director Michael Pink is serving as choreographer for "Cabaret," and Skylight Opera Theatre artistic director Bill Theisen is making his Rep acting debut in "Laurel and Hardy," the season opener in the Stackner Cabaret. Furthermore, the March 4-27, 2011 staging of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater is a co-production with the Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Most members of the Rep's resident acting company will return this season, although we may not see as much of them as in the past. Torrey Hanson and Rose Pickering have taken leaves of absence for the year, and Brian Vaughn has moved from Milwaukee to be the new co-artistic director of the Utah Shakespearean Festival in Cedar City, Utah. However, Vaughn and Clements have not ruled out the actor occasionally returning to act at the Rep, and Clements has raised the possibility of a future collaboration between the two companies.

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