The Hebrew Hillbilly
Santa Monica Playhouse

Shelley Fisher is one of the last of the red-hot mamas. At 63, the Memphis-born singer is still belting out blues, rock and country in feisty fashion. Despite numerous professional setbacks and disappointments, she hasn't quit on herself. On the contrary, she has taken on one of the theater's toughest challenges -- a solo show. Called The Hebrew Hillbilly, the piece is now on tap at the Santa Monica Playhouse, with the veteran singer more than holding her own for ninety minutes of music and patter, backed up by Harold Payne and Kenneth Hirsch on keyboard and guitar.

Willard Manus
Empty Plate in the Cafe du Grand Boeuf, An
freeFall Theater

The Cafe du Grand Boeuf is not only the best restaurant in 1961 Paris but perhaps in the world. It exists only to serve multimillionaire Victor. Chef Gaston and maître d’Claude with his waitress wife, Mimi, keep always ready for their boss’ arrival. Claude is training Antoine to replace a waiter who died.

In from a Madrid sojourn with customary companion Mademoiselle (a.k.a. Miss Berger), comes a sad, weary Victor. Alone. He announces he is going to starve himself to death at his dinner table.

Marie J. Kilker
Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, The
Geva Theater Center

Geva Theater Center’s own version [the title reads “Version 2.0”] of Mike Daisey’s fascinating, hilarious, and deeply disturbing monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,is audience-rewarding proof that Daisey’s notorious polemic is going to continue in our theatrical repertories, perhaps with many small genetic alterations in its progeny.

Herbert M. Simpson
Ganesh Versus the Third Reich
Freud Playhouse

Back to Back Theater, an Australian company comprising actors with a disability, recently brought its provocative and startling production of Ganesh Versus the Third Reichto UCLA's Freud Playhouse for a brief run.

Willard Manus
To the Promised Land
Todd Wehr Theater

The world premiere of local playwright Jonathan Gillard Daly’s To the Promised Landattempts to parallel the conditions faced by African Americans in the 1960s with those faced by Jewish immigrants several decades earlier. According pre-show remarks made by First Stage artistic director Jeff Frank, the play is presented as “the company’s gift to our community.”

Anne Siegel
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Richard Rodgers Theater

With lots of noise but little action, the heat of sensuality is surprisingly low-temp in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.Scarlett Johannson charges her interpretation of Maggie the Cat with fierceness, desperation and determination, but her feline is more lioness than sex kitten. She cajoles, challenges and demands her aloof, alcoholic husband, Brick (Benjamin Walker), to impregnate her and thus insure his inheritance. But Brick is a disgruntled ex-jock shorn of all hope or ambition. He despises Maggie and has no interest in his family plantation.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Heidi Chronicles, The
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

Better to call this production “The Heidi Cartoons.” Its unlucky 13 scenes even get introduced by projected montages intended to characterize women navigating the 1960s,’70s,’80s. They’re more like Saturday newspaper pages of political funnies or collections of feminine “Zits” strips.

Marie J. Kilker
Educating Rita
Broadway Theater Center - Studio Theater

Renaissance Theaterworks continues its 20th season with Educating Rita, a play that teams a young, uneducated woman in her mid-20s with a cynical, boozy academic. It doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven. But this excellent production, directed by Jenny Wanasek, creates a captivating connection between these two people. Both start out as lost souls. By the time the play winds down to its bittersweet ending, only one of the souls finds itself and soars toward fulfillment.

Anne Siegel
American Airlines Theater

Dark themes of loneliness, smashed dreams and sexual frustration simmer beneath the illusory charm of small-town Americana in the Roundabout production of William Inge’s Picnic at the American Airlines Theater. Inge’s Come Back Little Sheba, Splendor in the Grass, Bus Stop and Picnic all resonate with the influences that formed his writing; small towns, aimlessness, family complications, the tug of restraint and yearning.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
How the World Began
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Stiemke Studio Theater

There’s far more going on than initially meets the eye in Catherine Trieschmann’s How the World Began, staged at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s intimate Studio Theater. The Rep’s smaller theater space is ideal for the size of the small cast and the tension they maintain throughout the show’s 80 minutes. This is not an easy play to watch, but it is also impossible to look away once it begins. It’s a thought-provoking work that couldn’t be timelier.

Anne Siegel
Beyond Dark
Odyssey Theater

The Odyssey ran two separate evenings of in-the-dark plays late last year; reactions were positive enough to encourage the company to create a composite evening called ”Beyond Dark”. The new show, which opened in early January 2013, melds key short plays from Theater in the Dark, Parts One and Twointo a single 90-minute whole.

Willard Manus
Pacific Resident Theater

Nora, Ingmar Bergman's stripped-down version of Ibsen's A Doll’s House(the modern translation is by Frederick J. Marker & Lise-Lone Marker), has been running in L.A. for the past four months. That a 134-year-old, musty drama could become a hit is a testament to the PRT's stellar production.

Working in an intimate black-box space, PRT's cast of five--Bergman having eliminated children and servants from the Ibsen original -- is able to plumb the depths of Nora’s main characters and bring out their contradictions.

Willard Manus
Glengarry Glen Ross
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

Attending Glengarry Glen Rossduring its U.S. premiere in Chicago in 1984, I found the shock value palpable. But that didn’t stem from David Mamet’s characters, dilemmas and values as much as from the play’s language, delivered in staccato. In 2013, Asolo Rep yet issues various related warnings to prospective audiences.

Marie J. Kilker
Next to Normal
Geva Theater - Mainstage

Geva Theatre Center is certainly getting more bang for their bucks by co-producing a number of first-class works with other leading regional theaters, in this case presenting a superb production of an important new musical drama in association with Atlanta’s Alliance Theater.

Herbert M. Simpson
Grand Irrationality, The
The Lost Studio

Keep your eye on Jemma Kennedy, the young British playwright whose snappy comedy, The Grand Irrationality, is now in its world-premiere run at The Lost Studio. Kennedy, a published novelist (“Skywalking”) and recent playwright-in-residence at the National Theatre, takes aim at several targets in her new play -- the ad world, mismatched lovers, astrology, a dysfunctional family -- and hits the bull's-eye with just about every shot.

Willard Manus
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

Memphis is a potentially explosive combination of race, sex and rock n’ roll set in 1950s Memphis. It is more of a music-and-dance show than a book musical, but that doesn’t disappoint. (It’s a bit surprising that the show won a Tony Award for Best Book, but maybe that says more about the contenders that year.) Memphispays a high-energy tribute to rock’s emergence over the sleepy love ballads of Perry Como and Gene Autry, artists that a Memphis radio station used to play before hiring Huey Calhoun.

Anne Siegel
Other Place, The
Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Manhattan Theatre Club’s presentation of Sharr White’s The Other Place, at the Samuel Friedman Theater, is a taut, thrilling puzzle of the cruelly ironic disease of Dr. Juliana Smithton. Laurie Metcalf delivers a magnetic performance as the eminent neurological researcher who must cope with the deterioration of her own mentality.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Urban Cowboys
Florida Studio Theater - John C. Court Cabaret

Urban Cowboysstrikes me as a performance by six characters in search of a script. It’s a parade of country and western and a combination of both types of music followed by blending with pop and rock.

Marie J. Kilker
Aliens, The
Florida State University for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

Evan, a loner high school senior working in a rundown Vermont coffee shack, comes of age under the influence of two slackers who hang out in back. Both KJ, a psychotic druggie dropout from college and life, and Jasper, a chain-smoking aspiring novelist, are consummate outsiders. They once had a garage band but broke up after not being able to agree on what to call it. (They’d favored, though, Aliens, after a work by Jasper’s favorite Charles Bukowski, the antisocial writer.)

Marie J. Kilker
My Name is Asher Lev
Westside Theater

Aaron Posner’s play, My Name is Asher Lev, adapted from Chaim Potok’s novel, has a convincing premise about art: An artist must be true to his inner consciousness and pursue the nature and inspiration that God gave him, or he can become a whore. The drama also sets up a good conflict: an Orthodox Jew paints Jesus, to the consternation of his father (Mark Nelson, who also plays The Rebbe and an old artist who guides the boy). Jenny Bacon plays the understanding mother (as well as an art dealer and a model).

Richmond Shepard
Here's a Howdy-Do
Broadway Theater Center - Studio Theater

If there’s one thing Milwaukee audiences associate with Skylight Music Theater, it’s Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas. In the company’s 54-year history, it has racked up 55 productions of G&S shows. In order to insert a bit of G&S into its current season, Skylight has come up with a new, topsy-turvy revue, Here’s a Howdy Do; The Mischievous World of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Anne Siegel
You Can't Take it With You
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

“Relax...let it come to you,” says Grandpa Martin Vanderhof of life. And that’s how director Peter Amster takes us into You Can’t Take it with You.We find Grandpa’s family at an easy pace in 1938 as they fill his homey, traditional, two-story wood-paneled house with joy toward what they’re doing and each other.

Marie J. Kilker
New York University - Skirball Center

Mummenschanz, celebrating its 40th year as the world’s premiere Mask Theater company, gives us a wonderful experience in imagination.

Richmond Shepard
Who Killed Santa?
Carte Blanche Studios

One of the last-to-open holiday shows in Milwaukee is also one of the funniest. Who Killed Santa? , a musical murder mystery, is the perfect antidote for those who have endured too many Christmas songs on the radio or viewed too many holiday TV commercials. Perhaps it’s also for those who’ve eaten too many candy canes – who knows?

Anne Siegel
Sense and Sensibility
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Quadracci Powerhouse Theater

The plight of two unmarried sisters takes center stage in Mark Healy’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, staged by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Marianne, 16, is the “sense” in the play, which is set in England around 1800. Lithe, energetic and flirtatious, she often behaves the way one would expect of a girl blossoming into womanhood.

Anne Siegel
Golden Boy
Belasco Theater

Lincoln Center Theater packs a wallop with Golden Boy at the Belasco Theater, the same venue where Clifford Odets’ neglected classic premiered in 1937. With a sure hand and skillful timing, director Bartlett Sher deftly conducts the sounds and sights of the fight game, focusing on inspiring talent instead of impressive names. A cast of 19 reenacts a familiar story with emotional performances and snappy street patter. With two intermissions, Golden Boy is a golden opportunity for theatergoers to watch one man battle the universal temptations in life.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Kodachrome Christmas, A
Next Act Theater

As A Kodachrome Christmas so bountifully reminds us, not all holiday hits require an enormous cast, a substantial-size orchestra, spectacular choreography or incredible sets and costumes. This not to knock Milwaukee’s other holiday attractions such as The Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol and, this year, The Sound of Music,featuring a cast of 63(!).

Anne Siegel
Bob's Holiday Office Party
Pico Playhouse Theater

If toilet humor, wild drinking and sexual mayhem are your cup of Xmas grog, get yourself to the Pico Playhouse for the current edition of Bob’s Holiday Office Party. The show, which began as an improv exercise back in 1995, has played in L.A. every year since then, drawing big, raucous laughter from the packed houses in attendance.

Willard Manus
Christmas Carol, A
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Pabst Theater

The lush, red-velvet interior of the historic Pabst Theater is once again brimming with holiday cheer as a large and enthusiastic cast bring Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carolto life.

Now in its 37th year, A Christmas Carol has become traditional holiday fare courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory. In this excellent adaptation by former artistic director Joseph Hanreddy and Edward Morgan, the Rep does a good job of staging Dickens’ famous tale of redemption and kindness toward one’s fellow man.

Anne Siegel
Milwaukee Fortress

Youngblood Theater, a relative newcomer to Milwaukee’s theater scene, makes a strong impression with Steve Yockey’s Cartoon. Eight actors create life within ToonTown, which is ruled by a girl with a great big hammer. The girl (Lindsay Gagliano) is dressed like Shirley Temple (with cleavage), but acts very much like the bureaucrats in George Orwell’s novel, “1984.” She rules a world of moving, talking toys. However, this is not “Babes in Toyland.” Some of these toys/characters carry guns and know how to use them. Cartoonis definitely not a show for the kiddies.

Anne Siegel
Best of Enemies, The
Florida Studio Theater - Gompertz

Both a book and a documentary film on the subject of “The Best of Enemies” preceeded this production. The material is proclaimed to be a true story, though one reviewer has said it “would be unbelievable if offered up as fiction.” This reviewer believes this to be true of it as a play. It always seems mostly a reproduced series of debates with some acted-out backstage revelations.

Marie J. Kilker
Golden Boy
Belasco Theater

Clifford Odets’ Golden Boyis as alive today as it was in 1937 in a splendid production directed by Bartlett Sher and offering a brilliantly designed cityscape set by Peter John Still and Marc Salzberg.

Richmond Shepard
Ramada Waterfront Theater

In its debut as the only Bradenton-Sarasota area theater group devoted to children, PLATO (Professional Learning and Theatrical Organization) Inc.’s Magic Box Theater component is a delight for pre-school and elementary school children. At the Ramada Waterfront, they can get up close and personal to the story of the gal who wants to wed a King (and vice versa) but must “qualify” by spinning gold.

Marie J. Kilker
Lucille Lortel Theater

Ben Johnson’s satirical Volpone, first performed over 400 years ago, still entertains as a cynical exposure of greed. In Red Bull Theater’s current version, Stephen Spinella plays the title role as a fey farceur with a padded crotch and a kind of graceful vulgarity as he feigns illness and near death to squeeze gifts from the people who hope to be his inheritors. All give expensive tributes and parade their greed, with the connivance of Mosca (Cameron Folman), chief assistant and parasite to Volpone.

Richmond Shepard
Mystery of Edwin Drood, The
Studio 54

Originally produced at the 1985 New York Shakespeare Festival, the Roundabout Theater Company’s current revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Studio 54 offers audiences over two-and-a-half hours of free-wheeling, silly vitality. The novel by Dickens was never finished but as a musical, Droodis as colorful and crammed as a quaint Victorian English cottage.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Public Theater

These days, Off Broadway, and especially at a not-for-profit venue, you don’t see a big, sprawling, three-hour musical (with a cast of 25+ and 17+ musicians). But what other treatment could you expect for Michael John LaChiusa and Sybille Pearson’s adaptation of the 400+ pages of Edna Ferber’s sweeping tale of three generations of Texans, Giant?It covers the `30s, the U.S. entry into WWII, and on to the `50s oil boom that changed Texas forever. (The engagement at the Public Theater has been extended through December 16, 2012.)

Ellis Nassour
Second City Dysfunctional Holiday Revue, The
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts - Vogel Hall

Chicago’s famed Second City comedy troupe makes its first Milwaukee appearance in The Second City Dysfunctional Holiday Revue. Milwaukee is one stop on the company’s national tour, in which young comedians get to test their wings at improvisation as well as rehearsed vignettes. On opening night, the event drew a decent-sized crowd to Milwaukee’s Vogel Hall. All that was missing was the laughter. The actors had far more misses than hits in its weak line-up.

Anne Siegel
Cudahy Caroler Christmas, A
Tenth Street Theater

This long-running holiday hit returns to Milwaukee’s In Tandem Theater, much to the delight of adoring local theatergoers. Look around the audience and you’ll see many Milwaukee-born folks. They know the difference between a Polish “punchki” and a “pierogi” (for the rest of you, the first item (poonch-kee) comes from a bakery, and the second (pee-ROW-gee) is a meat-and-potato-filled pie). One look at the Green Bay Packers’ memorabilia-adorned set, and you know A Cudahy Caroler Christmashas returned.

Anne Siegel
The Second City's A Christmas Carol
Kirk Douglas Theater

Second City meets Charles Dickens, and the result is the rudest, most outrageous and hilarious Christmas Carolyou'll probably ever see.

The scripted show pokes zany and profane fun at the venerable Christmas classic, with Santa, baby Jesus and Dean Martin's sappy holiday songs coming in for ribbing as well. Not even the crippled Tiny Tim escape's Second City's satirical assault on the holiday season's sugary sentimentality.

Willard Manus
Forbidden Broadway
47th Street Theater

In all my years of working in and reviewing theater, I have rarely seen an ensemble that reaches the level of the four amazing performers in the very splashy newest edition of Forbidden Broadway. Natalie Charlé Ellis, Scott Richard Foster, Jenny Lee Stern and Marcus Stevens, all superb physical comedians, extraordinary impressionists and top-level singers with great range, inflections and power, satirize most of what is playing on Broadway, give impressions of singing stars that are absurdly accurate, and all show a range of talent that is the best there is.

Richmond Shepard