Tom Strini
The State of the Milwaukee Arts

Skylight Music Theatre

The Skylight is fixing what needs fixing and moving on -- to Bill Theisen's farewell season as artistic director.

By - Jul 26th, 2012 12:29 am
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Skylight Music Theatre: Open during construction. TCD photo.

Skylight Music Theatre: Open during construction. TCD photo.

A gaping trench where sidewalk used to be fronts a good part of the Broadway Theatre Center, home of the Skylight Music Theatre.

The ironically inclined might see that as metaphorical for the company’s fortunes since 2009, when a fiscal crisis ignited a bitter fight over control and direction of the company. “What we thought was solid ground had nothing underneath.” Or, “They’re still digging out of a hole.”

The Skylight’s building, once a profit center, became a burden as the real estate market crashed and deferred maintenance came due. Building expenses and donors and foundations hemmed in by a poor economy have been hard on the Skylight. Even though the company put on an artistically strong 2011-12 season and ticket revenues jumped 20% and topped $1,000,000 for the first time since the recession began, the Skylight will end the fiscal year with an operating deficit of about $285,000.


Skylight Music Theatre managing director Amy Jensen hopes that major repairs are behind her. TCD photo.

Amy Jensen, the Skylight’s managing director, ticked off the big tickets from recent years: new roof, 2009. Tuckpointing and further weather sealing last year. Elevator repair and upgrade. HVAC. And now the sidewalk peel-off. The basement of the center’s northern half extends under the sidewalk. The supports, which date to the 19th century, were collapsing. The choices were to fill it in or rebuild the structure. So many building mechanicals occupy that basement extension that it made more sense to rebuild the underground chamber. The company needs it for storage. The price tag: $170,000.

The company has also remodeled its name: Since 2009 it has gone from Skylight Opera Theatre to The Skylight, back to Skylight Opera Theatre and, a few months ago, to Skylight Music Theatre.

“It’s a practical thing,” said Bill Theisen, artistic director. “We’re still doing operas, but we do so much more than opera. The word can be a bit of a wall. Someone asked me if we were doing ‘the opera version’ of The Sound of Music. No! We were doing The Sound of Music. This title encompasses all we do. Opera is one of many things we do.”

In that context, Porgy and Bess (May 17-June 9), which Theisen will direct, makes perfect sense as the company’s opera for 2012-13.

Porgy will be expensive to stage: The cast is substantial, even in the chamber version Theisen envisions. The rights are expensive, and even with a reduced score the company must fill its orchestra pit. Theisen said that he could have done two cheaper operas or this big one, and chose Porgy.

“The Skylight has never done Porgy and Bess, and it’s important for us to do it,” Theisen said. “And it’s important to do it as written. It’s part of the history and the essence.”

Bill Theisen, artistic director of the Skylight Opera Theatre.

Theisen meant that he will stage the piece as a real opera, as George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward conceived it in 1935, as opposed to the somewhat controversial rethinking of the piece as a musical, currently running in New York.

Theisen, artistic director since 2004, is in his final season. He and Jensen said that the company is very close to hiring his successor and could make an announcement very soon. Jensen noted that a smooth, early transition is important for marketing, planning and morale. Far better that the new AD have time to plan his/her own first season rather than execute one planned by a predecessor.

So we can reasonably assume that Theisen’s 2012-13 season to be something of an artistic director’s bucket list, with Porgy and Bess as the key choice.

On Avenue Q (Donna Drake director-choreographer, Jamie Johns music director), Sept. 21-Oct. 14: “We’ve been trying to get the rights, and they just became available. This will be the first local production and a regional theater premiere. It’s funny and edgy, but human.”

On The Sound of Music (Molly Rhode director-choreographer, Richard Carsey music director), Nov. 16-Dec. 23: “Last year, we did very well with The Music Man as our big holiday musical. We think we’ve found the formula. Also, the Skylight has never done Sound of Music, which hasn’t been produced professionally in Milwaukee for a long time.”

On Edith Piaf On Stage (Leslie Fitzwater as Piaf and music director Paula Foley Tillen): “We are so happy that Leslie is healthy and able to do her Piaf show this season.”

Fitzwater, who has done various versions of her Piaf show at the Skylight and elsewhere over the years, won a fight with cancer last spring, when she was to have done Piaf at the Skylight. The company postponed her show to Jan. 25-Feb. 10 of next year. I assumed that this would be a black-box Studio Theatre show, but it’s on the main stage at the Cabot Theatre.

“The Cabot isn’t really all that big (358 seats),” Theisen said. “When Piaf played the U.S., she played larger venues. Seeing her in films of those shows made me think to adapt Leslie’s show for the Cabot.”

Fitzwater has been one of the Skylight’s greatest go-to performers for 30 years. She is a great singer and an intense presence and quite capable of holding the stage by herself for an entire show.

On Pump Boys and Dinettes (Theisen directing, Carsey as music director) March 8-24: “It’s a different kind of a show for us,” Theisen said. “This is the first country-music show the Skylight’s ever don. Our mission statement is to present the ‘full spectrum of musical theater.’ Where else does Porgy and Bess follow Pump Boys and Dinettes?

The Skylight’s black-box shows have been afterthoughts in the past. In 2012-13, they’re getting full treatment in the season brochure and some serious marketing attention.

Gilbert and Sullivan have loomed large throughout the Skylight’s history. They’ll be in the Studio Theatre Dec. 31-Jan. 13, in the form of a new show written and directed by Dale Gutzman: Here’s a Howdy-Doo, The Mischievous World of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gutzman scored a big hit in 2010 with An Evening with Gilbert and Sullivan, which had the quarrelsome team resolving their differences in the afterlife.

“This show is more of a revue,” Theisen said. “It’s a new take on G&S.”

The cast comprises Skylight regulars Niffer Clark, Diane Lane, Paul Helm and Ray Jivoff.

Kay Stifel and Jack Forbes Wilson, often found playing the after-show in the Skylight bar, will put on their Sing Me a Story, with Jivoff directing, in the Studio Theatre May 3-19. They’ve put together a cabaret show of narrative songs from such Broadway greats as Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hart and Kander and Ebb.

“I’ve been trying to get them to do this for years,” Theisen said. “They’ve reworked the songs into something like a little one-act play.”

Jensen has been pleasantly surprised at the progress of the subscription drive for this slightly unconventional Skylight season.

“We sold out the last weeks of Sunday in the Park with George and The Music Man last season, and some people couldn’t get in,” she offered, as possible explanation for strong subscriptions in an increasingly single-ticket world. “More people are going for full seasons, they’re committing to more shows.”

Of course she’d like that drive to do even better. The Skylight would be delighted to sign you up, via the nice new website or by phone, 414 291-7800. A wide range of options and price points are available.

Don’t miss anything! Keep track of the Skylight and all of Milwaukee’s performing arts. Bookmark Matthew Reddin’s 2012-13 TCD season guide. Sponsored by the Florentine Opera.














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