Claire Nowak

Singing Songs About War

Keep the Home Fires Burning uses 100 years of war-time songs as a theatrical hook -- and a way to make us think.

By - Nov 5th, 2014 04:17 pm
From rehearsal. Jimmy is in the hospital after falling into a cement truck trying to commit suicide after the Wall Street crash.

From rehearsal. Jimmy is in the hospital after falling into a cement truck trying to commit suicide after the Wall Street crash.

It’s a show hatched at a local coffee house. Director Mallory Metoxen and artistic colleague Trefor Williams both work at the same Colectivo cafe and they began talking about the possibilities for a new show. They hit on the 1914 World War I-era song by Ivor Novello, “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” Written in Wales, it talks of soldiers leaving their homes and sweethearts for war, and has a storyline with the potential for a theatrical staging. From there they gradually began thinking about a show based on the last 100 years or so of wartime songs.

The result is the show Keep the Home Fires Burning, which shows how Americans endure the impact of war on the home front through 100 years of music. Selections range from “K-K-K-Katie” from the World War I era to “Princess and Frog” in New Orleans during 2010. A short dramatic scene takes place in between each number. Metoxen worked with playwright Joanna H. Kerner to give a sense of what life was like during each of the eras presented, while Williams is serving as musical director for the show.

The theatrical scenes feature local actors Joe Picchetti and Brittany Curran. They play characters named Jimmy and Katie, but their relationship changes depending on the scene. At one point, they are brother and sister, then they become an engaged couple later in the show.

“People talk about the war, but they never imagine themselves in the war right now,” Metoxen says

The music will be performed by members of In Good Company, which is a resident company of singers (created in 2013) of Metropolitan Milwaukee Voices, itself a group formed in 2006 which promotes musical education and performances.

So it’s a show with a lot of moving parts, all synchronized by Metoxen. direction. Jimmy and Katie are everyman and woman types who gradually become modernized throughout the show, even as society seems to become detached from reality; in a modern scene, they play reality TV’s Bachelor and Bachelorette.

“We have one scene that touches on communism, but it’s actually a little boy and a little girl fighting over candy,” Metoxen says. “(The boy) has gone and worked hard to get his candy, and his sister just wants him to give her some.”

The scenes mix humorous scenarios with mature, serious situations like the peace protests of the 1960s. “There’s a comedic aspect to a very serious situation,” Williams says, “and it’s done in a way that doesn’t ridicule people who have gone to war or are left behind.”

Despite the humor, Williams and Metoxen hope their creation makes audiences think more about the world around them.

“Anybody who comes to see the show should be able to go home and think seriously about, ‘how do we deal with the reality of life?’” Williams says. “How do we deal with loved ones not being present? How do we participate in this world where we’ve become so detached, and reality is defined for us through television, games, computers, and Facebook?”

7:30 p.m. Nov. 8 & 3:00 p.m. Nov. 9 at Next Act Theatre. Tickets are $20 and are available online or by calling 414-278-0765.

Liberace! at Milwaukee Rep

When artistic director Mark Clements wanted a show at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater that centered on a local story, he found all he was looking for in Władziu Valentino Liberace. The superstar pianist and entertainer was born in West Allis, attended Wisconsin Conservatory of Music on a scholarship, and played as a soloist for what was called the Milwaukee Symphony at age 13. He went on to become the highest-paid entertainer in the world from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Writer and director Brent Hazelton’s resulting production, Liberace!, is a biographical piece, but is not retrospective.

“He’s definitely in the room for a reason, telling (the audience) his story,” says Hazelton, also the Rep’s associate artistic director. “I won’t say what the reason is since it sort of blows the surprising plot of the play.”

The show is predominantly text based, but includes a wide variety of music, from classical works to pop standards. It mimics Liberace’s diverse repertoire during his four-decade career. “Mr. Showmanship” is played by Jack Forbes Wilson, who also sings and plays piano during the show.

“Just hearing him play is worth the price of admission alone,” Hazelton says. “You get the story as a bonus.”

The production debuted in the 2010/2011 season to wild success. Its 10-week run sold out at the end of the fourth week. Returning patrons wanted to see it again, and those unable to get tickets were disappointed. The Rep repeatedly asked Wilson to reprise the role; this past August, he finally said yes.

For this production, Hazelton made a few subtle additions, mostly changes in word choices and better set-ups for punch lines. It also features a couple new songs that didn’t fit in the first run.

“Any time you do a new play, you don’t really get to finish it the first time around because you learn so much from the audience,” Hazelton says. “We’re hoping all those little things add up to something that feels stronger, more specific and more enjoyable.”

Opens 8 p.m. Nov. 7 at Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Tickets range from $45-60 and are available online or by calling 414-224-9490.

Jack Forbes Wilson in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stackner Cabaret 2010/11 Production of Liberace!

In the Red and Brown Water

The Marquette University Theatre Department and UPROOTED Theatre’s first collaboration, “In the Red and Brown Water,” brings positive change for both organizations. For Marquette, it gives an increasingly diverse student body the chance to be part of an ethnically-based production. For UPROOTED, it’s a chance to realize a show the creative team could not fully fund otherwise.

Marquette approached Marti Gobel, artistic director of UPROOTED, to direct Tarell Alvin McCraney’s show last year. It tells story of Oya, a track star from the “hood,” who can leave her home in the New Orleans projects for a scholarship or stay to care for her dying mother. Her entire town sees her journey, which is why Gobel refers to it as “’Our Town’ in the ‘hood.” Marquette Theatre fittingly opened its season with that Thornton Wilder classic in September.

The play uses Yoruba spiritual traditions from southwestern Nigeria. The characters—played by a cast of 24 students and professional actors Erika Wade and Ken Williams—are all based on African gods or goddesses.

Due to its adult content, “In the Red and Brown Water” is recommended for mature audiences only.

Running Nov. 6-16 at Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre. Tickets are $20 and are available online or by calling 414-288-7504.

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