In Tandem Readies Its Final Play

Two-decade-old theater’s last show ‘The Fabulous Lipitones’ opens April 25.

By - Apr 16th, 2019 12:37 pm
Chris Flieller (left) and Nathan Wesselowski in In Tandem Theatre's "A Cudahy Carolers Christmas." Photo courtesy of In Tandem Theatre.

Chris Flieller (left) and Nathan Wesselowski in In Tandem Theatre’s “A Cudahy Carolers Christmas.” Photo courtesy of In Tandem Theatre.

The comedic premise of In Tandem Theatre’s final production starting April 25 is that one talented artist drops dead in the middle of a high note, forcing his three comrades in musical harmony to seek a substitute.

In a sad way totally at odds with its aim of creating laughter, The Fabulous Lipitones is a plot parallel to the fate of its production company. After 21 years of creating quality on a shoestring, In Tandem Theatre is closing its doors, hanging on to its name, but ending regular seasons at the Tenth Street Theater.

The founders can look back at a successful artistic existence. But their departure does leave remaining comrades in good theater under even greater pressure to keep quality alive without this quiet partner that helped build theater audiences. And it robs theatrical performers and craftspeople of a Milwaukee platform, another window into theatrical achievement.

Established local theater artists agree that Milwaukee now has a large pool of resident professional actors and craftspeople, a hard moment to lose an outlet. Some see it as a disturbing sign in a changing downtown cultural environment, which has been good for touring shows and one-night concerts but raises a continuity problem for local performing arts groups and their subscription seasons.

It looks like the Tenth Street Theater, that intimate 99 seat space on the corner of 10th and Wisconsin, with a large lobby in the back lower level of the big red Calvary Church, will also shutter in June at the end of its lease with In Tandem. “They’ve been great tenants,” said Beth Van Gorp, a representative for the church consortium. “We’re open to another theater company or any business or ministry interested.”

Right now that means one less performing space with a reputation for professionally-demanding productions for theater artists and audiences.

Artistic director Chris Flieller and his managing director partner and spouse, Jane, have long and distinguished careers in Milwaukee theater, from Chris’ days as a student at UW-Milwaukee to his service as a journeyman actor with companies such as the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, where he performed in the debut season at the Broadway Theatre Center. Jane also has quite a career as stage manager, teacher and director.

For 21 sometimes struggling years, Chris and Jane have been a shoebox success story. The company has employed many notable Equity (union) actors and introduced others aiming at Equity or uplifting the reputation of amateurs. Not every show came up to par, but “everyone was paid,” noted Chris Flieller with considerable pride.

Both the established pros and the eager newbies were as happy as you can be working for minimum at In Tandem because of the provocative opportunities in new works and forgotten old ones.  Name an interesting local actor — Rachael Zientek  recently in Annie Jump for Renaissance Theater or Andrew Varela with an upcoming lead in the Skylight’s Kiss Me Kate – and you’ll find an In Tandem showcase in their background.

In Tandem will dispose over time of its seats, lights, sound equipment and even the grand piano generously given them, which the company in a like mood is giving away. It also brings an end to one of the unsung highlights of attending theater in Milwaukee: the talented pianists from UWM and other environs playing Broadway style hits before each show, for the small change dropped into the goblet at the grand piano.

“I understand that this is a bittersweet moment in Milwaukee theater,” said Flieller over a recent noontime coffee. “But don’t be sad for Jane and me.  We are leaving a successful business enterprise that has fulfilled our hopes. Now we can take a little time and decide on our future.” Flieller has hopes the In Tandem name can be carried forward in some way with future productions.

There had been talk of a 2019-2020 season to end with a farewell flourish, Chris revealed, “but then we realized that our final show is a little piece of everything we’ve attempted – musical comedy with humor and meaning, some light dirty jokes, showing off established talents and emerging ones, leaving the audience in a good mood.”

Flieller is being a bit modest about the full spectrum of the group’s past productions. In Tandem has also been home to classics by Tennessee Williams and new works by interesting playwrights, along with its own homemade holiday shows.

It also created a niche for often neglected musical comedies like Carnival, The Fantasticks and Little by Little.

Pick among the state’s most highly regarded actresses, such as Angela Iannone, and In Tandem has been home for some of her most memorable roles, be it impersonating Katharine Hepburn in 2009 or playing Lady Bracknell two years ago in Ernest in Love. This season she was the cranky would-be arsonist in The Velocity of Autumn — and her presence “helped us make our ticket goal,” said Flieller. He made sure she was tipped off early about the changes for In Tandem.

Other theater companies – certainly rivals for audiences – hardly express happiness at losing the competition.

“We may marginally pick up a few customers, but what a horrible way to do that,” said David Cecsarini, producing artistic director of Next Act Theatre. “I personally feel terrible for Chris and Jane who never were an established member of UPAF” — which means they kept quality going without the big bucks going to other groups from the United Performing Artists Fund. “They had to work themselves to the bare bones.”

For the smaller companies to continue, Milwaukee theater needs to pick up a young and different audience, Cecsarini noted, echoing comments by Flieller in our chat. The stalwarts are often older and the young adults are hard to land.

“But that’s one of the things I admired about Chris and Jane,” said Cecsarini. “They honestly brought in a different clientele for their homegrown holiday shows. Some I’m sure became open to more theater. To be able to cross over like that is a talent.”

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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One thought on “Theater: In Tandem Readies Its Final Play”

  1. Jeffjay60 says:

    I remember that I was waiting for my wife in the front lobby. Jane was taking tickets from arrivals when a young couple came in and asked about ticket prices. When Jane told them what the charges were they turned to leave. Jane stopped them and asked them what they could afford. I don’t know what they paid, but they did get to see the show.

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