‘Run Bambi Run’ Is a Spectacular Production

Rep’s new rock musical about Laurie Bembenek lacks depth, but pulsates with energy and attitude.

By - Sep 25th, 2023 01:05 pm
Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Run Bambi Run in the Quadracci Powerhouse September 14 – October 22, 2023. Pictured: Erika Olson, Ian Littleworth and cast. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Milwaukee Repertory Theater presents Run Bambi Run in the Quadracci Powerhouse September 14 – October 22, 2023. Pictured: Erika Olson, Ian Littleworth and cast. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Someday Milwaukee will become famous in social media and tabloids for something other than crime legends. But right now, that is a built-in curiosity advantage for the Milwaukee Rep’s world premiere rock musical Run Bambi Run, which aims for the heights of theatrical achievement with a powerful assemblage of talents for the Quadracci season opener through Oct. 22.

In terms of rock musical the production is spectacular – eminently watchable with a pulsating magnetism around every corner. In terms of understanding anything real about Lawrencia (Bambi) Bembenek (though the story is all about Laurie’s life and how it changed, painting her as a never-say-die heroine) well, there was a theatrical decision to make this a comic book parable about attitudes in the 1980s involving her Playboy looks, her so-called women friends and male chauvinists like police chief Harold Breier – with only a few excursions into the sad, still headline-making times of her early death.

The production tells the story in different modes and methods, inviting the audience in. It has decided she is far more victim than instigator — and having lived though that time that is certainly where my sympathy lies. But while art can often illuminate life, don’t ask that of this one. Just enjoy the talents taking us for a ride.

Noted playwright and documentarian Eric Simonson agreed to do the book – or the graphic novel, which is what the textual context becomes. The wall of sound emerges from extraordinary music director Dan Kazemi and the unmistakable unrelenting drumbeats and the blunt sometimes comic lyrics of Gordon Gano, whom I first covered when the emerging Violent Femmes were street musicians on the East Side. There are moments when everyone onstage returned me to those days of rock abandonment, as if they had all played on the sidewalk with the Violent Femmes.

Ably assisted by choreographer Jenn Rose, Rep artistic director Mark Clements is the real brains behind all this. In style he fashions a nightmare Brechtian echo – imagine Sweeney Todd and Hedwig and the Angry Inch spawning an offspring. (No surprise he previously directed a fine version of Hedwig, which we covered.)

The lights, the singers, the actors, and the props on wheels prove absorbing constant motion of musical forms and character mannerisms — as if country, polka, Jerry Lee Lewis, Janis Joplin, bawdy pelvic thrusts and “drop mic” punctuations were in constant play.

The intellectual reward may be minimal but the audience will be enthused by the energy. It is a dervish of high-grade singers who both really play instruments or perfectly model playing while Kazemi handles both keyboard and orchestration from the back of the main set, which is dressed up as a South Side bar with TV sets, off-duty cops, screen projections, strobe and other glitter lights at play.

You couldn’t bring this off without a cast of tireless energy and ability, and the Rep has combined a few familiars and many newcomers.

A standout in the main role as Bambi is Erika Olson, whose powerful ballad notes make many tunes we will never remember seem important and along with Megan Loomis and John Carlin as her parents make “Polish American Girl” a song we do remember. It is one of those moments that remind us how potent such culturally rooted Milwaukee references can be. Olson also gets an opportunity to show her acting chops as Bambi reacts and changes.

There is fine singing work and several impish character moves by Jessica Kantorowitz as Bambi’s deceptive friend. As bushy-haired lawyer Donald Eisenberg (also as private eye Ira Robbins), Douglas Goodhart is a welcome flamboyant presence. I also noted with pleasure the chameleon-like maneuvers of Matt Daniels. The cast puts on many hats and even those just identified as “Swing” are integral to the driving pulse.

This is a new rock musical that requires extraordinary hands to make work. If subjected as so many musicals are to the rigors of the road and tryouts, it would be crying out for trimming, a real ending and a demand for more depth.

Run Bambi Run Gallery

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

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