PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, July 18-24: Midwest Crisis

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24 Jul 2009

The Skylight Opera Theatre marquee
The Skylight Opera Theatre marquee
Photo by Galen Frysinger
It's not very often that the Milwaukee theatre scene makes the New York Times. For that to happen, either someone is doing some genius work out in the erstwhile Beer Capital of the World, or someone has screwed up pretty badly.

In this case, it's the latter.

A controversial staffing change at the Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee has ignited a non-stop barrage of criticism and turned the longstanding and well respected company in a pariah within the tightly knit theatre community there. And all just when the Equity troupe was about to launch what should have been a celebratory 50th anniversary season.

The act that started it all was the firing of beloved Skylight artistic director Bill Theisen by managing director Eric Dillner and board president Suzanne Hefty, who had the cooperation of the board. The reason given was "an organizational restructuring in response to the economic downturn." Dillner, who assumed the managing director position at the Skylight in 2008, said he would take over the artistic responsibilities. Somewhat amazingly, the job of artistic director was eliminated.

Protests were immediate and vocal. So was retribution. Jamie Johns, Skylight's resident music director, organized a public protest set for June 19 at Skylight's home at the Broadway Theatre Center. But he was fired by Skylight on June 18. Skylight brass backpedaled a bit by rehiring Theisen as a free-lance director for four productions in the 2009-10 season. (Skylight also offered him his old position, but he declined it.)



"I am sad to say it is not an option for me to return to the Skylight in the capacity of artistic director under the current circumstances," said Theisen in a statement. "I feel there has been a breach of trust and am quite certain that I would not be able to successfully continue my duties in the position."

Could it get worse? Yes it could!

This week, July 20, Theisen pulled out of his free-lance assignments as well. He was joined by more than 20 resident artists who have withdrawn from shows planned for the coming season. The exits were in reaction to job offers to Bryce Lord and Jon Stewart — actors to perform in the coming season — being withdrawn by management when it came to the board's attention that the men had criticized Skylight leadership in public message postings on Facebook.

Board president Hefty's letter to Lord was leaked to the press (which, in Milwaukee, means one thing: the Journal-Sentinal). It read: "Due to your recent written statements on Facebook concerning Skylight Opera Theatre, the offer to provide services as Ambrogio in Skylight Opera Theatre's 2009-2010 production of The Barber of Seville is hereby withdrawn. Your statements violate what we consider are the obligations of artists who perform at the Skylight Opera Theatre."

One of the artists who quit was Richard Carsey, a former Skylight artistic director, who was to conduct in the coming year. Carsey's letter to the board stated, in part, "The continued mismanagement and bad judgments of the last month by Eric Dillner and board president Suzanne Hefty, culminating in the cancellation of artist contracts for perceived 'threats' on a private Facebook page, have created a Skylight that I no longer recognize. I cannot support this organization with my talents or participation."

Interior of the Skylight Opera Theatre
As of July 23, it got more intriguing. Hefty resigned as board president. The board continues to support Dillner, who was to meet with local artists July 24.

Can a Milwaukee theatre survive without the support of the Milwaukee theatre community? Time will tell. One thing's for sure: that 50th anniversary party is going to be a bit smaller, and lot less fun, than was previously thought.

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The pre-Broadway run, at Seattle's 5th Avenue, of the new musical Catch Me If You Can, was struck by tragedy this week.

The first week of previews was cancelled following the death of star Norbert Leo Butz's sister. The Seattle Times revealed that Teresa Butz, the 39-year-old sister of the Tony-winning actor, was murdered in her Seattle-area home on July 19. Her partner, Jennifer Hopper, was also attacked in the overnight tragedy and has been released from the hospital. The two planned to marry in September, a neighbor informed the paper.

Catch Me If You Can features a score by Tony-winning Hairspray songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, with a book by Tony winner Terrance McNally, and is based on the DreamWorks film of the same name.

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Some dribs and drabs of Broadway news.

Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre will become the haunted mansion of the new musical The Addams Family, the producers announced on July 22. The musical by Andrew Lippa, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice will begin performances March 4, 2010, after a fall Chicago world premiere.

Laura Benanti and Michael Cerveris
photos by Ernio Hernandez and Aubrey Reuben
Laura Benanti and Michael Cerveris will star in the Broadway premiere of Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room or the vibrator play, which begins previews at the Lyceum Theatre Oct. 22. Les Waters, who staged the world premiere of In the Next Room at Berkeley Rep, will direct the Lincoln Center Theater production, which will officially open on Broadway Nov. 19.

Alicia Silverstone — world famous for a short time a decade and a half ago after Clueless" made her a star — will step back in to the light (she's 32 now, folks) as one of the stars of Manhattan Theatre Club's New York City premiere of Time Stands Still by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies.

And, could the upcoming Broadway production of Keith Huff's A Steady Rain be thought of as a rehearsal for Hollywood? Seems it could. Huff has sold the film rights to the producers of the Broadway venture, including Frederick Zollo, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. The Broadway production of the two-character play will star Tony winner Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig. Those who think the two hunks have signed on the for the movie version raise their hand.

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American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco will launch its 2009-10 season with the U.S. premiere of the U.K. hit, Kneehigh Theatre's production of Noël Coward's Brief Encounter, adapted for the stage by Emma Rice from the words and music of Coward. Performances will play A.C.T. Sept. 11-Oct. 4. Opening night is Sept. 16. After the A.C.T. run, Brief Encounter will continue on to a full U.S. tour, which will end in New York City's St. Ann's Warehouse. The U.S. could use a good stage romance right about now.

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These days, the late Garson Kanin is remembered — if he is remembered — as a stage director (The Dairy of Anne Frank), a screenwriter ("Adam's Rib"), or the husband of actresses Ruth Gordon and, later, Marian Seldes. Few remember him as a playwright. This is mainly because, aside form the perennial chestnut Born Yesterday, his stuff isn't revived much.

Here to jog the public's memory is a year-long celebration of Kanin's work, beginning with a new production of Dreyfus in Rehearsal on July 30 at Off-Broadway's Beckett Theatre.

Written by Jean-Claude Grumberg and adapted by Kanin, Dreyfus in Rehearsal, press notes state, "follows a group of young amateur actors rehearsing a play about Alfred Dreyfus, a French Military Officer who suffered the injustice of religious persecution, written by their ambitious young director. The troupe, struggling to find the relevance of this story to their own lives, are more concerned with their personal dramas, which frustrates their high-strung director. Their placid existence is about to be shaken as anti-Semitism grows in this wryly funny and touching story about finding one's place in a fast-changing world."

The year-long tribute to Kanin will also include readings of Kanin's The Rat Race and Peccadillo.