dining out: c. 1880

It’s been a loooong time since I went to a fancy restaurant, folks. But there’s a birthday coming up, which means it was time to go out and celebrate! And we picked a nice one.

I’ve been intrigued by c. 1880 for a long time, but it’s definitely not the kind of place I would go as part of my everyday life, so it always lingered on my restaurant wish list. But with the aforementioned birthday (and, selfishly, some good news for me at work), it was finally time to take the plunge. Chef Thomas Hauck is nominated for the James Beard award for Best Chef Midwest this year, so what better time to try it out? If he wins, I’ll get to nod knowingly!

First off, the space is very cool. A lot of rustic, industrial touches executed in a super classy way. I especially loved the statement light fixtures, with black wires draped across the ceiling. We sat in the back, where there’s a set of four intimate banquette tables – it seemed like this was “celebration” space, since three of the four tables had birthday cards from the staff set up on them (such a nice touch, by the way!).

The service was excellent; the host was very friendly and checked out us several times throughout the night, and our server was great and so knowledgeable about the menu. She let us know that the appetizers are individually portioned, so we decided to just skip ahead to entrees. Plus a bottle of prosecco…it was a celebration, after all!

I considered a lot of options on the menu (our server let us know that it changes up quite regularly with seasonal ingredients from the local producers they work with), but in the end, I had to go with my one true love: scallops.

2016-03-11 18.37.30

Wowza. The pan-seared scallops were served with a trio of sunchoke (pickled, pureed, and sunchoke chips), paddlefish roe and a dill oil. The dish comes with pickled ginger, but I’m not a ginger fan…I always feel a little weird about asking for changes/substitutions in a fancy restaurant (I feel bad for not experiencing the dish as the chef intended), but our server checked in and the kitchen was happy to leave it off for me. And god…this dish was seriously mind-blowing. Scallops are a special favorite of mine, so I know: when they’re good, they’re so good, and when they’re bad they’re tremendously disappointing. And these were so so good. (I also snagged a bite of the shortrib [which is cooked for 48 hours! What!], and it was also amazing.)

For dessert, we split a cheese plate (who knew cheese was a dessert? I approve!) and the house dessert, the Whatchamacallit. The cheese was amazing (cheese is always amazing), but the Whatchamacallit? People. I can’t even remember everything that made up this dessert…chocolate mousse, ice cream, caramel rice krispies, peanut brittle, it is 100% not to be missed. The perfect ending to a lovely meal.

I don’t know when I’ll return to c. 1880, but the next time I have a special occasion that’s really worth celebrating, it will be at the top of my list.

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newsies at the marcus center

649.8435.Newsies
Original company, North American Tour of Disney’s NEWSIES. ©Disney. Photo by Deen van Meer.

I went into Newsies knowing only that it was a cult favorite Disney movie about newsboys that starred a very young Christian Bale and included a song called “Seize the Day” which I once performed at a middle school drama camp. I left having had a pretty darn good time.

If you love splashy dance numbers (which I do), this is definitely the show for you. As one can guess from its 90s Disney movie roots, it’s not exactly a complicated story, serving up all the classic “scrappy street kids” beats (there’s even a witty-beyond-his-years moppet character) without a hint of irony. The set is significantly more complicated than the story, a tenement building represented by a supersized industrial “Hollywood Squares” deal with columns that move independently, traveling upstage and downstage carrying their singing newsies, with individual screens that descend to show headlines, newsprint, and occasionally drawings. I was sometimes so fascinated by the movement of the set that I forgot to watch to watch the dancing happening in front of it, which would be a shame. This show is a true musical spectacle of dance, filled with leaps and spins and acrobatics. Sometimes they would even do a super energetic dances just as part of a scene change! There’s such joy in every number, even when I couldn’t even conceive of still having enough energy to do another backflip, it’s awesome to watch. The dancing is what originally intrigued me about the show at the season preview event…it’s well-worth the price of admission all on its own.

There has to be a love story in a Disney show, of course. I’m never one to turn down a plucky girl reporter, but I have to admit, the real chemistry I saw was between our hero Jack Kelly and his bestest pal, Crutchie. C’mon, the show starts with Jack embracing Crutchie and insisting he should come along with him when he leaves the hustle of NYC behind for idyllic Santa Fe (what’s up with down-on-their-luck New Yorkers in musicals and Santa Fe anyway?), and Crutchie has his own plaintive ballad about how he misses sleeping on the rooftop with Jack and how they should run away together (because, the song belatedly adds at the end…they’re brothers). I knew it was impossible, but a not insignificant part of me wished that Jack and Crutchie could ride off into the Southwestern sunset together at the end of the show.

Enough about the homoerotic undertones (which are pretty much unavoidable when there are maybe 3 women in your entire show). Newsies is a bright, fun show. It brings up a lot of surprisingly serious issues, like child labor, unionization, and women’s rights, and…mostly tap dances them away. But that’s okay – I spent a lot of the time instinctively smiling and even joined in the whoops for a few especially impressive moves, and that’s a good night at the theater in my opinion.

The Facts

Newsies runs now through January 10 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

the mousetrap at milwaukee rep

It was perfectly appropriate that I spent the night of the first snow of the year at the opening night of The Mousetrap (which features a snowstorm much more dire than ours turned out to be). I went through a big Agatha Christie novel phase in middle school, and I’ve always been a fan of the Poirot TV series, but I somehow managed to have avoided The Mousetrap up until now. So I went into the show completely blind and ready to get wrapped up in the mystery.

This is a classic drawing room mystery. It has it all: a group of strangers gathered together, a house that no one can leave, dark secrets from the past, lies, British accents. There’s not a lot of surprises here if you’re generally familiar with the genre, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a lot like picking up an old favorite book you haven’t read for a long time to curl up with under a blanket on a snowy evening, much like the one in the play. You know the basic plot, remember some of the zigs and a few of the zags, but it’s fun to take the ride.

As always, the set and costume designs were impeccable. I always fall a little bit in love with the styling during period pieces at the Rep, because I’m a soft touch for anything vintage, but it really is lovely. I definitely found myself wishing I could stay a few nights at the charmingly appointed Monkswell Manor (though perhaps not in the winter, if it’s as drafty as the guests claim…).

For an extra bit of fun, you can also fill out a “Whodunnit” form with your best guess for the murderer’s identity before intermission ends. I didn’t end up filling mine out, which was just as well…I turned out to be wrong!

This would definitely be a great alternative (or addition!) to the Christmas-themed shows that tend to take over this time of year, if you and your friends and family are the type who prefer murder over holiday cheer. Personally, I like a little bit of both!

The Facts

The Mousetrap runs through December 20 in the Quadracci Powerhouse at the Milwaukee Rep

wicked at marcus center

Carrie-St.-Louis-and-Alyssa-Fox-Photo-by-Joan-Marcus-2015I’m just going to tell you now that it is impossible for me to write an objective review of Wicked. When the show premiered in 2003, I was just starting high school and was quickly on my way to becoming a full-fledged drama geek. And as everyone knows, weird high school drama girls love Wicked. I read the book. I obsessed over the soundtrack. I saw it during the first national tour in Chicago and brought home both a I ❤ Oz t-shirt and the Grimmerie behind-the-scenes book. As an adult, I can look at it with critical eyes and recognize that it’s definitely on the lighter end of shows. For all the deep issues it raises (political activism! the silencing of the oppressed! when it’s appropriate to compromise your morals!), it only deals with any of them on a very surface level. But I’m always going to be a weird drama girl on the inside, and this story about being an outsider, finding your place in the world, and the power of female friendship is always going to be important to me. Plus, have you heard “Defying Gravity”? Damn!

So, as a long-time Wicked fan, I can happily tell you that this production does not disappoint. The glitz factor is definitely high with this show, but when I go to see a Broadway musical I want some glitz! The costumes in this production are absolutely stunning. It’s a shame that Halloween just happened, because I’m suddenly struck with the desire to get as wackily green as possible and go as a citizen of Oz. If you go to the show, keep an eye out for the lady in “One Short Day” wearing pointe shoes. I want to be her. The staging is also awesome. I love how present the Clockwork Dragon is, literally presiding over the stage, even though most of the details regarding it disappeared in the book-to-stage transfer. The gears and metal and intricate moving pieces make the whole production part of this clock, and it was fascinating to see how everything worked together.

Of course, Elphaba and G(a)linda are really the heart of the show, and the two leads both deliver hardcore. Alyssa Fox is a thoughtful, passionate Elphaba who really brings you along on the “wicked” witch’s emotional journey. Carrie St. Louis definitely comes close to stealing the show as Glinda. She really pushes Glinda to her full manic camp potential, part hyped up cheerleader and part over-excited yappy dog, and she was definitely the source of most of the laughs. I loved seeing how she grew and changed (though not too much) as she grows over the course of the show and finds more reasons to be serious.

Wicked remains a blockbuster for a reason, and this tour is an awesome opportunity to see it, whether it’s for the first time or you’re a long-time fan.

the spooky files: my first ghost tour

I love holidays. And because I love them so much, I want to get the most out of them as I possibly can. Which is to say, yes, I did start taking out my Halloween decorations once September rolled around. I have a passion for all things dark and spooky, so it’s totally one of my favorite times of the year.

This year I kicked the Halloween season (or, as some would call it, fall) off right with something I’ve never done before: a ghost tour!

It is actually pretty surprising I’ve never been on a ghost tour before; though I’m personally a skeptic, two of my favorite things are ghost stories and history. The Gothic Milwaukee tour combines them beautifully! Billed on the website as “Spook-tacular,” this approximately 90-minute tour starts at the corner of Cathedral Square Park and loops down to Wisconsin Avenue, back up the RiverWalk, and then finishes at the same corner of the park. It was raining on the night that we took the tour; sure, it wasn’t the weather I would have ordered up for a walking tour, but it wasn’t too bad. I think it contributed to the spooky atmosphere. Tragically, due to the rain and the general poor performance of my phone camera in the dark, I didn’t get any photos during the tour.

The tour guide, Anna, is a great storyteller. Like I said before, I’m not really a believer, but I definitely got a chill up my spine that wasn’t from the rain listening to her stories. She has a great sense of humor too, and snarky asides help keep the tour from feeling too heavy (what with all the death and all). We’re also kindred spirits in our fondness for maritime disasters; her tale of a tragic shipwreck (I won’t spoil which one) was my favorite story of the night. I loved all the non-ghost related historical facts that we learned throughout the tour, and all the beautiful buildings – Milwaukee’s variety of historic architecture is one of my very favorite things about the city, so it was great to have a reason to look a little closer at some of the buildings I walk by every day.

Speaking of walking, make sure to wear your walking shoes for this tour. The route is about a mile long and pretty smooth, but you will be standing while you’re listening to the stories. I, cleverly, walked to the tour from work…so that was, round trip, an additional mile on top of the tour, and my feet were pretty tired afterwards.

I had a lot of fun on this tour, and I’m definitely planning to take the “Ghosts of Yankee Hill” tour as well…as you might expect, there’s a number of tours scheduled during this, the spookiest time of the year. Try it out…and let me know if you see any spirits!

dining out: braise

I am a newly minted 26 year old! Yesterday was my birthday proper, but the celebrations actually started on Wednesday. Since some of my coworkers are out of town this weekend, they took me out for a lovely evening of birthday surprises on Wednesday night!

The first stop was cocktails at Bryant’s, one of my very favorite local spots. After a few drinks, we headed back toward the city for dinner. Where would we go? I had my fingers crossed, and my wish came true: it was Braise!

braise

We decided to share a few small plates for dinner. I had tried and fallen in love with the trout parfait at Taste of the Ward, so we had to get the preserves plate. It was my first time at Braise, but my coworkers recommended the bread plate and the pork buns, so we tried those too, and rounded it out with humba (which was an Asian pork with a crispy rice) pictured in the background and bone marrow with bread and turnips, pictured in the foreground. Not pictured: one of my greatest weaknesses, steak tartare, and the chocolate truffle cake we shared for dessert.

I loved the style of the restaurant, first and foremost. I think my favorite overall dish was the humba, though MAN I love me some trout parfait. Not only did they bring out the cake with a candle in it for my birthday, but I even got a birthday card with a little packet of sugar snap pea seeds from the staff! It was an incredibly sweet touch that made the meal feel really special.

My first visit to Braise was a lot of fun and very tasty. I have to admit that Odd Duck is still my favorite small plates in Milwaukee so far, but I would very happily return to Braise for another meal. I’m especially interested in taking a cooking class there! Thanks again to the “birthday club” for the awesome surprise adventure!

book of mormon at the marcus center

I gasped aloud when Book of Mormon was announced at the Marcus Center season announcement last year; it was by far my most anticipated show of the year, arguably the most buzzed about musical of my generation, and I’m happy to say it 100% lived up to my expectations!

Book of Mormon National Tour (c) Joan Marcus, 2014
Book of Mormon National Tour (c) Joan Marcus, 2014

It seems a little bit ridiculous to call a musical with a whole song devoted to saying “fuck you” to God and the phrase “rape a baby” used multiple times traditional, but in a lot of ways, Book of Mormon is a very classic musical, which I love. It has belting, over the top production numbers, tap dancing…all the things that musical fans alongside the raunchy humor. The adherence to classic tropes and structures definitely strengthens the satire. The stylistic similarities to South Park abound, but I thought that the humor in Book of Mormon was (…slightly) more restrained, which it benefited from. Although I will say that one of the highlights of the show was the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number which I can practically see animated in my head. It was a true moment of cartoons come alive, and it was awesome.

The cast was great (we actually had an actor change at intermission, but both of the Elder Prices did a wonderful job!), very cool set design, and the entire crowd was cracking up throughout the show. What more could you want? I highly recommend anyone who is on the fence about going just go for it. The ticket lottery even gives you an awesome opportunity to see the show for just $25!

Not really relevant to the show, but I found it very interesting that there were (actual, I assume) Mormons outside the theater talking to people and the playbill was full of advertisements for Mormonism. It’s definitely a bold marketing strategy…when will people be more intrigued in learning more about the actual facts of Mormonism, after all? I was not personally moved to pick up a Book of Mormon, but as a marketer, I was definitely intrigued by that initiative!

The Facts
Book of Mormon runs through May 31 at the Marcus Center for Performing Arts.

sex tips for straight women from a gay man

Some attendees seemed shocked by what occurred on the stage in front of them, but Sex Tips For Straight Women From A Gay Man was everything I hoped for and more (and with a name like that, you should have a pretty good idea of what to expect…definitely adults-only!).

Sex Tips is a raunchy, clever show that demands audience participation. I’m usually not someone who’s interested in getting dragged up on stage, but I’ll admit that I was jealous of the ladies who went up for this one. (One lady in particular…if you’ve seen the site you’ll know what I mean.) The audience is fully integrated into this show, which completely lacks a fourth wall. The premise is that we are all attending an academic lecture series featuring “alternative authors” and the book for this season is the aforementioned “Sex Tips.” With a flamboyant author, mousey professor, and extremely hunky tech…well, you can guess what happens next. This definitely isn’t a play with deep character moments or a complex plot, and I thought that the “message” delivered near the end was, though appropriate and positive, a little bit unearned considering the unapologetic bawdiness that surrounds it. But that didn’t make it any less enjoyable! This is definitely a show that does what it says on the tin…you get exactly what the title implies, and it was a lot of fun.

I’m disappointed this is only in town for two nights, because I would have loved to come with a big group of friends to make it even more fun. As I said,this is definitely not for the faint of heart or delicate of sensibility, but if you appreciate a dirty joke and a beefy guy in…various states of undress, try your best to get tickets to tonight’s performance!

The Facts
Sex Tips For Straight Women From a Gay Man runs through May 1 in the Wilson Theater at the Marcus Center for Performing Arts.

rep lab at the milwaukee rep

A lot of people who know me now don’t know that I was a full-fledged theater kid in high school. I spent pretty much every weeknight hanging around at rehearsal, doing homework backstage in between scenes, lending a hand in the shop. I wrote about some of my feelings about acting/theater after taking an acting class at the Rep last fall, but the reason this comes up now is because I attended the (sold out!) opening night of Rep Lab yesterday, and it brought so many nostalgic theater feelings up for me.

Rep Lab is a short play festival that features the Rep’s Intern Ensemble. If you’ve attended shows at the Rep this season, you’ve seen some of them performing on stage (usually in bit parts), some of them moving furniture, but this is the night that they take center stage. Short plays, like short stories, are an art form that I don’t think gets the kind of respect and attention that they deserve. Sometimes a story is all the better for being short, in my opinion. It makes it punchier, plus, it’s sort of like going to the buffet. You’ll always like some more than others, of course, but you also get the chance to see stories that you may not have chosen on your own. And sometimes the ones you wouldn’t have chosen turn out to be your favorites.

Speaking of favorites, I had a hard time picking my favorite pieces of the night! I think in the end, I’ll say my top three were People are Dancing (mini-musical!), hysterical and the devised piece that makes up the finale, but there wasn’t a piece that I didn’t enjoy. I loved having the opportunity to see each actor in multiple roles through the night, and the stripped-down black box theater and minimal sets really put the focus on the acting (although there were some great moments of lighting design as well).

Tonight’s show is sold out, but there are still two shows on Sunday and one on Monday. Tickets are only $10, so there’s pretty much no reason to miss it! The shows are general admission, so make sure you get there early if you’re particular about where you’d like to sit or you’re bringing a big group.

The Facts
Rep Lab runs through April 13 in the Stiemke Studio at the Milwaukee Rep.

beauty & the beast at the marcus center

Beauty and the Beast is one of my all-time favorite movies. I will vigorously champion it, both as a Disney movie and as a piece of cinema (did you know it was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture AND REMAINS the only one to be nominated within the original constraints of the category???), so it’s no surprise I jumped at the chance to see the Broadway production when it came through town. I’d seen the musical version performed at two different high schools, but never put on by a professional company.

This production of Beauty and the Beast invites you inside a lush storybook, with a literal frame around parts of the action, captivating puppets and beautiful illustrations serving as a backdrop to Belle’s “poor provincial town.” I loved the decision to stage the story like a literal fairytale, occurring inside the frame of the pages of the kind of books Belle loves so much.

From a performance side, this is definitely a family-friendly production. I saw a lot of families at opening night (including several Belles and, of course, an Elsa), and there was hearty laughter throughout the theater at some of the sillier bits. They definitely played up the slapstick, though there was also some surprisingly strong innuendo…I guess that’s all part of the classic playbook of family entertainment, though: some gags are for the kids, and some for the parents! Gaston and Lumiere definitely stole the show in both categories, though I have to give a huge thumbs up for Lefou, whose impressive physical comedy (including tumbling!) really made the role.

Photo by Matthew Murphy
Photo by Matthew Murphy

But the most important part of a show like this is, of course, the musical numbers. Do they dazzle? Will they have you bouncing along in your seat? For me, it’s a giant yes! These are some of my most beloved Disney songs, and it was awesome to hear them all live. The choreography of the big production numbers was just stunning. I didn’t think they’d be able to top the hilarious rendition of “Gaston,” but of course, “Be Our Guest” totally stole the night (as it must!). I felt just as starry-eyed as the little girls dressed as Belle during this rousing, glittering tribute to Broadway spectacle. There are some really fabulous special effects during this show, which always make a theatrical experience feel a little extra magical.

If you love Beauty and the Beast, and especially if you have kids who love it, don’t miss this show…it’s a classic for a reason, and it’s only in town through the weekend!

The Facts
Beauty and the Beast runs through March 22 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.