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Come to the Cabaret, Milwaukee

Josh Bryan talks about the up-and-coming Cabaret Milwaukee

Nov. 18, 2016
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Cabaret Milwaukee’s Facebook page intriguingly explains that they’re creators of “original cabaret content blending elements of live music, theater and old-time radio drama” who endeavor to draw upon Milwaukee’s “rich history and endless pool of local talent” and perform in local historical sites. That description invites a curious music-, nostalgia- and theater-lover to want to dig deeper. To this end, I discussed the relatively new company (they’re in their third season) with producer, director and founding member Josh Bryan.

I asked Bryan how he and his cohorts decided upon an “old-time radio show” format and how that works for them. “A period piece enacting a time before most of us were alive relaxes the audience and allows us to talk about contemporary issues without the intimidating weight of being a ‘modern piece,’” he explains. “The variety show aspect provides segments for us to utilize various performance arts from acting to music to comedy and even dance. There’s the program host, Richard Howling, who is the emcee leading the audience through the story. He also is the voice of the news updates; we pull real news stories straight from newspapers of the year we are recreating. It’s a lot of fun to find stories that are from, say, the election cycle of 1946 and see political parallels with our current election cycle.” 

In addition, Cabaret Milwaukee writes its own dramatic stories. “The centerpiece of any radio show was, of course, the radio play. Each season, we write an episodic trilogy. Like any well-done soap opera, each show is designed to be a stand-alone story but with larger story arcs that connect to the episodes before and after,” according to Bryan.

Cabaret Milwaukee’s music is not canned or recorded, but live. They have a two-piece band and sometimes add a third musician and vocalist. As Bryan says, “Our music selection is very period-appropriate to 1946 and chosen to complement the story. We also have a trio of singers who sing original radio jingles in the style of the Andrews Sisters or Boswell Sisters for our real-life sponsors.” As for the “local historical sites” referenced on their webpage, Bryan says that they “seek venues that would hearken back to one of the original definitions of ‘cabaret,’ that is, ‘the entertainment provided in liquor-serving establishments.’ We performed our first two Valentine’s week shows at Best Place in the Historic Pabst Brewery and have since added the Brumder Mansion, Casablanca and the Astor Pub to the list of venues we’ve performed at.” 

And to truly bring local audiences into the experience, Cabaret Milwaukee thoroughly incorporates our city and its history—good or bad—into their productions. “We do not shy away from controversial topics and do our best to treat them with the respect and critique we feel towards them,” Bryan says. “Particular to Milwaukee and Wisconsin, we look into politicians like Mayor Zeidler or Sen. Joe McCarthy, bootlegging rings that connected with the Chicago mob and institutions like the Northern Colony that at one time led the nation in forced female sterilization. I spend a fair amount of time in the basement of the library reading microfiches of old newspapers.” That sort of research unearths long-forgotten gems of information and intriguing stories,” perfect for such a nostalgia-based theatrical performance company as Cabaret Milwaukee is proving to be.

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