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APT’s ‘Heartbreak House’ hits a bullseye

September 15, 2018

Actors Tracy Michelle Arnold, Jonathan Smoots and Jim DeVita breath humorous life into APT’s ‘Heartbreak House.’

American Players Theatre, the classical company that has put Spring Green, Wisconsin, on the national theatrical map, is never better than when it aligns it’s A-list performers with an ensemble piece worthy of their talent. This season, that production is George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House.

Or, if you prefer the full title, Heartbreak House: A Fantasia in the Russian Manner on English Themes. The play is Shaw’s homage to Russian playwright Anton Chekov who is, in fact, mentioned in the play’s preface along with a nod to his well-known work The Cherry Orchard.

 Even with as much as an hour of time and two full characters trimmed from director Aaron Posner’s adapted APT version, the play clocks in at just under three hours with its thorny tale of the idle rich holed up in a country manor. The narrative meanders a bit, appears at times to lack a purpose, and in the end resolves little for the quirky, colorful Hushabye family. But the work, shot through with expected Shavian wit and social commentary, has a grand time uncovering just who the characters are and aren’t.

The action follows young Ellie Dunn (Phoebe Gonzalez) and her matrimonial indecisions. As a guest in the house, she encounters patriarch Captain Shotover (Jonathan Smoots), his Bohemian daughter Hesione (Tracy Michelle Arnold), her philandering husband Hector (Jim DeVita) and Nurse Guinness (Sarah Day) who flits in and out and calls almost everyone “Ducky” at one point or another.

Enter Hesione’s uptight, straitlaced sister Lady Ariadne Utterword (Colleen Madden), Ellie’s father Mazzini Dunn (Tim Gittings) and nouveau riche industrialist Boss Mangan (John Taylor Phillips). With the exception of her father, Ellie’s matrimonial designs at one time or other include every male in the play. The expected confusion, humor and general chaos ensue, often to hilarious effect.

Kudos to scenic designer Andrew Boyce and costume designer Rachel Laritz for creating a colorful and detailed world worthy of Shaw’s musings and the actors’ performance. Even the trees behind the stage are put to good use during the play’s climax thanks to lighting designer Michael A. Peterson.

But, as mentioned, the real joy comes in watching the veteran cast members inhabit their characters both inside and out. It has been said of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis that his genius lay in his ability to “play” the space between the notes. So, too, with the APT cast. Arnold, DeVita and Madden are especially adept at telling their characters’ stories between the lines of dialogue, and some of the production’s greatest delights come in watching the gestures and facial expressions that add layers of nuance to each of their characters.

But Posner draws strong performances from his entire cast, their range limited only by Shaw’s somewhat humdrum narrative. As a rule, an APT cast easily rises to and often beyond the limits of its source material. Heartbreak House exemplifies that ability in delightful ways.

Heartbreak House runs through Oct. 5 at APT’s Hill Theatre. Details:


Elegant reds make fine grilling wines

August 1, 2018

Bonterra Vineyard’s Jeff Cichocki produces fine wines from organic grapes.

If you enjoy tenderloin with a side of asparagus — both cross-hatched with grill marks — then you may be a connoisseur of the coals, deserving of an accompanying beverage more sophisticated than just another chilled longneck.

High-quality wines that pair well with food indoors do equally well on the patio. So, consider ditching the wine coolers and White Zin and celebrating the summer season with some first-class reds.

There are many to choose from, but here are some newer releases that could turn your casual cookout into a memorable meal.

Napa Valley’s Beaulieu Vineyard offers two relatively new releases that pair well with a hearty tenderloin. The 2014 Tapestry Reserve Red Wine blends Cabernet Sauvignon (76%), Merlot (13%), Petit Verdot (5%), Malbec (4%) and Cabernet Franc (2%) for a full-bodied, well-structured wine redolent of blackberry, plum, cherry and cassis to the palate.

Tapestry’s sister wine, the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Napa Valley, is even more intense, offering dark fruit flavors and vanilla overtones from its 15 months in oak, which helps enhance the wine’s balanced acidity and layers of complexity.

California’s Ravage Wines – they’re the ones with an illustration of feuding knights clashing violently on the label – sets the stage for big bold and perhaps rough-edged wine to collide with your palate. But with the 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon winemaker Bryce Willingham has taken her blend of Cab (78%), Merlot (9%), Petite Syrah (5%), Zinfandel (5%) and a few other reds and created full-bodied, yet almost silky wine that caresses more than collides. Expect it to stand up to your favorite grilled meats while rewarding your palate with  lingering finish that invites another swallow.

Old World wines fit the bill just as well or better than New World ones, and Château Haut Breton Larigaudière from France’s Margaux region does a better job than many. With a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (85%), Merlot (11%) and Petit Verdot (4%), the wine pours a bright ruby red, with both a nose and palate redolent of red fruits and vanilla from its 15 months of barrel aging.

Zinfandel has always been a great grilling wine, largely for its robust flavor profile and rustic nature. Ravenswood has always been a top producer of some of the market’s better Zins, and three recently released single-vineyard wines have risen to some of our favorites.

The Ravenswood Tedeschi Zinfandel pours an inky black, with flavors of dark fruits, dark chocolate and black licorice. The Ravenswood Big River Zinfandel is juicy, jammy and everything you’d expect from a big red wine. But the Ravenswood Belloni Zinfandel adds an even greater depth of fruit along with a brambly, spicy nature you otherwise might not expect.

More and more wineries are going natural, with sustainable growth and production processes and organic fruit that captures the essence of the grapes while returning more to the land. Bonterra Organic Vineyards in California’s Mendocino County is leading this charge, and a recent spate of wines attest to winemaker Jeff Cichocki’s growing success.

Begin with the 2016 Bonterra Pinot Noir, with notes of raspberry and strawberry released as the wine hits the glass. The fruit, along with spice and vanilla from its French oak aging, give way to a pleasant mouthfeel and a lingering finish.

The 2016 Bonterra Cabernet Sauvignon benefits from the inclusion of small amounts of unidentified varietals, which add to the cherry-currant nose. Expect a well-structured palate of red fruits, toasted oak, hints of vanilla and well-structured tannins, which add to the long finish.

The 2016 Bonterra Equinox Red leans heavily on the vineyard’s Merlot grapes, its elegant structure augmented by Petit Sirah, which adds a rich, robust quality to the wine. The wine offers an intriguing blend of red and black fruits and spice for a wine that fully measures up to whatever red meat you choose to grill.

Order up! ‘Waitress’ is a hit!

July 26, 2018


Desi Oakley bakes up the drama in ‘Waitress.’

Broadway musicals in recent years have the tendency to feed off a standard template, and Waitress, which opened at Madison’s Overture Center this week, follows much the same recipe:

Take a plucky heroine with a menial job, a bad marriage and facing a life-changing situation. Stir in the requisite oddball casting ingredients – a ditzy plain-Jane nerd; a sassy, brassy babe with a heart of gold; a domineering, belligerent, inbred husband; and an unassuming, hesitating physician who holds the key to the heroine’s freedom. Oh, and don’t forget the surprise guardian angel!

Shake vigorously with a follow-your-dreams narrative and season well with an unusual pie-making capability that sets the heroine apart from her more ordinary friends. Serve piping hot and wait for the laughter and tears.

Waitress has all that, and more. Director Diane Paulus has chosen her top-notch cast carefully and whipped her team to a gallop from the very start of the almost three-hour (with intermission) production. The energy never flags and the laughter is only interrupted by poignant moments that advance book writer Jessie Nelson’s narrative and help us understand exactly why life for Jenna – a dynamic Desi Oakley playing the Waitress of the title – teeters so dangerously at the precipice of despair, yet is filled with so much promise for a brighter future.

The much-heralded score by singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles, who originated the role of Jenna on Broadway, is strong throughout, carrying the show’s emotions in a series of pop anthems that perfectly match the needs of the musical. There is no real Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish hummable main theme, but each musical segment stands on its own, which gives the show strength and character, thus making it more than durable for the extended run time.

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Oakley giving her character of Jenna a full range of emotions. In terms of color and quirk, the obvious standout is Jeremy Morse as Ogie, who unintentionally becomes the paramour of the nerdy Dawn (Lenne Klingaman, who has Madison family connections.) Morse’s absurd mannerisms were so outrageous, in fact, that we half-expect to see the character of Ogie pop up in other shows. There certainly are enough of them out there that need the help.

So the, ahem, ‘pies’ have it. Waitress is a surprise hit of the summer, and there never was a better reason to escape the heat and the bugs and head indoors for an evening of delicious musical theatre.


Boy, that Chappellet Cabernet Franc!

July 4, 2018

Chappellet produces exceptional Cabernet Franc from grapes grown on a hillside vineyard.

Several years ago a friend of ours began waxing poetic about Cabernet Franc, the relatively rare grape varietal that, along with Sauvignon Blanc, is thought to have been an unintentional parent grape for a little hybrid known as Cabernet Sauvignon. This friend has only modest experience with wine, didn’t mention any particular vineyards, and was hard-pressed to articulate the specifics of his adoration.

“Boy, that Cab Franc!” was about as specific as he got, in fact. We’d nod and smile, still puzzled by this sudden eruption of support for a wine variety that was usually difficult to find.

It’s highly unlikely that he was referring to the 2015 Chappellet Cabernet Franc ($85). However, when we tried it recently, we were surprised – thrilled, even – by the depth of flavors and layers of structure.

The winery has been one of only two Napa Valley vintners to celebrate 50 years of post-Prohibition wine production, and one of the few that is still family-owned. On the advice of legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff, founders Donn and Molly Chappellet settled on Pritchard Hill in 1967, carving out 48 distinctive vineyard blocks that produce some truly exquisite wines.

Vineyard manager Dave Pirio and winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus (shown below) have turned these blocks into a veritable playground of quality and creativity, of which the 2015 Cabernet Franc, with its blend of its namesake grape (77%), Cabernet Sauvignon (15%), Malbec (4%) and Petit Verdot (4%), is a prime example.

Aromas of blueberry, blackberry, coffee and herbs greet you from the glass, followed by a complexity of other aromas. The complex, elegantly structured wine showcases a firm, supple palate of dark fruits and darker chocolate, with hints of oak, smoke and toast from its time spent aging in French oak barrels.

But the Cabernet Franc isn’t the only example of Corallo-Titus’s exceptional handwork:

  • The 2015 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon ($65), a blend of its namesake grape (79%), Petit Verdot (14%), Merlot (4%) and Malbec (3%), is Chappellet’s flagship wine. Aromas of blackberry, cassis, anise and chocolate float from the glass, followed by a creamy palate of dark fruits, cola and clove supported by velvety tannins and a lovely mouthfeel.
  • The 2015 Napa Valley Merlot ($45), aged for 22 months in French oak barrels, is a blend of Merlot (80%), Cabernet Sauvignon (9%), Malbec (8%) and Petit Verdot (3%). The mountain-grown wine arrives with a nose of cherry, cedar and black tea, followed by a structured palate of currant, black cherry, dark chocolate and even a little graphite, all dancing in a delightfully complex combination.
  • Corallo-Titus also does wonders with whites, specifically the 2016 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($35). Produced from grapes harvested from a variety of mountain-side vineyards with a strong marine influence and aged sur lees for eight months in French oak barrels, the resulting wine arrives with a lovely tropical aroma blend of pineapple and citrus. The flavors that follow reflect the nose, adding lychee and orange zest along with a hint of melted butter which adds to the creaminess of the palate

Boy, that Cab Franc? Yes, but boy, that Chappellet.

Turning whiskey (barrels) into wine (barrels)

May 26, 2018

It was bound to happen eventually.

With craft brewers swarming over whiskey distilleries and paying top dollar for used whisky barrels, it was only a matter of time before winemakers joined the fray. Some are simply testing the waters, while others are making it their own personal market niche.

Cooper & Thief Cellarmasters is more the later, with two recently released wines that have spent time in some spirited barrels. In both cases the results have been very good.

Winemaker Jeff Kasavan’s 2014 Red Wine Blend mixes with bourbon residue in former distillery barrels, where the wine is aged for three months. The blend of Merlot (38%), Syrah (37%), Zinfandel (11%), Petite Sirah (7%), Cabernet Sauvignon (4%) and few unidentified varietals has enough substance and variants to stand of to the heady, aromatic whiskey notes.

The end result is a rich red wine made richer by its three-month liaison with the bourbon, which is evident more in the palate than the nose, but is never overpowering.

Kasavan does even better with his 2016 Sauvignon Blanc aged in tequila barrels, which adds a delightful and unexpected character to the proceedings.

The wine’s blend of Sauvignon Blanc (78%), French Colombard (12%) and Semillon and a few others (10%) has the bright tropical notes and clean palate of its New Zealand cousins. But the undeniable presence of the tequila’s unique character frames the entire tasting experience.

Whereas the bourbon subtly enhances the Red Blend, the tequila showcases the Sauvignon Blanc, giving it a brighter, delightful character unlike any other wines of its type.

If flavors have colors, this wine would be a bright, pale blue. Conjuring the visual only further enhances the experience

On Mothers Day, drink pink

April 24, 2018

With apologies to the Bard of Avon, a rosé by any other name would indeed taste as sweet. But it also might be crisp, with a hint of acidity – or dry, leaving the palate cleansed and refreshed.

Shakespeare, of course, was talking about the flower in his oft-quoted line from Romeo and Juliet. In this case, however, the subject is rosés, the bright pink wines whose color range and flavor palate fall neatly between straw-colored, acidic whites and inky, robust reds.

The right wine for any season is always the one you enjoy the most, but a chilled rosé, tippled from a delicate stem, is a brighter and often more flavorful alternative to another tired round of chardonnay – oaked or otherwise.

And few wines are more appropriate for Mothers Day, when the actual flower might accompany its namesake wine. Here are a few wine suggestions to aid in your holiday celebration.

These days it’s all about organic, and in many cases that includes wine. Bonterra Rose is produced from organically grown Grenache grapes that capitalize on the organic Mendocino County vineyard’s natural characteristics. Winemaker Jeff Cichocki notes that aromas of strawberry, key lime, pineapple and rosewater lead to a palate of peaches, pomegranate and watermelon. The blend in the bottle is as compelling as its component flavors are plentiful.

Marcel Guigal and his son Philippe continue a tradition started by Marcel’s father Etienne, meaning that the 2017 E. Guigal Côtes du Rhône Rosė is every bit as good as its predecessor wines, and perhaps a little better. Comprised of 70% Grenache, 20% Cinsault and 10% Syrah, the wine pours a vibrant pink with irresistible bursts of bright red fruit on the nose and palate, offering sublime stimulation for all the senses.

The Simi 2017 Dry Rose follows much the same pattern, but with a drier approach. The Sonoma County, California, wine produced from 64% Cabernet Sauvignon and lesser amounts of Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Zinfandel and Graciano, pours a bright coral pink. Expect aromas of strawberry, cherry and melon that replicate on the palate with light acidity and a lengthy, subtle finish.

If you’d like your mother’s special day to be a little effervescent, we have few sparkling special suggestions for you.

If your holiday get-together has multiple mothers celebrating their day, a four-pack of Martini & Rossi Sparkling Rose minis (187 ml) may do the trick. The light and lightly effervescent wine offers aromas of citrus and elderflower, which replicate on the palate with a crisply stimulating snap. It’s perfect for sipping on a warm spring afternoon.

The French Champagne house of Moët & Chandon has produced not one but two special wines perfect for showering Mother with some high end – and high priced – bubbly.

The Rosė Impėrial ($50) is produced from a blend of 40% to 50% Pinot Noir for intensity, 30% to 40% Pinot Meunier for roundness, and 10% to 20% Chardonnay for elegance. Of these, 20% to 30% of wines used are from a special reserve.

Expect a nose of strawberry, raspberry and cherry with a pinch of black pepper. Those same fruits, plus the fleshiness of peach, carry over to the palate with a subtle freshness.

One step up from there, the Grand Vintage Rosė 2009 ($70) is blended from the best wines from the vintage year. The mix of 59% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 11% Meunier emphasizes the grapes’ character and finesse along with the winemaker’s superior skills.

The aroma is redolent with red berries and currants, with hints of rhubarb, vanilla and pink peppercorns. The palate reveals the sweetness of red fruits, with a touch of nutmeg that leads to a gentle texture and long finish.

This wine is suitable for only the very best mothers, but then aren’t they all?

Violin virtuoso Ilya Kaler ‘rocks’ Paganini and WCO

April 21, 2018

Violinist Ilya Kaler

Is it blasphemous to call a classical musician the ‘Jimi Hendrix’ of his instrument?

Those who accept the thesis may find the late rock guitarist a useful comparison for the diversity and skill Russian-born and educated violinist Ilya Kaler brought to his April 20 performance of Nicolò Paganini’s ‘Violin Concert No. 2 in B minor, op. 7 “La campanella”’ with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra.

The musically self-taught Hendrix, whose first instrument was a one-stringed ukulele plucked out of the trash, was flash, flamboyance and showmanship. He also is considered the most influential rock guitarist of the 20th Century, coaxing sounds out of his ‘ax’ that no one had done before and few have mastered since.

Paganini also was the master of flamboyance and skill, his dexterous and athletic performances thought to have been aided by an undiagnosed case of Marfan syndrome, one characteristic of which is extremely long fingers. The composer and performer could play three octaves across four strings in a single hand span. His musical histrionics are said to have inspired the equally flamboyant Franz Liszt, and that’s saying something.

The esteemed Kaler, the only musician to win Gold Medals at three of world’s most prestigious violin competitions, comes from a different background than the other two. But his physical dexterity and musical mastery of the Paganini piece, including the remarkable plucking-while-bowing measures in the work’s third movement, made for a memorable and often astounding performance that generated an enthusiastic audience response.

At the end of a particularly strong performance Hendrix was known to set his ax on fire. Kaler avoided that level showmanship, content to play a short encore before leaving the stage with his ‘ax’ intact.

The Paganini work was flanked by two equally interesting and musically strong performances that once again demonstrated WCO’s ongoing excellence under the baton of Maestro Andrew Sewell.

The ‘String Symphony No. 2 in A Major’ by Gioachino Rossini called on WCO’s string section, but without the aide of the violas. The composition was originally one of a series of sonatas the composer wrote for two violins, a cello and double bass. The musicians handled the largely pleasant evening opener, rescored for orchestra, with both skill and grace as befits a WCO performance.

The second half of the program brought all hands back on deck for a performance of Joseph Haydn’s ‘Symphony No. 81 in G Major.’ It’s hard to remember a more fluid and flawless WCO performance this season. Sewell led his orchestra through the four movements with ease, obviously and rightly pleased at the quality of his musicians’ performances.

And no one set his or her instrument on fire after the closing notes. But that certainly would have been a memorable way to bring down the curtain.