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BWW Review: 5 Reasons to Mask Up & See FIRST LADY OF SONG

The Milwaukee Rep hosts a sensational return to live entertainment

BWW Review: 5 Reasons to Mask Up & See FIRST LADY OF SONG

A scintillating, scatting, sensational return to live theater -- who could ask for anything more? The Milwaukee Rep delivers a heaping portion of the good stuff in the triumphant First Lady of Song, a concert salute to America's favorite jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald. After nearly 14 months of COVID closures, the Rep is dipping a toe back into in-person performances and giving audiences a taste of the glories to come when they launch their full 2021-2022 season this October.

It was an honor to be in the audience on opening night. Socially distanced around me sat key theater donors and medical professionals who have helped keep the Rep afloat and informed this past year. Though smartly masked, the Rep staff exuded enthusiastic smiles upon opening the theater doors once more. I'm sure everyone in attendance shared that enthusiasm and hope that First Lady of Song is a harbinger of some normalcy.

Now onto the show itself. Between a joyful string of songs, a star with a seemingly infallible set of pipes, and the current state of live entertainment on the whole, First Lady of Song may appeal to an even broader audience than in pre-COVID times. Below are five reasons to mask up and see the show.

You should see First Lady of Song if...

You've been missing the theater. This is a no-brainer. The Milwaukee Repertory Theater puts on some of the best productions in town, and First Lady of Song is no exception. Although we're sure to see a return to live theater in the coming months, why wait? First Lady of Song runs through May 23rd.

You've been missing concerts. First Lady of Song features a set list that is loosely woven by anecdotes and biographical bits about Ella Fitzgerald. But above all else, it's just one helluva concert. If you've been missing concerts for the past 14 months, you better believe there's a killer one happening right now at the Rep.

You love jazz and the American songbook. Ella Fitzgerald is indeed America's quintessential jazz singer. First Lady of Song features a swingin' foursome of musicians: Music Director Jo Ann Daugherty on piano, Joshua Ramos on upright bass, Ryan Bennett on percussion, and Rajiv Halim on sax and flute. This isn't just a terrific concert experience -- it's a superb jazz experience. I only wish one could turn the Quadracci Powerhouse theater into a cozy, smoky, backroom bar. As for the songs, classic tunes by Ellington, Gershwin, and Porter are all present. If you "Dream a Little Dream" of "Summertime" with your "Funny Valentine," you'll simply eat up First Lady of Song.

You want to see a killer songstress. I don't know what we did to deserve Alexis J Roston, but what a thrill to see her back at the Milwaukee Rep singing her heart out and doing Ms. Fitzgerald proud. Is there anything this award-winning actress can't do with her voice? She makes scatting look simple and belting breezy. From a country-western cry to a Louis Armstrong rasp, she's able to toss her vocal tone every which way and always stick the landing. She and her voice are a spellbinding marvel. I would pay to hear her sing the phone book.

You're itching to safely dip a toe back into normalcy. This Rep performance is masked and socially distant, and that's just the tip of the COVID precautions. Outside the Powerhouse lobby, theatergoers are invited to wait in distanced lines for a quick temperature check. Pass the test, and it's on to scan your contactless ticket at the door. Need to use the bathroom? Follow the clearly-marked path to and from the facilities, where an attendant ensures occupancy remains at a minimum. In the theater, seating is spaciously distanced so that you only sit directly beside those in your own party. There's no intermission. At the end of the night, ushers dismiss rows elementary school style -- one at a time, starting with the back, to avoid congestion in the lobby and elevators.

I believe it's safe to say the Rep's experiment worked. They've pulled off a successful return to live performances, different though certain parts of the experience may be. It's due in no small part to the clear dedication and thoroughness of the Milwaukee Rep staff -- and it's helped immensely by a broadly-appealing and uplifting post-COVID debut in First Lady of Song.

Photo: JPM Photography


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From This Author Kelsey Lawler