Have you heard of Lawrencia Ann “Bambi” Bembenek, who was convicted of brutally murdering her husband’s ex-wife under very suspicious circumstances in 1982?
Most in the audience at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater on Thursday night knew exactly who “Bambi” Bembenek was; a former cop, a sometime rabbit at the former Playboy resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and a fugitive from Wisconsin’s Taycheedah Correctional Institution. He would spend the rest of his very difficult life either on the run or trying to clear his name. In the local news, Bambi was both a siren, a temptress in tight trousers, a jealous wife, and a Badger State Thelma who hardly needed Louise’s help.
And as improbable as it may seem, he’s getting his own musical this weekend; It’s a raucous show with great music by Gordon Gano of Milwaukee’s own folk-punk band the Violent Femmes. It’s a musical that manages to re-examine her unsolved case and declare an unconscionable miscarriage of justice, while also capturing both the fun and struggles of growing up as a working-class Polish American girl in the city of Milwaukee in the 1970s. , I dream of being one of Charlie’s Angels.
Oh, you could see the audience remembered it all: the bars, the charges, the boogie and the boys in blue. Not to mention corruption, complicit media and cover-ups by top officials. Far from the Hollywood strip, blonde bombshell Bambi is having her retro-feminist moment, all right. And it’s a pleasure to experience it
Part of the fun of “Run, Bambi, Run,” staged with irreverently determined glee by director Mark Clements, is a reminder of the power of the local when it comes to regional theater, a frequently staged sector of the American industry. He doesn’t notice the intriguing stories just outside his own door. But I think this show, which features a book by Steppenwolf Theater troupe Eric Simonson and a terrific lead performance by Erika Olson, could be a refreshing, populist entry into the upcoming Broadway season. With a little more work.
Here’s the kicker: Clements stages the show with open theatricality. It feels like we’re in one of Milwaukee’s blue-collar bars and watching a local group of musicians. Imagine the Wisconsin version of “Once,” albeit with shades of Willy Russell’s “Blood Brothers” and more betrayal than love in the air.
Guitarists and horn players play out Bambi’s early life: her struggles in the sexist police academy, her lucky choice of loving parents but poor choice of partners who are both professionals (the excellent Jessica Kantorowitz plays Judy, one of the few women who can achieve both). animates). befriending and betraying her) and personal (Armando Gutierrez plays her scheming husband Fred) and her bouncing from cop to waiter to security guard.
All of this, told with a paradoxically entertaining sense of doom, almost takes us to the interludes. But just before the break, there is a crime: Fred’s first wife, Christine, has died in bed. And Milwaukee cops, who are facing a separate discrimination lawsuit from Bambi, have good reason to go through the books and fry the deer in the headlights.
This is the first moment when the otherwise tight show stutters: torn between wanting to keep the audience in the dark as the mystery is slowly revealed and wanting to roar with feminist musical fury about what happened to the absolutely innocent Bambi (even though the historical record allows it). He probably knew more than he let on.) He wants Brechtian calls to be removed, as well as calls for “Free Bambi,” aka “Free Britney.” As a result, the crime at the center of the story was staged in a very complicated way and its circumstances were rushed. This needs to be fixed.
In Act 2, the show quickly gets back on track and Dr. We encounter a prison break involving Phil and his guards (it actually happened), and many other surprising real-life tragedies. -next surprising revelations.
Whether or not its mystery remains, the show leaves you raging on behalf of Bambi: This is the best kind of political theater: sly, sexy, slippery and seductive. And fortunately, Clements has assembled a cast that is far from the cast. They all think they could be Milwaukee cops or waiters; The show is about drawing attention to ordinary lives, and although I hold back on a few of the more extraordinary ensemble performances for realism’s sake, it’s staged without condescension. In Milwaukee, they can smell disdain from a mile away.
Frankly, I was blown away by the diversity of Gano’s music, which included everything from faux-disco satire to Polish polkas to punk-style rage songs to soaring ballads that fit Olson’s voice wonderfully. It’s the kind of package of songs that will appeal to multiple generations, a thoughtful collection of songs grounded in a recognizable Midwestern setting that any longtime Chicagoan will understand.
The show is at least 15 minutes too long, and I thought it was over at least twice before it ended. Simonson wants to pack in too much (I doubt he’ll compare the real Bambi’s fake friend to Benedict Arnold) and he’ll have to give up some of it. These cuts are very easy to make, easier in fact than anything else in Bambi’s troubled life.
It still happens to be a true crime musical. It’s worth a go for Violent Femmes fans, new music followers, and anyone who likes to remember how awful the 1970s were, with one of the best songs in the show.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Run Bambi Run”
When: Until October 22
Where: Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s Quadracci Power Plant, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee
Working time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Tickets: $20-$90 at 414-224-9490 and milwaukeerep.com