Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

For those who were lucky enough to see it, Melody Top's 1967 production of SWEET CHARITY remains a memorable experience. Produced in Milwaukee while the original Broadway production was still playing in New York City, the musical provided Gretchen Wyler with her first of five Top appearances. Tommy Tune, having already worked in numerous tents around the country, provided new choreography for SWEET CHARITY – in addition to six other musicals during the summer of 1967! All the amazing images on this page, including rare rehearsal shots, were submitted by Betty-Ann (Carlton) Weiss, who would love to get back in touch with her Melody Top roommate, Kay Willie Olson. If anyone reading this page knows the whereabouts of Kay, please e-mail the webmaster using the "Contact Information" link in the blue box above.

CHARITY is Best of Broadway

By Michael H. Drew of the Journal Staff

The Melody Top's new tent got a stunning christening Tuesday night with a musical comedy as fresh and bright as the green and yellow canvas. A near capacity crowd cheered the Midwest premiere of SWEET CHARITY, now in its 18th month on Broadway.

The production's classic blend of story, songs and star established a high standard for the 1967 season.

CHARITY is unalloyed Broadway – brash and funny and as frank as a Bardot triple feature. It chronicles the life and many loves of Charity Hope Valentine, another of the musical stage's noted waifs. Miss Valentine is a taxi dancer. Or, as librettist Neil Simon puts it, "she defends herself to music in a snake pit run by Adolf Hitler."

As Charity we have the versatile Gretchen Wyler, and it's hard to imagine New York's Gwen Verdon being any better. From the tips of her pigeon toes through her knock knees to her peroxide top, she's the classic New York fall girl, 130 pounds of wounds and laughs.

Since Miss Wyler seldom leaves the stage or stops emitting sparks, her role resembles running the Boston marathon both ways.

But she was created for such challenges, with such equipment as a Z curve mouth and ripe olive eyes, which she bats – lashes, brows and all. Then there's a soprano foghorn voice that purrs and belts with a pure sidewalks of New York accent. And Miss Wyler wheeled through her dances with triple-jointed abandon, kicking so as to endanger the new roof.

With this tornado in tights unleashed, nearly everyone else was overshadowed. But not rugged baritone Stewart Rose, triple cast as Charity's male friends. Rose's voice was tent sized and bristling. And, turning to quivering Jell-O, he made a claustrophobic seizure in a stalled elevator a minor triumph of comic business.

In "Big Spender," director Stuart Bishop assembled the brassiest chorus this side of, well, a New York dance hall (where he must have personally kidnapped each chorine).

The Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score is serviceable if not terribly memorable. Bishop's staging and Tommy Tune's choreography were briskly imaginative.

But Don Jennings' orchestra needed either more horns or more wind. And though tightening was called for, did Bishop have to trim the final scene, giving Milwaukee a happy ending?

Sweet Charity Program Cover Logo

The production's clever logo, taken from the front cover of a souvenir program sold at the theatre.

SWEET CHARTIY More Comical Than Musical

By Jay Joslyn, Milwaukee Sentinel

SWEET CHARITY, which opened the Melody Top Theatre season Tuesday night, introduced a very funny girl to Milwaukee.

Gretchen Wyler, playing the title role, may not have the greatest singing voice in the world, but she has a wonderful way with a line – and the lines she carries on her person are wonderful, too.

The story line of this musical comedy is by Neil Simon, the author of THE ODD COUPLE, which is advance notice that the show is funny. However, the show is more comedy than musical.

In effect, SWEET CHARITY is something like a review (revue) about the haphazard life of a dime-a-dance girl thirsting for love. Her trouble is that she has a hard time recognizing the real thing.

Serving as a backboard for Miss Wyler's well-delivered quips is Stewart Rose, who plays the three very different roles of the men in Charity's life.

While the show gives Rose very few chances to show off his considerable baritone voice – which is quite uncharitable – the assignment allows him to have a good deal of fun playing in the high manner, especially in the role of the fading Italian film Romeo, Vittorio Vidal.

The episode in Vidal's room is a small masterpiece of the comic situation. Charity's stay in the closet while Vittorio moves in an old love, played by Mary Jane Kimbrough, lately of the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, has the audience in stitches. Miss Wyler adds to the fun by asking members of the audience to help her out in some of her predicaments.

Stuart Bishop, in his dual role of director and scene designer, does well. He keeps Miss Wyler and company bouncing through the play on an imaginative set that features a three-level structure in the center.

While SWEET CHARITY limits the opportunities for choreographer Tommy Tune to show his wares, it does whet the appetite for more extended exposure later in the season.

The blasé "Rich Man's Frug" is a showstopper of controlled dance satire.

The Melody Top was blessed by traditionally fine opening night weather and attracted a nearly capacity audience.

Production Photos from SWEET CHARITY

Sweet Charity Stage 1 Sweet Charity Stage 2 Sweet Charity Stage 3 Sweet Charity Stage 4 Sweet Charity Stage 5

SWEET CHARITY Cast of Characters

Charity Hope Valentine:Gretchen Wyler
Dark Glasses:Stewart Rose
Bystander:Michael Misita
Married Couple:Patti Kogin, Donald Knight
Woman with Hat:Mary Jane Kimbrough
Ice Cream Vendor:Gerry Burkhardt
Ballplayer:Kurt Peterson
Man with Dog:Steve Stephenson
Young Spanish Man:Stephen Wyzywany
Girl with Balloon:Nancy Dalton
First Cop:Clyde Miller
Second Cop:James Bovaird
Helene:Carmen Hylton
Carmen:Betty-Ann Carlton
Nickie:Marilyn Thoma
Herman:Clyde Miller
Doorman:Donald Knight
Ursula:Mary Jane Kimbrough
Vittorio Vidal:Stewart Rose
Waiter:Kurt Peterson
Manfred:Steve Stephenson
Receptionist:Mary Jane Kimbrough
Old Maid:Patti Kogin
Girl:Betty-Ann Carlton
Oscar:Stewart Rose
Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck:Steve Stephenson
Brother Harold:Michael Misita
Brother Eddie:Gerry Burkhardt
Rosie:Nancy Dalton
Barney:Donald Knight

Hostesses: Susan Beil, Susan Cadham, Betty-Ann Carlton, Nancy Dalton, Patti Kogin, Candy Tovar, Sandra West.

Patrons: James Bovaird, Gerry Burkhardt, Donald Knight, Michael Misita, Kurt Peterson, Stephen Wyzywany.

Betty-Ann (Carlton) Weiss and Tommy Tune

Two images, taken in August of 1967, from the collection of Betty-Ann (Carlton) Weiss: Tommy Tune relaxing backstage at Melody Top with a knitting project; and Betty-Ann with Tommy, dressed in their costumes for HIGH BUTTON SHOES (which starred Margaret Whiting and Gabriel Dell).

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