When I was a kid our family made an annual trip to The House on the Rock, Wisconsin’s own monument to weird and wonderful artifacts, architecture, and oddities. In the 1970s it had not yet transformed into the mega mall of collectibles it is today, including a life-size sculpture of a whale, a plethora of dolls on a three-story carousel, and a disturbing number of winged manequins. What it did have, were a lot of very strange music machines. Put in a few quarters and you could see an entire orchestra of instruments play classical pieces without a human musician in sight. Instead complicated machinery bowed the strings, rang the gongs and crashed the symbols. Like ghostly concerts with rows and rows of horns, organ pipes, bells and whistles that operated themselves, they were mesmerizing.
Fast forward a few decades, and that same feeling of awe returned, seeing Skylight Music Theatre’s add-on to their season of full musicals, “Things That Go Ding!” Featuring hundreds of percussion instruments, some vaudeville schtick, humorous takes on serious classical music and even a silent movie underscored by live music and sound effects, the show is a spectacular combination of high and low art, performed by three incredibly talented musicians: Skylight Artistic Director Ray Jivoff; accomplished pianist Jamie Johns; and master percussionist Michael “Ding” Lorenz.
Jivoff is emcee, soloist and head ham for the overtly silly show, and is obviously having the time of his life, ad-libbing with the crowd, entering in one over-the-top costume after another (several of them fruit-themed) and literally switching characters as quickly as he can change hats. Jivoff lends his considerable comedic skill and lively baritone to songs that were originally performed by Ethel Merman, Mister Rogers, Donald Duck and the leads in several Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, among others. His consternation while singing a heartfelt love song, accompanied by relentless slide whistles, bird calls and a squeaking rubber chicken was definitely a high point of the evening.
On keyboards and playing a straight man for both Jivoff and Lorenz is Jamie Johns. Breezily providing the melody for his fellow performers’ antics, Johns transitions from Liszt to Spike Jones to Broadway without batting an eye or missing a note. Given his recent five year stint touring with “The Phantom of the Opera,” he also had no trouble playing Lloyd Webber hits on the pipe organ and a music box-esque instrument called a celeste.
But the star of the show is “Ding” Lorenz, along with his conglomeration of instruments that filled multiple levels of the Cabot Theatre stage and even spilled out onto the floor. His incredible skill is the product of decades of performing, including stints with rock bands, orchestras, and an incredible 138 productions at Skylight. (“Ding” claims he got a toy drum when he was 5 years old and hasn’t stopped banging on things since.) His odd and illustrious collection of percussion pieces is the result of years of collecting, from sources around the world. Unlike his gigs constrained in the orchestra pit, “Ding” was frenetic, and often out of breath as he traversed the stage, lunging between huge timpanis, marimbas, sets of cow bells and sleigh bells, a glockenspiel, tuned windchimes, a set of taxi horns, bongos, spinning musical coins, an array whistles and even, yes literally, a set of pots and pans and an actual kitchen sink. Watching his high jinks, navigating a dizzying number of instruments — some bowed, some played with mallets, some with his bare hands — was as much fun as appreciating the variation and beauty of the sounds he could coax out of them.
Though the dad jokes and musical puns were amusing and the opportunity to attend a music concert just for the silly fun of it was a gift, when “Ding” played an original composition on a set of handpans that closely resembles a flying saucer, his precision, passion and artistry really shone through.
“Things That Go Ding!” is a variety show in the best sense of the word — showcasing the ridiculous talent of three Milwaukee performers who are allowed to do the things they do best, and loving every minute of it. Check it out if you can.