The annual Gathering on the Green performance arts festival took place Friday and Saturday, July 13-14, at Rotary Park in Mequon, about 20 miles north of downtown Milwaukee. The weekend festival has been a part of the community for more than 15 years and is the result of a strong community initiative to promote the performing arts in southeastern Wisconsin.
On the bill this year, Under the Streetlamp, a vocal quartet comprising of the original Chicago cast members of the Tony Award-winning musical “Jersey Boys,” opened the multi-day event on Friday. Performances by several Milwaukee art groups, including the Gathering on the Green Orchestra, Florentine Opera, and Danceworks, shared the stage on Saturday night for “Music and the Movies.”
Gathering on the Green has been touted as the only one of its kind in the country to combine orchestra, ballet, opera and theatre elements over its two-day run. It continues to garner much attention as the region’s premier performing arts event, attracting more and more people each year.
The park opened at 5 p.m. on Friday for activities and picnicking. You better believe that most festival-goers arrived by five o’clock on the dot to claim their spot to watch the evening’s show. Eric and I, however, weren’t quite as punctual. We arrived at Rotary Park by about 6:30, paid $5 for general parking (preferred parking is $15), and then made the quick hike over to the festival grounds.
As we entered, the place was already teeming with people. I swear all of Mequon was in attendance. It took me a minute to take it all in.
There’s a grand gazebo with elegant white pillars and a massive three-tiered roof that served as the focal point and was used as the backdrop for the main stage, which jutted out from the front. Beyond the gazebo were designated seating areas. Ropes defined each section.
The primo spots were obviously the tables and chairs set up to the right of the makeshift stage (available to rent for a whopping $250). A small grassy patch (can I say grassy? It was more like straw due to the drought we’re currently in) was left open to encourage dancing while Under the Streetlamp performed their Doo-Wop renditions.
Beyond the tables, rows of white chairs lined the hill and were already filled by folks who bought their reserved tickets in advance. The next section was open to attendees who paid less for a small plot of lawn to spread out blankets and unfold chairs they brought from home. Groups clustered together over unpacked coolers loaded with wine and cocktails, and rather extravagant spreads of meats and cheeses. We even saw a couple with an over-the-top arrangement: A mini folding table draped in a hot-pressed white tablecloth that was decorated with a vase of flowers and candelabra. Yup, candlesticks and all. I snickered as I overheard somebody say that this is Milwaukee’s version of the Hamptons.
The thousands of lawn picnickers were rimmed by a row of small white pop-up canopies equipped with what looked like a five-foot table and about a dozen chairs that could be rented by a larger group to host their own outing. Sponsors had booths and tents scattered along the outer ring, which is where we decided to start out.
Our first stop was the antique automobiles display where we inspected the classic Chevys and Fords with glossy paint jobs and their hoods popped. I don’t know why, but I’m drawn to shiny vintage cars like a moth to a patio light. Many of the car owners were spending the evening socializing, cracking open cans of beer, as fest-goers peered through the windows of their four-wheeled babies and gushed over their souped-up engines.
Changing pace complete, we then dropped by the Chateau Ste. Michelle booth where complementary samples of their award-winning Riesling were being poured.
Chateau Ste. Michelle is a 3,500-acre vineyard in the Columbia Valley of eastern Washington State. This summer, the winery packed up plenty of bottles of their family of Riesling and took them to several cities across the county to host tasting events. And, whad'ya know, one stop was in the Milwaukee area during Gathering on the Green.
Three very different Riesling styles were offered – a dry, a medium sweet and a sweet. Eric and I started with the Dry Riesling, a variety we were unfamiliar with. Actually, we had never even heard of a dry Riesling. I guess, being somewhat of a novice, I always assumed Rieslings were super sweet. This one was definitely dry yet smooth and flavorful. I liked it. Then again, I typically enjoy drier wines. I could certainly see myself having a glass with dinner.
Next, we moved on to the Columbia Valley Riesling, the number one selling Riesling in America, we were told. This one was vastly different from the previous sample – crisp, refreshing, more of an “everyday” Riesling. Lastly, we were poured the Harvest Select Sweet Riesling. Based on the name, I knew this was going to be more like the type of Riesling I was accustomed to. It was very sweet and rich and fruity – did I say sweet? While it wasn’t my cup of vino, Eric loved it! He said, "I can picture myself lingering over a glass while relaxing on our balcony." (He didn’t actually say it that way; I added some verbiage to enhance the visual.) To each his own, I guess.
I almost asked for another taste of the Dry Riesling, but, one, I didn’t want to be a lush; and, two, I realized after my third sample that the wine had gone straight to my head. So, we thanked the staff from Chateau Ste. Michelle for their generosity, and then we made a beeline for the food court where various vendors were serving up typical festival fare like cheeseburgers, hot dogs and wraps, as well as salads and frozen custard. Beverages were also on hand for those that didn’t feel like lugging in a cooler or bottle (or two) of wine. Selections of wine were offered by the glass or bottle, beer on draught or in a can and, of course, non-alcoholic drinks were also available. I opted for a cheeseburger and Eric ordered a BBQ pulled pork sandwich from North Star American Bistro. Probably not the best food to pair with a Riesling, but whatever.
As the blue sky began to fade into shades of red and purple, we finally decided to find a spot on the lawn to open our bag chairs just as the Under the Streetlamp quartet promptly strode onto the stage at 8 p.m.
Clad in impeccably tailored suits, the four men immediately commanded the audience’s attention. The two-hour performance proceeded to show off the group’s tight harmonies and entertaining rapport as they managed to capture the sounds of multiple generations via a blend of tunes they aptly dubbed the “American Radio Songbook,” which encompassed genres popular in the 50s and 60s. From Doo-Wop and Motown to classic rock ‘n roll, the group covered all of the best hits from The Drifters, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, and many others.
I admit, for us the evening ended before the finale. Eric and I slipped into the still-dark parking area while “Pretty Woman” was still walkin’ down the street.
Single-day tickets are $45 for reserved seats and $20 for lawn seats. Children 12 and younger get free lawn admission.