Tears fell from children’s tiny eyes while laughter rang out through the audience of the Todd Wehr Theater Friday night. First Stage Children’s Theater opened the classic story Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in cooperation with PineRock Productions and Character Arts. These original producers of the 1960’s television special usually offer the show only once every holiday season while First Stage generously gives the city a whole month to enjoy the memories. Rudolph, Clarice, Donner and Sam the Snowman join a host of Santa's elves to animate these beloved characters for a marvelously nostalgic evening.

A contemporary audience might only remember the seasonal song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” without fully appreciating the story. A story about how “misfits,” those who fail to conform to someone’s standards can be unfairly misjudged because of one outstanding, visible characteristic. Yet, to bring this timeless message to the stage a host of technical staff were necessary in assisting Director Jeff Frank: Music Direction by Timothy Splain, Production Manager Brandon, Kirkham, Choreographer Sarah Gonsiorowski, Lighting Designer Jason Fassl and Property Manager Mark Hare, among others. Special assistance also came Movement Consultant Matt Daniels, who gave the more than 20 puppets in the production life and voice, and of course, made reindeer fly.

When the evening opens, frosted evergreen trees, snow covered mountain peaks and snowflakes hovering over icebergs place the audience in Christmas Town Country. Where Santa diligently works towards his single night journey riding a sleigh pulled with a reindeer team led by Donner. Sam the Snowman, portrayed by a cleverly disguised Robert Spencer, narrates the story beginning when Rudolph was born with a “nose that glows.” While Todd Denning’s daddy Donner tries to hide his son Rudolph's cherry like nose for “self respect,” a young doe Clarice tells Rudolph his bright and shiny nose is certainly handsome.

The Silver Cast performed opening night and Cole Hines gave Rudolph quiet charm matched by an equally chic Emily Newmark donning a bow between her antlers as Clarice. Newmark soloed beautifully in a rendition of “There’s Always Tomorrow”… for a dream to come true.”

Surprises abound in this production where the gigantic “Bumble” must be overcome, a visit to Misfit Toy Island cheers Charlie in the Box and a cowboy who rides an ostrich instead of a horse while a wild snowstorm almost cancels Christmas. These misfit toys wish to be loved and ride on Santa’s sleigh as much as the persevering Jacob Badvodovski's discontented Hermey the Elf who hates to make toys and dreams of being a dentist.

When the snowstorm clears, First Stage presents the true miracle of the holiday season. No silver or gold can buy being loved for who we really are, the people who cherish our exceptional qualities that make each individual a gift to their family, friends, and ultimately the world. The delightfully retro Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer remembers how patient love allows each individual, whether an elf, misfit toy, or red nosed deer, to shine in the spotlight and save the day in a storm.

For every curly haired child who wishes for straight locks, a too tall child who wishes be shorter, a boy who wishes to cook instead of play sports or the girl who loves to be a scholar instead of playing with dolls and wearing dresses, even those adults who feel out of sync with their contemporary world, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer touches the imagination and emotional soul. Goodness and love arrive wrapped in all sorts of divinely diverse human packages, a message First Stage takes to the heart for the holidays. Cry, laugh and smile in these fond memories and realize there always a rainbow's end for dreams to come true.  

First Stage presents Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in the Todd Wehr Theatre at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through December30. For further information and tickets call 414.273.7206 or click the First Stage link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan





“Where did you see the blizzard taking place? And the avalanche, which direction will that come from?” These unusual questions give First Stage Children’s Theater Artistic Director Jeff Frank something to plan while he prepares for the upcoming production. Following the festive Thanksgiving celebrations, Santa and company come to town in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on Friday, November 23. 

Avalanches and blizzards invite disaster for Rudolph and Santa’s team on their important December journey that all ends happily. The musical play developed from a 1949 Montgomery Ward Christmas promotion, a story written to entice children and holiday shoppers to the stores.  In 1964, Johnny Marks and Don Marks reincarnated the Rudolph story as a television special filled with classic holiday music. While there are 13 proper songs, the audience will cling to these favorites: Holly Jolly Christmas, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Jingle, Jingle, Jingle and There’s Always Tomorrow. 

The homespun animation featured in the original television special will be recreated by using more than 20 puppets crafted by Mark Hare. “Snowkins," puppeteers dressed in all white, will  “animate” or move the characters to make Rudolph and Santa’s sleigh fly, have woodland creatures creep to life and new toys from the workshop dance and sing. These puppeteers convincingly allowed Peter Pan to fly in a previous First Stage production and Frank has learned from those performances.  Now set amid tall evergreens and white-capped mountains, the visual effect will be equally stunning.

Frank continues to uncover the emotional elements in First Stage productions. In this Rudolph, Frank explains there’s a fundamental father-son relationship between Donner, Rudolph’s father, and the unusual reindeer offspring. The company tweaked the script to develop a male bonding moment between parent and child that the adience will relate to and then reflect on. 

Also significant to the play is Rudolph’s very red nose. Frank emphasizes that at some time everyone feels like a “misfit.” The production playfully illustrates how as Frank says, “We often judge people by one physical feature. And then we learn about that other things about that person’s character, without any pressure to conform.” He stops and smiles. “And then we appreciate the person for who they really are.” 

This enchanting and magical team of Northern misfits brings dreams to life once again, arriving with whimsy to First Stage’s musical beginning on November winter nights.  A “cant’ miss holiday experience" for those who attend Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. While deciding where that avalanche will come from on stage in the theater, Frank concludes, “The production emanates from an entertaining and engrossing story that encourages all ages to think about what’s really important.” 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through December 30. There are over 30 show times so everyone can make time to enjoy Rudolph and his friends, even between Christmas and New Years Day. For further information, show times and tickets, please call: 414.273,7206, toll free at 888.612.3500 or click the First Stage link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan




First Stage Children’s Theater opens the company’s 26th season with a monumental Midwest premiere production. In a Theater for Young Audience adaptation of the 1987 fantasy film and 1996 Broadway hit Big, Artistic Director Jeff Frank helped skew BIG, THE MUSICAL for Milwaukee children.

The young and young at heart performance journey finds 12 year old Josh Baskin and his friend Billy on the brink of adolescence and falling in love. When the small in stature Josh loses his first crush to a taller Senior man, he wishes on a Zoltar fortune teller machine at an abandoned carnival to be “big.” Miraculously, Josh grows up overnight and must discover the path from “when you’re small you hide like Peter Pan to when you’re big, you have to be a man.”

Josh eventually lands a job at MacMillan toy factory where his childlike heart still craves fun along with the kisses of the MBA Marketing Vice President Susan, who learns to see the star studded skies through Josh’s eyes. Jackson Evans gives the adult Josh the perfect blend between the child and mature adolescent, painfully reconciling the demands for each emotional life. Beth Mulkerron matches her sweet, yet smart personality to the gradually grateful Susan. One especially comical scene occurs when Susan brings champagne and beluga caviar to Josh’s apartment, to his hidden disgust, yet, Susan remembers dancing and smiling as a young girl.

In the Zoltar cast that appeared on opening night, Austin Zdziarski acting as Billy encourages the befuddled Nicholas Gray’s child Josh, even when the friendship stutters for the love of a woman. Production Director Frank and his collaborator at Maryland’s Adventure Theatre Michael Bobbit redirected the John Weidman (book), David Shire (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyrics) musical to center on this heartwarming and heroic boy to boy friendship. Their friendship cements a worthwhile investment for the audience that delightfully supports healthy male bonding in today’s society.

Niffer Clarke as Mrs. Baskin laments losing her still growing son while Richard Ganoung literally plays in the dual roles of a convincing Zoltar and the revitalized MacMillan, who owns the toy company. On stage, Jason Fassl’s lighting design and Jeff Whiting’s clever, entertaining choreography merge seamlessly with Jack Magaw’s sets. Some fancy footwork with a grand size piano keyboard provides “big” theater fun as does the dance number Cross the Line under Jeff Schaetzke’s music direction.

The audience will ask themselves when is the last time, as an adult or child, or with their own family, they had such good, plain fun? Fun that produced a deep belly laugh enough to make one dance? Adapting this musical for youth, or that ever youthful spirit, reminds the audience that fun (“fun that is loose in your brain and not on software” as the lyrics claim), remains a critical need for children and adults in a city that withstood two shootings in the last three months. Big Boys often cry at this senseless loss. Magical theater where one remembers childhood wonder can be one means to counteract all the inexplicable sorrow in the world. 

Despite of all the sadness one frequently sees online or in the news, make a wish on the stars Josh shows Susan, the million stars that float by every night. Wish for true friendship that puts untold meaning and memories into ordinary life. Discover big fun delivered with a big heart that First Stage mines in their enchanting production BIG, THE MUSCIAL.

First Stage presents BIG, THE MUSICAL in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Perfroming Arts through November 11. For further information, programming or tickets please call 414.273.7209 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan 



An elegant ten feet tall Richard Taylor sculpture stands outside the Milwaukee Youth Art Center on 6th and Walnut. The city’s renowned Taylor installed the work titled First Flight this summer that he constructed in pure white painted steel, the first Taylor sculpture to be completely white.  At the base of the sculpture Taylor incorporated his various inspirations:  believe, confidence, creativity, leadership, passion, respect, risks name only a few. The landmark sculpture symbolizes a beacon of openness and collaboration First Stage Children’s Theater commits to for its brave new 26th season that opens this October.  

The brave new season partially belongs to the recently installed Managing Director Best Corry, who follows the legacy of founder Rob Goodman. Corry described the Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) has improved dramatically throughout the country and at First Stage over the past decade. Which means the acting abilities of young performers and the plays being written for TYA have become, as Corry says, “top level quality.” 

First Stage chooses their selections based on these top-level qualities, evaluating a play’s artistic challenges and emotional rewards that will connect multiple generations. This philosophy inherently acknowledges that TYA will be educating and grooming audiences for the future, to ensure that TYA will be around well into the 21st century. While connecting with theatre companies across the country to ensure better economic stability because the costs to producing theater are now shared, this philsophy also initiates an important plus for theater companies who can produce the same show in several locations. Corry explains, “The cross country collaborations produce this ‘economy of scale’.”

Corry further explained this 26th season fulfilled many of these goals and that begins October 19 with BIG, THE MUSICAL and presents a TYA version adapted by Artistic Director Jeff Frank and Adventure Theater (Maryland) Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt. Frank also directs the Milwaukee musical previously based on the 1987 film familiar to adults, Big. This family oriented entertainment refocuses the romance in the movie Big around the friendship between Josh and Billy, who remains age 13 for the entire play while Josh morphs into an adult. Corry envisions, “It will be fun to have that memory base in the audience to build on, where adults have an affinity for the story.” 

The holidays bring another premiere to Milwaukee with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, also directed by Frank. The vintage 1967 made for television special airs only once a season, while the stage presentation will evoke nostalgia from the adult and youth audiences. A classic brought to life in the theater. “This play leaps from screen to stage,” Corry comments, “So that contemporary children will lose the fourth wall to create a genuine immediacy to the story that shines through."

Two special performances at the MYAC cater to the preschool set with the company’s First Step series. For this year’s offerings, one opens November 3 to relate the tale Five Little Monkeys with a special sensory friendly performance designated for children living with or on the autism spectrum. The collaboration broadens the First Stage reach with an outstretched hand to the Autism Center of Wisconsin. 

The second selection will begin in January and involves coordinating with Milwaukee’s Danceworks, Inc. in a world premiere of an adaptation from Lois Ehlert’s Mole Hill Stories. In this innovative production, Ehlert’s award winning picture books will be condensed into a format choreographed by Danceworks and accompanied by an English and Spanish script for a bilingual animal adventure suitable for the tiniest audiences.  

Afterwards, the beloved Milwaukee actor Jonathan Gillard Daly acts in The Promised Land. A play Daly also wrote for the First Stage Wisconsin Cycle. The play represents the second in the series of six new plays based on Wisconsin history, while several others will follow after further development for future seasons. Sheri Williams Parnell directs this story about a young Milwaukee girl inspired by Golda Meir in yet another original work, which builds community partnerships with the Jewish Milwaukee Museum and the Jewish Community Center. 

Following in Spring, First Stage produces Pinkaliscious,  a modern tale about a brother and sister who must survive an attack of the color pink and will speak to enjoying “too much of a good thing.” And to welcome Opening Day at Miller Park for baseball season, the biopic Jackie and Me relates a story for the sports fan about Hall of Fame player Jackie Robinson, for the young and young at heart  The Brewers Community Foundation presents coordinating programming that addresses racial issues in while sustaining a belief in making dreams come true.

A very special production ends the First Stage season in a first time collaboration with Marquette University’s Helfaer Theater, their faculty and the First Stage Young Company. In an effort to cross over and reach teens, the Young Company youth performers present Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue. The play represents another adaptation taken from Lowry’s trilogy that included the company’s 2007 production of The Giver. 

These exceptional theater experiences offer only one of many first flights soaring into brave new collaborations and productions, esepcially for the 26th season, destined to make the Milwaukee arts community stronger. Unprecedented opportunities First Stage Children’s Theater provides while promising entertainment and emotional substance for the city’s younger population. Today and into a future as faraway as the stars the children wish on and older imaginations still dream about.

First Stage Children's Theater presents BIG, THE MUSICAL at the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts from October 19 through November 11. The First Steps production Five Little Monkeys has already been sold out and new performances have been added for November 24 and 25. Season tickets and family packages are still available for the 2012-2013 season. The company hosts their 3rd annual Apri il Vino, a wine tasting and dinner on Saturday, November 10. For further information and tickets please call 414.273.7206 or click the link to the left.                    by Peggy Sue Dunigan








Who’s afraid of slimy worms, spooky spiders, and working red ants? In a production filled with powerful insect energy and performed by First Stage Children’s Theater, no one in their audience. First Stage dispels any misgivings about these crawly creatures in their colorful musical Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly that opened last weekend. 

Joan Cushing adapts the popular picture books by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss for small theatergoers with musical melodies of Boogie Woogie, Busby Berkeley dance arrangements and contemporary rap. The story opens as three friends, Worm, Spider and Fly Girl, write any worries in their diary the day before school begins. Their classroom beautifully orchestrated by Beth Mulkerron playing teacher Mrs. McBee. 

Throughout the school year, Worm (Thomas Mazza), Spider (Isaiah Reynolds) and Fly Girl (Alison Pogoreic) learn about their innate insect characteristics while dreaming big  dreams for their lives. The audience hears interesting arachnid and insect facts along with the class, the seats also filled with a chattering butterly (Emily Riesterer) and seven ants from the Boogie Woogie cast. Did anyone know a fly’s wings beat 220 times a minute, or a spider molts his skin (an exoskeleton) when his skin becomes too tight? Or a worm has several aortic muscles that represent five hearts? 

Pogoreic soars when her transparent wings flip up as she pulls a cord to sing “Fly Girl,"a song about her ambitions to become a superhero. In “Bye, Bye, Baby,” Spider offers a funny number performed by Reynolds that expresses his difficulty in growing up when his skin molts. Even the song “Time Out” finds this friendly trio lamenting a parent’s punishment while they wait out misbehaving, or as they say: “Jail for kids, or another word for doing time.” 

In one scene, an entire cast boogie woogies and gitterbugs to Simon Eichinger’s choreography. Which literally fills the stage with gleeful amusement on Scenic Designer Martin McClendon’s stage, strobe lit with vibrant hues and filled with oversized pencils, straws and lego blocks. Worm peaks through dirt holes in the stage floor, trying to understand his self worth as a creature without wings like Fly Girl or fabulous legs like Spider. 

By the last day of school, Mrs. McBee affectionately teaches the class (and a willing audience) to appreciate each creature's distinct abilities and characteristics. Mazza’s wonderful, shy worm patiently solves the problems to dancing and realizes he’s already “doing big, big things for the earth.” 

Big things usually happen at the Todd Wehr Theatre under John Maclay’s thoughtful direction. Tiny tykes were thrilled to see these bugs sing on stage while adults in the audience laughed when catching the book’s sophisticated humor. The stylish production paves the way for the First Stage selection that opens next season in October, Big, the musical. In the meantime be inspired and instructed by this cadre of ants, flies, spiders or worms. First Stage chases away any fears for those once afraid of creepy creatures and wanting to dreams big dreams all their own. 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly at Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through May 13. Subscriptions are now available for the 2012-2013 season. For further information or tickets please call: 414.267.2961 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan