First Stage Children’s Theater closes the curtain on its 25th Anniversary season with performances to warm the heart at any age: “Diary of a Worm, A Spider and a Fly.” While waiting for the final production to open at the Todd Wehr Theater this weekend, a stellar year had unfolded for the company that produced Y York’s world premiere Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly and the 50th anniversary production of Madeleine L’Engles’ A Wrinkle in Time. While one selection brought to light a child coping with a mother’s mental illness through creating art, the other fantasized about the consequences to time travel in outer space. The great diversity in this one season reflects the professional theatrical light years traveled over the past 25 seasons. 

Besides productions on the Todd Wehr Theater stage, the company supports one of the largest theater academies in the country, which includes the award winning and productive Young Company. This talented group accepts teenagers who audition for special performances, national Shakespeare competitions and select events that included a recent run of The Winter’s Tale at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

In this challenging English verse from a play representing Shakespeare’s later writings, Arianna Imperl gave a convincing portrayal of Hermione while Kelly Venable as her grown daughter Perdita at 16 enchants the pastoral scenery in Act II. Garett Hanson, in the dual roles of Antigonus and Atuolycus, added incredible acting ability to minor roles that uplifted the production.

Young Performers also provided In Tandem Theatre with a star crossed performance by Eric Schabla in their production of The Chosen, a tribute to the acting experience the First Stage Academy and the Young Company offer. Three other First Stage Academy students had the privilege of performing in The Rep’s profound production To Kill A Mockingbird, a play that broke all previous revenue records at the company this year.  

John Brotherhood, Thomas Kindler and Mallorey Wallace enlighten these critical roles of the children the beloved drama revolves around and radiated magnificent performances for Milwaukee audiences. How fortunate for The Rep and First Stage that these collaborations have benefited more than personal lives or careers, but the city’s wider theater community with uncommonly mature professionalism from all their young performers. 

While about half of the more than fifty members of this company will pursue a career in theater, only half of those graduates will actually be involved as theater professionals in acting, choreography, designing costumes or sets, management or stage technicians. However, countless others gain self-confidence to pursue other professional life dreams. For the first time in the coming year, the Young Performers will mount a full-scale production at Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre next May with an adaptation of Lois Lawry’s Gathering Blue. 

These collaborations with other Milwaukee theater companies provide a constellation of stars in 2012-2013. Jonathan Gillard Daly, who currently performs at Next Act Theatre in One Time, will be premiering his play from the second addition to the First Stage Wisconsin Series: To The Promised Land. The story centers on an African American girl living in late 1960’s Milwaukee who finds inspiration in the life of Golda Meir. Another world premiere joins this production during January with Lois Ehlert’s Mole Hill Stories in a cooperative effort with Danceworks and their choreographer Dani Kuepper. 

First Stage continually concentrates the spotlight on the city’s talent of all ages, from author Ehlert to accomplished artist Della Wells. Or Thomas Kindler, who gave Dill his wiser than his years voice at The Rep and played a small part for the announcement of the 2012-2013 season in a vignette from Jackie and Me. The April 2013 selection travels back through time to 1947 when a young boy Joey meets baseball great Jackie Robinson. 

The new season also welcomes a past friend into the commanding role as Managing Director. Betsy Corry will replace Rob Goodman after 25 years and support Artistic Director Jeff Frank when as First Stage says, “Let us Light the Way for a Magical Season.” Find that inner light in one’s heart and illuminate a child’s life through First Stage Children’s Theater. Attend their closing performance this weekend, send a child to one of their summer camps or buy season tickets to anticipate unveiling more magic in September. Who knows when and what stars will arise in the theater's sky for the mercurial season ahead? 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly from opening night April 13 through May 13. Or purchase tickets to their upcoming season that begins on October 19 with big: the musical, adapted from the 1987 movie in an adaptation by Jeff Franks and Michael Babbitt. Or sign up for Theater Academy summer classes. For information, season subscriptions or tickets call 414.267.2961 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan












Chocolate candy bars, chocolate rivers and chocolate mixed with walnuts. These delicious sweets inspire children the world over. British author Roald Dahl combined chocolate with a host of fantasy treats to inspire a child's iimagination instead of their bad behavior in his 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. For the only time in 25 years, First Stage Children’s Theater produced an adaptation by Richard George that opened in the Todd Wehr Theater last weekend.

Director Jeff Frank’s playbill notes dedicated the production to his technical staff, although his careful attention to the entire set becomes a hallmark to performances noted in these technical details.  And indeed, the show stars an industrial looking set backlit with brightly hued, double hung windows that transforms into a working candy factory. Scenic Designer David Minkoff, Lighting Designer Jesse Klug and two Co-Sound Designers (Kevin O’Donnell and Ryan Cappleman) bring the confectionary's interior and machines to a brilliant reality on stage. How easy for the audience to place themselves in the factory, wishing to eat a chocolate bar or dancing with the delightful Oompa-Loompas created with help from Costume Designer Brandon Kirkham.

Bo Johnson dazzles the five children who visit the factory as Willy Wonka, resplendent in a grape colored velvet suit coat wearing high black boots. Each of the five children from the Loompa young perfromer cast provide fine performances, especially Jelena Vorkapich playing Verucka Salt, a girl spoiled by her father’s wealth.

Robert J. Spencer plays Grandpa Joe with charm, adding an encouraging presence to Charlie Bucket’s bleak future. Spencer's exquisite facial expressions complement Seth Horne’s generous young Charlie and remind him to dream big dreams. The two underpin an accomplished adult cast to complete the Chocolate Factory entourage dressed again in Kirkham’s delectable costumes reflecting fruit flavored colors. Banana yellow, bubble gum pink, cherry red, and lime green hued costumes by Kirkham pop to life on Minkoff’s silvery blue and steel like set.

The entire show entertains the audience with original music and special effects carefully integrated into the story telling for a complete afternoon of great fun. Blinking windows, a concoction of tubes and slides and a glass elevator makes for the magic First Stage continually conjures with growing expertise and professionalism. Proven by the wonderful performances their young performers from the First Stage Theater Academy give in The Rep’s To Kill A Mockingbird and In Tandem Theatre’s The Chosen.

At the talkback after the performance, one parent exclaimed that this was the best production she had seen at First Stage. Anyone could endlessly discuss that comment because the company has staged multiple memorable performances in stellar productions reflecting a variety of subject materials suitable for every age.   

One could remember Hana’s Suitcase, James and the Giant Peach, One Thousand Cranes, I Never Saw Another Butterfly, The Wiz, A Year With Frog and Toad, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse and two wonderful productions of Seussical. Who could possibly choose from this selection in their silver anniversary history? Yet, this spring First Stage enchants the audience with a mesmerizing performance of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so they again believe in their hearts that one’s own dreams might eventually be rewarded.    

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory through March 31 at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. For information and tickets call: 414.273.7206 or click the link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan






When a wicked craving for candy strikes, perhaps one fondly recalls the cult film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The Mel Stuart film from 1971 starring Gene Wilder or Tim Burton’s 2005 version featuring Johnnie Depp loom in the mind as the young Charlie Bucket and his Grandpa Joe follow the chocolatiers through their fantasy world to satisfy a sweet tooth. These famous candy men (An Oscar nominated song “The Candy Man” from the first film ) rule over a world concocted by children’s author Roald Dahl in his classic book titled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Beginning in March, First Stage Children’s Theater plans on restaging this deliciously and sometimes frightful world created with chocolate rivers and colorful everlasting gobstoppers that tiny creatures named the Oompa-loompas oversee with their strict rules that need to righteously obeyed. 

To construct Charlie's tempting, sugar-coated factory, Scenic Designer David Minkoff discussed the collective vision with the company’s Artistic Director and Director for the show, Jeff Frank. Minkoff related the design process that will culminate when the play opens next week while chatting over the phone from his home in Vermont. Minkoff recalls another distinguished First Stage Production Hana’s Suitcase, remembered as one of his favorite scenic designs. The poignant play’s intricate staging merged with the complexity of its themes , which related to a children’s perspective on the Holocaust and was inspired by a true story. (Minkoff also created sets for The Giver, The Magic Bicycle and The Neverending Story). Hana’s Suitcase still resonates with him for the play's rewarding messages and stellar production quality. With these memories etched in his mind, Minkoff starts reviewing the process on how he envisioned his own version of Charlie’s chocolate factory for the premiere First Stage production. In the company's 25 year history, this is the very first time Dahl's classic fantasy comes to their theater.  

How does the process work when designing a set for a demanding production?

We can’t ignore the previous films, which the audience will remember. It’s a monster show, pushing the possibilities of resources, a huge spirit of adventure where First Stage has pulled together for another big show. We wanted to make the set really inviting so the audience wants to go there and be in it, live in it. [Because the book has a darker side.] It needs to be very personal and we looked at some industrial designs and playground designs, and talked about numerous ideas on how to create the factory. I even took a trip to Ben and Jerry’s factory [Ice Cream] in Stowe, Vermont for inspiration. I also looked at amusement parks and art installations. And we considered a candy colored palette as opposed to a more monochromatic palette with texture.

So what happened after considering all these ideas?

We looked at events that needed to happen in the play and then asked how can we make that happen? The result was a set that has transforming elements, one with tubes and tunnels, very interactive scenery where Augustus Gloop can slide down a tube similar to the movie. We had to experiment because we’re using elements that have never been done before.

What’s most important about the design? 

I don’t want to give too much away. But it’s experimental. You need to see and experience the magic of the story, the magic of the scenery and then leave some elements to be suggested by the imagination. The story involves that imagination. We’re also working with the lighting designer Jesse Klug to help create that magic on stage, and an excellent sound designer to recreate these effects for the stage. 

What’s important to you about Dahl’s story? 

I love this story. It’s a whole universe that’s so exciting, an escapist fantasy with a moral. An incredible fantasy world about a kid (Charlie) who does the right things, makes the right choices and is rewarded. [A story] Sweet, beautiful and simple that injects darker elements under the surface to make it interesting for adults. These darker elements make the sweetness a little sweeter and the joy more joyful. I’m delighted to be working with First Stage again. Children are the most honest audiences you have. If it’s[a play or production] working they are right there with you and you can take them to incredible places because they’re willing to go there. 

First Stage Children’s Theater opens Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on March 2. For information or tickets call: 414.273.7206 or toll free 888.612.3500 or click the link to the left.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan






The award winning Madeleine L’Engle wrote at the end of her novel, "On a glorious star strewn night." On such a  night, First Stage Children’s Theater presented a spellbinding production of her story A Wrinkle in Time. John Glore’s 2010 adaptation of the classical tale retains the inventive language while inviting contemporary appeal to begin the new year. 

On this opening night, L'Engle’s story that was first published in 1962 captured the attention of 2012 audiences where Mark Metcalf made his directorial debut with the company. His dedicated eye for every detail complemented the production while his 40 years experience as an actor was memorably evident. 

Metcalf's thoughtful interpretation included Scenic Designer Sarah Hunt-Frank’s geodesic dome playground placed on center stage that when using strobe lighting would create the time travel, or tesseracts, which Danceworks’ Kelly Anderson masterfully choreographed. Sound Design by Seth Warren-Crow and Charles Sommers made the opening scene’s thunderstorm realiscally frightening while allowing the audience’s imagination to soar into those stars L’Engle dreamed about when she first envisioned this fantastic story. 

Other stars in the performance included the Young Performer’s Space Cast: Erin Stapleton (Meg Grace Murry), James Mullooly (Charles Wallace), and Calvin (Nathan Kluge). Each young actor professionally gave heart to heart emotion to L’Engle’s science fiction. Aaron Christensen, Matt Daniels and Erica Elam filled in the adult actors through their multiple roles. The adults were especially delightful in the parts of three “Stars” who supposedly take human form in the shape of Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who and help the courageous trio on their time travel to rescue Mr. Murry, who was lost during a tesseract. 

The outstanding Foley Artist Marcella Kearns directed all the mechanical sound effects for the production from a platform installed on stage with impeccable timing, similar to an old time radio performance. While essential to this very theatrical staging, the audience became so immersed in the performance they seldom nocticed Kearns, who disappeared into the background whlile still working on every scene. Until her exceptional voice came through an amazing incarnation of the creature who eventually saves Meg, Aunt Beast, thanks to Costume Designer Holly Payne and Puppet Designer Mark Hare. 

L’Engle’s timeless story weaves together her significant themes through contrasting dilemmas in these young adult lives: courage vs. fear, conformity vs. individuality, dark vs. light, hate vs. love.The production also speaks to the power of intelligence and imagination, which leads one to experience growth and understanding through the play's characters and for the audience. Qualities First Stage committed their orgnaization to 25 years ago. 

On the 50th anniversary of L'Engle’s book, time and space converge on the stage in this enthralling production to transport Meg Murry on a personal transformation into young womanhood. The must see First Stage production A Wrinkle in Time demonstrates that when all the stars in a performance align perfectly, unbelievable magic happens on stage and in the audience’s heart. They remember then “A book (or a concert, play, or painting), too, can be a star,” as L’Engle quoted. “A living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out to expanding the universe.” 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time on the Todd Wehr Stage at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through February 19. Call 414.273.3080 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan








Three events coincide at First Stage Children’s Theater this upcoming opening weekend: The 50th Anniversary of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, the company’s 25th anniversary season continuing in 2012 and actor Mark Metcalf’s directorial debut at the First Stage Todd Wehr Theater. L’Engle’s science fiction story imagined time travel through a ‘tesseract’ or a similar 'black hole' when the book was first published in 1962 to win a prestigious Newbery Medal. The classic production celebrates an eternally courageous tale for all those involved. 

L’Engle’s success came only after publishers rejected A Wrinkle in Time because of the overtly religious themes, unrealistic subject material and a feminine heroine. Just recently, two more black holes were discovered to fiurther confirm their existence while virtual travel appears more possible than ever using IPods and IPhones. Magical stories like Star Wars (Princess Leah) or the Harry Potter series (Hermione Granger) have given children contemporary feminine heroines linked to male compatriates within a strong trio of personalities that L’Engle initially described in her classic tale. 

Fifty years later, Meg Murry continues to  ‘tesseract’ to discover the whereabouts of her missing father under the direction of Mark Metcalf. The familiar Milwaukee actor began mulling his own interpretation for the First Stage production over a year ago, and how to incorporate the technology required for the time travel into the performances. The script uses a 2010 adaptation by John Glore where Metcalf further tweaked the play to make it a complete theatrical experience for the audience. 

Metcalf stages the story within the framework of Meg’s mind, her personal dream during a thunderstorm while the time travel still appears to invite reality for the audience. He finds the time to describe his feelings about L’Enlge’s timeless story and how he envisions the production that now incorporates additional adult actors and perfromers. Sitting in a rehearsal room at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center before tech week, Metcalf shares his thoughts on the directorial process. 

What inspires you about this directorial debut at First Stage? 

This is actually my second time directing, and I began at the Sunset Playhouse with Neil Simon’s Rumors. I’ve avoided directing most of my 40 years [in his illustrious career] because I’m too passionate. But this time I’m finding that First Stage is so supportive that I’m not having any trouble. I wanted to direct for First Stage because they’re such a supportive environment. 

What do you enjoy about the First Stage experience?

I’ve worked over 40 years and these young performers are the best I’ve worked serve the play, to serve the story. They’re on time, know their lines and are just great to work with. It’s made me want to direct more and I feel I’ve matured quite a bit since my 30’s. Before, I wasn’t grown up enough to be a director. Now I’ve raised a son, so I feel more confident about my adulthood. Keeping the child alive inside us also keeps us alive longer. 

What have you discovered since you began working on the play?

I’ve been working on this about a year and what I’ve been thinking about is that concept of returning to, stripping the story to just actors and their voices. It’s surprising in a book filled with special effects that I wanted to keep it stripped down. Take it back to its elements. The material draws you to fancy special effects. Part of the play can’t escape technology. You can embrace it but not let it swallow you, just like in real life. 

What surprised you about the adaptation?

It’s a contemporary experience for today’s children where Glore adapted and updated the play to 2010. Kelly Anderson from Danceworks will choreograph the piece [similar to Peter Pan and Wendy] so the tesseracts feel real for the audience. All the sound effects for this production will be made acoustically on stage [in front of the audience]. There’s an elaborate soundscape throughout the play, which will be further electrified as Meg travels farther from home [done by Marcella Kearns]. They [the electric sounds] overtake the play and audience the way Meg’s dream-like time travel overtakes her. 

What else can you tell us about the play?

It’s going to be really wonderful, a surprising theatrical experience that will be exciting. Meg begins to understand her own responsibility in the world and needs to learn to take care of herself, to become a woman. The play empowers young adults, especially women. It’s a coming of age story that adds the notion, the possibility that we’re not alone [on earth]. And we play up that romance between Calving and Meg that makes her realize it’s love that she possesses and needs to rescueher father. The dream goes to a nightmare and back to a dream. 

First Stage Children’s Theater opens A Wrinkle in Time on Friday, January 27 at 7:30 p.m. for the book's 50th Anniversary as part of their 25th Anniversary season. For information or tickets call: 414.267.2961 or click the link to the left.    by Peggy Sue Dunigan