First Stage Children’s Theater initiated their “First Steps” performance series for preschoolers several years ago with great success. In an effort to introduce tiny tots to the wonders only found at live theater, First Stage presented Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus this past weekend at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center’s (MYAC) small stage.

Mo Willems’ classic series (Inducted into Choice Book Awards Picture Book Hall of Fame) tells the tale of a childlike Pigeon who dreams of doing big things. Eric Nolan condenses several of Willems’ stories by adapting them into a play with a comfortable, one-hour performance time. During the productions at the MYAC the audience sits on grass covered bleachers that surround the stage on four sides, with soft, suitable floor seating for those who wish to get up close. Scenic Designer’s Brandon Kircham’s set transports everyone to a park on a spring day where Pigeon (Sebastian Palmer, Young Performer Hot Dog Cast) and Duckling (Anna B. Arenas. Hot Dog Cast) play. 

A cherry Bus Driver (Adult actor Chris Feiereisen) narrates the interactive production and invites the children to tell Pigeon why he can’t drive his bus, to loudly tell Pigeon “No.” Musical Director Jamie Johns accompanied the clever musical numbers for Susan Gonsiorowski’s choreography, which reinvents the French Can Can for one charming number, one of several. And while the lyrics might be what Pigeon claims to be “too fancy for a bird,” the adults should listen closely to the campy humor and truisms. 

Pigeon blends willful character into that of a dreamer who wishes to do amazing things yet is often frustrated by the limits placed on those dreams, whether driving a bus or owning a puppy. A catchy tune with the theme of responsibility reminds the audience that privileges require knowledge of the rules necessary to accomplish those dreams and the ability to keep children (and sometimes adults) safe and well.  The play gives children a peek at why parents may not be able to always say “yes’” to every question or request. 

Half the pleasure in attending the First Step series is watching the wide-eyed delight from the toddlers in the room. Two brothers, Jack and Nolan, smiled all morning, even when Jack ventured from his father’s lap and moved to a seat on the floor to take in all the action. Afterwards, Nolan decided he liked the big puppy in the play best while Jack claimed it was Pigeon who captured his attention. 

Take a small person to Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The joy in being at the theater, watching as these small persons squeal in laughter, begins to build art audiences for the future. The First Stage production speaks through song and dance why (as a friend, parent or grandparent) saying "no" is sometimes necessary. When the caring bus driver humorously explains the rules to Pigeon, the audience remembers that this is important to do for any loved one. Sometimes saying “no” eventually nudges that loved one to grow-up in unexpected ways so they can accomplish their special  dreams.  

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center through February 5. For tickets call: 1.414.267.2900 or click the link.      by Peggy Sue Dunigan









Good news for Junie B. fans. First Stage Children's Theater has extended the run of Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! through January 29. See the show again and enjoy "jingle bell season" with Junie B. 


At the age of six years old, surviving first grade can be traumatic for a child trying to find their way in the world. A world filled with candy and toys during the December holidays. First Stage Children’s Theater masters these growing pains with festive delight in their seasonal production Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!

Written by Allison Gregory and adapted from Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones series of children’s books, First Stage portrays the very bright, mischievous and outspoken Junie B. (Claire Zempel) narrating her experiences through the school’s holiday season. In her familiar Classroom One, Mr. Scary (Todd Denning) patiently handles May (Marika Marklin)) Herb (Jarred Manista), Sheldon (Jonathan Neustifter), Lucille (Madison Uebelacker) and Jose (Carlos Meyers), a cultural cross section of charming first graders equally adept at creating chaos. 

Circumstances continually go awry in Junie B.’s life, which includes her ongoing conflicts with May, the persistent tattletale. May never clicks with anyone in class and has no best friend, while Junie B. coaxes a smile from everyone with her enthusiastic but sometimes misguided spirit. Anyone who has spent time with a person five, six or seven years old (even 15) understands these difficult dilemmas and personalities at the holidays. Too many school sing alongs to stand in, too much trying to be good for Santa, too many toys to look at and wish for while adults teach peace and goodwill. 

Children eventually realize that along with spreading goodwill, giving can be as important as receiving. A lesson Junie B. tries to survive after a disastrous turn of phrase singing Jingle Bells on stage or at the Secret Santa party where everyone must keep his or her very own secret. Junie B. struggles with this big secret and her hidden wishes she sees on display at the school’s Secret Santa gift shop. After which, Junie B. surprises herself most of all.   

First Stage’s Bell Cast carries these humorous situations with entertaining aplomb that only a young performer can inhabit. Especially when Neustifter’s bespectacled Sheldon Potts, who wears a nifty bow tie, glibly offers words of innocent wisdom. Director Jeff Frank capably contains the first grade mayhem with precision while allowing the antics to flow on a brightly colored set created by Scenic and Lighting Designer Noele Stollmack. A crayon filled background and paper carpet marked by Junie B.’s candy canes and Christmas trees subtly illustrates the holiday season.  

Whether speaking, singing or dancing, Junie B. and her first grade friends discover the joy in these mistakes and mishaps that remembers the real reason for the holidays. One learns that new beginnings dawn, mistakes can be redone, and children’s hearts grow when allowed to flourish with compassion and love, whether six or sixty years of age. A grand goodwill follows the pursuit and passion of childhood curiosity, in all life offers, including the very funny, “only five-dollar gift,” a “Squeeze a Burp.” Spread the childlike wonder throughout the holidays. Celebrate this unbridled joy to the season with First Stage and the immensely engaging Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!  

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! through December 29. For information or tickets: 414.273.7206 or click the link to the left. by Peggy Sue Dunigan


PREVIEW: Will there B a Generous Junie B at First Stage this Christmas?

Junie B. finds a holiday home at First Stage Children’s Theater this Christmas. The company's upcoming production Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! was written by Allison Gregory from an adaptation by Barbara Park’s picture book opens on November 25. On a weekday afternoon, four young performers from the production’s double casting sat at table together before a rehearsal to talk about why they love Junie B. and These bright and dedicated four young girls play the first grade main characters Junie B. and her friend May. Demanding performances they have been anticipating all fall.  

The time has finally arrived with opening night only ten days away, the costumes, set and lighting being finalized as they talk. A set filled with drawings from Junie B’s imagination with a large, piece of curled paper for the stage floor. While waiting for their after school rehearsal, Claire Zempel and Marika Marklin (Bell Cast) together with Mallorey Wallace and Gaby Musickant (Jingle Cast) enthusiastically discussed their characters, the play and how Junie B. influenced their actions this coming Christmas season.

When the discussion began, all these young girls (ages 10-12) immediately claimed Junie B was a strong, determined girl who just wants to have fun, and seems to be always breaking the rules without any bad intentions.” Claire added that, “She is always getting into trouble because she’s trying to find her place in the world. Both Junie B. and May are trying to find their place in the world.”

Mallorey thought, “That May finds her place in the world by following the rules. She wants people to like her because she follows the rules.” And then continues when explaining, “But she’s always mad at Junie B. who’s always in trouble and people like her anyway.” 

First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank works as Director for this production. He has each young performer write notes in front of all their dialogue why their character would say what she’s saying and what she feels when she’s saying these particular lines. The young performers explained this technique allowed them to understand Junie B. and May. So they will know how their character will act and how to feel what they’re saying. Gaby mentioned, “We know we need to get the audience committed to the show. So that the audience loves Junie B. even though she breaks the rules.”

Committing the audience to the main character is essential in any performance. In this Junie B play, the productions scenes reveal Junie B.’s first grade world, most of the action surrounding the time between Halloween and Christmas. When their first grade class plans a Secret Santa gift exchange in December, every student in class is reminded to be generous, and think about what peace and goodwill means to them. May keeps reminding the “troublesome” Junie B. to think of others at Christmas, while Junie B. wishes for more of her very own Christmas gifts. The two constantly get in each other’s way and collide in class, as Gaby says, “Like puzzle pieces that refuse to fit together.” 

The young performers echoed that acting in the First Stage production impacted what they would do for Christmas this year. Marika said that the play seems to, “Talk a lot about peace and good will. Christmas is giving and good will, so you might want to give to others.” 

The other three agreed and chatted about how the play made a difference for their holiday season. That acting in the play was a good way to think about the meaning to Christmas. Mallorey said Junie B. made her think and noted, “My family is working with Operation Shoebox. You try and put as much in a shoe box for a specific age and gender and then send it off for Christmas.” 

Claire explained, “I’m giving up half my Christmas presents to buy things for the Christmas giving tree at school, warm mitten and hats. Because the play made me think about how I could be more generous.” 

Gaby decided, “That the plays opens you up to other people. So my family might volunteer at a shelter. Spreading happiness, peace and good will.”  

Can Junie B. find a way to be generous at the First Stage production?  Perhaps Gaby summed it up best when she ended these conversations by saying, “The friends, like puzzle pieces are conflicting at the beginning of the play. But at the end, it all fits together perfectly and makes a beautiful picture.” 

First Stage Chiledren’s Theater presents Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! on November 25 through December 24. For tickets or more information call:414.267.2930 or 414.267.2930. by Peggy Sue Dunigan







First Stage Children’s Theater fulfilled a dream on Friday night. The world premiere of Y York’s Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly was finally produced on one very special set imagined by Scenic Designer Collette Pollard. The beuatifully crafted play performed in the Todd Wehr Theater returns the audience to 1964, at the crest of the civil rights movement, and to the comfortable home of nine-year old Tonia Bridge.

Tonia’s life was “inspired” by Milwaukee collage artist Della Wells, an African American child who grew up with a family that had “good days and bad days, good moods and bad moods.” She never knew what she would be facing from hour to hour. Wells’ mother suffered from mental illness and her father lived with disappointment, his dreams of attending college dashed early in life.   

This young Tonia (Ashley Nord) finds herself in between her parents, Alma (Tiffany Yvonne Cox) and Leon (Chauncy Thomas), trying desperately to cope with their ever changing emotions and expectations to conform. She hopes to please each one while staying true to the girl she knows hides inside. A girl Tonia says, “Who in her dreams has wings and she can fly.” 

York delivers these uncomfortable subjects in cicumstances or dialogue displaying empathy, honesty, humor, imagination and intelligence using only five characters that convey depth and sincerity. A chicken named Lassie finds a place here, too.  While Tonia attempts to escape the chaos at home, she has her Aunt Fanny (Chinai J. Hardy) and school friend, Theo (Matthew Wade) to offer her help.   

Actual nine-year old actor Nord spends almost every minute on stage, several times appearing all-alone while she talks to her two dolls as if they were friends, one black and one white. In these moments, Tonia’s day dreams help her survive and bring order to the turbulence in her life. Nord’s exceptional theatrical presence illuminates Tonia for the audience, neither too sweet nor sassy. Her character grows to connect with Wade’s Theo as these two young actors provide the centerpiece to the production where each child struggles to find comfort and peace in their own life. 

York’s script under Mark Lutwak’s direction becomes an exceptional, multi-layered performance collage, similar to Della Wells’ art. She adeptly pieces together in the play situations revealing the power of art, education, family, friendship, race, and survival. The dramatic personal conflict Tonia experiences transforms her life and the audience, just as it did for Wells, which reaches far beyond age, gender or skin color. York creates a marvelous scenario for overcoming adversity while also discovering one’s unique soul.   

The production’s ending 'billows' with surprising color and joy, reflected in Tonia’s costume and a finished collage made throughout the play that is as Tonia says, “accurate, factual, beautiful and scientific.”  Because of the play’s very limited run, take the opportunity to see First Stage's world premiere in the next few weeks. Only a dedicated collaboration by the cast, crew, Artistic Director Jeff Frank and Managing Director Rob Goodman along with Wells, York and Lutwak over numerous years could create this sensitive new work that presents the very best in children’s theater. While the audience will soar on the wings of Della and Tonia, there will never be anyone telling this company as York writes, “That not one time does it ever say don’t fly in your dreams.” 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents award winning playwright Y York’s Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly with an alternating youth cast through November 13, although the performance dates are very limited. The play was read in Washington, D.C at the Kennedy Center for New Vision/New Voices working forum and premiered in Milwaukee at First Stage Children’s Theater October 28. For information or tickets: 414.273.7206 or click the link to the left.                                                                                        By Peggy Sue Dunigan 









Storytelling moves front and center when First Stage Children’s Theater plans an annual production from their new initiative titled the “Wisconsin Series." The company’s Wisconsin Series intends to incorporate storytelling gleaned from the state’s diverse history to create drama that breathes life into Wisconsin's rich cultural diversity with the series very first play planned to premiere on October 28. In this highly anticipated initial play, First Stage presents a story inspired by the childhood of Milwaukee collage artist, an African American woman, Della Wells.

The world premiere for the inaugural Wisconsin Series production Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly was written by the celebrated playwright Y York, whose work has garnerd accolades across the country. Y York flew to Milwaukee this week to continue the playmaking process and any finishing touches for the production with her husband and the First Stage play’s director, Mark Lutwak. Fresh from an intense morning’s rehearsal with the three adult actors and several young performers cast for the production, York chatted when sitting at a cozy table in Milwaukee's Plaza Hotel. She animatedly discussed the process behind writing Della Wells’ story, Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly and why writing adult and children’s plays over the past several decades, in her words, explains that for this prolific plawright “I’ve essentially lived in my creative heart for years.”

How did “Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly” come to be written?

Three years ago in November they brought me here [to Milwaukee] to meet Della Wells. Not to get to know Della, but get to know her life. We had a magnificent time for two days. I went to her home that was stacked with works of art. We were sitting there and working by this, being inspired, by this art. And then sometimes over the next two months, I would call Della and we’d talk because things that seem amazing and important to me [over those two days] may be different for her. The play's written in 1964…we are a product of our time. There’s a tremendous conflict and contradictory needs in the play, and no bad guys. Della finds everyone completely blameless for her childhood… Tonia [the main character who represents Della] and her art are central to the conflicts in play…It speaks to what does it mean to be a black American in the 19th century? 

Then you begin writing, and what events happen next in the playwriting process?

After you write [a draft], the workshopping begins. Rob Goodman [FS Managing Director] flew to Cincinnati to have a reading around my dining room table with real actors. Then we discuss language and situations and if they’re real and work in the story. We did about three of these readings, and then the grand workshop for the Kennedy Center [in Washington, D.C.] last May [2010]. Then we workshopped the play here this past May, with six of the seven performers, so they could learn their lines without it interfering with school, and began rehearsing October 4. There are times in the play when Tonia [a young performer] is on stage all alone. Even today we were working on transitions [events between actions or scenes] and decided that there will be no stagehands to change the scenes. The characters [the performers] will do it themselves on stage. It’s a work still in process, and I will probably add some postperformance changes.  

It’s definitely a complex process to write a play. What is the more fictional aspect to the play that is different from Della’s life?

The fiction comes through because the character in the play [Tonia] makes art as a child. Della began creating her art as an older adult. The fiction comes through because it’s about a child making sense of her world through art, bringing order into the chaos of her life...Lived with a mother suffering mental illness and a father who is disappointed in his own life because of the time they live in. Two parents that in different ways are screaming at you to conform and be safe. For Della, for Tonia, the solution takes a step towards salvation. That she allows herself to express her artistic soul. She has incredible success [in her life] by allowing her spirit to soar. A collage evolves over the course of the play and from these shifting sands we are trying to build this satisfying, fun piece of drama. 

Any last thoughts you would like to mention before the play opens this weekend?

I really think this story is getting told….the whole process has been unique and quite theatrical. I would really like these young performers to have a thrill, to see how they thrill the audience with this story. I would love to see a diverse audience in age and race. The response and impact is best when kids are there with their families. The designers are spectacular and really impacted by Della Wells. The end of the play is very special. It’s about a sense and ability that needs to be shared… Sharing these ideas through the magic power of storytelling.          by Peggy Sue Dunigan                   

The mutli award winning playwright Y York opened another world premiere play last month at Main Street Theater in Houston, Texas titled Woof. A script that she describes as reflecting America, marriage, race and can you be a daddy and a professional football player? She said the play answers that question with no. York is also working on two commissions as she speaks, in draft stage, for Seattle Children’s Theatre and Cincinnati’s The People’s Light and Theatre Company. She will attend the opening night production in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, October 28 at 7:00 p.m. For tickets to the limited run call 414.273.7206 or click the link to the left.                                                By Peggy Sue Dunigan