Entries in First Stage Children's Theater (21)


Beauty of the Arts Beckon in Young Company’s Gathering Blue

Acclaimed children’s author Lois Lowry sets her book Gathering Blue, and the play adapted by Eric Coble “in and around a village.” The time frame she chooses: “Soon.” Do Lowry’s post apocalyptic stories foretell the near future?

First Stage Children’s Theater tackles Lowry's Gathering Blue in their premiere collaboration with Marquette University’s Theater Department at the Helfaer Theatre when showcasing their Young Company performers with poignant results. The play from her popular trilogy opened Friday under Todd Denning’s direction and showcases the select Young Company in their first, full stage production.

Assistant Artistic Director John Maclay heads Young Company, the college level actor training program geared for the 15 to 18 year olds that has garnered numerous awards in national competitions. In this production, Christine Pollnow, Erin Stapleton and Jordan Horne, all Young Company members, were cast as the main characters: weaver of threads, Kira, and carver of wood, Thomas. Orphans that invest valuable gifts to create beauty from ordinary materials in a society that might have been destroyed by a nuclear war, burned into living in this primitive setting.

Scenic Designer Stephen Hudson-Mariet (Chair of Performing Arts at Marquette) envisioned this through his bi-level stage where banners of golden cloth, similar to woven wild silk, were dropped from the ceiling to frame rustic wood furniture. A lush wooden flower box holds all the herbs that Kira plants to make her dyes that color the threads. She must weave these threads to repair an important robe that recalls the history of the world for the village.

In Lowry’s story, a celebration every year marks the villagers retelling their civilization’s history, one where bigger cities were built, with bigger destructions that followed.  A song, a staff and an embellished robe recall this for the village, all produced by artists, “the people who do and make things beautiful. “

The weaver of threads Kira is an artist who was born with a physical limitation, a twisted leg, and then survived the culture’s laws that anyone born imperfect should be left to die at birth. Saved by her powerful father at the time, he was then killed, and Kira learned her weaving skills, gifts passed to her from her mother. Kira even realizes, “Those who first appear imperfect are stronger and have valuable gifts to contribute to the village, sometimes more than those that are perfect.”

Friday night the Stitcher’s Cast performed with Erin Stapleton playing Kira with determination and grit that Lowry would have applauded. Jordan Horne’s Thomas kindly befriends Kira as the carver. Young Performer Josh MacCudden embodies a small boy Matt, another child without a father, who “carries” Kira’s supplies, protects her on her journeys to learn the secrets of the colors from the crone Annabella (Marquette Student Hannah Klapperich-Mueller, and steals some scenes with his impish charm. As Jo, the small future singer Kira befriends, Young Performer Claire Holtebeck captures a frightened child, scared without her mother.

In the production, the title Gathering Blue represents the very difficult task of producing the color indigo---the infinite color of sea and sky---a color that Lowry also chooses to represent freedom. Something as artists, Kira, Thomas and Jo hope to gather for themselves and the villagers in need of hope. Matt eventually travels a long, dangerous distance to find the herb that produces blue for Kira’s weaving, his special gift to her, in a tale that cherishes friendship.  

Perhaps more importantly, First Stage illustrates the beauty of the arts by staging this production, their students’ expanding talents, and then through Lowry’s play depiciting artists that reflect every genre. Essential arts that encourage, nurture and support any society. Otherwise the possibility exists that culture will disintegrate into Lowry’s very primal based, wild world, a world rejecting the creative potential of the arts. Do support First Stage, their Young Company and Marquette University’s Theater program, a new generation working to preserve the arts, and see this evocative production before Lowry’s fictional vision appears in reality sooner than one imagines.

First Stage Children’s Theater in partnership with Oregon Children's Theatre presents a limited production of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue at Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre through May 19. Please call for performance times at 414.267.2961 to reserve the $10.00 general admission seating tickets by clicking the First Stage link to the left, or find them in the previous preview of Gathering Blue on this same page.            by Peggy Sue Dunigan   


Preview: First Stage’s Young Company Graduates To Full Staged Production

Young Company at First Stage Children’s Theater begins a new tradition. Instead of producing their work at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, the Young Company graduates to a fully staged, complete with every costume, prop and scenery in place, to attract a wider audience for their professional efforts. 

This begins with the world premiere of an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue on May 10 at the Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre, courtesy of the award winning First Stage Young Company. Eric Cole’s adaptation of Gathering Blue, the second in a trilogy of Lowry’s post apocalyptic novels, happens when Young Company collaborates with the University’s Theater Department, although the script was developed in partnership with Oregon Children’s Theatre.

By chance or choice, the two Young Company actors Christine Pollnow and Erin Stapleton will also be graduating from high school and their time at First Stage Theater Academy. Gathering Blue will be their final performances before heading to college in the fall.

Gathering Blue casts Pollnow and Stapleton as the main character in the drama, Kira, a teenager who has a visible physical limitation, a person considered unworthy in Lowry's post apocalyptic society. However, Kira’s mother was an accomplished weaver and passed this gift to her daughter before she died. A significant gift where Kira’s talent becomes more valuable to the primitive culture where she lives, despite her physical imperfections. In an interview with Polllnow, the high school senior said Lowry’s play addresses, “That a person can be stronger because of a limitation than others who are considered physically perfect.”

Gathering Blue requires Pollnow to walk with a twisted leg, supposedly a limitation her character was born with. She also discovered when rehearshing that this physical characteristic helped considerably in “getting into Kira’s personality much earlier because this usually happens when you step into the costumes and then are completely immersed in the character.” 

For Pollnow, to christen the first, fully staged Young Company production was definately worth waiting for, and also incorporates a First Stage outreach to capture teenage audiences. When a teen sees someone on stage, near their age, that individual can be challenged to embrace other new accomplishments or experiences.  At 19, Pollnow sets an inspiring example because after graduation she plans to attend New York University this fall to major in Theater. The other actor alternating as Kira and a friend of Pollnow, Stapleton, will also be majoring in Theater at Webster College.

Another high school senior. Jordan Horne. was cast as Thomas in the play, a talented carver who befriends Kira. While he connects with Kira as one more orphan in the village, Thomas is expected to restore several lost arts to the village's special celebrations. Horne came away with this perspective on the play that he chatted about when sitting at the MYAC while he related, “The arts have fallen by the wayside in Lowry's play, in this setting, because the village fights for food, their survival.”

Horne has performed with First Stage in the Young Company’s Cymbelline, Tom Sawyer, The Thief Lord, and Peter Pan. He emphasized how Lowry’s story “glorifies the arts” in this desperately grim culture. The carver, singer and weaver in her story represent all the arts and eventually become valuable to the villagers. Arts that need to flourish and provide soul sustenance similar to the mere necessities in any time period. Horne will also be graduating to the Theater program at Carthage College, ready to grow into the next phase of his life. He explains, “I think of leaving First Stage similar to any actor who also graduates from role to role.”

Pollnow then related that Lowry’s production will be a great last performance, with so many senior Young Company members in the show: ten young company members, three young performers and five Marquette colleges students, two who are First Stage Theater Academy alums. After 25 years, First Stage tries to keep in touch with their many graduates to note what they have accomplished after leaving, whether working full time in some aspect of theater or in another profession. 

Whatever life course First Stage Theater Academy graduates choose, the young adults take the principles they learned at the First Stage Academy to heart. As the Young Company expands to more full stage productions, this year with Gathering Blue and in the 2013-2014 season with Romeo and Juliet, students following behind Horne, Pollnow and Stapleton will be further inspired. Pollnow expresses these exact sentiments where she believes playing Kira has been a great role model for her, and she hopes for the audiences, when she says: “Kira's not one to take no for an answer, she keeps searching to make something right…and is willing to make a difference in the world.”

First Stage Children’s Theater presents a limited run of Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue at Marquette University’s Helfaer Theatre, 525 North 13th Street, and opens on Friday, May 10, 7:00 p.m. The production recommends viewing for those 12 years and older. General Admission seating is $10, with other performances at Saturday, May 11, 7:00 p.m., Sunday, May 12, 3:30 p.m., May 17 & 18, 7:00 p..m. and a final performance on May 19, 3:30 p.m.. First Stage plans a breakfast with author Lois Lowry on May 19, and for tickets or information please call 414.267.2961 or click the link to the left.                     by Peggy Sue Dunigan



PREVIEW: First Stage Children’s Theater Believes in “Jackie’s Nine”

What exactly is "Jackie’s Nine?" Could this be one of  baseball star Jackie Robinson’s greatest nine inning games? First Stage Children’s Theater looks ahead to summer’s baseball season and the life of Hall of Fame player Jackie Robinson in their final selection at the Todd Wehr Theater Jackie and Me. The April 12 opening of the production’s run coincides with the first weeks of America’s 2013 baseball season and the film debut of 42, a biography named after Jackie Robinson’s iconic number stitched on his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. To finish this triple hit, April 15 was officially named Jackie Robinson day.

As the first Negro, or African American professional baseball player, Jackie embodied the personal character and athletic skills to become this groundbreaking figure who broke color barriers in professional sports. Robinson paved the way for others including Hank Aaron and Rickie Weeks. Perhaps more than his physical prowess, Robinson lived by what his daughter Sharon wrote about in her book “Jackie’s Nine:” citizenship. commitment, courage, determination, excellence, integrity, justice, persistence and teamwork. 

First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank believes that in Jackie and Me the main character Joey Stoshack travels back in time with the help of a baseball card to learn about how Robinson faced the challenges in his life, breaking into major league baseball and white culture with incredible integrity. Joey encounters his own struggles as a white boy dealing with anger, a temper and family insecurity. Meeting Robinson in his own time frame challenges Joey to choose, to choose and live according to Jackie’s nine principles. However, when Jackie travels back into time, Joey appears as a young  black boy to every one who sees him instead of the while, Polish American he is. 

This gives Joey unique insight into Robinson’s life and professional sports on multiple levels, A story that Frank admits, “ shows the best and worst of American life, “ and carries the audience on the same journey, also one of “the immense possibilities in any one life and that dreams do come true.” Frank explains the play speaks to several big league character issues and says, “We all need to look inside and find inner strength to face challenges, now and in the future.” 

In the production Jackie and Me, Joey and Jackie eventually discover a way to make a difference in their respective lives. Frank adds, “While Jackie played a game, an American game, he became a powerful example, and a conduit for change.” Frank continues, “We look back so we can look forward, and see what needs to be done yet.” 

These principles speak to First Stage’s new 2013-2014 season recently announced with the theme “Discover.” In an effort to continually challenge audiences and actors while pushing theatrical boundaries, the company will feature Shrek, The Musical, a theater for young audiences adaptation from the Broadway production.  A reprise of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever followed by a tenth anniversary production of James DeVita’s A Midnight Cry will include selections by Sheri Williams Parnell in the third play from the company's Wisconsin series.  

Afterwards several world premieres appear, a theatrical treat fast becoming a hallmark of First Stage. One world premiere features Wisconsin’s own John Maclay, Lee Becker and James Valcq as composers and writers for the musical Anatole, based on the beloved children’s classic. Another premiere ends the season for mystery fans with the classic tales of Carolyn Keene’s female sleuth in Nancy Drew and the Biggest Case Ever, written by First Stage artistic staff Jeff Frank and John Maclay combined with a score by Milwaukee’s Willy Porter.

And in between, the First Step series features A Cat in the Hat, a production for ages 8 and up at Todd Wehr titled Crash, a zombie holiday production for teenagers, Maul of the Dead, and a collaboration with the Young Company in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. With this exciting line up, First Stage also embodies Jackie’s nine, a proverbial home run for the season that leads into live theatre performances transcending age classification and then transforming lives. 

Everyone needs adventures to discover, ones with heroes and First Stage addresses these concerns for all those over the age of three, boys and girls, no matter what their ethnicity. Jackie and Me is only the current production that will inspire athletes of either gender with these compelling experiences featuring John Brotherhood and Seth Horne, the young performers who play Joey. Chauncy Thomas, last seen in Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly, inhabits Jackie Robinson for a story that requires the young performers to be on stage almost the entire play, often narrating the story while Jackie mentors the young Joey.  

In his career, Jackie embraced baseball and brave nobility, a true sense of character with integrity to transform a country’s thinking on integrating professional sports. Frank reiterates First Stage strives to accomplish this with each production, in this current season and in 2013-2014, with theater as magical to compete with any sport. He concludes when he says, “The arts have the power to change people, so they think more deeply, so a person can change their perspective and ultimately their actions.” 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Jackie and Me at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in sponsorship with the Brewer Community Foundation. April 12 through May 5. Sharon Robinson’s Book “Jackie’s Nine” will be on sale in the theater lobby. Help First Stage have a Grand Slam year and subscribe with season tickets for 2013-2014, which may be purchased at a discount through June 30. For tickets or information please call 414.273.7206 or click the First Stage link to the left.       by Peggy Sue Dunigan




In one very “pinktastic” production, First Stage Children’s Theater opened Pinkalicious the Musical in the Todd Wehr Theater this February. Crowds of children, including many little girls crowned with glittering tiaras and waving silver wands, smiled every moment sitting in their seats when Pinkalicious and Peter Pinkerton’s world unfolded on Scenic Designer Jason Coale’s playful sets.

Music by John Gregor combined with a book and lyrics written by the sister duo of Elizabeth and Victoria Kann feature a cadre of clever songs that will charm audiences of any ages while Jessica Redish's choreography keeps the show on its toes. Moving through the set’s background on ballet slippers, an ensemble of dancing cupcakes clad in Alison Siple’s fanciful costumes are worthy of any girl’s dreams. Which includes the yards of tulle in Mrs. Pinkerton’s ball gown for the musical’s finale. All the clothing, often covered in sparkles, fashionably dresses the cast in fairy tale couture.

The “Pinktastic” cast performed on Saturday afternoon, led by a sparkling Mallorey Wallace exuding Pinkalicious personality while dancing and swooning in one of her musical numbers “When Dreams Come True.” Cole Winston gives her brother Peter everything he has singing “I Got the Pink Blues,” when he laments that his wishes are often ignored in the Pinkerton family because Pinkalicious steals all the attention, including the fact he is not allowed to wear the color pink.  

Adult cast member Karen Estrada literally tap dances with energetic delight in her cameo role as the pediatrician Dr. Wink, who diagnoses Pinkalicious with acute pinkatitis when she eats too much pink hued food. Although Niffer Clarke and Joe Fransee provide plenty of Pinkerton family shenanigans as the distraught parents teaching their pink tinted daughter to eat more green foods for “antioxidant” protection. When the ultimate crisis arrives, Peter actually saves the day when his sister's eyes see everything only colored pink and the siblings need to work together to cure the imaginary disease. Under Director John Maclay's pitch perfect direction, the musical enchants the audience while staying true to the more subtle story lines. 

Perhaps Pinkalicious (and the inventive Kann sisters) borrowed some thoughts from the classic Audrey Hepburn’s elegant fashion repetoire when the iconic actress said: “I believe in pink…I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong…I believe in miracles.” Whether one agrees with Hepburn and enjoys any shade of pink such as confetti, flamingo, jellybean, geranium, sunset or valentine pink, Pinkalicious and Peter Pinkerton come to life through this rose colored production. They each discover the real value to eating and enjoying the delicious color pink (in moderation, of course): Pink is the color of laughter and love when performed to magical perfection at First Stage. Take a seat before the show sells out and discover along with the Pinkerton family how fashionable and fun learning to love pink might be.

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Pinkalicious the Musical in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Art through March 27. A Pink Cupcake Pairing, two miniature cupcakes for snacking on, sponsored by the Milwaukee Cupcake Company can be purchased in the theater lobby for a minimum donation of $5.00 to benefit First Stage Children Theater programming. For information or tickets, please call 414.273.7208 or click the First Stage link to the left.              by Peggy Sue Dunigan




What do they call a fascination with all things pink and Pinkalicious Pinkerton?: A pinkalicious phenomenon. The little girl named Pinkalicious loves the color pink along with her younger brother Peter Pinkerton.  Both children were a figment of Victoria Kann’s imagination, the author who developed the New York Times best selling picture book series together with her sister and pediatrician Elizabeth Kann. The sisters also co-wrote the Broadway show, Pinkalicious The Musical. that charmed audiences of all ages. On February 22, a children’s versio titled Pinkalicious The Musical arrives at First Stage Children’s Theater to bring the extravagantly sweet tale to life in Milwaukee.

Director for the First Stage musical John Maclay enthusiastically chatted about the Pinkalicious phenomenon for the contemporary younger set. Kann’s book series explores the color world through all the senses with touches of exaggerated scenery, sparkling magic and fantastical storytelling. Which Maclay describes as a delicious opportunity to stage a musical on a big, bold set where the characters suspend reality and can be colored, of course, in pink. “Her brother Peter also likes pink, “ Maclay explained,  “Which his father tells him is an absolute no for boys.”

“The stage story revolves around this close brother and sister relationship between Pinkalicious and Peter,” Maclay commented. “The storytelling is then really driven by the music. There are at least a dozen musical numbers, so the whole show moves very quickly.” Maclay adds Milwaukee’s Jamie Johns directs the score, while Chicago’s Jessica Redish choreographed the numbers, which includes a frosting covered chorus line of dancing cupcakes.

Does the Pinkalicious production go slightly over the top? Maclay resoundingly answers yes, and all with great fun because the rules of reality rarely apply in this show. Newcomer Jason Coale needed to find that hyperrealism in a set designed with a pink doily backdrop accented by purple and green floors. Costume Designer Alison Siple discovered how to make the main character turn completely pink when she gorges on cupcakes—and keeps on eating them even when her doctor tells her no, she has pinkatitus! And so mounds of pink, whether bubble gum pink, cotton candy pink or creamy frosting pink hues will cover the stage.

While solving this problem of eating too many pink cupcakes and enjoying too much pink, Pinkalicious and Peter learn a child can like any color they please, with some necessary moderation. Pink is after all just a color and anyone can like a color. And any child can understand as the Pinkertons do and Maclay says, “To be the best version of who they really are.”

With these themes underscoring the brilliantly colored scenes, First Stage’s Pinkalicious sings a story for every boy or girl, every family whose child might wish to overindulge or choose to be slightly unique. A  musical production for those who approve only of having delightful fun with lyrics, dance and color, especially pink, or enjoying cupcakes that will be sold during the intermissions at the performances. Maclay adds that tickets were selling fast because the popular books really have become a phenomenon. And to close the discussion on the “pink” phenomenon, Maclay finishes the conversation with this worthy comment: “I was proud to direct a play my seven year old son thinks is really funny.”

First Stage Children's Theater present Pinkaliscious The Musical in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts from February 22 through March 27. For information or tickets, please call 414.273.7206  or click the First Stage link to the left.              by Peggy Sue Dunigan