Entries in Jeff Frank (12)


COMMENTARY: First Stage Reprises A Midnight Cry for Wisconsin Series

The initial conception of the First Stage Wisconsin Series began about 15 years ago, when Artistic Director Jeff Frank commissioned James DaVita to write a story about Caroline Quarlls-Watkins, One of the first slaves to escape though the underground railroad in 1842 Wisconsin, DeVIta delivered her story as this unfolded in A Midnight Cry and becomes inspiration for all those seeking freedom from oppression in a contemporary context, a story worth reprising.

During the commissioning and planning of the first 2003 production, “the genesis of the significant Wisconsin Series began” Frank explains. He enjoyed the process of creating new theater for young audiences so thoroughly, and after the premiere, A Midnight Cry completed a national tour with the Dallas Children’s Theater through the play’s distribution with Dramatists Publicists. However, revisiting A Midnight Cry a second time made Frank think, “What a testament to how good a play Jimmy wrote.”

As the third edition in the First Stage Wisconsin Series, these new works are commissioned to combine the culture, drama and history of an event or person unique to the state. The series also presented the World Premiere of Y York’s adaptation of artist Della Well’s childhood in Don’t Tell Me i Can’t Fly, which garnered Distinguished Play Recognition from the American Alliance of Theater Education. Next year, the series continues with a play by Alvaro Sarr Rios, who adapted Lois Ehlert’s successful Mole Hill Stories, in a play titled Luchadora and reflects the state’s Latino culture.

In each of these plays from the Wisconsin series, a difficult topic might be explored or examined through a youthful perspective. In regards to A Midnight Cry, a story about slavery and the undue suffering this caused, Frank admits he was asked: Why produce a play (or plays) about such a painful time in the state’s or a country’s, history?

“This play [and in general, the Wisconsin Series], speaks to the perseverance of the human spirit,” Franks answers with confidence.  “What do you do when you need to leave your loved ones behind? You carry their strength with you so you can conquer the obstacles ahead, in front of you.”

Lida is the young girl in the play who escapes to the North for freedom. In the powerful script before she must leave, her father attempts to encourage her before her frightening and solitary journey ahead. “When you feel alone, we’re right here,” her father says as he pats Lida's heart before she suddenly disappears on her journey for freedom through the Underground Railroad.  

To develop the marvelous, evocative tenor in the plays, an element of music connects the audience to the specific cultural community presented on stage. In this play, Music Director Sheri Williams Pannell and Percussion Director Jahmés Tony Finlayson worked with musicians to tweak the original 2003 performances  with original songs from the African American spiritual tradition. “Music,” Frank explains, “Underscores the production and we usually have little more than 90 minutes, so the score, the music helps the audience move emotionally through the play."

For the audience who will be attending A Midnight Cry for the first time, Frank describes how very realistically the play documents how slaves were treated. “A heart wrenching production,” he says, “To honor Caroline and the other nameless, faceless people who went through those experiences….palpably real.”

To begin 2013, A Midnight Cry returns to First Stage in the Todd Wehr Theater and runs through February 9. In several talkbacks during the opening week, Kimberly Simmons, the great, great, great granddaughter of Caroline Quarlls-Watkins will be here to illuminate and give her insight on this dangerous and yet, as she says, shining moment of history, when people worked together for the slaves who were called the freedom seekers. Where the young girl Lida learns in her perilous journey that, as Frank puts it, “Some people will close a fist, others with push her away, or a very few will open a hand.”

If one missed this miraculous play remembering the pain and joys on the road to freedom, the time is now to journey to First Stage with Lida and the company. Discover these complex, rich new works being commissioned and reflecting Wisconsin history, and have been adding to the repertoire of Theater for Young Audiences, a crucial component to culture and our society. Why do these plays become significant as live theater? Frank offers two closing comments: “To read about these happenings is one thing, to see and hear the sounds makes the experiences very real to the audiences.”

If someone needs any more inspiration to see the acclaimed A Midnight Cry, Frank praises this particular production when he adds, “These actors and musicians are incredible. We have an outstanding cast that bonded over the importance and relevance of the play that still rings with truth.”

First Stage presents A Midnight Cry by Wisconsin playwright James DeVita at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through February 9. For further information or tickets, please click the First Stage 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




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