Entries in Marcus Center for the Performing Arts (9)


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



Legacy of Jackie Robinson Hits Home at First Stage

Red, white and blue buntings hang from the balcony at the Todd Wehr Theater. The decorations proudly celebrate the First Stage Children’s Theater production of Jackie and Me, an all American story retelling how Jackie Robinson forever changed professional major league baseball by becoming the first African American on the field when he primarily played second base.

The First Stage production focuses on character and story instead of technical effects that splendidly affirms Robinson’s legacy. Only one wide screen is used to help project images of scenery and different places throughout the performance in a subtle way. Steven Dietz adapted Dan Gutzman’s tale about a young baseball fan, Joey Stoshach who travels back in time with the help of a Jackie Robinson Bond bread card.

Joey travels back to meet Jackie Robinson when he does a report for his school, and learns he and Jackie have tempers that need to be controlled before someone gets hurt. When Jackie is hired by Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey to play in the majors against every odd that he will last, Jackie tells Joey, “Put your temper into playing the game. How are we going to fight? We put our fighting into the game.”

As Joey learns, Jackie fought unconscionable racism when he began to play, segregation the norm on and off the playing field, where even hotels refused to take him with the rest of the team. Front doors were closed while Robinson went through the back way.  Robinson counteracted this blatant racism with strong courage, perseverance and willpower---and his incredible athletic prowess. 

The production recalls Robinson’s amazing  Baseball statistics through the story, for one when he became Rookie of the Year in 1947, primarily told through Joey’s voice when he narrates his time travel journey while he grows in understanding to the racial prejudice at the time. When Joey goes back to 1947, he is seen as a young African American boy. One of the most poignant scenes in the play happens when Joey tries to drink from a “Whites Only” water fountain. A woman spits at him, and her male companion harasses Joey, and he unfortunately learns when hate can be seen in another human being’s eyes.

Chauncy Thomas recreates the Jackie Robinson persona with fierce and gentlemanly elegance, even when running bases in slow motion. And he’s a great match with Tiffany Yvonne Cox playing his wife Rae who supported him even though fears for their lives, death threats, accompany Robinson when he takes the field. On Saturday, the Dodgers Young Performers cast Seth Horne as a Joey with believability in a role that requires him to be on stage for the entire performance. Georgina Mckee underplays Joey’s mom with reserved emotion, trying to help Joey calm his own anger.

Even when the audience knows the outcome of how an exceptional Robinson was voted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame and transformed the faces of the Major Leagues, experiencing this live on stage makes confronting Robinson’s horrific challenges more powerful. A great story for “boys’” of any age or the girls sitting in the last row of the theatre who played softball, equally excited about the Jackie and Me production.

Baseball, like life itself, is a day to day game worth playing. Sometimes one strikes out and at others, hits a home run where dreams do come true, as they did for Jackie because of his commitment and dedication. As baseball season returns to the stadiums around the country for another year, commit to seeing this beautifully conceived First Stage Jackie and Me portraying the legacy of an American hero, Jackie Robinson. Remember what is really important in life, other than double hits and grand slams, to preserve the brother/sisterhood of humanity, each individual's unique dignity. Then trust as Robinson ultimately expressed, in spite of what people said or did to him only because of his skin color, “I believe in the human race.”

First Stage Children's Theater presents Jackie and Me at the Todd Wehr Theatre in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through May 5. Season subscriptions are on sale for the 2013-2014 season "Discover, Imagine, Explore," or sign up for First Stage's Summer Theater Academy beginning June 17. For information or tickets, please call 414.273.3800 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




In the first few minutes of the dark, opening scenes of First Stage Children’s Theater second Wisconsin Series production To The Promised Land, two young girls in the back row seats covered there eyes. When they opened them the stage lit up with this world premiere written by Milwaukee’s Jonathan Gillard Daly that captures how urban neighborhoods represent history traced from generation to generation. 

While that opening scene might be “scary,” as the girls sitting in the theater’s back row talked about during intermission, events similar to this also happen in Milwaukee 2013. These events, or shootings, have their beginnings at the turn of the 20th century, when the famous stateswoman and one of Israel’s Prime Ministers (1969-1974) Golda Meir attended Milwaukee’s Fourth Street School in 1910.     

In Daly’s play, the house Golda lived in as a Jewish immigrant during 1910 on 615 Walnut Street (an imaginary place although the street remains), also houses a displaced girl from Alabama, the daughter of an African American sharecropper named Ruth in 1969. During these 50 years, the neighborhood’s occupants may have changed, but the problems, concerns, dreams and hopes are consistent across an entire century. Which implies today’s residents because Fourth Street School still educates Milwaukee youth.

In 1969, 14-year-old Ruth struggles with several personal tragedies, including losing family members and a mother who works six days a week to keep “food on the table, instead of a phone in the hand.” To deal with these issues, Ruth skips school until her teacher Mr. Baker, a white suburbanite, visits Ruth at home and encourages her to do a report on Golda Meir. From that point on, the memories of 14-year-old Golda attempt to inspire Ruth, as do the memories of Ruth’s brother, Cliff. 

Daly weaves the stories of Golda in 1910 and Ruth in 1969 directly on stage, alternating family settings while discussing complex social concepts, such as Cliff’s joining the Milwaukee Commandos in the late 1960’s to support Open Housing protests in the city. Or when Golda refuses to marry someone who is 30 years old for security and instead insists on attending the university. Each girl’s future will be portrayed as uncertain, a journey “to their promised land” they dream about. 

Throughout the play the audience then observes similarities between the Jewish and African American communities, regardless of skin color. They also come to appreciate the problems of two 14 year old adolescents when they try to accomplish their own dreams, instead of ones their families, especially their mothers, might have decided for them. These conflicts represent one’s 21st century teenagers might understand as Golda says, “To find their own way, as only those who dare…who have the courage to dream.” 

This performance the Promise Cast gave Lonnae Hickman’s Ruth and Katherine Pollnow’s Golda inner strength with sassy personality. D’Monte Henning’s Cliff and Marvette Knight acting as Ruth’s mother add emotional stability with assured stage presence. Motown music from the 1960’s sets a rhythmic atmosphere to the Todd Wehr Theater so feet could be heard tapping on the floor while Director Sheri Williams Pannell uses sensitive pacing to move the characters’ transformations through the script’s important “teaching moments.” 

Because First Stage’s second Wisconsin series production delved into very complex political ssues, the audience will ultimately miss the meaning to some of these, and premiere plays often undergo revisions. However, the child-parent relationships and personal misfortunes will resonate with today’s youth audiences. The two young girls sitting in the back row were challenged and entertained, and had much to discuss with their own mother when leaving the theater. Whenever theater offers these learning opportunities, welcome them as moments to build on in and for the future. A bright future First Stage provides by illustrating a timely and ultimately fulfilling journey to success on one’s way To The Promised Land. 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents To The Promised Land in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts with a limited performance schedule through February 10. For information and tickets, 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