Entries in Mole HIll Stories (2)



The under five (years of age) set sits transfixed at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center watching First Stage Children’s Theater World Premiere of Lois Ehlert's Mole Hill Stories. While the narrator walks slowly around the theater picking on a South African kalimba, or wooden finger piano, the audience will be mesmerized by the instrument’s soothing melody. The music opened this delightful combination of Lois Ehlert stories adapted by Alvaro Saar Rios where a fox, mole, owl and skunk overcome the wild forest by discovering true friendship.

Mole Hill Stories represents the first collaboration between Milwaukee’s Danceworks Performance Company and First Stage, and then adds bilingual dialogue in Spanish with comfortable ease. Director Desiree Rosas discussed the production’s combinations of three Mole Hill plots from the award winning Ehlert’s picture book collection. What transpires on the stage for the audience could be termed performance art. Rosas explains, “The performance is equal parts dance and theater, where the movement and text intertwine.”

“There’s storytelling through movement,” Rosas continues. Indeed, Danceworks’ Artistic Director Dani Kuepper choreographed the story where the actors resonate as dancers, literally breathing life in these stories through the body movements representing animal creatures, fire, grass, trees and water. Rosas believes, “You make an immediate connection to the forest stories and immerse yourself in the dance, music, words and songs.”

Music becomes integral to the production with an original score by Julio Pabon, who teaches at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. His African-Latin themed music echoes the dual script, where an English line will be spoken with the Spanish translation to follow, or vice versa. Set against the lilting, rhythmic percussion, these two languages flow freely for adults and children to enjoy, learn and understand.

All these elements seamlessly integrate in Ehlert’s charming animal characters. First Stage actor Michael Cotey plays the fox and owl with leadership pizzazz while Rána Roman flies through the forest as the exotic and at first glance selfish Cucú bird. Each give their character an exciting human personality. Christal Wagner and Alberto J. Cambra come from Danceworks’ to enhance the ensemble with their considerable skills. Young performers Haley Carter (of the Paws Cast) became the main mole Topo, who walks through every story with a sensitive heart, while Javier Pabon (Julio’s son) sparked his skunk with enthusiastic style.

Pale blue costumes with tie dyed borders designed by Andrea Bouck beautifully allow the actors/dancers freedom that also imparts an ethereal, magical atmosphere to this forest folk tale. Yet, elegant headdresses, sashes and vests create a unique animal character the audience can differentiate and have fun with. 

The charming collaboration reflects over 18 months of discussion to bring this full on sensory experience to these little ones, which as Rosas says, “Envelopes the audience in an environment, where you believe, hear and see things.” Part of that charm Ehlert writes about and Rosa believes, “Involves lovable characters, who then go on big journeys, take big risks and form great friendships.”

In this first rate world premiere adaptation of Ehlert, the production brings an introductory experience of dance and live performance to these young future theatergoers in the most professional manner. More of an interpretative modern dance combined with lyrical poetry and prose, the First Stage production enchants any age and proves children’s theater remains essential to education and entertainment. Offering a promise of hope to these tiny individuals in the making while hugs and smiles during the performance are extras to any First Stage First Steps production. Each can be enjoyed liberally before, during or after this entrancing Mole Hill Stories.  

First Stage Children's Theater presents Lois Ehlert's Mole Hill Stories in a collaboration with Danceworks Performance Company at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center through January 27. A special audiotry performance on January 19 continues the company's commitment to providing entertainment experiences for those on the Autism spectrum. Remember to support First Stage through their 19th Annual Make Believe Ball on Saturday, March 2, 2013. For further information or tickets, please call 414.267.2936 or click the First Stage link to the left.   by Peggy Sue Dunigan



An elegant ten feet tall Richard Taylor sculpture stands outside the Milwaukee Youth Art Center on 6th and Walnut. The city’s renowned Taylor installed the work titled First Flight this summer that he constructed in pure white painted steel, the first Taylor sculpture to be completely white.  At the base of the sculpture Taylor incorporated his various inspirations:  believe, confidence, creativity, leadership, passion, respect, risks name only a few. The landmark sculpture symbolizes a beacon of openness and collaboration First Stage Children’s Theater commits to for its brave new 26th season that opens this October.  

The brave new season partially belongs to the recently installed Managing Director Best Corry, who follows the legacy of founder Rob Goodman. Corry described the Theater for Young Audiences (TYA) has improved dramatically throughout the country and at First Stage over the past decade. Which means the acting abilities of young performers and the plays being written for TYA have become, as Corry says, “top level quality.” 

First Stage chooses their selections based on these top-level qualities, evaluating a play’s artistic challenges and emotional rewards that will connect multiple generations. This philosophy inherently acknowledges that TYA will be educating and grooming audiences for the future, to ensure that TYA will be around well into the 21st century. While connecting with theatre companies across the country to ensure better economic stability because the costs to producing theater are now shared, this philsophy also initiates an important plus for theater companies who can produce the same show in several locations. Corry explains, “The cross country collaborations produce this ‘economy of scale’.”

Corry further explained this 26th season fulfilled many of these goals and that begins October 19 with BIG, THE MUSICAL and presents a TYA version adapted by Artistic Director Jeff Frank and Adventure Theater (Maryland) Artistic Director Michael Bobbitt. Frank also directs the Milwaukee musical previously based on the 1987 film familiar to adults, Big. This family oriented entertainment refocuses the romance in the movie Big around the friendship between Josh and Billy, who remains age 13 for the entire play while Josh morphs into an adult. Corry envisions, “It will be fun to have that memory base in the audience to build on, where adults have an affinity for the story.” 

The holidays bring another premiere to Milwaukee with Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, also directed by Frank. The vintage 1967 made for television special airs only once a season, while the stage presentation will evoke nostalgia from the adult and youth audiences. A classic brought to life in the theater. “This play leaps from screen to stage,” Corry comments, “So that contemporary children will lose the fourth wall to create a genuine immediacy to the story that shines through."

Two special performances at the MYAC cater to the preschool set with the company’s First Step series. For this year’s offerings, one opens November 3 to relate the tale Five Little Monkeys with a special sensory friendly performance designated for children living with or on the autism spectrum. The collaboration broadens the First Stage reach with an outstretched hand to the Autism Center of Wisconsin. 

The second selection will begin in January and involves coordinating with Milwaukee’s Danceworks, Inc. in a world premiere of an adaptation from Lois Ehlert’s Mole Hill Stories. In this innovative production, Ehlert’s award winning picture books will be condensed into a format choreographed by Danceworks and accompanied by an English and Spanish script for a bilingual animal adventure suitable for the tiniest audiences.  

Afterwards, the beloved Milwaukee actor Jonathan Gillard Daly acts in The Promised Land. A play Daly also wrote for the First Stage Wisconsin Cycle. The play represents the second in the series of six new plays based on Wisconsin history, while several others will follow after further development for future seasons. Sheri Williams Parnell directs this story about a young Milwaukee girl inspired by Golda Meir in yet another original work, which builds community partnerships with the Jewish Milwaukee Museum and the Jewish Community Center. 

Following in Spring, First Stage produces Pinkaliscious,  a modern tale about a brother and sister who must survive an attack of the color pink and will speak to enjoying “too much of a good thing.” And to welcome Opening Day at Miller Park for baseball season, the biopic Jackie and Me relates a story for the sports fan about Hall of Fame player Jackie Robinson, for the young and young at heart  The Brewers Community Foundation presents coordinating programming that addresses racial issues in while sustaining a belief in making dreams come true.

A very special production ends the First Stage season in a first time collaboration with Marquette University’s Helfaer Theater, their faculty and the First Stage Young Company. In an effort to cross over and reach teens, the Young Company youth performers present Lois Lowry’s Gathering Blue. The play represents another adaptation taken from Lowry’s trilogy that included the company’s 2007 production of The Giver. 

These exceptional theater experiences offer only one of many first flights soaring into brave new collaborations and productions, esepcially for the 26th season, destined to make the Milwaukee arts community stronger. Unprecedented opportunities First Stage Children’s Theater provides while promising entertainment and emotional substance for the city’s younger population. Today and into a future as faraway as the stars the children wish on and older imaginations still dream about.

First Stage Children's Theater presents BIG, THE MUSICAL at the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts from October 19 through November 11. The First Steps production Five Little Monkeys has already been sold out and new performances have been added for November 24 and 25. Season tickets and family packages are still available for the 2012-2013 season. The company hosts their 3rd annual Apri il Vino, a wine tasting and dinner on Saturday, November 10. For further information and tickets please call 414.273.7206 or click the link to the left.                    by Peggy Sue Dunigan