Entries in Todd Denning (2)


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   



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