Entries in Todd Wehr Theater (8)


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




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



Preview: Milwaukee Playwright Daly Inspired by Mothers and Daughters

A Milwaukee playwright contributes the second selection to First Stage Children’s Theater innovative Wisconsin Series. Jonathon Gillard Daly began forming the idea for his world premiere play To The Promised Land when his daughter was enrolled at Milwaukee’s Fourth Street School. Which is now named for one of its most revered students, Golda Meir, an international statesperson, even before her homeland Israel became an independent state and she eventually was elected Prime Minister in 1969.

Daly volunteered in his daughter’s class, somewhere about six years ago, and was mesmerized by the 1969 picture of Golda Meir hugging a small girl from the school on Meir’s during that same year. This fueled an interest in a school project developing only Golda's story. When Golda attended the school at the turn of the 20th century, Milwaukee was the place as Daly puts it, “Housed the largest Jewish European population in the world.”

Milwaukee’s Fourth Street School segregated the Jewish population from the rest of the city, much like in the late 1960’s, especially 1967-69, for African American residents. In those years, Milwaukee’s housing riots and their resulting curfews spoke to open housing opportunities that were unavailable to the African American population, the girl Golda hugs in the school's picture. Would Golda's and that student's life inevitably intertwine?

In To The Promised Land, a 14-year-old girl named Ruth struggles with what is happening in her home life and her neighborhood surrounding the Fourth Street School. When she discovers Golda Meir faced some of the same challenges more than 50 years before, Ruth learns from Golda’s life while gaining strength from Meir’s return to Milwaukee to visit the school.

In doing the research on this play, Daly seemed to relate Golda and Ruth’s struggles to similar ones that kids and parents go through in 2013, the difficult period when a child reaches adolescence. He also believes along with First Stage that writing Theater for Young Audiences needs to be compelling, where Daly comments, “We need to create work for families, that adults and children can enjoy together, challenge the children with these stories.”

During the last 18-24 months, the play has undergone numerous readings and workshops and in the last two weeks revisions were still underway, with the talented Daly also acting in the premiere production creating the dual roles of Golda’s father and Ruth’s teacher. While Golda’s father was trying to make a living as a Jewish immigrant, Golda and her mother had a rewarding relationship. That mother-daughter relationship resonates throughout the production also llustrated by Ruth and conversations with her own mother.

Daly discusses that 40 years later he wonders how much the housing scene has changed in Milwaukee. Between 4th and 6th Street, where the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center and the renamed Golda Meir School are located, the neighborhood appears to be going through revitalization, reclaimed as an arts district. Daly indicated, “One can almost trace the development of the neighborhood from the 4th Street School, from within those four walls.”

More importantly, the neighborhood has represented “a promised land,” that place to call one’s own, to multiple generations, even as the neighborhood might offer to the residnets today. This is where First Stage Children’s Theater resides, their new home, and is building for the future while Golda Meir School expands and trains children for the 21st century. A recent grant from the Helen Bader Foundation will allow this First Stage second Wisconsin Series production to be taped on February 4th for further learning opportunities, posterity. A posterity where Daly still believes every child needs to discover how mothers and daughters, families, search and hope for their unique promised land.

First Stage Children’s Theater presents the world premiere of The Promised Land with a limited performance run in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for Performing Arts through February 10. For information on the company’s annual Make Believe Ball on March 9 or tickets please call 414.273.2931 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 



Who’s afraid of slimy worms, spooky spiders, and working red ants? In a production filled with powerful insect energy and performed by First Stage Children’s Theater, no one in their audience. First Stage dispels any misgivings about these crawly creatures in their colorful musical Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly that opened last weekend. 

Joan Cushing adapts the popular picture books by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss for small theatergoers with musical melodies of Boogie Woogie, Busby Berkeley dance arrangements and contemporary rap. The story opens as three friends, Worm, Spider and Fly Girl, write any worries in their diary the day before school begins. Their classroom beautifully orchestrated by Beth Mulkerron playing teacher Mrs. McBee. 

Throughout the school year, Worm (Thomas Mazza), Spider (Isaiah Reynolds) and Fly Girl (Alison Pogoreic) learn about their innate insect characteristics while dreaming big  dreams for their lives. The audience hears interesting arachnid and insect facts along with the class, the seats also filled with a chattering butterly (Emily Riesterer) and seven ants from the Boogie Woogie cast. Did anyone know a fly’s wings beat 220 times a minute, or a spider molts his skin (an exoskeleton) when his skin becomes too tight? Or a worm has several aortic muscles that represent five hearts? 

Pogoreic soars when her transparent wings flip up as she pulls a cord to sing “Fly Girl,"a song about her ambitions to become a superhero. In “Bye, Bye, Baby,” Spider offers a funny number performed by Reynolds that expresses his difficulty in growing up when his skin molts. Even the song “Time Out” finds this friendly trio lamenting a parent’s punishment while they wait out misbehaving, or as they say: “Jail for kids, or another word for doing time.” 

In one scene, an entire cast boogie woogies and gitterbugs to Simon Eichinger’s choreography. Which literally fills the stage with gleeful amusement on Scenic Designer Martin McClendon’s stage, strobe lit with vibrant hues and filled with oversized pencils, straws and lego blocks. Worm peaks through dirt holes in the stage floor, trying to understand his self worth as a creature without wings like Fly Girl or fabulous legs like Spider. 

By the last day of school, Mrs. McBee affectionately teaches the class (and a willing audience) to appreciate each creature's distinct abilities and characteristics. Mazza’s wonderful, shy worm patiently solves the problems to dancing and realizes he’s already “doing big, big things for the earth.” 

Big things usually happen at the Todd Wehr Theatre under John Maclay’s thoughtful direction. Tiny tykes were thrilled to see these bugs sing on stage while adults in the audience laughed when catching the book’s sophisticated humor. The stylish production paves the way for the First Stage selection that opens next season in October, Big, the musical. In the meantime be inspired and instructed by this cadre of ants, flies, spiders or worms. First Stage chases away any fears for those once afraid of creepy creatures and wanting to dreams big dreams all their own. 

First Stage Children’s Theater presents Diary of a Worm, a Spider and a Fly at Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through May 13. Subscriptions are now available for the 2012-2013 season. For further information or tickets please call: 414.267.2961 or click the link to the left.  by Peggy Sue Dunigan