Entries in Todd Wehr Theatre (2)


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




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