Perhaps Louis Sachar’s most iconic work, Holes tells the story of 14-year-old Stanley Yelnats, the latest member of a cursed family who finds himself falsely convicted of a crime and sent to Camp Green Lake, where he does nothing but dig countless holes. What seems like another example of the family bad luck turns out to be good luck in disguise, as Stanley begins to dig up secrets and treasures that could change his life forever. This stage adaptation is one of First Stage’s most popular plays, returning once again for a one-month run.
At the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets are $13 to $33 and can be ordered at 414-267-2961 or firststage.org.
Jan. 15 to Feb. 14
First Stage kicks off its season with this musical adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic. When an orphaned boy accidentally uses a magic potion to grow a giant peach, he finds himself on a journey of enormous proportions, in which he and a group of human-sized insects will have to live and work together as a family to survive.
At the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theatre, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $13 to $33 and can be ordered at 414-267-2961 or firststage.org.
Oct. 16 to Nov. 15
Summer is here, and the familiar activities of the season are in full swing in Milwaukee. Head to Bradford Beach and you will find volleyball scrimmages all day long. Local beer gardens are filled to the brim, with customers sampling some of the finest beers that Milwaukee has to offer.
For students, summer often means summer camp. But not every camp requires you to head to the woods. One of the city’s most beloved just requires you to step on a stage.
First Stage Academy, an education program from the children’s theater company of the same name, will enter its 23rd summer this year, welcoming more than 1,300 students from kindergartners to high school seniors. With classes designed to challenge students at each level as actors, playwrights and singers, this experience is truly one of a kind, teaching kids life skills through theater and providing growth opportunities even to those participants who don’t have their hearts set on stardom.
Academy director Jennifer Adams says First Stage Academy sessions range from a week to a month in length, and always end with a performance that shows off the students’ hard work.
Much like in professional theater, what non-participants don’t see is all the work that goes on behind the scenes to produce that performance. The academy features a daily curriculum taught by members of the local theater community. Students arrive around 8 a.m. and subsequently rotate through classes on subjects including playwrights, acting and improvisation until they return home in the afternoon. Sessions for older students are even more intensive — Adams says they are allowed to “major” in an area of their choice: Shakespeare, perhaps, or musical theater. “It really gives them an opportunity to develop their craft over the four-week course period,” she says.
Program durations largely depend on the age of the participants. Elementary school students generally attend weeklong sessions, with the youngest kids only required to participate for a half-day. Three-to-four week programs are geared toward middle and high school students who want that more focused work.
Adams says each year features a mix of new and returning students, keeping each summer a fresh experience. “It doesn’t matter if you are new to the Academy or have attended several times — there’s always something for everyone,” she says. “Each session brings new scenes and challenges, plus our staff changes each year. Veteran or not, the students get to work with professional, regional actors — it’s a great opportunity for them.”
The current Summer Academy is underway, but that doesn’t mean planning hasn’t already started for the 2016 session. “We keep a running list of what is working well and what could be tweaked. Some items get added onto the curriculum right away while others are notated to add next summer,” says Adams.
And it isn’t too late to sign up for this year’s program, Adams says. The company has classes all summer long and has added two new locations this year: the United Community Center on Milwaukee’s South Side and St. Rafael’s School in the Layton Boulevard West neighborhood.
“It doesn’t matter if you have been to First Stage zero times or 20,” Adams says. “There is something for everyone. We aren’t just teaching acting skills, but also life skills. That is incredibly important to us, and to our students. It’s what we’ve built the Academy on.”
Join the Academy
Interested students and their families can find more information about First Stage classes or register for future sessions at firststage.org or by calling 414-267-2970.
OUT ON THE TOWN
Jerry Spinelli’s classic YA novel about a young nonconformist and the classmate entranced by her finds new life in this theatrical adaptation at First Stage. Set in the present day, Stargirl begins with the unexpected appearance of an eccentric homeschooled girl at 11th-grader Leo Borlock’s high school, only the first event in a chain that will change both of their lives forever.
At the Marcus Center, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $12 to $27 and can be ordered at firststage.org or 414-267-2961.
Jan. 16 to Feb. 15
Turning successful film and television programming into stage productions is the way the entertainment industry operates these days, and the classic holiday special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer isn’t exempt from the trend. Fifty years after the original TV special first aired, a stage version of the beloved holiday tale is currently being produced at theaters across the United States, and a national touring production is crisscrossing North America.
And the concept behind all of those shows originated in Milwaukee.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical was conceived by the city’s acclaimed First Stage Children’s Theater and company artistic director Jeff Frank, and adapted by Robert Penola with musical arrangements by Timothy Splain.
Frank says the company had been interested in producing an adaptation of Rudolph for some time but first needed permission from Character Arts, LLC, the company that manages the Rudolph character as an intellectual property. His pitch to them was based on preserving and honoring the handcrafted nature of the original stop-motion TV special.
Frank believed he could accomplish that goal by using a technique borrowed from Japanese Noh theater, in which stagehands dressed in black (called kokens) manipulate and move set elements. In the case of First Stage, the stagehands could move the young actors themselves.
Frank and the company had explored the technique before, most effectively in a 2011 production of Peter Pan and Wendy. They found kokens were effective in creating stage illusions without complicated technology.
“Audiences really responded to the boldness of that theatricality … which then gave me the confidence that we could tackle Rudolph and make him fly, because we’d just flown Peter and Wendy and all the kids,” Frank says.
The idea took a little tweaking for Rudolph — most notably, changing the stagehands’ outfits from all-black to all-white and dubbing them “snowkens.” But Frank presented it to Character Arts as a solution to the problem of making the stage version resemble the familiar TV version.
“With the Island of Misfit Toys and trees and snow pieces moving around, we could create a living environment to bring this story to life,” Frank says. “They bought into that concept, and then they saw the show and really loved what we did.”
First Stage’s original 2012 production of Rudolph was a big success for both the company and the musical. Frank says it’s served as the starting point for all current productions of the show — including a revival at First Stage opening on Nov. 28.
For the upcoming Milwaukee production, Frank is passing directorial duties to Matt Daniels, who Frank says assisted in the development of the snowken work in the 2012 production. He says the revival is largely the same as the original, albeit with a few upgrades. The score has been re-orchestrated and re-recorded — a full orchestra now performs it.
The Abominable Snowman puppet has been altered from a five-person puppet — “really heavy, a bit awkward and limited in where we could put him and move him,” Frank says — to a more fully realized backpack puppet that can be moved about the stage. And there may even be some new songs, depending on how conversations with Penola, who’s directing the national tour, go this month.
But despite the show’s constant evolutions, Frank thinks there’s something about Rudolph’s basic story that will always make it appeal to children and their families. “Everybody’s felt like a misfit at some point in their lives, where we don’t know how we fit in, or where we fit in, or will we ever fit in,” he says.
From that perspective, all the work they’re doing is just designed to make the show’s inclusive message shine a little brighter. “Everything’s going to be sharper,” he says. “It’s going to come alive more. … It’s a perfect show for the holidays; it just is.”
First Stage’s new production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical opens on Nov. 28 and runs through Dec. 28 at the Todd Wehr Theatre, 929 N. Water St. Performances are recommended to ages 4-plus. Tickets range from $12 to $37. For showtimes or to order tickets, visit firststage.org or call 414-267-2961.
Indian actress Kapoor ready for gay Bollywood film: One of the biggest stars in Bollywood, Sonam Kapoor, said in a recent interview that it’s time for her industry to explore the possibility of a gay love story, especially in the wake of India’s criminalization of homosexuality. Last year, the nation’s Supreme Court upheld a ban on gay sex, which she says is contrary to India’s current culture, in which “it’s completely all right, it’s completely OK to be gay.” Kapoor said she believes depicting gay characters on film could help bring change in her country, simply by exposing Indians to “amazing human beings … who aren’t necessarily only straight.”
‘American Idol,’ ‘The Voice’ finale ratings drop: The sharp decline in viewers for the season finales of The Voice and American Idol raises the question of whether music competition shows on television are fading out. The year’s final American Idol episode, which aired May 21 on Fox, was seen by fewer people than any Idol-crowning moment since the series began in 2002. The Nielsen Co. also said that viewership for NBC’s The Voice was down 25 percent from its 2013 finale. Since 2011, the audience for the American Idol season finale has sunk by a staggering 66 percent. Fox has already announced cutbacks on Idol hours next season, likely by eliminating the poorly rated results show. NBC says it’s too early to consider that for The Voice.
First Stage expands summer programming to West Bend: First Stage Theater Academy will expand its acclaimed theater training program for young people to West Bend for the first time this summer. A one-week class for students entering grades 8–12 in the fall will be offered at West Bend High School July 14–18, giving students the opportunity to work with professional theater artists on acting theory, voice and movement, improvisation and musical theater. First Stage’s program, the largest of its kind in the nation, teaches “life skills through stage skills.” It’s already offered during the summer at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, Oconomowoc Arts Center and the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts. Students can enroll for the program at firststage.org.
Logo network to honor gay rights leaders: This June, the Logo TV network will air Trailblazers, a show honoring pioneers in the gay rights movement, such as Edie Windsor, who challenged the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The show will air June 26, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the act for denying federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The show will also honor Windsor’s lawyer Roberta Kaplan and more honorees that have not yet been announced.
Trailblazers will be filmed at Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of the first churches in New York to offer same-sex weddings. Featured performers include A Great Big World, Kylie Minogue, Mary Lambert and Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees. Logo president Stephen Friedman, who’s also president of sister network MTV, said he hopes the new telecast can become a signature moment for Logo in the vein of the MTV Video Music Awards. He’s also looking to revamp Logo’s NewNowNext Awards, an annual celebration of up-and-coming entertainers that airs in the fall.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin helps Pro Arte Quartettravel to Belgium: UW-Madison’s Pro Arte Quartet returned to its Belgian roots last week, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the aid of Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The ensemble, the world’s oldest continually performing string quartet, was seeking to celebrate its centennial year in Brussels, the place where it was born in the early 1910s. The group was exiled on May 10, 1940, when a stroke of luck found them performing at the Wisconsin Union Theatre in Madison on the day Belgium was overrun and occupied by Nazi forces, turning three of its original four musicians into war orphans. The group’s recent trip was stalled by a set of government restrictions that prohibit traveling across international borders with anything containing elephant ivory, which is a component of three of the current artists’ bows and the other’s viola. While permits can be issued as exemptions, it looked unlikely they would be processed in time. But with Baldwin’s help, the UW chancellor’s office was able to to expedite the process and get the four musicians on their way.
Teen detective Nancy Drew makes her first appearance in a First Stage production with this adaptation by Jeff Frank and John Maclay, which finds her stumbling into a brand-new mystery. In the vein of the classic stories by Mildren Wirt Benson (writing as Carolyn Keene), Frank and Maclay have crafted a clever tale of a mysterious girl, her family’s secrets and a series of clues that draw Nancy closer and closer to the truth — and to danger.
At the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theatre, 929 N. Water St. Tickets range from $12 to $32. Phone 414-267-2961 or visit firststage.org.
May 2 to June 1