Tag Archives: First Stage

TV star remembers formative years in Milwaukee

Continue reading TV star remembers formative years in Milwaukee

‘Violet’ opens Skylight Music Theatre’s season

Continue reading ‘Violet’ opens Skylight Music Theatre’s season


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

‘James and the Giant Peach’

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

First Stage Academy offers a dramatic summer camp

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.



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

With the help of First Stage, ‘Rudolph’ takes flight

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.

Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever

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