Monday, April 18, 2016

A visit from Gail Carson Levine, author of ELLA ENCHANTED

Bringing a bout of beautiful spring weather with her, Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, made a visit to Milwaukee the weekend of April 16-17.

Gail Carson Levine at Boswell Book Company
 After giving a talk and book signing at Boswell Book Company, Gail attended First Stage's world premiere production of ELLA ENCHANTED at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater. Immediately following the performance, the author participated in an extended talkback answering audience questions about the themes in ELLA ENCHANTED.

On Sunday, First Stage patrons gathered for an intimate author's brunch at the Intercontinental Hotel. The event offered a chance to get a sneak peak of the play and the creative process behind bringing a literary work to the stage.

Backstage with the Brilliant Cast of ELLA ENCHANTED

With First Stage Company Manager Jeff Schaetzke
and Artistic Director Jeff Frank 
With the cast of ELLA ENCHANTED 

To learn more about author Gail Carson Levine, see the ELLA ENCHANTED Enrichment Guide, developed by our Education Department. ELLA ENCHANTED continues through May 1, 2016.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

First Look Review: Exceptional, Entertaining, and Enchanting “Ella”

by Blakely Martin

First Stage’s ELLA ENCHANTED is an interesting twist on the classic Cinderella tale and is both exciting and adventurous. Follow Ella into a whimsical world of unicorns and ogres, colorful costumes, and a beautiful set. The amazing costume work of Jenny Thurnau and Leah Dueno really brings the story to life from the outgoing pink and greens of the stepsisters to the humpbacks of the ogres (costume design by Brandon Kirkham).

When Lucinda, Ella’s Fairy Godmother, gifts Ella with obedience, it turns out to have more impediments than assets. When her mother dies and her new wicked stepmother and stepsisters take over the household, they soon uncover her secret. Their misuse of her required obedience impels Ella to run away, right into a pack of ogres. Ella may be cursed, but she has the resolve to find her internal strength.

From the silly actions of Olive to the song of the ogres, there is humor for everyone in this family friendly musical. Ella’s stepsisters, Hattie and Olive (played by Madison Penzkover and Mari Duckler in the Brilliant Cast), were especially humorous throughout the musical.

The transformative acting displayed by Taylor Kass as Ella is remarkable. Cole Winston as Char is also an excellent performer. John Maclay did an excellent job training these actors to see things from their character's perspective.

When I came to the show, I was struck by the committal of the actors to their characters. The actors really seemed to understand what their character was thinking and where they were coming from.

They displayed these emotions not only in their acting, but also in their music. Music director Jeff Schaetzke did an excellent job with honing the voices of these young performers. When Taylor Kass sings, she dazzles all in the audience. When the cast is singing together, there is this captivating aura around the theatre.

The choreography (by Jessica Beth Redish) of the dancing is spot on. It really helps the songs come to life and also helps bring the characters to life.

Beyond the dancing, singing, set, and costumes, there are also a lot of people behind the scenes that did a lot of work to make this show as remarkable as it is. The work put into this show by people like Melissa Wanke and Michael Warren was not put to waste.

This production was magnificent, brilliant, enthralling and rightly enchanting. I genuinely think that all families will enjoy this production of Ella Enchanted.

ELLA ENCHANTED continues through May 1, 2016.

Blakely is a 13 year old Academy Student and Young Performer who has been in many First Stage productions including Sherlock Holmes: The Baker Street Irregulars. She enjoys writing because she finds it a functional way to express oneself, similar to performing. Thank you for your First Look review Blakely!

Antigone and Ella honoring young women and “girl power”

by Jennifer Hubbartt

Women’s History Month was commemorated last month, when rehearsals began for First Stage’s current productions, ELLA ENCHANTED and ANTIGONE. Coincidentally, these two very distinct stories feature a strong-willed female lead character. The world premiere of ELLA ENCHANTED tells the tale of Ella of Frell, who must fight for her own happy ending in order to have an unfortunate curse reversed. In ANTIGONE, performed by First Stage’s Young Company, our heroine is faced with making a choice in the face of an impossible destiny. Two very different stories; two similarly resilient young women at its center.

Josie Trettin, who plays the title role in ANTIGONE, and Taylor Kass, playing the title role in ELLA ENCHANTED, each gave their perspective on these productions and the prominence and importance of strong women in their lives in this exclusive interview.

Is there a woman, either historically or present, who inspires you personally or professionally?
Josie Trettin as Antigone in ANTIGONE

Taylor Kass, Ella in ELLA ENCHANTED: I'm inspired by my Young Company teacher Marcella Kearns. She's so smart, kind, funny, and talented. I want to be her when I grow up. Historically, I'm inspired by all the suffragettes who fought for our right to vote.

Josie Trettin, Antigone in ANTIGONE: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic professional women in the Milwaukee theater community and I’ve been inspired by so many of them.  It’s hard not to be.  Marcella Kearns and Beth Mulkerron have both motivated me both professionally and personally.  Watching both of these women work and seeing their dedication and work ethic constantly propels me to try harder and be stronger.  They both always have kind and insightful words whenever they interact with anyone, and their warmth creates such a great community to work in.

If someone says the phrase “girl power,” what does that phrase mean to you?

Taylor: To me, Girl Power means the innate strength that all girls have that allows them to be themselves and succeed in a world which often tries to deny them equal rights, treatment, and opportunities.

Josie: The strength inside every woman, however that manifests.  For Antigone, her power comes from taking control of her own situation and ability to make her choice.
Taylor Kass at Ella in Ella Enchanted

How does your character embody “girl power”?

Taylor: Ella has very little control over her own life, but she is constantly using the power she does have to fight for herself and the people she loves.

Josie: Antigone’s strong sense of self and confidence in her choices.  With so many decisions coming up in my own life, it would be great to be so decisive.

Are there any qualities that you have or wish to have that your character has?

Taylor: I wish I was as brave and innovative as Ella. She never stops finding new ways to rebel against the curse of obedience. I also wish I could speak as many languages as she can!

Josie: Antigone’s strong sense of self and confidence in her choices.  With so many decisions coming up in my own life, it would be great to be so decisive. 

What was challenging about bringing the script to life?

Taylor: Ella Enchanted is a brand new musical, so it was challenging to constantly receive and process revisions to the script and music during rehearsals. However, this process allowed me to be even more connected to Ella and her story.

Josie: ANTIGONE is so famous, so it was really an effort to interpret the text individually and make it my own rather than worrying about the expectations for the character.  It was interesting to combine background information from the original Sophocles version and his OEDIPUS THE KING and OEDIPUS AT COLONUS.  Our director, JP, was great at really examining the excavating the crucial details in the text with us, so that helped put it on its feet.

How do you want this play to affect the audience?

Taylor: I want the audience to think about whether their choices are truly their own, or whether they are motivated by what others want. Sometimes it's important to listen to the advice of others, but ultimately, you're in control of your life.

Josie: I’m hoping that this play will enable audience members to see their own individual power, particularly the women.  Throughout this process, JP has encouraged the whole cast to think more critically about the oppression of women worldwide, and I’d like this performance to open up a dialogue about that as well. 

What can people, specifically girls, expect from this play?

Taylor: People can expect a twist on the classic fairy tale narrative and a love story that's based on true friendship, not on looks or a magic slipper. Girls can look forward to seeing a fully developed female lead that is just as interesting and complicated as a real girl.

Josie: People can expect a lot of defiance, debate, and overall fighting.  Not so much physical fighting (although there is a little of that too), but people fighting for what they believe in and what they value.  Everyone in this play has something they are fighting for, whether it’s overt or not. 

Come see Taylor and Josie in their lead roles celebrating “girl power.” ELLA ENCHANTED runs through May 1 at the Marcus Center, and ANTIGONE runs through April 17 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Find tickets and more information at

Friday, March 18, 2016

First Stage's 22nd Annual Make Believe Ball a success!

Photography by Lindsey Abendschein and Phil Fischer
On Saturday, March 12, 2016, First Stage held its 22nd annual Make Believe Ball at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center. Themed around our spring production of ELLA ENCHANTED, families experienced the “enchantment” of First Stage while enjoying children’s activities, a voice and silent auction, a gourmet dinner, and music and dancing! Young performers from the cast of ELLA ENCHANTED performed a song for guests followed by a Giant, leading the children to their dessert!

2016 Ball Co-Chairs Julia and Bladen Burns,
Photography by Lindsey Abendschein and Phil Fischer
This year’s event surpassed our goal bringing in more than $150,000, a fund raising record for the Ball! The Make Believe Ball is our largest fundraiser of the year and makes it possible for First Stage to offer professional theater for all ages; Theater Academy training that fosters life skills through stage skills; and Theater in Education programs that inspire motivate and educate. 

Post dinner dancing, Photography by Lindsey Abendschein and Phil Fischer
Thank you to all the families that attended, to our generous sponsors and donors, Julia & Bladen Burns our 2016 Ball Co-Chairs and to our Ball Committee for a wonderful evening!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

First Stage Announces its 2016-2017 Season!

First Stage celebrates 30 years of Theater You Never Outgrow– including five captivating world premiere plays for young audiences!

First Stage’s 2016-2017 season:

at the Todd Wehr Theater

Goosebumps the Musical: PHANTOM OF THE AUDITORIUM
October 14 – November 13, 2016             

A world premiere play
Book and Lyrics by John Maclay, Music and Lyrics by Danny Abosch
Produced by special arrangement with GURMAN AGENCY, LLC, New York, NY
™&© Scholastic Inc. SCHOLASTIC, GOOSEBUMPS and associated logos are trademarks and/or registered marks of Scholastic Inc. Based on Goosebumps® Phantom of the Auditorium.
Brooke and Zeke have been cast as the leads in the school's new production of an old play about a...Phantom. Strange things start disrupting rehearsals and they have to wonder: is this someone's idea of a joke? Or is the Phantom real? A silly and spooky adventure ensues that will keep the whole family in suspense until the final curtain! Ideal for adults, teens and children ages seven to sixteen.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer™: The Musical
November 25 - December 31, 2016

Based on the animated television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and the stage production directed and conceived by Jeff Frank and First Stage. Script adaptation by Robert Penola.
Arrangements and orchestrations by Timothy Splain.
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed reindeer” animated television special adapted from a story by Robert L. May and the song by Johnny Marks, music and lyrics by Johnny Marks. All elements © and ™ under license to Character Arts, LLC.
And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows! The beloved TV classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer soars off the screen and returns to our stage this holiday season.  From fleeing the Abominable Snow Monster to saving Christmas, join Rudolph and his friends, Hermey the Elf and Yukon Cornelius, as their adventures teach us that what makes you different can be what makes you special.  Don’t miss this wonderful holiday tradition that speaks to the little misfit in all of us. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages five to fourteen.

Welcome to Bronzeville
January 13 – February 5, 2017                                    

A world premiere by Sheri Williams Pannell

1957. The heart of Milwaukee’s Bronzeville pulses to the beat of jazz and blues. Everyone expects Michael Jr. to be a deacon like his father. But is this who is he truly meant to be? The local talent show, a famous visitor, and the wisdom and guidance of a community seeking to lift up their young people, help Mike find the path to the man he will become. Join us for this latest installment of The Wisconsin Cycle developed with the input and support of the elders in our community and celebrate the vibrant and rich community that was Milwaukee’s Bronzeville. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages eight to sixteen.

Robin Hood
February 17 – March 12, 2017

A world premiere by Joe Foust and John Maclay
A fresh look at the timeless tale of the legendary hero. When Robin, Little John and Friar Tuck are captured, it falls to Marian and the Merry Men-in-training to come to the rescue. Full of adventure and with laughs aplenty, this new take on a classic tale is suitable for the entire family. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages seven to sixteen.


March 24 – April 9, 2017

Adapted by Julie Jensen
Based on the book by Kathryn Erskine
Winner of the National Book Award
This play was commissioned by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and was first produced at the Kennedy Center during the 2014-2015 season.
Produced by special arrangement with GURMAN AGENCY LLC, New York, NY
Caitlin sees the world in black and white.  Colors are messy, and recess is chaotic. As an 11-year-old on the autism spectrum, Caitlin used to rely on her older brother to help make sense of a world that doesn’t fit her definitions, but now that he’s gone, she’s all on her own. With the support of her advisor, father, and a new reading buddy, Caitlin begins to understand how to embrace the “messiness” of emotions. Soaring with heart and humor, discover how the perseverance of one girl can change a community – and how black and white can always be complemented by a kaleidoscope of colors. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages ten to seventeen.

Junie B. Jones Is Not A Crook
April 28 – June 4, 2017

A play by Allison Gregory
Adapted from the books series by Barbara Park
Produced by special arrangement with Playscripts, Inc.
Based on the books
Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook and Junie B. Jones Loves Handsome Warren by Barbara Park
Meet the funniest girl in Room Nine – Junie B. Jones! A terrible thing happened to Junie B. —someone took her new black furry mittens! And plus also they kept them! When Junie B. finds a wonderful pen on the floor, she should be allowed to keep it too, because “finders keepers.” There’s also a new boy in school, and he’s the handsomest boy Junie B. has ever seen. Unfortunately, Lucille and That Grace want him for a boyfriend too, and Handsome Warren just thinks Junie B. is a nutball.  Whatever is Junie B. to do? Find out how Junie B. perseveres through her kindergarten conundrums and learns that honesty is the best policy. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages five to nine.

at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center

Lois Ehlert’s Mole Hill Stories                     
November 5 – 20, 2016

By Alvaro Saar Rios
Adapted from the book  by Lois Ehlert
MOLE HILL STORIES received its world premiere at First Stage, Milwaukee, WI
Inspired by the work of Milwaukee author/illustrator Lois Ehlert, this collaboration with Danceworks returns to First Stage, bringing three of Ehlert’s most famous stories to life – Mole’s Hill, Cucu, and Moon Rope. Journey with Mole as she discovers, with the help of her friends, that there is more to life than one can see at first glance and that our dreams are within reach if we believe. Actors and dancers and live music spin a magical world, and true to Ehlert’s original text – the play makes use of English and Spanish language. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages three to seven.

January 21 – February 19, 2017

A world premiere musical
Adapted from the Dragon and Girl books by Barbara Joosse
By Jeff Frank
Music and Lyrics by The Happy Racers

From the Dragon and Girl series by award-winning Wisconsin author Barbara Joosse comes an enchanting new musical of unexpected friendship between a lonely girl and an even lonelier dragon. Together they embark on a grand adventure to the farthest far away only to face their greatest challenge. With music by The Happy Racers, this show is guaranteed to get your toes tapping and to put a smile on your face. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages three to seven.

at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center

December 9 – 18, 2016

By William Shakespeare
Two sets of twins separated at birth collide in the same city. Mistaken identities, assumed personas and wild mishaps occur as laughs fly in Shakespeare’s farce about the most outrageous family reunion ever.  Ideal for adults, teens and children ages twelve and up.


March 10 – 19, 2017

A world premiere by Eric Coble
It starts on a Wednesday.  Kids in high school getting the weirdest texts from fellow students they don't know.  What's going on?  And what if it's not people connecting with people via their phones… but phones trying to connect with other phones via their people?  A digital mystery of the mind and heart for the savvy texter.  Ideal for adults, teens and children ages twelve and up.

May 12 – 21, 2017

Adapted by Ian Wooldridge from the book by George Orwell
After revolting against the reign of their negligent human master, the animals of Mr. Jones’s farm create their own ideal society in which all animals are equal and rules are set by democratic vote. It’s all working pretty well, until the allure of power leads the animals to a chilling fate. ANIMAL FARM illustrates how new tyranny replaces old and power corrupts even the noblest of causes. Ideal for adults, teens and children ages twelve and up.

# # #

Family packages to our 2016-17 season go on sale April 4! If you are a current family package holder, log in to to renew online using your renewal source code, or contact the First Stage Box Office at (414) 267-2961.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

First Look Review: THE SNOW

by Regan Carter

Regan Carter
We Wisconsinites are familiar with snow.  We’ve been through flurries, storms, and “Snowmageddon.”  However, nothing we’ve experienced could compare to what the characters in First Stage’s The Snow lived through.
When the town of Kishka is blanketed with snow, causing hunger and, in turn, anger, the townspeople decide that something must definitely be done.  A committee is set up, along with subcommittees and chairs of boards, but nothing is actually accomplished.  That is, until one very small, very scared, very clever boy named Theodore (Zach Duckler) proposes a plan to catapult him and some brave souls over the storm, so as to find the source of the snow.  Several strong and fearless characters volunteer their help, but the only survivors of the actual catapulting are Theodore and a mute gentle giant named Oliver (Tim Linn).  Together, they set out to discover the reason behind the incessant snow, traveling through a violent forest, across a large canyon, and through deep, indescribable darkness.  On the way, they discover that children can have incredible wisdom and that average, everyday people can do extraordinary things.
The story of The Snow, written by Finegan Kruckemeyer and directed by Jeff Frank, makes you feel as excited as little kid at story time, listening to this exciting tale.  I had the pleasure of watching the Brave cast’s performance, and I absolutely loved it.  Duckler was the perfect example of a curious, intuitive child, and Linn was a delight to observe as the strong yet silent Oliver.  Other notable performers included Matt Daniels, as Rajev of the Grey Beards and an easily offendable bird, Karen Estrada, as Margot the Assassin, and Andrew Crowe, as Connor the Calm, who holds a very misleading title.

The scenic design, made by Sarah Hunt-Frank, creatively uses different tools such as tree stumps and rope to create a variety of different environments, including the woods and a canyon.  Platforms strategically placed on the corners of the stage allow for performers including Melisa Erman and Daniels himself to play live music, raising the stakes and creating raw emotion in multiple scenes.  The puppets, created by Brandon Kirkham, are brilliantly designed and extremely entertaining, seeming to come alive onstage.  Costuming, done by Kim Instenes, is authentic and realistic, convincing audiences they really are in Kishka and the surrounding area.

Overall, The Snow is a charming piece, reminding viewers of their own uniqueness and individual talents, and that the quietest people can have the most to tell.  Recommended for children in middle school and older, families can enjoy the adventures of Theodore and Oliver, as they interact with many different characters and learn more about themselves, each other, and their village.  I thoroughly enjoyed watching this story unfold, and encourage everyone to experience Kruckemeyer’s story for themselves.

THE SNOW continues through March 20, 2016. CLICK HERE for tickets and information.

Regan, a long-time First Stage Academy student, has enjoyed acting and writing since she was little. She has been in several First Stage productions, including Spookley the Square Pumpkin and Junie B. Jones in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Meet THE SNOW playwright Finegan Kruckemeyer

Finegan Kruckemeyer
Photo by Essie Kruckemeyer

We are excited to announce that international playwright and master storyteller FINEGAN KRUCKEMEYER will visit First Stage next week. Finegan will give an extended talk back immediately following the 3:30 p.m. performance of THE SNOW on Sunday, March 6. This opportunity is included with your ticket to THE SNOW - no special reservations are needed.

During his visit Finegan will also take part in a writing workshop as part of First Stage's Academy Writers Group (open to students in grades 4-12 who have an interest in writing) on the evening of March 8.

About Finegan Kruckemeyer
Finegan has had 77 commissioned plays performed on five continents and translated into six languages. His work has enjoyed seasons in: over 100 international festivals, eight US national tours, and at the Sydney Opera House (six works), DC’s Kennedy Center (two works), NY’s Lincoln Center, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Shanghai’s Malan Flower Theatre, and at theatres throughout Germany.

He and his work have received 36 national and international awards over the past 13 years, including the inaugural Sidney Myer Fellowship, 2015 David Williamson Prize for Excellence in Australian Playwrighting, and four Australian Writers Guild Awards. He was Keynote Speaker at the 2015 Lincoln Center Summer Forum, and has spoken at conferences in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Denmark, England, Indonesia, Scotland, Sweden and the US, with essays published and works studied at several international universities.

Finegan was born in Ireland, and came to Adelaide, Australia at eight. In 2004, he moved with his wife Essie to Hobart, Tasmania, from which he now writes for national and international companies. His son Moe was born in September.

Finegan is committed to making strong and respectful work for children, which acknowledges them as astute audience members outside the plays, and worthy subjects within.
Learn more at

THE SNOW continues at First Stage through March 20!