By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Oct 16, 2018 at 10:16 AM

Holy purple pancakes! There’s a brand new mystery afoot at First Stage, a very colorful musical that’s sure to charm audiences of all ages.

It’s "Nate the Great," adapted by John Maclay, the company’s director of artistic development, and Brett Ryback, a composer and lyricist with a long affiliation with First Stage. This pair, who also penned the "Just a Little Critter Musical," has crafted a delightful, tuneful tale that mixes the suspense of a few neighborhood mysteries with messages about the importance of art, quality breakfast food (pancakes, specifically) and accepting others. Onstage at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center through Nov. 11, it’s a great addition to the children’s theater canon and a show that will hopefully find its place on stages throughout the country.

The story begins when Annie’s painting of a yellow dog goes missing. The creator of the artwork knows just who to call: her friend Nate the Great. A detective who loves mysteries both large and small, Annie’s convinced that Nate can find anything. Armed with a magnifying glass, a notebook and a Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing cap, Nate uses his powers of observation and principles of deduction to get to the bottom of the case. And to start each day off right, he feasts on a big plate of pancakes. Take note: He really loves pancakes.

Fans of the "Nate the Great" series of mystery books for young readers, by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, will be tickled to see the young detective brought to life by this imaginative production. Newcomers to the story will have two dozen sequels to read on their own after getting to know the energetic Nate (Seth Hoffman), his friend – not girlfriend – Annie (Makayla Davis), Annie’s little brother Harry (Cole Sison), her dog Fang (Elyse Edelman, who also plays Nate’s mom) and Annie’s odd and dramatic friend Rosamond (Emily Harris), who has a creepy collection of black cats. (I saw the "orange" cast, with Hoffman stepping in for Zack Duckler. The "purple" cast of young people will also perform for half the run.)

"Nate" has a small but mighty cast, led by the charismatic Hoffman as the title character. His determination, genuine interactions with friends and devotion to solving puzzles make him endearing. His melodramatic reaction to a sudden lack of pancakes in the house makes him a typical kid. It’s fun to see the light bulb go off in his brain when he has a breakthrough in his case – and also when he realizes that kids who seem odd at first can be great friends after all.

As Annie, Makalya Davis easily commands the stage and shows off her enormous singing voice over the course of the play. As her black-clad, slightly spooky, cat-adoring friend Rosamond, Emily Harris also has presence and vocal power to spare. They’re both dynamite performers with powerhouse pipes, who have no trouble filling the Todd Wehr with songs and heartfelt emotion.

As the only adult in the cast, Elyse Edelman does a great job anchoring the show. Both her mom character and her turn as Fang the dog are understated, allowing Nate and his investigation to shine. Her easy soprano and natural spark lift up the group numbers, whether she’s performing as a pooch or a pancake. (Yep, you read that right.)

Choreography by Giana Blazquez was well tailored to the talents of the performers, but it was during the dance numbers that the cast looked least comfortable. And although the ensemble of five did their best to fill the stage, the song and dance moments cried out for a few more cast members to fill out the scenes.

The songs by Ryback and Maclay are bouncy, super accessible and packed with lightning-fast, clever lyrics and loads of internal rhymes. (The team even found a rhyme for orange!) It’s the kind of music that some of the smaller audience members seated around me were humming during intermission. Along with the script, the music is so smart, in fact, that one wishes the story of "Nate the Great" was a little more complicated. At least the theme "art matters" is punched up between the episodes of characters looking for clues.

Another outstanding element of the show was the use of color in the costume, set and lighting design. Jesse Klug projected the whole rainbow spectrum over the top of the playing space and complemented swatches of cement gray patterns painted on the floor with his own designs, superimposed through light. Joanna Iwanicka’s deceptively flat, monochromatic set – complete with hidden cupboards, sliding panels and emerging beds – perfectly provided the outline for each scene, then filled in with distinct palettes depending on which character was featured. Lyndsey Kuhlmann’s costumes were also on point, living stylistically somewhere between the book illustrations and real life.

First Stage has a long history of commissioning new work for young audiences, and presenting world premiere plays and musicals. "Nate the Great" is an exceptional example of that tradition – and a great way for the children’s theater to start the season.