Sometimes it can be difficult to fully understand how magnificent First Stage is in the theatrical firmament, not just in Milwaukee, but across the country as well.
But one way to grasp the breadth and quality of achievement, production after production after production, is to take a look at "Goosebumps," which opened over the weekend at the Todd Wehr Theater.
By the end of this, its 30th season, First Stage will have produced 61 world premieres. Many are memorable, like "Hannah’s Suitcase" and "Luchadora" – the latter by local Alvaro Saar Rios, which is to this day, one of the best plays I’ve ever seen in this city.
It starts with John Maclay and Danny Abosch, who created the script for "Goosebumps," based on a series of spooky mystery stories by R.L. Stine. The two of them teamed together and ended up creating kind of a young person’s version of the famed "Phantom of the Opera."
Abosch is a highly talented musical composer and arranger, and the script is appropriate for children but holds enough humor, thrills and chills to hold the attention of an adult audience member for the 90 minutes or so of the show. When First Stage pledges that it’s theater for the entire family, it’s not an empty pledge.
Next came the selection of a director and the other creative people who make a show go. For this one, artistic director Jeff Frank and Maclay (who is the associate artistic director) chose Niffer Clarke, who has been acting, directing and teaching for over 30 years. She is the embodiment of the vision of a theater professional.
The rest of the creative team all came from the ranks of professionals with lots of experience and expertise in their crafts.
"Every now and then, a designer or someone will come in who has worked in another town or community, and they will qualify a sentence with, 'Well, it's children's theater so … ' and we just cut them off," Maclay said. "Stop. Stop. Whatever you say next is wrong. If you are qualifying how we are going to create art because it's children's theater, then you don't get what we do."
Frank seconds that motion, citing the First Stage commitment to the best that the theater world has to offer.
"The only difference between adult theater and children's theater is that children's theater has to be better,'" Frank said. "It's so true. Your audience is going to be right there, telling you what they think.
"An adult will have sort of their polite mode on. Maybe if I didn't understand it, it's on me. Or I paid a lot for these tickets so I better applaud. Kids either willingly suspend their disbelief and come with you, or they say, 'Nah, I'm not coming. I don't believe it.' They may not be able to articulate the why, but if the characters aren't believable, they step back out."
Once all the pieces are in place, it’s time to cast the show. One of the things that distinguishes First Stage is the hiring of all professional adult actors and doing age-appropriate casting for the children's roles.
In "Goosebumps," Carrie Hitchcock and Chris Klopatek – two Equity actors who have great resumes – took the two adult roles. The other eight roles are taken by young elementary and high school students who have done theater before and may well have been through the First Stage teaching process.
The value to these young actors of being able to work side by side with professionals like Hitchcock and Klopatek is invaluable. Many of these young actors will graduate to roles in many other professional companies in Milwaukee. The mix of casting professional and young amateurs is by design.
"There are those in the world who stigmatize children's theater in general as being less than professional," Maclay said. "The only way to battle that perception is to hire well trained professionals. Everybody here, from designers to directors to actors, is a highly-trained professional."
Ticket lottery for "Mormon"
"The Book of Mormon" is coming back by popular demand after playing a record breaking two-week run in 2015, and there will be a lottery ticket policy for the National Tour, which begins Oct. 25 at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee. It will be a limited one week engagement through Oct. 30, and the production will conduct a pre-show lottery at the box office, making a limited number of tickets available at $25 a piece.
The wildly popular lottery for the Broadway production has attracted as many as 800 entries at some performances in other cities.
Entries will be accepted at the box office beginning two and a half hours prior to each performance. Each person will print their name and the number of tickets (one or two) they wish to purchase on a card that is provided. Two hours before curtain, names will be drawn at random for a limited number of tickets priced at $25 each. Only one entry is allowed per person. Cards are checked for duplication prior to drawing. Winners must be present at the time of the drawing and show valid ID to purchase tickets. Limit one entry per person and two tickets per winner. Tickets are subject to availability.
Ready, set, go.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.