By Gwen Rice, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Oct 23, 2019 at 4:01 PM

The stage really seems to come alive, bursting with vibrant color and the wings of hundreds of butterflies, in First Stage’s "On the Wings of a Mariposa," the company’s slight but visually sumptuous opening production for the 2019-20 season.

Based on the book "Ghost Wings" by Milwaukee author Barbara Joosse and adapted for the stage by Alvaro Saar Rios, it is a story of beauty and transformation, of knowledge passed down through generations, and of remembrance of family members who have passed on. Directed with obvious affection by Karen Estrada, the bilingual play with music mixes universal themes of transition and loss with specific Mexican traditions around La Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) for a unique look at the way different cultures deal with change.

Dayanara Sanchez plays the lead role of Pilar in the Oyamel cast, which I saw opening weekend. (Abby Hanna plays Pilar in alternating performances with the Algodoncillo cast.) With long black braids and a nice blend of melancholy and curiosity, the young actress is an able guide on a path filled with challenges. Mature enough to want independence but young enough to be plagued with nightmares and the fear of monsters under her bed, she is "finding her wings" as she morphs from child to young adult. 

But before we delve into Pilar’s transition from a cocoon of safety to her first tentative flights on her own, we learn that each autumn, millions of mariposas – or monarch butterflies – arrive in a forest in Mexico as part of their seasonal migration. This fact is made magical through the fantastical set design by Stephen Hudson-Mairet. Like a dream forest, trees glow in surreal aquas, purples, oranges and pinks. In an artful detail, realistic butterflies painted on the frame of the proscenium morph into traditionally Mexican iconography as they journey down to the stage level. 

Then the cast enters embodying a multitude of butterflies – holding mini mobiles, articulating hand puppets, wearing headbands decorated by monarchs and even swirling floor length burnt orange skirts that read as enormous wings. The ensemble dons a mix of outfits that reinforce the color palette, while Laura E. Crotte’s joyful, laughing Abuela wears a heavily embroidered, traditional Mexican apron sporting a butterfly at its center. Costume designer Jazmin Aurora Medina’s uber-detailed, sumptuous creations work together perfectly with the set to create a distinct, colorful world.

This stunningly beautiful clearing called el circulo magico (the magic circle) is where young Pilar goes to commune with nature and remember her grandmother, who has recently passed away. Wrapping her abuela’s monarch orange rebozo around her, Pilar conjures memories of tortilla making lessons, hears her grandmother’s laughter again and looks for the old woman’s spirit among the brilliantly colored butterflies and wondrously glowing trees. But as the smell of her abuela fades from the scarf Pilar now wears, how will she hold on to these recollections? Through ensuing scenes with friends Ramiro (Enzo Velasco) and Amparo (Stephanie Santoyo-Bustos) and Pilar’s mother, played by the warm Rána Roman, Pilar tries to sort out how to hold onto memories of those who have died, while slowly letting go of her grief.

Creating a bilingual theater experience is a unique and challenging undertaking. In early readings of "On the Wings of Mariposa," the creative team made sure that both Spanish and English speakers could easily understand the flow of the story using a mash-up of phrases from both languages. The blend here is successful and elegantly achieved by the actors, who switch back and forth effortlessly. However, it does require extra concentration from the audience, which was a struggle for younger guests. It also requires clear, strong delivery of lines from the young performers, many of whom were hard to hear and harder to understand. 

The script presents another challenge to young theater goers. Not surprisingly, it follows the storytelling style of a children’s book. But that means there are many small scenes with low stakes as the characters plod through a slow, elongated narrative. Combining a flat story arc with short musical detours (original music and lyrics by Dinah Márquez) and an anticlimactic, if visually impressive end, makes "On the Wings of a Mariposa" a quiet and interesting, but uncompelling story.

Instead, it serves best as a nice tribute to Mexican holidays, customs, food, music and traditions, set on a gorgeous background.