PSA: Milwaukee Repertory Theater Launches Their “Powering Milwaukee Campaign”, To Bring Milwaukee State Of The Art Theater Spaces.

There have been a number of ‘soft’ announcements about the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s plans to remodel and improve their downtown theater complex. But today, they sent out the official announcement to get their Powering Milwaukee Campaign off the ground. From their email announcement:

Today We Launch A Campaign For Our Future!

Nearly 70 years ago, Mary John Sullivan and Fredrick C. Miller joined forces to ensure that Milwaukee would be one of the first cities in the country to have a professional theater based in its community. Knowing that a world-class city needed both professional sports and theater, shortly after bringing Major League Baseball to our city, Miller Brewing CEO Miller would team up with Milwaukee Rep founder Sullivan to create our first home on Oakland Avenue – the Fred Miller Theater.

Over the decades, we would grow into one of the largest theaters in the country and the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, serving 300,000 people including 20,000 students annually with 700 performances coupled with award-winning educational programming. However, we are facing a critical challenge. While it has served us well for four decades, our aging and inefficient Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex severely limits the productions we stage, the plays we develop, and the kind of educational impact we have — and will soon jeopardize our mission.

Therefore, we have embarked on the Powering Milwaukee Campaign which will define the standard of theater in Wisconsin for generations to come. The Campaign will fund the creation of the new Associated Bank Theater Center, including three state-of-the-art performance spaces, a large unified lobby providing ample opportunities for community events, an expanded offsite production center employing hundreds of local artisans, and venues with modern audience amenities.

One of the more exciting new features will be a robust arts education center housed within the new complex to expand our highly impactful student programs. Milwaukee Rep is one of the largest providers of arts education programs in the Midwest focusing on literacy, critical thinking and social-emotional learning. Our award-winning programs improve both hard and soft skills necessary for future employment and post-secondary education. The new complex will allow us to meet the growing needs of our community and schools on our waiting list. 

In addition to education impacts, the Associated Bank Theater Complex will:

  • Strengthen Milwaukee’s brand as a hub of creativity and innovation by allowing us to tour popular productions around the world and to Broadway.
  • Attract talent and new audiences by building on our growth and creating exceptional, highly in-demand work on par with the best theaters globally.
  • Be Milwaukee’s most inclusive and accessible cultural destination allowing us to best serve persons with social, cognitive and/or physical disabilities.
  • Drive increased economic activity attracting tourists, young professionals, and new residents expanding our current $30 million annual economic impact on Downtown Milwaukee.

In the last twelve months, we have been busy and we’re pleased to share the following progress:

  • EUA and Hunzinger Construction have completed conceptual designs, a phased construction plan and renderings for the Associated Bank Theater Complex.
  • We raised nearly 60% of the $75 million campaign goal including 100% participation from our Board of Trustees due in large part to the generosity of our Founders Circle.
  • An all-star team of nearly 100 trustees and community leaders is leading the effort to create our new home, including campaign co-chairs Tammy Belton-Davis, Bill & Sandy Haack, Jeff & Sarah Joerres, and Craig & Mara Swan.

It’s been nearly 40 years since we have called upon our community to give generously to ensure that Milwaukee continues to have theater that produces exceptional art, inspires people, cultivates community and ignites education. Now, we need to make that ask.

We invite you to learn more about our Powering Milwaukee Campaign and how you can participate here.

Together, we can power Milwaukee — our theater, our community, our future!

Judy Hansen, President, Board of Trustees

Chad Bauman. Executive Director

Mark Clements, Artistic Director

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Musical, At Milwaukee’s First Stage!

For a family with youngsters, I can’t imagine a better way to start the holiday season, than by attending First Stage’s magical presentation of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Musical. The play itself is an adaptation of the animated television special of the same name. This version was conceived and directed by Jeff Frank and First Stage and the script adaptation was done by Robert Penola.

It certainly can’t be easy bringing an animated feature to the live stage but it certainly didn’t seem like that on the Todd Wehr stage. An immaculate stage dressed out in white and ice blue provides a spacious North Pole vista for the action and the singing and the dancing. Clever movable ice bergs and ice floes give us a chance to move across the tundra and get a sense of a different space. So thank you scenic designer, Brandon Kirkham!

 Emily Honigman, Karen Estrada, Ashley Oviedo, Tommy Novak (as Sam the Snowman) and cast in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER™: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2022. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But on to the characters. Our first and constant companion is Sam the Snowman, impeccably played by Tommy Novak, who moves around in that giant costume effortlessly. Sam is our MC for the day and also provides the lead for a number of the musical numbers. They certainly provided continuity and stability to the story…and it felt like Mr. Novak brought their best Burl Ives into play here!

And the other main characters include David Flores as Santa, Karen Estrada as Mrs. Claus, Rick Pendzich as Yukon Cornelius, J. T. Backes as Boss Elf, James Carrington as Donner, Ashley Oviedo as Mrs. Donner, and TIm Linn as Bumble and Moonracer. One incredible cast. Between having to change mood and situation and sing in elaborate costume, they pulled the magic out of the story and brought it clearly to the stage.

 Lucia Harris and cast in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER™: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2022. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Of course, the star of the show is Rudolph! And as with all of their other presentations, First Stage has two separate casts for their young performers. At the late afternoon Sunday matinee that I attended, I saw the Silver Cast and Liam Eddy was playing Rudolph. For those of you who don’t know the story yet, there seems to be some trepidation about Rudolph’s nose…you could even say it glows. So we see attempts to hide his red nose, to make fun of his red nose, ostracize the very cute (she said he was cute) reindeer, and then of course to finally celebrate him as a hero!!! The role has been very carefully developed and presented here and you will understand and feel a variety of emotions as Rudolph grows and develops.

Layton Lal, Liam Eddy, and Rick Pendzich in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER™: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2022. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

AND there are puppets! What a wonderful addition to the ensemble and story…we have owls and squirrels and seals…AND THE BUMBLE. And the Bumble appears in a number of sizes and attributes depending on his relationship to the main characters on stage and his place in the story. But this costume and Tim Linn’s facility in moving around stage in it, is just completely entrancing. And it is interesting to watch the transition of the character from menacing monster to friendly neighbor at the close of the play. So thanks again to Brandon Kirkham who also designed the puppets and costumes. And bravo to the various actors who voiced and moved the puppets through out the action.

Now my favorite part of the play? Well this might be a little bit of a surprise, but it was the Elf ensemble! They were clad in some very bright and lively elf costumes and it was just a joy to watch them build toys, read toy request letters, load the sleigh, and perform in a number of song and dance numbers through out. Just simple and pure fun! Wow!!

Ashley Oviedo (lower left), Tommy Novak (as Sam the Snowman), Lauren DeGroot, Lucia Harris (as Rudolph) and James Carrington (center) and cast in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER™: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2022. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

I am sure that I left some fun stuff out. For those of us young enough that we don’t yet know the whole story, there will be just enough drama here as Rudolph makes his way through his story. The costumes, the lighting, the music, the dance numbers will enthrall. We will learn that reindeer really know how to fly and how they learn. For those of us with a little more experience with the story, we will learn how something done simply in animation is interpreted on the stage with live actors. That anticipation is a lot of fun as well!!

And there is the finale and grand finale as the cast sings, what else, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer! You may feel the urge to sing along.

If you plan on going, Rudolph runs through December 24, 2022 at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Performing Arts Center. It is recommended for people 4 years and older! The play runs 70 minutes plus a short intermission. You can order tickets at the link below but do not wait another moment if you intend to go. At the matinee performance I attended I didn’t see more than a few empty seats in the main floor…so this is a very popular event.

Ticket information here!!

Extra credit reading: The playbill here!

Karen Estrada and David Flores in RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER™: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2022. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.