The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical at First Stage

Is this really the best Christmas pageant ever? Well I have it on the best authority from Helen Armstrong, the church choir director and traditional director of the play, that indeed it is!

And Helen Armstrong, as played by Lachrisa Landberry, has a magnificent grand voice and a room filling personality that just endears everyone in her presence. And she makes it known that she has definite plans and goals and doesn’t take no for answer. When we first meet Helen she is preparing to audition the children for this year’s Christmas pageant…something of a formality since it seems the same kids play the same roles each year. But Lachrisa brings us that Helen who is clearly in charge and tells us that this is how it is done!

Lachrisa Grandberry (far left), J.T. Backes (center) and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

So we the audience expect a well run typical Christmas pageant with probably a few snags and hilarious bumps in the road. Well, until: calamity strikes and Helen falls on the ice and is hospitalized. So with her don’t take no for an answer attitude, she recruits a novice director, Grace Bradley, to take over the pageant.

Maya O’Day Biddle, Karen Estrada (center), Eviana Gibbons, and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Grace Bradley is played by Karen Estrada, who is a busy wife and mother, and defers at first but can’t resist Helen’s dynamic insistence. And soon she finds she may have bit off more than she can chew but it throws her only for a moment…and Karen brings us a Grace who finds a true Christmas story in the events around her pageant. And she brings that message back to the others in her community.

If you are familiar with First Stage or have been reading my responses to their performances, you know that they alternate between two youth casts with adult actors anchoring the productions…particularly when they are at the Todd Wehr at the Marcus Center as they are for the The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. So I wont be selecting particular actors here but there are two casts: The Kerpows and the Shazams. Here is a link to the playbill for more information on the cast!

Lorelei Wesselowski (center) and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

The drama in the story is introduced when the Herdmans are ‘mugging’ their fellow students in the cafeteria for their lunches. And Charlie Bradley lets slip that he enjoys treats in Sunday school because there are no Herdmans there to spoil the experience. And the Herdmans are the worst kids in the world…all the other kids agree on that. Well, the Herdmans extract more information from Charlie and they show up for the pageant auditions for the snacks. And they force their way into the starring roles as Grace Bradley has little control over their actions. But the rest of the town and Helen Armstrong are incensed but rehearsals go on.

J.T. Backes (front), Laura Gordon, Bree Beelow, and Michelle LoRicco in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

At the first rehearsal, the Herdmans play free and loose with the Christmas carols and are amazed at the events around the Christmas story, which they were not familiar with. Shenanigans ensue, Herdmans smoke cigars, the pastor cancels the pageant, and eventually as more of the back story unfolds Grace reinstates the pageant and retains the Herdmans in the lead roles. Of course there is some very unusual acting to tell this version of the Christmas story but it all works out and brings us to the Best Christmas Pageant Ever! And now a bit more about First Stage’s presentation.

I think this is the largest cast that I have seen at First Stage, nearly two dozen performers on stage for the final numbers and it is a musical after all. And there are some very grand new songs here and the First Stage brings them to life with flair and full voice. You can’t help but feel happy and fulfilled when you hear them and there were a number of times where the audience added spontaneous bits of hand claps. And there is a tremendous amount of humor here, you will laugh without realizing it…even you adults! And there is a real Christmas pageant here…a stable and manger, angels, the Holy Family, shepherds, the three wise guys (sic), the star, and sheep: young actors playing sheep!

Lorelei Wesselowski and Terrance Ilion, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Director and choreographer Molly Rhode certainly worked hard to bring all of the parts and roles together and made magnificent music work and made this a best pageant ever! And it always amazes me that First Stage directors can keep the action going at the same time that prop furniture is being wheeled on or off set.

The costumes are marvelous here…lush colors and accurate depictions of 1950s – 1960s attire. I wore some of those outfits back in the day. I wish I had Charlie Bradley’s cowboy hat when I was 10. One of my favorite items were the holiday aprons that the three church women were wearing when they are baking holiday desserts. But all of the costumes were period perfect…even the Herdmans black black black clothing!

Karen Estrada, J.T. Backes, Lachrisa Grandberry, Chase Stoeger, Michelle LoRicco, and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

This is a very popular production, so don’t dawdle in picking up tickets. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever the Musical runs through December 24, 2023 and is recommended for children five and up and up and up! More information and tickets here!

Extra Credit Reading: a repost of the link to the Playbill

all photos courtesy of First Stage!

The Forgotten Girl, A World Premiere Presentation by First Stage Theater!

In a Milwaukee theater season rife with premieres, First Stage Theater brings us one more with the incredible play, The Forgotten Girl, adapted by Idris Goodwin from a novel by India Hill Brown.

First Stage has two sides to their coin. If you have only attended their presentations at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, you are familiar with their bright and noisy side…theater that presents some serious topics and strong story lines but built around large ensembles with colorful sets and music, song, and dance. As an adult theater goer I am intrigued by the flip side, the plays they present in their home base in the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Their theater in the round here is far more intimate, so these plays generally feature smaller casts, very simple stage/prop settings and are more often dramas…and are more reliant on the youth actors in their company. The Forgotten Girl is a prime example.

Now I am going to try to describe what The Forgotten Girl is all about without too many spoilers. The play has so many layers and for them all to work together effectively for you when you visit First Stage, I need to be careful not to give too much away. But I will start with this: this play heavily emphasizes the importance of family, community, and abiding friendships. And how our history can easily be overlooked or totally forgotten. And just for a moment, forgotten is the key word.

Madison Jones and Santana Marie Hayden (back) in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But of course the first question is, who is the forgotten girl? As the play starts that would seem to be Iris, a curious energetic twelve year old who seems to have been snubbed in a number of ways at her school and by her peers. We are never completely sure why she is being overlooked but there are hints in the text. But she has a best friend, Daniel, who is complicit in helping Iris reach for a very particular goal and dream. And the play gives us a good look at how friendship works here…Iris is often an instigator while Daniel in a bit reticent to try some of the things that Iris suggests…but in the end they support each other! Aas the play progresses, you may find a number of other candidates for your forgotten girl.

Estelle Brown (left), Sherrick Robinson and Alexandria King in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And they are supported and loved by their family. Iris has very supportive parents in Daddy and Mama and Daniel’s grandmother, Suga, is a very solid role model and supportive adult as well. There are just three adult actors in the play: Daddy is played by Sherrick Robinson, who has a hard time being the stern father even when something serious is happening; Mama as played by Alexandra King, something of a take charge mom who instantly meets with the principal when she realize Iris is being left out of school activities (Iris obviously gets her spunk from Mama); and Cynthia Cobb as Suga, the sweet grandma with a superstitious streak and a secret to tell before the play comes to an end.

Cynthia Cobb and Amirah Muhammad (front) and Jessimia Page (back) in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

At the urging of Iris, Iris and Daniel enter a woods near their homes during a snow storm, against the instructions of the adults in their lives. And while making snow angels in the fresh snow, they discover the gravestone of Avery, who died at the age of 12. Iris becomes fixated with Avery and this results in a number of eerie events…apparent nightmares, nocturnal visions, and her window mysteriously being opened in the middle of the night. Things get stranger and stranger until Avery makes herself known to Iris during one of these late night visits.

Daniel and Iris are assigned a class project to research and report on a bit of local history, and they discover that Avery’s grave is part of an abandoned segregated grave yard. So other than writing and presenting their report, they also try to start a school class project to help restore and beautify the grave yard. And that’s when we get to know two of their classmates, Heather and Sara. They represent a different point of view on small town contemporary life and how it has evolved from local history. One bit of action to watch is how the relationship of Heather and Sara shifts during the play. There is an interesting transition there.

Fiona Fouliard (left), Sherrick Robinson (center), Jessimia Page and Noeloni-Aniya Heard in THE FORGOTTEN GIRL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Director Jon Royal has given us a very fluid play here. The action never stops even when the actors aren’t speaking. And Royal makes ultimate use of the oval stage as action moves from one section to the next, speakers move upstage or down as the ensemble moves/removes stage set devices around them, and yes they move in a very specific and ghost like choreography through out. At times it was a struggle for me to know where to focus my attention, but that helps build some of the tension and anxiousness that the story holds for us.

For me, this was the most engaging and satisfying production that I have experienced at First Stage. The characters are clear and interesting individuals and the story draws contemporary life accurately, and shows how it is a result of our history, even when we don’t see that anymore. It deserves a much wider audience than the capacity at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.

First Stage productions always work with two casts. So I haven’t gone into discussion of individual youth actors…you may see the Snow Cast while I saw the Angel Cast.

The Forgotten Girl runs through November 12, 2023 and you can get more info or order tickets here. The Forgotten Girl is recommended for children ages 10 – 12, teens, and adults. And there is a lot here for adults!

Extra Credit reading! The Playbill! and an Enrichment Guide!

First Stage Takes A Lambeau Leap With Dream Quickie! Dream

Milwaukee’s premiere children’s theater celebrates their 37th year by opening the 2023/24 with a world premiere, Dream Quickie! Dream…a personal and rewarding play for young people based on events in the life of Green Bay Packers star, Donald ‘Quickie’ Driver! The play is written by Gloria Bond Clunie and directed by Dimonte Henning!

Tiago Patterson and Denzel Taylor in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

This is a fast paced story featuring a very tired Packer’s version of Donald Driver as the father of a new born, and the youthful and hopeful middle school aged Quickie driver. Their interactions are sometimes ethereal, sometimes in dreams, sometimes stories told by father to infant, and sometimes in apparent real time. If you blink you will miss it or worse, miss the transition from one reality to the next. And you don’t want to miss a thing because this is a very meaningful story around dreams. And working hard to fulfill those dreams. But also the importance of friendship, family, love, teamwork, and owning your responsibilities. All told with text but in the best First Stage tradition, music and dance, both solo and ensemble!

Patrice L. Hood (far left), Caiden Chambers (center), Allen D. Edge (far right) and cast in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

As always there are two casts that alternate. And the majority of the cast is enthusiastic talented young people with just a few adults who guide the way. So depending on when you attend you may see the Lambeau cast like I did or the Lombardi cast! See the playbill below for individual cast members.

Tiago Patterson, Patrice L. Hood, and Allen D. Edge (rear) in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

You got to what? WORK IT!!

But the story provides us insight into the struggles that Donald Driver overcame to reach his dream. From a tough neighborhood in Houston through adults not believing he was big enough to play football despite his obvious desire, how he put in the effort to achieve his dream, how he worked at his school work as well as his football, and how at times, like any youngster, he lost sight of his responsibilities. And we also celebrate his friendship with Billy, another star on the middle school football team and how they both respond to disappointment when Billy’s family moves away before the big game. There is a lot to learn here…a lot to appreciate. Epic!

Shaun Brown and Caiden Chambers in DREAM, QUICKIE! DREAM! First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And I’d like mention another of First Stage’s real strengths: as always the set and back drops are just eye catchingly beautiful and enhance the story line from the moment the lights come up! This one elicited two of the three questions from the audience during the post play talk back.

And one more important thing because I missed the memo: Wear your Packer gear!!!

And yes, Donald Driver has been involved and supportive of Dream Quickie! Dream!

photo courtesy of First Stage

Dream Quickie! Dream is being performed at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, a large enough and cozy enough venue for the audience to feel close to the action. The play runs 75 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission. It is a story for ages 7 and up but there is a warning that there is some implied violence and flashing lights are used a number of instances.

Ticket and additional information here!

Extra credit reading: Playbill