For everyone already familiar with The Hobbit via either J.R.R. Tolkien’s book or the various videos or movies will certainly wonder how First Stage is going to present the entire story in 90 minutes. But they manage to do so with just four adult actors and one youth actor and they will amaze you. But this will take every fiber of your imagination to keep up with the transitions and character changes!
For those youngsters who don’t know the story yet, they will be mesmerized by the continuous action and the story telling and the music. How do I know that? Well usually there is some low level chatter from young people during most First Stage presentations, either from the excitement of theater or questions about the action addressed to their parents. But at this past Saturday’s matinee, despite a larger than normal audience, it was very very quiet! (so side note: don’t hesitate to order tickets because this is a very popular play)
One of the strengths of First Stage is the maximum effect they work from their sets and costuming. And it is on peak display here. The Goodman Mainstage Hall is a very cozy theater in the round and no one is more than four rows away from the action. So making the most of the stage with minimal furnishings and props is a key part of their presentation…and they are superb here. A few chairs, tables, and books…some ladders and superb lighting…and a few costume additions bring the multitude of characters to life. And your proximity to the action means you will understand every line and every action and will be able to transition with the character changes. And that will be important! So real props to the team that put together these scenic elements for The Hobbit!
But Director Jeff Frank has mastered the challenge of telling the story with just four adult actors who play ALL of the roles other than Bilbo Baggins, our hero! Matt Daniels plays Thorin, king of the dwarves, Jamey Feshold and Elyse Edelman play dwarves, and Shammen McCue plays Gandalf the wizard. And all four play trolls, elves, wolves, and goblins depending on the demands of the story…you simply have to watch for a number of changes in costuming and devices and attitude or postures to keep up (as we see the changes from dwarven miner’s helmets to goblin steampunk goggles to straw wolven masks to elven ears and back). They certainly have adapted and thrown themselves into all of these roles and the transitions are clear and believable. It works far better that my description! (one costume note…there is a bit of amusement when the trolls, clad in bubble wrap, take to slapping each other, as the occasional familiar pop is heard when the bubble wrap gives up)
And of course there is the dragon…Smaug who is also represented by the adult members of the ensemble with flags and lighting and although this representation clearly brings out the sense of danger and foreboding that a dragon represents, it isn’t scary for young people!
And then there is the hero of our adventure, Mr. Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit gentleman of comfort. As always, First Stage uses two youth casts in their presentations. So depending on which performance you attend you will either see Leo Madson or Angel Rivera in the title role. And as you can imagine this is a very challenging role. Of course Bilbo has to go from the disbelieving homebody to a reluctant adventurer to the action hero of the story and eventually to the wise and self-effacing hobbit on his return home! I saw Leo Madson in this role and he gave us every reason to believe in Bilbo Baggins the hero despite the characters own misgivings. I certainly look forward see him perform in future plays.
And there is one other role that must not be overlooked…despite this not being an acting role on stage. But Natalie Ford provided musical accompaniment and a number of related sound effects throughout the performance. Her guitar work in particular supports the various songs the ensemble sings during their treks across the land. And I suspect it was Natalie producing the ting that alerted the audience to Bilbo’s placing the ring on his finger…and later removing it again.
THE HOBBIT runs February 3 – March 5, 2023 in the newly remodeled Goodman Mainstage Hall at Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets are $25. Tickets are available online at firststage.org or through the First Stage Box Office at (414) 267-2961. Performance runtime is approximately 90 minutes, which includes a brief intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 8+
Extra credit reading includes the program, found here!
And one other fun fact. At the end of each performance the actors hold a brief talk back where audience members can ask questions about the play or theater. So be ready to raise a hand if you have a question. A highlight on Saturday was a young questioner who wanted to know how old you had to be to start taking lessons at First Stage. And one of the actors volunteered that they had started as a five year old! AND the young questioner excitedly blurted out that he WAS FIVE! Some real fun!!!