First Stage’s Carmela Full Of Wishes

One of the remarkable things for me in 2022 was getting acquainted with First Stage. I learned about children’s characters that I had only heard of before that. I learned a lot about children and family dynamics and social culture. And I saw a lot of great theater that I didn’t know was out there…put on by and put on for young people. And I was continually amazed by the effect that theater had on young people when the characters and stories were tailored to their interests. As a child of the Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo eras, that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but I forget.

And so the story continues in 2023, with Carmela Full of Wishes!

The play is adapted by Alvaro Saar Rios from the book by Matt de la Pena. And our story revolves around Carmela, who just this day is celebrating her seventh birthday, and her family and her community. We meet Mami who presents Carmela with pancakes with chocolate chips and a candle…but the chocolate chips were supposed to be a surprise…until Big Brother blurted out the secret. And then a gift of bangles and bracelets that make a distinctive and joyous clatter when Carmela shakes her wrists. I can’t imagine a seven year old who wouldn’t love those! But one unique gift is Carmela is now old enough to accompany her brother on errands for Mami…and here the adventure begins!

Isabella Dixon-Ruiz and Steven Cuevas Ruiz in CARMELA FULL OF WISHES. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And here we have to credit scenic designer Reginia Garcia for an exquistically colorful set that works overtime as Carmela’s house, a local bodega, neighbor’s homes, and city and community locales! And director Michelle Lopez-Rios makes sure Carmela and Big Brother get their steps in for the day as they traverse and circle the stage to complete their errands. But you give up the sense of dizzy and soon realize that they have been given a fair amount of responsibility and agency throughout the neighborhood!

Karen Estrada, Thomas Bastardo, and Isabel Scardino in CARMELA FULL OF WISHES. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And we get to know a lot more about the environment of a seven year old…both the physical one she is sharing with Big Brother and the one that she is working out in her mind and emotions. And Big Brother reacts just like a big brother most of the time. A bit domineering and not wanting to show affection for little sister. A very real life sibling dynamic.

Isabella Dixon-Ruiz and Parker Muñoz in CARMELA FULL OF WISHES. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But this is really about Carmela and the wishes…and some discoveries about her life, happiness, sorrows, and all. I won’t give away too much, but those wishes are the real journey and she shares them with the audience as she tries them out in her imagination, sometimes in asides and sometimes in direct presentations…clearly aloud because Big Brother warns her to quit talking to herself. But only Carmela is aware of the world outside of the stage.

Isabel Scardino in CARMELA FULL OF WISHES. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

In her journey, she learns about wishes and birthday candles and then the precious dandelion she protects and matter of factly bounces her ideas for wishes off of. And we see a young person who is hopeful, curious, aware, and highly imaginative…and a bit aware of the magic all around her and inside of her!

Isabella Dixon-Ruiz in CARMELA FULL OF WISHES. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

As always, First Stage has two casts for the younger actors in their presentations. I have included photos from each cast that were provided by First Stage.

Carmela Full of Wishes runs until February 12, 2023 at The Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center. Most of the times are weekend matinees at 1 PM and 3:30 PM and run time is 70 minutes plus a short intermission. Recommended for an audience of 3 and up and I can attest that younger children loved this show.

Click here for more information or to purchase tickets

Extra Credit Reading. the Playbill! and the Enrichment Guide!

Parker Muñoz and Isabel Scardino in CARMELA FULL OF WISHES. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

PSA: First Stage Starts 2023 With: Carmela Full Of Wishes!

From our friends at First Stage:

Milwaukee’s First Stage, one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families, begins the new year with CARMELA FULL OF WISHES, adapted by First Stage Resident Playwright Alvaro Saar Rios, (ON THE WINGS OF A MARIPOSA/ LUCHADORA!), from the popular book by award-winning children’s author Matt de la Peña, with illustrations by Christian Robinson. In this beautiful adaptation, audiences will discover that it is Carmela’s birthday, and her wish has already come true – she’s finally old enough to join her big brother as he does the family errands! As they travel through the neighborhood, Carmela finds a lone dandelion growing in the pavement. Before she can blow its puffy white fluff away, her brother tells her she must make a wish. If only she can think of just the right wish to make! Delight in this moving ode to family, to dreamers and to finding hope in the most unexpected places. Sponsored by PNC. 

From Director Michelle Lopez-Rios: “In CARMELA FULL OF WISHES, we take a big journey with Carmela on her birthday. Like the book, the play delivers a world that stimulates all the senses. The imaginative set, costume, sound and lighting designs of the production will play a vital role in bringing this world to life. There are fields of bright orange marigolds, tastes of paletas (popsicles), smells of fresh laundry and the beauty of life by the sea. As she tags along to run errands with her Big Brother, we travel through the vibrant community that is their home. We watch as Carmela dreams up the perfect wish for her birthday and reveals what life is like for her family. 

Family is at the heart of this journey. Mami starts off the day with chocolate pancakes and a charge for Big Brother to take care of his sister. Carmela and her brother bicker, tease each other as they make their way through the list of things to do and complicated conversations. We learn about their undocumented father and how her Big Brother is filling his shoes. We ache with her as she longs for her dad to be home and her family to be complete. It is a story that is familiar to too many youth in Milwaukee as they carry the weight of tremendous hardships in their daily life.  

It is hard to understand a world that would separate a six-year-old from her Papi. It is a world where all the adults she knows work so hard, including her Mami. It is a world that forces her brother to grow up quickly and help her navigate tough questions. The story is necessary because it explores the difficult issue of immigration from the point of view of a child trying to understand why her father cannot be home with his family. It is a story that we all need to know and understand. As Carmela dashes along the streets on her worn green scooter taking in the world around her, we witness the deep and endless love of this family, and we feel the resilience of hope.” 

CARMELA FULL OF WISHES runs January 20 – February 12, 2023 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets are $28 and can be purchased in person at the Marcus Center Box Office at 929 N. Water Street, by phone at (414) 273-7206 or online at firststage.org. Performance runtime is approximately 70 minutes, which includes a brief intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 3+. 

More information and to order tickets…click here!! There are some special event days as well, like pay what you can or sign language interpretative days. So click the link above to check those out!

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.