The Hobbit at First Stage: Bilbo’s Big Adventure!

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)

Shammen McCune (Gandalf) and Leo Madson (Bilbo Baggins) in THE HOBBIT. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

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!

Leo Madson, Matt Daniels, and Elyse Edelman in THE HOBBIT. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

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)

Matt Daniels (front), Jake Badovski, Shammen McCune, Angel Rivera, and Elyse Edelman in THE HOBBIT. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

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!

Angel Rivera, Matt Daniels, Jake Badovski, and Shammen McCune in THE HOBBIT. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

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.

Angel Rivera and Matt Daniels in THE HOBBIT. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

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!!!

Leo Madson

Angel Rivera

PSA: First Stage Presents Tolkien’s The Hobbit!

I dropped the ball on this one, it opens TONIGHT!

Milwaukee, WI – January 18, 2022 – First Stage’s next offering in the new year is a thrilling production of THE HOBBIT, based on the book The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien and adapted for the stage by Greg Banks and directed by Artistic Director Jeff Frank. An unlikely hero, Bilbo Baggins, would much rather be sitting in their cozy Hobbit Hole with a cup of tea and a plate of bacon and eggs. However, they somehow find themselves on a magically mystical adventure. Staged with speed and surprises, audiences will be delighted as things change before their eyes.
Discover what happens as Bilbo travels on an epic journey over freezing mountains and through a frightening forest, meeting all sorts of fierce creatures – some who want to eat them, others who turn into dear friends. This will be a theatrical experience not to be missed!

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+

From Artistic Director/Director Jeff Frank: “Five actors. One musician. Thirty-two characters. Ninety minutes. One epic tale brought magically to life on a theatrical adventure unlike anything seen before at First Stage! I love the fast-paced, energetic adaptation by Greg Banks with actors switching characters at the drop of a hat or the donning of a costume piece. He has distilled the adventure to its essential elements and the audience is quickly swept up along with Bilbo. The intimate nature of the Goodman Mainstage Hall with the audience surrounding the stage, invites them to join Bilbo’s adventure. I envision the production set in the broken down, war-ravaged remains of a library. When reason has left us and greed and a lust for power have taken over – the pillars of society have crumbled – knowledge, truth, self-growth, empathy and understanding that our stories have provided us have been lost and must be looked to again. Bilbo shows us that courage is about taking on a challenge despite our fears and reminds us what it means to be a friend. They are the hero we all long to be.

There are a number of special events that you might be interested in, a Pay What You Choose performance on Friday February 10th and a Sensory Friendly performance on Saturday February 18th. For more information on these events, the play itself, and ticket information, please click HERE!

First Stage’s Young Company Presents A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

The Young Company is First Stage’s troupe of advanced high school age actors. And in the performances that I have experienced and again here with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they are playing beyond expectations for such a youthful cast.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and accessible and a great play to work with…because even audiences not familiar with Shakespeare in general know something of the plot and characters…and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy this play.

The Young Company is presenting the play at their Goodman Mainstage Hall in the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on Walnut just a bit north of the Deer District.

The Company is presenting the play in the round with very minimal staging. A barely raised circular stage with a low platform along one arc to provide space for speeches, resting, sleeping, and fairies! And that minimal set and restrained space can be challenging for the action and large ensemble required for A Midsummer Night’s Dream but these young actors make the most of it! Director Molly Rhode, a First Stage alumna, deserves a lot of credit for orchestrating the comings and goings as the scenes change and of course the cast for their perfect execution as fairies make way for nobles and nobles make way for craftsmen, and town or palace make way for the forest. And the physical comedy inherent in the play are also clearly apparent and the audience reactions made clear that we were all having fun!

And costuming too isn’t rich or over the top…but you will be able to discern when a character is a fairy! Or a noble! Or a craftsman! And that is important since a number of the actors are playing multiple roles. So pay attention but you with just a little care, you’ll be able to follow the characters as they progress through the story and the dreams Shakespeare wrote into this comedy. And if you lose track for even a moment, the various bells, horns, drums, and other sound effects will clue you in as to which scene and which group of characters is about to fill the stage in front of you. Although I doubt anyone will mistake a fairy for a noble!

But the limited scenic space and simple costuming lets the language come through. And the cast has mastered the language and the story here is told via the language and the actor’s commitment to the language. Truly remarkable for such a young cast. I think we will see any number of these young actors on Milwaukee’s adult stages in a few years.

One of stand outs on Sunday, was Zachary Nowacek as Nick Bottom. Nowacek brings all the requisite humor and boastfulness required for the role…particularly as the roles for the play within the play are announced…and despite securing the lead role Pyramus, Nowacek exhibits a perfect swagger as he suggests that he can play all of the roles. And when we finally get to see the play presented for the duke’s nuptials, Nowacek presents the appropriate bit of slapstick as he brandishes his prop sword causing his onstage audience to duck on cue…and then plays the death scene to the hilt (pun intended)…to all of our amusement…including the good duke!

And then we have Angel Rivera as Helena and Alice Rivera as Hermia. Two BFFs whose affections toward one another turn as the misdirections and mishaps in the court and the forest cause their suitors to inexplicably change their affections. Both of these young actors start from the love struck young women and move to some very adult confrontations as the actual Midsummer Night’s Dreams affected their love interests. Both roles were played with the correct intensity and emotion and really brought the stories home. And of course their eventual shift to happily wed noblewomen was played with the appropriate calm and regal bearing!

And you can’t leave a discussion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream without discussing Robin Goodfellow! And on Sunday afternoon, Robin was played by Mara Holzen, who was subbing for Josie Van Slyke. And Holzen gave us the proper feeling of spunk, frivolity, and mischief that you would expect from a puck. A proper very Puck indeed!!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is suggested for families and young people, ages 11+. And I will suggest that this a perfect production and a perfect venue to introduce young people to the language and poetry of Shakespeare! All seating is close to the stage and provides an intimate relationship with actors and the story.

It runs one more weekend, with performances on December 16th, 17th, and 18th. Tickets can be ordered here! There is ample free parking in their lot next to the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center and additional street parking.

Extra credit reading: The Playbill! and if you want to get a head start on the play or prepare those Shakespeare rookies: The Enrichment Guide

P.S. I will add photos later as they become available.