Jane Eyre, The Musical, At The Lake Country Playhouse

I read Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre in eighth grade. I know that I enjoyed it. But that was just over sixty years ago. So at a stratospheric level I have some memory of the story line…but the details have been lost in the mist. So I was eager to see how much of the story would return to me while watching the Lake Country Players present Jane Eyre, The Musical. Or even more in question was, how can a musical present the whole story? Well, my friends, the hardest working stage in the lake country delivered and delivered…and Jane Eyre fans won’t miss out on any of their favorite characters or any of their cherished plot lines!

Paige Lombardi as Young Jane, Emily Keiner as Jane Eyre, and Jaela Landowski as a schoolgirl. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, Photographer: Breanne Brennan

Playwrights John Caird (book and lyrics) and Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) have indeed provided us with the complete story of Jane Eyre (yes,yes, I know some small events had to be glossed over or skipped to fit the story into a musical) but they also very wisely maintained the first person feel of the presentation in the grand atmosphere created by Charlotte Bronte in the novel. So many of Jane’s recitations or asides to the audience are spoken by members of the ensemble in rapid succession as we watch Jane assimilate the situation she finds herself in at that particular moment. And yes it is a large and very skilled ensemble playing multiple roles, as 28 actors present the story through 2 acts and 39 songs! And as I mentioned, LCP’s hardest working stage? The actors also completed dozens of set changes that keep our heads spinning and well as Jane’s. Director Breanne Brennan, choreographer Thom Cauley, and stage manager Ashley Williams have created a mystery of fluidity on stage as the story and music proceed apace! At one point I think I saw 25 people on the stage for one of the late play ensemble numbers.

And we have two Jane Eyre’s! Paige Lombardi exhibits the youthful exuberance of a young girl but already has the drive and moxy that the adult Jane is going to need. Particularly moving is her interaction with cousin John Reed and her aunt Mrs. Reed that results in her exile to Lowood Institution. And there are a number of transitional pieces in the musical where she appears with Emily Keiner as our adult Jane that illustrate the bridge from youthful Jane to her full adult self. Keiner owns Jane Eyre here as she makes her own decisions to determine her own life path and she perfectly and demonstrably shifts from love and happiness to the crestfallen woman whose hopes are dashed as the secrets of Thornfield Hall and Mr. Rochester come to light. How Keiner so easily makes these transitions is a talent that I hope we see more of at LCP in coming seasons.

left to right, Erin Sura as Mrs. Fairfax, Emily Keiner as Jane Eyre, and Ezekial N. Drews as Edward Rochester. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, Photographer: Breanne Brennan

Ezekial N. Drews is similarly gifted as he portrays Edward Rochester. Drews has a character who runs from intimidating and surly patrician, to a stately and mannered gentleman, to a seductive wooing suitor, and finally a contrite and mild, defeated man…Drews missed nary a step in these various miens and certainly portrayed the Rochester that readers will remember from the novel.

A pure delightful character and lighter space in the musical is Reagan Renner as Adele, the student who Jane is responsible for while governess at Thornfield Hall. Her exuberance and sassy caricature present just the right bit humor at just the right time. Particularly as she mimics Mrs. Fairfax’s animated scolding just out of sight of the other characters on stage.

Erin Sura as Mrs. Fairfax and Emily Keiner as Jane Eyre. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players, Photographer: Breanne Brennan

And some of the tenderest albeit sad scenes feature Gabriella George as Jane’s best friend, Helen Burns, at Lowood. Her interplay with Lombardi as the young Jane is very very touching and then her death during the Typhus outbreak and Jane’s grieving are particularly touching moments…far more so than some of the adult heartbreak…and George is a major player in the success of these scenes! Another actor who I hope finds a place in future LCP seasons.

And one last bit about the set: LCP often uses visuals projected on the back wall of the stage to set the feeling and locale for each change of scene. Director Brennan certainly put a lot of thought into what was selected here. She created a number of slides that resemble watercolors and drawings that not only tell us we are in an attic or school room or garden…but they are also depicted in a gray and just out of focus manner that clearly tells us that we are in a 19th C. Gothic story.

Paige Lombardi as young Jane and Gabriella George as Helen Burns and in the background, Emily Keiner as Jane Eyre. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players. Photographer Breanne Brennan.

Jane Eyre, The Musical continues through July 21, 2024 at the Lake Country Playhouse in Hartland WI. Ticket and other information available here. It was sold out at the performance that I attended. RUNTIME: 2 hours, 30 minutes. 15 Minute Intermission.

Lake Country Players: The Clockmaker’s Daughter, An Original Musical Faerytale.

You might guess from the subtitle, An Original Musical Faerytale, that the scene isn’t our present day America. No, much of the story is an Ireland of about a century ago…although it does bookend in contemporary times but where better to hear a faerytale than the old sod?

Cory Klein as Abraham Reed. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

So what is our faerytale? An Irish clockmaker, who lost his wife in child birth, loses his daughter as she was approaching young adulthood. In his sadness and depression he fashions a clockwork figure to take the place of his daughter in his life. And once wound up, she becomes animated and cognizant beyond his wildest dreams. But ever fearful for her well-being, he forbids her from leaving their home…but she can see the great and intriguing real world right outside their very window.

So of course, her curiosity overcomes her fealty to her ‘father’, and when he’s away she ventures out of the house into Spindlewood…where she meets the town’s people and finds many friends and many new emotions. And all goes well as no one suspects her origins until one fateful day when…everything goes awry. You will have to experience the play to get the rest of the story.

Jyrajo Petit-Walla as Constance. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

So this IS a musical…the songs and lyrics are truly amazing. They not only move the story forward but they are just beautiful to behold in their own right…and there are a number of very challenging duets and solo pieces within the ensemble pieces that are just amazing. But despite the apparent complexity, Director Sarah Jo Martens’ cast just nails it…and kudos also to Music Director Tracy Garon for bringing these songs to the fore and making every voice a joyous celebration.

And this is a faerytale, but it goes beyond that. It is a story of community, in good and bad times, there is sadness and joy, depression and elation, love and hate, hope and curiosity, a bit of jealousy, family dynamics of different bents, and rash and irrational fears that tear a community apart.

Lexi Ellis (center) as Amelia Glynn. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

But this is also a master class in presenting a full sized musical in a jewel box theater, something the Director Sarah Jo Martens can be particularly proud of. There are twenty two characters here…and at times they are all on stage…a seemingly small stage…my guess about 25 feet wide and 15 feet deep. And for a Clockmaker’s Daughter they had to share a corner of the stage with the raised platform for the band. And the action is constant, and I mean CONSTANT. Not only the action but the setting and resetting of the set pieces and furnishings…all cleverly designed and moved throughout the performance. The set design team is Kimberly Laberge and Adam Harrison. And again my thanks to Music Director Tracy Garon for keeping the voices on cue and on tempo…but also to Choreographer Thom Cauley for creating the ensemble dance pieces and Stage Manager Danny Polaski for keeping it all straight. I never was sure where to look as the actors were again, constantly in motion, but I never suspected a moment of hesitation in the dance or song.

Ben Ardis as Will Riley and Jyrajo Petit-Walla as Constance. Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

So, I have rambled and rambled and haven’t mentioned the actors! So let’s start with the clockmaker’s daughter, Constance, as played by Kyrajo Petit-Walla. Petit-Walla does an incredible job of portraying the initially clumsy and awkward clockwork doll and then with her growing cognition and learning, becomes a young lady of Spindlewood. Her ‘father’, the clockmaker Abraham Reed, is played by Cory Klein, who also has to portray the gamut of emotions, from grieving father, to doting father, and finally to worried parent as events transpire in Spindlewood. Ben Ardis plays the love interest for Candace, one Will Riley, a seemingly put upon son of the seamstress Ma’ Riley, with visions and hopes of a great future adult life for himself. Ma’ Rainey is something of an enigma here, a deft artisan, a stern taskmaster in her shop, and a sales lady on demand, and finally a community activist and skilled liar at the end. She is played by Danielle Katers…and oh what a voice as she has a significant song in the first act. One other stand out is Lexi Ellis who plays Amelia Kelly…soon to be Amelia Glynn in a marriage that sets the turning point in the action in the play. Ellis portrays a loving fiancee, true friend, and strong personal presence in the story.

Again, I am amazed that Lake Country Players has taken on such a demanding piece of theater…and again they have excelled in their presentation.

Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

Two Quibbles:

First, with the authors. The constant change in venue from clockmaker’s workshop, to town’s square, to dressmaker’s workshop, to brook, to mayor’s home, and o’er and back seems a disincentive to small companies interested in staging this musical. Martens and team overcame the challenge.

Second, at times the music is too loud. Particularly during some solos…the band obscures the vocals making the lyrics difficult to hear…and of course, the lyrics are critical to the story.

Here is the link to their website with more information. Unfortunately the site indicates that the show is sold out. But click through and plan on seeing their upcoming shows…from my experience, I can’t imagine that the Lake Country Players will disappoint and the drive to Hartland is worth it!

Photo courtesy of Lake Country Players and Taran Schatz Photography

Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, The Musical at First Stage

Did you ever dream that you fell asleep doing your homework and awaken inside of your spiral bound notebook surrounded by your own scrawls and doodles? Probably not but that is the wonderland presented to us by Scenic Designer, Casey Price! A wondrous floor and back drop and proscenium defined by college ruled blue lines, red margin delimiters, and the aforementioned doodles greet us as we enter the theater. And the theme is elaborately maintained as the blue ruled motif appears across household appliances, school lockers, and nearly every other stage prop in sight. What absolute fun!

And Diary of a Wimpy Kid is probably the most musicy musical that I have seen this season. The story is told almost exclusively through song and dance, rapidly moving from solo to small group to ensemble pieces that kept the children in the audience mesmerized. Look away a moment and you will miss something…something wonderful!

So that brings me to the amazing work by Director Julie Woods-Robinson, Music Director Paula Tillen, Choreographer Molly Rhode, and again Scenic Designer Casey Price. This is a non-stop wonder, and the cast covers a lot of ground and moves a lot of props and furnishings, on top of the singing and dancing. Yet everything moves smoothly and subtly and brings the story to life! You will be amazed on how often the stage transforms from home, to yard, to class room, to kitchen, to school yard, to bedroom, to best friends room, and back and back again throughout this sixty minute presentation (there is a short intermission midway).

As I said, the children in the audience were mesmerized by this musical. Literally edge of their seats in many cases and despite the majority of the audience being youngsters, I seldom heard the usual exclamations that I often experience at other First Stage plays. And quite frankly I was feeling it more than usual as well. This is recommended for children ages 5-6, 7-9 & 10-12 and of course teens and adults.

And as I’ve said the singing and choreography are truly amazing here. But let’s get into the story a bit. Greg Heffley is the Wimpy Kid of record and feels the outsider in both his family and school. The middle child at home he’s the brunt of teasing by his older brother and a bit unseen since his parents are doting on his younger brother. Such is often the dynamics in a family and it is handled very well here. And then Greg gets to move up to middle school and hopes to reset his place in his peer group with new friends, new experiences, and a new environment. It doesn’t always go too well. So we get to share in his disappointments but trust me, later there will be some victories to savor as well. The spoken dialogue here is often between Greg and his friends in one on one conversations but more often, Greg explains directly to the audience what is happening, or how he feels, or fills us in on a little of the back story. You won’t miss anything if you keep your eyes and ears open.

PRP_4446: Ryan Stepanski in DIARY OF A WIMPY KID THE MUSICAL. Greg Heffley in the Cheese Cast
First Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

The play relies on the first book in The Wimpy Kid series for most of the story, but some bits are from later books in the series. Do you have to be familiar with The Wimpy Kid stories to enjoy the play? Oh heavens no, the story is told clearly, there are no insider plots, and there is plenty of humor peppered throughout the dialogue and songs that everyone will be laughing out loud. And yes there is plenty of applause after the big numbers. But those of us who have read the series will get a kick out of some of the stories and gags maybe a bit more and we will be eagerly anticipating some of the events about to be dramatized. But dare I bring up the cheese?

Harper Fornstedt in DIARY OF A WIMPY KID THE MUSICAL. Greg Heffley in the Middle Cast.
First Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Just in case you wonder, the first ensemble piece that opens Act II after the intermission, Animal Heart, is my favorite. Other than just the joyous fun, it is also a bit of a send up of Euro-pop stylistic conventions! Go William Swoboda as Joshie (also Rodrick Heffley as part of the Cheese Cast), a very credible Euro-pop star indeed!

And also part of the Cheese cast, Ryan Stepanski elicited all of the appropriate smiles, shrugs, sighs, exclamations, and excitement inhabited in the Wimpy Kid! Great job.

Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Now if you aren’t familiar with First Stage’s staging techniques, they use two full cast of young people. So I experienced the Cheese Cast and the alternates are known as the Middle Cast. So depending on which show you attend, you may see a different cast than I experienced…but your experience will be just as enchanting. So you may want to check the cast list if you are hoping to see a particular actor before ordering tickets.

Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Now, this hadn’t crossed my mind until Saturday as I was heading home…but Diary of a Wimpy Kid has sixteen youth characters on stage…so with two casts, that’s thirty two young performers that need to be costumed. And I bet the chances of the actors in each role being the same size is slim to none…so how does Costume Designer Jason Orlenko keep their wits about them and get this all done?? Plus the two adult actors who play multiple roles…right? Wow, just wow.

And two notes: Greg Heffley, Wimpy Kid or no, had the best black high tops on stage…I was a little jealous, or the 12 year old in me was at least.

AND: Greg wants you to know, IT’S NOT A DIARY, IT’S A JOURNAL!!

Karen Estrada (bottom left), Harper Fornstedt (center), Becket Patterson
(left), Todd Denning (center), Alex Radtke (right) in DIARY OF A WIMPY KID THE
MUSICAL. First Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Musical runs through May 5, 2024 at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Performing Arts Center. More information and ticket information can be found here!

Extra credit reading? The Program! and Enrichment Guide