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.

Middle Cast in DIARY OF A WIMPY KID THE MUSICAL. First
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.

Cheese Cast in DIARY OF A WIMPY KID THE MUSICAL. First
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

First Stage: The Lightening Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical

Percy Jackson? I had never heard of this phenomenon until I heard about it from my grandson who is a big fan. And then about a year ago, Percy came up in conversation during the Mythology class I was attending at UW-Milwaukee. My grandson was amazed that the books he was reading were being mentioned in college. So of course when I had an opportunity to attend First Stage’s presentation of The Lightening Thief, I had to see for myself.

Well, it seems like I was the only one in the theater who was at a loss about the story and our hero, Percy Jackson. But that just made for a very appreciative crowd who loved every moment of this musical. And this is quite a musical…and musicals are a special strength for First Stage…but in my memory this one is particularly driven by the music and singing and choreography…the story is just propelled by the music.

Nadja Simmonds, Austin Nelson, Jr., and cast in THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL. First Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

But the story itself is complicated…just like any story that involves Greek Mythology…but with added twists and turns as we celebrate the trials and tribulations of the modern day gods and their offspring in contemporary America. So this is why Percy grabs the imaginations of young people and is the gateway to learning about western thought and arts. What a wonderful introduction to the world.

Jamey Feshold (center), Silver Anderson (left), Abram Nelson and Calleigh Mills in THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL. First Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Percy is a confused young person being thrown out of school…again…through no fault of his own. But it is because of his person and the other worldly powers who are out to get him. So he encounters things that seem to occur in dreams and that others around him don’t seem to see or understand in the same way. The stuff that makes up our myths.

And unfortunately, other than the love and support of his mother, his current home life leaves a lot to be desired. So it might seem that his conflicts come from that…until we find out that he is a halfblood…the child of his human mother and a Greek god.

Percy doesn’t come into his own until he mother places him in summer camp, Camp Halfblood, where all of the other campers are in the same predicament. But here is where he starts to understand his own story…until he is forced to take on a hero quest to Hades! We are all surprised that it is currently located in Los Angeles, but for some reason Percy isn’t. So he and his friends set out to LA and all types of mayhem ensue. I won’t divulge anymore other than there are heroics and cameo roles from multiple Greek gods.

Calleigh Mills, Abram Nelson, and Silver Anderson in THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL. First Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Other than the musical itself, there are some other amazing things at play here. As you can see from the photos the set and stage are amazing and easily imply a feeling of ancient Greece. And as always the set does multiple duty to depict different locales at different times…scenic designer Madelyn Yee did a marvelous job and I am just in awe of the stage floor. Costumes designer, Yvonne Miranda, also gave us over the top costumes for our halfbloods, the humans in their midst, and the gods…and then add the puppets that represent gods and monsters and such…extremely clever and colorful…thank you Nikki Kulas. And what a marvelous job by choreographer Ami Majeskie. There is an incredible amount of complex dance moves that work just so incredibly smoothly. And as I said the fight scenes were exaggerated and over the top and ever so fluid as well…and the credit here goes to fight director Jamey Feshold and Bree Kazinksi. And I can’t believe quite how easily this whole production seems to work, but I am sure it the result of a lot of hard work on the part of director Jeff Frank!

So if you have a child or grandchild who is aware of the Percy Jackson stories, you can’t afford to miss The Lightening Thief. If you have a child or grandchild who isn’t a Percy Jackson fan yet, this is the perfect time to introduce them to Percy and mythology and great musical theater at the same time.

And like other First Stage musical productions, this one doesn’t live by the music and the overall story alone. There are clear messages about community, friendship, and family in each of them…and it is again happily apparent here!

Sanaiah Hibbler and Ben Nowacek in THE LIGHTNING THIEF: THE PERCY JACKSON MUSICAL. First Stage, 2024. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And a couple of side notes: First Stage rotates two casts during a run of their bigger productions at the Todd Wehr. I have included photos provided by First Stage from each cast. And after the production, the actors will take 3 or 4 questions from the audience…and in this case I was surprised that two out of the four questions were about scenes that were apparently skipped that appear in other versions of the story. So this story clearly resonates with young people.

As you will note from the photos there is some swordplay and battle scenes. They are slow motion and wildly exaggerated so no one of any age should feel threatened by them…but they certainly help provide the drama that the musical demands!

The Lightening Thief, The Percy Jackson Musical, runs through March 10 2024 in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. Additional information and tickets can be found here.

Extra Credit Reading:

Digital Play Bill! Enrichment guide and social story!

article © 2024 The New World Digs

First Stage’s Young Company Presents Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Part 1)

I am sure that I have attended a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 in the past but it was obviously some time ago. But I can’t imagine a more determined and enthusiastic presentation of Henry IV than the one performed by First Stage’s Young Company.

Thomas Bastardo, Alice Rivera (center) Maya Thomure, and cast in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

First Stage is well known for its boisterous colorful story telling through large ensemble musicals that feature young through adult actors. The Young Company has a different role at First Stage and Milwaukee theater in general. The company features high school age actors, often members of the First Stage Theater Academy, working through significant dramas and original plays. In many cases, Shakespeare, as we have here with Henry IV and previously with a very strong and complete Macbeth (see my response here). And instead of performing at the large Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, these dramas play out at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center in a very intimate stage in the round. And since it is usually general admission here, my biggest decision is where to sit! LOL!

And given the size and intimacy of the stage, very few props or set pieces come into play, and they often are rearranged to play multiple roles on set. And this just brings the text and the acting that much more in focus for the cast and audience.

Alice Rivera (front) with Paxton Haley and Thomas Bastardo in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

So, Henry IV! The king is played by Alice Rivera, who maintains the regal bearing of a King of England, even in the face of doubt…as plans to Crusade to the Holy Land fall apart as a local uprising against the crown needs immediate attention. Rivera shows us a king who can rally his troops, make strategic decisions, be a bit pompous and unbending, and then be cruel in conquest.

And although Henry IV is the name of the play, the actual major character is Henry, or Harry, or Hal, the Prince of Wales and the future king. Hal is played by Maya Thomure who gives us the perfect blend of youth seeking fun and recreation away from the court, while also feeling at times the weight of his position on his shoulders, but who willingly takes up his responsibilities as a defender of the crown when his father finally calls. Of course in his rebellion against his ‘lot in life’, he has an anti-father companion in Sir John Falstaff who he loves well…although he feels free to tease him constantly.

Abram Nelson, Max Larson (center) and Elena Marking in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

And Lola Onorato presents the Falstaff that we expect to see in the Henry plays. Big of imposture, big in braggadocio, big in appetites, and a true friend of Hal, Onorato brings it all to the stage.

And this is a Shakespeare history play, so there is swordplay and battle scenes. Director Marcella Kearns and Fight Director Christopher Elst, have provided action galore and obviously grounded the cast in the use of epees and rapiers. The clank clank of metal on metal was a delight for any fan of Shakespeare and/or knightly combat.

Paxton Haley and Elena Marking in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

There is a lot of activity here and a lot of text. Kearns keeps the troupe moving and involved and they presented two hours of Shakespearean dialogue, clearly, cleanly, and engagingly! One technique that I enjoyed was at scene change, when a principal character lingers on stage for a moment longer while their cohort makes their exit…and for just a moment shares the stage with the new characters entering to take up the next scene. That small stroke added some gravitas and continuity to the action and the acting for me.

Evie Patrick and William Swoboda in HENRY IV, PART 1. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Henry IV part 1 is being performed through December 17, 2023. More information and ticket info can be found here. Run time is about two hours plus an intermission. Recommended ages are teen to adult.

Extra Credit Reading: The Playbill This includes more info on cast, characters, and crew!!

Part 2?