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: Enrollment For First Stage’s Summer Theater Academy Is Open NOW!

and classes start on Monday June 13, 2022!! Details that I received from First Stage follow below:

First Stage Theater Academy, the nation’s leading high-impact theater training program for young people, is offering its Summer Academy programs in-person this summer with classes beginning Monday, June 13, 2022. One of Milwaukee’s longest-running summer theater training programs, First Stage’s Summer Academy will celebrate its 30th year of offering theater classes to Milwaukee area youth. Classes will run June 13 – August 5, 2022 at the newly-renovated Milwaukee Youth Art Center and will follow First Stage’s curriculum in Acting, Musical Theater, Improvisation and more, fostering life skills through stage skills. The classes will be led by First Stage Academy staff as well as by professional theater artists  including Milwaukee dancer and choreographer Christopher Gilbert (Director of Step Kids), actor Brandite Reed (Co-Director of THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM) and Chris Flieller (UW-Oshkosh Theatre Department/former Artistic Director for In Tandem Theatre), among many others.  

Classes are available for students entering grades K4 – 12 this fall. One week or multi-week sessions are available at Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Classes for students entering grades K4 – 5 will also be held at Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield July 5 – 15, 2022.   

New this summer, from July 25 – August 5, 2022 classes will be held at UW – Parkside in Kenosha, offering weeklong classes for students entering grades 5 – 12, spending each day rotating through classes in Musical Theater, Acting, Clowning and Shakespeare, building a foundation of theatrical performance skills through a variety of lessons led by theater professionals. 

Summer Academy classes for young people on the autism spectrum – part of First Stage’s Next Steps program – will be held August 8 – 12, 2022 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. 

Locations: Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, 325 West Walnut Street, Milwaukee, WI  53212; Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts, 3270 Mitchell Park Drive, Brookfield, WI  53045 (July 5 – 15, 2022 only) and UW – Parkside, 900 Wood Road, Kenosha, WI 53144 (July 25 – August 5, 2022 only) 

Cost: $150 – $635 depending upon the length of classes. Payment plans are available. Families that enroll in multiple classes for one student or enroll siblings will receive $10 off per class. Financial assistance is also available. Many classes are already full, so advance registration is recommended.  

That gives you the background and some of the details on the program and what to expect and where it will be held. Here is information on enrolling and the course catalog:

Website: To view the list of summer classes and to register, please visit: 

Course Catalog: To view the full Theater Academy Course Catalog, please visit: 

And although many activities are returning to more normal levels of participation, COVID is still something that we all need to be aware of:

COVID Protocols: In accordance with the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center guidelines and the CDC recommended guidelines, masks are now optional within all Academy classes. As First Stage Summer Academy moves ahead, it will be equally supportive and respectful of those who are ready to remove masks, and those who prefer to continue to wear them. First Stage Theater Academy will continue to follow the CDC recommendations and adjust when necessary. First Stage COVID safety protocols and updates can be viewed here: – performances 

And for those of you unfamiliar with First Stage or the First Stage Theater Academy:

First Stage Theater Academy is the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people. The region’s finest professional theater artists share their expertise, skills and passion for their art with over 2,000 young people this summer. Students will develop skills in musical theater, scene study, Shakespeare, improvisation and much more, while simultaneously building life skills, such as confidence, focus and teamwork. Young people are encouraged to take risks and conquer their fears, and First Stage is proud to be building the next generation of artists and leaders. 

And finally, my two cents worth: Everyone from First Stage that I have interacted with this past season have been excited about and dedicated to these youth programs. And the plays that I attended were exciting and professional and broad in scope. AND the kids on stage and in the audience all had a great time. If your child is interested in theater in any way, this would be a great summer learning and ‘play’ opportunity!

PSA: World Premiere of James DeVita’s “The Amazing Lemonade Girl” at Milwaukee’s First Stage

This could be the coolest play for young people in this spring season. Written by American Players Theatre stalwart, James DeVita, Milwaukee’s First Stage is bringing us his The Amazing Lemonade Girl! Details from this morning’s email:

First Stage is honored to present the world premiere production of THE AMAZING LEMONADE GIRL, written by award-winning playwright/ author, First Stage Resident Playwright and Wisconsin actor James DeVita and directed by First Stage alum and Northern Sky Associate Artistic Director Molly Rhode, with costume design by Austin Winter, sound design by Josh Schmidt and scenic and lighting design by Jason Fassl, USA. In this heartfelt, uplifting play, First Stage audiences will meet Alex Scott. She has a story to tell – about her life and her legacy, her humor and her heart. Alex is young girl who is fiercely determined to make a difference despite the challenges she faces. Alex’s true story reminds us all that a single person can change the world – one act, or even one cup, at a time. Sponsored by Northwestern Mutual. 

“We are honored to partner with First Stage in the development of THE AMAZING LEMONADE GIRL, bringing the courageous story of Alex and her mission to accelerate the search for a cure for childhood cancer to the stage. Alex’s legacy is one that inspires many and will reach so many families throughout southeastern Wisconsin in seeing this play at First Stage,” stated Audra Brennan, Sr. Director of Philanthropy at Northwestern Mutual. 

THE AMAZING LEMONADE GIRL runs April 22 – May 15, 2022 at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets start at $21 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.orgPerformance runtime is approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 7+. 

Director Molly Rhode shared her thoughts about the play: “My favorite thing about this script is how the character of Alex is in total control of the story. When an ensemble bursts forth to assist her, it becomes like an epic play date, with her directing and re-directing their efforts. There is a great sense of joy and playfulness, while still remaining direct and honest about this hard topic. The show is a celebration of Alex’s legacy and James DeVita crafts the journey beautifully, taking great care of the audience along the way.” 

Added Artistic Director Jeff Frank: “Every time I hear Alex’s story, it kindles deep inside me a desire to be better and to do more. She reminds us all that we are capable of doing great things.”  

Please check First Stage for more details and ticket information.

• Friday, April 22 at 7:00 p.m. – OPENING NIGHT  

• Saturday, April 23 at 1:00 & 4:00 p.m. 

• Sunday, April 24 at 1:00 & 4:00 p.m.  

• Friday, April 29 at 7:00 p.m. – PAY WHAT YOU CHOOSE PERFORMANCE 

• Saturday, April 30 at 1:00 & 4:00 p.m. – SENSORY FRIENDLY PERFORMANCE AT 4:00 p.m. 

• Sunday, May 1 at 1:00 p.m. & 4:00 p.m.   

• Friday, May 6 at 7:00 p.m.  

• Saturday, May 7 at 1:00 & 4:00 p.m. 

• Sunday, May 8 at 1:00 & 4:00 p.m. 

• Friday, May 13 at 7:00 p.m.

• Saturday, May 14 at 1:00 & 4:00 p.m.  

• Sunday, May 15 at 1:00 p.m. & 4:00 p.m. – ASL INTERPRETED PERFORMANCE at 4:00 p.m. 

See you there!!