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

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical at First Stage

Is this really the best Christmas pageant ever? Well I have it on the best authority from Helen Armstrong, the church choir director and traditional director of the play, that indeed it is!

And Helen Armstrong, as played by Lachrisa Landberry, has a magnificent grand voice and a room filling personality that just endears everyone in her presence. And she makes it known that she has definite plans and goals and doesn’t take no for answer. When we first meet Helen she is preparing to audition the children for this year’s Christmas pageant…something of a formality since it seems the same kids play the same roles each year. But Lachrisa brings us that Helen who is clearly in charge and tells us that this is how it is done!

Lachrisa Grandberry (far left), J.T. Backes (center) and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

So we the audience expect a well run typical Christmas pageant with probably a few snags and hilarious bumps in the road. Well, until: calamity strikes and Helen falls on the ice and is hospitalized. So with her don’t take no for an answer attitude, she recruits a novice director, Grace Bradley, to take over the pageant.

Maya O’Day Biddle, Karen Estrada (center), Eviana Gibbons, and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Grace Bradley is played by Karen Estrada, who is a busy wife and mother, and defers at first but can’t resist Helen’s dynamic insistence. And soon she finds she may have bit off more than she can chew but it throws her only for a moment…and Karen brings us a Grace who finds a true Christmas story in the events around her pageant. And she brings that message back to the others in her community.

If you are familiar with First Stage or have been reading my responses to their performances, you know that they alternate between two youth casts with adult actors anchoring the productions…particularly when they are at the Todd Wehr at the Marcus Center as they are for the The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. So I wont be selecting particular actors here but there are two casts: The Kerpows and the Shazams. Here is a link to the playbill for more information on the cast!

Lorelei Wesselowski (center) and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

The drama in the story is introduced when the Herdmans are ‘mugging’ their fellow students in the cafeteria for their lunches. And Charlie Bradley lets slip that he enjoys treats in Sunday school because there are no Herdmans there to spoil the experience. And the Herdmans are the worst kids in the world…all the other kids agree on that. Well, the Herdmans extract more information from Charlie and they show up for the pageant auditions for the snacks. And they force their way into the starring roles as Grace Bradley has little control over their actions. But the rest of the town and Helen Armstrong are incensed but rehearsals go on.

J.T. Backes (front), Laura Gordon, Bree Beelow, and Michelle LoRicco in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

At the first rehearsal, the Herdmans play free and loose with the Christmas carols and are amazed at the events around the Christmas story, which they were not familiar with. Shenanigans ensue, Herdmans smoke cigars, the pastor cancels the pageant, and eventually as more of the back story unfolds Grace reinstates the pageant and retains the Herdmans in the lead roles. Of course there is some very unusual acting to tell this version of the Christmas story but it all works out and brings us to the Best Christmas Pageant Ever! And now a bit more about First Stage’s presentation.

I think this is the largest cast that I have seen at First Stage, nearly two dozen performers on stage for the final numbers and it is a musical after all. And there are some very grand new songs here and the First Stage brings them to life with flair and full voice. You can’t help but feel happy and fulfilled when you hear them and there were a number of times where the audience added spontaneous bits of hand claps. And there is a tremendous amount of humor here, you will laugh without realizing it…even you adults! And there is a real Christmas pageant here…a stable and manger, angels, the Holy Family, shepherds, the three wise guys (sic), the star, and sheep: young actors playing sheep!

Lorelei Wesselowski and Terrance Ilion, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Director and choreographer Molly Rhode certainly worked hard to bring all of the parts and roles together and made magnificent music work and made this a best pageant ever! And it always amazes me that First Stage directors can keep the action going at the same time that prop furniture is being wheeled on or off set.

The costumes are marvelous here…lush colors and accurate depictions of 1950s – 1960s attire. I wore some of those outfits back in the day. I wish I had Charlie Bradley’s cowboy hat when I was 10. One of my favorite items were the holiday aprons that the three church women were wearing when they are baking holiday desserts. But all of the costumes were period perfect…even the Herdmans black black black clothing!

Karen Estrada, J.T. Backes, Lachrisa Grandberry, Chase Stoeger, Michelle LoRicco, and cast in THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER: THE MUSICAL. First Stage, 2023. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

This is a very popular production, so don’t dawdle in picking up tickets. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever the Musical runs through December 24, 2023 and is recommended for children five and up and up and up! More information and tickets here!

Extra Credit Reading: a repost of the link to the Playbill

all photos courtesy of First Stage!


An exciting new play from First Stage in Milwaukee for young people 6 and up!!

First Stage is excited to announce that next up in their 2022/23 season will be THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES, based on the iconic animated Nickelodeon series by Stephen Hillenberg, with book by Kyle Jarrow.  SpongeBob fans young and old will delight in seeing their favorite characters come to life on stage! The production features original songs by an array of legendary musicians including Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, Panic! At the Disco and David Bowie, to name a few.

The musical production was conceived by Tina Landau and will be directed by Tommy Novak, (recently seen at First Stage’s production of RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER™ as Sam the Snowman), choreographed by noted choreographer Katelin Zelon, with Musical Direction by area favorite Paul Helm. Milwaukee families will get to dive deep into the undersea town of Bikini Bottom with SpongeBob and his quirky circle of friends and neighbors – Patrick, Sandy, Squidward, Mr. Krabs and even Plankton – in this dynamic stage musical. Chaos erupts when SpongeBob and all of Bikini Bottom face the total annihilation at the threat of Mt. Humongous. Just when all hope seems lost, a most unexpected hero rises up and takes center stage. First Stage audiences will discover that the power of optimism really can save the world! 

THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES runs March 3 – April 2, 2023, at the Marcus Center’s Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets start at $32 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 Performance runtime is approximately 75 minutes plus intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 6+. 

From Director Tommy Novak: “‘Who lives in a pineapple under the Sea?’ SPONGEBOB SQUARE PANTS!!!” I am super excited to be working on THE SPONGEBOB MUSICAL FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES at First Stage. The thing about SpongeBob is that he is a simple sponge with a huge heroic heart. When the world is a horrible, miserable place, we need optimism and positivity that only SpongeBob can bring to the any situation. Although we sometimes see the darkness of the future, SpongeBob is here to remind all of us that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and they will help us to find the flashlight to get us through it. They always see the bright side of the situation; help to motivate us with humor, relentless positivity and an absurd silliness. SpongeBob is the biggest example of “I can’t is not is my vocabulary.” There is no task too large or too scary. Any task can be accomplished with teamwork and a community of support. This show reminds us that we are a community responsible for working together and taking care of each other. Only when we put our collective brains and hearts to a task will we succeed. The world we live in is NOW. Don’t stress about the future and leave the Past behind you. Today is a gift and tomorrow is not promised, so live each day as if it is your last with a full heart of kindness, joy and laughter. “MAKE IT YOUR BEST DAY EVER!” 

Tickets start at $32 – Tickets may be purchased at or through the Marcus Center Box Office, in person at 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee or by phone (414) 273-7206 or toll free at (888) 612-3500. The number for TDD (for deaf and hard of hearing patrons) is (414) 273-3080. 

And there are a number of special performances that you should be aware of:

Pay What You Choose Performance: Friday, March 10, 2023 at 7:00 p.m. 

Pay What You Choose tickets are available on a first come, first served basis with a minimum suggested donation of $5 per person. Doors open at 6:00 p.m. on the day of the performance. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early. Tickets may also be reserved in advance by phone at (414) 267-2961, weekdays 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. For more information, please visit: 

Sensory Friendly Performance: Saturday, March 18, 2023 at 3:30 p.m.  

A Sensory Friendly Performance with accommodations for families with children on the autism spectrum will take place on Saturday, March 18, 2023 at 3:30 p.m. Sensory accommodations include a quiet area staffed by an experienced educator, lower sound, house lights up and more. Tickets for Sensory Friendly Performances are $10. Order online or by phone at (414) 267-2961, weekdays 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. to reserve tickets. To learn more visit:

ASL Interpreted Performance: Sunday, April 2, 2023 at 3:30 p.m. 

This performance will be sign language interpreted for patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing. Assistive listening devices are also available at the Todd Wehr Theater. To learn more, please visit: 

For more information, please visit or call (414) 267-2961.