By Mary Boyle
While not everyone may be familiar with Marc Brown's children's books about Arthur the aardvark, most people have encountered the cartoon, aired on PBS, simply because it is the longest running children's animated series in the U.S. In fact, the cartoon comes in second to being the longest running animated series in the U.S. after The Simpsons. Since 1996, there have been 25 seasons and 253 episodes of the cartoon; generations of kids have spent time after school with this lovable and relatable character, along with his family, friends, and the fictional community of Elwood City, as they tackle important topics such as cancer, autism, diabetes, and asthma while encouraging children to read and to believe in themselves. Now, the playwright duo of John Maclay and Brett Ryback have brought this iconic animated series to life in ARTHUR™ & FRIENDS MAKE A MUSICAL! with First Stage in Milwaukee.
Directed by Khalia Davis, with music direction by Brett Ryback, the musical manages to accurately bring the feel of the cartoon to life, even without trying to transform the actors into the anthropomorphic characters they represent. By dressing the actors in the clothing worn by their cartoon counterparts, the characters are easily recognizable by anyone familiar with the show, even without the use of furry costumes or ears. While the cartoon’s iconic theme song, written by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, is not featured in the production, the lyrics are clever and well suited to the cartoon and the musical styles vary, including an excellent nod to Hamilton that Lin Manuel Miranda fans will appreciate.
The adults in the cartoon are played by adult actors: SaraLynn Evenson is Arthur’s mom, Zach Thomas Woods is Arthur’s dad, and the charismatic James Carrington, whose humor and energy really carries the production, plays Arthur’s teacher, Mr. Ratburn. The young performers are double cast and include Arthur (Vivian Madson/Sanaiah Hibbler), Arthur’s sister D.W. (Gia Love Deacon/Layla Katers), and Arthur’s friends: Francine (Alice Rivera/Lucia Santana), Muffy (Silver Anderson/Niamh Mayne), Buster (Ryon Davis/Alex Radtke), and Brain (Charlie Cornell/Jaloni Brown). I saw the Elwood Cast and was particularly enamored with Gia Love Deacon, who embodied D.W.’s mannerisms so perfectly. Vivian Madson was well cast as Arthur and Alice Rivera delivered an excellent performance as Francine. These are three young performers to keep an eye on.
John Maclay, who has done significant work with First Stage, was the writer behind last season’s Legend of Rock, Paper, Scissors and is particularly brilliant at working in child-appropriate humor directed at the adults in the audience. Much like the cartoon, the musical tackles some important topics that kids encounter in real life, like being accepting of yourself and others, but also includes the more progressive storylines from the cartoon, including the mention that their teacher, Mr. Ratburn, is gay, which the cartoon unveiled in its 22nd season. Where the musical falls short is in sound: the music is recorded, not live, which wouldn’t be so bad except that the sound system at Todd Wehr is not good, compounded by the fact that the mics on the actors are also not great; however, these flaws are due to the technical limitations of the Todd Wehr Theater, which is long overdue for an overhaul. Certainly, if you are a fan of Arthur, I wouldn’t let that stop you from seeing this production. First Stage is one of the best youth theaters in the country; we are so very lucky to have them in the area and they deserve our support.
ARTHUR™ & FRIENDS MAKE A MUSICAL! runs through November 6, 2022, at the Marcus Center's Todd Wehr Theater, located at at 929 North Water Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets start at $32 and are available at https://www.firststage.org/ or by calling (414) 267-2961. Performance runtime is approximately 90 minutes, which includes a brief intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 5+.
Special events for ARTHUR™ AND FRIENDS MAKE A MUSICAL!
Sensory Friendly Performance: Saturday, October 22, 2022 at 3:30 p.m.
A Sensory Friendly Performance with accommodations for families with children on the autism spectrum. Sensory accommodations include lower sound, house lights up, a quiet area staffed by an educator experienced with the care of students on the autism spectrum and other developmental differences, and more. Tickets for Sensory Friendly Performances are $10. Order by phone at (414) 267-2961, weekdays 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. to reserve tickets. To learn more visit: firststage.org/plan-your-visit/sensory-friendly-performances/.
ASL Interpreted Performance: Sunday, November 6, 2022 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. firststage.org/plan-your-visit/accessibility/sign-language-interpreted-performances/
About First Stage
First Stage is one of the nation’s leading theaters for young people and families. First Stage touches hearts, engages minds and transforms lives by creating extraordinary theater experiences through professional theater productions that inspire, enlighten and entertain. Its Theater Academy, the nation’s largest high-impact theater training program for young people, fosters life skills through stage skills and serves nearly 2,000 students each year. As Wisconsin’s leader in arts-integrated education in schools, First Stage’s dynamic Theater in Education programs promote literacy, character building and experiential learning throughout the curriculum, serving over 20,000 students each year. First Stage was selected to participate in the Partners in Education program of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (2012) and was the recipient of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s Eureka Award, recognizing creativity and innovation in business, education and the arts for its Next Steps program for students on the autism spectrum (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Milwaukee Arts Partners and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).