By Mary Boyle
Mo Willems has been one of the most popular authors of books for children over the past decade, and with good reason. Both author and illustrator of over 50 books, including the Knufflebunny and Pigeon series, Willems has a knack for capturing the antics, feelings, and behavior of young children with honesty and empathy and, to the delight of readers of all ages, brilliant humor. His books have earned him three Caldecott Honors, two Theodor Seuss Geisel Medals, five Geisel Honors, and numerous #1 New York Times Best sellers. While his career began in television, working for the likes of Seseme Street and Cartoon Network, his latest venture has been in live theatre, with the creation of several musicals based on his books. Now, Milwaukee audiences have the opportunity to see two of Willems' most beloved characters in ELEPHANT & PIGGIE'S "WE ARE IN A PLAY!"
Directed by Milwaukee's own Matt Daniels, We are in a Play is a part of the First Stage First Steps series, which takes place at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center and is geared towards children ages 3 - 7. These productions are shorter (nearly an hour) for shorter attention spans, and children have the opportunity to sit on wide steps, or even on mats, as opposed to chairs. Elephant & Piggie are first reader books and several of the stories are incorporated into the musical. Elephant (James Carrington), whose name is Gerald, is an anxious fellow, but he always feels better when his best friend, Piggie (Rachel Zientek), is around. Whether they're going to a party, playing with a new toy, or sharing an ice cream cone, Elephant & Piggie always have each other.
Those who are familiar with the Elephant & Piggie stories will find the embodiment of the characters in the well-chosen adult performers. James Carrington, who was also seen in The Wiz as the cowardly lion with First Stage, is absolutely perfect as Elephant Gerald, while Rachel Zientek, who was brilliant in Forward Theater's production of Fun Home and in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's Unnecessary Farce, is the very essence of Piggie. They are accompanied by the three Squirrelles and Boy (Lina Singh, Ryann Schultz, Tarynn Lassiter and Joshua Wirth in the Swimmy Cast, and Taylor Arnstein, Katie O'Connor, Maya O'Day-Biddle, and Augie Poppert in the Fancy Cast ), who sing and dance along with Gerald & Piggie. The music, directed by Josh Robinson, is fun, catchy and absolutely what you'd expect Gerald & Piggie to sing. The dancing, choreographed by Jayne Regan Pink, is equally appropriate; even the set design by Emily Lotz and costumes by Lyndsey Kuhlmann are just right.
First Steps productions are an excellent way to introduce young children to theatre. Besides the shortened show time and storytime-like seating, there are activities available in the MYAC commons prior to the show and audiences can even purchase Willems' books or, for a donation, receive adorable Elephant & Piggie finger puppets to create their own plays at home. Translating popular stories to the stage can be particularly difficult, but First Stage absolutely nails it for We are in a Play. He's a pachyderm and she's a swine, but you'll find this musical is just divine. Don't miss this production!
ELEPHANT & PIGGIE'S "WE ARE IN A PLAY!" runs through November 3rd at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut St. in Milwaukee. Tickets are $14 and may be purchased by calling (414) 267-2961 or online at www.FirstStage.org. There will be a special ASL interpreted performance, for the deaf or hard of hearing, on Sunday, November 3rd at 1 p.m.
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 over 2,100 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 with autism (2013, 2015). First Stage is a member of TYA/USA, the American Alliance for Theatre and Education, the Wisconsin Alliance for Arts Education, Theatre Wisconsin, Milwaukee Arts Partners, and is a cornerstone member of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF).