By Mary Boyle
Now in its fourth season, the First Stage Foundry Stage Series helps develop new work through play readings in front of audiences at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. Last season, the reading of GRETEL!, a folk rock musical based on the German folk tale Hansel and Gretel, the Russian folk tale Baba Yaga, and the lesser-known Russian Cinderella tale Vasilisa the Brave was so well-received by audiences that Jeff Frank, the Artistic Director of First Stage, decided to include the production in this season's lineup as the youth theater's second Foundry Production, following last season's inaugural Foundry Production, Locomotion.
Gretel (triple cast: Alice Rivera, Gracie Halverson, Maya Thomure) and her mother (Natalie Ford) live happily in their cottage while Gretel's father (Max Mainwood) travels for work. Sadly, Gretel's mother falls ill, leaving Gretel with her comb, shawl, and her blessing: a doll who represents the brother that Gretel always wished for (Thatcher Jacobs/William Swoboda). Then, Gretel's father marries a horrid woman who, along with her daughter, Malfusa (both Max Mainwood), proceeds to make Gretel's life miserable by making her do all of the work. Finally, they give Gretel an impossible task: to go deep into the woods and find the witch, Baba Yaga (Natalie Ford), to get what they need to save themselves. Everyone knows that Baba Yaga eats children for breakfast! How will Gretel possibly succeed?
With book by Jason Tremblay and Suzan Zeder, music by Jenn Hartmann Luck, lyrics by Jenn Hartmann Luck, Jason Tremblay and Suzan Zeder and Cello Arrangements by Nora Karakousoglou,GRETEL!, being so heavily based on such familiar folk tales of childhood, manages to achieve instant classic status with the help of beautiful costumes by Lyndsey Kuhlmann and creative set design by Sarah Hunt-Frank, as well as an incredibly talented cast of both adult and young performers who all contribute to creating the music right on the stage.
Max Mainwood, a former First Stage student, delivers an impressive performance, veering seamlessly from a variety of first-person characters to found object puppetry, as well as playing guitar and cello. Natalie Ford, who was recently seen in Elf, The Musical at First Stage, is wonderful as Gretel's mother and Baba Yaga, and demonstrated her strong vocal and musical capabilities, playing guitar along with singing, and serving as Musical Director for the production. While the Gretels rotate through the productions, the remaining six young performers are split into two groups: the Night Cast, with Ailie Snyder, Thatcher Jacobs, and Benjamin Nowacek; and, the Day Cast, with Yulitza Adorno-Jonas, William Swoboda, and Mara Holzen.
Being a Foundry Production, GRETEL! is staged at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center in the same space where Young Company and First Steps productions take place, but it is a production worthy of the Todd Wehr stage, where the First Stage main stage shows are performed. Milwaukee audiences are lucky to be able to see a new work so well done in such an intimate venue and at an incredible price; don't miss your chance to see this beautiful little show.
GRETEL! runs through March 22nd at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center, located at 325 W. Walnut Street in downtown Milwaukee. Tickets are $16 and are available online at www.firststage.org or through the First Stage Box Office at (414) 267-2961. Performance runtime is approximately 90 minutes, including intermission. Suggested for families with young people ages 8 – 15+.
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). www.firststage.org.