By Mary Boyle
Though I am an avid fan of children's literature, one of the beginning reader series I missed out on was Nate the Great by Marjorie Sharmat, though the first book in the series was published in 1972 — two years before I was even born. Despite the fact that the latest three in the series have been published over the course of the last decade, with the most recent just coming out this year, my own kids missed the boat on the stories, as well, so my very first introduction to "the world's greatest detective" was through a brand new musical, which just made its World Premiere at First Stage: Nate the Great.
Based on Sharmat's books and written by John Maclay and Brett Ryback, Nate the Great is Sherlock for the elementary set, and a super fun time for the whole family. Maclay, who has filled multiple roles with First Stage since 2000, including his current one as Associate Artistic Director of the First Stage Young Company, has written several adaptations of literature for the stage, including Anatole, Nancy Drew And Her Biggest Case Ever, Just a Little Critter Musical, and Robin Hood, among others. Ryback made his start at First Stage as Fudge in Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing when he was just 5 years old, and has gone on to become a composer, lyricist, actor and playwright, as well as a teacher of musical theatre.
Nate the Great is a kid detective with a problem: his friend, Annie, has a missing painting, and Nate's usual crime-solving process hasn't turned up any answers. Worse, Annie's friend, Rosamond, is missing one of her four cats, and Nate can't find a trace in that case, either. Perhaps even worse, Nate's mother is out of his very favorite food: pancakes. How is a detective supposed to function without them? If Nate can't solve these cases, he won't even be "Nate the Great" — he'll just be "Nate the pretty good."
The young performers are double cast, with Seth Hoffman and Zach Duckler taking turns as Nate; Nafia Johnson and Makayla Davis sharing the role of Nate's friend, Annie; Bryn Dresselhuys and Emily Harris as Annie's friend, Rosamond; and, Zephaniah Ponder and Cole Sison as Annie's little brother, Harry. Milwaukee favorite, Elyse Edelman, plays both Nate's mother and Annie's dog, Fang.
Directed by Niffer Clarke, a frequent First Stage collaborator, Nate the Great is a fast-paced and witty little musical, with a wonderful sense of humor that will appeal to all ages. I particularly liked Nate's response to his mother's suggestion to eat a waffle: "A waffle is a pancake that's lying." The music and lyrics are delightful and impressive; "You Can Do It" and "Super Hex" are downright Lin-Manuel Miranda-esque, with lightning-fast rhymes and intertwined melodies. Milwaukee is incredibly lucky to have an organization like First Stage that serves as an incubator for new productions; this is one to be very proud of.
Nate the Great runs through November 11th at the Todd Wehr Theater, located at 929 N. Water St. in Milwaukee. Tickets are available in person at the Marcus Center box office at 929 N. Water Street, by phone at (414) 273-7206, or online at www.firststage.org.
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).