First Stage weaves holiday magic for every age with “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

The Schulz cast serenades at the end of “the spectacular A Charlie Brown Christmas” at First Stage

You could close your eyes and just listen and you’d know how wonderful and amazing the moment was.

A dozen young actors stepped back to reveal a jeweled Christmas Tree, bright with sparkling ornaments and bright lights.

Hundreds of little voices whooshed through the theater.

“Ooooooooh!”

And that one sound captured all of the magic and warmth of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” the First Stage holiday spectacular that opened over the weekend at the Todd Wehr Theatre.”

Every other theater in town that’s staging a holiday play is going to have to go some in order to outdo this Jeff Frank directed production for a play with the Christmas spirit, an egalitarian pledge to diversity, a warmth like a simmering winter fire and the kind of smiles that can only grace the faces of both infants and grandparents.

With two adults on the stage with 13 young actors and a seriously good pack of designers and support staff this simple story captures the imagination and delivers a touching and fun-filled 90 minutes for the entire family.

Everybody knows the Charles Schulz created Charlie Brown cast,. This musical was first mounted as a television special in 1965. Like the famed Mr. Rogers, this story is a timeless one and First Stage milks the story for all it’s worth.

Charlie Brown (a cute and devout sixth-grader, Zachary Church) is depressed over the materialism of Christmas. His friend Lucy the self-centered (Ivy Broder) decides that Charlie can fix his attitude by directing the annual school Christmas play.

He’s never directed a play but gamely takes on the task. Part of his job is to find a Christmas tree for the pageant. He and Linus (John Aebly) search amid a forest of glittering displays (great scenic design by Martin McClendon), but is not swayed by any of the selection. Finally he finds a small branch, stuck into a wooden base, and it strikes his heart as the tree they need. Of course, his choice is met with derision by the cast.

You’ll have to see the play in order to get the resolution to this controversial choice, but suffice it to say that chills and getting choked up are in store for everyone.

There are only two adults in the cast, and each deserves special mention.

Matt Daniels plays Snoopy with a style and substance that delivered perpetual giggles and laughs from the audience. It’s a performance that connects with children and their adults.

A dozen years ago I did “Merchant of Venice” at Milwaukee Shakespeare (at a time I was following my doomed dream of being an actor). I vividly remember watching Mr. Daniels. He never made a move that didn’t have a reason. Nothing idle. To this day I think he understands and practices stage movement at a level other actors could well study.

Three years ago he dazzled as a dog in “Chesapeake” at In Tandem and now he’s re-done his Snoopy and seems to have the whole dog thing down cold. Could a cat or zebra or even a giraffe be next?

And then there is Jack Forbes Wilson who always seems to fill an empty space in my heart.

One of the secrets to staging a great play is to put Mr. Wilson on a stage with a piano. From his “Grey Gardens” four seasons ago with Off the Wall, to Liberace” at The Rep three seasons ago,to The Rep’s “Souvenir” this season, he creates absolute magic. He has an unmatched stage presence and combines delightful piano with equally delightful acting to be a unique actor in Milwaukee.

Here is guides his cast of kids through several musical moments and a closing medley of Christmas carols with a joy that lights his face and is contagious for everyone in the theater.

As I said, if you are a theater in Milwaukee that wants to stage a holiday play, go see this production at First Stage and put your arms around the way you feel when it ends.

That’s how we all should feel during the holiday season.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” runs through December 31 at First Stage.

Production credits: Director, Jeff Frank; Music Director, Jack Ford Wilson; Choreographer, Chris Feiereisen; Scenic Designer, Martin McClendon; Costume Designer, Jason Orlenko; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack; Sound Designer, Matt Whitmore; Calling Stage Manager, Melissa L. Wanke; Rehearsal Stage Manager, Carrie Taylor, Assistant Stage Manager, Julia Xiong; Production Photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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