Caddie Woodlawn by Susan Hunter & Tom Shelton
First Stage Milwaukee through March 17, Todd Wehr Theater, PAC
Disney has had a negative impact on American entertainment. When I
heard that Caddie Woodlawn was a musical, I thought of the endless
progression of assembly line songs and music that Disney studios have cranked out over the years and steeled myself for a possible saccharin attack.
Caddie Woodlawn isn't distorted or sanitized by Disney. It is an honest direct and very substantial musical with a genuine family appeal. Everyone who has been to a First Stage Milwaukee Production knows that whatever the show may be it will be thoroughly professional. While some of their productions are pitched to specific age groups, none of them are without general appeal and interest.Some people might think that I am far enough into second childhood to be peculiarly susceptible to First Stage Milwaukee Productions. I would defend myself and them by insisting that the level of their work is such that no theater critic can fail to be impressed. I was not only impressed by Caddie Woodlawn, I was entertained and enchanted.
C. Michael Wright is a treasure and adds immense luster and talent to
the Milwaukee theater scene. His direction of Caddie Woodlawn is sure-footed (He also does the choreography) and impeccable. His mass movements for changing scenes and adding and subtracting cast members was deft and delightful
The set design by Charles Erven is evocative and fully functional. He
makes brilliant use of quilts, planks, and props to suggests a considerable range
of locations and to provide a framework for the action. His design provides a number of working levels for the cast to perform on.
One of the most basic and pleasing aspects of theater for all ages is the element of dressing up (or down). Di Govern provides practical and sometimes perfectly lovely costumes for this production designed by Karin Simonson Kopischke. Andrew Meyers' lighting design serves the actors, the set, the costumes, and the audience beautifully.
In a period when positive male role models seem to be in somewhat
short supply, Ron Anderson as John Woodlawn is a very positive presence upon the stage. The contributions of the young actors in this production serve to remind us that he is a very positive presence as Director of the First Stage Theater Academy as well.
Ray Jivoff was an endearing character in his last appearance at First Stage. As Robert Ireton, Jivoff establishes the quality of the musical aspects of this production with a warm and solid voice, spirited dancing, and a charming characterization. Kay Stiefel as Mrs. Woodlawn has to be maternal yet
problematic as her relationship with Caddie is difficult and far from sugar- coated. Jerome Landry and Mark Salentine have modest roles but they support the principals and the children with strong performances. Raeleen McMillion and Margaret Pierson-Bates add additional strength to a very strong cast.
I saw the yellow cast and found the children unaffected, natural, and solid in their acting, their singing, and their dancing. To achieve this apparent naturalness is far from natural or automatic. It is a credit to these young actors and to their mentors that they carry off their roles so well.
The audience at the performance of Caddie Woodlawn that I attended
deserves mention. I went to a school matinee and the theater was packed with young persons who were squirming and screaming with all the energy and informality of children on a school field trip. I wondered what would happen when the show began and it became obvious that this was a musical without rap, rock, or reggae. The audience became totally absorbed and were so attentive as to
excite the envy of their teachers. There was a subdued chorus of coughing but that was inevitable with a crowd of school children during flu season.
What reduced a horde of active youngsters into an enraptured
audience? The rich and enriching performance provided by First Stage Milwaukee.
Catch this production if you can.
David M. Doll