Wiggling with the Wiggles
Walking into the Milwaukee Theatre as a serious critic about to watch The Wiggles Go Bananas Live!, I was prepared for the worst. But I actually enjoyed myself, or at least appreciated the draw of the Australian children’s show superstars. The four main stars — Anthony Field, Murray Cook, Jeff Fatt and Sam Moran — were amiable without being sugary, playful like actors from an improv troupe (this was the first show of a two-month North American tour). They engaged the audience often by jogging up and down the aisles and balcony. I also began to understand why venues have incorporated so many family-friendly offerings into their schedules in the coming months.
To be fair to the Wiggles, they enjoy a cult following. Some brought roses for Dorothy the Dinosaur and bones for Wags the Dog, including one highly crafted stuffed bone pillow with ‘WAGS Milwaukee’ stitched on its front. People brought signs and took copious video and pictures (which oddly no one prevented) of the show itself, and kids on occasion danced in the aisles to their favorite song. It was like a rock concert.
Since the show only runs on PBS’s Sprout cable channel, I brought along my niece Ava Jane, age 4, and her mother to the Milwaukee Theatre to serve as my objective assistants. The child doesn’t get that channel in her home either, but she is generally aware of the Wiggles. She is precocious and animated, which doesn’t make her an ideal theater critic, but she is also demanding and finicky, prime factors for the job.
This was Ava Jane’s first real show at a huge big-city venue like this. She has a moderate attention span, so I wondered how engaged she (and other children) would remain for the 85-minute show. Pretty well, as it turned out. Granted, her mom got suckered into buying a light-up wand for $18. Other kids had pirate hats representin’ for Captain Feathersword or floppy spotted Dorothy Dinosaur hats. But the audience certainly got its money’s worth on production value alone.
For the record, Ava liked the ballerinas the best. The Wiggles show contains a sizable ensemble of dancers and gymnasts, which at times made the show feel more like a vaudeville or variety act. In a very 21st century moment, Ava got to use her light-up wand along with parents’ opened cell phones as they were encouraged to raise them as the lights dimmed. Ballerinas wrapped with Christmas lights danced for the only ballad, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (also the only cover song, technically). A disco ball also filled the room with pinpoints of light in a swirl.
Other highlights for Ava included the comedy bits with Captain Feathersword and Wags the Dog. At a certain point, she was swept up in the fervor and I had to release her to bounce around in the aisles with the others. She was just in time for a ceiling burst of confetti, which rained down on the audience. She didn’t walk away with any ‘music earworm‘ issues like I did, and by dinnertime she was back to creating a “cave space” underneath the restaurant booth.
It’s not going to be the only soirée Milwaukee Theatre or others will offer in the 2009-10 season. Along with a reworked STOMP, other national tours in the next four months include Playhouse Disney Live, Annie and Disney on Ice. The Bradley Center has Sesame Street Live in November and the Harlem Globetrotters for the now-traditional New Year’s Eve show.
It’s almost better to take children to more affordable and intimate affairs that involve local talent, though. This includes Festival City‘s Pajama Jamborees, which introduce children to classical orchestra music and the Milwaukee Children’s Choir. First Stage Children’s Theater has a full season of plays into March 2010 with highlights including the current Junie B. Jones and a Little Monkey Business, The Thief Lord and The Wiz. The Racine Theatre Guild has a Children’s Theatre and Vilter foundation that plans four plays of the standard variety in productions like Winnie the Pooh and Seussical.
Depending on the age and maturity level of your child, there’s a whole world of music, dance and theater available to them. Summertime offers the most with outdoor events, but in winter there are always shows like Milwaukee Rep‘s Christmas Carol at the Pabst and concerts with the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.