From the looks of the stage in the Todd Wehr Theater, it would appear that spring has arrived early in Milwaukee. Inside the Marcus Center, overblown blades of grass grow from the floor to ceiling. An empty Crayola box topples open on its side to the right of set. Within the week, bees and butterflies, centipedes and cockroaches, even a lowly earwig and fly will dance through this charming scenery. There may be a few more weeks of winter left, but you can get a taste of springtime on Friday, February 18 when First Stage Children’s Theater presents the regional premiere of U:Bug:Me!.
Company Artistic Director Jeff Frank met composer, lyricist and script writer Jeremiah Clay Neal at a Playwright Slam over four years ago. After several workshops and revisions, over a half dozen songs impart melody to the tale that rushes in what the flowering season often brings: fresh, blossoming love.
Themes of love and friendship find their way into the lives of Pico, the Fly, and Isabelle, a caterpillar/butterfly, whose parents object to the “interspecies” affections. After a hearfelt choral number titled “Infestation,” Isabelle and Pico declare their love in the ballad “Just a Fly and a Caterpillar.” Pico eventually runs away from the conflict and another misunderstanding involving his friend, Esteban the Earwig. Only then do Cockroaches welcome Pico into a temporary home while encouraging him to accept responsibility for his actions, and make any appropriate amends.
Todd Denning, Chris Feiereisen, Rena Roman and Chase Stoeger round out the adult cast that enlists Milwaukee’s Molly Rhode to choreograph the production. Frank insists everyone attending U Bug Me! will want to dance out of theater. For this production, First Stage places a live “Ant-Hill Band” on the set that includes acoustic guitar and percussion, sometimes moving the musicians from performing on instruments to performing on stage. The score contains elements of blues, folk, rock and notes of soul.
“In the short performance time frame, music helps move the story arc and adds emotional depth,” says Frank. “The music is so different and wonderful, the audience will leave humming these tunes.”
Frank knows this from experience — his own children continually asked to play the CD from the Coterie Theatre’s performances in Kansas City, and he even sings a few of the songs himself as we discuss the production.
Even if the weatherman forecast snow and sub-zero temperatures, Milwaukeeans of all ages can find a little bit of spring at First Stage. Laughter and music echo throughout the theater as U:Bug:Me! rushes in the season by bringing to life these enchanting insects, compelling the city to fall in love, trust and be young (or at least young at heart) once again.