First Stage alum directs classroom musical, “Miss Nelson is Missing!”
How important is First Stage Children’s Theater? Probably more imporant than you think.
In terms of budget and audience, First Stage is the second-largest theater company in Milwaukee. The company is about to complete its 24th season with a musical, Miss Nelson in Missing! In each of those 24 years, thousands of children have learned to love theater at First Stage shows. In each of those 24 years since founding father Rob Goodman started it all, hundreds more children have participated in First Stage shows. And some of those young actors have gone on to professional careers in theater.
Miss Nelson in Missing!, about a teacher who hopes to redirect the behavior of an unruly 5th grade class, shows how First Stage resonates through the theater community. Miss Nelson is the second show Molly Rhode has directed at first stage. But her relationship with First Stage began when she was 13, when she appeared in the company’s first The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. A few years later, First Stage opened its Theater Academy. Rhode participated, and that inspired her to attend Milwaukee’s High School for the Arts. From there, she went to Southern Methodist University, to major in Directing, Playwriting and Theater Studies.
She returned to Wisconsin and has become a familiar figure as an actress with American Folklore Theatre, First Stage, Renaissance Theaterworks and Skylight Opera Theater, among others. Rhode also choreographs, most impressively and recently for the First Stage production of U:Bug:Me! Last fall, she made her directorial debut with Main Travelled Roads for the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (where one of her former teachers, Brian Mani, currently graces the stage in the classic A Lion In Winter). Molly’s sister, Alissa, was music director for that MCT show.
This is Miss Nelson‘s second time around for both First Stage and Rhode. She directed the first reading of Miss Nelson in Missing! in 2003. She then choreographed that production, under Frank’s direction. Some minor revisions are in the works for her interpretation in 2011. The current show features nine children in the play’s schoolroom. Playwright and former political satirist Joan Cushing, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, originally envisioned four. Rhode thinks 2011 is fortuitous for the revival.
“The play celebrates teachers,” she said, “and Wisconsin’s political climate makes this timely.”
This thought also applies to the First Stage Academy, where Rhode eventually worked as a teacher during several summer programs. She’s already seeing former students becoming colleagues.
First Stage Children’s Theater opens Miss Nelson is Missing! at 7 p.m. Friday, April 29. It will run at Marcus Center Todd Wehr Theater through June 5. For information and tickets, visit the company’s website or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.