Matthew Reddin

Oh Wow, Nancy Drew

First Stage presents an ambitious new play about the greatest young sleuth in literary history.

By - May 1st, 2014 12:05 pm
Sign-up for the Urban Milwaukee daily email
Nancy Drew

Nancy Drew

Start with the greatest youth sleuth in literary history, and two young women talented enough to portray her. Add in a strong supporting cast of friends, family and villains. Elaborate, set-manipulating action sequences. An original score. And 49 previous world premieres’ worth of practice.

Solved the mystery yet? It’s Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever, the final show of First Stage’s season and the company’s 50th world premiere.

Based on the classic mystery novel series originally by Mildred Wirt Benson (writing under the name Carolyn Keene), First Stage’s adaptation doesn’t pull its story wholesale from any of the 23 novels Wirt Benson contributed to. Instead, co-writers Jeff Frank (First Stage’s artistic director) and John Maclay (the group’s associate artistic director) went through all 30 of the original novels in the series, pulling useful lines or bits of dialogue wherever they found them and ultimately constructing the plot by combining elements of three stories: The Bungalow Mystery, The Quest for the Missing Map and Mystery at the Ski Jump. The story resulting from that fusion actually begins at the end of a mystery, with Nancy (played alternately by Madison Penzkover and Amanda Desimowich) defeating her notorious adversary Stumpy Dowd, and quickly transitions to a new adventure, when Nancy and her friends meet two girls with a family secret – a missing treasure map.

Adapting the Nancy Drew mysteries was a no-brainer for Frank, who considers them some of the greatest youth-targeted works in the genre, and Nancy herself one of its greatest heroes. “[Nancy] is a character we’re excited to share with our audience,” Frank says. He adds that she’s also a character he was excited to share with his cast, several of whom didn’t know as much about the Nancy Drew mysteries. “We’ve all learned a lot together about what makes Nancy special and why she has endured for so long.”

That longevity is an interesting component of the Nancy Drew mythos as well as First Stage’s adaptation. The original series was written from the ‘30s into the ‘50s, but the decades passed, several incarnations of the series have brought the character along for the ride, modernizing her with the times. But Frank and Maclay decided not to go that route, keeping their story set firmly in the past. “We were very fond of the original voice of Nancy provided by Mildred Wirt Benson, including the dialogue,” Frank says, “so we decided we wanted to share that voice with our audiences.” Also important to preserve: the suspense of those early novels’ chapter-ending cliffhangers, which Frank says they tried to weave into the script.

This being the season’s last main stage production, Frank is pulling out all the stops technically. He’s commissioned a suspenseful new musical score from local singer/songwriter Willy Porter, who’s been working in tandem with sound designer John Tanner to get things just right.

First Stage is also integrating some of its trademark koken-style puppetry, previously refined in productions of Peter Pan and Wendy and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with the help of actors Joe Foust and Matt Daniels. Kokens, originally a device used by Japanese theater, are actors costumed in neutral colors who manipulate elements of the set or actors – in those prior productions, to make children fly with pixie dust or magically animate an Island of Misfit Toys – and in Nancy Drew, they’ll be creating dynamic action segments like a capsizing canoe and chase sequences by car and skis.

But behind all the koken wizardry and period setting, Frank hopes the bold, confident young woman he and Maclay have brought to life shines through. “I’m not big on the idea that a play should have a moral,” Frank says, “[but] I hope that all our audience members, boys and girls alike, walk away with the realization that you don’t need special powers to be a super hero – and that young women can accomplish anything they set their minds to.”

Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever opens Friday, May 2, and runs through June 1. Tickets start at $14; for showtimes or to order, call 414-273-7206 or visit the First Stage website.


PREVIEW: Storefront Church, at Windfall Theatre

To wrap up their season, Windfall Theatre takes on one of the latest plays by John Patrick Shanley, the playwright behind the critically acclaimed Doubt. This play, Storefront Church, puts religion center stage as well, but by focusing on the brewing conflict between a Bronx borough president (Shayne Steliga) and a local minister (Bill Jackson), sparked by the mortgage crisis. The big difference between this and Doubt, though, is that Storefront Church has frequent moments of levity sprinkled throughout its philosophical debate, and director Carol Zippel will certainly be making good use of them.

Storefront Church runs at Village Church Arts from May 2 to 17. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at 414-332-3963 or


PREVIEW: Songs for a New World, by Greendale Community Theatre

Normally, you’ve got to wait for either the middle of summer or winter to see a Greendale Community Theatre production, but the company is shaking things up this year by adding an in-between production to their schedule. Songs for a New World, a minimalist song cycle by Jason Robert Brown, is the perfect sort of show to sandwich between their recent production of The Full Monty and their upcoming summer show Legally Blonde. New World features a variety of stand-alone songs performed by a cast of six. Each has its own spin on Brown’s unifying inciting incident: the moment each character has to make a critical decision in his or her life.

Songs for a New World runs at the Muskego Lakes Country Club May 2 and 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10, and can be ordered at 414-423-2790 or online; a dinner option is also available and can be reserved at 414-425-6500.



Milwaukee Rep: The History of Invulnerability, Quadracci Powerhouse, through May 4

Peck School of the Arts: Cinderella: The First 30,000 Years, Kenilworth Square East, through May 4



Milwaukee Rep: Ain’t Misbehavin’, Stackner Cabaret, through May 18

In Tandem Theatre: 1959 Pink Thunderbird, through May 18

Sunset Playhouse: I Hate Hamlet (NEW!), through May 18

Fireside Theater: Fiddler on the Roof, through June 8

0 thoughts on “Theater: Oh Wow, Nancy Drew”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’m looking forward to First Stage’s Nancy Drew production. In 1976 I saw Theatre X’s play “Oh Wow, Nancy Drew.” Do you remember it?

  2. Anonymous says:

    The Nancy Drew play sounds exciting!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *