12 Days – A Milwaukee Christmas
How many teachers inspire and believe in their young students? First Stages Children’s Theater musical play, 12 Days – A Milwaukee Christmas, is the adapted true story of Miss Emily Brown, a Downer College Professor whose Christmas theatrical productions became legendary in Milwaukee at the turn of the century. First Stage presents this holiday offering as a world premiere, written by Playwright-In-Residence James DeVita.
DeVita is well-known to Milwaukee and Madison audiences as a core company member at the American Player’s Theater in Spring Green and, more recently, as the author of last year’s one-man show, Dickens In America, staged by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. This children’s play reprises his admiration for Dickens as he incorporates elements of the English author’s stories and words from the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which Emily Brown is credited with bringing to America from England.
Money and supplies are scarce in 1917, during World War I, and Emily Brown, now a grade-school teacher, struggles to stage her Christmas play. The Scrooge-like principal, Mrs. Crudgens, orders the pageant cancelled, but the students heed Miss Brown’s words: “In this class, as in life, an effort is required.” They go caroling to earn the funds, and in the end, in true Dickensian fashion, minds are changed, hearts are won and everyone enjoys the final presentation.
Traditional carols and falling snow sprinkle this First Stage production with charm. Sarah Day as Emily Brown brings energy to the stage throughout the 90 minutes, and her chemistry with Bo Johnson, playing Polish-American school employee Mr. Horace, adds a touch of tenderness to the slightly contrived plot. The Pear Cast, one of two sets of child actors alternating throughout the run, contributed ample talent to the humorous and light-hearted performance on opening night. An interesting historical set and period costumes accent the production.
In the final scene, the students wear “homemade” costumes like plum pudding and buttered dinner rolls, which delighted all ages in the audience as they finished with a sing-along of the title carol. Ultimately the production offers some important ideas for discussion throughout this festive season: often life requires an effort, an imaginative effort, especially when difficulties arise. As Miss Brown quotes from Dickens to her students, trying to encourage them to see beyond their own circumstances, she says, “Without imagination, there can be no compassion.”
First Stage’s 12 Days – A Milwaukee Christmas uses both imagination and effort to tell this family-friendly story of Christmas hope and how one person’s efforts can change lives in the smallest of ways. Perhaps with true Dickens conviction, adults and children will remember to make these compassionate efforts throughout the holiday season. And believe – as Mr. Horace and Emily Brown believe – that “Christmas is not complicated. Christmas is Christmas. Heaven bless us!”
First Stage Children’s Theater presents 12 Days – A Milwaukee Christmas in the Todd Wehr Theater at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through December 24. For information: 414.273.7206