BWW Preview: First Stage World Premiere Brings Spectacle to ELLA ENCHANTED
What allows a child or person to say yes or no to any request? To use intellect and free will to voice their choice? First Stage follows their last World Premiere The Snow with another World Premiere this spring by presenting an adaptation of Gail Carson Levine's 1997 Newbery Award winning book Ella Enchanted. The novel garnered a cult following for Levine's Cinderella story turned on edge. First Stage commissioned the production together with Adventure Theatre MTC in Maryland while two more women Karen Zacarias wrote the stage play and lyrics alongside composer Deborah Wicks LaPuma. With more than ten original musical numbers, the production celebrates young girls and women in every sense, although young men have a special place in Ella's heart.
Within a few weeks of the April 1 opening night, Director John Maclay, also First Stage Associate Artistic Director, and New York Choreographer Jessica Beth Redish chatted about the upcoming World Premiere featuring all the elements of a good fairytale: a princess, prince, ogres, a giant, and a unicorn along with a myriad of mythical and magical creatures unseen to the live audience. True to the classic tale, a stepmother and two stepsisters appear to taunt Ella. In producing this world premiere, each technical director seeks to honor Levine's book with the author participating in the process for what Maclay strives for in what his names "smart, clean storytelling."
In Ella Enchanted, the heroine faces the "gift" she was given at birth, obedience, which ultimately determines the twist in this fairytale. Ella tries to dispel, undo the curse that she must obey and can never say "no" to anything. Redish commented when working on Ella, she used the book to inspire her work-and she "believes ''No' is one of the most important words you can say."
Maclay adds that he has begun to realize the importance of "no." The final song in the performance titled "No" breaks the enchantment for Ella and gives her choice. Then Maclay states an interesting dichotomy for the theater, the arts..."As creators, 'yes' is the word we build on. "No" has been viewed as artistically obstructive. Our mission at First Stage hinges on that creative 'yes'--you, [academy students, young performers, composers, directors, technicians, playwrights] can do this--whatever you put your mind to."
Maclay then continues, "I'm also realizing there's a strength to saying 'no.' Sometimes yes is easy, said to only please someone, please everyone. You often need to teach people to say 'no.' With 'no', you need to take a stance."
Taking a stance on this world premiere choreography allowed Redish to to create dances that counter some familiar societal 'yeses.' Several lines from one of the songs read; A lady is fragile/and must act that way/ her best hope in life/ is to marry well someday.
Under her enchantment, Ella must say yes to this royal training, learning to be a princess, acquire a regal walk and talk, and yes, marry a prince charming. Redish choreographed wide sweeping movements for this ensemble number focused on the walk women learn for beauty pageants and are taught how to correct and perfect the female form. Ella constantly tries to say no and undo her curse, so she can refuse to be told how to act, stand or walk.
On her journey Ella also discovers a friend to help her undo the curse, a young man named Prince Char. Two teams of young performers recreate the young royalty, Alison Pogorelc matches with with Max Pink in the Spectacular Cast while Taylor Kass and Cole Winston create the royalty in the Brilliant Cast. While women occupy center stage, Prince Char finds his friendship with Ella on equal terms where the two work as a team, partners, and as the story believes, "They are kindred spirits, kind, inquisitive and smart, a more evolved way of approaching long term relationships" and ultimately, happy ever afters.
Scenic Designer Jason Coale, Lighting Designer Jason Fassl, and Costume Designer Brandon Kirkham create as Maclay describes "their own midlevel worlds" where the princess and prince exist while building a fantasy world with other contemporary touches. Each designer has an opportunity to be the first to define the world premiere production, and say yes to Ella Enchanted.
"Theater companies need to say yes to new work," Maclay emphasizes. "And aggressively create new work for the field. An environment where yes means taking a chance to commit to work that complements the traditional classics even though do so can can be challenging, expensive and risky."
What marvelous events and productions Milwaukee experiences with First Stage and the city's other performing art organizations, including Milwaukee Rep and Milwaukee Ballet, companies commissioning world premieres on a regular basis, while also training the next generation of theater professionals, as does First Stage through their theater academy. With an exceptional cast of young women performers to draw upon this particular year as a result of the academy, First Stage can continually say yes to new premieres and creating original theater professionals.
But what does someone do when there are no choices available similar to Ella's situation? In this scenario, Ella demonstrates for the audience that she searches for a way to break the curse, fights for change and her own unique happy ending. Through perseverance and tenacity, she challenges the audience to revisit their own personal situations and consider whenever they say yes or no to someone or something.
"It's a powerful story for a fairytale-where boys and girls alike will enjoy the story--a family show for everyone," Maclay explains. "An afternoon or evening of fun which moves quickly, a completely staged musical full of spectacle."
Maclay then sums up the story of Ella and Char, and what the two friends ultimately discover about themselves after their adventures and head into ever after. "Ella understands saying "no" comes from within and for her, and then the two of them, [Ella and Char], there's the power and magic of real love."
First Stage presents the World Premiere Ella Enchanted at the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts April 1 through May 1. On Saturday, April 16, Milwaukee's Boswell Books hosts a reading with author Gail Carson Levine, and she will perform an extended talk back at the 3;30 pm performance. On Sunday, April 17, First Stage hosts an author's brunch at 1:00 p.m.. that also includes tickets to the 1:00 p.m. performance and a signed copy of the book. For further information, please call: 414.273.7206 or www.firststage.org.