In addition to everything else it has going for it, First Stage has shown a remarkably savvy understanding of its audience. At first glance, the idea of doing a weekly pay-to-access video series for kids seems a bit optimistic. Kids with access to the internet already have so much that is available to them free of charge. Huge online packages from major corporations like Disney and Amazon are openly available with endless options of all kinds of kids' shows from classic movies to relatively new stuff. True: there IS an appeal of dazzlingly high-end children’s theatre live in the intimate confines of a small theatre down town. A pre-packaged video serial would seem to lie solidly outside of First Stage’s unique set of strengths, though. There’s simply way too much else to distract kids online. As a father and a theatre critic, I was skeptical. Much to my surprise, my two very sophisticated, little grade school daughters loved the first episode, which debuted this past Sunday.
Writer John Maclay and director Jeremy Tardy cleverly tackle the challenge of putting together a story with a unique appeal to local kids. The story follows a group of students languishing in lockdown who are drawn to an old bit of text from a fictitious Milwaukee-based sci-fi author who had claimed to have access to a secret treasure hidden from the world by Milwaukee founding father Solomon Juneau.
Actors shot scenes in isolation in front of a green screen at Milwaukee Youth Arts Center. The opening episode has them largely interacting with each other via videoconferencing, so the isolation of single actors working individually in front of cameras fits the script quite well. Lina Singh is charmingly engaging as Frannie--a girl who has just moved into a new place only to run into a bit of text with clues suggesting the location of a hidden treasure. She makes video call to her friend Alina to tell her about it. The first 1/3 of the first episode is a dialogue between Singh as Frannie and Lucia Santana as Alina. The bright, cheery green screen backgrounds firmly set Alina and Frannie into two different settings that lend the first episode a clean, simply visual dynamic.
What could have come across as a pretty dull set-up to the basic plot is more than interesting enough to hold the attention of a couple of grade schoolers...particularly when more kids become involved on a videoconference to begin the quest. Kids DO have access to a lot of video fare online, but not many of them speak to what grade school kids are going through right now. The video series may not have the immediacy of a live performance, but Maclay has found a way to bring some of the feeling of immediacy to the Milwaukee-area kids who would normally be going to a First Stage show. With classes in MPS and elsewhere taking place over the internet, grade schoolers in a pandemic are presented with characters who are going through exactly what they’re going through in the same city they’re living in.
The text that Frannie reads the rest of the kids is presented at the end of the first episode. Just before the closing credits roll, the text with mysterious, riddle-based references to Milwaukee history asserts itself in cool yellow sans-serifs against a black background. Kids with enough interest could really dive into this on their own as the series progresses. With local historian John Gurda included as a consultant on the series, the local history angle on the series could serve as a really solid foundation for a fun, little Milwaukee-based mystery.
First Stage’s The Quest for Solomon’s Treasure continues to be released at a rate of one episode per week through November 15. All episodes will be available through May.