For an upbeat, kid-friendly show with heaps of heart, make a beeline for the world premier of Arthur & Friends Make a Musical at Milwaukee’s First Stage. When Mr. Ratburn’s class at Lakewood Elementary is asked to write and perform a show for all of Elwood City, the kids are super stoked. Except for Arthur, who’s struggling with what to contribute to the show. None of his ideas feel quite exciting enough. What’s an 8-year-old aardvark to do?
This First Stage musical is directed by Khalia Davis and features book and lyrics by John Maclay with music and lyrics by Brett Ryback, who also is the show’s musical director. Shoutout to Brett from a fellow Catholic Memorial High School alum. Brett was a senior when I was a freshman, and I fondly recall his sensational spin as Harold Hill in our production of The Music Man. How fun now to witness this charming, funny show of his firsthand at First Stage.
I had the pleasure of catching the Lakewood Cast, which features Sanaiah Hibbler as Arthur. Hibbler is a sophomore at Oak Creek High School and Arthur marks her fourth mainstage production at First Stage. She’s terrific and shines in moments both fast-paced and full of heart.
Supporting Hibbler is an entire cast of young performers that really brings it. This musical does a great job of giving everyone their own big, splashy musical number. It creates a veritable ensemble cast that, I imagine, would appeal to loads of young actors. Arthur gives each performer an opportunity to show loads of personality. Here’s who we get to enjoy in the Lakewood cast:
Fifth grader Layla Katers puts mighty spunk into her First Stage debut as Arthur’s little sister, D.W. Her obsession with aliens is a cute secondary story.
Niamh Mayne from PPMS sparkles as Muffy the fashionista, bringing flashy fun to “Dress for Success.”
Charlie Cornell, an eighth grader at St. Mary’s Visitation, stepped in from the other young performers cast as Brain. He’s perfectly poised and articulate, particularly during a wordy number where we’re nudged to “find a better word.” “Very is often overused,” Brain sings. This writer thoroughly enjoyed the playful reminder.
The musical theater fan in me found a standout favorite in Lucia Santana as Francine. Santana hails from Wisconsin Lutheran High School and brings genuine humor and originality to the 2022 version of Francine: an activist who believes that even when things are good, they can always be better. Her showstopper tells the story of Agent 355, a real-life female spy in the revolutionary war. Choreography by Khalia Davis impresses and amuses as the song dips into a Hamilton parody-a nod that had me laughing and loving it.
Alex Radke, a sophomore at Cedarburg High School, plays Arthur’s best friend Buster. He commands the stage during “Ulysses Napoleon Baggypants” alongside Baggypants himself, the hilarious Zach Thomas Woods.
Woods is one of three adult performers in the show, and Baggypants is a highlight of the Arthur. I also enjoyed Woods’ delivery of the winking line, “Are we solving problems through song?!”
SaraLynn Evenson as Arthur’s mother does indeed solve problems through song. She warmly reminds Arthur that he is “undeniable” and that it’s impossible to be boring when you’re the only one like you.
Rounding out the adult cast is the fizzy James Carrington as Mr. Ratburn. Carrington is a joy, delighting with laughs and big grins at every turn. All he has to do is enter the scene and voila! Smiles and giggles galore.
Arthur & Friends comes together with scenic design by Arnold Bueso, who has created a world lifted from the pages of Marc Brown’s books. Costume Designer Jason Orlenko nailed the looks for each character. We are invited to imagine Arthur as an aardvark, rather than the look being literal, and isn’t that perfect for children’s theater? A chance to tap into the power of imagination, as well as acknowledge the power there is in just being our authentic selves. Everyone is the star of their own story. Arthur & Friends is a marvelous reminder of that for kids and grown-ups alike.
Arthur & Friends Make a Musical is playing at First Stage through November 6, 2022. The show is approximately 75 minutes long, plus a brief intermission. It is recommended for families with children aged 5+. Find information and tickets at firstage.org.
Review by Kelsey Lawler for Broadway World.