Fancy Nancy with Marquette

Jan. 18, 2017
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fancy nancy

Some time ago, my 5-year-old daughter was introduced to Jane O'Connor & Robin Preiss Glasser’s Fancy Nancy books. She loves the stories of a little girl enamored with all things fancy who must learn lessons from a less-than-fancy world. It’s a very successful series of children’s books. Over the course of the past couple of years, my daughter has had me read Fancy Nancy and the Mermaid Ballet to her probably a dozen times or so. It's her favorite. Naturally when it was announced that Marquette University Theatre would be staging the musical adaptation of that book, my daughter and I agreed that we simply had to go. 


Marquette University puts together a solid children’s theatre package. The space at the Helfaer Theatre is large enough to feel big to a kid and small enough to be a lot cozier than any touring children’s show that makes it to the Milwaukee Theatre. Di Alioto directs an appealing musical theatre adaptation of the 2012 Fancy Nancy book. It’s a small cast delivering a story of what happens when a fancy, little girl must portray a boring, old tree in a performance where others are given the opportunity to play much fancier roles. 


My 5-year-old daughter loved the show. Katelyn Weber has more than enough charisma in the lead role to fill the entire theater space.  From sets to costuming, the production design of the show does a pretty good job of delivering the visual feel of Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustrations to the stage. My daughter loved seeing a live adaptation of the book we’ve read together so many times. As a father, I loved that my daughter loved the show. As a critic...well...


The composition of the adaptation added-in bits of story in an apparent attempt to expand the cast and the scope of the musical. This isn’t all that necessary. There are more than enough points in the book to fill an entire kid’s musical. Also: Jane O'Connor delivers to the page a very strong perspective for the main character. It’s a first-person perspective directly from Nancy. We don’t get a whole lot of narration from the character in the musical and so it doesn’t feel like we’re in Nancy’s world quite as much as we are in the books. Without the strong perspective of the title character, it feels a bit more like a standard kid’s live musical than a Fancy Nancy show. 


What with the show being less centrally focussed on the main character, Katelyn Weber isn’t given much of a chance to fully emote as Nancy. Robin Preiss Glasser’s illustrations give a vividly strong reference point for the highs and lows of a little girl’s emotions. Galsser is able to deliver emotional complexity to the page with jaw-droppingly simple line drawings. When Nancy’s best friend is given the role of mermaid that she so wanted, she tells her that she’s happy for her, but she’s crushingly jealous even though she WANTS to be happy for her. Robin Preiss Glasser manages to get ALL of this to come across on the page in a single illustration with clever subtlety in Nancy’s facial expressions. The script doesn’t allow Weber the chance to pursue this kind of complexity, however. The weighty rollercoaster drama of a little kid experiencing things for the first time feels muted in the exuberant wash of a fun, energetic musical. It’s bright, brisk and enjoyable when it could have been something more. It’s great to see it brought to the stage, though. My daughter was thrilled to see it. I was happy to have shared the experience with her.


Marquette University Theatre’s production of Fancy Nancy:  The Musical runs through Jan. 22 at Marquette’s Helafear Theatre. As of this writing, the show has sold-out through the end of its run. Next month Marquette University will stage Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. For more information, visit Marquette online. 

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