A Girl and Her Dragon with First Stage
Wisconsin author Barbara M. Joosse’s Lovabye Dragon books are whimsical fantasy stories of a girl and her dragon. There’s a smooth liquid poetry to the text that could be adapted to the stage in a variety of different ways. This winter First Stage has found a clever, engaging way to bring an adaptation of Joosse’s creation to the cozy FS Mainstage at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center.
A fuzzy bearded Chase Stoeger hosts the show as narrative Troubadour. Stoeger has engaging energy that opens the show. Adults trying to engage a kid’s audience can often edge over into cloyingly overeager exaggeration that would make any parent wince. Stoeger engages the audience with an earnest enthusiasm that feels warm and friendly without being explosively exaggerated. Stoeger manages a masterfully nuanced balance of energy and emotional honesty. An actress from the young company plays Girl...a lonely child with parents who care so much for her that they never let her venture away from home. Her tears of longing for the big world outside waken a friendly dragon, who she is visited by. It becomes her pet and faithful friend on an adventure that runs the span of about one hour--just long enough to maintain the attention of even the smallest theatergoers.
The dragon itself is a large puppet conceived by Brandon Kirkham and brought to life by three performers. Kirkham’s dragon and accompanying scenery faithfully recreate the distinct look established in the books by illustrator Randy Cecil. One particularly clever bit of staging has shadow puppets projected into the background scenery above the action in the foreground. The Cecil-inspired silhouettes in the background give a sense of whimsical immensity about the world of the girl and her dragon. The costuming adds to the whimsical feel of the show. It’s a playful update of fantasy costuming punctuated with gentle serif texts which echo lyrics from the songs.
The story has some similarities with a certain song from the ’60s. As a child I was a bit scarred by Peter, Paul and Mary’s Puff the Magic Dragon song...I appreciate the folk singers, but their music just doesn’t appeal to me. I have something of an averse reaction to folk music from the ’60s. Thankfully, First Stage decided not to go in a folk music direction with their musical about a child and a dragon. They’ve enlisted the help of contemporary pop group The Happy Racers to write the music. Thanks to the Happy Racers, the musical end of the show has a ’90s alt-rock feel to it. The wide-eyed emotional energy of the Happy Racers' dreamy, wonder music lends itself well to kids’ musical theatre. It's a perfect match for Stoeger's earnestness as the Troubadour. My daughter loved to sit back and enjoy a little fantasy of a big dragon brought to the small stage. The style and execution of the First Stage show made this Gen X father quite happy as well.
First Stage’s Lovabye Dragon runs through Feb. 19 at the Milwaukee Youth Arts Center on 325 W. Walnut St. For ticket reservations, visit First Stage online. A video featuring Lovabye Dragon shadow puppets and music written for the show by the Happy Racers can be found with the Happy Racers online.