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'Glee,' Milwaukee style


February 7, 2011

"Hey, kids, let’s sing and dance!"

That’s just what First Stage Children’s Theater has a hard-working group of kids doing for fun ... and learning. Founded in 1987, the company has blossomed from a small theater for young audiences to a nationally renowned organization. It offers a heavy season, including six mainstage plays, two First Steps shows and one touring production, putting on more than 300 performances each year.

But add more creative opportunities? Sure, why not!

Academy director John Maclay had long wanted to install an advanced high school program related to musical theater, but hadn’t found the right programming idea. First Stage already had advanced year-round high school programs in acting and Shakespeare called the "Young Company" and in improvisation, aptly named "Organized Chaos."

So this past summer, Thomas Weissgerber and Chris Wzsalek, two longtime First Stage Theater Academy music teachers, approached Maclay and academy Headmaster Laura DeMoon with the idea for a glee club. It seemed a great fit. "We’re teaching musical theater," says Weissgerber, "and wanted to try something totally different."

The hit TV show "Glee" provided a good impetus for the plan, but advanced show choirs existed long before the popular program, Maclay points out. Yet, he adds, the show has made glee clubs more popular than ever.

Subsequently, there were several meetings among Maclay, Weissgerber and Wzsalek. "We always knew the structure would be an advanced show choir," says Maclay. "We were set to begin with one small group, but the interest has been so incredible that we now plan to expand to three groups."

Students will learn music outside of the realm of traditional musical theater, like pop music, and they’ll create harmonized song and dance numbers. What will they look like? "That is the work ahead," Maclay says.

Students from seventh to 12th grade auditioned last autumn, with rehearsals beginning in January. "‘Holy smokes,’ I said to myself. These kids are coming from everywhere," enthuses Weissgerber as he looks over the roster of youngsters. He cites attendees from Hartland, Pewaukee, Muskego and all around Milwaukee, including talented kids from public, charter and Catholic schools. "Plus we had some being home schooled."

"What isn’t fun about a glee club?," says Maclay. "There are a large number of students already in our academy that are passionate about singing and dancing. But the announcement for Glee Club auditions resulted in many new students showing up, as well."

A public performance is planned for May. And there are preliminary talks regarding getting the groups into school competitions and performing at corporate events, nursing homes, Wisconsin State Fair and other venues.


This story ran in the January 2011 issue of: