MILWAUKEE— The house lights go down, the stage lights come up and "Linus and Lucy" starts playing on the piano. 

Merry Christmas, Milwaukee. 

The holiday classic, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," made its way back to Wisconsin, playing at the Marcus Center for Performing Arts now through Dec. 26. 

The actors on stage are here to remind Wisconsin what the holiday season is all about. 

"Something that I hope audiences will take away from this show is the remembrance of why these holidays are celebrated," Alice Rivera said. "I think it is very cool how this show ties in the playful side of Charlie Brown, while also teaching the true meaning behind Christmas."

Rivera plays Lucy in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." She's just 14-years-old. 

Just like the movie, all of the characters are portrayed by children, except for Snoopy. 

"When they were creating it, Charles Schulz and the director Bill Melendez, demanded that the characters be voiced by actual young people, feeling that it would offer greater humanity and greater truth," Jeff Frank said. "And that certainly is our philosophy here at First Stage— that these roles being played by young people is a more effective and powerful way to connect."

Frank is the artistic director at First Stage and the director of "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It's his third year directing, but not everyone on stage is in their traditional role. In fact, Rivera performed in the same production four years ago as Sally, Charlie Brown's little sister. 

"My favorite part of A Charlie Brown Christmas is, of course, the classic Peanuts nostalgia that so many are familiar with, but also the deeper meaning behind the play," she said. "I really like all of the fun, upbeat singing and dancing, but I also really enjoy the part when all of these characters who have gotten so wrapped up in the commercial part of the holiday season, take a step back and appreciate the little things that hold great importance, instead of the shiny, glittery stuff." 

Rivera isn't the only girl taking the stage as Lucy, though. 

First Stage cast two sets of kids for this production, dividing them into the "Sparky" cast and the "Schulz" cast. Kids from all over the area are involved in bringing the show to life. 

"It’s so much fun to feel like I’m in the cartoon world of the Christmas story we all know and love," Nolan Zellermayer, a 15-year-old actor who plays Charlie Brown, said. 

One of the places that "cartoon" element comes to life is through Snoopy. J.T. Backes made his debut as Snoopy this year, working with both casts of kids. 

"Snoopy is no ordinary dog," he said. "My prep for this show came from reading those wonderful comics again and watching as many of the specials as possible. I was really determined to find Snoopy’s voice; yes, he doesn’t speak, but does make noise. From there, I was able to find the physicality."

The most challenging part for him is the stamina it takes to perform in each show. 

"Snoopy is a very physically demanding role. Even though Snoopy doesn’t speak, he uses expressions through his body and face," Backes said. 

Throughout the performance, Backes runs, leaps, thrashes, rolls and barks all over the stage. He even plays out the iconic flying ace scene. As he puts it, Snoopy "constantly plays." 

But what he'll never get tired of is laughter. 

"It’s truly wonderful to hear and feel an audience again. Laughter, tears, and applause. It’s just so wonderful to be back," Backes said. 

And should audiences choose to return to Marcus Center for this merry show, they'll notice extra room around them. The first two rows of seats will remain vacant for each show to ensure space between actors and the audience. The theater will not sell out, ensuring audience members can be spaced out. Masks are still required as is either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. 

There will also be a sensory-friendly show on Dec. 1 and a sign language-interpreted performance on Dec. 19. 

The team at First Stage is hoping to make their performances safe and accessible for everyone so that people take in the spirit of the holidays. 

"The show reminds us that it's the simple truths of the holiday season, that we should really revel in and celebrate: Being with family and friends, focusing on being kind to one another, what we can give rather than what we get. If you really focused on those things. I think that's finding the true spirit of the holidays and to essences, where we need to be," Frank said.

To purchase tickets or learn more about "A Charlie Brown Christmas," click here


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