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Friday, May 9, 2014

Nancy Drew to the Rescue

First Stage’s spirited rendition of the teen detective

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No doubt about it, Nancy Drew was a gal ahead of her time. The famed teen detective of the 1930s sparked the imaginations of millions of young girls who longed to experience Nancy’s adventures. Nancy was so popular that the plucky heroine solved dozens of mysteries in a book series that stretched for nearly 40 years.

It’s no surprise, then, that the exploits of this teenage role model would be perfect for a First Stage production. Artistic Directors Jeff Frank and John Maclay certainly thought so, and they created a new play, Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever, in her honor. The production opened May 2, under Frank’s direction.

At an early Saturday afternoon performance, Madison Penzkover was a spirited and caring Nancy Drew. She had all the right stuff, right down to some nifty judo moves that left her attackers in the dusk. Clothed in fashionable 1930s style by Kimberly O’Callaghan, Nancy often is accompanied by one of her “chums” (in this case, Abbi Minessale as Bess). The cast also features two sisters (Katherine Pollnow as Laura and adorable Ella Tierney as Trixie) who are struggling emotionally with their parents’ sudden deaths. They also express their dislike of their guardian. The sisters first meet Nancy and her friends when their canoe capsizes near the sisters’ home. While the girls are drying off, the sisters mention something about a treasure map belonging to their deceased grandfather, a sea captain. Nancy vows to get to the bottom of the mystery, and off she goes.

The true mystery in this production is why the writers decided to constantly interrupt the plot with a series of Nancy-isms. Nancy delivers these pearls of wisdom directly to the audience, dispelling the necessary element of make-believe. Perhaps the writers did this to make the play more historically accurate. But showing is always better than talking, and this play has far too much yackety-yak to keep the younger audience members interested.

Far more entertaining are some of the show’s creative special effects. The best one involves Nancy’s roadster (yes, she has her own car). Whenever Nancy takes to the wheel, eight young ensemble members rush onstage. Each clutches a car part, such as a wheel or a headlight. They work with such precision that one actually believes that Nancy is hurtling along the highway, making sharp turns, etc. It’s a wonderfully executed invention.

In addition to Joe Foust, the adult cast benefits from the talents of Niffer Clarke as Nancy’s housekeeper (Clarke also doubles as one of the hilarious criminals) and the engaging Matt Daniels (who appears as several characters).

Nancy Drew and Her Biggest Case Ever continues through June 1 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Todd Wehr Theater. For tickets, call 414-273-7121 or visit firststage.org.