There’s good news for the generation that adored the American Girl dolls known as Felicity, Kirsten and Molly — all of whom were retired from store shelves over the past six years: Their stories live on, and next month will be center-stage in the Overture Center’s Playhouse Theater.
Felicity, Kirsten and Molly — along with fellow historical characters Kit, Josefina, Addy and Samantha — are the main characters in “The American Girls Revue,” being brought to life Oct. 8-23 by Children’s Theater of Madison.
The musical kicks off CTM’s new season and is meant to mark the 30th anniversary of the American Girl doll, born in Madison, that has become a cultural phenomenon.
“It seemed like it would be a great season opener,” said CTM artistic director Roseann Sheridan, who is directing the show.
“It’s very celebratory,” she said. “It very much revolves around the story of empowering young girls to do the best they can do, to be brave, to imagine themselves” in another time and place.
CTM last mounted “The American Girls Revue” in 2011, when American Girl hit the quarter-century mark. The show is faithfully based on the books written about classic American Girl characters, each of whom faces the joys and challenges of childhood in a different American era.
Those books were key to the success of American Girl, founded in 1986 as the Pleasant Company in Downtown Madison by Pleasant Rowland. Rowland, a former teacher, TV reporter and textbook writer, created a line of characters living in time periods stretching from the Revolutionary War period to World War II. Their accompanying stories, while fictional, were grounded in painstakingly researched fact.
In 1998 toy giant Mattel bought the company, now headquartered in Middleton, for $700 million; Rowland went on to establish the Rowland Reading Foundation and, along with the company she founded, has become one of the most recognized philanthropists in present-day Madison.
Dane County nonprofits focused on arts and environmental education for children have benefited from $11 million from the American Girl’s Fund for Children. The annual American Girl Benefit Sale has raised more than $22 million for the Madison Children’s Museum. Rowland herself has given millions to the arts.
Even Overture Center itself, where “The American Girls Revue” will be performed, was a gift of Rowland’s husband, Jerry Frautschi, and paid for from the proceeds of the company’s sale to Mattel.
“The American Girls Revue” was created for theaters formerly housed at the original American Girl Place retail stores in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. CTM is the only full-time theater to get rights to the show, Sheridan said.
American Girl even passed along the well-made costumes from the original shows, which are now part of CTM’s costume collection.
“It’s not something you can go to another city or children’s theater company to see in their repertoire,” Sheridan said.
The director admits she was at first hesitant to stage “The American Girls Revue” five years ago, for fear that it might feel “commercial,” she said.
But when she read the script, “I realized that this is really true to the (American Girl) books” it’s based on, authored by Valerie Tripp, Janet Shaw, Connie Porter and Susan Adler, she said. The play was written by Gretchen Cryer, with music by Nancy Ford.
To prepare for the 2016 production, Sheridan read a lot of the original books again, she said.
“And they’re really wonderful – with great stories for each of the character’s storylines. The writers of the books collaborated with the creators of the play, and Pleasant Rowland was intimately involved with the creation of this particular production.”
The show starts out with a group of girls playing, and acting out some of the stories they’ve read.
“It’s a lot about friendship and using your imagination,” Sheridan said. “In the opening song, they all say, ‘You have to imagine what it would have been like. Imagine if you were this person living at this time.’”
The show “doesn’t get into a lot of psychological depth like a lot of dramas,” she said. “But there are little things in there where you see the girls are dealing with different things in their lives.
“It also has that layer of history — and it’s women’s history. These are girls who grew up at a particular time, and each one of those stories has something that the girl is facing.”
Early 20th-century Samantha, for example, is torn between the ideas of her traditional grandmother and those of her aunt, a compelling suffragette.
“Then there’s this young girl who’s caught in the middle — with her grandmother, whom she loves and respects, and this aunt with a new idea, saying ‘Things could be different.’”
A live ensemble of piano, cello, winds and percussion will perform at the CTM show, which features a cast of eight girls and four adults.
Saskia den Boon, a sophomore at West High School, played a younger sister in CTM’s 2011 run of “The American Girls Revue,” and returns this year to take on the roles of Hallie, Felicity and Kit. Other cast members include Emma Dias, Olivia Foght, Laetitia Hollard, Audrianne Kieler, Eliza Marcus, Malea Niesen and Alice Wenzlow.
Adult roles are played by Jake Caceres, Bria Cloyd, Wendy Jones Hill and Eva Nimmer.
Other CTM productions in the 2016-17 lineup include the perennial “A Christmas Carol,” based on the Charles Dickens tale; “Seussical” the musical, based on the works of Dr. Seuss; “To the Promised Land,” a play for young adult audiences by Milwaukee playwright-actor Jonathan Gillard Daly; and “A Year With Frog and Toad,” the Tony-nominated musical for ages 3 and up.