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First Stage's inspirational 'The Amazing Lemonade Girl' remembers a kid who faced cancer by helping others

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 4/23/2022 Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

People pay thousands of dollars for therapy and spend years in ashrams to learn what Alex Scott grasped early in her short life: 

"I mean, if my story was a roller coaster, it would be like sad, happy, sad, happy, sad, happy," Scott says in "The Amazing Lemonade Girl," First Stage's world-premiere production, which opened Friday at the Marcus Performing Arts Center. 

"I mean, I could fake it and make it all really fun, but that wouldn’t be true. And I could make it all really sad, and that wouldn’t be true, because I’ve had really wonderful things in my life. And all of that is me. The happy and the sad. The good and the bad." 

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What makes her life, and this play, inspirational is that she never stopped looking for the good. 

Scott was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of nerve cell cancer, before her first birthday. At age 4, after getting a stem cell transplant, she lobbied her parents for a lemonade stand so she could raise money for cancer research. Word got out, and the annual lemonade stand effort grew around the country.

In 2004, the year she died at age 8, the project raised $1 million.

Playwright James DeVita centers Scott in "The Amazing Lemonade Girl" as both subject and storyteller. First Stage double-casts children's roles. I saw the Blue cast with Pietja Dusek as Scott, with young performers Nala Patel and Andrew Kindler joining adult professional actors Karen Estrada, James Carrington and Rick Pendizch as ensemble members who play various roles, including Scott's family. 

MORE: Glendale officials approved First Stage Milwaukee to build sets and move offices to a 30,200-square-foot warehouse

True to the character's credo, Dusek embodies equanimity as Scott. She's more a football coach than an Emeril Lagasse, telling the ensemble to kick it down a notch when they get overly excited about each piece of news. 

I'm neither an oncologist nor a social worker, just a parent, but this 70-minute play hits every important note I can think of in telling a story about children with cancer. Early on, it makes clear that cancer comes in many forms, and that individuals respond differently to treatments. Through the story of Scott's friend Theresa, we learn that some children die before effective drugs can be developed, hence Scott's urgency to raise funds for research. 

Playing Scott's unnamed brother, Kindler delivers a heartfelt speech about the complicated feelings the sibling of a sick kid has, including resentment. "The Amazing Lemonade Girl" would not be complete without this. 

And thank you, Dr. Carrington, for stomping the heck out of the "battle with cancer" cliché.

Playwright DeVita and director Molly Rhode help us process our vicarious emotions by having ensemble actors occasionally step out of character to object to something unfair or painful happening to Alex or her family. Dusek affirms their feelings while gently coaxing them back into character. 

First Stage's "The Amazing Lemonade Girl" tells the story of Alex Scott, a girl whose cancer diagnosis led her to raise money for others through a lemonade stand. © Jacqueline Larma First Stage's "The Amazing Lemonade Girl" tells the story of Alex Scott, a girl whose cancer diagnosis led her to raise money for others through a lemonade stand.

"The Amazing Lemonade Girl" has many antic and playful moments. Pendzich and Carrington are two funny guys, masters of the quick take and flex. 

Josh Schmidt's sound design reinforces the story in a meaningful way. 

Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer, founded by her family, has raised more than $250 million to date and funded more than 1,000 research projects. Northwestern Mutual, which has a decade-long relationship with ALSF, has sponsored this First Stage production.   

First Stage recommends this show for people 7 and older. Children can prepare for this performance (or follow it up) by reading "Alex and the Amazing Lemonade Stand," a picture book by her parents for readers ages 4 to 8. For adults who want to learn more about the complexities of treating cancer, I recommend "The Emperor of All Maladies" by Siddhartha Mukherjee. 

Raising a million dollars, curing cancer: These may seem like overwhelming goals, especially for sick kids and their families. Fortunately, Alex Scott has the perfect plan: "One cup at a time." 

Contact Jim Higgins at jim.higgins@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

If you go

First Stage performs "The Amazing Lemonade Girl" through May 15 at the Marcus Performing Arts Center's Todd Wehr Theater, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, visit firststage.org or call (414) 267-2961. First Stage recommends this show for people 7 years and older. 

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: First Stage's inspirational 'The Amazing Lemonade Girl' remembers a kid who faced cancer by helping others

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