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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, April 16, 2014

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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

"Edith Piaf Onstage," a one-woman show, featured Leslie Fitzwater as the tortured French chanteuse. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Dave Begel's 2013 Milwaukee theater favorites


There is nothing I like better than going to see the work of Milwaukee's extremely talented theater community.

As a rule production values are high level, the acting is vital and professional and the stories are interesting and well told.

As 2013 draws to a close, I find myself remembering certain rare and outstanding productions.

Herewith, the best I've seen in 2013, in no particular order:

"Educating Rita" – This production at Renaissance shows how great acting and direction can lift an almost shopworn story to incredible heights. Everyone knows the story of the dissolute professor and his young friend. But Jenny Wanasek gave some breath to this production. Instead of focus on the story, she put the spotlight on the actors, the people. and Jonathan Smoots and Christina Panfilio took the bit and ran with it. Smoots is always reliable and Panfilio is a transcendent figure on the stage.

"Edith Piaf Onstage" – Skylight is well known for it's large and elaborate productions. But this one-woman show with Leslie Fitzwater as the tortured French chanteuse, filled the caverns of the Cabot Theatre with both joy and sorrow and everything in between.

"Clybourne Park" – Rarely have I seen anything as powerful as this production directed by Mark Clements, the Artistic Director at the Rep. there is a lot of humor in this play and Clements allows it to flourish underneath the racial dimensions of oncoming integration of a neighborhood. It's outstanding work by an outstanding cast and Marti Gobel rises to spectacular heights with her performance and with a joke she tells that made an entire audience gasp in surprise and horror.

"Under the Lintel" – Surprise is a wonderful part of being a theater critic and this little one man play at Chamber Theatre was stunning. It tells the story of a Dutch librarian who discovers a travel guide returned to his library 113 years overdue. C. Michael Wright directed and James Ridge, who annually stuns at APT, delivers the kind of performance that makes me happy I get to watch him do his job.

"Beast On The Moon" – In Tandem got the multi-talented Mary MacDonald Kerr to direct this exquisite and gripping production that is based on true events. Michael Cotey, Grace DeWolff and Robert Spencer show how much can be accomplished by smart people performing a script that is intelligent, passionate and disturbing. In Tandem has some great moments, and this is one.

"Ring of Fire" – Clements has shown he has remarkable taste for putting great shows in the Stackner Cabaret and this telling of the early years the career of Johnny Cash was a memorable evening of mixing storytelling with great music. This play is a slice of Americana and helped establish the Stackner as a place for memorable and intimate productions.

"Man in a Glass Booth" – Dale Gutzman is a veteran our theater scene and his performance as the tortured Jew going slowly mad amid Nazi duplicity and an eery personal identity crisis. Gutzman has all of the chops you want in an actor and his performance sent chills down my spine. I can't ask for more from a night at Off the Wall Theatre.

"As You Like It" – Optimist Theatre, dedicated to outdoor Shakespeare, moved into a new home at the Kadish Park Ampitheater on a hill overlooking the skyline of Milwaukee. The company which is always lurching from financial uncertainty to financial uncertainty, delivered a stunningly funny and sensitive production. It's a love story but the thing I enjoyed most was the performance of Todd Denning, who played Touchstone. It was like a master class in how to act the Bard.

"Grey Gardens" – This is a risky play to stage because it's a crazy story about crazy people and you need three women who can carry it off without shame. Niffer Clark, Alexandra Bonesho and Marilyn White were up to the task and Jack Forbes Wilson added a fading star to the mix. Off the Wall and Gutzman rolled the dice on this one and came up a winner.

"Perfect Mendacity" – David Cescarini and his Next Act Theatre continue to deliver memorable productions almost every time the curtain goes up. this play about truth and leakers and fear from being found out is a chilling tale. Gobel is at her sexy best in this one and there's a scene that will make men sweat, just by hearing her.

"The Detective's Wife" – I have trouble explaining to myself why I am so in love with Mary MacDonald Kerr, but seeing this one woman performance at Chamber Theatre made any explanation unnecessary. She is a tower of power in this story of a widow full of wonder about what happened to her late husband. The final 20 minutes of this play were some of the best moments I've ever seen on a stage.

"Dying City" – I continue to wonder about Youngblood Theatre and whether they will be able to survive. This Christopher Shinn play was a unique and fascinating examination of our memories and the tricks that can be played. Andrew Edwin Voss and Tess Cinpinski mix love and uncertainty so that it never lets us go. Youngblood has a focus on unusual and interesting productions and I hope they continue their efforts.

"Burying the Bones" – The most memorable thing about this play about South Africa and apartheid, is the brutal performance of Mark Corkins, a special guard who bears the responsibility for thousands of deaths. Corkins manages to keep the reins on a role that could easily have gotten away into the ether.

"Les Miserables" – This musical is a huge play with elements all over the place. Director Molly Rhode took on the task of creating a compelling story out of the chaos that sometimes bedevils this play. She lets the emotion loose on the stage and I had tears in my eyes at the end. How can I ask for anything more. Viswa Subbarraman is leading Skylight in some exciting directions.

"Noises Off" – Hands down, this Rep production is the funniest play of the year and the one that kept me roaring with laughter from beginning to end. It's a great play and the performance of two Rep veterans, Laura Gordon and Gerard Nugent are absolutely priceless.

"Groucho" – I expected this tale of Groucho Marx to be funny. But I never expected it to be so warm and honest. Norman Moses is a powerful actor who creates a character I thought I knew so well. It's hard to top Moses when he's at the top of his game, as he was during this Next Act production.

There are other productions that could have made this list. but these are examples of why Milwaukee is such a surprisingly rich theater town. My only hope is that more people, especially young people, will start to enjoy the wonder that we have every weekend in our town.

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