The lights were down, except for a pair of slightly blurred spotlights against a wall where a mouse was hiding. You could hear a sound behind those spotlights, the threatening purr of a cat on the prowl. And just before the cat made its threatening entrance, while the entire audience held its collective breath, a tiny voice from the rafters was as clear as a bell.
It was a little girl in the audience, providing proof that belief ran strong at the Todd Wehr Theater during the opening weekend of "Anatole," an original musical staged by First Stage through March 16.
That little girl who was scared was in full belief that what she was seeing in front of her eyes was really a very funny mouse who had a wife, a bunch of kids, a good friend, a cat, big lumps of cheese and all sorts of magic created by John Maclay and Lee Becker, who combined to adapt the famous French story into a play with charm, warmth and a message.
The story is about Anatole, a wonderful French mouse and his best friend, Gaston. The two travel on nocturnal hunts for food to bring home to their families. Anatole has a wonderful and caring wife, Doucette, and six children.
The pair discovers that the humans they have been visiting are beginning to take notice of mice and are taking steps to rid themselves of the pests. So Anatole and Gaston decide to raid the Duval Cheese Factory, which is brimming with abundant cheese but also on its way out of business because nobody besides the mice want this cheese.
With signs stuck into blocks of cheese, Anatole begins to provide guidance for what needs to be done to make the Duval brand as popular as it could. M. Duval follows this advice, even though he has no idea who this "Anatole" might be. And voila! The cheese returns to its rightful place, and everyone is happy.
That is until M. Duval’s cat shows up, threatening the entire arrangement and making little girls in the audience squeal, "I’m scared."
The play is one of the most delightful I’ve ever seen in Milwaukee, in no small measure because of yet another spectacular turn from the impeccable Gerard Neugent, this time as a mouse.
As the years go by, Neugent continues to prove that there is no role that he can’t infuse with his own unique creativity. From playing an angry and spiteful Iago to a mouse who believes in honesty, hard work and caring for his family, he has a mobility and nobility about himself on stage that infects everyone. Not an easy span of characters, but Nugent carries it with elegance.
His compagnon d’armes, Gaston, is in the capable hands of Rick Pendzich, who proves that fear and worry can be overcome by teamwork and courage. Pendzich is on his way to becoming a younger version of Nugent, wildly capable of a breadth of roles, each with depth and clarity.
The entire cast, under the imaginative direction of Molly Rhode, is the kind of spectacle I have come to expect from First Stage. The time I find a cast wanting for professionalism at First Stage will be a first for me.
Rhode lets the humor and imagination roar in "Anatole," but she never loses sight of the fact that it’s nice if young people come away from a play having learned something about life. If there is one thing taken away from this production, it is that this is a mouse who knows how to shoulder responsibility and care for all those around him.
There is tremendous comfort in the young people who watch with rapt attention as these mice cavort around the stage. And at the core of that attention is an unqualified belief. If kids believe, you know it. If they don’t, you know it.
And with those two words – "I’m scared" – it was left to a little girl to signal how deep belief runs in "Anatole."
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