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."
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published May 4, 2017
There are many people in Milwaukee who lead very public lives. One of them, surely, is David Stearns, the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers. We sat down with him to see what makes him tick.
Published May 2, 2017
With a May 8 deadline looming, the war of words over a proposed strip club Downtown is escalating. A coalition of powerful business interests remain opposed, with the mayor and members of the Common Council on the other side, using Minneapolis as an example.
Published April 30, 2017
Let us all agree about what Junie B. Jones is not. She is not a crook. She is not a nutball. She is not in love with Handsome Warren. What she is, though, is the center of a wonderfully funny story, "Junie B. Jones Is Not a Crook."
Published April 29, 2017
Theater can make you feel a lot of things, most of them wondrous, but on rare occasion it can make me feel like a dummy. And that's what I felt like after seeing "Jane Eyre," the final show of the season at The Rep, which opened Friday night.
Published April 27, 2017
It's impossible to stop thinking about the production of "Carnival" currently being staged at In Tandem Theatre, which I reviewed on opening night last week and is a fascinating example of what can happen when you stretch yourself and dream big dreams.
Published April 25, 2017
Start with a girl, beautiful and rich. Then add in her uncle and guardian who wants to marry her so he can get the money and toss in a high-born stranger who also wants the girl's hand in marriage. What you have is Florentine's "Barber of Seville."
Published April 22, 2017
For 15 years, under the guidance of art therapist Lori Vance, ExYoMKE has gone one-on-one with some of the most disaffected children in Milwaukee, children of all races and genders, and tried to help them see the world through the eyes of an artist.
Published April 22, 2017
One of the most wonderful evenings at a theater is when the show starts on a high note and just keeps getting better and better until you get to an ending where your heart is lying on the floor and your eyes are clouded with tears. That's "Carnival."
Published April 21, 2017
"The Fantasticks" is a simple little musical, the longest running in history, about a boy and a girl and being in love. The problem in the Off the Wall Theatre production is that the boy can't hold up his end of the deal, and the whole production suffers.
Published April 20, 2017
When I'm moved, I write, and fortunately, with OnMilwaukee, I have a place for that writing. The series of Uber tales from the road have run intermittently, but this story, more than anything else, proved that words and social media have the power to spark action, to make a real difference.