BWW Reviews: World Premiere Musical 'Anatole' Illuminates Honor in the City of Light
Fantastique! Magnifique! Milwaukee's First Stage garnered these praises from the audience after their World Premiere musical Anatole opened in the Todd Wehr Theater last weekend. Set in Paris, the City of Light, the classic children's stories written by Eve Titus with illustrations by Paul Galdone illuminate the themes of friendship, honor and integrity so one can be the person, or in this instance, the heroic mouse one was meant to be.
Form the first opening notes in "It's Grand to Be a Mouse in Paris," the book and lyrics co-written by Associate Artisitc Director John Maclay and Lee Becker that accompany James Valcq's music completely charmed the audience. French phrases sparkle throughout the musical, while Scenic Designer Brandon Kirkham displays stylish French sophistication in his red, white and blues sets that incorporate a movable flower cart rolling along the streets of Paris. Production scenes complete with window boxes filled to the brim with flowers, shutters that open and an onstage turntable that transforms mice worlds into human worlds seamlessly so Anatole and his fearless friend Gaston might search for food, crumbs and leftovers, as they ride their bikes through Paris each night.
When Anatole discovers humans consider this work disgusting, that his "work" causes him to be called "villanous" at a party one evening, Anatole decides he must think of another way to earn a living, to feed his family while remaining honorable. With the help of his lovely wife Doucette and his six children, Anatole believes he can save the Duvall Cheese Factory from ruin when he gives them advice on how to make their cheese. Despite the fact Charlemagne the Cat prowls the factory during the night when Anatole needs to taste the cheese. And by the end when the last mouse dances in this adorable musical, Anoatole proves he can be proud of his accomplishments, attained only with the support of those who cheer him on.
The innocence to the 50 year old tale of Titus's Anatole shines brighter today because of how "dark and depressing" working in the contemporary world sometimes becomes. Where work can only be a means to make a living instead of glistening days filled with how to make the world a better place. The accomplished Gerard Neugent imbures Anatole with a quiet dignity captured with a flair for humor. Admire Neugent when he darts among the dancing cheese while working in the Duvall tasting room and singing, "Extra Specially Good," a musical number that extols the wonders of French cheese and Anatole's innate abilities in tasting these gourmet delights.
An enchanting Karen Estrada plays Anatole's lovely wife Doucette in one scene, and then through split second costume changes transforms into his enemy, Charlemagne the Cat. In the number "A Game of Cat and Mouse," Estrada mesmerizes the audience with her feline wiles dressed in black fur and rhinestones, waiting to catch Anatole for an evening's dinner. In addition, Drew Brhel commandeers the role of Monsieur Duvall, owner of the cheese factory with French assuredness, while Rich Pendzich plays Gaston, Anatole's faithful friend who stays with him even when he chases the evil cat away.
Under Molly Rhode's inventive direction while she also choreographs the antics on stage, her dances incorporate the numerous young performers First Stage commits to encouraging in every production (the Swiss Cast on stage Saturday afternoon). And to light up the production further, Alison Siple's costume designs channel the Caldecott winning illustrations that defined the beloved story in this approximately 90 minute production including an intermission to create another delightful production for young audiences, the future theater goers to come.
Young and the youngest chortled at Anatole and his dilemmas while parents chuckled at characters named Limberger and Baby Swiss. Two young boys giggled when leaving the performance thinking about Anatole putting ear wax and cucumber seeds into Duvall's 'especially good cheese,' one flavor used with disastrous results, the other with astounding success.
From the opening moments to the grande finale, the a trés bien production proves that parents can indeed be heroes, especially to their children. Or one can be rewarded for attempting to be the person one wishes to become, even when events or obstacles appear too great to overcome. When a person thinks first and then enlists family or friends, or in Anatole's situtation, a Super Alpha Stirke Force, the mouse A-Team, friendship, honor and integrity eventually triumph.
What a magical adaptation of a classic story for this chic children's production that musically celebrates a taste of French culture, the marvels of cheese and heroic deeds. Where First Stage's Anatole literally sings with superb acting and memorable melodies to create a theatrical experience extraordinaire that will enthrall audiences for years to come.