With a nod to New York theater critic Charles Isherwood, the older you get, the sooner it seems you are faced with the prospect of listing the best productions of the year. This is an overwhelming task in New York, with literally hundreds of shows opening on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off. But doing the same is a challenge even in a city the size of Milwaukee. There is more theater happening in this culturally rich city than most people know. And when you are asked to rate the Top 5 productions instead of the Top 10 — well, one can imagine the anxiety this produces.

I limited my considerations to shows that appeared in Milwaukee during the calendar year 2014, but I did not include revivals. Those shows had a chance to shine before this year. Thus, most of the winter holiday shows were excluded, plus two big touring productions (The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King), as well as locally produced shows such as Skin Tight, Master Class and Liberace! Those revivals might have overshadowed others that made the 2014 list.

Important note: The productions are not listed in top-to-bottom fashion but rather, in alphabetical order.

Anatole at First Stage
This adorable tale of a French mouse and his excellent palate (for detecting the finest cheese, of course) was one of the most charming shows of 2014. With a book and lyrics by John Maclay and Lee Becker and music by James Valcq, it cleverly brought forth many life lessons, including: the value of friendship, the importance of doing the right thing, the love of family, etc. The musical was based on a Caldecott medal-winning book by Eve Titus, and it came to life with a gifted cast, whose acting and vocal skills were well-suited to the musical’s demands. And who better to play the young mice than a cast of children?

In the Heights at Skylight Music Theater This big-budget production, set in one of New York City’s Latin neighborhoods, was a burst of energy from start to finish. Vibrant singing and dancing almost stole the show. However, the plots emerge, including one about Nina (Raina Roman), a girl from the ‘hood. She leaves for a distant college with the hopes of the entire community riding on her success. Another is the Hispanic narrator (Tommy Rivera-Vega) who knows the pulse of this community and is the heir to a small corner convenience store. Choreography by Claudia Sol Morgan is set against a stunning backdrop that transports audiences to this close-knit community. It fills one of the city’s loveliest theaters, the Cabot, with color, movement and emotion.

The Good Father at Milwaukee Chamber Theater
Rarely can a performance by a single actor turn an entire show into a “favorite,” but one cannot deny the power of Jonathan Wainwright’s portrayal in Christian O’Reilly’s play. Set in the intimate surroundings of the Studio Theater, The Good Father gives one hope that dreams – however improbable – might have a chance of coming true. The story begins on New Year’s Eve, when Wainwright and his soon-to-be girlfriend (Laura Gray) party. What follows is a night of passion and a subsequent pregnancy. How the couple work through their feelings of becoming parents is beautifully realized in two terrific performances, under the direction of C. Michael Wright.

The Whipping Man at Milwaukee Repertory Theater
Few plays intertwine major themes so artfully as one finds in The Whipping Man. It takes a harsh, no-nonsense view of a topsy-turvy situation during the Civil War. Set in the South, a couple of former slaves sit in the ruins of a plantation house. They consider their future. What does it mean to be free? Their conscience also forces them to tend to a white Confederate soldier who has showed up alone. Seriously wounded, the soldier must lose his leg or risk dying. The elder ex-slave knows what to do, though he does not relish the procedure.
The Whipping Man is as much about spirituality as it is about war. The slaves, raised as Jews, insist that the Jewish soldier join them in eating a symbolic meal. They have risked a great deal to secure some of the necessary elements. The soldier, who has seen too much bloodshed, wonders aloud if a God even exists. Eventually, he is persuaded to join them in the makeshift ceremony. Brent Hazelton directs this deeply affecting play, which is seemingly lit by candles and occasional cracks of lightening. The play has numerous twists and turns to keep the audience mesmerized.

War Horse, part of the BMO Harris Broadway Series at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts
One of New York theater’s most astonishing feats — the recreation of World War I in England, complete with battlefield scenes and horses charging into the fray — is just part of the magic that brings this tale to life. At its heart, this is a love story about the connection between a farm boy and his horse, Joey. A variety of animals are artfully recreated for the production. Horses are full-sized, bamboo-and-leather puppets that require three actors to animate. Almost a dozen horses are seen in this drama-set-to-music. A large, talented cast, ingenious stage effects and lighting create a dazzling encounter that takes the audience on the ride of its life. Those who missed its debut in January might look for a return tour in the future. Due to the nature of war (realistically portrayed at times), children age 12 and above are encouraged to attend.

Well, that’s it for 2014. On to a new year, with its clean slate of new productions.

Key Subjects: 
Anatole, In the Heights, The Good Father, War Horse, The Whipping Man
Anne Siegel
Publication Credit: 
This article first appeared in WinsconsinGazette.com, 1/15
January 2015