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Friday Five's Favorite Performances of 2013
Presented in no particular order.

It’s commonplace for arts writers of all sorts to tell of their love-hate relationship with the year-end ritual of The List—whether it be 10, 20, 50 or an unspecified conglomeration of highlights. I’ve avoided the exercise in the past few years—mostly because my beat and schedule don't allow me to see everything that’s out there over the course of a year. Not by a long shot. But 2013 caught me in a retrospective mood, possibly because the continuing changes in the arts world and the non-profit economy, which has made all too real the prospect of long-standing arts groups disappearing altogether. In that spirit, I wish the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra the best in its struggle to survive.

Edo de Waart

Its continued growth has been one of the big stories in the last few years, and it’s hard to think of an orchestra misstep in the concerts I heard this season. The highlight, however, has to be its Brahms symphony cycle, in which Edo de Waart captured the music’s fiery romanticism and the symphony’s structural clarity. The orchestra showed its versatility with Nicholas McGegan’s baroque program, which included rapturous Handel duets featuring Yulio Van Doren and Daniel Taylor.

The Florentine Opera was also in fine form with its two canonical operas last year, delivering solid and enjoyable productions of The Marriage of Figaro and La Traviata. And Present Music got into the opera game with a world premiere by its longtime collaborator Kamram Ince. Judgment of Midas was a lush piece of contemporary music and a surprisingly witty stage story. But it was the Skylight Theatre that delivered the best opera production of the season, Porgy & BessBill Theisen’s finale as Skylight Artistic Director. Among the dozens of chamber music offerings this year, Frank Almond’s “Frankly Music” series delivered the most riches, particularly its first venture into vocal music in its “Words and Music” concert.

APT's Hamlet

Theisen was one of many directors who made their mark with a remarkable production in 2013. Early in the year, Michael Cotey celebrated his own swan song as Artistic Director of the adventurous Youngblood Theatre with the impressively anarchic Cartoon, Steve Yockey’s  blend of Toy Story and George Orwell. The Rep’s Mark Clements staged an impressive production of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, made all the more potent by his savvy programming, which followed it with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Those two plays had the best acting ensembles of any Milwaukee production I saw this season. Their only rival was American Players Theatre’s production of  Hamlet, directed by John Langs, which featured a bravura lead performance by Matt Schwader. On a smaller scale, it was hard to beat the ensemble of three actors (Jonathan Gillard Daly, Bri Sudia and Linda Stephens) in Susan Fete’s beautiful production of Road to Mecca, Athol Fugard’s meditation on the creative life. Michael Cotey, Grace DeWoolf and Bobby Spenser were an engaging ensemble in In Tandem’s Beast on the Moon. And Laura Gordon brought out terrific performances from Reese Madigan and Greta Wohlrabe in The Rep’s Venus in Fur, one of the season’s most satisfying theatrical roller-coaster rides.

It was a great year for young directors, as well, most notably Leda Hoffman, who made her mark with two powerful classically-based productions: a pared-down King Lear at Alchemist Theatre, and an outdoor staging of Margaret Atwood’s feminist retelling of The Odyssey, The Penelopiad. The great outdoors, in fact, was the place to be this summer for some of the most adventurous events of the season. In addition to The Penelopiad, Present Music’s performance of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” was probably the most ambitious and thrilling event of the year, rivaled closely by Wild Space Dance Company’s Acts of Wilderness, an exploration of the Three Bridges Park in the Menominee River Valley.

Acts of Wilderness

There was plenty of great dancing indoors, as well. Michael Pink’s version of Swan Lake demonstrated again his skill in telling stories through classically based, but fresh and innovative movement. Of the several short pieces presented by Danceworks Performance Company, the one that stayed with me was Christina Briggs Winslow & Edward Winslow’s “A Product of Distance,” staged at the Intersect concert this fall. And the Milwaukee Ballet’s trio of new works in its Genesis Choreographic Competition was one of the strongest since the contest began, all the more reason to look forward to the MB’s “Winter Series” at the Pabst, which will feature a new commissioned work by Gabrielle Lamb, the Genesis winner. And while it doesn’t fit into the “classical” mold in any way, the movement and dancing in The Circuit, the imaginative dissection of American Vaudeville by The Hinterlands, will not be easily forgotten.

Groucho Marx, the original

As will several remarkable individual performances of this season:  Jim Ridge’s astonishing solo performance in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Underneath the Lintel, Norman Moses’ turn as Groucho Marx in Next Act Theatre’s affectionate tribute, David Gaines’ dazzling mime solo in Theatre Gigante’s A Little Business at the Big Top, and Deborah Staples’ intense and affecting turn as a teacher out of her element in The Rep’s How the World Began.

All in all, it was a very good year.

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