Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Door County show waxes nostalgic

‘Naked Radio'

FISH CREEK, Wis. - A powerful snowstorm grips “the county.” The inhabitants are in lockdown mode. Slowly by slowly, they lose connections to the Internet, cell phones and TV. What’s left is the local radio station, of late a corporate jobbie that only plays music that’s like a long line of taste-weak cans of fruit on a grocery shelf. And so the musical comedy “Naked Radio” drifts into beginning a story. Eventually, a personality emerges and the show takes a character that can only be – in the wide picture of things theatrical – Northern Sky Theater.

Northern Sky Theater in summer puts on a series of original musical comedies outdoors at Peninsula State Park Amphitheater. “Naked Radio” is the 2017 fall presentation – a world premiere – for the professional company, with performances in Door Community Auditorium for a long run, to Oct. 21.

“Naked Radio” embraces the way we were, or the way things kinda/sorta were in a heyday in radio when stations touched listeners’ lives as a matter of course. In the story of this show, the touching comes from desperation. A couple of station minions are trapped in the station by the storm, and they find that people need them as a kind of lifeline.

I like the way creators Dave Hudson and Paul Libman tap into what has happened at fictional, small-town radio station WHLO as technologies changed. In came the new, and out went the old – so much so that there no longer are a human’s playlist, the one-time essential record discs or much person-to-person with real, live folks “out there.”

Everything changes when one of the minions whacks the “soulless, sterile silver box” – the interconnect with the Big Channel Network somewhere in the great beyond – and the station can only broadcast with what’s at hand:

+ The minion, Bart Dunwood (Doug Forrest), and the station newbie/minion, Mike Young (Chase Stoeger).

+ One record – all that Mike could find in the building – that has “The Tennessee Waltz” on one side and “Possum Trot” on the other. Bart and Mike play “Possum Trot” over and over… and over… as their standby to kill time. (Side notes: Being that Northern Sky Theater writers write original material, Hudson and Libman do not use the popular “The Tennessee Waltz” in the show but their made-up and corny “Possum Trot.” By the way, the co-writer of the lovely/sad “The Tennessee Waltz,” Pee Wee King, spent much of his youth in the Abrams area and is one of our own).

+ The folks “out there.” The entourage includes Agnes Blankenship “from the county,” who loves bringing everybody up to speed with the latest road closings, a grumpy advertiser, Bart’s lady friend, helpful Bob, a lovelorn space cadet/Dr. Who groupie, a snotty kid who tells they guys on the air they are stupid and then hangs up, a Big Channel boss and other local types found around Middletown, a place in “Somewhere USA” that seems an awful lot like Door County. All those folks are played by Molly Rhode in an acting tour de force. Rhode changes character – voice, demeanor, aura, temperament, essence – with each simple change of costume, primarily keyed to a character’s identifying knit hat.

+ Imagination. It so happens that the minions are musicians as part of their character’s previous life. Sometimes Bart and Mike play song songs, but most often they come up with ad jingles they have made up on the spur of the moment (in the story). This is a lot of lightly tripping, catchy music with little hooks. Bart and Mike dream up gimmicks to fill air time – like a bit for listeners to sell/buy stuff (a true throwback to a real deal), a section on love advice, a recap of “Dr. Who” episodes and a major seed, a gambit about the show’s title. Bart and Mike place in listeners’ minds an image of them broadcasting in the altogether. This eventually leads to a strip for the benefit (not really) of the audience, with Bart and Mike getting down to their skivvies.

Soooo… what is “Naked Radio”? It’s part warm remembrance and part regret about the vast disconnect that technology and simplification and instant gratification have brought – but mostly a clever, if soft-paced, offering of entertainment.

Impressive parts include:

++ Molly Rhode’s multiplicity of characters, which has the signs of director Jeff Herbst’s careful hand of collaborative development.

++ Chase Stoeger’s multiplicity of cornball instruments he toots, dings, whizzes, ta-ta-tumps, pops and… Best Plastic Saxophone Performance of the Year: Chase Stoeger.

++ Doug Forrest, a musician first, arrives in the acting realm as Bart becomes a comforting gentle giant as an advisor on life.

The set is split in half. To the audience’s right is the radio station studio – microphones, electronic consoles, sound-softening padding on the wall; when Bart bops the corporate logo, the interconnection is revealed like the guts of a robotic patient spread out against the wall. To the audience’s left is the domain of Molly Rhode’s entourage that includes a variety of telephone types, knit hats, such items as a Green Bay Packers helmet and a Door County map, costuming that include a fur-fringed down coat and a kitschy scarf and the bass she plays as accompaniment and… Best Performance of the Year on an Omnichord (electronic instrument played by touch) to the “Ballad of Dr. Who”: Molly Rhode.

On sale in the lobby in association with this show are discs that say “To It” – so you can get a round to it – and Hostess Twinkies – in case a comic, admiring bit in the story stirs your taste buds. My tie-in: In the overall, “Naked Radio” has flavor to it.

***

Creative: Music (and additional jinglefication) – Paul Libman; book and lyrics – Dave Hudson; director and choreographer – Jeff Herbst; music director/arrangements/music supervisor – Alissa Rhode; stage manager – Neen Rock; assistant stage manager – Shawn Galligan; scenic designer – Lisa Schlenker; assistant scenic artist – Adam Stoner; lighting designer – David Alley; sound designer – Nic Trapani; costume designer – Karen Brown-Larimore; props designer – Kathleen Rock

Cast: Mike Young – Chase Stoeger; Bart Dunwood – Doug Forrest; Maggie Wheeling, etc. – Molly Rhode

Musicians: Bass, omnichord, ukelele – Molly Rhode; guitar, banjulele, ukulele, percussion – Chase Stoeger; guitar, mandolin, – Doug Forrest

Running time: Two hours, 25 minutes

Remaining performances: Through Oct. 21 – 7:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays (except Sept. 11, 18, 28, Oct. 16, 17, 18); 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays

Info: northernskytheater.com

***

Musical numbers

Act I

“Well Hello”

“Tradin’ Time”

“Tradin’ Time” (Reprise)

“Road Closings”

“Well Hello”

“Filling the Air”

“Here It Is”

“Road Closings” (Reprise 1)

“Gibson’s Ad 1”

“Lollipop’s Ad 1”

“Gibson’s Ad 2”

“Dewey’s Jingle”

“Gibson’s Ad 3”

“Road Closings” (Reprise 2)

“Ballad of Dr. Who” (beginning)

Act II

“Ballad of Dr. Who” (ending)

“Jake Jensen’s Jingle”

“Killing Time”

“Naked Radio”

“Love Lessons”

“Snow Stories”

“Well Hello”

“Bare Naked”

“A Little Bit”

***

Personal flashback: It’s last century just after a Green Bay radio operation has automated one of its stations. Being that the media is one of my beats for the newspaper, I telephone the manager in hopes of finding out background to inform readers about this new thing in the industry. The manager balks and says there is nothing he wants to be quoted on. But I will now. He says, “Nobody wants to talk about their drunk aunt in the back bedroom.”

THE VENUE: The 725-seat Door Community Auditorium features wood elements (for acoustics) surrounding its focal 60 by 24-foot proscenium (straight-front) stage. The auditorium opened in 1991. It serves the Gibraltar School District and hosts professional performances such as the respected Peninsula Music Festival, many of the nation’s top-shelf artists and Northern Sky Theater fall musicals. In the auditorium design, the architects chose to emphasize open space, exposed steel beams and simplicity of shapes. For orchestra concerts, the stage is lined with wood; panels are squares within larger squares. The roof interior is exposed wood, an acoustical touch. Balcony and box-seat areas are faced with plaster surfaces of a red hue, and the aura is like that of decks on a passenger ship, only inside. The hall’s seats are padded with wood backs. The lobby features two murals that represent the spirit of the peninsula, “Door County/The Water” and “Door County/The Land.”

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available online and in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.


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