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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Heritage Players revives immigration sagas

History is enlivened through stories and songs.

PHOTO: Members of The Heritage Players pose outside the Moravian Church at Heritage Hill State Historical Park, where the group will present three performances in July. Heritage Hill photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The Heritage Players marked Independence Day, as is the Green Bay area’s troupe, by presenting a history-filled program of stories and songs at Hazelwood Historic House Museum in Green Bay. This year’s presentation is “They Came to Wisconsin: Immigrant Stories and Songs,” which will have three more performances at Heritage Hill State Park in Allouez (see below).

The troupe and its show are distinctive.

The Heritage Players is in its 19th year under the direction of Stu and Bev Smith, husband-and-wife performers and heavy-duty researchers. The troupe is made up of community actors/singers who match their desire to perform with an interest in history, in this case the riches of regional history. This year’s production consists of 20 performers, most of whom take turns telling/enacting a series of 16 stories nestled between songs composed and/or arranged by Mary Eisenreich, who plays an electric keyboard. There aren’t many troupes around that do what The Heritage Players does, for as long as it has. The troupe operates independently without an owner, so to speak. Gee, that sounds like the Green Bay Packers. At any rate, it is unique.

Creative: Directors – Stu and Bev Smith; music director, composer and arranger – Mary Eisenreich; costumes – Dee Stary.

Players: Lyle Becker, Natalie Brunner, David Burke, Deb DeGroot, Myrna Dickinson, Mary Eisenreich, Sharon Gast, Randy Gast, Kathy Hardtke, Bill Jones, Nancy Jones, Gretchen Mattingly, Megan Schauer, Kristy Shuck, Theresa Shuck, Bev Smith, Stu Smith, Dee Stary, Steve Stary, Jarod Verboort, Adam Waggoner.

***

Program

THE DECISION

Song: “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”

“The Irish Lament”

“Mail Order Bride”

“The Natteson Brothers”

Song: “We’re Going to America

THE JOURNEY

“What Kind of Life is This?”

Song: “Away to Wisconsin

“My Oatmeal Bath

“Words of Warning”

“You’re on Your Way to Where?”

Song: “We’re Going to Wisconsin

THE ARRIVAL

“Grandma Burns”

Song: “Isle of Hope, Isle of Dreams”

“I Hate Miss Liberty”

Song: “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”

“The Begians”

Song: “The Immigrant Rap”

FIRST YEARS

“Follow the Poster”

“The Adventures of Melchior Schauer”

“First Winter/Worst Winter”

Song: “We’re Going to America

“Whopper of a Fish Story”

“Suckers and Badgers”

“The Seeds”

Song: “We Came to America

***

The show, “They Came to Wisconsin: Immigrant Stories and Songs,” was done by The Heritage Players in the past, but this version contains modifications in stories and performers.

It’s mentioned in the show that 28 million people immigrated to the United States between, 1820 and 1920. The show’s stories tell an array of experiences, basically in the words of the people who lived them. The good, bad and the ugly unfold as people from Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Norway and other places arrive in 1853, 1838, 1892 and assorted other years.

Some stories are harrowing: “First Winter/Worst Winter,” “My Oatmeal Bath.”

Some wrenching: “I Hate Miss Liberty.”

Some comical: “The Adventures of Melchior Schauer,” “The Natteson Brothers.”

That last one has one brother figuring out how to get the 200 miles from inland Norway to the coast to catch a ship to America. He says, “We ski!” His brother says, “Whiskey?”

Many of the stories are hopeful, including ones in which dreams are met. The song, “We’re Going to America” weaves through the presentation, with its buoyancy giving heart each time.

The prologue gives a tip of the hat to folks who came to Wisconsin, often for reasons of duress in the Old Country: “We live in homes they built… worship in churches which once held services in a foreign tongue… send our children to schools in which they first learned to speak English. And the names of towns surrounding us stand as silent reminders of the villages they left behind.”

As a history “lesson,” the production is nicely entertaining.

VENUE: Historic Hazelwood House Museum was built in 1837 for the Morgan and Elizabeth Martin family, leading figures in the early history of Green Bay and Wisconsin. The architectural style is Greek Revival. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Heritage Players traditionally presents a July 4 program outside every year at Hazelwood. Info: www.browncohistoricalsoc.org.

AHEAD: “They Came to Wisconsin: Immigrant Stories and Songs” will be repeated inside the Moravian Church at Heritage Hill State Historical Park in Allouez at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 6, 20 and 27. Info: www.heritagehillgb.org.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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