Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: AFT’s ‘Strings Attached’ eventually clicks

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: AFT’s ‘Strings Attached’ eventually clicks

The Door County troupe takes on a high-energy farce.
"Strings Attached" world premiere ticket
"Strings Attached" world premiere ticket

PHOTO: Performing in American Folklore Theatre’s world-premiere production of “Strings Attached” are, from left, Paul Helm, Molly Rhode, Chase Stoeger, Doc Heide, Eva Nimmer, Chad Luberger, Rhonda Rae Busch and Doug Mancheski. Len Villano photo

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Identical twin brothers are in a sailing mishap as infants. They’re separated. They’re saved, separately. They live separate lives. Each is involved in making musical instruments. One, Hal, is artistic; he’s inclined to design. The other one, also Hal, is business minded. Hal and Hal know of each other’s company – one makes ukuleles and is based in Hawaii, the other makes banjos and is based in Wisconsin – and they think a merger will be a good thing. One Hal brings his girlfriend and father, the other Hal brings his girlfriend to confer in Wisconsin at The Next to Last Chance Resort. Each Hal is dressed exactly like the other Hal – jeans and a flaming-red Hawaiian shirt. Each Hal falls for the other Hal’s girlfriend. Hal and Hal are never in the same place together, confusing the bejeepers out of the hotel staff that sticks to its Code to hear, see and speak no gossipy stuff. The girlfriends are smitten by the suddenly “new” Hal they’re with. Each Hal breaks off his relationship with his girlfriend for his new-found soul mate. The girlfriends are confused by the on/off, on/off, on/off way they feel about Hal. Everybody’s confused. Mayhem builds and builds and builds until everybody is scampering around at a breakneck pace trying to figure out who’s what to whom and why.

This is some of what happens in American Folklore Theatre’s musical comedy “Strings Attached,” which opened Friday night in the theater’s one-of-a-kind digs at Peninsula State Park Amphitheater in Door County. It was another world premiere night for the theater, which once a year presents a new work developed from scratch by the troupe. “World premiere” may seem a puffy phrase, but some American Folklore Theatre shows have gone on to long lives and widespread productions.

In “Strings Attached,” American Folklore Theatre spreads its wings into a hybrid style of performance. Created by Dave Hudson and Colin Welford, the show has roots in classic mistaken-identities stories, in fast-action farce, in music theater loopiness – with the American Folklore Theatre necessity of placing the story in Wisconsin. Aside from the use of the names “Wisconsin” and “Hawaii” as places, this show doesn’t bother much with fact or reality. It’s a playing with a style, a devil of a style to pull off. Because there is so much set-up, the thing lumbers at the start – like this review has struggled to gain momentum. Once pieces are in place, it’s pretty much all-out action, laced with songs that are interlocked with the story and characters’ feelings.

Musically, the show is … hmm, different for today. There is a warm ballad, “My Boy,” that the father sings that is the essence of the story. Mostly, the musical style is that of perky jazz-pop harmonics that have the feel of, excuse me, a 1950s TV commercial for toothpaste. Or whatever. There is a strong sense of the clock being turned back. Cleverness is infused in many songs as individual characters sing his or her take on a specific lyric – like everybody in “Big Things,” the lovers in “Tongue-Tied,” the Hals in “Beside Myself” and the hotel staff in “Welcome Song,” which is especially jolly when a staffer sings only his or her part of the song alone. The scene for “Unexpected Music” includes a sweet illusion: Did you know you could draw a ukulele, add a new design to the instrument and then play the strings in the drawing and have sound come from the drawing? Nice.

The cast is quite game for the speedy action, songs infused with dancing and vocal harmonics and the general light-hearted aura of the show. Chase Stoeger and Chad Luberger are the twin brothers, with Doc Heide as their father. Eva Nimmer and Molly Rhode are the twins’ girlfriends. Playing the befuddled hotel staff are Paul Helm, Doug Mancheski and Rhonda Rae Busch. Stirring the performers to bright liveliness are co-directors Jeffrey Herbst and Pam Kriger. The cast is limber and dedicated to the American Folklore Theatre way – a specialized approach to amiable performing.

American Folklore Theatre performances continue through Aug. 23, with “Strings Attached” (4 stars out of 5) woven in with the returning “Guys on Ice” and “Packer Fans from Outer Space.” Info: www.folkloretheatre.com.

***

Creative: Book and lyrics – Dave Hudson; music and additional lyrics – Colin Welford; co-directors – Pam Kriger and Jeffrey Herbst; music director – Tim Lenihan; scenic design – Lisa Schlenker; costume design – Karen Brown-Larimore.

Cast: Andy – Paul Helm; Frank – Doug Mancheski; Kaye – Rhonda Rae Busch; Bob – Doc Heide; Hawaiian Hal – Chase Stoeger; Leia – Eva Nimmer; Wisconsin Hal – Chad Luberger; Lana – Molly Rhode.

Songs

“My Boy,” Bob

“Big Things,” Company

“Welcome Song,” Frank, Kaye, Andy

“Tongue-tied,” Hawaiian Hal, Lana

“Unexpected Music,” Leia, Wisconsin Hal

“The Hotel Code,” Frank, Kaye, Andy

“Room Service,” Frank, Kaye, Andy

“Suddenly,” Leia, Lana

“Beside Myself,” Hawaiian Hal, Wisconsin Hal

“My Boy” (Reprise), Bob, Hawaiian Hal, Wisconsin Hal

“Strings Attached,” Company

***

THE VENUE: American Folklore Theatre performs in a scenic, 800-seat amphitheater in Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek in Door County. Seating is on wood benches. The stage about 25 feet by 45 feet and of irregular shape because two tall white pine trees grow in the middle of the stage. Other pines ring the fringes of the stage. “The stage deck, unlike all of the stage walls, is made from recycled plastic,” said artistic director Jeffrey Herbst. “It’s water impermeable. The deck has held up really, really well. The rest of the stage, anything that’s vertical is cedar that has to be stained and treated and washed and kept. We went with that kind of material was partly because we wanted something that wouldn’t warp and because when it rains on that material, it actually becomes less slick. With cedar, when we had it as decking in the past, as soon as you had water on it, it was like an ice skating rink.” The amphitheater is tucked in a forest and accessed by winding roads.

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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