GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Good ol’ Russia – good for a joke or 10 all through the years.
All the more fun when an important piece of their space junk falls into our backyard and there’s laughs to be had 58 years later with songs and satire.
For real, the time ran out over Wisconsin on Sept. 5, 1962, for the experimental satellite called Sputnik 4. A 20-pound chunk landed on the street in Manitowoc outside a museum, and a couple of cops found a crumpled piece of Soviet Union technology, still hot.
Let Me Be Frank Productions based in Green Bay made a show out of the cosmic saga, called “Sputnik Manitowoc.”
The thing is comedy, a dusting of history (minorly real) and popular or space-themed songs of the early ’60s, often sung with brilliant energy.
One of the best parts is the Russian accents. From the really good TV cartoon series from the era, “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” the troupe borrows the “evil genius” characters. Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale are played to the hilt by Pat Hibbard and Amy Riemer, respectively. Everything they say and do is a send-up, with specially flavored comic accents.
One of the best parts of that is when, pretending to be Natasha, Boris is on the phone with his ominous Fearless Leader. It turns out, Fearless Leader has the hots for Natasha. Boris finds himself saying, as Natasha, amid some lovey-dovey sweet talking, “Oh, I can just call you ‘Fearless’.” Talk about cosmic comedy, that’s a forte of show creators Frank Hermans and Pat Hibbard.
In the story, the piece of Sputnik has crashed – the cops finally being able to distinguish it from a cow pie – and two secret agents have been sent to Manitowoc to save face for Mother Russia. The blow-hard mayor of Manitowoc, who has been kept afloat by his Marilyn Monroe-like assistant, plays up his moment in the international spotlight while making a play for the Soviet agent Natasha.
This show has three comedy teams.
Frank Hermans is the mayor and Lisa Borley is his assistant who smooths over his flubs, which are many. There are touches from current presidential press conferences.
Tom Verbrick and Paul Evansen are the mess-everything-up cops borrowed from the TV series “Car 54 Where Are You?” The two milk the goofus humor.
Add Pat Hibbard and Amy Riemer as the Commies, and you have a lot of comedy byplay.
Songs cover the landscape of styles of the time. Among the notable touches:
+ Amy Riemer and Lisa Borley light up the stage with powerhouse voices. For “Bring It on Home to Me,” the setting is Lisa Borley pouring on a bluesy aura out front while Dennis Panneck colors the background on guitar and Amy Riemer fills in rich harmonies unseen off stage – the entire effect being a kind of big simplicity. In solo, Amy Riemer is sultry in “Town Without Pity” and brilliant in “Since You’ve Gone,” delivering a holy-mackerel, super-long and strong ending note for the word “gone.”
+ During Friday night’s opening performance, Frank Hermans said the show has only two women in the cast (all the story requires), so the vocal director (his wife, Amy Riemer) has him singing the third female harmonies when needed. One result seems to be the extra use makes his solos especially strong. That starts with the power in his opening “The Wanderer.” Frank Hermans even dares to take on a Johnny Mathis smoothie classic, “Chances Are,” and make it work his way.
+ Among his songs, Pat Hibbard, the source for meaty rock in all shows, demonstrates what limber fire Little Richard had in the speed-balling “Keep A Rockin’.”
+ Songs uncharacteristic for a Let Me Be Frank Productions show, aside from “Chances Are,” are copped by the cops. Paul Evansen leads the way in the perky show-opening “Sputnik Dance.” He turns romantic with Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand,” spiced by whistling by Tom Verbrick. The troupe rarely touches songs from famous musicals, but “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof” is in the baritone wheelhouse of Tom Verbrick.
Visually, the Sputnik prop made from an exercise ball painted silver fits the bill, though the backdrop of a cityscape is hardly Manitowoc. A huge scenery drop of the Rahr-West Art Museum has yet to be made to rent. The museum houses a replica of the hunka-hunka burnin’ chunka Sputnik – a bit of area history worth seeing.
Certainly not least in this production is the coronavirus pandemic factor. Live, full-show productions are few and far between these days – so many risks, so many rules, so many fears. At the beginning and end of Friday’s performance, Frank Hermans expressed gratitude for the opportunity to put on the show and to the audience for attending. He said the audience count was 69; people were spread widely. There is only one passing coronavirus joke in the show. Russians are a lot funnier.
DFK John Kenndy, mayor of Manitowoc – Frank Hermans
Boris Badenov – Pat Hibbard
Natasha Fatale – Amy Riemer
Marilyn Monroeish – Lisa Borley
Car 54 Toody policeman – Tom Verbrick
Car 54 Muldoon policeman – Paul Evansen
Band: Dennis Panneck, guitars; Tony Pilz, keyboards; Andrew Klaus, drums; Pat Hibbard, bass
Running time: One hour, 55 minutes
Remaining performances: Meyer Theatre, Green Bay – 7:30 p.m. Sept. 19, Sept. 24-25; Oct. 1-3; 1 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9; and 1 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10. Info: meyertheatre.org. Coronavirus COVID-19 guidelines are listed below.
Performances at the Capitol Civic Centre in Manitowoc – 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 17. Info: cccshows.org.
“Sputnik Dance” (The Equadors) – Paul Evansen
“If I Were a Rich Man” (from “Fiddler on the Roof”) – Tom Verbrick
“Bring it on Home to Me” (Morgan James/Sam Cooke) – Lisa Borley
“The Wanderer” (Dion) – Frank Hermans
“Town Without Pity” (Mandy Barnett/Gene Pitney) – Amy Riemer
“Beep Beep” (Louie Prima) – Pat Hibbard
“Keep A Knockin’” (Little Richard) – Pat Hibbard
“Slow Twistin’” (Chubby Checker & Dee Dee Sharp) Frank Hermans and Amy Riemer
“Tell Him” (The Exciters) – Lisa Borley
“Chances Are” (Johnny Mathis) – Frank Hermans
“You Send Me” (Aretha Franklin/Sam Cooke) – Amy Riemer
“Sheila” (Tommy Roe) – Paul Evansen
“North to Alaska” (Johnny Horton) – Tom Verbrick
“Young Blood” (The Coasters) – Pat Hibbard
“(Since You’ve) Gone (Joey Heatherton/Ferlin Husky) – Amy Riemer
“Stand By Me” (Skylar Grey/(Ben E. King) – Lisa Borley
“Love Letters in the Sand” (Pat Boone) – Paul Evansen, whistling by Tom Verbrick
“Hey! Baby” (Bruce Channel) – Frank Hermans