Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! A different Cinderella story

Critic At Large

Mary Ehlinger of Green Bay, etc.

Mary Ehlinger, bottom left, and the cast of “Cinderella” of The Fireside Theatre of Fort Atkinson. (Company photo)

FORT ATKINSON, Wis. (WFRV) – The woman in the audience was flabbergasted.

“The Queen has a whole other life,” I told her at intermission and spelled out how the performer she was seeing acting, singing and dancing has a theater company of her own and a daughter who directs William Shakespeare plays.

The woman seemed frightened that I had somehow popped a fantasy bubble she was watching – the fantasy of “Cinderella” being performed in a remarkable theater.

The performer playing the Queen also happens to be the musical director at the professional theater that is extremely popular.

I attended the show by happenstance. My wife and I were gifted tickets to The Fireside Theatre two Christmases ago. We booked a show to attend months ahead, and then the COVID-19 pandemic kicked that plan in the pants. We rebooked to match a birthday, making the visit a celebration.

The visit was an introduction to much:

+ Where “the Queen” works.

+ How elaborate that place is.

+ How the mechanics of the shows The Fireside Theatre puts on are special.

Portraying the Queen in “Cinderella” is Mary Ehlinger, who resides in Green Bay.

In Green Bay, she is artistic director of Play-by-Play Theatre, which has presented a variety of musicals and plays, most recently William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” directed by her daughter, Carolyn Silverberg. The company name has to do with how it fits productions around Mary Ehlinger’s schedule at The Fireside Theatre – basically, when possible.

Primarily at The Fireside Theatre, Mary Ehlinger is musical director, teaming with director Ed Flesch to put the creative mustard on a busy slate of shows. She has worked at the theater since 2003, so she has helped fashion a load of shows.

In “Cinderella,” a majority in the players are members of the actors’ union, Equity, as is Mary Ehlinger. In the theater world, Equity is a stamp of quality + pride.

Going to The Fireside Theatre was a new experience for me. I was aware Mary Ehlinger worked primarily behind the scenes there and was pleasantly surprised to see her photo and brief bio on a cast display board near the theater entrance. At the very end of the performance, she certainly was surprised to see me in the crowd – like 1,000 watts of surprise.

The Fireside Theatre is a major operation – dinner theater on steroids. Everything is elaborate.

Tickets come with a three-course meal, prepared and delivered like clockwork in a sprawling, surreal dining area. Surreal? Yes. We sat next to a flowing stream with fantastical, multicolored, flower-like leaves placed on the bottom. Wall décor around diners is sometimes brilliantly colored images reminiscent of huge polished stones, sometimes tree trunks sawn lengthwise and shellacked, sometimes a woodsy grouping of birch trees and always out of the ordinary.

As one-of-a-kind restaurant experiences go, this certainly is up there.

The campus – for lack of a better word – includes a gift shop that doesn’t quit. It sprawls, too. Anything that might strike somebody’s fancy for dropping a few bucks seems to be beckoning from teeming rooms of stuff. Even I, in a rare moment of gift shop-it is, could not resist because of this:

Cutout on a cactus. (Warren Gerds)

Side story. At this moment, I am in my home office looking at a 300-pound cactus graced with a wood cutout image of John Wayne holding a rifle. My wife was given the cactus from a time she lived in Texas, where John Wayne shot a cowboy movie and where, legend has it, shot a hole in one of the cactus’s arms during a location shoot. For many years, that arm survived, and so did the legend. “See that hole?” “Yeah.” “Legend has it John Wayne shot that hole when he was making a movie.” “Really?” “Legend has it.” The fascination worked every time. So in this massive gift shop at The Fireside Theatre is a large display of John Wayne stuff. John Wayne stuff in Fort Atkinson? Hmmm – ya got me. And it did get me. I couldn’t pass on buying that cutout additionally because our dog – a personable poodle – is named Duke. “Why do you have that cutout of John Wayne on the cactus?” “Well, I bought it because… legend has it…” “Really?” “Legend has it.”


“Cinderella,” running to Sept. 5, is The Fireside Theatre’s its first full production since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, so there is a great eagerness about a kind-of normal returning.

“Cinderella” is an all-ages show. In our crowd were some girls wearing princess dresses. Some women wore tiaras. Really? Yes.

The story is from folk legend dressed up by the great Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II – songs and dancing at a ball and fantasy… and a message. Amid Cinderella’s wishing and dreaming, her fairy godmother tells her all that is well and good, but you really have do make things happen on your own. That consciousness is something Oscar Hammerstein II slipped into shows.

It was interesting for me to watch Mary Ehlinger amid the cast that she had a hand in hiring and rehearsing and working with on fine points. She is one of the bosses, after all.

The cast is bright and funny and tender and colorful of voice and nimble of foot. It’s a very entertaining show.

The mechanics of the stage space are a marvel. The stage is square. The audience sits on all sides – two sides with many seats in a rectangle, two sides with fewer seats, plus a small balcony. In the middle of the square stage is a circular area, which moves up and down by way of hydraulics. Scenes come and go riding that pony, so to speak.

Much, much about productions is custom made because of the pony. Changes are accompanied by music. That music that fits the show’s story has to be created and recorded to specific time. The set pieces that ride the pony have to be moved out and in in that specific time. Amid that trickery is this: You do not hear the pony (lift) rise or disappear, and you do not hear the movement of set pieces – including in this case, Cinderella’s coach in one scene. It’s silent lightning. Such a system is not common. Sheboygan Theatre Company has a hydraulic stage area, and I’ve seen one for the Seattle Opera. Much of the The Fireside Theatre’s draw probably has to do with the success it found in adapting that space to show after show.

The Fireside Theatre certainly is a place of fantasies. Perhaps that’s why the woman was flabbergasted – taken aback. In her mind, the Queen was a fantastical being to get lost with in a fairy tale world of escape, not worrying about her coach vanishing at midnight.

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