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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Fred Alley – ‘the voice of an archangel and the soul of Peter Pan’

Critic At Large

A founder of Northern Sky Theater and more

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Audiences by the thousands experienced the talents of Fred Alley.

Twenty years ago this coming week – May 1, 2001 – Fred Alley died of a heart attack at age 38.

Friend Fred “Doc” Heide said it was like the North Star had been plucked from the sky.

I had recently interviewed Fred Alley on him and co-author James Valcq winning the prestigious, big-money Richard Rodgers Award for a new musical.

That show, “The Spitfire Grill,” went on to more than 700 productions worldwide, with translations ranging from German to Korean.

Always first in Fred Alley’s mind were Door County and Northern Sky Theater, where he wrote and performed.

His tenor voice was a hand on your shoulder as he entered the soul of a song.

His humor was subtle, wry and fresh.

His storytelling was comical but not far down the lane from tenderness and thought.

The cosmically loving “Guys on Ice” continues to surface every year as his most famous show in Wisconsin.

Especially haunting is a line he said in “Guys on Ice” that I saw on the night of its premiere: “Fella could go anytime.”

And he did.

The way I see it, though, is Fred Alley died but didn’t.

Friends(feature story) he inspired carry on in impressive ways with giant imaginations of their own.

Multi-gifted Jeff Herbst and Doc Heide are crucial at the unique, all-original Northern Sky Theater with two theaters near Fish Creek. Doc Heide in a recent concert spoke of Fred Alley as having “the voice of an archangel and the soul of Peter Pan.”

The irrepressible James Valcq is co-artistic director and composer at Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay.

Many others – Lee Becker, Karen Mal, Suzanne Graff among them – were influenced by the genius of Fred Alley that is unlike any others I have seen.

Certain memories pop as I think of Fred Alley.

+ On a hot evening in Ephraim Village Hall, “Guys on Ice” is performed for the first time publicly. A premiere!

The irony is the characters are ice fishing and dressed in snowmobile suits, and it’s 80-something and humid outside and stifling inside.

Another irony develops.

Director Jeff Herbst noted to the audience about the performance being a first, and he would be interested in people’s thoughts afterward about what they were about to see. It seemed the company was open to tinkering with the show.

After the performance, Jeff Herbst happens to be in my exit path in the back of the hall, and we are chatting about innocuous stuff as a woman presses in and becomes a presence. She says she likes all the comedy in the show but feels a serious song could be taken out.

The song is sung by Fred Alley.

The lyrics are his.

His character has left the ice shanty. He is outside, admiring the view.

The song is “Everything is Beautiful.”

In the course of the show, it is a counter beat – something lovely amid guy talk and fun-scruffy humor and songs of jest.

After the woman leaves, I say to Jeff Herbst something like, “You gotta keep that song in.” He nods.

In that song is the line, “Fella could go anytime.”

I wrote the line in the margin of my program as I watched that night.

And – geez – it happened.

The summer before it happened, I crossed paths with Fred Alley by remarkable circumstance.

American Folklore Theatre – the predecessor to Northern Sky Theater – was putting on a doubleheader in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater. I drove from Green Bay for the opportunity to catch both shows for review for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

My wife packed me a lunch for between shows.

I get to the park, and it’s raining. The first show is canceled.

But the skies are clearing.

I find out the second show is still on.

I decide to stay. It is a long way back to Green Bay, and at least I have one show to write about.

Mine is the only car in the grassy parking lot.

I eat my lunch.

A figure walks slowly on the fringe of the lot.

It’s Fred Alley.

He seems lost in thought as I hail him.

We talk.

I ask what else he’s working on.

He and colleague James Valcq have written a musical that will premiere in New Jersey, he says.

He seems frustrated as he tells about having to deal with agents and lawyers and that more people have their fingers in the creative process than he’s accustomed to in Door County.

He seems resigned. I read that as he knows the show is really good.

Come February, the news is that musical, “The Spitfire Grill,” is so good that it has won the $250,000 award for production in New York City. Fred Alley and James Valcq will receive the honor in May from legendary composer Stephen Sondheim.

Naturally, I want to interview Fred Alley.

Another coincidence. My wife and I have traveled to London, England. We have visited Shakespeare’s Globe – the theater inspired by “crazy American” Sam Wanamaker, whose first professional gig was with Peninsula Players Theatre in Door County. The Globe’s plaza is filled with donor bricks with names of people from all over the world. Wanting to take a corny photo, standing on a brick, I search for the name of the most-famous person I could find. Stephen Sondheim.

I phone Fred Alley, congratulate him on the award and say, “I stood on Stephen Sondheim.”

A very long pause follows.

Finally, I explain.

Fred Alley chuckles.

“I’ll have to tell him that,” he says.

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