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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Getting to the heart of a Wisconsin theater with Jeff Herbst, Part 1

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater artistic director

Jeff Herbst in a scene from the 2018 production of “Boxcar.” (Len Villano for Northern Sky Theater)

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – In the photo above is Jeffrey Herbst in a role as a hobo in a musical created somewhat at his choosing. The show was presented by a theatrical company that puts on only original shows. He is artistic director.

Jeff Herbst chose the course to off-the-beaten-path Wisconsin in 1990 as he was playing the leading role in a musical on Broadway – the Great White Way, the mecca of American theater.

To date, he has had his hand, foot, head and body in the off-the-beaten-path company’s output of 33 musicals, 14 anthologies and 9 concerts.

(Northern Sky Theater)

That work at Northern Sky Theater in Door County is better than Broadway to his way of thinking. And it’s what he wanted during his Broadway time.

“What was really interesting for me was I was really young – I think I was 27 – when I got cast in the lead of a Broadway musical.

“It was terrifying and exhilarating and, of course, thrilling, and it was everything a young actor could possibly hope for in terms of stage acting. I mean, it was one of those pinnacles.

“And yet, at the same time while I was working on that show – an adaptation of a Mark Twain story called ‘A Change in the Heir’ – I kept getting this feeling like, ‘I’m just a pawn in this. And I’m happy to be a pawn in this, but I’d like to have a little more control.’

“That control was the thing that I experienced when I was out working at the park in the summer. I was with my friends, and we were making stuff up, and we had the artistic control. We decided how things would work and what we wanted to do and how we wanted to tell the story.

“Having that artistic license and then our artistic control was something that I really fell in love with and I wanted more of.

“I realized fairly early on that attaching myself to a group that was like-minded, that was really working toward the same objective and was having fun doing it together was going to be artistically satisfying in a way that I knew than just being a pawn never would be for me.

“So, it was kind of eye-opening to have both of those things going on at the same time, and I made my choice pretty quickly of which I preferred.”

Jeff Herbst spoke by telephone from Fort Worth, Texas, where he resides in the off season of Northern Sky Theater. That season is really off this year – wiped out in summer – due to the coronavirus COVID-19.

A few days before we spoke, he had informed everyone in the company of the cancellation of outdoor performances in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater northeast of Fish Creek and the new Gould Theater southeast of Fish Creek. The topic will arise again later in this column. For now, the focus is on Jeff Herbst’s career.

“It’s kind of refreshing talking about everything as though it’s normal, even though right now it feels like we’ve been punched in the gut,” he said.

Jeff Herbst grew up in Mount Horeb and graduated from Mount Horeb High School along with Fred Alley, who co-founded what is now Northern Sky Theatre. The two are recognized by the school as distinguished alumni.

Dave Peterson.

Something like this happened: Dave Peterson of the University of Wisconsin-Extension founded the Heritage Ensemble to present folksy shows in an amphitheater he came across in Peninsula State Park. The Heritage Ensemble became American Folklore Theatre became Northern Sky Theater, advancing in scope each step of the way.

“I first performed with Heritage Ensemble,” Jeff Herbst said. “I was brought into that troupe because of my friendship with Fred Alley, who had been performing with them for a couple of years prior to that.

“I had also gone to Door County and seen the troupe out in the park when I went up to visit Fred. And then I went up another year when James Valcq was in that troupe. Through that, I got to know Dave Peterson.”

***

Side trip: James Valcq and Fred Alley would eventually write a musical together, “The Spitfire Grill,” which has had more than 450 productions worldwide.

Fred Alley would co-write and perform in (with a graceful tenor voice) key early productions for American Folklore Theatre. He died of a massive heart attack in 2001 at age 38.

James Valcq today is co-artistic director of Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay. He continues to compose, direct and perform, including co-writing shows for Northern Sky Theater.

Dave Peterson wrote many of the Heritage Ensemble shows that are rooted in Wisconsin history and music.

One of the original Heritage Ensemble performers is Frederick “Doc” Heide, who still is active in Northern Sky Theater.

***

“In 1985,” Jeff Herbst said, “Fred Alley was slated to perform with the Heritage Ensemble in the Governor Dodge (State Park) troupe. At that time, there were two troupes. One was in Door County, and one was in Governor Dodge, which is near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Fred called me up and said, ‘I’m going to switch. I’m going to do the Door County troupe instead of Governor Dodge, and I recommended to Dave Peterson that you might be available to be in the Governor Dodge troupe this summer.’

“So, I got a call from Dave Peterson, and, in fact, I was available. I was just finishing up my undergraduate work in Madison at the School of Music and was looking for something to do that summer, so I trekked out there and performed with a couple of other people in ‘Life on the Mississippi,’ which happened to be a show that Doc Heide wrote and assembled about Mark Twain’s Mississippi.

An early Heritage Ensemble troupe with Jeff Herbst (rear), Frederick “Doc” Heide (with guitar at right) and Fred Alley (with guitar and kneeling). Yes, the photo is reversed.

“In 1988 – by that time I’d finished grad school – I’d moved to New York City, and I got a call from Fred Alley again saying, ‘We’re going to try something new this summer.’ This was again out at the park in Peninsula State Park. He said, ‘We’re going to try to do some one-acts that Dave Peterson stumbled across, and we have no idea what we’re doing because we’ve never done anything like this, and we could use a director.’

“So, I tromped out from New York, where I had a little break that summer, and directed those one-acts for the troupe. That was my first directing experience, and I loved it.

“Fred called me again the next summer. Again, I trekked out from New York and directed ‘The Mountains Call My Name’ (John Muir saga) with Gerald Pelrine that Fred Heide put together.

“And then it was 1990 when Dave Peterson turned over the Heritage Ensemble to Doc Heide and Gerald Pelrine. They incorporated it as American Folklore Theatre.

“Neither Fred Alley or I were involved in that transition. I happened to be performing on Broadway at that point and couldn’t be involved with the 1990 season. Fred Alley found himself out in California trying to make ends meet, needing to stay out there to make some money, and he did not go back and do the first season of AFT in 1990.

“So it was just Doc and Gerald who tried to make that first season happen. They ran into a little bit of hot water, and they we’re sure they were going to be able to make 1991 work or not.

“So Doc got a hold of Fred, and Fred got a hold of me – again, I was still in New York. Fred and I both committed to going out to spend an entire summer in 1991 working at American Folklore Theatre.

“That summer, we did Fred’s first show, called ‘Tongue ’n Cheek,’ which was his first book musical. Not with original music. That was a show that was done with extant kind of folk songs.

“And then we also worked that first summer with Paul Sills (a founder of The Second City improvisational theater company of Chicago). That was a life-changing event for me to work under his direction. From then I was a member of the troupe, became artistic director in 1993 and have been with it since.”

Outside of the summers, what was he doing?

“I had moved to New York City right after grad school in the fall of 1987, and I started working as a professional actor there. So, any of the time that I wasn’t spending my summers in Door County, I was working either in New York City or I was getting gigs outside of the city at regional theaters. I was working, for instance, at Milwaukee Rep or I was working at Skylight or I was working at Missouri Rep or down in Florida at the Oslo Theatre (Sarasota) or various regional theaters around the country. And then I did a whole mess of Off-Broadway stuff, and then in 1990 I got the lead in a Broadway show.

“So, I was really making my living now as a professional actor by and large.

“And then my directing duties really took off, and that’s where a lot of my focus also was at AFT in the early years. I was honing my skills as a director.

“Of course, I was in all the shows, too. But I was doing double duty all the way through the Nineties.”

Eventually, the role of artistic director became full time for Jeff Herbst.

“The truth is it became full time for me when Fred Alley died (May 1, 2001). That was definitely a huge shift. Up until that point, Fred was really involved in the artistic decisions of the company as a colleague, as a real co-conspirator.

“When Fred died, it was really just me as the artistic side of the company and Kaye Christman as the business side. And it was Kaye and myself who had to soldier on, figure out what was going to happen next. That was, of course, in consultation with longtime company members, and certainly Doc Heide was still involved with some of the decision making, and he was also on the board.

“But it was really at that moment. And I remember when Fred died and you called me after that to talk to me about that. It was devastating. It was heartbreaking.

“I remember saying to Charles (his partner) on our way to the funeral, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know if I can keep doing this.’

“But there was a decision. I did make a decision to keep doing it, and that decision meant that I knew I would devote myself to it in a way that I wasn’t sure that I would have otherwise.

Jeff Herbst performing in a show with Molly Rhode. (Len Villano for Northern Sky Theater)

“So, 2001 was really a huge turning point and a point when I started to feel like the artistic director of this company is a real thing. It’s not a team exactly. And until I hired Molly in 2014, for those 13 years, I was feeling the responsibility of being the artistic decider of the company.

“And I’m really glad I hired Molly because I think I would have started to suffer some burnout from having to keep that responsibility going by myself.”

Tomorrow, this column continues with Jeff Herbst’s take on some notable shows of the company. They will be from the compilation below of productions in which Jeff Herbst was involved from nurturing to performing:

Productions of Northern Sky Theater and its predecessor American Folklore Theatre

(Information from theater’s and personal sources).

Musicals

+ “Mule for Breakfast Again” (premiered 1990). A lively look at the Civil War through the eyes of Wisconsin soldier George W. Peck, who would be go on to become one of America’s favorite humorists for his “Peck’s Bad Boy.”

+ “Tongue ’n Cheek” (premiered 1991). Humorous story set around existing folk songs.

+ “Fishing for the Moon” (premiered 1992). Book and lyrics by Fred Alley with music by James Kaplan. Set in Wisconsin, it’s the story of a Southerner’s search for Union Army Col. Tucker Riley Olson two years after the Civil War.

+ “Northern Lights” (premiered 1993). Book and lyrics by Fred Alley with music by James Kaplan. The story of the farmers who moved to Northern Wisconsin expecting to find rich farmland and instead found land filled with tree stumps and stones. The main characters are William, a farmer; Ginny, his pregnant and unmarried sister; Eloise, a tough farm wife; Clayton, her estranged husband and a land salesman; their daughter Lizzy; and Cody, the local guide who falls in love with Ginny.

+ “The Passage” (premiered 1994). Created by Fred Alley and James Valcq. The story of the immigrants on whom this country is founded, the people who crossed in ships to Ellis Island to escape war and injustice elsewhere. 

+ “Belgians in Heaven” (premiered 1994). Book by Frederick Heide and Lee Becker with music by Frederick Heide and James Kaplan. Described as “The World’s Only Metaphysical Cheese Curd Musical.” A comedy about discovering the meaning of life. The show proposes a different look at the theory of reincarnation told through the lives of hard-working Roger Dewarzeger, his lazy brother Leo Dewarzeger, a clumsy guardian angel Angelique and an invisible chicken named Mildred. Angelique helps Leo grow up and to have his soul that has just been hanging out in heaven be reborn into the present Leo. Through this transformation, Leo is able to appreciate Roger, and Roger learns that he needs to loosen up and just enjoy the cheese curds.

+ “Our Night in Frog Station” (premiered 1995). Created by Fred Alley, Fred Heide and James Kaplan. A blend of vaudeville humor, drama, history, romance and family ties.

+ “Lumberjacks in Love” (premiered 1996). Music by James Kaplan with a book by Fred Alley and James Kaplan. The musical comedy is about four lumberjacks living in the Haywire Lumber Camp in Northern Wisconsin. The camp has a “no women allowed” policy, which complicates matters when the men think a mail-order bride is arriving and also find out that a boy already living in the camp is a girl in disguise.

+ “Guys on Ice” (premiered 1998). Conceived and researched by Fred Alley and Frederick Heide. The comedy set in Wisconsin follows two friends, Marvin and Lloyd, through a day in the life of ice fishermen. The show answers the question, among others, of what wife wouldn’t want to spend her anniversary at Lambeau Field on Green Bay Packers game day?

+ “Loose Lips Sink Ships” (premiered 2001). Book and lyrics by Jacinda Duffin and Laurie Flanigan and music by James Kaplan. Set in the shipyard of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin during World War II, the musical follows Roxie and Ann, who give up their normal lives to help the war effort in the shipyard. It’s the story of the sacrifices that women made during the war and how much those sacrifices changed them.

+ “Bob Dumkee’s Farm” (premiered 2001). Set on a fanciful Door County farm, it’s a down home show filled with jokes of the likes of this: What lies on the bottom of the bay and twitches? A nervous wreck.

+ “The Bachelors” (premiered 2001 at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in spring and in fall at American Folklore Theatre. Book and lyrics by Fred Alley and music by James Kaplan. A fantastical time warp from England 100 years previous to 2001 Madison, based somewhat on the lives of the authors.

+ “Packer Fans from Outer Space” (premiered 2002). Book by Frederick Heide and Lee Becker with music by Frederick Heide and additional music by James Kaplan. The story is inspired by UFO sightings in Door County, Wisconsin, in spring 1952 and the 1953 tie game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. Includes costumes that light up and a talking football. The story centers on Harvey Keister, a Door County fruit farmer and huge fan of his local team, the Green Bay Packers. He is sought out by aliens from the planet Galactose who ask his help to save their planet from the evil Space Bears. A twist to this story is that Harvey’s wife, Marge, is a huge Chicago Bears fan.

+ “The Spitfire Grill” (premiered 2001 at Playwrights Horizons, Off-Broadway and first performed at American Folklore Theatre in 2002). Created by Fred Alley and James Valcq. A young woman just released from prison decides to start her life anew in a rural Wisconsin town. She and the town achieve a tenuous reawakening.

+ “Muskie Love” (premiered 2004). Created by Dave Hudson and Paul Libman. Two couples love the Wisconsin outdoors, fishing, the Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre.

+ “See Jane Vote” (premiered 2006). Created by Laurie Flanigan and James Kaplan. A musical comedy about women’s suffrage in Door County in 2012.

+ “A Cabin with a View” (premiered 2007). A bit of Wisconsin, a dose of love of the outdoors, a dollop of romance, a shard of philosophizing and a dash of social history set to music and splashed with humor.

+ “Main-Traveled Roads (premiered 2007). Created by Dave Hudson and Paul Libman. Part drama and part light-hearted story about people of the Wisconsin farmland of the 1880s.

+ “Guys and Does” (premiered 2009). Book and lyrics by Frederick Heide and Lee Becker, with music by composer Paul Libman. The show centers on two small-town papermill workers, Fritz and Duane, who travel north to Fritz’s cabin for a hunting trip. Duane, a local nerd who is dating Fritz’s daughter, hopes to persuade Fritz to give his blessing on marriage. They meet a swaggering big-game hunter from Texas, Joe Jimmy Ray Bob Johnson III, and later a magical talking white buck named Staghart of the Goldenhorns, who begs their assistance in helping him create an heir.

+ “Cheeseheads the Musical” (premiered 2009). Created by Dave Hudson and Paul Libman. Based on the true story of factory workers who pool their money and win a huge lottery jackpot.

+ “Life on the Mississippi” (premiered 2010). Lyrics and book by Douglas M. Parker, music by Denver Casado. Samuel Clemens, a cub pilot on a Mississippi River steamboat in 1858 finds himself learning about life, death, love and writing before becoming Mark Twain.

+ “BING! The Cherry Musical” (premiered 2011). Created by Dave Hudson and Paul Libman. The nuts and bolts of what it takes to raise Door County’s famed cherries, with songs and romance.

+ “Victory Farm” (premiered 2012). Created by Emilie Coulson, Katie Dahl and James Valcq. During World War II, German prisoners of war help harvest Door County cherries, told in song, dance, humor and sensitivity.

+ “Windjammers” (premiered 2013). Created by Robin Share and Clay Zambo. A saga of a topsy turvy sailing on the Great Lakes in 1876.

+ “Strings Attached” (premiered 2014). Created by Dave Hudson and Colin Welford. A comic tale of tangled string-playing twins, based on William Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors.”

+ “No Bones About It” (premiered 2015). Created by Dave Hudson and Paul Libman. A barbecue competition-based comedy based on William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

+ “When Butter Churns to Gold” (premiered 2015). Created by Ron Barnett, Peter Welkin and Randi Wolfe. A how-are-we-going-to-pay-the-mortgage melodrama set on a dairy farm.

+ “Doctor! Doctor!” (premiered 2016). Created by Matt Dombrowski. Filled with the aura of Door County, 1938, small-town folks, hands-on doctoring, baseball, affection and multiple styles of music and humor.

+ “Oklahoma in Wisconsin” (premiered 2017). Music by Matthew Levine, book and lyrics by Richard Castle. A Hollywood scout pays a visit to Door County in the 1950s the tale of small town versus glitter.

+ “Dairy Heirs” (premiered 2018). Book by Eva Nimmer and Joel Kopischke, music by Alyssa Rhode, lyrics by Joel Kopischke, story by Joel Kopischke. Wisconsin folks ache to keep the family farm going.

+ “Boxcar” (premiered 2018).  Book and lyrics by Laurie Flanigan Hegge, music by James Valcq. A visit to the past (1930), of hard times and warm souls, of people who got by and were our foundation. 

+ “We Like It Where?” (premiered 2019). Book by Corrie Beula Kovacs and Stephen Kovacs, music and lyrics by Stephen Kovacs. Miffed at being left off the state highway map, the village of Winneconne boldly bolts from Wisconsin.

+ “Dad’s Season Tickets,” (premiered 2019). Created by Matt Dombrowski. Celebrates Green Bay Packers fandom along with being a full-bodied story about family and feuding and frustrations. First production in Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater.

Anthologies

+ “Song of the Inland Seas” (premiered in 1970).

+ “The Mountains Call My Name” (premiered 1990). Stories and songs based on the life of John Muir.

+ “Moon of the Long Nights” (premiered 1991).

+ “Tales of the Midnight Sun” (premiered 1992).

+ And If Elected” (premiered 1992). Presented in fall of every presidential election year.

+ “Malarkey” (premiered 1993).

+ “Goodnight Irene” (premiered 1994).

+ “Bone Dance” (premiered 1995).

+ “Harvest Moon” (premiered 1995).

+ “Fool Me Once” (premiered 1999).

+ “A Kettle of Fish” (premiered 2000).

+ “Ya, Ya, You Betcha” (premiered 2003).

+ “When Dogs Could Talk” (premiered 2004). Based on “Moon of the Long Nights.”

+ “Sunsets and S’mores” (premiered 2009)

Concerts

+ “Old Friends: The Music of Paul Simon” (premiered 1997).

+ “A Little Folk Music” (premiered 1998).

+ “Beneath the Northern Sky: An Evening of Fred Alley’s Songs” (premiered 2002). Assembled by James Kaplan and Jeffrey Herbst. Tribute to American Folklore Theatre co-founder Fred Alley featuring songs from “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “Guys on Ice” and “The Spitfire Grill” and from Fred Alley’s three CDs.

+ “Sweet Baby James: The Songs of James Taylor” (premiered 2000).

+ “Moonlight and Marshmallows.” (premiered 2000).

+ “Eric and Andy: Live in Fish Creek.” (premiered 2002).

+ “Home for the Holidays with AFT” (premiered 2006). Presented each December with varying performers.

+ “Sometimes a Song: The Music of Dan Fogelberg” (premiered 2008).

+ “Fish and Whistle: The Songs of John Prine” (premiered 2006).

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