Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Gutenberg! The Musical!’ opens new era in Sturgeon Bay with laffs

Critic At Large

Third Avenue PlayWorks

Chad Luberger, left, and Doug Mancheski pose for a glimpse of the Third Avenue PlayWorks production of “Gutenberg! The Musical!” (Heidi Hodges)

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – If Johannes Gutenberg could write his own musical, it would be something other than “Gutenberg! The Musical!”

He wouldn’t be worrying about Broadway producers catching the show.

Or about Helvetica, a grape-squishing (wine making) tootsie in love with him.

Or about converting a wine press into the instrument that changed the world.

It’s hard to imagine the guy Gutenberg, much less a musical about him inventing the printing press – “Oh, that Gutenberg!” – unless you make up the whole thing.

There you have it – “Gutenberg! The Musical!” – the first show in the renovated (in name, too) Third Avenue PlayWorks.

Two actors and a pianist have at The Gutenberg Story as though it’s the material for a razzmatazz Broadway show. Never mind that details about the real Johann Gutenberg are sketchy, the “creators” of the show make up whatever they want under their hair-brain definition of historical fiction: “It’s fiction that’s true.”

They toss in reference to the Holocaust and an Anti-Semite character “to make it serious.”

The performance level is high and hot as multi-talented Chad Luberger and Doug Mancheski whip through scenes playing multiple characters with Ryan Cappleman setting their frenetic pace on piano.

The audience knows who Chad Luberger and Doug Mancheski are playing because they switch baseball caps with names on – Monk (the bad guy), Young Monk (his naïve protégé), Drunk I (hick), Drunk II (hick, hick), Dead Baby (yikes!), Gutenberg (noble and creative) Helvetica (sweet but behind because she can’t read, along with most everybody else) and so on, including Rat, Rat, Rat, Rat and maybe Rat (I lost count).

Voices, mannerisms, expressions, little audience ad libs and dances tumble and plummet from the guys like avalanches – a kind of unstoppable comedic power.

An instruction to the two from director Michael Stebbins may have been, “Don’t quit. Let ’er rip.”

All this has the feel of improv comedy origins. It’s a kind of catch-all comedy. Crazy/oddball ideas explode and run off on screwy paths. Props are makeshift – deliberately. Irreverence is a step away, but then again not when bits of conflicting philosophies pop up, or a few prime cuss words.

I envision the kids in the back of the class got a bit organized and made a show that’s funny because it is so wholly outrageous.

The best parts (totally subjective):

+ Chad Luberger is a character reflecting on life in the 1400s in the song “Might as Well (Go to Hell)” while Doug Mancheski, as a Rat, nibbles on his legs and neck while emitting a ratty, squeaky, nibbly voice (there is such a thing in this show).

+ A really long end note in a song by Doug Mancheski. He’s had practice in a long list of Northern Sky Theater shows.

+ Chad Luberger, one the mythical show’s creators, disses the second halves of famous musicals as turning dull – “West Side Story,” for instance – with Doug Mancheski agreeing all along. When the diss list gets to “Guys on Ice,” Doug Mancheski flashes a stone face. That’s a diss too far because it’s Doug Mancheski’s beloved show that he has performed in hundreds of times since 1998.

“Haunted German Wood,” the story of the Monk as he goes bad when he meets the devil in the woods in the form of a black cat (one of the writer’s stuffed beloved pet) that encourages him to kill his father, spliced with happy German festival-type dancing by Chad Luberger and Doug Mancheski. Whew, that’s a load.

It’s easy to imagine Johannes Gutenberg shaking his head at that one. Laughing? Oh, sure. He was a great spoofer and jokester and comedian.

I made that up as fiction that’s true.

***

Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Anthony King and Scott Brown; director – Michael Stebbins; music director – Ryan Cappleman; stage manager, costume coordinator, props master – Dan Klarer; lighting design – Tom Littrel

Cast:

Doug Simon – Chad Luberger

Bud Davenport – Doug Mancheski

Charles – Ryan Cappleman

Another player – Shhh, it’s a secret

Running time: One hour, 45 minutes

Remaining performances: To Oct. 31: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday,  2 p.m. Sunday

Note: The theater requires all audience members to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination and wear a mask.

Info: thirdavenueplayworks.org.

***

Musical selections

Act I

“Prologue/Schlimmer”

“I Can’t Read”

“Haunted German Wood”

“The Press Song”

“I Can’t Read” (Reprise)

“Biscuits”

“What’s the Word?”

“Stop the Press”

“Tomorrow Is Tonight”

Act II

“Second Prologue”

“Words, Words, Words”

“Monk with Me”

“Might as Well (Go to Hell)”

“Festival!”

“Finale”

***

Third Avenue PlayWorks, 10.14.2021. (Warren Gerds)

THE VENUE: Third Avenue PlayWorks, which includes the Steve and Jackie Kane Theatre, is located at 239 N. 3rd Ave. in downtown Sturgeon Bay. “Gutenberg! The Musical!” is the first production (opened with a preview Oct. 7, 2021) in the renovated former Third Avenue Playhouse and Studio Theatre. The origins of Third Avenue Playhouse date to 1999. The playhouse previously was a movie theater, the Donna, which opened Nov. 25, 1958. The new auditorium is a “black box” theater at heart – black stage curtains, black walls (mostly), black ceiling – with all new theatrical support elements. On either side of the stage, walls are exposed to brick-and-stone work of original buildings – a historical touch. Architectural style? Black Box Cleaned Up does the trick. A gray, linear-patterned rug leads from the lobby into the auditorium. Seating for 144 is in eight rows on an inclined seating area, with red handrails for the steps and slopes on the sides . Seats are gray plastic structure in legs, back and arms, with seating area of red fabric. The performers in “Gutenberg! The Musical!” use their natural voices with no assist of wireless headset amplification. The lobby areas – multiple spaces with storefront-type windows facing the street – are a blend of art gallery and loft (some exposed beams and ventilation pipes) in aura. One gathering space at present features historical photographs of the downtown. The space near the theater entrance includes photographs from selected previous productions. A concession stand is not yet open. The greatly improved restroom facilities are.

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