LAKESHORE REGIONAL NEWS: Door County, Kewaunee County, Manitowoc County, and Sheboygan County

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Jeff’s Presidential Palooza’ keeps tradition alive in new way

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions every Sunday morning during the 6-7:30 broadcast on WFRV-TV, Channel 5.

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Fun and entertainment are to be had out of presidential elections. Really.

In a Wisconsin-bred show of note are these bon-bons:

+ Grover Cleveland is roasted in “Ma, Ma, Where is My Pa?” It seems he had an affair, and now his out-of-wedlock baby wonders where his father is. Answer: The White House.

+ Abraham Lincoln was accused of being two-faced. His response: “If I had another face, would I be using this one?”

+ Candidate Al Smith heard a heckler shout, “Tell them all you know, Al, it won’t take long.” Al Smith replied, “I’ll tell them all we both know, and it won’t take any longer.”

+ Some zingers stung, like George B. McClellan calling Abraham Lincoln “a well-meaning baboon.”

+ Of Herbert Hoover, forever saddled with the Great Depression, Calvin Coolidge said, “If you put a rose in Hoover’s hand, it would wilt.”

The potshots are in show “And If Elected,” a tradition in Door County.

Jeff Herbst, Northern Sky Theater artistic director, has been behind presenting the show every four years at presidential election time.

There has been a delay of game, so to speak, for the 2020 excursion through frisky facts and seething satire found among candidates. The coronavirus COVID-19 karate-chopped all of Northern Sky Theater’s productions. “And If Elected 2020” was a no-show in more ways than one.

And then Northern Sky Theater found a way to keep its embers glowing in a virtual winter season of seven productions. See northernskytheater.com.

One production is a retooling of “And If Elected” as “Jeff’s Presidential Palooza” with this concept: Take a videotape of the 2016 “And If Elected” and build live elements around it.

This was to be a one-time only production Monday night, Feb. 15, for President’s Day 2021. Things went so well that afterward Jeff Herbst said Northern Sky Theater “will make it magically appear” as an on-demand offering – joining the season’s pool of easily accessed shows.

All sorts of online hybrids have surfaced in the region because of the coronavirus. “Jeff’s Presidential Palooza” is another.

Performing in 2016 “And If Elected” footage in Old Gibraltar Town Hall in Fish Creek are Jeff Herbst, Karen Mal and Jake Endres. The three re-team for “Jeff’s Presidential Palooza,” with Katie Dahl as host. Jeff Herbst performs from in the Creative Center of Northern Sky Theater in Fish Creek, Katie Dahl from her home in Door County, Karen Mal from her home in Austin, Texas, and Jake Endres from his home in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The 2016 footage is blurry, but it’s used for songs with harmony that’s just about impossible for the live, Zoom-like parts of the show.  

“Jeff’s Presidential Palooza” switches back and forth between live and recorded. Sometimes, Jeff Herbst, Karen Mal and Jake Endres sing and play an instrument as each solos. Often, the three take turns presenting fact/quip bits.

Part of Jeff Herbst’s identity is his passion for the stuff of the show. He started in fourth grade at age 9. He says, “I decided I would become the presidential expert of the universe.”

A segment in all the shows has been Jeff Herbst telling the heart-tugging tale of his inspirational “Book of Presidents.” One day, it disappeared. He’s still searching for an exact replacement. The Zoom-like telling is especially effective. Instead of the viewer being in a theater audience and he at a distance on stage, the viewer and Jeff Herbst are one-on-one – virtually indeed – a couple of feet away from one another.

Jeff Herbst. (Screenshot)

Monday night, the show included audience interaction via chat followed by a trivia session in which viewers tried to stump Jeff Herbst. He doesn’t claim to be a know-all, so some questions and answers were discoveries for him and those who were watching from California to Connecticut but mostly around Wisconsin.

By having 2016 be focal and the cutoff, “Jeff’s Presidential Palooza” doesn’t get to the 2020 election. Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump is mentioned. Any references about the latter perhaps are subtle – a raised eyebrow over a word, the goals of Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address and reference to history repeating itself in some of the verbiage.

The show traces campaign songs from the beginning with the first contested election won by Thomas Jefferson to “High Hopes” for John F. Kennedy in 1960 to a feeble end in 1976. Soon after, TV ads and the Internet took over.

Jeff Herbst is forever engaging, Jake Endres has a robust way of presenting material and Karen Mal embraces the songs “Bread and Roses” (for women’s suffrage) and “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” delivered in a come-hither style.

Earnings from the company’s winter season support its “Rekindle Campaign,” an effort to safeguard against an uncertain 2021 performance season.

VENUE: Old Gibraltar Town Hall, built around 1880, is dominated by white on its exterior and interior. The building near the shore of Fish Creek Harbor in Fish Creek was restored as a project of Gibraltar Historical Association. Among its functions, the rectangular hall is a performance space, with a raised stage that includes an optional stage curtain. The space is historical for Northern Sky Theater as the site of its first fall production, “And If Elected” in 1992; in 2014, as the site for its final production under the name of American Folklore Theatre; and in 2016, the end point for its “And If Elected” performances there. The 2020 show was to be in the new Gould Theater in Fish Creek. The organization officially became Northern Sky Theater on Jan. 1, 2015. The building’s fiber board ceiling and wood walls are plain save for historical photos on the walls and wainscoting rimming the lower walls. The floor is of narrow wood strips. Seating for a capacity of 135 is on folding chairs. The space works quite well for folky performances.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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