Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Joys, cleverness of ‘Dairy Heirs’ return to Door County amphitheater

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater

Chase Stoeger, Molly Rhode, Carrie Beula Kovacs, Doug Clemons, Lachrisa Grandberry and Alex Campea join in song in Northern Sky Theater’s production of “Dairy Heirs.” (Len Villano)

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV)

“Dairy Heirs” sounds like a cute title for a quaint story about Wisconsin folks who ache to keep the family farm going. It is… and then again, it is much more.

Take the first song, “Home.” The show jumps right into singing by one person. Then another sings “Home,” then another, then another, then another – each with a different meaning on what home means to him or her. Eventually, five people are singing “Home” in five ways – at once.

The “much more” of this musical starts right out of the gate with “Home.”

“Diary Heirs” is one of three Northern Sky Theater shows playing on this year’s summer schedule to Aug. 24 in Peninsula State Park amphitheater.

The story of “Dairy Heirs” is about family and change and the country mouse and the city mouse and sibling rivalry and love and loneliness and puns – tons and tons of fun-on-the-run puns – set on a dairy farm in Door County.

As opposed to some Northern Sky Theater shows in recent years, “Dairy Heirs” has a “from here” feel to it. The authors – Joel Kopischke, Eva Nimmer and Alissa Rhode – kind of breathe Northern Sky Theater.

The on-stage performers are invested in the show just by its nature. The performers act and sing on stage and often play musical instruments; all cast members play instruments off stage, too. Toss in bits of dance, and you’ve got six busy people who make even tricky little things (like a little cow bell routine) look simple. This is a solid company.

The story setup: The patriarch of the family has died young (58) of a heart attack, basically working himself to death on the family farm. The son, Gabe (Doug Clemons), has returned from Hollywood well after the funeral to figure out the farm’s future with his sister, Elsie (Carrie Beula Kovacs). Gabe wants nothing to do with the farm, Elsie wants everything to do with the farm. Sticky point: The farm has been left to Gabe; he must decide.

Meantime… Gabe’s manager/kinda girlfriend (Lachrisa Grandberry) keeps texting him with Hollywoody things to attend to, Gabe’s old girl-next-door high school flame (Molly Rhode) flickers into the picture and the farm’s two farmhands (Alex Campea and Chase Stoeger) try to figure their future, too.

Again, all of this seems simple but is not.

Alissa Rhode’s agreeable score fits right in. In turns, it is perky and catchy, heated and laced with yearning. Made collaboratively, the song “News & Booze & Music” three times moves the story forward, unloads a heap of puns on a theme and rings with family fun musicality (sung/played by the actors).

True cosmic-cology comes in the farmhand twins with two standing jokes. One, the main one, is the two believe they are identical twins and think they do things “Exactly Alike” (a song), but neither looks anything like his brother nor has the same likes. As the “twins,” Campea (JT) and Stoeger (TJ) unleash high-level singing/movement routines that dazzle in their trickiness. The other standing joke, unspoken, is that these visual/lifestyle opposites are truly (and cosmically) identical twins.

There’s lots of lovely singing and fun singing and, with the presence of Grandberry, lifting of bluesy/spiritual-ly/gospel-ly singing.

This and that:

+ “Dairy Heirs” includes two adult jokes (that will go over kids’ heads) referring to Hollywood personalities.

+ A custom cheese made by farmhand JT is a play on a word. Combining provolone and pepper jack, it is Projack, which has a mellowing effect like a medication with a similar name.

+ The growing-up lives of Gabe and Elsie are revealed as they open box upon box of memorabilia their father kept – toys and such. The song “Daddy’s Favorite” is rich in memories and sentiment, with the contents illustrating very much about the kids and their father. (There’s even a spoken pun that goes with the scene: The father was like Muhammed Ali. Both were boxers).

+ Northern Sky Theater’s stage is somewhat handcuffing because it has so few moveable elements. The tall pines growing through the stage can’t be shifted from show to show. For “Dairy Heirs,” pieces that suggest a farm are placed on the walls, with a decorative piece at the top having a Scandinavian aura common in Door County. Added, too, are a silo in the background and a barn door (more puns/jokes there, too).

+ JT’s milk-to-cheese cow of the story is a cleverly devised Holstein on wheels. It is functional/funny and even comes with a cowbell – ding, ding!

+ In the thick of all the wit in the show is a routine in which Elsie and Gabe express a love of where they live with a blind eye (and nose). Elsie: “The manure so pure brings a tear to my eye.” Gabe: “The rows of cars in traffic can be peaceful and serene.”

+ This is a solidly made and played show.

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The above is a reprise, with some updating, of my 2018 review of the premiere performance of “Dairy Heirs.” After seeing Monday night’s performance, these thoughts:

++ The 2019 production is just as good, just as solid and just as amazing in such songs as the super-comical “Exactly Alike.”

++ A photo on Northern Sky Theater’s website shows that this year’s opening night for “Dairy Heirs” included an appearance by 2019 Alice in Dairyland, Abigail Martin of Milton. The clever tie-in also was part of last year’s opening night with and appearance by 2018 Alice in Dairyland, Kaitlyn Riley of Crawford County. Riley spoke to the audience beforehand with a kind of jaw-dropping enthusiasm for the Wisconsin dairy industry and the state’s 600 – SIX HUNDRED! – varieties of cheese (though no Projack until “Dairy Heirs).”

++ Following Monday’s performance, Molly Rhode, associate artistic director of the company and co-director of “Dairy Heirs,” asked the audience, “How many of you are new?” At least 100 hands raised, the large number taking Rhode somewhat aback. Northern Sky Theatre has been around for decades, and people are still discovering it and, judging by Monday night’s standing ovation, more than just liking what they see on stage.

++ The 2019 cast has one major change from 2018. In the role of Elsie, Carrie Beula Kovacs plays the role that Eva Nimmer originated last year in more ways than one. Eva Nimmer is one of the authors of “Dairy Heirs.” It so happens that Carrie Beula Kovacs is co-author of another show playing on the summer schedule, “We Like It Where?” Eva Nimmer is not in the company this summer. At present, she is performing in “The Dig” at Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay. In “The Dig,” Eva Nimmer portrays a set of dramatic characters who are 10 steps from the ones she has played at Northern Sky Theater. To me, seeing the difference is a reminder that what audiences see of the players at Northern Sky Theater is just one facet of what the versatile actors can do. My review of “The Dig”: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-review-the-dig-explores-archaeology-and-the-mind-in-sturgeon-bay/.

***

Creative: Book – Joel Kopischke, Eva Nimmer; music – Alissa Rhode; lyrics and story – Joel Kopischke; directors and choreographers – Kelly Doherty, Molly Rhode; music director and orchestrator – Alissa Rhode; stage manager – Neen Rock; scenic designer – Lisa Schlenker; assistant scenic artists – Carri Dahl and Adam Stoner; costume designer – Karen Brown-Larimore; lighting designer – Bryce Foster; props designer – Kathleen Rock; sound designer – Nic Trapani; percussion consultant – Rich Higdon; artistic director – Jeff Herbst; managing director – Dave Maier

Cast:

Gabe Frederiks, co-heir to the family farm – Doug Clemons

 Elsie Frederiks, co-heir and Gabe’s younger sister – Corrie Beula Kovacs

JT Blatschke, “twin” farmhand – Alex Campea

TJ Blatschke, “twin” farmhand – Chase Stoeger

Linda Gustafsson, next door neighbor – Molly Rhode

Rita Spicer, Gabe’s Hollywood manager – Lachrisa Grandberry

Orchestra: Conductor/keyboard – Alissa Rhode; musicians – Corrie Beula Kovacs, Alex Campea, Doug Clemons, Lachrisa Grandberry, Molly Rhode, Chase Stoeger

Running time: One hour, 35 minutes

Remaining performances: To Aug. 23: 6 p.m. Mondays, 8 p.m. Fridays in rotation with “We Like It Where?” and “Windjammers.” My review of “We Like It Where?”: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/news/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-review-we-like-it-where-taps-wisconsins-rich-humor-in-fish-creek/.

Info: northernskytheater.com.

***

Musical numbers (no intermission)

“Home” – Gabe, Elsie, JT, TJ, Linda

“Simple Joys” – Elsie, Gabe

“Exactly Alike” – JT, TJ

“Left Behind” – Linda

“News & Booze & Music” – TJ, JT, Linda, Elsie

“Waiter, There’s a Fly…” – TJ

“Dairy Heirs” – TJ, Elsie, JT, Linda

“Daddy’s Favorite” – Elsie, Gabe

“The Big Cheese” – JT

“What Do You Do” – Elsie, Linda

“Old News” – Gabe, Linda

“News & Booze & Music” (Reprise) – TJ, JT, Linda, Elsie

“Have You Met Mrs. Jones” – TJ

“The Barn Door” – JT

“Exactly Alike” (Reprise) – TJ, JT

“Grow a Pear” – Rita, Elsie

“Sing Your Own Song” – Gabe

“The Barn Door” (Reprise) – JT

“Fireworks” – Rita, JT

“Simple Joys” (Reprise) – TJ

“News & Booze & Music” (Reprise) – TJ, JT, Linda, Elsie, Gabe

“No Place That I’d Rather Be” – Company

***

THE VENUE: Northern Sky Theater (the former American Folklore Theatre) performs in a scenic, 800-seat amphitheater in Peninsula State Park near Fish Creek in Door County. Seating is on wood benches. The stage is about25 feet by 45 feet and of irregular shape because two tall white pine trees grow in the middle of the stage. Other pines ring the fringes of the stage. “The stage deck, unlike all of the stage walls, is made from recycled plastic,” said Northern Sky Theater artistic director Jeffrey Herbst. “It’s water impermeable. The deck has held up really, really well. The rest of the stage, anything that’s vertical is cedar that has to be stained and treated and washed and kept. We went with that kind of material was partly because we wanted something that wouldn’t warp and because when it rains on that material, it actually becomes less slick. With cedar, when we had it as decking in the past, as soon as you had water on it, it was like an ice skating rink.” The amphitheater is tucked in a forest and accessed by winding roads.

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