FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – A powerful snowstorm grips “the county.” The inhabitants are in lockdown mode. Slowly by slowly, they lose connections to the Internet, wireless services and TV. What’s left is the local radio station, of late a corporate monolith that only plays music that’s like a long line of taste-weak cans of fruit on a grocery shelf. And so the musical comedy “Naked Radio” drifts into beginning a story. Eventually, a personality emerges and the show takes a character that can only be – in the wide picture of things theatrical – Northern Sky Theater.
Northern Sky Theater creates original musical comedies at its outdoor and indoor theaters. “Naked Radio” is the fall indoor presentation for the professional company, with performances in a long run, to Nov. 6, in Gould Theater.
“Naked Radio” embraces the way we were, or the way things kinda/sorta were in a heyday in radio when stations touched listeners’ lives as a matter of course. In the story of this show, the touching comes from desperation. A couple of station minions are trapped in the station by the storm, and they find that people need them as a kind of lifeline.
I like the way creators Dave Hudson and Paul Libman tap into what has happened at fictional, small-town radio station WHLO as technologies changed. In came the new, and out went the old – so much so that there no longer are a human’s playlist or the one-time essential record discs or much person-to-person connection with real, live folks “out there.”
Everything changes when one of the minions whacks the “soulless, sterile silver box” – the interconnect with the fictional Big Channel Networks somewhere in the great beyond – and the station can only broadcast with what’s at hand:
+ The minion, Bart Dunwood (Chase Stoeger), and the station newbie/minion, Mike Young (Andrew Crowe).
+ One record – all that Mike could find in the building – that has “The Tennessee Waltz” on one side and “Possum Trot” on the other. Bart and Mike play “Possum Trot” over and over… and over… as their standby to kill time. (Side notes: Being that Northern Sky Theater writers write original material, Hudson and Libman do not use the popular “The Tennessee Waltz” in the show but their made-up and corny “Possum Trot.” By the way, the co-writer of the lovely/sad “The Tennessee Waltz,” Pee Wee King, spent much of his youth in the Abrams area and is one of our own).
+ The folks “out there.” The entourage includes Agnes Blankenship “from the county,” who loves bringing everybody up to speed with the latest road closings, a grumpy advertiser, Bart’s lady friend and station salesperson Maggie, helpful Bob, a lovelorn space cadet/Dr. Who groupie, a snotty kid who tells they guys on the air they are stupid and then hangs up, a Big Channel Networks boss and other local types found around Middletown, a place in “Somewhere USA” that seems an awful lot like Door County. All those folks are played by Molly Rhode in an acting tour de force. Molly Rhode changes character – voice, demeanor, aura, temperament, essence – with each simple change of costume, primarily keyed to a character’s identifying knit hat.
+ Imagination. It so happens that the minions are musicians as part of their character’s previous life. Sometimes Bart and Mike play song songs, but most often they come up with ad jingles they have made up on the spur of the moment (in the story). This is a lot of lightly tripping, catchy music with little hooks. Bart and Mike dream up gimmicks to fill air time – like a bit for listeners to sell/buy stuff (a true throwback to a real deal), a section on love advice, a recap of “Dr. Who” episodes and a major seed, a gambit about the show’s title. Bart and Mike place in listeners’ minds an image of them broadcasting in the altogether. This eventually leads to a strip for the benefit (not really) of the audience, with Bart and Mike getting down to their skivvies.
Sooooo… what is “Naked Radio”? It’s part warm remembrance and part regret about the vast disconnect that technology and simplification and instant gratification have brought – but mostly a clever, if soft-paced, offering of entertainment.
Impressive parts include:
++ Molly Rhode’s multiplicity of characters, which has the signs of director Jeff Herbst’s careful hand of collaborative development.
++ Chase Stoeger’s multiplicity of cornball instruments he toots, dings, whizzes, ta-ta-tumps, pops and… Best Plastic Saxophone Performance of the Year: Chase Stoeger.
++ Andrew Crowe, a musician who can act and wiggle-dance as Bart becomes a comforting soul as an advisor on life.
The set is split in half. To the audience’s right is the radio station studio – microphones, electronic consoles, sound-softening padding on the wall; when Bart bops the corporate logo, the interconnection is revealed like the guts of a robotic patient spread out against the wall. To the audience’s left is the domain of Molly Rhode’s entourage that includes a variety of telephone types, knit hats, such items as a Green Bay Packers helmet and a Door County map, costuming that includes a fur-fringed down coat and a kitschy scarf and the bass she plays as accompaniment and… Best Performance of the Year on an Omnichord (electronic instrument played by touch) to the “Ballad of Dr. Who”: Molly Rhode.
Confession: What you have read to this point is mostly a duplicate of my review of the 2017 world premiere production of “Naked Radio.” A few things have changed. The original was performed in Door Community Auditorium; the Gould Theater opened in 2019. Chase Stoeger was the original Mike. Molly Rhode includes varied coats to help define her characters, and there may be some tweaking in the script about technical things. Otherwise, the production is much the same:
The story takes its time getting going, the byplay between the “deejays” is often silly, the remember-when nostalgia embraces warmly and the piece is musically/comically entertaining, notably with Molly Rhode being amazing with the gallery of personalities she changes into at the drop of a hat (or the donning of a hat).
Creative: Music (and additional jinglefication) – Paul Libman; book and lyrics – Dave Hudson; director and choreographer – Jeff Herbst; music director/arrangements/music supervisor – Alissa Rhode; stage manager – Shawn Galligan; assistant stage manager – Isaiah Spetz; scenic designer – Lisa Schlenker; assistant scenic artist – Adam Stoner; lighting designer – David Alley; associate lighting designer – Brian Weinkauf; sound designer – Nic Trapani; costume designer – Karen Brown-Larimore; props designer – Kathleen Rock; artistic director – Jeff Herbst; associate artistic director – Molly Rhode; managing director – Dave Maier
Cast: Mike Young – Andrew Crowe; Bart Dunwood – Chase Stoeger; Maggie Wheeling, etc. – Molly Rhode; understudy for Mike and Bart – Isaiah Spetz
Musicians: Molly Rhode – bass, omnichord, ukulele; Chase Stoeger – guitar, banjo, ukulele, percussion; Andrew Crowe – guitar, fiddle, saw, etc.
Running time: Two hours, 23 minutes
Remaining performances: To Nov. 6: 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday (except 2 p.m. Sept. 20 and Oct. 28
“Tradin’ Time” (Reprise)
“Filling the Air”
“Here It Is”
“Road Closings” (Reprise 1)
“Gibson’s Ad 1”
“Lollipop’s Ad 1”
“Gibson’s Ad 2”
“Gibson’s Ad 3”
“Road Closings” (Reprise 2)
“Ballad of Dr. Who” (beginning)
“Ballad of Dr. Who” (ending)
“Jake Jensen’s Jingle”
“A Little Bit”
Personal flashback: The time is last century, somewhere in the ’70s or maybe ’80s, just after a Green Bay radio operation has automated one of its stations. Being that the media is one of my beats for the Green Bay Press-Gazette daily newspaper, I telephone the manager in hopes of finding out background to inform readers about this new thing in the industry. The manager balks and says there is nothing he wants to be quoted on. But I will now. He says, “Nobody wants to talk about their drunk aunt in the back bedroom.”
ALSO: “Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?” to Sept. 18 in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater.
THE VENUE: Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater is located in the Northern Sky Theater Creative Center, 9058 Door County Road A near Fish Creek. The 248-seat theater (socially distanced for COVID-19 considerations for this production) carries two themes – wooded Wisconsin and a carryover of Northern Sky Theater’s summer home in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater. Height factors in. As do tall pine trees in and around the stage of the amphitheater, the knotty pine wall to the audience’s left reaches three stories. To the right, the woodsy outside is brought in through 28-foot-high windows (in two sections) that are shuttered by huge wood shutters during performances. Color schemes are gray and taupe – gray in the seat cushions and aisle carpeting and taupe in the wooden seat backs and arms, with the wood walls, stage front and shutters finished to taupe. The stage curtain is midnight blue, as are acoustical clouds on the ceiling. The stage floor is unique to the region, arcing in from the rear of the theater along the side walls to the front. In the shoulders of the main stage, space is open for scenes to take place (with set pieces) in addition to action on the main stage. The space was designed by Peter Tan of the Madison-based Strang, Inc.
THE PEOPLE: Barbara and Spencer Gould are longtime Door County philanthropists. They have been residents since 1988, after years of residing in St. Louis and being summer residents.