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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Only the Silly Songs’ a breath of levity from Door County

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater

Lee Becker channels a tree in a song from Northern Sky Theater’s “Guys & Does.” (Len Villano)

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – F-U-N.

The latest online offering of the professional Northern Sky Theater amid the COVID-19 pandemic is pure comic relief.

The compilation show of 32 songs, dances and yarns premiered Thursday night as “Only the Silly Songs: An April Fool’s Day Festival of Fun.” The pay-to-view production is available through May 31. Info: northernskytheater.com.

Some sequences are grainy because they were recorded last century. But project editor Chase Stoeger of the company clearly recognizes material that goes bing! – yes, that hits the spot.

He avoids the show becoming too much of a good thing by way of variety. Some scenes are purely for joke-telling, some for witty stories, some for comical song-making, some for goofy character-making, some for song-and-dance and one scene solely for dazzling dance.

“Bone Dance” scene. (Northern Sky Theater)

That last reference is for a wowing rhythm-and-acrobatics sequence by two guys dressed in skeleton body suits in “Bone Dance” from 1995. No words, just rhythmic percussion and phenomenal dance. That’s my favorite scene – by a hair. There is so much to enjoy.

One of the revelations in the compilation is how nimble and versatile Lee Becker has been over the years in many, many productions. In a single show, he may have one featured number. In “Only the Silly Songs,” he appears in a bunch of his featured numbers, singing and dancing like all get out – such as as a tree in “Guys & Does.” And he plays a bunch of instruments… and slips in jokes… and becomes comical characters galore.

And Fred “Doc” Heide is around abundantly, too, because he is a fountain of humor as a writer and performer. Out tumble bundles of his cosmic jokes (some earthy)… or musical splashes on various instruments… or vivid characters like Harvey Keister in the far-out funny “Packer Fans from Outer Space” of his creation.

Lee Becker, Doug Mancheski, Fred “Doc” Heide, Jon Hegge. (Len Villano)

Audience favorite Doug Mancheski offers up bits teamed with Steve Koehler in the classic “Guys on Ice” – notably “Rooty-Toot-Toot in My Snowmobile Suit” – and the sheer coy zaniness of “Little Dress” from “Lumberjacks in Love.”

Often in the show comes this thought: Where’d that come from?

Prime for that is “Dr. Who,” a song from “Naked Radio.” Molly Rhode plays a fan of the sci-fi show, and she has a chance to recount, in song, ALL the episodes – 800-something (though time-lapse edited in the telling). Molly Rhode adoringly, excitedly sings in fan reverie while playing a watchcamacallit electronic instrument. Where’d everything about that song come from?

In shows from the late 1990s, co-founder Fred Alley is around with his playful cleverness in such bits as the immigrant telling wondrously of a sign in six languages that says, “Pull the chain” (for the loo) and as one of the “Belgians from Heaven” giving directions through everything but bramble.

Delights keep coming for almost an hour and a half.

“Victory Farm” scene. (Len Villano)

In the climactic spot is a scene with three German prisoners of war (played by Dan Klarer, Chad Luberger and Steve Koehler) singing and dancing about creating something out of Door County’s tart/sour cherries – “Sweaty Pies.” In their English as a second language, “sewer” is “sour” and “sweaty” is “sweet.” The oh-so-cleverness is but one reason why Northern Sky Theater means much to many each summer and fall.

All the stuff is original to the theater.

Creativity abounds – and humor – in this show.

F-U-N.

***

Show sequence

(Complete credits run the end of the video)

“Ya, Ya, You Betcha!” – 2003

“Bob Dumkee’s Farm” – 2001

“When Butter Churns to Gold” – 2015

“Dairy Heirs” – 2015

“Lumberjacks in Love” – 2016

“Bone Dance” – 1995

“Belgians in Heaven” – 1994

“Bob Dumkee’s Farm” – 2001

“Loose Lips Sink Ships” – 2013

“Packer Fans from Outer Space” – 2003

“Bing, the Cherry Musical” – 2011

“Dad’s Season Tickets” – 2019

“Bob Dumkee’s Farm” – 2001

“Belgians in Heaven” – 1994

“Guys on Ice” – 2014

“Bone Dance” – 1995

“Lumberjacks in Love” – 2016

“Bob Dumkee’s Farm” – 2001

“Naked Radio” – 2017

“Loose Lips Sink Ships” – 2013

“The Passage” – 1994

“Guys and Does” – 2011

“One Night in Frog Station” – 1995

“Guys on Ice” – 2014

“Bob Dumkee’s Farm” – 2001

“Belgians in Heaven” – 1994

“Doctor! Doctor!” – 2016

“Packer Fans from Outer Space” – 2003

“Lumberjacks in Love” – 2016

“Dad’s Season Tickets” – 2019

“Victory Farm” – 2012

“Ya, Ya, You Betcha!” – 2003

***

Story from the theater

We thought it’d be fun to point out that Northern Sky Theater is only four steps removed from the birthplace of American playwriting. Follow along as Northern Sky Theater co-founder Doc Heide takes us through the degrees of separation:

(1) In the first decade of the 20th century, a professor of English named George Pierce Baker created America’s first playwriting course (at Radcliffe) and then a few years later its first laboratory theater to produce original shows (at Harvard). Among his students were Eugene O’Neill, Thomas Wolfe and Alexander Drummond.

(2) One of Drummond’s students, Robert Gard, came to Wisconsin during World War II to launch a new regional theater program, the Wisconsin Idea Theater.

(3) A story about lumberjacks in one of Gard’s books, “Wisconsin on My Doorstep,” inspired a lanky, chain-smoking Madison music teacher named Dave Peterson to write a musical based on it. Gard loved the show and hired Peterson, who was soon penning folklore-based shows that toured from Wisconsin to Europe and the Far East.

(4) Peterson, in turn, hired Doc Heide, Fred Alley, Gerald Pelrine and Jeff Herbst to perform in his folk-singing troupe, the Heritage Ensemble. In the early 1990s, these guys launched American Folklore Theatre (renamed Northern Sky Theater in 2015) in Peninsula State Park, performing solely original work.

So the proud tradition of writing and producing American shows can be traced in one continuous stream from its headwaters to today’s Northern Sky Theater.

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

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