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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The Fisherman’s Daughters’ embraces a Door County haven

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater

Kelly Doherty, from left, Chase Stoeger, Alex Campea and Eva Nimmer in a scene from Northern Sky Theater’s preview production of “The Fisherman’s Daughter.” (Len Villano)

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – A story about a park. Sounds simple. Not.

Not with the kind of musical/artistic expertise found in “The Fisherman’s Daughters.”

Northern Sky Theater is giving the new musical a special run this summer in the amphitheater of Peninsula State Park, where two sisters once lived in reality and now in the imagination of the show’s creator.

Author Katie Dahl weaves a beautiful tapestry of book, music and lyrics.

A singer-songwriter in the first place, Katie Dahl’s palette is very much larger in this fictionalized account of how Peninsula State Park came to be in 1908 as Wisconsin’s first state park.

People who lived on the land were compensated, and some were put off – except for two sisters.

The musical is in touch with many sensitivities. Much is told in four characters, who are handsomely and brightly and song-fully and care-fully portrayed by performers inspired by bringing the persons/personalities to life:

+ Sarah Peterson (Kelly Doherty) resides on the family property – one cabin, one barn… one good well. She pesters the man who fishes aboard her deceased father’s skiff. In town, Sarah is an odd one, going around in a man’s long coat and trying to get rides back home – three point two miles. Sarah has lived by herself for the last two years since her father died. Her sister has not come home from Chicago.

+ Nora Peterson (Eva Nimmer), the sister younger by six years, has returned as the musical starts. Hers is an elusive story to the end. Nora is the smart sister. A teacher, she continuously corrects Sarah’s errors in speech – brought to humous vitality by a standing joke: Sarah flubs, Nora corrects, Sarah says, “Exactly.” Nora and Sarah tiff, with that having to do especially with the question of what to do with the land when the state comes knocking about selling.

+ Charlie (Chase Stoeger) is the town character, a talk-your-arm-off guy who is pretty good at a lot of things. He never gives Sarah that 3.2-mile ride on his horse-drawn delivery wagon, though. Charlie has a petition going to reclaim Columbus Day for Leif Erikson in part because Charlie is Norwegian. “Isn’t everybody?” he says.

+ John Murphy (Alex Campea) is the state guy, nine days into his job with the Department of Land Preservation. Coming from Milwaukee, he is smitten by Fish Creek and sees it as the garden spot of the world. John enthusiastically throws himself into formulating 3,800 acres into a place of rejuvenation.

Katie Dahl weaves these four people into her intricate tapestry in the first song, signaling this is musical theater of high quality. Signaled in the story is the arrival of change. Katie Dahl expresses that with the line, “Each day in the harbor, the wind blows yesterday farther away.”

Katie Dahl, June 21, 2021. (Warren Gerds)

This and that about the production:

++ It’s not done done. Props and set elements are not included. The characters speak stage directions in some instances. When not actively performing, they sit off to a side, often at a music stand with a script. COVID-19 got in the way of this being an official world premiere presentation. However, the presentation at hand gives an awfully good picture of the heart of this musical.

++ Audience size is limited. Seating is socially distanced. Masks are optional.

++ There is no such thing as a typical Northern Sky Theater show, and “The Fisherman’s Daughters” is one of the more less-typical. The book-music-lyrics by one person is not typical, though it was accomplished recently by Matt Zembrowski in “Dad’s Season Tickets.” The level of drama is not typical. Humor certainly is around but not as a dead-on comedy. And romance is not dead-on, either. Katie Dahl finesses a variety of sensitivities.

++ Northern Sky Theatre is very much about collaboration. Director Molly Rhode nurtures that, and willingness abounds. That certainly is the case with the orchestrations by the musicians. Katie Dahl’s music is colored by instrumentations – violin here, harmonica there and individual touches all the way through to enrich moods and emotions.

++ No printed programs are available this year. They are online, and some elements include videos.

++ The program contains no song list, so I did not guess at titles.

++ Learning stuff is part of Northern Sky Theater shows. James O. Davidson was the governor who set the Wisconsin State Park idea rolling, and he is a presence in the show by name. That’s a simple example. More complex is a process song, another in a line of teaching tunes: The audience learns about packing fish – the individual moves of this and next that… repeated in wearing repetition for the workers. There’s another process song, a human one: Katie Dahl tells the step-by-step of the sisters’ father coming from Norway to America, ending up in Fish Creek after walking nine days from Green Bay.

++ The production aside, a major change has occurred for theatergoers: Real restrooms! Running water! A facility has been built. No more hold-your-nose experiences in dank and dingy latrines.  

***

Creative: Book, lyrics, music – Katie Dahl; director – Molly Rhode; music director – Alissa Rhode; stage manager – Shawn Galligan; lighting designer – James Balistreri; sound designer – Ben Werner; costume coordinator – Dan Klarer; scenic elements – Lisa Schlenker; vocal arrangements – Alissa Rhode; orchestrations – Dennis Keith Johnson, John Lewis, Andrew Crowe

Cast:

Sarah – Kelly Doherty

Nora – Eva Nimmer

Charlie – Chase Stoeger

John – Alex Campea

Musicians: Andrew Crowe, Dennis Keith Johnson, John Lewis

Running time: 95 minutes

Remaining performances (preview production): 7:30 p.m. June 22-26, June 28-July 3, 5-10

Info: northernskytheater.com

***

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 about 25 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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