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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The New Year with Northern Sky’ explores the new

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater

Promotional poster.

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – With creative people, you are sometimes dealt a subtlety.

The professional Northern Sky Theater, which is built on originality, presented a pay-to-view show Thursday night, December 31, with the title “The New Year with Northern Sky.”

Okay: December 31… New Year’s Eve… looking toward the turn of the year to 2021… happy new year… correct?

Or… maybe it is 2020 as the new year… 2020 as not a same old, same old year… In March, everything changed… 2020 arises as a year of the new… among many other people, artists are forced to create by new means and forced to learn technology new to them… 2020 becomes the year of the new.

“The New Year with Northern Sky” is the first of seven virtual presentations for the first winter season of the theater. Information about the productions is at northernskytheater.com; access to “The New Year with Northern Sky” may be found there, too.

The Door County company that performs original musicals and concerts in two theaters was choked off from live, in-person performances in 2020. The series a way to deal the cards dealt.

For “The New Year with Northern Sky,” the company let its talent pool loose. It let writers associated with creating its shows and songs toss their hat into the ring and come up with original material or previous material presented in a new way. The result is a variety show with varied approaches to recording.

After the 44-minute presentation, most of the creators and performers met, along with a general audience, for a Zoom talkback that quickly became illuminating. Getting the illumination beaming was a question from associate artistic director Molly Rhode. She asked the creative people to discuss their prowess with skills that they maybe didn’t have in February or March, as the COVID-19 pandemic took off. Why she asked that is evident in the show.

Scene from talkback. (Warren Gerds screenshot)

Some conversation turned on the “audio chops” (clarity of recording) of Katie Dahl, the green screen use by Fred “Doc” Heide and writing for a virtual world.

One of the songs, Joel Kopischke’s “Taking the Leap,” deals with the pandemic world’s unknowns with a mental image of falling and “building my wings on the way down” to survive.

The program, edited by Chase Stoeger, with my notes

+ “Winters in Wisconsin,” music by Paul Libman, lyrics by Dave Hudson for the musical “Muskie Love.” Performed by Gigi Hudson.

Filled with scenery. A thoughtful and reflective take.

+ “What Are We Supposed to Do?” music and lyrics by Matt Zembrowski. Performed by Matt Zembrowski.

Recording at home, with “audio chops.”

Wearing a New Year’s Eve party hat, Matt Zembrowski sings like a music hall novelty act from back when and wonders about what to do “with all the Christmas cookies that we’re never going to eat.”

In the talkback, some discussion turned on the use of humor in the midst of the pandemic. There was some fretting, but the vote was “Yes.”

+ “Song of the Winter Sun,” music and lyrics by Craig Konowalski and Doc Heide. Performed by Craig Konowalski. Produced and edited by Doc Heide.

Guitar folky. Variety of images … many about sky and space… scenic…. Northern lights… mountains… sleeping dog…forest… photos tied to lyrics. Spoken about in the talkback, this is the green screen stuff Doc Heide learned about during the year.

Some lyrics ring of the Doc Heide’s cosmic side: “Winter sun makes songs from its refuge in the stars.”

+ “Starting Tomorrow,” music and lyrics by Karen Mal. Performed by Karen Mal and Will Taylor.

Two guitars. Karen Mal sings of new year resolutions, “But tonight I’m eating apple pie with ice cream”

A pillow of a voice.

Light, airy, sweet.

+ “A Seat at the Table,” lyrics by Robin Share and Clay Zambo, music by Clay Zambo. Performed by Clay Zambo.

Playing a piano at home… welcoming someone to come in… melancholy about not being able to gather. Waiting for that to happen again.

+ “Real With You” from “Virtual Happy Hour – an online musical,” lryics by Richard Castle, music by Matthew Levine. Performed, produced and edited by Richard Castle.

Piano background… different scenes to the a rhumba-like rhythm… remembering happy hours/happy times… multiple scenes edited together with Zoom screens… Enacting lines… “When I’m with you, I can drop the mask. That’s what you do with friends…. Being real with you,” the people of Northern Sky.

+ “Take It All In” from “Sunflowered,” a new musical in development, lyrics Lachrisa Grandberry, music by Alissa Rhode and Lachrisa Grandberry. Performed by Lachrisa Grandberry, piano and backing vocals by Alissa Rhode.

Lachrisa Grandberry sings in a gentle, comforting, embracing way…. “you take the time… To take it all in.”

Recorded simply in front of a screen. Then the concentration is on the words and feelings.

Big smile at end.

+ “The Covidler,” music and lyrics by Doc Heide and Craig Konowalski: “A humoristical update of the sea shanty. The Bigler, for the year 2020.” Performed and edited by Doc Heide, images by Craig Konowalski.

Split screen… music as a shanty song about the year that’s past and… the words go through all the familiar woes… frustrations made comical. Ends with a plug for Northern Sky.

In the talkback, Doc Heide said he and Craig Konowalski, after they had completed the song, wondered whether they should be making fun of the pandemic. Voices from the “crowd” said it’s needed.

+ “Sinking into Solstice,” a winter monologue by Karen Mal. Music from “A Mandolin Christmas” by Karen Mal and Will Taylor.

Karen Mal speaks… celebrate changes of the season…. Thinking about “faraway friends looking up at the same moon.”… Looks to future and a better one. Guitar lightly in the background… not a song. Talking… about slowing down and spending time with people we love.

This is a very interesting addition. In the midst of songs, not a song. And not poetry. No added visuals. Just thoughts in a light musical setting. Just making statements. Well-prepared, but the human voice used as a speaking voice – no more, no less.

+ “To Love, To, Life, Tonight,” music and lyrics by Doug Forrest. Performed by Doug Forrest.

Recorded at his home in Houston, Texas. Talks about his friends at Northern Sky. For people of Wisconsin, a Texas-accented song… Wonders “where will the money come…. Worries about getting by… Whatever tomorrow brings… Asks: “I’ll have a little faith if you will, too.” Melancholy with a rhythm.

+ “Pass the Fruitcake,” music and lyrics by Claudia Russell and Bruce Kaplan.

Performed by Claudia Russell and Bruce Kaplan, fiddle by Tom Tally.

A shanty. Lively, a dance… Passing around fruitcake… Comical scenes, like singing from the center of a circular fruitcake, like using a fruitcake as a door stop, bookends and a gravestone. A jolly tease (not pandemic-tied) of something seasonal. After all the ridiculing of the fruitcake, the thing ends with a recipe!

+ “Taking the Leap,” lyrics by Joel Kopischke, music by Willy Porter. Performed by Joel Kopischke, guitar by Sydney Richards, audio by Chris Kringel, edited by Anya Kopischke.

This turns out to be a heady music video with production values. Starts out with Joel Kopischke in black and white… different scenes, studio and outside… turns to color… artsy. “Phoenix flies out of flames.”… References to Icarus and the image “I’m building my wings on the way down.”

+ “In the Dark,” music and lyrics by Katie Dahl. Performed by Katie Dahl.

Recorded in a home setting in a softly earnest presentation in Katie Dahl’s way with elliptical words and images. A fitting finale.

***

The talkback

The was a window on the artistic world.

Condensing their statements: People who are accustomed to creating in one set of ways were flung into new technologies. They found themselves on a steep and difficult learning curve. They learned from others in the field and others from them.

Jeff Herbst, artistic director, wondered how the past year is going to affect what the theater continues to create.

Molly Rhode, associate artistic director, spoke of new efficiencies in working with far-flung creative people and feeling closer to colleagues. She said “The New Year with Northern Sky” was a unique collaboration because instead of, say, a few creative people working on a new musical, individual creative people put together this show. It was something that otherwise “doesn’t happen,” she said.

The feeling was something useful will come out of the pandemic.

After the give and take from many parts of the country, Jeff Herbst spoke and touched the pulse of what makes Northern Sky Theater what it is as an all-original, Wisconsin-minded company with few (any?) peers.

To close, all screens were muted for Jeff Herbst to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” People could be seen singing along at home, but only Jeff Herbst’s smoothly caring voice could be heard.

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

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