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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Tongue ’n Cheek’ has a knack for kidding in Fish Creek

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Seriously, Fred Alley had a way with kidding.

His shows and songs often bubble with tongue-in-cheek whimsy. In the case of “Tongue ’n Cheek,” it’s practically all the way through.

The key character is an extremely hard worker. He toils, connives, calculates, manipulates and maneuvers all for the goal of getting out of work. Plus, he’s the crummiest cook around.

You can’t not like George Sutter because he is so ridiculous.

And the town practitioner of “spiritual medicine,” Doc Johnson, is a close second.

“Tongue ’n Cheek” would be a lightweight show if it weren’t for all the verbal trickery. Right around the corner is the next pun, the next bit of fractured logic, the next playful take on the English language, the next outrageous exaggeration.

– In Door County back when, it got so cold in winter a man’s shadow froze to the barn door.

– Some men didn’t catch cold. They were too slow to catch the cold.

– Some people don’t trust Doc Johnson at all. One says, “I wouldn’t believe him if he swore he was lying.”

– When Doc goes a-courtin’, the “no” he hears comes in an elaborate form: “You are looking for pears on an elm tree.”

– Being a small town, everyone has a gift for gossip, which “travels like crackers on homemade tomato soup.”

On and on this all goes, with the professional cast limberly singing, dancing and acting up a storm and often playing an instrument or three. The show’s “orchestra” is a musician (Andrew Crowe) who plays eight instruments. The show opens and closes with a kind of makeshift marching band tootin’/trumpetin’/drummin’ and such while parading around the Peninsula State Park Amphitheater stage shaking the needles on the pines soaring all ’round.

The story is about couples. George Sutter (Dan Klarer) lazes through cooking and cleaning – he’s a disaster at each – while his wife, Naomi (Lachrisa Grandberry) takes on all the farm chores, starting with milking the cows. Doc Johnson (Isaiah Spetz) happily peddles his magic elixir, but loneliness sets in with the presence of Lorna (Jamie Mercado), who swears she will not marry a man who is short, tall, lean, fat, old, young… you get the picture. The Narrator (Anna Cline) cheerfully sets up scenes and usually becomes part of the action. It’s an excellent, multitalented cast.

Isaiah Spetz, Jamie Mercado, Lachrisa Grandberry, Dan Klarer and Anna Cline. (Len Villano)

“Tongue ’n Cheek” is… is… is… whew – so many layers.

+ It’s frothy fun. The silliness/goofiness eventually arrives at romance. With her marriage in an iffy state, Naomi is reflective and sings such lovely lines as “You choose a partner for the dance, you close your eyes and take a chance.” The Narrator also gets caught up with love, but its purely comical having to do with Old Dave, an all-but-useless mule. Yes, seriously, Fred Alley had a way with kidding.

+ The style of the show may seem old-fashioned, but so much of it is dense, tightly written and expertly comically/aurally performed. The trumpet-trombone-kazoo-voice number hits the spot.

+ Fred Alley co-founded the company, wrote, acted, sang and put together things with his imagination that all the king’s horse’s and all the king’s men couldn’t do. He died 20 years ago, age 38. This show – his show – was the company’s first book musical; versus a revue of songs strung together, book musicals have a story around the songs. The year was 1997. By bringing “Tongue ’n Cheek” back, the company re-introduces today’s audience to the Fred Alley ways.

+ Jeff Herbst, artistic director of Northern Sky Theater, directed the 1997 production of “Tongue ’n Cheek.” He directs this production, too, fully in the know. There is an authenticity in the style and aura and general bright tone.

+ “Tongue ’n Cheek” is briefer than recent Northern Sky Theater productions. It also is lighter. With so much heavy in the last 16 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, light is more than nice.

***

Creative: Creator – Fred Alley; additional music – Fred Alley, James Kaplan; director – Jeff Herbst; music director and arranger – Andrew Crowe; stage manager – Shawn Galligan; assistant stage manager – Hayden Hoffman; costume coordinator – Dan Klarer; lighting designer – James Balistreri; sound designer – Ben Warner

Cast:

Narrator – Anna Cline

George Sutter – Dan Klarer

Naomi Sutter – Lachrisa Grandberry

Doc Johnson – Isaiah Spetz

Lorna Thompson – Jamie Mercado

Understudy for Doc Johnson – Hayden Hoffman

Running time: 70 minutes (no intermission)

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday to Aug. 7

Info: northernskytheater.com

***

ALSO: Live, in-person performances of “Not Even Remotely” at Gould Theater to Aug. 7. This is the first time Northern Sky Theater has presented two summer shows simultaneously – plus with the same starting times on the same dates – at its two theaters.

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, with cushions available in the premium-seat areas. 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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