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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?’ creates mystique

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater

Contact me at Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions every Sunday morning during the 6-7:30 broadcast on WFRV-TV, Channel 5.

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Silence.

Sometimes silence is golden in theater.

The audience is riveted. Or wondering. Or fascinated. Or intrigued. Or lost in the story.

Simply gone.

Silence happened more than once Monday during a Northern Sky Theater performance of “Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?”

On a comfy weather night, the audience at Peninsula State Park Amphitheater zoned in on happenings in an unusual thing – a musical mystery.

Adding to a mystique, the people in the show are comical/quirky town folk of little – and fictional – Littleton on the opposite side of the bay from where the audience is sitting.

The setup: The investigative TV show “Unsolved Musicals” is in town to interview anybody with information about the disappearance of Karl Janko 35 years ago.

One night, his car was found – a metallic green 1976 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – but Karl simply vanished the day before he was to sling his way to the state Division 7 football championship as quarterback of the Littleton Legumes.

Are you catching the tongue-in-cheekness? The show is loaded with it – and the mystery red herrings dropped by the people interviewed – the busybody lunch ladies, the never-arrested-nobody chief of police, the local rag’s editor with UFO vibes, the grumpy janitor with a chip (hock… hock-to-ie) on his shoulder, Jake’s rival for the quarterback position, his forever friend and his girlfriend who is so much in teen love it makes you want to puke.

That last bit is in the show. The TV investigator has all kinds of colorful observational quips.

Woven in the family show is adult humor. Notable is a masterful use – “cupcake” and “sugar” – that become wink-wink words when said just the right way by acting pros.

The silence also had to do with the audience not having seen anything like this show. Imagine experiencing, say, “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time. It’s that kind of new.

Matt Zembrowski following the performance of Aug. 16, 2021. (Warren Gerds)

And the main person behind it, Matt Zembrowski, did it all – writing the book (story), music and lyrics.

Musically, he has a ’30s style here, a rhumba there, a love ballad, spooky wafts and a touch of blues along the way.

Director Molly Rhode and creative collaborators jump right in run with the Matt Zembrowski fun.

Veteran actors/singers/character creators Lachrisa Grandberry, Doc Heide, Karen Mal and Doug Mancheski play more than one of the deliciously comical townies. Jeff Herbst plays the TV guy with probing and omniscient wryness.

Heide, Herbst, Mal and Mancheski go way back in the history of Northern Sky Theater. They are an A team. Grandberry fits right their skill level. More than the other players, Grandberry switches characters on a dime, like going from a crusty old lady to a sweet young thing a few breaths later.

Songs aren’t listed in the online program, but by guessing I can walk you through some of what’s found in the show as perspectives of the locale and Karl Janko are drawn:

Every place has its secrets… nothing happens here… I can’t believe all of this is happening here (a TV show in an itsy-bitsy burg)… I never liked the guy (Karl’s rival)… you grow up thinking you have all the answers (an adult looking back)… leave it alone (the get-out-of-our-town guy)… face your fears… the world is full of mysteries… I get the feeling… things out there are not meant to know.

Spliced into these core thoughts and feelings is humor, verbal and enacted. For instance, there is the Doug Mancheski finesse around the police chief, who is faux tough but perhaps never arrested anybody – even speeders from Illinois (a Door County joke) – by letting perpetrators off with “You better not do that again.”

Northern Sky Theater deals in originality. It does it in such a sophisticated way that the company draws throngs of people who sit outside to laugh or applaud or watch interestedly in silence thinking, “Where is this going?” Thus, “Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?” joins the long roll of successful Northern Sky Theater shows.


Creative: Book, music, lyrics – Matt Zembrowski; director – Molly Rhode; music director – Alissa Rhode; arrangements – Alissa Rhode and Matt Zembrowski; stage managers – Shawn Galligan and Heather Sopel; costume coordinator – Dan Klarer; lighting designer – James Balistreri; sound designer – Ben Werner; artistic director – Jeff Herbst; associate artistic director – Molly Rhode; managing director – Dave Maier


Host – Jeff Herbst

Maggie Sternberger, Gertie Gurkin – Karen Mal

Brenda Willems, Irma Herman – Lachrisa Grandberry; Sept. 6-18 Anna Cline

Sam Kalkoff, Rick Zepnick – Doug Mancheski

Lenny Chesniak, Norm Lugee – Doc Heide

Running time: One hour, 15 minutes

Remaining performances: To Sept. 18: 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday



NEXT (at indoor Gould Theater): “Naked Radio,” by Dave Hudson and Paul Libman, Aug. 23-Nov. 6.

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. For the 2021 season, a major improvement has been introduced to the grounds: Lavatories with running water. The previous alternative was daunting.

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