FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Door County is a magnet. Thousands upon thousands of people are drawn by the peninsula’s natural beauty and this opportunity: Stop, relax, release and unwind – take a breath.
Door County also is a place for the arts. The atmosphere breathes fresh visual and performing creation.
A new, world-premiere musical expresses the essence of Door County and oh so much more.
“Sunflowered” expands the parameters of Northern Sky Theater, where adventuresome originality is the starting point.
What’s up in the story of “Sunflowered”?
Six women gather for a weekend of camping in Peninsula State Park.
They are a widowed mother and her two daughters, two family friends and a partner of one of the daughters.
Except for the partner, the women have returned to a place they love, in part to savor the memory of a beloved father.
By the time these basics of the story are known, the audience knows something big and dramatic will happen.
In the musical’s first song, the women have sung of the pressures in their lives. The song – a vividly complex tapestry of sung thought – ends with the phrase, “the cancer is back.”
The “C” word signals drama is in store.
Drama has always been a part of Northern Sky Theater shows, but not the Big C.
Also, the partner element is new on the Northern Sky Theater stage.
Hard-core sibling bickering is another element in this wondrous work.
“Sunflowered” is written, directed and enacted entirely by women.
A catalyst person is Lachrisa Grandberry, who has portrayed many characters for five seasons in Northern Sky Theater shows outdoors at Peninsula State Park Amphitheater.
In this show, the company gives Lachrisa Grandberry an opportunity as writer of the book, music and lyrics – and performer. That’s akin to jumping into the Grand Canyon, but Lachrisa Grandberry is sharp in the first place, plus she has a large parachute. Leaping with her are co-authors Aidaa Peerzada (book) and Alissa Rhode (music), co-directors Alexis J. Roston (also a performer) and Molly Rhode (company associate artistic director) and the women who share the stage with her and are creating their characters as a bonus of being in a world-premiere production.
A brief introduction to the characters:
While living in Wisconsin, Shayla (Lachrisa Grandberry) has been a key caretaker of her father in his illness.
Rain (Ayanna Bria Bakari), the sister, has been away in Chicago, pursuing education and a career.
Frankie (Solana Ramirez-Garcia) is a photographer who has become attached to Rain.
Marthie (Alexis J. Roston, the co-director) is called “Mama” by all for her role as the glue of the gathering.
Danielle (Elizabeth McMonagle) is an elementary schoolteacher who has been a friend of the family forever.
Jackie (Anna Cline) is a mother of three, also a friend forever, who suddenly struggles with Rain-Frankie as “Not how we were raised.”
The direction, the cast, the music, the songs, the idea and the bravado are terrific. This landscape is all so very, very complex, reflecting some of what it takes to get through life.
There is fun, too. The song “Wisconsin Gal” is a distillation of what it’s like living in Wisconsin, taking joy in so many of our differences.
In a remarkable scene, wood blocks the size of bricks are built – three at a time – to a height of approximately five feet as a kind of house cards. What happens – as a game – is part of a story offering a lesson.
The show is a lesson in itself. “Sunflowered” is presented indoors in Gould Theater, which Northern Sky Theater built to expand its scope. The scope of “Sunflowered” is different than found in any of the company’s outdoor shows. “Sunflowered” is inclusive in many ways, but children might be clueless about some of its adult suggestiveness. Outdoor shows often slip in adult humor that kids might not get; that humor is much more adult in “Sunflowered.”
This and that:
+ The performance space of Gould Theater includes visible wings that spread from the standard stage area. To the audience’s left, the four-musician band performs. To the right, some scenes are enacted by two characters.
+ This made me smile: Door County has rocks galore. For this production, fake rocks were built with enough strength to walk over or sit on. Real ones would have been way too heavy to bring to the stage.
+ The styles of music in the show are expansive and often a blending. Included are almost soul, almost R&B, almost ballad, almost spiritual, almost folk and always original. There’s novelty, too, in “Hey Miss Bee,” that’s good for a smile.
+ Northern Sky Theater has always embraced the new, and “Sunflowered” is newer yet – with an all-in 49 performances overall.
+ The performance I attended, Sept. 19, received a standing ovation.
Running time: One hour, 35 minutes (no intermission)
Remaining performances: To Oct. 29: 7 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, with no performances Oct. 24-25
Creative: Book – Lachrisa Grandberry and Aidaa Peerzada; music – Lachrisa Grandberry and Alissa Rhode; lyrics – Lachrisa Grandberry; co-directors – Alexis J. Roston, Molly Rhode; music director – Alissa Rhode; orchestrations – Alissa Rhode, Dennis Keith Johnson, John Lewis; stage manager – Shawn Galligan; assistant stage manager – Heather Sopel; costume designer – Jos N. Banks; lighting designer – David Alley; scenic and props designer – Lisa Schlenker; managing director – Dave Maier; artistic director – Jeff Herbst
Shayla – Lachrissa Grandberry
Danielle – Elizabeth McMonagle
Rain – Ayanna Bria Bakari
Marthie – Alexis J. Roston
Frankie – Solana Ramierez-Garcia
Jackie – Anna Cline
Musicians: Aliss Rhode, Dennis Keith Johnson, John Lewis, Adam Cain
“Moments” – Company
“Release, Unwind” – Company
“Pitch Perfect” – Jackie, Danielle, Shayla, Rain
“Take It All In” – Rain, Frankie, Marthie
“Hey Miss Bee” – Shayla, Jackie, Danielle, Rain
“How Do I Tell Them” – Shayla
“Wisconsin Gal” – Company
“Adultness is Hard,” Jackie and others
“FIGHT!” – Company
“A Mother Knows” – Marthie
“Laughter” – Company
“Get Back Up” – Company
“Yes, I Do” – Rain, Frankie
“Sunflower Me!” – Company
THE VENUE: Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater is located in the Northern Sky Theater Creative Center, 9058 Door County Road A near Fish Creek. The 248-seat theater carries two themes – wooded Wisconsin and a carryover of Northern Sky Theater’s summer home in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater. Height factors in. As do tall pine trees in and around the stage of the amphitheater, the knotty pine wall to the audience’s left reaches three stories. To the right, the woodsy outside is brought in through 28-foot-high windows (in two sections) that are shuttered by huge wood shutters during performances. Color schemes are gray and taupe – gray in the seat cushions and aisle carpeting and taupe in the wooden seat backs and arms, with the wood walls, stage front and shutters finished to taupe. The stage curtain is midnight blue, as are acoustical clouds on the ceiling. The stage floor is unique to the region, arcing in from the rear of the theater along the side walls to the front. In the shoulders of the main stage, space is open for scenes to take place (with set pieces) in addition to action on the main stage. The space was designed by Peter Tan of the Madison-based Strang, Inc.
THE PEOPLE: Barbara and Spencer Gould were longtime Door County philanthropists. They were residents since 1988, after years of residing in St. Louis and being summer residents. Spencer Gould died March 7, 2021, at the age of 90 in Kirkwood, Missouri.