Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: New troupe shaping plans in Fox Valley

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The first event is set for what is designed to be a professional theater company located in the Fox Valley.

The introduction for Timber Mill Theatre is “A Lovely Night,” a one-night-only dinner-and-performance presentation Aug. 18 at Bridgewood Resort and Hotel. Info: Megan with Bridgewood Resort Hotel at (920) 967-4350, Ext. 5031.

The sequence: Cocktail and dancing hour starting at 6 p.m. featuring a live jazz trio from the Fox Valley, 7 p.m. buffet dinner with a “South Pacific” theme, performance starting at approximately  8 p.m. and running approximately 90 minutes with a 15-minute intermission. Songs in the program are from the musicals “South Pacific,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady,” “The King and I,” “Cinderella,” “Funny Girl” and more.

Founding the company are Justun Hart and his wife, Julie Marie Hart. They will perform along with John Ford-Dunker and Amanda Petersen Fails.

The Harts are Wisconsin natives who have performed professionally in New York, regionally and on extensive national tours. I have previously written about Justun Hart, who is from an active theatrical family. A link to a story and on-air feature segment is at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/community/critic-at-large/critic-at-large_20150723231834917/164678841.

According to Justun Hart, the plan for Timber Mill Theatre is to employ a combination of local talent and professional hires in the New York City market.

Justun Hart answered questions by email to give background about what is envisioned.

Q. Is the Aug. 18 show indicative of the style you want to have for performances?

A. This musical revue and cabaret style for the debut production is an easy and fun way to provide an elegant date night and provide audiences with songs they know and cherish, but I wouldn’t say it’s the style we’d like to build around. 

While we love providing an evening where couples may dance together, diner together and take in a wholesome Broadway revue, my wife and I would love to eventually scale up to full productions – smaller shows like “Lombardi,” “The Fantasticks,” “Little Shop of Horrors” all the way up to “Oklahoma!” “Beauty and the Beast,” etc. Bridgewood has given us a great venue to showcase what we have to offer underneath their already elegant and premier reputation. We hope that this may pave the way to scaling our productions up eventually.

Julie and I have a great passion for telling stories. Our strength and passion is to produce stories that we feel need to be told or need be re-told in order to teach, inspire, entertain, etc. Full-length plays and musicals have such a powerful opportunity to move people, to create characters and stories that people invest in – stories that move them to laughter or perhaps to tears. That’s what we’re after. Put the phones down for two hours, let us take you into a world that allows you to feel things you may not let yourself feel every day. That’s our heart.

Q. What kind of frequency do you have in mind?

A. At the moment, we are planning on seasonal performances, expanding into a couple of different locations. After this August, we will look to add “Lombardi” for a couple-weekend run in the fall and then a “Crooner’s Christmas” revue in the winter. The hope is for the productions to grow in frequency, length-of-run, as well as size. It all depends on how they are received, of course. 

The eventual frequency we have in mind is six-week runs of seven to eight performances per week. How long it will take to scale to this level is yet to be determined.

Q. From where will you draw company members/performers?

A. Julie and I will look to infuse rich local talent of the Fox Valley with the Milwaukee, Chicago, and even New York City market. We hope to be able to capitalize on our connections in all of these markets in order to provide high-level productions that are staffed completely with paid professionals. We have a love for this community, and we’ve come across many artists along our paths who have expressed a similar appreciation for the area.

Q. Will performances take place in different locations?

A. For the time being, performances will be housed in different locations. We find it a good fit to fill the down time of local banquet facilities in the Oshkosh-Neenah-Appleton area so that we may travel and entertain as many different local markets as possible. We’d like to make relationships within the community and see what the level of reciprocation may be. We are already in the process of touring locations that may possibly serve as a more permanent home for a professional dinner theater.

Q. How did this first production come to be?

A. Julie and I had been performing professionally for a collective 12 years or so and decided a hiatus would do us good. Having just gotten engaged, we had a mutual longing to re-connect with family – she is from Kenosha – and friends in the area as we planned the wedding. When we moved back to the Oshkosh area in October, we began to recognize what we feel is a mutual need between ourselves and the community around us: the need for us to once again entertain and inspire through musical theater and the community’s need to be entertained by an intimate theatrical experience, quite possibly in the form of a professional dinner theater. We have been working hard to make that dream a reality, and the Aug. 18 event is a stepping stone in that direction.

We spoke with a couple of good friends of ours to express our idea and they were very excited about an opportunity to jump on board:

Amanda Petersen Fails, a longtime friend and former student of my parents’ company – then Theatrix, now Jubricosa – has been incredibly active in bringing top-notch experiences to the area – involved actively with Hysterical Productions in Oshkosh and Riverside Players in Neenah – and will be part of our quartet for “A Lovely Night.”

Additionally, John Ford-Dunker, with whom I attended the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, will be flying in from New York City on his way to another contract in Salt Lake City to join us for the one-night-only launching of sorts.

Q. Will you still be pursuing life on the road?

A. After three tours, I am both exhilarated and exhausted! I had the absolute time of my life seeing some of the finest cities and theaters that this country has to offer, the pinnacle of that experience being a homecoming week at the Fox Cities PAC with “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” I feel very blessed to have performed for so many gracious people in so many beautiful places. However, there is something to be said for having a consistent pillow on which to lay your head at the end of the night. I have pictures and memories to last a lifetime, so I don’t know that I’ll need to re-learn how to sleep on a bus anytime soon.

That being said, my wife and I can never rule out going where the artistic winds may take us. We’ve had offers to do limited runs of productions in some regional markets, and it’s never out of the question that the time would be right to take a two-month contract – how about… Naples in January and February?!? – here or there. For now, our next “dream” is to establish a consistent fountain of artistic wealth for this community to enjoy for many years.

Contact me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air Critic at Large editions on WFRV-TV at 6:20 a.m. Sundays. My new books, “Three Miles Past Lost and in the Pickers” and “Nickolaus and Olive – a naïve opera (in words),” are available in Green Bay at Neville Public Museum, Bosse’s and The Reader’s Loft.

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