Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Doctor! Doctor!’ bears repeating in Door County

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The second time around, Northern Sky Theater’s “Doctor! Doctor!” is just as good as the first.

Most of the cast from 2016’s premiere production is back to present this Door County-warm musical as part of the professional company’s four-show season in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater.

For this review, I will blend what I wrote last year with new thoughts, starting with these two:

+ “Doctor! Doctor!” is especially affirming for girls. Like this: Go ahead and take on the big challenges no matter what others seem to think – like become a doctor.

+ Writer Matt Zembrowski is tuned into the sensibilities of the best Northern Sky Theater shows – Wisconsin-inspired storytelling and music-making around strong characters. Zembrowski achieved a trifecta – writing the book, lyrics and music. It’s a feat, nicely done in this case.

This show is like an ice cream sundae. It has wide appeal, many flavors and lots of blended subtleties.

***

Running time: One hour, 32 minutes with no intermission

Remaining performances: To Aug. 24: 8:30 p.m. Mondays, 6 p.m. Thursdays

Info: northernskytheater.com

***

 “Doctor, Doctor!” is filled with the aura of Door County, 1938, small-town folks, hands-on doctoring, baseball, affection and multiple styles of music and humor.

As with all Northern Sky Theater shows, there is more than meets the eye.

Zembrowski is a “from home” – Wisconsin-bred – creator. As a boy, he came to shows of Northern Sky (American Folklore Theatre at the time). He participated on stage and in writing in the past. Now, wearing all three creative hats, he’s got the Northern Sky way of things down to a T.

“Doctor, Doctor!” answers the question, What would happen if a beloved Door County doctor retires, and his nephew steps into his shoes? The first reaction is mistrust. And then stuff happens for the story to unfold smoothly.

Included are multiple love stories. A secondary story gives affirmation to a young woman of spirit and smarts. And there are jokes, with the show’s title being a tipoff: It’s the old vaudeville style that goes something like this: “Guy walks in and says, ‘Doctor, Doctor, I’ve got wind,’ and the doctor says, ‘Here’s a kite’.” (That one’s not in the show). The young doctor (Chase Stoeger) in this show is filled with those type of groaners that bring a smile.

Other running jokes: Mayor Bob Thorp (Bill Theisen) can’t remember a thing. Hank Bumpkin (Doug Mancheski) stinks; people know he’s arriving well before he arrives. Hank Bumpkin and Mavis Gorski (Kelly Doherty) trash talk each other about sheepshead, the card game of skill. (I was no good).

Running storylines: Retiring Doc Olsen (Fred “Doc” Heide) loves baseball, and during the show is on a trip to see such teams as the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates – and has pennants for all. Doctoring is constantly present in older styles of Doc (Heide), new treatments of Jim (Stoeger) and the next generation of Annie (Laura Paruzynski). Added are comic touches about small-town doctors being jacks of all trades in yanking teeth of a person or treating a pregnant cow on a farm.

Director and company assistant artistic director Molly Rhode and the astute cast collaborate to develop feisty characters all around. The performers act, sing and dance, often in ensemble ways. Zembowski has devised some tricky fare – triplets, with three characters singing different parts, with dancing to boot; duets of two styles; rapid-fire patterns. The performers spring to their roles.

Duet scenes have flair. “I’m Very Glad You Called” turns sweet as Doc Olsen (Heide) and longtime right hand in his doctor’s office Julie (Rhonda Rae Busch) speak by a telephone. “It’s Hard to Be Lonely” finds young Dr. Olsen (Stoeger) and the schoolmarm (Eva Nimmer) looking into their lives as doctor and teacher and then slipping into a dance bit on the rhythms of the song’s toe-tapping music a la Fred Astaire and Name a Partner.

Sometimes, bits of piano music trickle through scenes to add mood, color and tone to what’s happening.

Hearing is not a problem, even though the amphitheater is wide, deep and open. The performers use wireless headsets, and the theater has a quality system. I sat in the third to last row and found the sound clean and strong.

In the story, Door County doesn’t get off being totally idyllic – the closed society thing: Young doctor: “It seems very nice.” Schoolmarm’s spunky sister: “Give it time.” Later, from the spunky sister: “It’s like everyone is stuck in this big, old ditch and doesn’t want to get out.”

In ways, the story is boy-meets-girl simplistic. But it’s something an audience can relate to – and it is presented in anything but simplistic ways. Northern Sky Theater productions have a subtle sophistication, like this: The guy in the worn straw hat, bib overalls, dusty boots and shank of hay in his teeth who OWNS everything he can see around him.

Scene changes are made swiftly with two main techniques. On the theater’s back wall are three large pieces of art that look like tapestries of such scenes as a Door County shoreline and a harbor. Two of the “tapestries” are layered. Peel one, and underneath are signs and such that would be seen in a town, and the scene becomes the fictional Sister Harbor. Peel another, and underneath are medical drawings of the human anatomy, and the scene becomes the office of Doc Olsen and then the young doctor. Long-distance telephone scenes with Doc Olsen and Julie are accomplished with telephone devices of the era and lighting.

Leaving the theater, what’s the impression? The show is love stories of multiple facets – people, place and desire to do something. Very affirming.

And Monday night, June 26, 2017, sitting behind four people – a grandfather and grandmother and granddaughters age 12-ish and eight-ish – a thought came that somehow a lasting, positive impression was made.

***

Creative: Music, book and lyrics – Matt Zembrowski, with orchestrations by Ron Barnett; director and choreographer – Molly Rhode; music director – Tim Lenihan; stage manager – Neen Rock; scenic designer – Lisa Schlenker; assistant scenic artist – Adam Stoner; costume designer – Karen Brown-Larimore; lighting designer – David Alley; props designer – Kathleen Rock; sound designer – Nic Trapani

Cast: Jim Olsen – Chase Stoeger; Kathleen Norberg – Eva Nimmer; Annie Norberg – Laura Paruzynski; Doc Olsen – Fred “Doc” Heide; Julie Hagen – Rhonda Rae Busch; Mavis Gorski – Kelly Doherty; Hank Bumpkin – Doug Mancheski; Bob Thorp – Bill Theisen

Orchestra: Conductor/keyboard – Tim Lenihan; bass and guitar – Jay Kummer; percussion – Colin O’Day

***

Musical selections

“Doc is Taking an Overture” – Orchestra

“Doc is Taking a Vacation” – Company

“Thank You, Doc” – Bob, Mavis, Kathleen, Hank and Julie

“The Wheels on the Bus” – Jim

“A Small Town” – Company

“The Wheels on the Bus” (Reprise) – Doc

“I’m Very Glad You Called” – Julie and Doc

“Patients” – Mavis, Hank, Bob and Jim

“I Don’t Trust Him” – Mavis, Hank and Bob

“What Is It Like in The Big City? (Part 1) – Annie and Jim

“What Is It Like in The Big City? (Part 2) – Julie and Doc

“Doc Postcard #1 (Chicago)” – Doc

“It’s Hard to Be Lonely) – Kathleen and Jim

“Doc Postcard #2 (Cleveland)” – Doc

“Something in the Air” – Company

“Everything I Know” – Kathleen and Annie

“Your Chicken Soup” – Doc and Julie

“Town Council Vote” – Bob, Doc, Julie, Hank and Mavis

“A Small Town” – Finale – Company

***

ALSO: To Aug. 26: “Oklahoma in Wisconsin” (6 p.m. Mondays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays), “Victory Farm” (8 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays), “Lumberjacks in Love” (8:30 p.m. Thursdays).

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.

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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