Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Lumberjacks’ romps again in Door County

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One of the once-upon-a-times of Wisconsin was there were lumber camps all over the north. And they had lumberjacks – a tough-work lot not accustomed to having women around.

A century or so later, some extremely clever entertainers dreamed up a what-might-have-been story that makes four lumberjacks comical singers and dancers.

Funny thing is, the entertainers’ show is so fun-spirited it just won’t go away.

And so “Lumberjacks in Love” has returned to the summer season fare of Northern Sky Theater.

A performance Saturday night at Peninsula State Park Amphitheater played to a standing ovation from an audience both returning and new to the show. The thing works.

 ***

 Creative: Book and lyrics – Fred Alley; music – James Kaplan; story – Fred Alley and James Kaplan; director – Jeffrey Herbst; music director – Alissa Rhode; co-choreographers – Pam Kriger and Jeffrey Herbst; scenic and props designer – Kathleen Rock; costume designer – Dawna Gregory; lighting and sound design – David Alley; stage manager – Neen Rock; musical arrangements – Colin Rhode; artistic director – Jeffrey Herbst; general manager – Dave Maier

Cast: Dirty Bob – Doug Mancheski; Slim – Jeffrey Herbst; Muskrat – Fred “Doc” Heide; Moonlight – Chase Stoeger; The Kid – Eva Nimmer; Rosemary Rogers – Molly Rhode.

Band: Conductor/keyboard – Alissa Rhode; musicians – Molly Rhode, Fred Heide, Chase Stoeger

Running time: One hour, 20 minutes, no intermission

Remaining performances: 8:30 p.m. Thursdays to Aug. 24

Info: northernskytheater.com

***

Songs

“Lumberjacks in Love” – Bob, Slim, Muskrat, Moon

“Shanty Boys” – Slim, Moon, Muskrat, Bob

“Winds of Morning” – Kid

“Buncha Naked Lumberjacks” – Slim and the Fellas

“I Think I’m in Love with the Kid” – Moon

“Little Black Rain Cloud” – Muskrat, Slim, Bob

“I Only Have a Little Time” – Kid

“Someday I Will Be Clean” – Bob and the Fellas

“Bachelor’s Prayer” – Slim

“I Only Have a Little Time” (Reprise) – Kid

“It Would Be Enough for Me” – Moon and Kid

“Winds of Morning” (Reprise) – Kid

“Little Dress” – Bob

“Stupid Stupid Love” – Rosemary

“Shanty in the Pines” – Slim, Bob and Moon

“Happy Lumberjack” – Muskrat and the Fellas

“It Would Be Enough for Me” (Reprise) – Moon and Kid

“Lumberjacks in Love” (Finale) – Company

***

The story goes that the lumberjacks seemingly savor their life away from apron strings. They do have yearnings, like for dancing. In that case, they draw lots for who will be the woman dancer. Sometimes they get into wilder things in Katie-doesn’t-bar-the-door Hayward. One boozy time there led to this:

In drunken jest, Minnesota Slim told ditzy Dirty Bob to respond to an “ad-vert-ti-tize-mint” poster for him. Now, months later, the result is just about at their camphouse door: A mail-order bride. Minnesota Slim quakes with shock and fear.

There’s more: The lumberjacks have a hanger-on, The Kid, an orphan. The Kid is a young woman who has been passing herself off as a guy (it’s explained, but I won’t here). The Kid takes to Moonlight, who thinks she’s a boy and becomes frightened when he develops an attraction, too.

All this is fodder for musical comedy fun with colorful characters wonderfully played by pros who know how to bring zest with itsy-bitsy, eensy-weensy, little-bitty, teeny-tiny actor stuff. For instance, Doug Mancheski, as Dirty Bob, can bring gales of laughter with just a minute peep of his voice.

“Lumberjacks in Love” premiered in 1996. The show has been repeated in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2015 and 2016. And then there’s now. Announcement: Theater is not film. Things change in theater. The title “Lumberjacks in Love” and most of the songs are the same as the original, but casts have changed (not entirely) over time. Point being: The show is a living thing, and it is not the exact same over time. Importance: I dunno; I guess the subtleties are a lure of theater. Subtleties like these:

+ There’s a certain quality in certain songs that trace to the lyricist, Fred Alley. Sometimes, the tone is lovely. “Winds of Morning” is sung by The Kid as she is lured to an unknown future of promise. There’s an extra word in the line that subtly propels a wonder: “Blow winds of morning.” Sometimes, sheer Fred Alley whimsy drives a song, like what the mind imagines from just the title of “Buncha Naked Lumberjacks.”

+ A voice remains. When Eva Nimmer sings as The Kid, the glowing tenor of Fred Alley carries on. And it’s also present when Jeffrey Herbst stands atop a stump as Minnesota Slim and sings “Bachelor’s Prayer” and lofts a long, rich high note whose source could only be Fred Alley. Most people don’t know who Fred Alley is anymore, but his brilliance is so written into this show that it will remain forever alive as long as Northern Sky Theater is doing this among other Fred Alley shows.

+ Movement is a layer. It can be the guy-guy dances, or Dirty Bob fancying up in “(My) Little Dress” or a sudden burst of energy in “Shanty Dance” or the sight gag with Dirty Bob trying to maneuver a bonkers, always teetering Minnesota Slim – this show moves.

+ The smallest things. Like the wood stove. There’s one in the set. There’s no fire in it, of course. But there is a stove pipe up atop the fringe of the back of the set (no connecting pipe to be seen). Not only is that pipe a cute addition, smoke rises from it! Somebody goes through the bother to have the pipe produce smoke even though the effect is barely noticeable.

+ “Doc” Heide kind of casually adds touches musically on not-so-regular instruments. In one tune, the mandolin provides the appropriate aura. In another, Heide nimbly plies a banjo.

+ At times, “Doc” Heide and Chase Stoeger are off stage out of character, playing in the little band – guitar or whatever. Much of show, Molly Rhode also is in the band, playing upright bass. And then, late in the story, she becomes the mail-order bride and shows up on stage to act, sing and dance. There’s a hidden kind of choreography written into the logistics to make such stuff happen.

+ The show is quietly adult. Some of the dialogue deadpans its way through topics that pass over the heads of little kiddies in the audience. Minnesota Slim talking about his “personal livestock” is mentioned as a matter of course (while adults laugh inside).

+ Sound. Somewhere in the years of production of “Lumberjacks in Love,” wireless headset amplification came to be. The show is more easily heard today, with voices and music balanced. What is now an accepted norm wasn’t part of the original – and mostly an improvement.

Summary: “Lumberjacks in Love” is a classic Northern Sky Theater show full of vigor and humor, still being done extremely well and still bringing enjoyment to audiences.

Addition: There’s a pre-show song, “Please Help Build Us a Home,” that Saturday was sung by “Doc” Heidi and Molly Rhode. It’s an “ad-vert-ti-tize-mint” for the theater’s fund-raising campaign for its future creative headquarters. Background on that is at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large-wearegreenbay/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-door-county-troupes-ambitions-frothing/732139035.

ALSO: Through Aug. 26: “Oklahoma in Wisconsin,” 6 p.m. Mondays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays; “Doctor! Doctor!” 8:30 p.m. Mondays, 6 p.m. Thursdays; “Victory Farm,” 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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