Door County in 1954. Hmmmm – what would that been like?
And in the case of Northern Sky Theater of 2017, how could a new musical be made about what Door County was like in 1954?
Hmmmm – movie musicals were big. In 1954, “Oklahoma!” was coming to be, and legend has it the potential blockbuster was to be filmed someplace other that Oklahoma because of nuisance oil wells (in exterior scenes). Suppose – just suppose – a Hollywood location scout came to Door County to see if the movie shoot could happen there.
That’s a stretch of the imagination – a large stretch – that is the basis for “Oklahoma in Wisconsin,” Northern Sky Theater’s new musical this year for presentation through summer outdoors at Peninsula State Park Amphitheater.
Creative: Book and lyrics – Richard Castle; music – Matthew Levine; orchestrations – Ron Barnett; director and choreographer – Pam Kriger; music director – Tim Lenihan; stage director – Neen Rock; scenic designer – Lisa Schlenker; assistant scenic artist – Adam Stoner; lighting designer – David Alley; sound designer – Nic Trapani; costume designer – Karen Brown-Larimore; props designer – Kathleen Rock; artistic director – Jeffrey Herbst; managing director – Dave Maier
Cast: Hugh Fiedler – Alex Campea; Charlotte Bradley – Eva Nimmer; Billy Bradley – John Brotherhood; Archie Bradley – Bill Theisen; Ginny Bradley – Rhonda Rae Busch; Mr. Green/Mr. Goldnick – Doug Mancheski
Band: Conductor/keyboard – Tim Lenihan; bass and guitar – Jay Kummer; percussion – Colin O’Day
Running time: One hour, 32 minutes (no intermission)
Remaining performances: Through Aug. 25: 6 p.m. Mondays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays
Prologue – Fiedler, Mr. Green
“Oklahoma in Wisconsin” – Archie, Fiedler, Charlotte, Ginny, Billy
“Goldnick’s Rap” – Goldnick, Fiedler
“Whatever It Takes” – Fiedler
“Parlor Show” – Charlotte, Billy
“Rockin’ Inn” – Billy, Ginny, Charlotte, Fiedler, Archie
“Howard Keel” – Ginny, Fiedler
“Practical Girl” – Charlotte
“Fish Boil” – Archie, Fiedler, Billy, Ginny
“Squared Away” – Company
“By the Time the Song is Over” – Fiedler, Charlotte
“Oklahoma in Wisconsin” (Reprise) – Charlotte, Fiedler
“Whatever It Takes” (Reprise) – Fiedler
“Doin’ a Doo-Wop” – Billy, Ginny, Fiedler, Charlotte, Archie
“Tonight” – Billy, Charlotte, Ginny, Archie, Fiedler
“Finale” – Company
“Oklahoma in Wisconsin” has a Hollywood mogul, a wannabe Hollywood moviemaker, a love story, kindly Door County folks, one-line jokes, drop-in era references, lively songs, dances and assorted cases of the Hollywood thing – the quest of dreams.
In true Hollywood fashion, facts are mere toys. This is showbiz after all, and “Oklahoma in Wisconsin” is an entertainment.
The best part of the show directed and choreographed by Pam Kriger may be a catchy song that’s developed into a singalong – “Doin’ a Doo-Wop.” The thing is infectious.
Another best may be popular Northern Sky Theater comic actor Doug Mancheski plying his flexible comedy skills times two – in two characters of varied shades of shadiness. Villainy is good in this show because it adds needed humor.
A vocal best may be Eva Nimmer wrapping feeling into “Practical Girl.”
A spot of youthful energy is John Brotherhood. He’s a brightener.
One of the cool things that comes along is a harmonic blend in some songs – with the performers capturing that flavor.
Alex Campea is featured as fractured hero Hugh Fiedler, the eager-beaver Hollywood rookie whose initial little white lie leads to a trainload of white lies that add up to a large pile that add up to trouble for everyone in the Bradley family.
The Bradleys are Door County-ites. They run a quaint inn that Fiedler figures could be home for the “Oklahoma!” film crew – stars and all – with a few changes. The Bradley father, Archie (Bill Theisen), isn’t much for change, so that’s a quick sticking point. The mother (Rhonda Rae Busch) has a thing for robust musical star Howard Keel, a stud of a voice. Teenage son Billy (John Brotherhood) has a thing for rock ‘n’ roll. The grown daughter Charlotte (Eva Nimmer) has a thing for practicality, which has a tendency to get in the way of reality.
Speaking of reality, 1954 is a bit early for some of the things in “Oklahoma in Wisconsin” to have arrived. That would include rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop in general popularity. There is a reference to Buddy Holly. He had yet to emerge on the hit scene.
Creators Richard Castle and Matthew Levine have a knack for writing songs to fit situations and are versatile of styles. Historians they are not.
“Oklahoma in Wisconsin” gives birth to the first public fish boil. Naturally, that “truth” would come from word-of-mouth history/claims. You can’t look that up. If this show says it’s 1954, so be it. What I think the explanation of the fish boil is missing in this show goes beyond the large kettle of fish brought to a boil over a wood fire: It’s the dramatic WHOOSH of flames from an accelerant tossed on for pure theatrical effect at the climax. It’s the show in real life. Reference to that show is not in this show.
I seem to be getting naggy here. Well, tough.
Lots of 1954-ish references are dropped into “Oklahoma in Wisconsin” to color it. It’s always fun to pick on the Commies and Ruskis (Russians). And the Formica countertop as being an it thing. And it’s a kick to play with the image of ice tray figures of nice-guy President Eisenhower turning into not-so-nice-guy Joe McCarthy as they melt. It’s interesting to be reminded that 1954 was the time when society often said a woman’s place is in the home. Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe are among the screen stars who get teased. “The King and I” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” are hit movies in the reference blender. So are the popular film magazines Modern Screen and Photoplay, with a name-drop of Variety being an off key because it’s always been a trade publication rather than one for the populace (again, some flubbed history).
Castle and Levine love dropping “Oklahoma!” song titles into “Oklahoma in Wisconsin.” Sampler: “(Everything Is Up to Date in) Kansas City,” “Pore Jud is Daid” (a dead dog in this case), (I’m Just a Girl Who) Cain’t Say No” and, to open the show, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” In a reference to the stage version of “Oklahoma!” in which “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” starts offstage, Alex Campea arrives singing it along an aisle as he walks to the stage.
There’s another notable tease in “Oklahoma in Wisconsin.” In the story, it’s about putting on a show (there’s a corny one in this musical). The line: “Who is going to want to sit on benches in the dark and watch people sing and dance?” That got a big laugh Friday night in front of hundreds of people sitting out in the dark watching people sing and dance in this Northern Sky Theater show.
ALSO: Through Aug. 26: “Lumberjacks in Love,” (8:30 p.m. Thursdays), “Victory Farm” (8 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays) and “Doctor, Doctor!” (8:30 p.m. Mondays, 6 p.m. Thursdays). My review of “Lumberjacks in Love” is at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large-wearegreenbay/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-review-lumberjacks-romps-again-in-door-county/744523760. A story about Northern Sky Theater’s plans is at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large-wearegreenbay/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-door-county-troupes-ambitions-frothing/732139035.
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 email@example.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.