Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Tale of 1930s America Deftly Told in ‘Boxcar’ in Door County

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A story set in early 1930s workaday America will have a certain tone, certain colors.

Not festive reds and yellows.

More autumn tans just before the onset of winter.

Perhaps that’s an odd way to describe a musical. But “Boxcar” is unusual – and an endearing sidetrack for Northern Sky Theater, where spunky musical comedy rules.

“Boxcar” mostly is a glimpse. The boxcar is a temporary home for a couple of wandering guys. The railroad car is parked on the edge of property owned by the town banker. Push and shove emerge about the presence of the men. They are a nuisance and threat to some, a temptation to a 10-year-old boy and… and… and… still humans to sensitive souls.

What is unusual about “Boxcar” as a musical theater entity is it subtly grows from a glimpse into a landscape mural. By the end, the creation of Laurie Flanigan Hegge and James Valcq says something about people who came before us who had to get by.

Also unusual for a Northern Sky Theater is the presence of a boy in a major role – singing, dancing, acting, bringing the story along. Benjamin Martin is age 10, from Jacksonport and dependable. “Boxcar” wouldn’t work without such a boy.

“Boxcar” is this season’s second world-premiere production for Northern Sky Theater. As is “Dairy Heirs,” “Boxcar” is a solid work with a vibrant cast (with some overlapping).

Snapshot for “Boxcar”: Fred (Jeffrey Herbst) and Mack (Doug Clemons) are encamped near the home of the Bensons mainly because Fred has an injured arm. Little Charlie (Benjamin Martin) noses around and becomes fascinated by the men. Charlie’s mother (Molly Rhode) represents kindness, Charlie’s banker father (Doug Mancheski) represents a coldness and Charlie’s older sister (Nadja Simmonds) represents a hard-boiled world through her job as a newspaper reporter.

Also in the picture is the railroad’s stationmaster/telegrapher, Gordon (Alex Campea), to whom I will give special mention because he is a wonderful character. To me, Gordon is Mr. America. When Gordon hears a train coming at a specific time, he knows where that train is going and he envisions that place through song. Along the way, Gordon takes the audience to a golden California, a vibrant New York City and the enriched Plains. Mr. America is a collage of our country through song feeding our imagination.

“Boxcar” is not a comedy, though there a laughs – with a notably big one for a tale about fan dancer Sally Rand. There’s a bit of historical cleverness in a reference to Trotsky. Mack: “I thought he was dead.” Fred: “He just plays dead. He doesn’t want to be bothered.”

“Boxcar” is a drama, though with beveled edges and lots of spicing through vibrant songs. Some of the drama comes from a long-distant ripple from the Great War. Some comes from a present, large ripple of the Crash.

In lyrics and music, the Hegge and Valcq palate is varied. Variations of the opening song, “On Time,” visits a number of times. It rides on the rhythm of a railroad train and the aura of simply going. “Open Air Navigation” bursts with adventure, with the performers adding excitement by climbing to the roof of the two-level boxcar set piece. “Black Bottle” digs into the depths of Fred. Through song, we learn the difference between being a hobo, a tramp and a bum. “Hobo’s Lullaby” is pure warmth of Fred – and a gift to the audience in theatrical setup and sensitivity in composition.

Directed skillfully by Jon Hegge, the cast takes to the material, offering color of voice and vision to characters. The players know they have good stuff to work with, and they treat it with care.

Monday night’s audience gave up a standing ovation. Perhaps that was for something different from Northern Sky Theater, perhaps for being reminded, perhaps for the romance of a fringe life style, perhaps for the aura of a colorful if hard era, perhaps for the sure ways of writing and performing, perhaps for being American, perhaps for being transported or perhaps for the whole shebang.

***

Creative: Book and lyrics – Laurie Flanigan Hegge; music – James Valcq; orchestrations – Jason Hansen; additional orchestrations – James Valcq; director and choreographer – Jon Hegge; music directors – Tim Lenihan, Alissa Rhode; stage manager – Neen Rock; scenic designer – Lisa Schlenker; assistant scenic artists – Carri Dahl, Adam Stoner; lighting designer – David Alley; sound designer – Nic Trapani; costume designer – Karen Brown-Larimore; props designer – Kathleen Rock

Cast: Gladys, a mother – Molly Rhode; Woodrow, a father – Doug Mancheski; Gordon, the stationmaster – Alex Campea; Mack, a hobo – Doug Clemons; Charlie, a 10-year-old boy – Ben Martin/Cole Albertson; Francis, Charlie’s older sister – Nadja Simmonds; Fred, a hobo – Jeffrey Herbst

Orchestra: Conductor/keyboard – Tim Lenihan; bass – Dennis Johnson; percussion – Bruce Newbern

Running time: 1½ hours (no intermission)

Remaining performances: To Aug. 24: 6 p.m. July 4, otherwise 8:30 p.m. Mondays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays

Info: northernskytheater.com

***

Musical numbers

“On Time” – Company

“Is It Too Much to Ask” – Fred, Mack

“One Act of Kindness” – Gladys

“Ten Thirty-Eight” – Gordon, Gladys

“Open Air Navigation” – Fred, Mack, Charlie

“Twelve Thirty-One” – Gordon, Woodrow

“The Benson Boys” – Woodrow

“True Hobo” – Fred, Mack, Charlie, Gladys

“Black Bottle” – Fred

“One Act of Kindness” (Reprise) – Frankie

“Four Eighteen” – Gordon

“I Get to Wishing” – Mack, Frankie, Company

“Telegraph Down the Line” – Company

“Hobo’s Lullaby” – Fred

“Finale” – Company

***

ALSO IN ROTATION: “Dairy Heirs,” “Lumberjacks in Love” sing-along version.

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.

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