Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Victory Farm’ charms again in Door County

Northern Sky Theater Victory Farm pic_1498480443494.jpg

You know how homemade soup tastes better with time, like the next day? Have a taste of “Victory Farm.”

The musical has many homemade flavorings. And now, with time, it has become clear(er) that “Victory Farm” is among the most meaningful of all Northern Sky Theater shows.

“Victory Farm” has been brought back as part of the summer season fare at Peninsula State Park Amphitheater. Previous productions with variations in casting were presented in 2012 and 2013.


Running time: One hour, 37 minutes with no intermission

Remaining performances: To Aug. 26: 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Saturdays; 6 p.m. July 4

Info: northernskytheater.com


At its telling moment, “Victory Farm” is about finding humanity despite war. A war widow faces off with a young German prisoner war in a Door County cherry orchard in 1944, and the two and others surrounding them find a soulful common ground.

The scene is quite beautiful.

And the show has one of Northern Sky Theater’s instantly identifiable songs as in, “Oh, yeah, that really funny one.” The song is “Sweaty Pies,” joyfully sung and merrily danced by three German POWs. The pies are really treats; it just happens they sound gross because of the Germans’ broken English.

Homemade elements included these: Writers Emilie Coulson and Katie Dahl have breathed Northern Sky Theater and Door County air most of their lives. Composer James Valcq performed in early editions of the theater’s super-popular “Guys on Ice” and tapped into co-founder Fred Alley’s warm style when the two wrote the illustrious “The Spitfire Grill.”

The 2017 edition of “Victory Farm” features such troupe mainstays as Jeffrey Herbst (artistic director, performer, etc.), Molly Rhode (associate artistic director, performer, etc.) and Doug Mancheski (bringer of mirth in many a role; here more drama-minded). Also in the cast are multiply talented Northern Sky Theater veterans Eva Nimmer and Chase Stoeger, with Isaiah Spetz new to the production but hardly to acting in the region  even though he’s barely out of high school (Sevastapol). Jon Hegge, past performing company member, directs and choreographs with a knowing touch.

The show thrives on development of character to go along with an interesting story that recounts a chapter in Door County’s distinctive past as a cherry grower.

It’s the height of World War II, and not enough people are around to help with cherries in the critical window of picking opportunity. The U.S. government has been employing a workforce – German men captured on the European front. “Victory Farm” tells the story of three of such prisoners brought to a Door County orchard by rail.

The widowed owner of the orchard (Rhode) is resistant. Her daughter (Nimmer) is more practical. In a side story, the guard for the prisoners (Mancheski) is a person from the mother’s youth who she remembers as not being of much use – known as “stand-around Brown.”

The POWs are depicted as wondering souls – America being new to them – with distinctive personalities and from varied military ranks. The show’s creators get into the heads of what prisoners might have been like as they respond to a new place and the people there. One POW is dour (Herbst), one is inquisitive and optimistic (Stoeger) and the youngest is homesick (Spetz). Differing points of view are told in the song “Bees Sting, Birds Sing.”

Fraternizing is frowned on, but the daughter and the youngest POW find an affinity as he learns and she teaches him English as needed to help him understand the necessities of cherry picking. This tips the apple cart, so to speak.

“Victory Farm” includes a richly artistic theatrical technique in a sequence in the orchard. As individuals take turns singing of what’s in their heart and mind in real time, the other characters pantomime the movements of cherry picking in slow motion. The effect is one of the ways that “Victory Farm” is special.

Another special song is “What Is the Color.” Essentially, it explores the color of home in individual hearts – and the colors are the same no matter the person. In a sense, the song is the heart of “Victory Farm.”

There’s ample humor along the way. The POWs’ take on America and Door County, the relationship between the widow and “stand-around Brown,” how Door County cherries bring shock-surprise to the uninitiated and the delightful “Sweaty Pies” bring smiles and more.

Rewards abound.

Following Saturday night’s performance, Mancheski added a personal note, saying his father, a tail gunner in World War II, would look down with pride on him performing in this show. “Victory Farm” is that fine and eloquent.


Creative: Book and lyrics – Emilie Coulson and Katie Dahl; music and orchestrations –assistant director – Kelly Doherty; stage manager – Neen Rock; scenic designer – Andrea Heilman; costume designer – Angelina Herlin; lighting designer – David Alley; props designer – Kathleen Rock; dialect coach – Eva Nimmer

Cast: Karl – Isaiah Spetz; Josef – Chase Stoeger; Wolfgang – Jeff Herbst; Jack – Doug Mancheski; Edna – Molly Rhode; Dottie – Eva Nimmer

Band – Keyboards – Tim Lenihan and Alissa Rhode; bass and guitar – Jay Kummer; percussion – Colin O’Day


Musical selections

“Till We’re Free” – Josef, Wolfgang, Karl

“Will I Fly” – Dottie

“Victory Farm” – Dottie, Edna

“Cherries in the Bowl” – Edna, Dottie, Jack, Josef, Karl, Wolfgang

“When I Look at You” – Dottie, Karl

“Bees Sting, Birds Sing” – Josef, Wolfgang

“Hand Over Hand” – Jack, Josef, Wolfgang, Dottie, Karl, Edna

“What Is the Color” – Dottie, Josef, Karl, Wolfgang

“Sweaty Pies” – Wolfgang, Josef, Karl

“When I Look at You” (Reprise) – Karl, Dottie

“Victory Farm” (Reprise) – Dottie, Edna, Jack, Josef, Karl, Wolfgang

“The Work of Our Hands” – Josef, Karl, Wolfgang, Edna, Dottie, Jack

“People Come, People Go” – Edna, Dottie, Karl, Jack, Wolfgang, Josef


ALSO: To 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), “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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