Wisconsin's American Folklore Theatre, the company that gave us Guys on Ice and Lumberjacks in Love, daffy original musicals drawing on regional character, opens its 29th summer season in Door County June 18 with Fishing for the Moon, another comic-cartoony show in the AFT tradition.
A repertory season of three shows, including the story-theatre project, Fool Me Once (opening June 19), and Belgians in Heaven (opening June 26), continues to Aug. 28 at the 800-seat outdoor venue in Peninsula State Park, on the northeast Wisconsin finger of land that juts into Lake Michigan.
The tradition of shows at Peninsula State Park began almost 30 years ago with college students from the University of Wisconsin creating scrappy works made up of songs and stories under the name of The Heritage Ensemble. Production values increased over the years and the season grew from several weeks to multiple weeks. In 1990 ensemble members Fred Alley and Fred Heide established AFT, with a commitment to new works.
AFT operates under an Equity guest artist agreement that may shift to an SPT contract next year, resident composer James Kaplan told Playbill On-Line. The group is also working toward having AFT scripts published and licensed, spreading the Wisconsin flavor to other markets.
Fishing for the Moon, is a freshly-rewritten version of a 1992 AFT show, about a mysterious Southern gentleman who comes to a small Wisconsin town two years after the Civil War. Alley wrote the book and lyrics and is featured as Rufus T. Smith. Composer Kaplan also accompanies the show on piano. The production is staged by AFT artistic director Jeff Herbst, who also appears as Peter Rutherford Hall, the southern gentleman. The musical was the first collaboration between Kaplan and Alley, who went on to write the Door County and Milwaukee Repertory hit, Guys On Ice, about ice fishermen. The revised Fishing for the Moon script features seven new songs and five numbers from the original production.
The show is described as a screwball musical comedy celebrating the comic confusion that results when a southern gentleman comes to a small Wisconsin town searching for a crazy Civil War colonel who thinks his cows are soldiers.
Choreography is by Pam Kriger, who has directed and choreographed dozens of shows in and around Milwaukee, including Skylight Opera Theatre productions of And the World Goes Round, Once on This Island, Guys and Dolls and The King and I.
Also in the cast are Doug Mancheski, a veteran of Guys on Ice; Chicago actress Laurie Flanigan, returning for her fourth season with AFT; and Carolynne Warren, an actress and singer whose one-woman shows are an annual highlight of the Milwaukee Rep's Stackner Cabaret series. Megan Cavanagh joins the AFT company for the first time this year.
Also providing musical accompaniment is Memphis musician Eric Lewis, playing guitar, dobro, mandolin and fiddle.
Fool Me Once, is a collaboration created by Paul Sills, founding director of Chicago's Second City and creator of Broadway's award winning Story Theater, and AFT artistic director Herbst. Alley and Kaplan also contribute original material to the evening of stories and songs, performed in the story theatre style pioneered by Sills. Sills' previous work with AFT includes Moon of the Long Nights and Land of the Midnight Sun.
The cast of Fool Me Once includes AFT co-founder Heide along with Alley, Mancheski, Cavanagh, Warren and Flanigan, with Kaplan and Lewis once again providing musical accompaniment on numerous instruments. Joining the AFT company for Fool Me Once, are Anders Erickson, Sean Francis Kenneavy and Jennifer Peterson-Hind.
Belgians in Heaven, which began at AFT in 1994, also returns this summer. It is billed as "the world's only metaphysical cheese curd musical," written by Heide, with music by Heide and Kaplan. This year's cast includes Alley and Heide as the farmer brothers, Herbst as a farmer who also just might be St. Peter, Peterson-Hind as the bumbling Angelique; Flanigan as neighbor Josephine, and Warren providing the voice of the Mildred the invisible chicken.
Last summer about 40,000 people saw shows by AFT during summer camping vacations. In 1999-2000, AFT's Lumberjacks in Love will play the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's Stiemke Theater April 21-May 14, 2000, and Old Friends, a Paul Simon revue devised by Kaplan and Herbst, will play the Rep's Stackner Cabaret Dec. 1, 1999-Jan. 9, 2000. Guys On Ice, which played two engagements in the Rep's 1998-99 season, returns to the Stackner Nov. 5-Dec. 5, 1999.
For AFT summer season information, call (920) 868-9999 or visit their website, www.folkloretheatre.com.
-- By Kenneth Jones