What do Lumberjacks In Love, Tongue'N Cheek and Northern Lights all have in common? Kudos for you if you answered, "they were all written by Fred Alley and James Kaplan. Kudos grandes if you also answered that all three will be directed by Jeffrey Herbst as the summer season of Wisconsin's American Folklore Theatre.
Alley, Kaplan & Herbst previously worked together on the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre revue of Weavers songs, Goodnight Irene.
Lumberjacks In Love was staged this past season at American Folklore Theatre and became the company's biggest box office hit. In the musical comedy, four lumberjacks encounter a beautiful mail-order bride. Starring in the show are Alley, Fred Heide, Karen Mal, Suzanne Graff, Chris Irwin and Doug Mancheski. The show returns tonight, June 17.
Asked about the creation of Lumberjacks, Alley wrote in AFT's May 1997 newsletter about finishing the first draft: "James volunteers titles he thinks will sell tickets. We consider `Love Among The Lumber,' `Wood You?', and `Love Me, Timber.' James comes up with Lumberjacks In Love and the search is over. At this point I'm sure Lumberjacks will be the funniest show ever, win Tony awards, and become a motion picture starring Tom Cruise and Madonna. While jogging, I practice award speeches."
"I've found it best," Alley continues, "to accumulate as much material as possible before I edit. Characters always say more than we need to know, so I go through cutting out obvious ideas, looking for funnier turns of phrase and improving pacing within scenes... The first time you hear a script read aloud is traumatic. All of your brilliant work is exposed as obvious and unfunny. I quit practicing award speeches and start making up excuses why the new AFT show is so pathetic... Two days before rehearsals start, I take down the script from the wall for the last time. I put it in a three-ring binder and make last-minute changes. The script is now in Jeff Herbst's care. Without his skills, my scripts would end up looking like skits at the Elks Club talent show. Over the four-week rehearsal process, the Haywire Lumber Camp takes on a life of its own."
Tongue'N Cheek, which opens June 20, was first staged at AFT in 1991. Authentic Wisconsin folk-songs are mixed into "a sweet musical favor of love rediscovered, cows milked and ailments cured." Starring in Tongue are Alley, Mancheski, Irwin, Graff and Mal. Opening June 27, Northern Lights tells -- in scenes and original songs -- of a brother and sister making a new start in Northern Wisconsin. Hannah Coulson and Lauren Anne Post are featured along with Irwin, Heide, Mancheski, Graff and Mal.
The theatre, then called "Heritage Ensemble," was founded in 1971. Spokesperson James Kaplan told Playbill On-Line, "Our mission statement probably needs updating; when it was first written, the theatre was more historical, lots of things with whaling and civil war songs. Seven years ago, new writers came in with traditional musical comedy leanings that incorporated the folkloric basis. Also, since the shows are for families, they now tend to be 60-70 minutes long."
"We also do an indoor show in the fall," said Kaplan. "That's how Goodnight Irene started." As for future plans, AFT hopes to do an original show with Milwaukee Rep to honor Wisconsin's sesquicentennial (150 years) in 1998.
Tongue'N Cheek, Northern Lights and Lumberjacks In Love run in repertory through Aug. 31 at the outdoor theatre in Peninsula State Park, off Highway 42 in Fish Creek, WI. For tickets and information call (414) 868-9999.
--By David Lefkowitz