"Strings Attached" roars into AFT on wings of hilarious laughter
"Why," the customer asks, "did you name your hotel "The Next to Last Resort?"
"Easy," replies Faye, from behind her spot at the front desk. "The Last Resort is just down the road."
The joke comes easy, with a normal pace and nothing frenetic about it. That state of things is about to change in the premiere of "Strings Attached," which opened this week at the American Folklore Theatre in Door County's Peninsula State Park.
The Next to Last Resort becomes the home for a wacky farce, complete with identical slamming doors, identical twin young men, two beautiful and sexy women, a father still in mourning for his lost son and a hotel staff with two veterans and one guy yearning to pass his hotel crew test.
If that sounds familiar, the book and lyrics by Dave Hudson, with music by Colin Welford, is just that. The form is something anybody familiar with the world of theatrical production knows well.
Like they say, however, the devil is in the details.
Milwaukee's Pam Kriger and AFT artistic director Jeffrey Herbst co-directed the play and designed an increasingly frantic, funny Wisconsin story that drew thunderous laughs from the opening night audience.
The story revolves around two companies, a Hawaiian ukulele factory and Wisconsin banjo factory. They are going to merge and have come to the hotel to work out the details.
Lana (Molly Rhode) and Wisconsin Hal (Chad Luberger) represent the banjo makers. Leia (Eva Nimmer) and Hawaiian Hal (Chase Stoeger) represent the uke makers. The two couples check in separately; one is assigned the Sunset suite while the other gets the Sunrise suite.
The problem is apparent even before any problems present themselves. The two Hals are identical. Same brown hair with guy bangs, same face, same shirt, same pants, same shoes. Like any good farce, you can see what's about to happen well before it happens.
That is a big part of the success of any farce. In some part of your brain, you know the joke is on its way, but they work because of the skill and timing of the actors. There is perhaps no form of theater that relies more heavily on the actors than a farce.
A perfect example is Paul Helm, the multi-talented Milwaukee actor/musician/director and music director. He plays Andy, the young-ish guy trying to pass his hotel staffer test. Helm mixes Bob Newhart, Soupy Sales and Tim Conway together, delivering a performance where just a beat or two before you know he's going to say something, you already begin to chuckle. His expressive face and body match his humor, and he is both a foil for others and the stimulator of yet another giddy situation.
As you might expect, Nimmer and Rhode fall for the opposite Hal they came to the meeting with. The search for each other when gone missing, the passions lit by these kisses, the repeatedly delivered brat and cheese trays – each time to the wrong Hal –are the pace of this play.
Sparks fly like crazy as Nimmer and Ludberger mistakenly get together over a design she is drawing for a uke. The art confab quickly turns to a confab of a much different and romantic kind.
Rhode, who has the boss lady thing down pat, is stunned when Stoeger (her real husband) shows business moxie for the first time, and their kisses are as passionate as they are paralyzing for each other.
The directors, Luberger and Stoeger managed a major feat in that not only do the two Hals look like each other, but they behave like each other as well. It is a stunning piece of theatrical legerdemain.
The gradual meltdown of Doug Mancheski and Rhonda Rae Busch as the owners of the hotel is equally exciting, painful and very funny to watch. Mancheski's panicked claims that he did, indeed, already deliver the brat and cheese plate, is priceless.
AFT's mission is to present original musicals that, in part, "celebrate the culture and heritage of the United States."
That's the only non-joke around when this original opened Wednesday night.
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