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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, April 18, 2014

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From left, Steve Koehler, Dan Klarer and Chad Luberger kick up their heels in the American Folklore Theatre production of "Victory Farm."
From left, Steve Koehler, Dan Klarer and Chad Luberger kick up their heels in the American Folklore Theatre production of "Victory Farm." (Photo: Len Villano)

Cherry picking with German POWs in Door County

FISH CREEK – The things about Wisconsin we didn't learn in school, the American Folklore Theatre tells us with music, humor and poignance.

For instance, the state hosted about 20,000 foreign prisoners of war during WWII, and most were German. Supervised POW projects ranged from Bayfield to Sturtevant, and some captured enemy combatants were even housed at State Fair Park.

The prisoners provided farm labor in a region whose workforce was depleted by the war effort. That is the context for "Victory Farm," this season's new American Folklore Theatre musical being staged outdoors in Peninsula State Park.

Three German POWs are assigned to a Door County cherry orchard in danger of having its crop spoil on the trees. The owner's husband has died in the war, and she initially resists accepting help from the enemy.

But the Germans, each quite different, are decent fellows with no malice in their hearts, and she grudgingly allows them to assist with the harvest. Homesickness and a love affair between a local and a prisoner predictably follows.

"Victory Farm" is totally reliant on its characters to engage us, with the POW's given the most texture and depth. The show's actor-singers must deliver, and AFT's cast rises to the task.

Dan Klarer charms and sparkles as a German baker brimming with optimism despite his prisoner status. Klarer exudes a gentle warmth that is irresistible.

Chad Luberger is equally effective as a sensitive teenage POW susceptible to puppy love. Veteran Milwaukee actor Steve Koehler draws the most complex character, a brooding older German soldier. We are initially wary of him, but Koehler's success at giving us a look inside the man leads to our understanding him.

Among the other actors, Allie Babich is the classic ingenue, singing like a lark and playing her role with seemingly effortless grace.

James Valcq's savvy score serves the story with its mix of poignant, romantic and rousing numbers, and it fits the AFT tradition of favoring blended harmonies. Emilie Coulson and Katie Dahl, who began attending AFT performances as kids, wrote the book and lyrics.

Jon Hegge directed and choreographed the single-act show.

"Victory Farm" is being staged in rotating repertory with "Belgians in Heaven" and "Cheeseheads, the Musical" this summer.

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