By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jul 21, 2011 at 5:39 AM

FISH CREEK – Ten years after Fred Alley, the American Folklore Theatre's brightest artistic spark, suddenly died, the magic still lives in the Peninsula State Park woods. The AFT performs under the stars in the park, and Alley was a prolific creator of original material for it.

At its best, the troupe has a history of spinning theatrical gold from ingredients that don't always spell success – folksy simplicity, corny charm, minimal character development and bench seating. The AFT can get away with more than a cute puppy, and it has consistently stolen our hearts over the years.

The company is doing it again with "Bing! The Cherry Musical," its new offering for this summer. Loosely inspired by Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," the creative team of Paul Libman and Dave Hudson, aided and abetted by director Pam Kriger, have whipped up a frothy confection about a shopaholic middle-aged woman, a romance that went as sour as a pail of Door County cherries, and an evil condo developer.

We're talking about an AFT musical here, so I'm not being a spoiler by telling you the story has a happy ending. The fun comes in allowing yourself to be swept up in the tale's twists, turns and emotions. Take the ride.

Hudson's book revolves around a choice piece of Door County real estate that has been a cherry orchard for generations. It has always been in the same family, but the death of the patriarch and his widow's penchant for spending money to soothe her soul has placed the property in financial jeopardy.

A bumper crop of cherries will pull the orchard out of debt, but if a severe storm damages the fruit, the persistent condo developer will triumph. The show's prominent subplot involves a 20-something couple whose teen romance abruptly ended. Uncomfortably thrown together again, they are manipulated by a busybody teenage girl into rekindling their flame.

Pamela Niespodziani's spunky punk portrait of that girl really drives the show. She is cute, funny and relentlessly energetic.

The rest of the cast features AFT veterans Doug Mancheski, Lee Becker, Chase Stoeger, Molly Rhode and newcomer Raeleen McMillion. They all fit the musical and AFT style.

Composer Libman's appealing score includes a romantic ballad with a big hook, a large anthem to Door County, and "Spit the Pit," the cleverest AFT tune since "Ode to a Snowmobile Suit" from "Guys on Ice."

"Bing!" is mostly escapist fizz, but the book is rooted in references to present day Door County, and it provides interesting background information on cherry growing -- at no extra charge. The show is running in rotating repertory with older hits "Guys and Does" and "Lumberjacks in Love" through Aug. 27.

Andrew Lloyd Webber will likely be defined for posterity by his large, melodramatic musicals – "The Phantom of the Opera," "Sunset Boulevard," "Cats." The critics roll their eyes while the masses buy their tickets.

Few know and give credit to Lloyd Webber for two of his small musicals – "Song and Dance" and "Aspects of Love." Although both received productions in spacious Broadway theaters, they are really chamber musicals about tightly focused affairs of the heart, and they are some of the composer's best work.

Kudos to producer-director Dale Gutzman for mounting the Milwaukee premiere of "Aspects of Love" with his Off the Wall Theatre company. Acknowledging that the musical was much better suited to simpler productions, Lloyd Webber created a pared-down version of the show 20 years ago after the New York run. That is the "Aspects" we are seeing in Off the Wall's storefront theater.

Set in France between 1947 and 1964, the show is based on the David Garnett novella about a small circle of visual and performing artists and their Libertine attitude toward sexual affairs. Far from being salacious, it observes people slipping in and out of relationships without making moral judgments.

Much of the dialog is sung, and while the score is melodically pleasing and lush, it is a considerable challenge to singer-actors. Laura Monagle marks her return to the stage after a seven year absence with a compelling performance in the central role of a needy actress involved with men considerably younger and older than she.

A uniformly fine cast of Bob Hirschi, Matt Walton, Sharon Rise, Marilyn White, Jeremy C. Welter and 13-year-old Alison Pogorelc capably play all of the principal characters. Gutzman's direction is deft and attuned to the emotional subtext of the show. Anne Van Deusen provides musical direction.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.