By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jul 08, 2010 at 9:01 AM

FISH CREEK -- Most visitors to Door County don't specifically come here see theater. The drive up Highway 42 is prompted by the picturesque bays, quaint towns, rural serenity and the ubiquitous cherry pie. And, of course, the shops and restaurants.

But theater is a part of the fabric of this maritime county, and its presence is only growing stronger. Consider this.

The Peninsula Players, which has long claimed to be the oldest continuously running summer stock theater in the country, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. The birthday will be toasted July 24 with a casual picnic dinner on the Players' scenic grounds prior to the evening's performance of "Over the Tavern."

The anniversary season is eclectic. The summer began with "Heroes," a one-act bittersweet comedy written by French dramatist Gerald Sibleyras and translated by British superstar playwright Tom Stoppard. Set in 1959 in a retirement home for World War I veterans, the three-character French hit is rather static, relying on its actors to develop nuanced individual portraits while performing some difficult physical comedy.

Players veterans Tom Mula, Tim Monsion and Greg Vinkler delivered that. Vinkler, who is the company's artistic director, is on a three month leave from the Broadway revival of "West Side Story," where he plays Doc. He will return to that show at the end of August.

Tom Dudzick's comedy "Over the Tavern" is currently playing through July 25, and it will be followed by Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" July 28 to Aug. 15, and "Comic Potential," written by prolific British dramatist Alan Ayckbourn, Aug. 18 to Sept. 5. The company's fall show is a thriller, "Panic," written by Joseph Goodrich.

"We were surprised we got the rights to ‘A Little Night Music,' with it currently being on Broadway and a touring production in the works," Players managing director Brian Kelsey said while chatting in the theater's outdoor beer garden.

The presence of the Sondheim musical in the company's season is an example of the Players' tendency to venture beyond frothy summer theater fare.

"Greg (Vinkler) always says, we are much more than a summer stock company," Kelsey said.

Although last year's ticket sales decreased slightly from the box office record season of 2008, the Players stayed in the black entirely through earned income, according to Kelsey. That is a remarkable achievement.

Advance ticket sales for this summer are strong, the managing director added.

The American Folklore Theatre is 55 years behind the Peninsula Players, but it is growing up quickly. AFT, which stages original book musicals and musical revues outdoors in Peninsula State Park, set a company record for box office gross income last season.

It has created the new position of musical supervisor and filled it with Colin Welford, a Brit whose credits include the musical supervision of the worldwide touring companies of "The Lion King."

AFT is creating a publishing division that will grant rights to shows first produced on its stage. Welford is involved in getting the musicals fully scored so they are production-ready for other troupes.

Audiences are hearing a much richer and more textured sound at this summer's performances in the park because the company has gone higher tech with its musical accompaniment. It is employing the same computer program with its live musicians that Welford uses conducting the current Chicago production of "Billy Elliot."

AFT's new show this year, "Life on the Mississippi," marks the first time it has developed and produced an unsolicited text and score. Artistic director Jeffrey Herbst found the musical in the stacks of submissions the company regularly receives. AFT has traditionally mounted internally created shows and commissioned new work.

The troupe's fall production, which is always staged indoors, is moving from the Ephraim Village Hall to the much larger and better equipped Door Community Auditorium. The revival of last autumn's big hit, "Guys and Does," will use 280 of the auditorium's 750 seats.

In its search for new material, the AFT has begun working with the Alliance for Musical Theatre, a Los Angeles writing lab. The organization has assigned three teams of composers-lyricists-librettists to the Door County troupe in hopes that some creative sparks will fly.

"It is so critical to our organization that we develop new sources of musicals," Herbst said over breakfast in Egg Harbor. Composer Denver Casado and lyricist-librettist Douglas M. Parker, the creators of "Life on the Mississippi," are just that.

The show is loosely based on Mark Twain's memoir of the same name, and it depicts his learning to be a steamboat pilot on the river. "Life" is broad and a tad bland, especially for a principal character and a theater company that are famous for their wit. But it has several nice ballads that sweeten the show, and the audience learns some things about Twain that are not widely known.

The production gives Chase Stoeger the opportunity to demonstrate that he is ready for prime time as a leading man. He plays Twain with an easy charm and fluidity that are quite appealing.

In addition to "Life on the Mississippi," the AFT is reviving previous hits "Bone Dance" and "Cheeseheads, the Musical" through Aug. 28. They are presented in rotating repertory. "Guys and Does" will be staged Sept. 3 to Oct. 23.

On a personal note, the AFT has long been a bachelor haven -- one of its hits is titled "The Bachelors -- but two of the company's longest marriage holdouts are ending singlehood his summer. Co-founder Doc Heide wed Sister Bay therapist and dietician Jody Jessup last month, and veteran company member Lee Becker ties the knot with University of Houston assistant professor of theater Sara Phillips next month.

Door Shakespeare's 12th season, which begins this week under the stars at Bailey's Harbor Bjorklunden, is another testimonial to the strength of theater in Door County. In a response to the lumpy economy, the company scaled back last season from two shows to one, but it is back with dual offerings this summer.

Richard Brinsley Sheridan's "The Rivals" opens Friday, and Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing" debuts Saturday. The productions are staged in rotating repertory through Aug. 22.

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.