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.
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.