Ice Fishing Onstage In Elm Grove
The Sunset Playhouse's GUYS ON ICE.
There’s something about Elm Grove in Winter that kind of feels like north eastern Wisconsin. There’s just a little bit more open space than there is in Milwaukee. There’s just a little bit more room between the buildings. Thursday night there was a bit of snow drifting around—perfect weather for the preview performance of Sunset Playhouse’s Guys On Ice. A large, appreciative audience drifted away from the snow and into the Sunset’s Furlan Auditorium for the first show of the first weekend of the popular musical set in an ice-fishing shanty in Door County.
J. Michael Desper’s set is a clever use of the space available at the Furlan auditorium. A Classic Ice Fishing Shanty adorned with an address and a huge Green Bay Packer logo rests onstage more or less dominating the space . . . with just enough room around the edges to give a feel for the desolation of ice fishing. The Marty Wallner lighting design does a great deal of work as well—allowing for a kind of open feeling that helps establish some of the feel of Door County in winter. It’s difficult to explain why two vertical strips of white on either side of the set so effectively locks-in a feeling of cold. Seeing the show onstage at the Rep’s studio theatre, it was a bit difficult to complete the illusion. The heat in that space isn’t exactly conducive to the feel of a frozen lake in winter and a couple of guys sweating beneath the stage lights in snowmobile suits can’t help but look uncomfortable. Between set and lighting, the Sunset pulls it off.
The show quickly establishes itself between the two main characters—a pair of blue-collar guys going fishing. No ordinary day of fishing, Lloyd is having problems with his marriage. Producers from a local cable fishing show have asked Marvin if they could tape him ice fishing for an episode. After a phone call between Lloyd and Marvin, the two men promptly open the ice fishing shanty—a beautifully cluttered place. The reveal prompted an audible reaction from the audience—not the first time I’d seen that happen with a Desper set. The two men set down to set-up for a day of fishing. Lloyd’ marriage on the rocks story and Marvin’s Waiting For Godot end of things mix with occasional appearances by wacky next door neighbor-style funny guy Ernie the Moocher.
Something of a live cartoon character, Ernie is brought to the stage with the clever comic instincts of Matt Zembrowski—a musical theatre talent most notable for a recent appearance in Off the Wall’s production of Guys & Dolls. Somewhere between intermission and the start of the second act, Zembrowski could be seen rushing to the back of the theatre with a pickled egg. You kind of hve to see the show to understand why.
Aside from occasional comic appearances by Ernie, this is really a story about Llyod and Marvin. The casting on Lloyd and Marvin was exceptional. Traditional musical theatre types are simply too poised for the roles. The two guys who had been performing the roles in the Milwaukee Rep productions had more of a rugged comportment about them, but they had become so familiar with the roles that they couldn’t avoid a kind of comic slickness that feels a little opposed to the characters of Lloyd and Marvin. As Marvin, Tim Gensler has a little bit of a goofy side to him, but Marvin has dreams of being big and famous that come with potentially fishing on TV and the goofiness actually fits the character quite well. Scott Kopischke has a more humble demeanor about him. He talks, walks and generally carries himself like an asocial guy who would seem nice if you got to talking to him about something practical like the proper lure, Lambeau Field or Bart Starr’s 1967 season. Kopishke and Gensler break into song with a heartfelt, rough around the edges kind of sound that suits the material remarkably well. A gruff lack of showiness gradually broadens to something more befitting a traditional musical, but only at those moments in a song when it actually begins to mean something. The wistfulness of Kopischke’s Everything Is New—a solo sung on the open ice—feels particularly meaningful. Gensler gets the first solo as Marvin’s dreaming in The Guy From TV carries an appeal that clearly establishes the character’s energy for the rest of the musical.
Having seen a couple of different productions of the musical, I’ve come to sort of a mixed opinion of it. The characters are simple characterizations of blue collar guys from North-Eastern Wisconsin. In so many places, the relative simplicity of the characters ends up feeling like a weak cultural stereotype. It’s charming enough, but speaking as someone from that region of the state, I can’t help but get the feeling that the musical would have a bit more depth if the characters were just a bit more complex. As it stands, it’s a charming musical and Sunset does an excellent job of bringing it to the stage.
Sunset Playhouse’s Guys On Ice runs through February 6th. Call 262-782-4430 for reservations.