In the small Wisconsin town of Shewauga, the fish aren’t biting – which means the tourists aren’t coming. For a town that depends on an annual influx of such outsiders, that spells disaster.
Can a stranger named Hannah Waters – calling herself a fish whisperer and confident she can lure the fish back – save a town that seems incapable of saving itself? And will the town fork over Hannah’s $10,000 fee to make it happen?
That’s the set-up in The Fish Whisperer, making its debut under Molly Rhode’s direction this Wednesday courtesy of Northern Sky Theater, a company which has always practiced what World Premiere Wisconsin preaches; every show one sees at Northern Sky begins its life as a new musical, commissioned by the company and debuting before a Northern Sky audience.
When longtime Northern Sky Artistic Director Jeff Herbst first saw the treatment for this fish story – with a book by Scott Guy, music by Dan Wessels and Ron Barnett, and lyrics by Robin Share and Guy – he was immediately hooked.
“Scott described it to me as The Music Man meets 110 in the Shade and The Rainmaker, Herbst said to me during a recent phone conversation. “All of the characters living in this town are stuck. When a stranger comes to town, it allows them to unstick themselves.”
Those townies include Myrna (Kelly Doherty) and Gunnar (Doc Heide), whose potential relationship has been stymied by her fear of being vulnerable and his inability to commit.
B&B co-owners Bobby (Doug Clemons) and Benjamin (James Carrington) – the former too impulsive, the latter overly cautious – are confronting the additional challenge posed by Bobby’s phone addiction.
And then there’s town mayor Amos (Herbst) and his daughter Karen (Jamie Mercado), both struggling to move forward following the loss of Christine, Amos’ wife and Karen’s mother.
Drowning in sorrow, Amos and Karen are the most reluctant to take Hannah’s bait, in a show that’s about far more than catching fish and trawling for laughs.
That’s par for the course with Northern Sky, which consistently creates new musicals that manage to appeal to kids and adults alike, through easily accessible and comic stories that quietly plumb great depths.
As I wrote a decade ago in reviewing a production of Muskie Love – another fish story – Northern Sky shows “manage to hook everyone, without feeding us chum or resorting to the lowest common denominator to be catching.”
“I can’t think of another theater company that’s anything like it,” I added, while noting that “the magic cast by” this amazing company “is no fish story.”
In less than 80 minutes – Northern Sky shows almost invariably clock in at fewer than 90 and are usually intermission-free – The Fish Whisperer takes on climate change. Social media addiction. Xenophobia. The decline of proactive and responsible government. Our increasing inability to talk to each other. And, in the wake of the losses we suffered during the pandemic, grief.
“As simple as our shows can seem, we always hope they reach a deeper level,” Herbst said. “As with everything at Northern Sky, my hope is that there’s an organic nature to the big issues being introduced. It’s a balancing act.”
“Molly and I have talked a lot about what the important themes in this show are,” Herbst said. “Perhaps the biggest – and one we haven’t dealt with as much at Northern Sky – is grief and the loss of a loved one,” he continued. “It’s a serious theme, but it’s also addressed here in typical Northern Sly fashion, through musical comedy.”
Cue the dance music for Hannah (Lachrisa Grandberry), whose $10,000 fee covers the cost of teaching the townies how to connect with their inner fish, through a Celtic-inflected dance that will “let the fish know who you are . . . deep inside.”
Getting back in touch with themselves, Hannah suggests, will allow the townspeople to open themselves up to each other and reconnect with the surrounding world. Her mantra: “Inner fish, outer growth.”
That means being vulnerable. It means putting down one’s phone (Herbst noted that it’s “amazing to watch, around Door County with all its beauty, how many people are more interested in their screens”). It means listening. Loving. And also learning to let go.
That’s hardest for Herbst’s Amos.
“I’m playing the character who’s potentially most affected by Hannah,” Herbst said. “Amos’ entire mode is to deflect, diminish, and debunk. That’s his active, engaged self.”
Can Hannah’s magic restore Amos to himself?
The Sound of Music
“Hannah’s magic is her ability to sing,” Herbst said (I’m tempted to say the same of the perfectly cast Grandberry, whose glorious voice is reason enough to see this show).
“She expresses herself through a language that transcends,” Herbst continued. “She taps into another way of communicating, through song. It doesn’t just affect Amos. It affects me, as an actor on stage. I get sucked into the beauty of singing it.”
The singing by Herbst and his castmates will unfold through a wide-ranging score, which begins with an homage to the celebrated “Rock Island” opening to The Music Man, exhibits Celtic influences, and has what Herbst describes as “a beautiful lyrical quality.” Such a combination of clever pastiche and soulful yearning is vintage Northern Sky.
So is this company’s uncanny ability to grasp what makes musicals sing.
“As is so often the case with musical theater, the world of Shewauga has a hyper-reality, even though its characters are also grounded,” Herbst said.
“They’re characters you believe in and can root for, even if the situations in which they find themselves are surreal,” Herbst continued. “But that doesn’t stop them from facing and dealing with real-life issues.”
Fearful of what those real-life issues might entail, it’s easy to grasp why Shewauga is initially tempted to turn its back, folding in on itself and hunkering down; such a response to change and uncertainty currently afflicts all of America. Wary of what’s “different and foreign,” one song tells us, we’re apt to reject incoming ideas and people, until we “live more and more in fear.”
Hannah insists we can do better. Will we heed her plea and hear her song? Gathered together under the stars in Northern Sky’s pristine Peninsula Park amphitheater, might the spell she casts save more than Shewauga? Might we – dare we – hope that her message can save us all?
Performances of The Fish Whisperer begin Wednesday, June 14 and run through August 25 in Door County’s Peninsula State Park amphitheater. To learn more, visit https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/event/the-fish-whisperer-2/.