“Lumberjacks in Love” a product of collaboration

Milwaukee Opera Theater's Jill Anna Ponasik, directing, and Carroll's James Zager, choreographing, team up at Sunset.

By - Jan 15th, 2013 02:01 pm

Jill Anna Ponasik, artistic director of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, and James Zager, choreographer and associate professor of theater arts at Carroll University, have collaborated many times, both directly (last year’s superhero opera team-up) and indirectly (many MOT shows, including their Eurydice Project, are staged at Carroll), and generally to great acclaim. Their latest collaboration, Lumberjacks in Love, opens this weekend at Sunset Playhouse.

Because this show is a goofy, family-friendly musical that’s a stretch from traditional opera, I had to ask Ponasik how she got interested in it. “The show picked me,” she said. “Jonathan West (former managing director for Sunset) asked me if I would be interested in directing Lumberjacks in Love after seeing Fortuna.” She jumped at the chance. It didn’t matter that she had never seen the show and only barely heard about it. But her first request was to bring Zager along for the ride as her choreographer.

That’s a level of trust that grows more obvious with details: Ponasik said she’d never seen Lumberjacks in Love, a creation of Door County’s American Folklore Theatre, and had just barely heard of it. Unlike the opera work she’s more accustomed to, the show is a goofy, family-friendly musical. It’s also the result of another collaboration, between Guys on Ice creators James Kaplan, who met with a grateful Ponasik, and the late Fred Alley.

What it’s about is both hard and easy to say; both Ponasik and Zager initially described it perfectly in sync: “Lumberjacks in Love is about lumberjacks … in love.”

Elaborating, the two said the show spans one “crazy-ass” day at Hayward Lumber Camp in northern Wisconsin. The men of the camp – Dirty Bob, Muskrat, Minnesota Slim, Moonlight and the Kid – have effectively sworn off women, a decision which results in ballads like “Shanty Boys,” about how much they like living together in the woods, and zany, non-female-friendly tunes like “Root-a-Toot-Toot” and “Buncha Naked Lumberjacks.” This guys-being-guys paradise gets complicated by two discoveries: that Rose, a mail-order bride and romance novelist, is on her way to camp, and that the Kid is herself a girl in disguise.

The coincidences, mistaken identity and cross-dressing in the play gives it a Shakespearean angle, but Ponasik and Zager said there’s a spirituality in the play as well. It comes through in the character development, with each of the play’s charming lumberjacks undergoing their own, personal transformation.

Lumberjacks in Love opens at Elm Grove’s Sunset Playhouse on Friday, January 18th and plays through Saturday, February 17th. Thursday & Friday shows are at 7:30 p.m., Saturday shows at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 with value nights ($12.50) Jan. 17 and Feb. 6.; call 262-782-4430 or visit www.sunsetplayhouse.com

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