BANGOR – As far as Penobscot Theatre Company’s latest production is concerned, singing and dancing lumberjacks are no longer the purview of Monty Python alone.
“Lumberjacks in Love” – with music by James Kaplan and book and lyrics by Fred Alley (the same duo responsible for “Guys on Ice,” which PTC produced in 2015) – runs through Feb. 19 at the Bangor Opera House. Directed and choreographed by Dominick Varney with musical direction by Larrance Fingerhut, it’s the story of a group of lumberjacks at an isolated lumber camp deep in the Maine woods whose routines are thrown into chaos by the impending arrival of an erroneously-requested mail-order bride.
Five people are living and working at the Haywire Lumber Camp deep in the forests of Maine. There’s Muskrat (Ben Layman), dealing with the feelings that have arrived along with his impending 40th birthday. He’s joined by Dirty Bob (Brad LaBree), whose well-deserved nickname derives from a weird childhood bathtime trauma, and Moonlight (Matthew Madore), a happy-go-lucky type whose attitude masks some deep-down personal changes. There’s the Kid (Brianne Beck), who has grown up around lumber camps and yet somehow managed to conceal one big personal particular regarding identity. And finally, there’s Minnesota Slim (Cory Osborne), the gregarious de facto camp leader.
This group spends long days in the woods and even longer nights with no company but one another, which has led to the adoption of some … let’s just call them interesting activities to keep themselves amused. It’s a tight-knit crew, but things begin to rapidly unravel when Slim receives a message that a mail-order bride – his mail-order bride – is en route. It turns out that Dirty Bob took a drunken joke made by Slim seriously and placed the order on his behalf.
Meanwhile, Muskrat is questioning everything he knows about the life that he has chosen, wondering what it’s all about. Moonlight is mooning over the heroine of an ongoing series of pulp novels and starting to develop feelings he doesn’t quite understand. The Kid has reached an impasse thanks to similarly burgeoning feelings and is contemplating throwing caution to the wind and coming out of hiding to reveal the truth. And Dirty Bob still pines for the dropped blue soap of his bygone childhood.
The last straw is the ultimate arrival of Rose (Heather Astbury-Libby), the mail-order bride with motivations of her own. Her presence pushes the camp further into chaos as every single one of them has to come to terms with what they really want and who they truly are.
And all along the way, the lumberjacks are singing and dancing and joking and generally having one heck of a time.
There’s not a lot in the way of narrative complexity here. But “Lumberjacks in Love” isn’t worried about depth of story; this is a show that just wants you to enjoy yourself. And with infectious songs like “Shanty Boys” and “I Only Have a Little Time” and the titular “Lumberjacks in Love” accompanying some wonderfully goofy dance numbers – not to mention a committed and sincere cast – you’ll be hard-pressed not to do exactly that.
Varney’s deft touch with comedy is well-established at this point, so it’s no surprise that he has brought the funny. His understanding of the power of physicality is apparent throughout the piece – not just in the dance numbers (which are delightful), but also in assorted bits of physical comedy that bring big laughs. His directorial touch – along with a strong and tight-knit ensemble – pushes the production past the limitations of a not-unflawed script.
That ensemble shines brightly throughout “Lumberjacks in Love.” Pitch-perfect casting and unwavering commitment has resulted in a wildly entertaining group. Layman mines humor from Muskrat’s existential crises without ever forcing the issue; he has an inherent ease to his performance that is lovely to watch. Osborne is engagingly over-the-top, driving through his scenes with a controlled mania that is tons of fun. LaBree’s gifts as a physical comedian are put to great use; he’s the sort of performer who can (and does) hold the stage for minutes at a time with nary a word.
Madore’s brings an aw-shucks likability and ever-present sweetness to his portrayal of Moonlight. Beck is wonderfully wide-eyed as the Kid, using an unerring sincerity to inform every word, every movement and every note. And Astbury-Libby gives Rose a brassiness that dominates her time onstage.
Through it all is the music. Musical director Fingerhut takes to the keyboard, accompanied by the nimbly multi-talented fingers of Gaylen Smith (who plays bass and banjo); the duo provides a twangily understated foundation that really make the songs soar. Musical highlights are many; personal favorites include the group number “Buncha Naked Lumberjacks,” Madore’s turn on “I Think I’m in Love with the Kid” and Beck’s sweetly sweeping “Winds of Morning,” but your mileage may vary – there are a lot of fun numbers here.
PTC first-timers Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay handled the scenic and costume designs. The lumber camp is wonderfully detailed and surprisingly functional; its intricacies are both aesthetically interesting and unexpectedly useful. The costumes are delightful as well – flannel and suspenders are abundant, with more than a few union suits and some hilariously homemade items as well. Scout Hough does fine work in carving out distinct spaces with her lighting design; her talent for balancing the subtle with the extreme serves her well. Brandie Larkin’s sound plot embraces and enhances the tricky Opera House acoustics, while Meredith Perry’s prop design is on point as always.
“Lumberjacks in Love” is an ideal fit for this time of the year, a light and frothy piece unafraid to simply have fun. If you find yourself mired in the winter doldrums, spending a couple of hours with the crew at Haywire Lumber Camp is a great way to overcome them; this hardworking, hard-playing bunch is going all-out to put a smile on your face and a song in your heart.