When the groundhog sees its shadow and 12 more weeks of winter are forecast for northern Maine, it’s time to head to the Bangor Opera House and spend time with burly men swinging axes who chase away the winter doldrums with some singing, dancing and washtub prancing.
Penobscot Theatre Company, under the leadership of Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport, each February offers a trifle of a comedy or musical set in Maine designed to tickle the funny bones of theatergoers without taxing their brains. Over the past few years, audiences have embraced “One Blue Tarp” and “Hair Frenzy,” both penned by Orono playwright Travis Baker, and ” Guys on Ice,” a musical about one of Maine’s most popular winter sports, ice fishing.
This winter, Newport has turned to Fred Alley and James Kaplan, who wrote the ice fishing show, for a similarly masculine-theme musical, “Lumberjacks in Love.”
Although the authors set the show in Minnesota, PTC’s director Dominick Varney has moved the setting to 1920s Maine, at the height of the lumber industry’s power.
The audience at Saturday’s opening night performance embraced every silly, sappy, sexist moment of the show, first performed in 1996 at what is now Northern Sky Theater, an outdoor performance space in Door County. In July and August, Door County is to Wisconsin what Mount Desert Island is to the rest of Maine.
Varney has cast the PTC show well with veteran musical performers Ben Layman, Matthew Madore, Brad LaBree, Brianne Beck and Heather Astbury-Libby. Newcomer Cory Osborne, making his debut with PTC as lumberjack Minnesota Slim, holds his own with his castmates.
The best moments in “Lumberjacks in Love” are when the men harmonize on the title song, “Bachelors Prayer,” and others as if they are in a barbershop quartet.
The director also has used imaginative and suggestive choreography that includes the actors wielding axes and sporting washtubs to wring every ounce of laughter from the script. The men form a tight-knit, flannel-clad ensemble without too many overt attempts to upstage or out act one another.
Brianne Beck is delightful as The Kid. She sparkles in the role and gives her character a wide-eyed sweetness without slipping into the portrayal of a stupid simp. Astbury-Libby does her best Mae West impression as the adventurous author, Rose, determined to tell her readers about the romance of the lumber camps.
The real stars of “Lumberjacks in Love” are sisters Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay, who designed the set and the costumes. The wooden beams and bunks of the place the men call home give theatergoers a feeling of how cramped and closely lumberjacks lived. It also gives the camp an inviting charm the real ones never had. Scout Hough’s lighting design floods the stage with a warmth that complements the set and flannel worn by the actors.
“Lumberjacks in Love” offers Mainers a break from the cold winter wind, shoveling snow and the political storms churning in Washington and Augusta. It’s not the escape from civilization offered on a frozen lake by an ice fishing shack but it will be a close second for theatergoers who need to laugh long and hard since the groundhog spied its shadow.
“Lumberjacks in Love” runs Wednesday through Sundays, through Feb. 19, at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets, priced between $25 and $38 alongside $10 student rush tickets, are available at the box office, by calling 942-3333, or online at penobscottheatre.org.