A Frank’s Christmas a Recipe for Success

andrew kruse-ross | a frank's xmas | dec. 2015

LMBF's Takes to the High Seas

All photos courtesy Sue PilzLocal theatre troupe Let Me Be Frank Production's recipe for success is no secret. Take a pinch of local history, throw in some amazing music, a generous portion of laughs, stir rigorously and you've got yourself one entertaining show. And no Frank's show is as popular as the troupe's Christmas show, or as it is more commonly known, A Frank's Christmas. This year, Frank's adding a little something extra to his eggnog recipe as A Frank's Christmas takes the holiday season onto the high seas aboard the Christmas Schooner.

Merging local history within the storyline of his shows is nothing new to Frank Hermans; he's employed the formula since the 2008 production of “Love Boat,” which took place aboard the car ferry S.S. Badger, which has carried passengers from Manitowoc, Wis. to Ludington, Mich. for more than 60 years. “Every show I write has a little piece of history,” says Hermans, “but I try to write for the masses. I'm trying to write shows that the whole state of Wisconsin wants to come see.”

Other LMBF shows have intertwined local places like Green Bay's Bay Beach; Pulaski's now defunct business, The Swamps; and summer hot spot, Dyckesville's Frosty Tip. Those locations served as the backdrop to LMBF's “Bay Beach Dance Party,” two installments of “My Big Fat Pulaski Wedding” and “2 1/2 Belgians” respectively. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when considering Hermans has written nearly 100 shows over his nearly 20-year career.

The last two Christmas offerings from Hermans and company have taken place in and around the decorated shop windows of C. F. Prange's department store, and involved some more than lifelike figurines. This time audiences will find themselves atop the waves of Lake Michigan aboard The Christmas Schooner, a vessel bound for Chicago from Algoma with a cargo of Christmas trees, which come to life from the annals of history.

In the late 1800s, demand for Christmas trees in bustling Chicago simply couldn't be met, sparking an unlikely maritime trade. Two brothers, Herman and August Schuenemann, born in what is now known as Algoma, seized the opportunity and began cutting Christmas trees in northern Wisconsin and Michigan to be delivered into the hands of eager Chicago families. To do so, the brothers would brave the worst weather The Great Lakes had to offer. While the true story of The Christmas Ship ends on sad notes — August was lost at sea in 1898 and Herman in 1912 — the legacy of The Christmas Ship and the joy the Schuenemann's brought to the families of Chicago left an endearing legacy firmly entrenched in the lore of The Great Lakes. It is upon this legacy of goodwill that LMBF's has built their story, bringing The Christmas Ship and “Captain Santa,” as Herman Schuenemann was affectionately known, back to life in A Frank's Christmas.

True to the historical captain, our Captain Santa and his crew are braving the November waters of Lake Michigan to deliver Christmas trees to the German masses of Chicago, but not everyone likes the idea. After all, do Bears fans really deserve a Christmas? To put a halt to things, a band of Norwegian pirates from Kewaunee led by the ruthless Captain Kringle intervene and hijack the Christmas cargo. They plan to deliver the Christmas trees instead to the more Packer-friendly city of Detroit. Unbeknownst to the Scandinavian swashbucklers, an upstart Detroit Lions team will soon be another central division opponent. Divine intervention may be necessary to create a change of heart in Kringle, but will it be enough to convince him that Bears fans deserve a Christmas, too?

Paramount to any LMBF show is the music, and the selections for “The Christmas Schooner” harken back to the time period of the original Captain Santa. “You'll find that in this show we do a lot more traditional carols and hymns, so we're not doing stuff that was written after 1900.” But, as Hermans says, most of these traditional songs fall “a bit on the slow side,” the troupe has selected contemporary arrangements for these classics to liven things up. Such arrangements include those performed by contemporary artists such as Sting, Amy Grant and Weezer.

Also there to liven things up, is plenty of comedic action courtesy of the LMBF's crew. Christmas pirates, a quirky holiday inventor, a sword fighting scene ala “The Princess Bride,” are sure to please. Even Sally the Spruce returns to the public eye. Yes, the short-lived bride of Bruce the Spruce from Prange's has found her way into Hermans' care. As the bride of popular Bruce the Spruce, Sally wasn't a hit with customers and only spent one season in use at Prange's. “It didn't go over well,” says Hermans. “She was kind of scary and only up for one year.” Her role in retail over, she ended up in storage at the Neville Museum. When the new script called for a talking Christmas tree (and why wouldn't it?) Sally was a perfect fit for the part. “I did an Elvis gig to get her,” says a laughing Hermans, who is also an Elvis impersonator.

To accommodate a busy holiday schedule, A Frank's Christmas sports a larger cast than the troupe's other performances. “I like the bigger cast for Christmas,” says Hermans. “We do 26 shows and it gets taxing on everybody. Vocally, it's better and it keeps things fresh.” The larger cast will see many LMBF favorites return to the stage while offering up some new talent as well. Paul Evansen returns for his second LMBF's show in two years and audiences will be happy to know that Evansen will appear in three shows for the 2016 season as well. David Gusloff will also be back in his first performance since June's “Duck Creek Dynasty,” and new to the LMBF crew is performer, Tori Shurmanns.

As many will already know, Hermans and his wife, Amy Riemer, are expecting their third child around the New Year, but that won't keep Riemer from being a part of the show. “When we had a baby two years ago, she really missed being there for the Christmas show,” says Hermans. To make it possible, Riemer's parts — she is cast as the Christmas angel — have been pre-recorded on video and appear on the large screen above the stage during performances, but Riemer will still be in-house. “She'll be in a comfy chair offstage singing backup vocals,” says Hermans. In the event of an early delivery, newcomer and understudy Shurmanns is poised to cover her vocal duties.

With a larger cast, a historical backdrop, a little football, sword fights, great music, pirates and Sally the Spruce all onboard for what is historically the troupe's most successful show and having written 97 shows to date, many of those with co-writer and partner Pat Hibbard, Hermans has to be feeling pretty confident about the show's success, right? Wrong. “I'm always worried a show won't do well,” admits Hermans.

“As a writer, I like to see the response in people, the response from my actors, but I don't get it. They've been desensitized to my humor. We've been rehearsing for so long that to us it isn't funny anymore; it's work. It isn't until opening night when we walk off stage and [the audience] laugh, that I say, 'Oh, this is good.'”

“The Christmas Schooner” is a G-rated show and fun for the entire family, so bring the kiddies without hesitation. Hermans also points out that the show is ecofriendly. “We're totally green. No Christmas trees were harmed during the creation of this show.”

A Frank's Christmas runs Dec. 2 to Dec. 23. Evening shows are at 8 p.m. with a 1 p.m. matinee available on Dec. 3, 11, 17 & 19. For tickets call (920) 494-3401 or online at ticketstaronline.com. The Dec. 2 and Dec. 3 shows are a benefit for the Civic Symphony of Green Bay and Cerebral Palsy respectively with $10 from each paid ticket going to benefit these organizations.

Full Cast: Amy Riemer, Frank Hermans, Paul Evansen, Tom Verbrick, Kasey Corrado, David Gusloff, Lisa Borley, Tori Shurmanns, Pat Hibbard, Tony Pilz, Adam Cain and Dennis Panneck.

“O come, O come Emmanuel" - Amy Grant
“Away In a Manger" - Twila Paris
“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" - Aly & AJ
“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" - The Honey Trees
“Jingle Bells" - James Pirepoint
“Silent Night" - Sixpence None the Richer
“Ave Maria" - Maria Callas
“O Holy Night" - Amy Sky
“Angels We Have Heard on High" - Fernando Ortega
“O Come All Ye Faithful" - Casting Crowns
“I Saw Three Ships" - Sting
“O Christmas Tree" - Glee
“The Twelve Days of Christmas" - Frederic Austin
“Joy to the World" - Casting Crowns
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing" - Weezer
“We Three Kings" - Engelbert Humperdinck
“Faith Noel" - Trans-Siberian Orchestra
“A Christmas Sail" - A LMBF original Christmas song

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