Tongue ‘n Cheek | Northern Sky Theater

Created by Fred Alley
Additional Music by Fred Alley & James Kaplan

A timeless classic that sounds like it comes straight out of a crackling front-porch farm radio. Long-suffering Naomi and her work-averse husband, George, quibble while Doc Johnson woos his skeptical neighbor Lorna. It’s a tale of flipping pancakes, curing ailments, and waltzing till the last cow comes home.

Performed first in 1991 (the first full-length book musical Fred Alley ever wrote) and revived in 1997, Tongue ‘n Cheek contains the song “We’ll Waltz ‘Til the Last Cow Comes Home,” an old favorite amongst our audience.

Show Length = 68 minutes, no intermission

Showing: July 12 – August 7, 2021
Monday – Saturday at 7:30 PM
At the Peninsula State Park Amphitheater

Filmed Performance (from live show)
Available: August 9 – 15, 2021
with a unique one-time viewing link

Sponsored by: Door County Medical Center, The Cordon Family Foundation, Tony & Judy Licata

Cast of Characters


Tongue ’n Cheek Fills Peninsula State Park with Music

I spent most of my high school years – and a handful of my early-adult years – involved with a local community theater, both on the stage and behind the scenes. So my initial reaction to seeing and writing about Northern Sky Theater’s production of Tongue ’n Cheek was an enthusiastic “yes!” But, after doing some quick math, I realized that nearly a decade had passed since my “theater days,” and – confession time – I’d seen only one other show at Northern Sky Theater during the six years I’ve lived here. Gulp. Maybe someone more well versed in the theater should take my ticket? 

But as I waited for the show to begin – with my husband, who had seen one fewer show than I had in the seat to my left – I glanced around at the nearly filled benches in the Peninsula State Park amphitheater to see a mix of people of all ages – and even a couple of dogs in the back row – who were all there to take in a professional theater performance. Perhaps some had seen earlier versions of the show when it premiered in 1991 and was reprised in 1997. Others, like us, were seeing it for the first time.

I was jolted from my observations when the narrator, played by Anna Cline, and the production’s “one-man band,” Andrew Crowe, burst onto the stage, welcoming the crowd not only to that evening’s performance but to the return of live theater in the park after a year’s hiatus.

With the dust from a year like none other still being swept from the corners of the stage, there were some noticeable post-COVID-19 modifications, such as the printed playbill being replaced with a digital version. And, at the top of the show, the actors came on stage, one by one, to tell the audience which character they would be playing.

When Fred Alley, who co-founded American Folklore Theatre – the predecessor to Northern Sky Theater – wrote Tongue ’n Cheek, he did so as a tribute to old-time radio dramas. And although this version weaves in more elements of a stage performance, the overall show is reminiscent of an extended skit à la A Prairie Home Companion. It’s infused with that same style of hokey quirkiness and sappy warmth that makes a person smile, as well as songs and dialogue with just the right balance of puns and humor to make you roll your eyes while genuinely laughing.

With help from the narrator, the audience is invited into the lives of the show’s four characters: tired and overworked Naomi Sutter (Lachrisa Grandberry); her work-averse husband, George Sutter (Dan Klarer); love-struck Doc Johnson (Isaiah Spetz); and the object of his affection, his neighbor Lorna (Jamie Mercado). When the audience first meets the foursome, Naomi and George are at a crossroads in their marriage while the unorthodox, yet playful Doc Johnson decides to shift his focus from peddling his cure-all elixir to the pursuit of the seemingly uninterested Lorna.

Despite the cast’s small size, the characters they portray are larger than life and undeniably likable. The dialogue is playful and quick, which causes the audience to lean in a little closer so as to not miss the next line, the next pun, the next quip. The cast members – along with the multitasking musician, Andrew Crowe – deliver a wallop of a performance, often playing an instrument or a few, and send out jaw-dropping harmonies normally reserved for much larger ensembles. 

Throughout the performance, the recurring act of inviting the audience into the story, of breaking that fourth wall, seems to have a larger impact here. Perhaps because following a year of physical separation from the world and the people around us, a show that intentionally connects the actors with the audience seems to be the perfect choice – or, as Doc Johnson might say, “the cure” for the need we’ve all felt to connect with others again.

The only downside to the lighthearted, music-filled theatrical romp is its shorter-than-usual running time at just 68 minutes. During the final song, “Waltz until the Last Cows Come Home,” I noticed several audience members singing along, likely reminiscing about the first time they saw this show decades earlier, and probably not wanting the fun to end.

As the cast took its final bow, I realized that part of what makes a Northern Sky Theater experience what it is, is its ability to create these connections: between the actors and the audience, between the story and the audience, and among the audience members themselves. It’s live theater that’s professional but accessible, and polished but never pretentious. And whether you’ve seen one or 101 shows, you want to return for more of that connection season after season. 

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Tongue ’n Cheek’ has a knack for kidding in Fish Creek

by: , WFRV-TV, Channel 5. Posted:

Seriously, Fred Alley had a way with kidding.

His shows and songs often bubble with tongue-in-cheek whimsy. In the case of “Tongue ’n Cheek,” it’s practically all the way through.

The key character is an extremely hard worker. He toils, connives, calculates, manipulates and maneuvers all for the goal of getting out of work. Plus, he’s the crummiest cook around.

You can’t not like George Sutter because he is so ridiculous.

And the town practitioner of “spiritual medicine,” Doc Johnson, is a close second.

“Tongue ’n Cheek” would be a lightweight show if it weren’t for all the verbal trickery. Right around the corner is the next pun, the next bit of fractured logic, the next playful take on the English language, the next outrageous exaggeration.

– In Door County back when, it got so cold in winter a man’s shadow froze to the barn door.

– Some men didn’t catch cold. They were too slow to catch the cold.

– Some people don’t trust Doc Johnson at all. One says, “I wouldn’t believe him if he swore he was lying.”

– When Doc goes a-courtin’, the “no” he hears comes in an elaborate form: “You are looking for pears on an elm tree.”

– Being a small town, everyone has a gift for gossip, which “travels like crackers on homemade tomato soup.”

On and on this all goes, with the professional cast limberly singing, dancing and acting up a storm and often playing an instrument or three. The show’s “orchestra” is a musician (Andrew Crowe) who plays eight instruments. The show opens and closes with a kind of makeshift marching band tootin’/trumpetin’/drummin’ and such while parading around the Peninsula State Park Amphitheater stage shaking the needles on the pines soaring all ’round.

The story is about couples. George Sutter (Dan Klarer) lazes through cooking and cleaning – he’s a disaster at each – while his wife, Naomi (Lachrisa Grandberry) takes on all the farm chores, starting with milking the cows. Doc Johnson (Isaiah Spetz) happily peddles his magic elixir, but loneliness sets in with the presence of Lorna (Jamie Mercado), who swears she will not marry a man who is short, tall, lean, fat, old, young… you get the picture. The Narrator (Anna Cline) cheerfully sets up scenes and usually becomes part of the action. It’s an excellent, multitalented cast.

“Tongue ’n Cheek” is… is… is… whew – so many layers.

+ It’s frothy fun. The silliness/goofiness eventually arrives at romance. With her marriage in an iffy state, Naomi is reflective and sings such lovely lines as “You choose a partner for the dance, you close your eyes and take a chance.” The Narrator also gets caught up with love, but its purely comical having to do with Old Dave, an all-but-useless mule. Yes, seriously, Fred Alley had a way with kidding.

+ The style of the show may seem old-fashioned, but so much of it is dense, tightly written and expertly comically/aurally performed. The trumpet-trombone-kazoo-voice number hits the spot.

+ Fred Alley co-founded the company, wrote, acted, sang and put together things with his imagination that all the king’s horse’s and all the king’s men couldn’t do. He died 20 years ago, age 38. This show – his show – was the company’s first book musical; versus a revue of songs strung together, book musicals have a story around the songs. The year was 1997. By bringing “Tongue ’n Cheek” back, the company re-introduces today’s audience to the Fred Alley ways.

+ Jeff Herbst, artistic director of Northern Sky Theater, directed the 1997 production of “Tongue ’n Cheek.” He directs this production, too, fully in the know. There is an authenticity in the style and aura and general bright tone.

+ “Tongue ’n Cheek” is briefer than recent Northern Sky Theater productions. It also is lighter. With so much heavy in the last 16 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, light is more than nice.

Door County Advocate
August 10, 1991

‘Tongue ‘n Cheek’ tickling audiences

When it comes to spinning yarns and telling tall tales the American Folklore Theatre can outdo both Paul Bunyan fans and Garrison Keillor.

‘Tongue in Cheek,” one of two original shows the cast performs this season, is packed with one liners and subtle jokes sprinkled liberally with folk songs and tradition.

Staged Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the amphitheatre at Peninsula State Park, ‘Tongue in Cheek’ has been drawing big crowds regularly throughout the season.

Fred Alley is the creator, assistant director and one of the stars of ‘Tongue in Cheek’ which tells the story (albeit exaggerated) of the reversal of roles by Naomi and George Sutter, a happy (sometimes) Wisconsin farm couple facing some tough times (most of the time) and poor health (occasionally). The sparring between Alley as George and the talented Suzanne Graff as the long suffering Naomi keeps the audience chuckling throughout the evening.

The show’s director Jeffrey Herbst is also narrator of ‘Tongue and Cheek’ and artfully sets the mood for the courting of Doc Johnson (longtime Folklore theatre cast member Frederick Heide) and Lorna Thronson (as portrayed by the saucy and determined Deborah Alden). Timing is everything in this performance and the cast has its cues down perfectly.

The standing-room-only crowds this week listened intently and laughed heartily as the narrator told about the Wisconsin winters “that are so cold a man’s shadow might freeze to the barn” and Wisconsin fish “that are so big their pictures weigh 12 pounds” and Wisconsin mosquitos that “got so much of your blood you begin to think of them as relatives.”

The American Folklore Theatre emerged last season after nearly two decades as the Heritage Ensemble. Both “Tongue in Cheek” and the other presentation “Moon of the Long Nights” showcase the talents of the American Folklore Theatre as the cast moves from primarily folk musicians with an emphasis on serious theatre.

The musical numbers, taken from Folk Songs out of Wisconsin, remain popoular with the audience. The male trio singing about Miss Fogerty’s Christmas cake was a hoot as was the Heide-Herbst duet about “dear ol’ Dave, the mule.”

One of the more popular songs is the kaffee-klatch, gossip number featuring the entire cast and everyone seemed to love Alden’s “I never will marry.”

While George’s cooking is the brunt of many jokes (his meat is so tough you couldn’t stick a fork in its gravy), Doc Johnson’s folk medicine remedies are also carefully scrutinized throughout the performance.

The show ends with a ditty about the “moon shining through the pines” which is exactly what the audience experiences as it leaves the outdoor theatre after the night’s performance.

Those visiting the American Folklore Theatre for the first time will want to know that the dress is warm (most evenings) and casual and the amphitheatre is accessible to wheelchairs and strollers.

Performances continue through Aug. 24 at 8 p.m. nightly. Playing Monday, Wednesday and Friday is “Moon of the Long Nights,” a tale of the Wisconsin Indians, created by Frederick Heide.


Cast of Characters


Narrator:  Anna Cline

George Sutter:  Dan Klarer*

Naomi Sutter:  Lachrisa Grandberry*

Doc Johnson:  Isaiah Spetz

Lorna Thronson:  Jamie Mercado

*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.