Beneath the Northern Sky
and Jeffrey Herbst
An Evening of Fred Alley’s Songs
Beneath the Northern Sky pays tribute to the late Fred Alley, co-founder of AFT and playwright, actor, and singer extraordinaire. A cast of eight AFT veterans and newcomers give their voice to Fred Alley’s songs in this concert shows, featuring music from Lumberjacks in Love, Guys on Ice, and The Spitfire Grill, as well as songs from Alley’s three solo folk-styled studio albums. This evening of music can also be enjoyed in the form of the live CD recording of the same title. Produced in 2002.
Door County Advocate
ED HUYCK – July 2002
“Northern Sky” deceptively simple
While American Folklore Theatre produces increasingly complex productions, it’s good for the company to get back to its roots.
“Beneath the Northern Sky: An Evening of Fred Alley’s Songs” is the simplest of shows on the surface: eight singers and musicians gathered on stage to sing 20 songs written by the late co-founder of the company. Yet beneath that simplicity is Alley’s complex musical and lyrical story, one that embraces numerous musical styles and topics.
The songs are collected from the musicals Alley wrote with several collaborators, songs from concert shows and cuts from his solo albums.
The title song of the show is also the title of Alley’s first solo album, released in the mid-1980s. Before singing it, Jeffrey Herbst—a childhood friend of Alley’s—recounted how excited the young singer/songwriter was when the album was released.
Years later, Alley sensed the faults in the recording and proceeded to collect and destroy every copy he could put his hands on, Herbst said.
The song “Beneath the Northern Sky” provides not just a perfect title for the show but a clear direction where Alley would go musically and lyrically through the next 15 years, until his death May 1, 2001 of a heart attack while jogging near his home in Baileys Harbor.
The show includes plenty of hits—“Da One Dat Got Away” from “Guys on Ice”; “Shanty Boys” from “Lumberjacks in Love”—but many of the standout songs are drawn from the numerous other shows produced through the years. A real star is the music from “Fishing for the Moon,” a sweet show last produced in 1999.
One thing “Beneath the Northern Sky” shows clearly is that Alley could move with ease among styles—love songs to humorous songs to songs that just celebrate life. The “Fishing for the Moon” songs include “By the Stream,” an inspired song about the simple pleasures of fishing; “Where Does Love Go,” a gorgeous number sung here by Laurie Flanigan; and “Guy Meets Girl,” a turn-of-the-century style love song.
Songs drawn from other sources also get an airing. “Big Canoe,” another old-fashioned love song, returns from the 2000 concert show “Moonlight and Marshmallows.”
And there are non-AFT songs as well. They range from a piece from “The Spitfire Grill” (to be presented in Door County this fall) to selections from several of the solo albums.
Before playing “Ashes Ashes,” Fred “Doc” Heide said that he “sees so many sides of (Alley’s) personality (in the song). He was the most complex person I knew.”
The eight-member cast—which also includes Lee Becker, Rob Hancock, Kimberly Irion, James Kaplan and Eric Lewis—pour their hearts into the show. An evening that could have easily been a maudlin affair (it is, after all, a show of music by a man who was only 38 when he died) instead utrns into a triumphant musical celebration of Alley’s music.
The last few songs tell the tale. After “Ashes Ashes,” the show turned to “Into the Frying Pan” from “The Spitfire Grill.” This was followed by “Marvelous Sound,” (from “One Night in Frog Station”) which—among other things—celebrates the smiple joy of music.
The show closes with “Waltz Until the Last Cows Come Home,” another sweet number., this time from “Tongue in Cheek” and, as an encore, “I Will Arise,” a rousing celebration of the life that awaits after death.
Stuck between the relative glitter of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and “Packer Fans From Outer Space,” it may be easy for audiences to miss “Beneath the Northern Sky.” That would be a mistake. This is a show that hides complex music and emotions behind a deceptively simple façade. A bit like the man it celebrates.
Green Bay Press Gazette
WARREN GERDS – June 2002
Show lovingly recalls Door Co. musical genius
**** (four stars)
FISH CREEK – Fred Alley is dead, but his musical legacy lives on in a beautiful new show at the popular American Folklore Theatre, which he cofounded and where he performed.
“Beneath the Northern Sky: An Evening of Fred Alley’s Songs” provides a glimpse at what a marvel he was.
Alley died of a heart attack May 1, 2001, while jogging in Door County. He was 38.
Alley was best known as one of the original guys from “Guys on Ice.” The musical has been performed hundreds of times in Wisconsin.
Tens of thousands of people enjoyed nine musicals Alley had a key role in writing, including “Guys on Ice.” Others savored his three solo albums filled with his songs and the sound of his sweet tenor voice. Alley wrote many other songs as well.
This retrospective was put together by people who knew him best as an artist. It is wonderful and full of wonders.
Performances are inspired.
Personal notes by performers add color; especially by long-time friends and colleagues.
Composer/keyboardist James Kaplan and director/performer Jeffrey Herbst assembled the show, which is a flowing blend of voices and instrumentiation for up to eight performers.
Herbst was a childhood friend of Alley in Mount Horeb. So was performer Lee Becker.
Also performing is Frederick “Doc” Heide, with whom Alley collaborated on shows and in creating American Folklore Theatre.
While the show has poignant moments, it avoids being maudlin. It instead explores Alley’s character through the grand variety of his songs—musically and in themes.
- Fun – “Dum Dah Do Dah Dee Dum Dah Dah,” from the musical “The Bachelors.”
- Wit – “Pull the Chain,” about an immigrant’s wonder at using a flush toilet for the first time, from “The Passage.”
- Comic melancholy – “The One That Got Away,” from “Guys on Ice.”
- Contemplation – “Ashes, Ashes,” from an album.
- Sensitivity – “Guys Meets Girl,” from “Fishing for the Moon.”
- Joy – “Shantyboys,” from the hit “Lumberjacks in Love.”
Many other riches are mined in the course of a little more than an hour.
The backdrop is a three-panel painting of a northern woods beneath a starry sky. As light strikes them, the stars sparkle.
Much sparkles in this magnificent tribute to a beautiful mind.