STONEHAM — If you can get past the hokey premise of “Lumberjacks in Love,” the Stoneham Theatre’s production offers a fair amount of entertainment. Its rewards come not from the music and certainly not from the script, but from the outstanding cast, imaginative choreography, and clever set and lighting design.
The plot consists of a collection of clichés that feel more like a laundry list than a coherent story line. Suffice to say, the action takes place in the 1870s at a Wisconsin lumber camp, where a collection of quirky characters named Muskrat (Steven Barkhimer), Dirty Bob (William Gardiner), Minnesota Slim (Mark Linehan), and Moonlight (Harry McEnerny) entertain themselves by rejoicing or complaining about their bachelor status, taking their weekly baths, and practicing dancing, with one of the guys in each gamboling pair agreeing to play the woman. Also present are The Kid (Darcie Champagne) and a mail-order bride (Vanessa J. Schukis), both dissembling about their identities, but never mind; it doesn’t make any sense even when you’re watching it. The late lyricist and book writer Fred Alley — also responsible for the musical adaptation of the film “The Spitfire Grill” and, with “Lumberjacks” composer James Kaplan, the goofy “Guys on Ice” — seems to have gotten lost in his research and forgotten to craft a coherent narrative. Definitions of lumberjack expressions, included in the program, are helpful, but should they be necessary?
The joy of this somewhat slackly paced “Lumberjacks in Love” comes from director Caitlin Lowans’s cast, led by Barkhimer. He not only manages to hold a skull in his hand while delivering, with utter seriousness, the line “Two bees or not two bees”; Barkhimer, who is the production’s musical director, also plays upright bass, accordion, piano, mandolin, guitar, and ukulele with grace and style. All of the cast members add some depth to what are, at best, paper-thin characters, and play at least one instrument. But the highlight of the show is Barkhimer’s rendition of “Little Black Raincloud,” in which he accompanies himself on ukulele, singing falsetto, referencing Al Jolson, and then shifting into some delightful scat singing that emerges from the heart of American folklore.
“Winds of Morning” is another strong number, driven by Champagne’s unadorned vocals, and “It Would Be Enough for Me” gets an infusion of sincerity from Champagne and McEnerny. The rest of Kaplan’s score is derivative, or forgettable, with titles that aren’t as funny as they ought to be, including “Buncha Naked Lumberjacks” and “Someday I Will Be Clean.” Schukis’s operatically trained voice saves “Stupid, Stupid Love,” and the harmonies provided by Barkhimer, Gardiner, Linehan, and McEnerny make some of the lamer songs bearable.
Kelli Edwards’s choreography is both playful and endlessly creative, including a duet with an ax; a “Rub a Dub Dub” that works a scrub brush and a washtub into the routine; a “test of grip” tango; and a lovely nod to the crowning of the Cowardly Lion in the climax to “Someday I Will Be Clean.”
Erik Diaz’s rotating set offers the opportunity to stage scenes inside and outside the lumberjacks’ shanty, and his exterior touches add to the atmosphere, as does Christopher Ostrom’s evocative indoor and outdoor lighting. The production is nice to look at. But “Lumberjacks in Love” never delivers the belly laughs we’re waiting for.