The New Theatre plays don't ax, don't tell.

Logger Rhythms 

The New Theatre plays don't ax, don't tell.

In the song "If Love Were All," Noel Coward writes that a person might be blessed if he is possessed of nothing but "a talent to amuse." Certainly the cast of the New Theatre's Lumberjacks in Love has that and more; the actors' credits run from Broadway shows to films like Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil to the television classic "Bonanza." These pros are the primary reason the dinner theater's new show is enjoyable, despite its rickety construction.

It's 1912, and the setting is a dense forest, in the middle of which sits the Haywire Lumber Camp (impressively designed by R. Keith Brumley). Male camaraderie is the order of the day in this industry, but the isolation seems to be taking its toll.

Muskrat (Danny Cox) is despondent about his fiftieth birthday and the fact that he is surrounded by burly guys but utterly alone. Moonlight (Scott Wakefield) is so curious about love that he spends every free moment lost in serial romance novels. Dirty Bob (Dean Vivian) is the camp eccentric; he hasn't bathed for a couple of decades but occasionally likes dressing up in women's clothes. (His second-act opening song might be the first in the history of musicals to so baldly celebrate a secret fetish.) Minnesota Slim (Gary Holcombe) seems to be the conscience of the group and, in a moment of vulnerability, has set up the bulk of the story.

On a rare side trip to a neighboring town, he impulsively answered an ad for a mail-order bride. During a mail call delivered by the androgynous Kid (Cinnamon Schultz), Slim discovers that his intended is due to arrive. It reminds the boys of what their chosen profession has forced them to give up, and it sends Kid in particular into a no-turning-back bout of angst. The Kid, you see, is really a female who has been posing as a male -- basically because the play calls for her to do so. The ruse recalls Yentl and other works that center on the confines of gender; it even evokes true human matters of sexual orientation and how physical attraction can be conveniently flexible.

This subtext gradually belies the notion that the show might be a dime-store variation on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. When Kid sheds her male drag and poses as the impending bride, Moonlight's libido is hugely challenged by the resemblance shared by the male and female Kids. He unashamedly announces his love for Kid -- and, because it's the early twentieth century, one supposes he might have been exiled if not beaten. His peers, though, sort of wince and move on. They're all so lonely; what's a little romance between friends?

Finally the real bride appears. Rose (Donna Thomason) is a statuesque, proper lady who reveals to Dirty Bob that she is really an undercover writer doing research for a new book. (It's no surprise that she's the author of Moonlight's favorite novels.) On a dare, she, too, poses as a man, losing a contest of brute strength to her supposed fiancé. The disguise is quickly abandoned, though, and everyone -- do the math -- lives happily ever after.

But there's probably more story in the last few paragraphs than there is on stage. Most of the show, directed by Richard Carrothers, consists of five or six lines of dialogue at a time, followed by a song, all of which are written by James Kaplan and the late Fred Alley. The actors play their own instruments (banjo, guitars and a harmonica), supplemented by a three-piece band offstage, and the numbers are of a folksy, sing-around-the-campfire nature. They're not good enough to ever be considered standards, but neither are they so embarrassing that they deserve complete disregard. None of the song titles, however, is noted in the program, while Carrothers' name is mentioned five times.

Though the strong aroma of manliness permeates the trade, the show contains few references to logging, and nobody picks up an ax or saw. (These characters might as well be cowboys.) But Tracey Radinovic's costumes are aptly grungy (or, in Rose's case, crisp and colorful). They seem -- surely more than the script -- to give the actors ample ammunition for defining their characters as well as they do. Holcombe's Slim, for example, is clearly in charge; he seems to be the only man on stage without a crease or a wrinkle. Dirty Bob's filthy outfit looks as if it were buried underground for a while, and Kid's makeshift female ensemble (eventually borrowed by Dirty Bob) is a charming concoction thrown together from the kind of materials that might actually have been strewn around a lumber camp.

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