The recipe for “Cheeseheads the Musical” calls for a scenario with universal appeal whipped up with Wisconsin ingredients.
At least that’s the impression that comes across from comments by those preparing the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild production of the show, which opens this week at the guild’s Grand Theatre. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and Feb. 14 through 16, and 1:30 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 17.
Set in a cheese factory, the show’s Badger State references come through as unmistakably as a Lambeau Leap. “Of course the Packers are involved, and it talks about cheese. … You name it, it’s Wisconsin,” said Mike Cook, who is directing the musical.
“This is a very Wisconsin-based show,” he added. “It was written in Wisconsin, references Wisconsin, mostly on the coast of Lake Michigan. It takes place in Sheboygan and thereabouts, and there are other mentions of cities over there.”
In addition, those who look closely at the set will notice a Packers schedule on the bulletin board.
Jillian Phillips, who plays factory supervisor Jan in the show, also noted the extent to which our state plays a prominent role. “There’s literally Wisconsin on every page,” she said. “I’m actually surprised that the words ‘hot dish’ are nowhere in the show.”
And, yes, our weather gets mentioned, said cast member Mandy Tietz, who plays the role of Melanie, a corporate representative from Texas. “They put a mirror up to the fact that we live in this crazy, winter world. This week is essentially exactly what they’re referring to at one point,” said Tietz, alluding to the snowstorm that hit the region early last week.
As Cook explained, if you’re from Wisconsin you can identify. However, the production goes far beyond being the sum of locally based one-liners. “It could have gone that way, but it doesn’t,” he said.
Specifically, the show’s story line includes factory workers who: worry about their jobs, to which many can relate; by and large get along with each other, ditto; and try their luck in a Powerball pool, which also may ring true to many.
Job insecurity certainly has been felt nationally as well as locally, Cook observed, saying such a reality may bring back the Uniroyal Goodrich Tire Co. plant closing in this region.
The worker camaraderie stands out among the employees.
“It’s a family, I think,” Tietz said. “It’s a factory family, but it is a family. And there’s just a lot of humor in the obvious sometimes … stereotypical Wisconsin … but it’s done in a very kind way. It’s not done to poke fun. It’s done to acknowledge.”
Phillips adds to that line of thinking: “It’s not a joke; it’s a celebration.”
“Everybody seems to be a family in this show,” Cook said. “They all come from different backgrounds, but they all work at the cheese factory. ... They all work together, they all play the lottery together. They all like each other very, very much.”
With the possible exception of the visitor from the Lone Star State.
“It’s like … she’s the enemy,” he said. “On the other hand they’re nice. Wisconsin nice.”
Phillips knows in real life what it’s like to be an outsider in these parts. As she jokes, “I’m originally from Connecticut, and I moved here on purpose. And when people ask me why, my simplified version is, ‘I just love beer and cheese that much.’
“It’s not the full version of why. But I’ve said that before and had people go, ‘that makes sense.’”
While it blends humor and pathos, along with a little romance, “Cheeseheads” mainly aims to serve up a good time to audiences, Cook said.
“This is entertainment for entertainment purposes,” he said. “I don’t have to think about it when I go home like, ‘Boy, I wonder what the hidden message was. …
“It’s like, sit back, relax, just enjoy it,” Cook added. “It’s all out there on the stage and its all fun.”