What’s in a name? Different pronunciations, for one thing: In the original Hawaiian, a certain popular four-string instrument is pronounced “oo-koo-leh-leh,” while in English it typically sounds more like “you-kuh-lay-ly.” This distinction proves important in telling the story of Hal and Hal, identical Wisconsin twins separated at birth, one of whom washes up in a suitcase, Importance of Being Earnest–style, in the Aloha State, while the other stays put in the land of Green Bay. Hal and Hal are reunited by chance when their two companies convene for a merger at a Midwestern lodge.
In the new musical comedy Strings Attached, how a character pronounces the name of that distinctive Hawaiian mini-guitar gives a clue where he’s from. The fast, funny 90-minute show plays through Aug. 23, at a certain beloved outdoor theatre in Door County, in rep with two other crowd-pleasing tuners, Guys on Ice and Packer Fans from Outer Space.
Which beloved outdoor theatre, you ask? If the name Northern Sky Theater doesn’t ring a bell, that’s because for nearly a quarter-century, this destination venue in Peninsula State Park has been called the American Folklore Theatre—a name meant by its founders (including the late Fred Alley) to invoke a populist aesthetic based in folk music and story theatre, but which came to mislead potential audiences.
“The genesis of the name was the idea that they wanted to do stories that came from the region and were strongly rooted in a sense of place,” says Dave Hudson, who wrote the book and lyrics for Strings Attached and has done a number of shows with the theatre. “But it never worked—it was a challenging name, because people would hear it and think they were coming to see Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.”
Instead, what they come to see there are all-new American musicals with original stories—occasionally inspired by folk tales, as with the ghostly anthology Bone Dance, but mostly from scratch. And the theatre’s new, more picturesque name also suits what audiences see when they walk into the uncovered, 500-plus-seat amphitheatre, ringed by trees. “You’re walking through the woods, and then you step into this outdoor space under the pines and you see the sky,” Hudson raves. “It’s amazing.”
Composer Colin Welford, who’s worked as a music director on a number of shows at the theatre, has focused his score of Strings Attached on the ukulele, which the Hawaiian Hal plays, and the banjo, which the Wisconsinite Hal plays. But, he says, “I’m studiously avoiding the guitar, which has such a generic sound. I really want to keep the worlds of Hawaii and Wisconsin as separate as possible.”
That is, until—spoiler alert!—the inevitable concluding jam session, when it only matters how you play the thing, not how you pronounce it.