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Straw Hat Players cozy up to Minnesota winters with comic musicals

The MSUM troupe finds "heart and humor" in what may be its final season.

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Nick Wheeler and rebecca Koerner star in Straw Hat Players' "How to Talk Minnesotan: Winter Edition."
Contributed / Straw Hat Players
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MOORHEAD — Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Straw Hat Players opens its season on Tuesday, May 31, and with it comes all of the excitement, energy and anxiety of a new show.

This year is a little different, however. The university’s Theatre Arts program will close at the end of the 2022-23 school year, leaving the future of next summer’s Straw Hat season and future MSUM-produced theatrical performances in question.

“We are not playing doom and gloom here. We’re producing theater that’s both entertaining and engaging,” says director Craig Ellingson .

While the Theatre Arts major will end, Ellingson says there has been some consideration among MSUM administration for the university’s Entertainment Industries & Technology program to take over live theatrical productions in both the summer and the school year.

After the Theatre Arts major ends, Ellingson, who has been at MSUM for 25 years, will keep teaching in the Entertainment Industries & Technology program.

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“I think we’re approaching this as business as usual, providing our students with the experience to create a performance,” he says.

Ellingson says in its heyday Straw Hat attracted 40 to 50 students for the cast and crew of summer productions. Those numbers have dropped over the years and he says this season is geared to smaller companies.

There’s a more visible theme in the shows, too — three musical comedies all set in Minnesota winters.

“I’ve had a winter show on my mind for the last few years, so we decided to jump in,” Ellingson says. “There’s a lot of heart and humor in these pieces.”

The troupe kicks off its polar plunge with “How to Talk Minnesotan: Winter Version” Tuesday through Thursday. Straw Hat did the standard version of the show, based on the popular 1987 book by Howard Mohr, a former writer for “A Prairie Home Companion.”

Back are Ed and Lucy Humde on a weekend at Lost Walleye Lodge with references to iconic Minnesotan winter activities like ice fishing, jump-starting cars and getting in and out of warm layers of clothes.

“It’s clearly that Minnesota humor combined with charming music as well,” Ellingson says.

Ice fishing plays a bigger role in “Guys on Ice.” Fishing buddies Marvin and Lloyd spend their time in the icehouse sharing insights and homespun philosophies on life through tunes like “The Wishing Hole,” “Ode to a Snowmobile Suit” and “The One That Got Away.”

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While the show is a comedy, Ellingson says there is a touching aspect to the characters’ relationship.

“The friendships that were made on the ice are long-lasting,” he says. “There’s some really unexpectedly beautiful music.”

The ladies get their turn in the spotlight with “Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Musical.”

It’s the third time Straw Hat has done one of the eight “Church Basement Ladies” shows and Ellingson says it's the first holiday show produced by MSUM’s summer stock troupe.

Set in a rural Minnesota church, the ladies of the congregation prepare for the Sunday school Christmas program and reflect on holidays past. And of course there will be hotdish.

“Maybe that will entice someone to go home and make something they normally wouldn’t bake in the summer,” Ellingson says with a laugh.

While the holidays may be the most wonderful time of the year for many, it's late May, early June that gets the director excited.

“Straw Hat really is my favorite time of the year because I get to focus on creating theater,” Ellingson says, adding that he’s also directing Act-Up’s production of “Dog Fight” at the end of June.

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Staying busy is keeping pace with the students as they produce three musicals in three weeks.

“I really do think a student learns so much about creating theater because it's so quick and focuses on the craft but also the creative art. It’s about the entire show,” Ellingson says. “I believe with all of my soul summer stock programs are so educational and transformative for students.”

If you go

What: “How to Talk Minnesotan: Winter Version”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 31, through Thursday, June 2
Where: Hansen Theatre, Center for the Arts, MSUM
Info: Tickets are $25; mnstatetickets.universitytickets.com or 218-477-2271

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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