BAXTER — It’s a story that’s larger than life, so perhaps it’s no wonder it had to be also told through song and on stage.

The world premiere of Stage North Theatre Co.’s production of “Paul Bunyan; the Man, the Myth, the Musical” kicks off at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.

"We've been kind of holding off on making too many serious plans about this show with the pandemic,” said Gary Hirsch, artistic director. “A year-and-a-half ago, we were doing ‘Anything Goes’ and we got shut down by the governor two weeks before we were supposed to open.”

M. Hollis Ford, left, Jesse Brutscher and Eddie Binda, playing 1935 Brainerd businessmen, rehearse the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
M. Hollis Ford, left, Jesse Brutscher and Eddie Binda, playing 1935 Brainerd businessmen, rehearse the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Stage North Theatre Co. will perform for the first time since the pandemic with an original work about Paul Bunyan, written by Roger Nieboer specifically to honor the city's sesquicentennial. Tickets are on sale now.

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The theater company is presenting a special “Paul-a-Palooza” event 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday to celebrate the premiere of the musical. The free event will take place in the Franklin Arts Center parking lot before the Sunday matinee.

“We started thinking about, ‘Well, what could we do with Paul Bunyan that might be different and big?’ And we had heard about the ax-throwing up at Roundhouse Brewery in Nisswa,” Hirsch said of one of the Paul-a-Palooza activities.

Izzy Pence rehearses the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Izzy Pence rehearses the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

RELATED: Enjoy a beer, throw an ax, have some fun

Paul-a-Palooza will also include a Paul Bunyan bean bag toss, a photo opportunity with Paul and his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox, and food venues featuring Paul Bunyan food choices including flapjacks, caramel corn, chicken strips and fried cheese curds.

“Anybody can show up to Paul-a-Palooza,” Hirsch said. “Now, if you want to throw axes, they're going to charge you. If you want to have food, they're going to charge you. But the event itself is — just milling around, meeting cast members — that is free to the public.”

Rebecca Aanerud, left, and Olivia Notch rehearse the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Rebecca Aanerud, left, and Olivia Notch rehearse the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch


“We are ready for an audience.”

— Gary Hirsch, artistic director


The Paul Bunyan musical includes classic Paul Bunyan tall tales such as how he was raised by wolves, how his dog Sport was cut in half in a logging accident and how the lumberjack saved his faithful companion Babe the Blue Ox from being frozen in the ice.

Legend has it, Paul Bunyan and Babe created the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota. Their footsteps created impressions in the land that filled with rainwater and resulted in the famous lakes.

Mike Paulus, playing King Bemidji, rehearses the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Mike Paulus, playing King Bemidji, rehearses the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Arts Center. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“There are lots of details that you don't know about Paul Bunyan, and it tells the story, primarily of how Paul Bunyan became connected with Brainerd,” Hirsch said.

Nieboer describes how Brainerd became known as the “Paul Bunyan Capital of the World” in the musical. The historically based, fictional account takes place in mid-20th century Brainerd. The heyday of the railroad, logging and mining industries was waning.

Times were tough as the musical’s song “Brainerd” conveys, and three Brainerd businessmen schemed how to keep the sleepy town from becoming just another whistle-stop on the tracks.

RELATED: Stage North presents Paul Bunyan musical

Barb McColgan rehearses the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Art Center.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Barb McColgan rehearses the play "Paul Bunyan: the Man, the Myth, the Musical" Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, at the Franklin Art Center. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“So many new parts of the story came out that we were trying to find the right way to tell the story and ended up using sort of the ‘TED Talk’ approach, where we have a narrator who introduces ideas, and it goes back and forth in time,” Hirsch said.

Many Brainerd lakes area residents are familiar with the 35-foot-tall electromechanically animated puppet of the mythical lumberjack at Paul Bunyan Land, which relocated to Highway 18 but once was located where Kohl’s in Baxter is now.

The Paul Bunyan statue at Paul Bunyan Land on Highway 18 in rural Brainerd. 
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo
The Paul Bunyan statue at Paul Bunyan Land on Highway 18 in rural Brainerd. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Dutch Cragun of Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake inspired the idea for the play with his story about how the original Paul Bunyan statue ended up in Bemidji. He attended a 2018 production of “Baby Face,” another homegrown theatrical production about Brainerd’s gangster history.

“The statue that Bemidji has was initially destined to go to Brainerd, Minnesota, but the president of the chamber of commerce at that time ran off with the funds that were intended to pay for the statue,” Hirsch said after checking the fact with Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian.

The Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues near downtown Bemidji. Forum News Service file photo
The Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues near downtown Bemidji. Forum News Service file photo

Patrons will get to engage in audience participation, including booing and hissing the pompous King Bemidji, and singing and clapping to the toe-tapping Paul Bunyan theme song written by local composer Don Gorham.

Stage North Theatre Co. is also sponsoring a Paul Bunyan look-alike contest. Contestants will be photographed during intermissions of the six performances. The winner will win four free tickets to Stage North Theater Co.’s upcoming production of "A Christmas Story."

Stage North Theatre Co. Director Gary Hirsch (left), poses with Roger Nieboer, playwright; Don Gorham, composer; and Wendy DeGeest, choreographer, who are involved with “Paul Bunyan: The Man, The Myth, The Musical.” The musical will hit the stage in October. Contributed
Stage North Theatre Co. Director Gary Hirsch (left), poses with Roger Nieboer, playwright; Don Gorham, composer; and Wendy DeGeest, choreographer, who are involved with “Paul Bunyan: The Man, The Myth, The Musical.” The musical will hit the stage in October. Contributed

“We are ready for an audience,” Hirsch said. “We’re fine-tuning some tech things now, but we've got the show almost exactly where we want it to be.”

The production is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Five Wings Art Council with a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

The Stage North Theatre Co.'s cast for the original musical, “Paul Bunyan: The Man, the Myth, the Musical" pose for a photo. Contributed
The Stage North Theatre Co.'s cast for the original musical, “Paul Bunyan: The Man, the Myth, the Musical" pose for a photo. Contributed

Ticket information

Performance dates are set for 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8, 9, 15 and 16; and 2 p.m. Oct. 10 and 17. A half-hour before each show, there will be discussions with the staff on how the play came about. Stage North Theatre Co. requests patrons wear face masks during performances.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 218-232-6810 or by visiting A Needle Pulling Thread in the Franklin Arts Center. Online tickets and information can be found at stagenorththeater.com.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL.