As Brainerd gets ready to celebrate its sesquicentennial of becoming a city 150 years ago, Stage North Theatre Co. is ensuring one VIP takes his rightful place on center stage — Paul Bunyan.

The troupe has commissioned an all new, original, musical production titled, “Paul Bunyan: The Man, The Myth, The Musical,” about the history of Brainerd and how Paul Bunyan grew to such popularity. Performances will be at the Franklin Arts Center in October.

The idea for a play on Paul was kismet, the theater company stated in a news release. After attending a 2018 production of “Baby Face,” another homegrown theatrical production highlighting a snippet of Brainerd’s gangster history, a theater patron suggested to Director Gary Hirsch that if Stage North really wanted to focus on Brainerd’s history, it should do a play on Paul Bunyan.

“Done,” Hirsch said, adding it was really Dutch Cragun who inspired the idea with his story about how the original Paul Bunyan statue ended up in Bemidji.

In early 2019, Hirsch assembled the creative “dream team” who brought “Baby Face”: Roger Nieboer, playwright; Don Gorham, music director/composer; Sarah Gorham, composer; and Wendy DeGeest, choreographer, to bring the idea to life. The team gained insight from local Paul Bunyan historian and aficionado David Borash, and from former Paul Bunyanland owners Don and Patti McFarland, and the project was underway. With a number of collaborative rewrites and reworks, together the four melded words, song and dance into “Paul Bunyan: The Man, The Myth, The Musical.” Musicians include Laurie Chamberlain on banjo and bass; Kelley Smith on guitar; Sarah Gorham on piano; Don Gorham on mandolin and guitar; with Mark Lindquist as engineer.

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Patti and Don McFarland (left) pose with Roger Nieboer and Gary Hirsch from Stage North Theatre Company. The McFarlands assisted the theater company with creating “Paul Bunyan: The Man, The Myth, The Musical” set to hit the stage in October. Submitted Photo
Patti and Don McFarland (left) pose with Roger Nieboer and Gary Hirsch from Stage North Theatre Company. The McFarlands assisted the theater company with creating “Paul Bunyan: The Man, The Myth, The Musical” set to hit the stage in October. Submitted Photo

The original songs of the musical are seamlessly woven into the colorful story of how Brainerd became Paul Bunyan’s home. The historically based, fictional account takes place in mid-20th century Brainerd. The heyday of the railroad, logging and mining industries were waning. Times were tough as the musical’s song, “Brainerd,” conveys and three Brainerd businessmen were scheming on how to keep the sleepy town from becoming just another whistle stop on the tracks.

The community needed something big to wake it up; and what is bigger than Paul Bunyan?

Paul Bunyan
Paul Bunyan

People may have had an image of Paul Bunyan based on a plethora of larger-than-life anecdotes passed down through generations. Throughout the play, dialogue between the colorful characters and verses from the song, “The Ballad of Paul Bunyan,” accentuated by DeGeest’s Axe Dance, attempt to playfully disentangle the truth from folklore and “fakelore.” At one point in the play, the audience is compelled to ask, “Will the real Paul Bunyan please stand up?”

A common point of contention among Paul Bunyan historians is his birthplace. Numerous Minnesota cities have laid claim to Paul Bunyan and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox, as the show’s song “Paul’s Lament” explains. But if ownership is judged by the size of a community’s Paul and Babe statues — Brainerd wins hands down with its 35-foot-tall electromechanically animated puppet of the mythical lumberjack, the news release stated. Designed for a Chicago Railroad Fair in 1949, where Walt Disney was hyping animatronics, a Brainerd businessman acquired the icon in 1950 and brought him home to Paul Bunyan Amusement Center, where he delighted visitors from all around the world for decades.

In 2003, Paul and Babe retired to a farm just east of Brainerd where they continue to greet visitors and welcome all to the lakes area. The musical describes the magic and wonderment of Brainerd’s lumbering logger who talks, moves and greets everyone by name, leaving no doubt, as the play proclaims, that, “Paul Bunyan IS BRAINERD.”

Auditions for “Paul Bunyan: The Man, The Myth, The Musical” are set for 7 p.m. Aug. 20 and at 3 p.m Aug. 21 at the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd. A large cast is needed to fill the 20-plus roles, including actors, chorus and dance members. For more information, email gary@stagenorththeater.com.

Performance dates are set for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8, 9, 15, 16 and 2 p.m. Oct. 10 and 17. Tickets go on sale Aug. 1 by calling 218-232-6810.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Five Wings Art Council, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Stage North will wind up its 2021 with the holiday production of “A Christmas Story” — Dec. 16-19. For more information on the theater company or its productions go to stagenorththeater.com.