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'Deer Camp' brings 'familiar' characters to The Barn stage

Any excuse for a "beer can salute" is a good enough excuse. "Deer Camp," the musical, will be staged at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at The Barn Theatre in downtown Willmar. (Submitted photo)

"Deer Camp'' is a lighthearted, laugh-a-minute musical about four brewski-loving buddies who gather at their hunting shack with an ultimatum hanging over their heads.

"Get a deer or else,'' is the parting message from their wives.

If that sounds like a familiar pickle for a deer hunter close to home, well it should.

The appeal of this silly, if not goofy musical is its familiarity. "Everybody knows somebody like them,'' said the guy who knows them best of all, the play's creator, Gene Jurek of Waite Park.

"Deer Camp'' is coming to The Barn Theatre for two performances on Saturday, and it arrives with some pretty serious Willmar connections.

Anslo "Moose'' Johnson, by no means the smartest of the four hunters, is played by 1979 Willmar High School graduate Mike Johnson.

"Moose'' and his hunting buddies "Diesel,'' Doogski'' and "Digger" do a lot of crooning in their shack. Their humorous songs are all the creations of Doug Spartz. He is a native of Sacred Heart and Willmar (1957-62) who later moved to Hackensack. He is now living in Pine River.

Spartz has won a national audience for his music, most notably his 2006 release of an emotional collection of songs called "American Stories, Lies and Tales.''

"Deer Camp" carries a different tune, with songs like "The Meatloaf is Glowing" and "Staying Young is Getting Old.''

Blame it all on the play's creator. Jurek made his career on the West Coast in advertising and marketing before returning home and doing what he always wanted to do: write a popular play.

And popular it is. "Deer Camp'' opened in St. Cloud a few years ago and filled the house night-after-night. Jurek also sold the rights to produce the play to the Pioneer Place in St. Paul. It put together its own cast with plans for a six-week run. It turned into a seven-month streak of sold-out performances.

One patron wet her pants she had laughed so hard, said Jurek.

The "Deer Camp'' cast members coming to The Barn Theatre are the originals from St. Cloud.

Jurek said he did some research before he decided to write "Deer Camp.'' He found that people love musical comedies, especially anything related to Minnesota. He also discovered that one Minnesota topic had somehow escaped the comic's scrutiny: deer camp.

He took it from there, taking advantage of all the clichés and in the process putting together a musical he admits "has absolutely no social redeeming value.'' It offers something else in high demand right now: lots and lots of laughs.

Ironically, Jurek said he wrote the musical during a very trying time in his own life. He was spending his days as a full-time caregiver for his wife, who had terminal cancer.

Writing the play helped him keep his sanity, he said.

He gives much of the credit for its success to his long-time friend Spartz. He said the songwriter-musician turned his ideas into creations "100 times better'' than what he had in mind.

Spartz said he was unsure about getting involved at first. The musical's silliness is out-of-character for him, and he wasn't really expecting great things from it. But his friend urged him along, and Spartz said he is glad he did. The play has proven to be one of his best commercial successes.

Like the songwriter, Johnson, the actor, confessed he too knew little of what he was getting into when he auditioned for the play. Johnson said his roles in community theater had usually had been in children's productions.

Jurek said the instant the large-framed Johnson walked into the audition he had him pegged. "There's Moose.''

Johnson said he's been having lots of fun being Moose ever since, even if in real life he is not a hunter or deer shack kind of guy.

Johnson admits he is a little nervous about coming home to Willmar to perform.

He certainly has some challenges in doing so. The success of "Deer Camp'' led Jurek to write a second production, "Deer Camp II: The Hunt for Sneaky Pete.'' Johnson and the original cast have been performing the second version, but must now switch gears and get back into their original roles for the Willmar performance.

Toughest of all, Johnson knows his mother will be in The Barn Theatre audience.

She'll have lots of company, according to Cheri Buzzeo, executive director of The Barn. Buzzeo said tickets sales for the play have been hot. "I think it will be a lot of fun,'' said Buzzeo.

It's really only the start: Jurek and songwriter Spartz are putting the final touches on the third in the Deer Camp series. "Holy Bells, a Deer Camp Christmas'' should be ready for the stage about the time that the orange clad crowd heads back out to the woods.