Sod House Theater's 'The Hoopla Train' tries to get reserved Minnesota crowds dancing

John Schaidler

John Schaidler


The Hoopla Train

Rushford Hall

There was a moment of sudden silence on Friday night at the Eagles Club #34, as Elise Langer drew the first slip of paper from the audience talent contest submissions. “Dick dance?” She paused. “Dick... dance? Remember, this has to be family-friendly.”

Encouraged by his table-mates, a white-haired man rose to step onstage. “I’m Dickie,” he said with a shy smile.

“And what do you do, Dickie?”

He looked surprised to be asked. “I dance!”

So the Chmielewski Funtime Band played a gentle waltz as Dickie took a spin around the floor with Andrea Wollenberg, the crowd applauding his well-practiced steps.

It was just another night on the Hoopla Train, a theatrical experience inspired by the American tradition of community dances and home-spun diversions. Sod House Theater, a group dedicated to serving greater Minnesota, created the show for a 2015 tour. Now, for the first time, city slickers in Minneapolis and St. Paul can hop on the train.

The Seward audience weren’t quite ready to jump in with both feet. The frequent dance breaks, with the Chmielewskis playing a polka-heavy mix of upbeat party songs, drew declining numbers of people to the floor, even with the colorfully costumed performers doing their gosh-darnedest to provide inspiration.

The Hoopla Train is a fictional variety show that’s ostensibly being broadcast live from the production’s various venues. (After the Eagles Club, the show moves on to Rushford Hall in northeast Minneapolis, then St. Paul’s Czech & Slovak Sokol.) The energetic Yardmaster Yip (Jim Lichtscheidl) serves as emcee, with a trio of sisters (Darcey Engen, Kimberly Richardson, and Langer) opening each segment with a short song.

It’s a long train (the entire show runs about two hours), with a wide range of hokey acts. There’s a ventriloquist act, a whip act, and a “sponsored” singalong promoting “Dereza Beer.” (Whatever humiliations your day entailed, don’t worry: Dereza Beer!)

The Sod House troupe includes some of the area’s best comic actors, but Hoopla Train is more about setting a vibe than providing a showcase. For all the conspicuously raucous energy, the skits aren’t quite tight or clever enough to rise to truly inspired levels.

The bits that come closest involve Eriq Nelson as Yip’s right-hand man and Richardson, whose “Tap Dancin’ Pat Jansen” sets a new bar for the creative reuse of soup cans. Luverne Seifert lasciviously roams the room in a cowboy hat and a green polyester suit that suggest a character out of Sam Shepard by way of the Coen brothers.

The Hoopla Train creators, led by Lichtscheidl, plumb the weird depths of mid-century rural showmanship, with a result that very deliberately lands somewhere between Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show.

The Hoopla Train
Various locations; through October 15