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Oulu players put community in theater

The Von Trapp children surround Maria, played by Marjorie Falter, as she bends over to talk to Gretl, front left, played by Jade Wahlberg, during rehearsal for "The Sound of Music" Thursday at the Workshop in Oulu. They are, clockwise from left, Maura Lubbers as Louisa, Lucie Landwehr as Friedrich, Emily Weiss as Liesl, Sam Swanson as Kurt, Summer Wahlberg as Marta and Belle Bates as Brigitta. Maria Lockwood

Community comes first at the Oulu Community Theater.

For 23 years, the group has been providing much more than entertainment. Since the theater's first production, "Bye Bye Birdie," proceeds from the every-other-year shows have provided more than $57,000 to local youth programs. The money has been poured into baseball diamonds, 4-H clubs, a summer school program at the Oulu Heritage Center, the Iron River library, homeschool needs, Northwestern High School's grand piano fund, South Shore School District projects, robotics programs and more.

"We need to give back," said director Eunice Laakso. "It's our responsibility to give back, to do things that make the world a little better."

The volunteers come from all walks of life. Many find talents they didn't know they had.

"We love it; we've had so much fun," said Iva Morelli, who joined the cast this year with her husband of 48 years, Louie.

Music director Marjorie Falter, who plays the role of Maria, invited them. Neither had ever acted on stage before. With the help of Falter and Laakso, they're having a ball.

"We sing and we dance and he has lines and I've got a few unlined parts," Iva Morelli said.

Their fancy footwork during the dance scene is impressive, said Brenda Mehtala, who plays Baroness Elsa Schraeder.

"She does have one line," Louie Morelli said of his wife. "She says 'Shhh.' She's worked on it for two months and she's finally got it."

Many of the actors on stage got their start in the audience. Maura Lubbers, 15, came to watch her friend Lucie Landwehr in "The Music Man" in 2014.

"By intermission I was like, 'Mom, I want to do this,'" said Lubbers, who plays Louisa Von Trapp, a nun and a goatherd dancer. "That was how I got started. I did 'Mary Poppins' and I loved it; and I wanted to be here as long as possible."

Heidi Paulson, 14, has been cheering from the audience for years. Although she's performed many times at the Duluth Playhouse, working with the Oulu Community Theater has been a new experience.

"It definitely feels a lot more homey because everyone is so close, everyone is just like a family here," said Paulson, who plays Ursula the maid, a nun, a concert judge and a goatherd dancer.

Sometimes family members literally share the stage. Sisters Jade and Summer Wahlberg, 7 and 9, play the two youngest Von Trapp sisters. Paulson's mother, Nancy, joined the cast as a nun, a party guest and a judge. Mehtala and Falter both have grandchildren in the play.

"They're a great group of people to be with," said Emily Weiss, 17, who plays Liesel Von Trapp. "Some of them, they're not my aunts but I call them my aunts and uncles. That's how close all of us are."

It's a supportive group for newcomers and long-time actors like Mehtala, who has been in every production.

"You must do it with your friends, and I do love the fun and the camaraderie," she said.

The nonprofit Oulu Community Theater is open to all.

"Come on, jump on board," Laakso said. "There's always going to be a place for you."

The productions allow these volunteers to give back, play and let community members shine.

"None of us are pros at this at all up here," Mehtala said.

"But the talent that comes out," said Nancy Paulson.

"It's amazing," Mehtala said.

There will be 11 performances of "The Sound of Music" at the Workshop in Oulu. Dinner theater performances take place at 6:30 p.m. April 12-14 and April 19-21; show-only performances take place at 7 p.m. April 17, and at 1:30 and 6 p.m. April 15 and April 22. Tickets are $10 for the show only, $25 for the dinner theater.

Call (715) 372-8493 or (715) 372-4102 to reserve tickets.