Alexandria, Minn. – The show started about midnight. High above the campfire audience at Theatre L'Homme Dieu near Alexandria, Northern Lights danced with shifting shapes and muted colors across the night sky.

"Someone looked up and said, 'What was that?' " said Matt Earley, L'Homme Dieu's production manager. "I've seen them once before, but not as swirly and active as they were the other night. They lasted about an hour."

Ah, the drama of summer camp theater. The Northern Lights were beautiful Monday night. The spider bite Tuesday not so much. Nor were the waves of mosquitoes during a morning hike, but the pickled okra at lunch got a thumbs up for its peppery goodness.

L'Homme Dieu is in its 55th season of operating in an old resort camp on Lake LeHomme Dieu (yes, it's different), two hours northwest of the Twin Cities. The beach is down the hill, across the road and through the trees. A big lodge, two cabins and the Bursch Family Hall (the theater) sit on a grassy plateau.

The theater is an example of how the arts have become part of the "destination" for "destination vacation spots." Those who want to fish, play golf, bike, hike or camp can also scratch the itch for some performance.

Twelve singers from Vocal-Essence and actor Don Shelby christened the summer with "River Songs and Tales With Mark Twain," a mix of monologues and 10 songs. This Sunday, Yellow Tree Theatre of Osseo will move into the white and green-trimmed cabins for a week to perform the Tony-winning musical "Next to Normal." At the end of the month, Troupe America's Johnny Cash tribute, "Ring of Fire," expected to be the summer's biggest hit, will do its six shows and then clear out for the next of seven season productions.

"Theatre L'Homme Dieu is northwest Minnesota's Old Log Theater," said Shelby. (It must be noted that Shelby was not sharing the spartan quarters; he had his family at nearby Arrowwood Resort.) "It is kept going by a community that cares about music and the arts. This is a cosmopolitan country town."

There are other such towns. In southern Minnesota, Winona has two highly regarded festivals — Great River Shakespeare and Minnesota Beethoven — going through July while little Lanesboro — thick with bed-and-breakfasts — is a complete tourist town with the Root River, a bike trail and Commonweal Theater, the second-biggest business in town. Up North, lots of merchants have shut down in tiny Akeley, but the Woodtick Theatre amazingly stays open. The Northern Lights Music Festival brings arts to the Iron Range.

St. Cloud, Moorhead and Duluth all have theaters and music. The granddaddy of them all is Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji. The company, headed this summer by artistic director Zach Curtis, will run five shows including the musical "Spamalot" in an old movie theater near the lake. Bunyan uses lots of Twin Cities talent, who appreciate both the week of fresh air and fans who are proud that their community values the arts.

It's not easy

Like Paul Bunyan Playhouse many years ago, L'Homme Dieu had a moment of crisis in 2008, when St. Cloud State University said it no longer wanted to run the operation with students and a company of professional actors who had at one point done 10 shows over 11 weeks each summer.

Jack Reuler, artistic director of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, was directing a show that summer and proposed that the company alter its business model. Instead of building productions like true summer stock, why not bring in shows that had been produced elsewhere? Presenting is far cheaper than producing and audiences appreciated the chance to see a play that might have been at the Guthrie, such as "God of Carnage," which played L'Homme Dieu three summers ago.

"Jack saved the place," said Vern Jackson, unofficial tender of the 15 acres of land. "Jack and Fred Bursch."

Bursch runs the statewide Bursch Travel agency from his home in "Alec," as the locals call it. His father was a founding patron and the theater itself is called the Bursch Family Hall. Inside is the Wedum Foundation Lobby — a screened-in porch — and the Golberg Family box office.

"It has a certain cachet," Bursch understated, looking across the lodge at an opening night reception. "It's nothing fancy, but it works."

Local hero

It was old home week as Shelby, director Jon Cranney and Reuler stopped into KXRA Radio on Tuesday morning to promote "River Songs and Tales." Shelby owned a home on nearby Lake Ida for 30 years and asks about everyone by first name.

"You and I met in the nuts and screws aisle," he said to host Dennis Anhalt, on the air.

"That's right," said Anhalt, reading a commercial for Ace Hardware, where air compressors and flexagon hoses were on sale and as always, the racks next to the cash register had Australian licorice, dill pickles and Anti Monkey Butt powder.

For 45 minutes, Shelby and his mates discussed Twain, who has provided the former WCCO anchorman an immersive hobby in retirement. "River Songs" is a second iteration of a solo Twain show he tours.

"I'm just a big showoff; I always have been," he said. "That's why I got into TV."

Shelby, a VocalEssence board member, suggested to artistic director Philip Brunelle that they try to "smuggle some art into the entertainment" by using a choral group to sing 10 songs about rivers and water, to weave between Twain stories. Cranney staged the work and Tesfa Wondemagegnehu, VocalEssence associate director, conducted the ensemble.

Shelby sees himself more as an educator than an actor, though there is a lot of the latter in his performance. He disappears behind the wig, hawkish nose (made from gelatin) and mustache that take him two hours in makeup. He slumps into the shoulders of Twain's rumpled white suit, muttering in a Missouri drawl by way of Connecticut — where Twain lived many years.

Shelby made a living off his voice and the instrument is terrific. He drops some words, though, leaving punch lines dead on the table.

Those are critical notes that he and Cranney can hash out. The audience loved the mix of Twain's witticisms, VocalEssence's usual artistry and the whimsical presence of Sara Pajunen, who plays fiddle and wanders barefoot through scene transitions like a kid on a riverbank.

Many hands

Patrons at a Monday fundraiser filled the main lodge, which is reminiscent of Bing Crosby's "Holiday Inn" film set. Shelby, in a white seersucker suit and brown bow tie — but not full makeup — recited a couple of his greatest Twain hits and VocalEssence sang "Shenandoah."

The audience cried for more but Shelby reminded them that they would need to pay for more at the performances later in the week.

And of course they do pay, gladly. The donors that night gave $3,000, matched by the locally rooted Wedum Foundation.

Caretaker Jackson, whose final assignment as a naval officer was in London 20 years ago, moved back to his hometown and got involved because he had sampled the arts worldwide. He and his wife, Paula, get to Minneapolis for shows and love rubbing elbows with actors at L'Homme.

"I brought all the seats up from Burnsville and the next week I was on the board of directors," he said. "It's a labor of love for most of us who are in this building tonight."

Board member Lisa Gustafson moved to Alexandria with her husband, Adam, and three girls about eight years ago. L'Homme Dieu gives her the feeling she is part of something artistic, a whiff of the big city in the North Woods.

Camp life

The pickled okra kept coming up in discussion as Vocal-Essence singers ate lunch on the sunny porch on Tuesday. It was unfamiliar, but the taste was OK.

Suddenly, tenor Bill Pederson threw open the screen doors.

"Does anyone know anything about spiders?" he asked with some urgency. "Is this poisonous?"

Pederson had in a jar a wolf spider probably 2 inches long. The spider had crawled into Pederson's black shirt and when the singer got dressed, it bit him near the armpit.

Assured he might get a swollen, itchy mark but nothing poisonous, Pederson followed instructions and flushed the spider. He looked fine on stage that night. Crisis averted. Life in the woods has its surprises.

Reuler, who uses his role as a board member as a legitimate reason to head north each week, sat with a visitor on the beach Monday afternoon.

"Opening L'Homme Dieu is the highlight of my year," he said.

Why wouldn't it be?

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299