THE WEDGE — Having gigged around southern Minnesota’s small-town bars and farm-country wineries for most of a decade as The Frye, Joe Tougas and Ann Rosenquist Fee are by this point used to being mistaken for a couple.
“Our thing on stage I think suggests that we are married. Happily,” Tougas said. “… A group of strangers will always go, ‘Oh, you sound nice. Now, are you two married?’”
The question was common enough that the two got a lot of practice with their favorite deadpan retort: “Not anymore.” You imagine someone shifting uncomfortably on her barstool, her fingers tightening around a glass of sugary Frontenac gris.
In “The Best of Hank and Rita,” Tougas and Rosenquist Fee channel some of that onstage chemistry into their roles as a fictional musical duo in the twilight of their careers — and their marriage.
The “barroom operetta” takes place one night circa 1986, roughly a decade after Hank and Rita’s 1970s heyday. Their AM Gold-era hits still shimmer, but after years of playing to shrinking audiences in backwater venues, the shine has come off their personal and professional partnership.
Hank doesn’t know it when they step on stage, but there’s a letter from Rita waiting for him in their dressing room. This is the end.
A brief tour of the state has “The Best of Hank and Rita” stopping at Bryant-Lake Bowl three times in three months, with other performances scheduled in New Ulm, Duluth and Northfield. The show debuted with two sold-out performances in Mankato, right in the middle of The Frye’s home territory.
(Full disclosure: Tougas previously worked as an arts reporter at the Mankato Free Press, where his tenure briefly overlapped with this reporter’s.)
Tougas (acoustic guitar and vocals) and Rosenquist Fee (vocals) have played to Minneapolis audiences at the Mad Ripple Hootenanny hosted by musician and Southwest Journal columnist Jim Walsh, who wrote in an email that “all the Hoot’s regulars are big fans” of The Frye. (“They’ll kill it at BLB,” Walsh predicted.)
The members of The Frye, who both work in marketing by day, said the band’s origins date back seven or eight years. They were both playing with a larger ensemble, Blue Velveeta, when a friend asked them to perform a couple of duets at a wedding: some John Denver tune neither can recall and Jonny Cash’s “If I Were a Carpenter.”
Rosenquist Fee said it at first felt “like the corniest thing in the world” reviving the ’70s radio hits both grew up listening to. Her next thought: “Holy cow, this is a blast.”
The Frye started out essentially as an AM Gold cover band, but “then that morphed into wanting to write (original) songs that kind of felt that way,” Rosenquist Fee said.
Tougas said it was two summers ago, as they drove home together from a gig at the Indian Creek Winery in Janesville — where they’d gotten the “Are you married?” question for approximately the one-millionth time — when the two began joking about faking an onstage breakup.
“In a 20-minute ride home, that joking around grew into this idea of what was originally going to be a play,” he said.
Tougas applied for and won both a state and a regional arts board grant as he chipped away at the script and the songwriting. Eventually, he and Rosenquest Fee had an album’s worth of Hank and Rita songs, and they decided to replace the script with mostly improvised in-character banter.
“We’re very natural at all that,” Tougas said. “She’s very natural at wincing when I talk, and I’m not frightened anymore of being up there not knowing what I’m going to say next. I’ve been doing that now for like seven years, and it’s just fine.”
What the audience sees is basically Hank and Rita’s final live set — although clueless Hank doesn’t know that yet when the performance begins. They take turns digging up gems from their back catalog, and while Hank’s picks are their most upbeat, starry-eyed-lover tunes, Rita counters each time with songs about breakups and romantic betrayal.
“They’re all of a sudden having that conversation that splitting-up people have,” Tougas said. “One person is like, ‘No, come on, we’ve got all this.’ The other person is like, ‘Yeah, but you blew it.’”
Is there an encore for Hank and Rita? You’ll have to stick around until the end to see.
“The Best of Hank and Rita”
When: Aug. 23, Sept. 13 and Oct. 11. Doors at 6 p.m. and show at 7 p.m. each night.
Where: Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St.
Info: Tickets are $15 ($12 in advance). hankandrita.com