Peggy Hanson, Beth Hennessey, Julie Kiehne and Elizabeth Fuglestad perform as the Rhubarb Sisters on May 31 for the prelude concert of Rhubarb Fest. COURTESY OF BETH HENNESSEY
Peggy Hanson, Beth Hennessey, Julie Kiehne and Elizabeth Fuglestad perform as the Rhubarb Sisters on May 31 for the prelude concert of Rhubarb Fest. COURTESY OF BETH HENNESSEY
The time for festivals is at hand. With Rhubarb Fest a mere week away, life can get hectic for those involved in the performances, games and competitions.

A Rhubarb Sisters concert is held as a prelude to the celebration at 7:30 p.m. at the St. Mane Theatre on Saturday, May 31. Then, a week later, Rhubarb Fest begins with the opening ceremony at 10 a.m. on June 7.

One integral part of the fest is the Rhubarb Sisters and their daytime appearance and full-blown show later on in the evening. Months of rehearsals and preparations are required for the group's show at the fest.

The Rhubarb Sisters began less than a decade ago to spread "their rhubarb message of hope and good cheer." Though members have changed throughout the years, their message remains the same. And they want to keep sharing with the community through Lanesboro's Rhubarb Fest.

When Beth Hennessey and her family moved to Lanesboro several years ago, they went to see just what Rhubarb Fest was. There, she met Peggy Hanson who sought to utilize Hennessey's musical ability in playing the piano.

"I told her I can't really play accompanying someone, but I can arrange music. Then she asked if I could arrange Garrison Keillor's 'Bebop-a-rebop Rhubarb Pie' to three voices," Hennessey said.

The next year, she asked Hanson if she still wanted the song, but because schedules could not work for one of the singers, Hennessey stepped in. Eventually, she became deeply involved in the Rhubarb Sisters singing group, rehearsing with Hanson and Stela Burdt from the Commonweal Theatre and traveling around with them to gigs as far north as Duluth and into Iowa.

After 2007 and the opportunity to sing on Keillor's Minnesota Public Radio show, "Prairie Home Companion," Burdt became more involved in the Commonweal, necessitating her withdrawal from the group.

Enter Julie Kiehne as the "extra-stalk" to fill in. At first Kiehne was not sure about fully committing to the group, but she found she loved it and has remained in it ever since.

At first, the group began as a trio, but when Robin Scheu suggested a fourth voice in the "Bepob" song, she was elected and the trio became a quartet. Scheu was then replaced by Elizabeth Fuglestad after she married and moved to Madison.

Five years ago, the Rhubarb Sisters added a full-length show to their itinerary at the Rhubarb Fest during the night of the festival.

"We have done four and this year is the fifth show at the St. Mane Theatre. There are different themes each year. This year we are doing the show as a prelude to the festival because Peggy's son is getting married on the day of Rhubarb Fest," Hennessey commented.

"The show is on May 31 and it is 'Everything's coming up Rhubarb.' Usually we do the show the night of the festival and sing a capella during the day," she continued.

Planning for the show often does not take much time for Hennessey to get ideas on the themes.

"The show is my baby. I write the lyrics and script and put everything together," she related. "Usually, I have ideas and new songs ready for the next year before Rhubarb Fest is over, but last year they did not come until September."

Hennessey is also involved in the Chatfield Brass Band. When the band played for the first vintage baseball game in September, she and Bethany Krom brainstormed ideas to use for this year's festival show.

"Bethany thought Broadway musicals would be easy to make parodies for," Hennessey noted.

Some of the songs are borrowed from musicals like "The Sound of Music."

"Rhubarb is about creativity and using what is there. People get creative in the Rhubarb Fest making Rhubarb Ketchup and Rhubarb Chili. We will be intermixing poetry and musicals in our rhubarb show," she said.

With the idea to use Broadway musicals and parodying some of their songs, Hennessey got to work writing and arranging the music. Finally, in January, rehearsals began with the Sisters.

"We rehearse every Monday, so we start rehearsing the songs for the show in January," Hennessey related.

Since spring is the time rhubarb grows, it is often a busy time for their gigs, though they are not searching for gigs, just letting themselves be requested. Last year in May they had gigs every week prior to Rhubarb Fest, ensuring a busy month of prep for the Sisters. This year they have had two gigs. Many of the songs they sing during the day of Rhubarb Fest come from the selections of songs they sing a capella at the gigs.

This time of year also signals a busier time for the individual women in their own personal lives. Sometimes, Hennessy admitted, the singers are only able to rehearse for one hour productively because of all the appointments and errands.

In addition to all the rehearsals for the group, Hennessey also brings a technical aspect to the Rhubarb Fest preparation.

"Another way I help the Sisters to learn their parts is to make four CDs of the songs on one of my computer programs," she explained. "Each CD focuses on the part that lady is singing being louder than the other parts. I spend a lot of time in the car playing the CD and singing along with it and annoying my kids."

This year, the show will be a week ahead of the fest. With Hanson unavailable during the weekend of Rhubarb Fest, Burdt will be making a comeback appearance with the group during the performances at the festival. The week prior to the show and Rhubarb Fest generally becomes more stressful with the technical rehearsals at the St. Mane Theatre.

"It is a crazy week. It is a little stressful on the first rehearsal because the people don't know their lines. They don't need to be memorized, but they are to be interactive and theatrical. Until the show actually happens, I'm not entirely sure if we will get it ready," Hennessey explained.

Then, there are the other activities of the Rhubarb Fest that the Sisters occasionally participate in. A few years ago, Hennessey entered the tasting contest for the various ways to cook rhubarb. If she or any other Sister enters this, they also have to take the time to make the dish.

They have also speculated entering in the Rhubarb Run, ending at 10 a.m., dressed in their costumes and trademark high-top tennis shoes.

When the actual fest begins then, they are to sing the Rhubarb National Anthem in the opening ceremony and afterwards begin their performance. This performance will feature different songs than the show.

Much preparing goes into Rhubarb Fest, and this is not just cooking and thinking of games. The Rhubarb Sisters add a very distinctive flavor to the Fest and help to attract outsiders by promoting the festival throughout the year during their other performances.

The prelude show begins at 7:30 p.m. at the St. Mane Theatre on Saturday, May 31. Rhubarb Fest begins with the opening ceremony at 10 a.m. on June 7.

If anyone wants to be immersed in rhubarb songs and food, take a drive down to Lanesboro for the show this weekend and the festival next weekend.