A “Don’t Hug Me” Sequel Opens in L.A.

With Song, Dance and Minnesota Spoofing

L to R: Tom Lommel, Judith Heneghan, Tom Gibis, Katherine Brunk and Brad MacDonald. Photo: Doug Engalla.

L to R: Tom Lommel, Judith Heneghan, Tom Gibis, Katherine Brunk and Brad MacDonald. Photo: Doug Engalla.

By JUDITH GABRIEL VINJE
Los Angeles, California

The world premiere of the new musical, “A Don’t Hug Me County Fair,” is drawing peals of laughter from Los Angeles audiences – even if they don’t come from Minnesota, even if they’re not Norwegian American. But it helps if you’re familiar with the lay of the land, have gone fishing for walleye, and know the dialect. Rural Minnesota dialect, that is.

The hilarious, quirky play, which opened Feb. 6 at the Lonny Chapman Repertory Theater in North Hollywood, is the third in a series of hit musicals written by award-winning Norwegian-American Phil Olson – born in Edina, Minnesota but now Los Angeles-based.  (And yes, he’s gone fishing plenty of times.)

The setting is county fair time in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota. Gunner and Clara Johnson, owners of a little bar called The Bunyan, are setting their sights on winning the fishing contest and the Miss Walleye queen competition.  But there’s competition for the queen title between Gunner’s wife Clara (who hopes she’s not too old), and the very pretty waitress, Bernice. And when Gunner’s twin sister, Trigger, shows up in the beauty pageant, things get complicated – and riotously funny.

The play bursts to life with 18 original song routines, with music written by Paul Olson, the playwright’s physician brother.  Phil writes the lyrics to numbers such as “Who’s Better Catching Fish,” or “My Campfire is Burning for You” and “I Lll-urv Her,” relating to the overarching theme of the Don’t Hug Me series: that it’s difficult for many folks with a Minnesota or Scandinavian connection to express their feelings!

Photo: Doug Engalla.

This is the third installment in the series which was launched when the original “Don’t Hug Me” first opened in Los Angeles in November 2003, becoming the longest running musical comedy in Los Angeles when it closed after six smash hit months.  It then moved to Minneapolis where it ran for nine months.

A winter sequel, “A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol,” was chosen Best Musical of the Year in Los Angeles.

Judging from audience reaction, the new installment is expected to have an extended run in North Hollywood, and then will go on to play in seven other cities around the country in the next few months.  The seven cities are Hudson, Wisconsin; St. Cloud, Pequot Lakes, and Alexandria, Minnesota; Webster City, Iowa; New Rockford, North Dakota: and Port Clinton, Ohio.

The three Don’t Hug Me musicals have played in over 90 cities around the U.S. and Canada.  And there’s talk of a TV series in the works, according to the playwright.

Olson had earlier success with his “Crappie Talk,” also set in a Minnesota bar; and the more socially complex “A Nice Family Gathering” about a Norwegian-American who loved his wife so much, “he almost told her.” Both received several awards in playwriting festivals and competitions.

There’s no denying that the play catches many aspects of the Midwestern Norwegian American personality –

Playwrite Olsen goes fishing

Playwrite Olson goes fishing.

including that certain sense of reserve and social distance that playwright Phil Olson has dealt with in all his “Don’t Hug Me” plays.  But the performances are anything but reserved, full of rollicking fun, whacky humor, and good-natured spoofing.

They’re also full of talent, with polished dance routines choreographed by Stan Mazin and superb acting by the cast, Katherine Brunk, Tina Gibis, Tom Gibis, Judy Heneghan, Tom Lommel and Brad MacDonald.  The play is directed by Doug Engalla, and produced by Engalla and Stefanie Ibanez.  The wonderfully believable set of the Bunyan Bar was designed by Chris Winfield.

Playwright Olson will step onto the boards for one performance, playing the role of Gunner, at a special Sons of Norway matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29.

The play’s website is www.adonthugmecountyfair.com.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly on March 6, 2009. To subscribe or find out more, call us toll free at (800) 305-0217 or email naw@norway.com.

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