Don’t Hug Me returns to LA

Theater Review

Don't Hug Me by Phil Olson

Photo: Doug Engalla / Phil Olson
From left to right: Bernice (Allison Hawkstone) sings on KOLD, the radio station broadcasting from a corner of a tavern in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota, while Gunner (Andrew Carter), the host of “Crappie Talk,” and Kanute (David Pluebell), Crappie Talk’s only advertiser, look on.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

The world premiere of the new musical comedy, Don’t Hug Me, We’re Family, is the sixth in Minnesota-born playwright Phil Olson’s award-winning series of Don’t Hug Me musicals, which have now played in 200 cities.

Opening Friday, Feb. 16, at the Theater Unlimited (T.U. Studios) in the NoHo Theater and Arts district of Los Angeles, the play will run through March 25.

It is set in a North Woods tavern in Bunyan Bay, with the same unlikely constellation of characters audiences came to love in previous Don’t Hug Me productions, which began in 2003. Don’t Hug Me, We’re Family also deals with the trials and tribulations of marriage, with the added culture clash as an Italian couple from Brooklyn interacts with Scandinavians from Minnesota. As the play flyer notes, “It’s Fargo meets My Cousin Vinny (without the blood or the trial lawyers.)”

Nonetheless, everything goes wrong that possibly can—but not because of culture clash. Everyone is in the middle of a relationship meltdown. Even Gunner, the Minnesota husband who told his wife, Clara, he loved her—once. When they got married. And that was good enough until the two virtually separate, but are stuck in their daily lives together.

Hilarious twists

Don't Hug Me by Phil Olson

Photo: Doug Engalla / Phil Olson
From left to right: Kanute (David Pluebell), Aarvid (Micky Shiloah), Bernice (Allison Hawkstone), and Clare (Truett Jean Butler) shine in a wacky play full of original musical numbers.

Wacky but right-on in its observations on relationships, the play is brought to life with a multi-talented, energetic cast that acts, sings, and dances its way through an often twisted but always hilarious plot. The sheer energy exuded by the actors is impressive—and infectious. You can’t feel blue at a Don’t Hug Me show!

With music composed by Olson’s brother Paul, a Minnesota-based physician, the play includes 14 original songs and 12 North Woods radio jingles. That’s because there is a radio station in this one, occupying a corner of the local tavern in which previous plays in the series have been set. Much of the action involves the family’s programs on station KOLD, both regular scheduled shows like “Crappie Talk,” (which focuses on ice-fishing, but has no listeners) and his wife’s popular book review show, as well as uproariously impromptu moments as the characters’ private lives spill onto the air.

Incidentally, “Crappie Talk” was the title of Olson’s first play, written 20 years ago, with the characters and theme continuing to find life in the Don’t Hug Me series.

Olson grew up in Edina, Minn. His father’s grandparents emigrated from Norway and homesteaded a farm near Grand Forks, N.D. His mother’s grandparents also came from Norway and settled in Virginia, Minn. Many characters in his plays are based on people he knew growing up in Minnesota.

Scandinavian reserve
Olson was also “inspired” by the reserved nature of his Scandinavian heritage. His father would tell him that he was a Norwegian who loved his wife so much, he almost told her! Hence, the Don’t Hug Me concept.

His first play, “Crappie Talk,” which was set in a fictitious town in northern Minnesota, premiered at the same Lonny Chapman Group Rep Theatre in 1997. It wasn’t until his third play that the Don’t Hug Me concept was crystallized, with the explanatory slogan, “It’s Fargo meets The Music Man without the blood or the trombones.”

Previous installations in the Don’t Hug Me collection include Don’t Hug Me I’m Pregnant and A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol.

The current production was directed by Doug Engalla with choreography by Michelle Bernath. The cast features Truett Jean Butler, Andrew Carter, Michael Cortez, Christina Gardner, Allison Hawkstone, David Pluebell, and Micky Shiloah. Design and production crew includes Chris Winfield and Andrew “Sashi” Peterson. They are an energetic, accomplished bunch, whose precision and comedic subtleties underlie the exuberance.

And believe it or not, there was an actual hug or two!

Minneapolis-born Judith Gabriel Vinje has been a journalist for nearly 50 years, including a stint as a war correspondent. Now a Los Angeles resident, she started writing for Norway Times in 1998.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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