“Don’t Hug Me—We’re Married”

New Phil Olson play premieres in Los Angeles

Photo: Doug Engalla Bert Emmett, Troy Whitaker, and Truett Jean Butler light up the stage in this new “Don’t Hug Me” play from Phil Olson.

Photo: Doug Engalla
Bert Emmett, Troy Whitaker, and Truett Jean Butler light up the stage in this new “Don’t Hug Me” play from Phil Olson.

Judith Gabriel Vinje
Los Angeles

The world premiere of the new musical comedy, “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married,” proves that you can’t have too much of a good thing. This is the fifth 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, Oct. 3, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep Theatre in North Hollywood, a Los Angeles theater district, the play runs through November 15, playing Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Set in a north woods bar in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota, with the same unlikely constellation of characters audiences came to love in previous “Don’t Hug Me” productions, this one also deals with marriage: surviving it or starting it.

The wacky plot twists include a mosquito invasion curfew that threatens to halt the waitress’s wedding plans. Then there are the uproarious romantic yearnings of a busty forest ranger of questionable gender, unforgettably played by Don Schlossman, who also plays the bar owner currently competing with his wife for who is the best spouse. Thus, the plot hinges on whether one marriage will survive, and another one will ever get started.

Everything goes wrong that possibly can. 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.

With music composed by Phil’s brother, Paul, a Minnesota-based physician, the play includes 16 original songs, including “The Greatest Love Song Ever,” “The Marriage Test,” and “We’re All Gonna Die.” There’s even a nod to the famous Minnesota-born troubadour in “The Day Bob Dylan Was Here.”

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.

He 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.”

The current production was directed by Doug Engalia, with choreography by Stan Mazin. The cast includes Rebekah Dunn as the long-suffering wife Clara; Don Schlossman as her husband Gunner (and the cross-dressing “sister”), Bert Emmett as Kanute, Truett Jean Butler as the new bride-to-be, and Troy Whitaker as Aarvid.

Olson now has 14 published plays that have had more than 300 productions around the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Eight of his plays has been published by Samuel French. 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.”

And while his plays have won awards and rave reviews wherever they are staged, it’s the response of the audiences that serve to keep Olson writing more “Don’t Hug Me” productions.
By the way, his favorite audiences are those in Minnesota, as well as the many Sons of Norway members among his fans. “They love this,” he said.

Judging from the audience response to his Los Angeles world premiere, they love it everywhere! It may have both subtle and obvious references to Minnesota Scandinavian-American culture, but the life issues the characters must work out are universal.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.