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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Don't Hug Me:
Cheery Musical For The Winter Season

Also see Bob's review of Cymbeline

John Little and Clark Carmichael
Don't Hug Me, the intimate musical comedy from Minnesota by way of Los Angeles, has been making its way about the country pleasing audiences since its 2003 West Coast premiere. It has now arrived at the usually more serious minded New Jersey Rep as a bauble for the joyous holiday season. And while it breaks no new ground, it proves to be a clever and agreeable fun evening in the theatre. This is quite an accomplishment when one considers that the gags are truly terrible (which seems to be the point) and the story centers on a karaoke machine and its ability to change lives.

We find ourselves in the Bunyan, a small, rural bar in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota on the coldest day of the year. Gunner wants to sell the bar and move to the warmth of Florida, but his wife Clara is determined to stay as she loves the pleasures of ice fishing and her memories of being Queen of the local Winter Carnival. Omnipresent is their waitress Bernice who shares Clara's feelings about Bunyan Bay. They sing, "I'm a Walleye Woman in a Crappie Town/ ... but I'm never moving away/ hey hey, hey, hey." Bernice is engaged to the foolishly self-important and acquisitive supply store owner Kanute. The events that ensue are initiated by the arrival on the scene of Aarvid, a young and enthusiastic karaoke system salesmen.

No spoilers here! We are treated to a series of comic songs and sketches involving lots of feudin' and fussin' among our five protagonists and a happy ending that finds Gunner and Clara back in love, Bernice and Aarvid in thrall to each other, and the ridiculous Kanute fuming.

The authors are brothers Phil Olson (book and lyrics) and Paul Olson (music). The former is a California based playwright (with some minor film credits), and the later is a nephrologist in Minnesota, who has always been an accomplished musician. Based on the happy, uncynical, tongue-in-cheek nature of their writing, they might be described as the anti-Coen brothers. The conceit of the music is that the songs are cornball Prairie Home Companion-like adaptations of the styles of famous composers and performers.

At times, the music is more evocative than it is at others. For example, "written by Swen Jorgensen in his Madonna phase" is "He Wore a Purple Tux," a prostitute's lament ("He was a gentleman, he paid me fifty bucks/ And I went back to the V.F.W., to find another purple tux"). Most of these songs are intentionally tacky, yet at the same time manage to be pleasant, lively and amusing. The music is recorded, but this is less of a negative than one might expect because it is mostly represents the sound of the karaoke machine (or the radio).

The entire cast performs with gusto and high spiritedness. Each performer takes advantage of any number of opportunities to shine, and the alphabetical billing is as it should be. Clark Carmichael delightfully projects Kanute's pig-headed, self-centered foolishness in a likeable, broad performance without winking at the audience or otherwise distancing himself from Kanute's ridiculousness. The key here is his excellent comic timing. John Little's Gunner is irascible, but almost always has an observant comic twinkle in his eye that makes it clear that he is not far from reaching out to his Clara and restoring their happiness. He even gets to sing a gay '90s style waltz, "Last Night I Dreamed," with homespun charm. Cortnie Loren Miller's Bernice is bright and dynamic. She performs with show business pizzazz as a waitress whose dream of becoming a professional singer is given impetus by the arrival of Aarvid and his jukebox. Michael Nathanson is a bundle of charm and eager enthusiasm as Aarvid. His likeability and vulnerability are precisely what is needed here. Darcie Siciliano brings a sense of joy to Clara's confident and gritty determination not to lose control of her life.

As it is wont to do on occasion, NJ Rep is utilizing the inner lobby-reception area rather than the main stage for this production. The long narrow space proves most felicitous for Don't Hug Me as it allows for the design of a large and richly detailed tavern set (kudos to designer Quinn K. Stone), and the entire audience can feel that it is within the confines of the Bunyan. Director Gail Winar has kept things moving at a brisk pace and elicited uniformly excellent performances. Note to the director: John Little and Darcie appear far apart in age, and no mention is made of this in the script. This makes it sound odd when Gunner speaks of going to Florida "before we die." Changing the word "we" to "I" would instantly allow the audience to see their age differential as integral to the piece.

There is a visual triumph in her production which is particularly fine. It is at the top of the second act and Gunner and Kanute are standing back of the bar drinking and (for laughs) foolishly lamenting the ascendance of Aarvid and his karaoke machine at the Bunyan, The former is wearing a red and black striped lumberjack's cap (and striped shirt) and the latter a Russian fur hat (and a reindeer sweater), strongly evoking memories of the 1940's "Road" pictures of Bing Crosby (Gunner) and Bob Hope (Kanute). In the context of Don't Hug Me's style of corny comedy, this was a perfect image to put a warm smile on my face. Now Gail Winar may not have been thinking of the Crosby-Hope road pictures, but, unless she disabuses me of my notion of her intent here, I won't believe that.

Don't Hug Me continues performances (Eves: Thurs-Sat. 8 p.m./ Mats: Sat 3 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through December 31, 2006 at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online

Don't Hug Me Book and Lyrics by Phil Olson; Music by Paul Olson; directed by Gail Winar

Cast (in alphabetical order)
Kanute……………Clark Carmichael
Gunner………………………John Little
Bernice……….Cortnie Loren Miller
Aarvid………….Michael Nathanson
Clara…………………Darcie Siciliano

Photo: SuzAnne Barabas

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- Bob Rendell

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