Don’t Hug Me opened this weekend at the Fire Hall Theatre, the second to last show of the community theatre group’s 65th season. Set in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota, the musical follows the adventures of Clara and Gunnar Johnson (Beth McDougal and Mark Magness), owners of the Paul Bunyan bar, their barmaid Bernice (Rachel Horton) who harbors secret ambitions of a life in show biz, her fiancée Kanute (Steve Finney) whose Neanderthal bumbling causes problems in their relationship, and fast-talking Karaoke Machine salesman Aarvid (Brad Werner) who comes to the Bunyan looking to make a buck off his latest product, the LSS 526, and ends up making a mostly light-hearted mess out of the two couples’ love lives.
The show relies very heavily on stereotypical Minnesota-isms, to the point of eye-rolling ridiculousness (after so many “Oh fer…” one liners, the comedy does start to wear a little thin) but this repetitiveness is handled well by the entire cast. Horton and McDougal are especially good at taking the somewhat hokey material and delivering it with sincerity, as well as with a little wink and a nod. Toward the end, McDougal and Magness share some more serious moments, contemplating the possible end of their longterm marriage because they can’t agree on whether to stay in Minnesota or move to Florida, that give both actors a chance to show a much greater emotional range in their relationship than is afforded to the other characters, and both explore this territory in a way that is honest and well-played. Horton and Finney also have their share of relationship problems, and the play ends with their pending summer engagement broken, but their whole story is played for laughs. Bernice’s flirtation with Aarvid, and Kanute’s jealous over-reaction, are meant to entertain. Their strange coupling does not have the same sincerity as that of Clara and Gunnar, and the audience can almost see the end of their relationship from the moment Kanute is introduced as Bernice’s fiancée.
All 5 cast members are capable if imperfect singers, but even that works well with the show itself: because the musical uses the device of the karaoke machine to “explain” the characters spontaneously breaking out into song, the fact that they sound less like musical impresarios and more like real people with good singing voices gives the show another level of homey charm. The songs themselves are very funny, each one introduced as one of the great hits of fictional Norwegian singing sensation Sven Yorgensen; many of the songs parody famous musical acts like Elvis, John Denver, Madonna, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and are introduced as such (i.e., “This song was written during Sven Yorgensen’s Gilbert and Sullivan phase!”) This bit of repetition actually remains amusing through the run of the show, listening for the musical influences in the songs. One of the funniest is “Little Ernie Eelpout,” modeled after “Puff the Magic Dragon” about a fish who swims and plays with a boy in a boat – a boy who grows up to be the man who catches, filets, and fries him for dinner.
As I said, the one-off jokes about the way Minnesotans supposedly talk do get a little old, and there is a series of jokes about Aarvid pretending to be gay to hide his attraction for Bernice from Kanute that toe the line between mildly amusing and mildly offensive, but overall the show has a certain homespun charisma that pulls you in and keeps you chuckling at the small town shenanigans. When McDougal and Magness have their serious moments in the show’s final scenes, I found myself actually caring about these two frostbitten lovers and their relationship woes. Horton and Werner are both endearing in their roles, and Finney’s obliviousness is very well-played. It was also a special treat to see the show’s director, Kathy Coudle-King, working on set changes in classic stagehand black with a twist: she was wearing a bulky, knee-length winter coat with a fur-lined collar!
Don’t Hug Me plays for the next three weekends (closing Saturday night, March 2) at the Firehall Theatre, Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm and 2 pm Sunday matinees the first two weekends. The show is directed by Kathy Coudle-King, assisted by Lana DeMars, and music direction is provided by Karen Braaten with choreography by Theresa Knox. Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students/seniors/military. I highly recommend that you see this production; it’s certainly not Shakespeare, but it does what good community theatre does best, which is bring together people who enjoy theatre to create a pretty darn good show. You betcha!
Tags: Beth McDougal, Brad Werner, Don't Hug Me, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, karaoke, Karen Braaten, Kathy Coudle-King, Kathy King, Lana DeMars, Mark Magness, Minnesota, musicals, Rachel Horton, Steve Finney, Theresa Knox, You Betcha