Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Theater review: A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol
It's A Christmas Carol via Minnesota, don't ya know?
Do you know what lutefisk is? Do you have a friend named "Sven?" Do you love the Minnesota Vikings (not the football team)? Yumping Yimmity! If you answered yes to any of these, run don't walk to see Stage West's downright inspired production of A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol (playing at the Stage West Theatre through January 17).
This is a good-hearted and at times brilliant musical comedy written by Paul and Phil Olson and set in the deep snow of Northern Minnesota.
Gunner Johnson, owner of the Bunyan, the bar the play is set in, is bummed out this year. His business is failing, and he's facing the paunch of middle age, childless and broke. He can't get into the Christmas spirit as his wife (Clara) and friends (Kanute Gunderson, a leaching non-paying customer friend and Bernice Lundstrom, an ex-waitress who stops in to try and get her old job back) decorate the bar for the holidays. Disgusted with their holiday hooey, he jumps on his snowmobile for a spin around the lake, falls into a hole in the ice, goes into a coma, and then the play really starts.
In his comatose dream, Gunner is visited by his slick ex-partner, Sven Yorgenson, who once dated his wife and conned him out of all his money. Sven serves as Gunner's trip guide taking him through Christmases past, present and future.
Gunner is never in too serious danger of really dying; in fact he comes home the next day and the play is never in serious danger of getting heavy. It's solid laughs front to back with no down side.
A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol is the holiday offering in the series of Don't Hug Me plays by Phil and Paul Olson, denizens and lovers of northern Minnesota. Both are very successful guys in other fields. Phil, who writes the book, is an MBA and has a long career in business. Paul, who writes the music, is an MD who heads up a nephrology wing of a major hospital, and is president of the American Kidney Association!
Far from starving playwrights, the Olsons write with love, heart and soul for their snowy part of the world and the people in it. Phil writes the book while Paul inserts the songs he writes with ingenious texture and variety throughout the show. Together they create perfectly logical and hysterical lunacy that kept Saturday night's audience in stitches from the opening song to curtain call.
Although the real theme of the show is fun, it is not just a Minnesota Hootenanny. The play's sense of humor is much more wicked and at times even darkly able to laugh at itself without ever even using one bad word. The music supports the book and vice versa.
Audiences are usually in very good hands when Jerry Russell directs. Founder of Stage West 30 years ago, he handles this one with surgical precession and an energetic cast able to fill the evening with lively pacing and rich theatrical choices. The dances range from simple box steps to more complex line dancing steps and unison twirls. Yes, there are even some crazy hip hop moves and baton twirls to add to the fun.
Bradley Campbell (Gunner Johnson) keeps being in a coma light with constant brashness and humor. Booming in with a big voice and a big resume, Campbell is just about perfect.
Lana K. Hoover (Clara Johnson) has some great moments as the wife with comedic choices that are all her own. Her instrument is on the dainty side. And her pipes aren't as loud as her fellow cast members, but when she's not being overpowered, she fills out harmonies beautifully and dances well.
Jim Johnson is sidesplitting as Sven Yorgenson, the rich guy who used to date Gunner's wife and shows up as the one and only ghost in Gunner's coma. While staying handsome and cool, Johnson manages to make his character as dumb and vulnerable as everyone else. His beguine number had me really laughing and that takes a lot. Mr. Johnson is an actor whose worked hard to scratch out a decent pro resume in this region and I respect that. I hope to see more of him around town.
Mary Jerome-Autrey as Bernice Lundstrom is a natural beauty and a true triple threat. I feel like she could do anything on stage -- from her girl-next-door type numbers to her solo number, "I'd Rather Be Naughty" (don't worry parents, it wasn't that naughty), she dominates her space. A relative newcomer to the pro stage, the sky's the limit for this one. Remember her name.
Randy Pearlman as Kanute Gunderson frankly steals the show in terms of musical scope and likability. The score seems too easy for him, but at the same time this frees him up to connect with his audience, putting us in his hip pocket while he takes us for a crazy ride through the snow country. A big man who can really dance, he reminds me of Jackie Gleason in that respect, though by the end of this run in January, with all his dancing, he might look more like Art Carney!
If you've ever been north you'll recognize the Jim Covault/Lynn Lovett set as a Minnesota beer bar in every detail. Rare knickknacks, old time decorations, wow, even beer mug light bulbs, (thanks largely to production-stage manager Peggy Kruger-O'Brien; she's the best in the business). There's even a futuristic looking karaoke machine that I expected to take on a life of its own, and which plays an important role in the play.
OK, I'm pulling duty as a critic here, so let me nitpick a little. First, there was a flat spot in act one when Kanute announces Gunner's accident. Clara supposedly goes into shock, but that important point isn't made clear with her back to us.
After the broad, almost indicative front and center clarity of the events leading up to this moment, this sudden vagueness left the audience confused about what had happened. The sudden silences on stage made you wonder if someone had forgotten their lines, thus we had to adjust to this new circumstance of Gunner almost all by ourselves. Maybe a broader choice would have been for Clara to face us so that we could register her shock more clearly -- or maybe we needed a more unified ensemble reaction to Gunner's bad news.
One opening night surprise was that a mounted canoe oar fell off the wall, which could have been a bad knock on the head for somebody, but the cast ran with it like an improv company making it one of the funniest moments of the night. Don't you love it when accidental stuff like that happens in theatre? As long as no one gets hurt.
As I mentioned earlier, the bar's karaoke machine is very important to this show as it provides all the music the characters sing to. This music comes in the form of a premixed soundtrack provided to the theatre upon booking the show. It's rigid and un-adjustable and the singer's voices have to fit into the confines of this soundtrack. Now, this soundtrack is geared to standard theatrical voice ranges (soprano, alto, tenor, bass).
Singers whose voices fit into these traditional ranges, such as Pearlman, Autrey, and Campbell have no trouble with it. But someone like Jim Johnson, who is first an actor and only secondly a singer, can have problems. Mr. Johnson is neither a true baritone nor a true bass range, and gravels and grasps to hit the low notes over and over again. If you take your voice down to your lowest note, you'll find you also lose power and volume.
Conversely, Lana K. Hoover, who plays Clara, has occasional tonality problems as she switches from chest to head and back voice, even slipping into a falsetto at one point, but nobody can do much about these problems at this point and the fun of the show rolls right over any technical difficulties. Me, I love actors and everything they do. If there's an error, I chalk it up to human-ness. The theatre is alive, living! Not like watching TV.
Family and holiday-themed shows foot the bill for the edgy, riskier shows theatres do during the regular season. Forget your troubles for a night, grab any kid along about 15 years old or so (younger ones might not get it. This isn't children's theatre nor catered to kids in any way), and go support a great show at Stage West.
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