Don't Hug Me Review

You betcha, musical's accent is on laughs
Reviewed by Michael Norman, Correspondent, River Falls Journal
Published Friday, April 14, 2006

If one measure of a young theater company's aptitude is its ability to perform admirably even to the smallest of audiences, then the energetic cast of "Don't Hug Me," the first production of the St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theater, at the Hudson House Inn, acquits itself very well.

A partnership between theater owner Jim Zimmerman, a long-time UW-River Falls theater professor and founder of Door (County) Off Broadway Dinner Theater, and Hudson House Inn owners Stuart and Cindy Schultz, St. Croix Off Broadway is trying to establish itself as the first, full-time professional dinner theater in the St. Croix Valley.

"My goal is to create an entertainment option for the mainstream St. Croix Valley, eastern metro audience," Zimmerman said. "I'd like to stage shows that are entertaining to the general public and not just theater goers."

Judging from the Thursday, April 6, production, on a night with torrential rain and storm warnings in the area, Zimmerman's production succeeds with solid entertainment if not with large audiences. There were just 15 spectators at that performance.

"Don't Hug Me" may be familiar to readers for its successful production two years ago at Hennepin Stages in Minneapolis. With book and lyrics by Phil Olson and music by his brother Paul Olson, the musical was incongruously developed in Los Angeles where it was named best new musical in 2003. Its six-week L.A. run was extended to six months.

The cast of "Don't Hug Me" includes, from left: Joseph Keith, Jane Samsal, Michael McKay, Stephanie Briggs and David Lind. The musical and other plays to follow are the result of a business partnership between a River Falls college professor and a Hudson couple. Submitted photo

Described as "a Minnesota love story with singin' and stuff," "Don't Hug Me's" plot, such as there is, involves a slick karaoke machine salesman named Aarvid (Joseph Keith in an engaging performance) who wants to sell one of his units, the LSS 562, to the owners of The Bunyan, a classic bar in the farthest reaches of northern Minnesota.

This particular machine, though, has a mind of its own. It starts playing when a song title is mentioned.

The laughs and the singing - and there's plenty of it - comes from the effect the karaoke machine has on the denizens of this remote frozen backwater on "the coldest day of the year."

The five-member cast is solid on the musical numbers and capably delivers the lines with professional flair and uniformly authentic accents right out of "Fargo."

Keith gets a chance to show off his smooth dancing skills in several numbers. His amusing Barry Manilow send-up on "My Smorgasbord of Love" was a high spot.

Stephanie Briggs shines as bar co-owner Clara who belts out her songs like a young Ethel Merman when she's not flashing her remarkably expressive eyes.

Twin Cities actor David Lind, as Clara's grumpy husband and co-owner of the bar, Gunner, physically embodies the part of the north woodsman with his large frame, full beard and a rabbit skin trooper hat seemingly glued to his head.

His slow burns and long, droopy-eyed stares are especially comical. He has a strong singing voice that only wavers on some of the higher notes.

Michael McKay (Kanute) as a bar habitue has a skillful sense of comic timing. He is a gifted physical actor, always in motion and with a face that registers every emotion.

McKay's eyebrows especially seem to take on a life of their own. His Elvis impression is dead-on in the very funny "You're My Woman."

Vivacious Jane Samsal (Bernice) as Kanute's fiance morphs from perky pigtail cuteness in Act One to a piney woods vamp later on. In a short, skintight cocktail dress, Samsal channels Madonna and raises the temperature by several degrees slithering around stage during "He Wore a Purple Tux."

Whether it was her microphone or her voice, some of her singing was too soft to hear clearly.

The set design, by Zimmerman and Kristopher D. Steege, will be familiar to anyone who's ever been in a northern Minnesota (or Wisconsin, for that matter) bar, right down to the deer heads on the wall, beer signs, dart board, trophy fish and red-checked tablecloths. All it needed was a spittoon and you'd want to slip right on one of the bar stools to order a Leinie.

The sound system was uneven on the night this writer saw the production. Some voices were muffled when the actors used a hand-held microphone or very soft, as in the case of Samsal.

For some reason the theater was quite chilly that evening. Several diners ate with their coats on. Now the musical does take place during a cold Minnesota winter, but on a cool night in early April with heavy rain outside, an audience should not have to feel that they're snowbound as well.

Owner Zimmerman's goal is to complete the run of "Don't Hug Me" in late April, or early May if demand is great enough, before taking a hiatus this summer to concentrate on his Door County theater.

He plans to re-open St. Croix Off Broadway in September and then operate the theater year round after that.

Zimmerman and the Schultzes have invested thousands of dollars in remodeling the Pyrenees Room into a state-of-the-art dinner theater for St. Croix Valley and eastern metro audiences. Whether they are successful in attracting that audience remains to be seen, but judging from the quality of their first production they are off to a solid beginning, at least artistically.

Editor's note: Michael Norman has been active in local theater for many years. He is the former head of the UW-RF Journalism Department and author of a series of ghost books, including "Haunted Heartland" and "Haunted America."

Some words from our patrons...

Dinner was better than the Chanhassen!  Wait staff was excellent.  Good and fair ticket price.  Excellent choice of play to start your dinner theatre, and great cast!

R.K., Hudson, WI

Great performance--wonderful talent!!  Very enjoyable!

H.F., Blaine, MN

High quality and fun!  We recommend second run of the same production so we can send our friends.  This is hands down better than Chanhassen.

N.D., Eagan, MN

The food selection was excellent, and wait staff was attentive and pleasant.  Cast was incredible.  Show was an excellent choice--very fun, great music--lots of laughs.  Thank you!

A.B., Cloquet, MN


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