A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol? What sort of high carb Minnesota goulash casserole is Stage West serving up for its holiday entrée? A cheery one, with a Waring-style blender mix of farcical high-jinks, zany, hug-able characters, and a romantic story loosely crafted (as in goose) on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, set in a small-town Minnesota bar in blizzard conditions. Director Jerry Russell’s impeccable comedic instincts insure that all musical numbers (eighteen of them) flow naturally, feel like vaudeville routines, get funnier as they proceed along and somehow never detract from the play’s ice-thin plot’s unfolding.
Is this a play or a musical? It’s requires a leap of faith for the local audience at first. Lights flashing and pulsing, the karaoke machine sitting downstage right in the barroom set takes over and turns itself on at will, engaging the hapless characters onstage in spirited song and dance, from wherever they are standing, whatever their dialogue. About the third ‘interruptus’, the audience gets the hang of the show’s tongue-in-cheek format and starts chuckling; thereafter, they’re rooting for the gags, eagerly awaiting the next twist of homespun farce or musical hyper hyperbole as it launches. Stage West’s production takes aim and pleases, across the board. Hugs earned all around, in spite of the title.
A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol is no lame, haphazard second stringer in the major market success department. The brothers Olson, Paul and Phil, who wrote and composed the show, hail from Edina, Minnesota. A major part of the play’s genuine charm arises out of these brothers’ ability to poke fun at themselves and at the Minnesota cultural stereotypes they create within the Scrooge tale. In addition, like A Tuna Christmas following close on the success of Greater Tuna, this holiday adventure tags along after its triumphant predecessor. Stage West’s press release reveals: “Don’t Hug Me was a smash hit in Los Angeles, where it won four Artistic Director Achievement Awards, including Best Original Musical. It was so successful that three theatres booked the sequel even before it was written. A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol opened in five cities simultaneously in 2006, playing for sixteen weeks in Los Angeles to sold-out houses.” The show’s tone may feel hokey-dokey-pokey, but it’s as classically styled as a Noel Coward production.
Stage West’s cast brings the right complement of energy, talent and ensemble professionalism to the enterprise. Bradley Campbell and Lana K. Hoover play a couple resigned to the fact their marriage has lost its luster, Gunner and Clara, with Bradley doubling as the “Scrooge” who needs to learn a lesson about love and generosity. Randy Pearlman and Mary Jerome-Autrey play a second couple at odds, Knute and Bernice, he hopelessly in love with her, she dazzled by the idea of stardom away from the bar and mundane life. Jerome-Autry also doubles as the pseudo-Tiny Tim of the show, almost bringing the house down in Act I with her rendition of “You Can Call Me Tiny”. Tying the Dickens tale together is Jim Johnson, playing aging roué Sven Yorgenson, with a penchant for Dean Martin impersonation. He also performs as the ghosts who visit the bar to educate the Scrooge-like Gunner. Oozing smarmy charm like a leaky tube of suntan lotion on a hot tin roof, Johnson’s Sven and the ghosts he plays, thinly disguised, amplify the hilarity to high pitch in Act II. “The Bunyan Beguine” could make one pee one’s pants as Johnson delivers it. And there’s a karaoke sing-a-long at the end for the laughter-inebriated audience to join in on the fun. Oh, the ribs do ache.
Holiday stage fare in Ft Worth is a winner this season. Enjoy dinner at Stage West’s café and see A Hug Me Christmas Carol first. The next night dine at Sundance Square and attend A Lone Star Christmas at Circle Theatre for a different, enjoyable experience. Stage West’s A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol runs through January 17. The company will host its popular New Year’s Eve party on Thursday, December 31, an evening featuring the performance, followed by light food (including traditional black-eyed peas) and a champagne toast at midnight. Reservations and information are available through the Box Office (817-784-9378), or on the website, www.stagewest.org.
PHOTO: Bradley Campbell (bottom), Lana K. Hoover & Randy Pearlman