March 13, 2018 Radomir Vojtech Luza

Don’t Hug Me, We’re Family

If you want to see a play about couples, competition and Crappies, run do not walk to the World Premiere of the Don’t Hug Me Productions presentation of “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Family,” book and lyrics by Phil Olson, music by Paul Olson, running through March 25th at Theatre Unlimited (T.U. Studios) in the North Hollywood Arts District.
The story concerns Gunner Johnson, the host of a radio show called “Crappie Talk,” devoted entirely to ice fishing for Crappies, set at the Bunyan, a little bar in the small northern Minnesota town of Bunyan Bay.
The plot follows Johnson through personal and professional trials and tribulations, such as his oft-fractured relationship with his wife Clara and the purchase of the radio station by Sal, an Italian from Brooklyn, which affect all the characters around him and make the play what it is: A laugh out loud thinking man’s comedy.

The show truly does not miss a beat from the other five “Don’t Hug Me” franchise plays which have had over 200 productions around the U.S. and are published by Samuel French.
Olson’s language is an undulating river, sandy shore and lush forest with dollar bill green trees.
It bobs and weaves like Muhammad Ali and meditates and contemplates like Socrates.
The Minnesota native and author of “Crappie Talk,” the original play that spawned the “Don’t Hug Me” musicals, understands comedy, probably the most difficult of the art forms.
The rhythm, tone and delicate underlying balance between characters gives this show the wings to fly.
The former Groundlings Improvisation Troupe member infuses the words and lyrics with weight, wit and wonder to cook up a side-splitting stew of laughing, loving, longing and living that takes us, the audience, on a roller coaster ride to brain bending hilarity.
This play is nothing less than a funny and furious journey between a laugh and a tear.
Olson, a Dartmouth graduate, deserves a world of credit for thinking of this unpretentious, sincere and genuine theatrical series on his own and making it work.
Director Doug Engalla, who has worked with Olson for over 20 years, gets the most from himself and the actors.
The voices merge like two oceans and the characterizations rarely, if ever, miss their mark.
The San Francisco Bay native understands the duality and comedic nature of Olson’s dialogue and lyrics.
The NAACP Small Theatre Award nominee comprehends the beauty of laughter, and does all he can to stretch each performer’s talent.
In this, Engalla proves himself uniquely qualified as each actor has a specific discovery, duty and destiny in the show different from the other actors, yet very much the same.
Engalla’s vision and reach as a director are seemingly only becoming more focused and concentrated as he is clearly one of the best theatre directors in Southern California.
Engalla assembles a gifted cast that realizes the possibility and ingenuity in Olson’s vivid and colorful theatrical universe
Stand outs include:
Truett Jean Butler (Clara) who gives a convincing, commanding and confident turn as Johnson’s estranged wife filled with promise, potential and playfulness.  The actress, who portrayed Bernice in “Don’t Hug Me, We’re Married” shows a true talent for live theatre which can only further an already flourishing career.
Christina Gardner (Donna, Helen) almost runs away with the play.  The Savannah College of Art and Design MFA graduate sizzles, shines and shakes in a sexy yet pivotal role as Sal’s “divorced” wife.  Gardner, whose previous credits include Lady Capulet in “Romeo and Juliet” and Lucius in “Titus Andronicus” showcases a perfect Brooklyn accent and does not leave us wondering as to her comedic chops or acting ability.  This is an actress on the rise.
But it is Michael Cortez (Sal) who steals the show.  The American Academy of Dramatic Arts graduate displays a presence and power that can only benefit him in the future. Also having played Lucius in”Titus Andronicus,” Cortez’ entrance marks the psychological, cultural and geographical beginning of the end of the play.
Cortez is a unique element that, though different from the rest of the cast, still fits in very well.
Like a ruby in a diamond mine, he is not the same, but still glitters.
Like a locomotive at the Indianapolis 500, he is different, but still a freight train.
This critic hopes to see Cortez again very soon on the stages of North Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Also making large contributions to the message of the show are musical composer Paul Olson, brother of Phil, who has composed the music for all the “Don;t Hug Me” plays and mixes music and vocal chords like a waitress does coffee and cream, choreographer Michele Bernath, whose heartfelt and detailed dance sequences add to the humor, singing, language and importance of the play and set designer Chris Winfield whose intricate, believable and useful sets have made him one of the best theatre set designers in the U.S. for years.
All in all, “Don’t Hug Me, We’;re Family” succeeds because of the “Don’t Hug Me” brand not despite it.
The brilliant imagination and creativity behind the play are brother and sister to the mother and father of the “Don’t Hug Me” series.
A world is fashioned, and though based on real geographical data, it sparkles and shimmers under its own neon billboard.
This is one imprint, bold and hot, rollicking and 100 watt, that should have a definite future and a long shelf life.
And why, after all, should it not?
The playwright’s book and lyrics are deeply original, the director’s courage fierce and unquestionable and the actors’ energy, passion, innocence and poise never more apparent.
Great things are happening under the “Don’t Hug Me” theatrical tent and even the footlights are beckoning for more.
By Radomir Vojtech Luza
Theatre Critic
Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Sunday Matinee at 2 p.m.
General Admission: $24.00
Seniors and Students: $18.00 with ID
Group Rates Available
Reservations and Information
(818) 850-9254 .
Theatre Unlimited (T.U. Studios)
10943 Camarillo Street,
North Hollywood, CA 91602
(Behind Odyssey Video)
(Across from The Habit)
(Just East of Vineland)

Get in touch Radomir!