A sometimes disarming, more often restless little rural musical has nested at the Jersey shore. Set in a tacky Midwestern bar on the coldest day of the year, a grizzled proprietor and his wife weigh the possibilities of purchasing a karaoke machine that might just improve a failing business. As scripted by Phil Olson, that’s the hook for “Don’t Hug Me,” and it prompts a plethora of none-too-distinguished songs ranging from down-home country to polka, calypso, boogie-woogie and modestly flavorless pop.
A collaboration by New Jersey Repertory Company and Gotham’s Shotgun Prods., the folksy tuner set in Bunyan Bay, Minn., calls for the actors to speak with heavy Scandinavian accents. Director Gail Winar obviously wanted broad performances from her dauntless cast and, in the theater’s small alternate playing space, they are literally in your lap.
Crusty bar owner Gunner is acted with gruff authority by John Little, who displays more affection for his pickup truck than his wife (Darcie Siciliano). The latter appears to be suffering from a shortage of amour after accepting her husband’s view: “What the heck do we need more romance for? We’re already married!”
The karaoke salesman (Michael Nathanson), who prefers to call his music machine a Lifestyle System, may or may not be gay, but he’s attracted to Bernice, a mousy waitress played with kittenish charm by Cortnie Loren Miller. Bernice is engaged to Kanute (Clark Carmichael), the oafish owner of a clothing chain who also fancies himself an amateur actor.
The songs by lyricist Olson and his composer brother Paul cover the musical spectrum. Most appealing is “Take a Chance,” a song-and-dance number performed by Miller and Nathanson, who replace the traditional hats and canes with umbrellas and salad bowls. Most tasteless is “My Smorgasbord of Love” with its “casserole hair, meatball cheeks and cantaloupes down there.”
The rural barroom as designed by Quinn K. Stone boasts the required moose head and dart board, while the cold-weather costumes are all flannel scarves, woolly sweaters and ski boots.
Gunner warns the karaoke salesman, “Don’t hug me. I’d rather open a vein!” Audiences also might prefer to open a vein than try to find the fun in this musical’s rural revelry.