Sunday, May 8, 2016

"A Night in Olympus" at Illusion Theater

An unpopular high school girl wants to be pretty so she can go to prom with the popular jock. Not exactly a compelling theme for a musical or one I'm particularly interested in seeing. But this tired old story, seen often in fairy tales and '80s movies, is so charmingly told in the infectious new musical A Night in Olympus with a dynamic cast, that it's almost possible to forget that it's about a prom. And the tired story is given a bit of an interesting twist with the injection of Greek mythology. So while I can't really get behind a story written and directed by men in which a girl just wants to be pretty, even if she does learn the obligatory lesson at the end, it's hard not to have a good time at this campy fun musical.

Maggie and Harry are (platonic) best friends who bond over their love of zombie movies and other nerdy things. But Maggie dreams of being pretty and going to the prom with the popular jock Chad. Lucky for Maggie, the teachers in this Olympus Indiana high school are actually the Greek gods banished to Earth by Zeus for... some reason or other. Tired of keeping her powers in check, Venus hears Maggie's wish and grants it, transforming Maggie into the most beautiful girl in school and therefore unrecognizable, even to her mother. At first Maggie enjoys all the attention, pretending she's a foreign exchange student from Venezuela. She scores her dream date to the prom with Chad (whose date dropped out because she got "fat" in college - seriously with the fat-shaming?!), but soon learns he's a narcissistic jerk (which presumably is surprising to her because she only watches zombie movies, not HS rom-coms). Meanwhile, Venus' unleashing of her powers causes all of the teacher/gods to do the same, toying with the lives of humans as gods are wont to do. In the end Maggie learns that maybe being pretty isn't the most important thing in the world (sad that she didn't know that already), and Harry sees through the exterior to recognize the real Maggie, because of course he's the one who truly loves her.

Fortunately this fantastic eight-person cast elevates the material and has a great time camping it up. Six actors of various ages play both high school students and high school teachers, which requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, but for the most part it works. It's fun to watch as each actor makes the most of portraying a high school stereotype (jock, nerd, bully, popular girl) as well as a teacher that's hiding their true and divine persona. Aimee K. Bryant embodies Venus, the goddess of love. Norah Long shows great range in three roles - vapid high school girl, stereotypical gym teacher/goddess Diana, and Maggie's mom, whose biggest dream for her daughter is to go to prom (really?! I never went to prom and my life turned out pretty good). Adam Qualls is hilarious as the creepy janitor and the evil Hades. Dieter Bierbrauer is charming as usual as the god who wants to live a normal life and falls for Maggie's mom (more Norah/Dieter duets please!). Randy Schmeling revels in the role of the picked on student who gets to take revenge on his bully, ironically named Randy, and Mark Rosenthal is the coach turned god of war.

Tyler Michaels, Adam Qualls, and McKinnley Aitchison
(photo by Lauren B. Photography)
As our star-crossed lovers, one could not pick a more charming pair than Tyler Michaels and McKinnley Aitchison. Everyone knows that Tyler is a star, with a great voice put to darling comedic use in the "Zombie Love Song," and a unique physicality on display in a crazy zombie move I wanted to rewind and watch again. But the lesser known McKinnley is every bit his match, making the character of Maggie a heroine to root for (even if you want to tell her - girl, you already are beautiful and the guy of your dreams is standing right next to you!). McKinnley has a winning stage presence, a great strong musical theater voice, and really plays up the humor as Maggie awkwardly negotiates the world in her new skin.

The trademark clever wit of playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (who co-wrote the book with Bill Corbett) is on fully display, along with some timely if a little too easy political jabs. Chan Poling's score is fun and catchy, if not particularly memorable, with arrangements by the go to musical theater arranger Robert Elhai. The five-piece band directed by Jason Hansen brings the score to life and sits just behind the stage, revealed at the very end. Dean Holzman's set consists of backdrops that can be rolled in and out, quickly changing and simply the setting.

A Night in Olympus is like a summer rom-com. Perfectly pleasant entertainment that's light and easy to digest, if you don't think too hard about what's going on. But the reason to see this show is for this hard-working uber-talented cast and their fun, campy, committed performances. A Night in Olympus continues through June 4 at Illusion Theater in downtown Minneapolis (half-price tickets available on Goldstar).