Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

A Night in Olympus
Illusion Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Changelings, The Book of Mormon, and The Shining


Tyler Michaels, Adam Qualls, and McKinnley Aitchison
Photo by Lauren B Photography
Two of the Twin Cities' finest, musician Chan Poling (The Suburbs, The New Standards) and playwright Jeffrey Hatcher (Compleat Female Stage Beauty, Tuesdays with Morrie), have written a musical that is witty, brash, tuneful, and insightful. That show is Glensheen, which premiered last fall at History Theater and was so well received that it will return to that stage for a summer engagement. Those two guys know how to put together a winning show! Oh, and they also put together a show called A Night in Olympus, with Bill Corbett, renowned as writer and star of that beloved snark fest "Mystery Science Theater 3000," co-authoring the book. They have assembled a cast of terrific musical theater performers, with the wondrous Tyler Michaels in the male lead, a relative newcomer with a bright future, McKinnley Aitchison, as female lead, and stalwarts Norah Long, Aimee K. Bryant, Mark Rosenwinkel, Adam Qualls, Dieter Bierbrauer, and Randy Schmeling rounding out the company. With this raft talent and boundless enthusiasm, great things are in store. Right?

Well, not so much. Sure, A Night in Olympus offers its pleasures—a few of the songs are well crafted, some of the jokes land well, and several characters capture our attention. Tyler Michaels proves that he is a bonafide musical comedy star, and he shines even in sub-par material, making you glad to be in the theater. Michaels is only a few years out of the gate, so I can't wait to see what lies ahead for him. But even with his performance, along with strong showings by Aitchison and Qualls, the promising components don't come together to make a satisfying whole.

A Night at Olympus tells an original story (and hooray for that!) set in fictional Olympus, Indiana, on the night of the senior prom. Michaels and Aitchison play Harry and Maggie, senior students who have been best buddies since they were young kids, with a host of common interests and complete ease around one another. Both are outsiders in the social maelstrom of high school. Harry yearns to be more than a friend to Maggie, feelings he has never had the courage to reveal. Maggie, on the other hand, has her eye on the best-looking boy in school, Chad, who only notices the most beautiful girls in the school—that is, when not paying attention to his own dreamy looks. Maggie gives voice to her wish that she was not so plain and could be that most beautiful girl who wins Chad's heart.

Well, guess what? It turns out that the English teacher Ms. Stenger (Aimee K. Bryant) is in reality the goddess Venus, who has been sentenced by Zeus to live as a mortal in this small burg. Frustrated by years of having to restrain her power, she grants Maggie's wish—after convincing Maggie of her power by turning the school's pot-holed parking lot into a dreamscape of fountains, flowers, and even a unicorn. Once Chad takes a look at the newly glamorized Maggie, who comes up with a ridiculous false identity as an exchange student from Venezuela, he throws over Vanessa—up to this moment, the hottest girl at Olympus High—and Maggie becomes his new Numero Uno and prom date.

Then we learn that not only is Ms. Stenger Venus, but Coach Thomton (Mark Rosenwinkel) is Mars, God of War; shop teacher Mr. Otto (Dieter Bierbrauer) is Vulcan, God of Fire and Metalwork; and Ms. Boylan (Norah Long)—I never caught her subject area, but she is played as a bully akin to Sue Sylvester on "Glee"—Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. The four have all been exiled to Olympus, Indiana, for reasons never really made clear. Miss Stenger/Venus's revolt emboldens, and they decide it is time to unleash their true power, making wishes large and small come true for other students. Little do they know that also in their midst is Hades, God of the Underworld—in the guise of the school custodian Mr. Rolfe (Adam Qualls), who plots to unleash his power as well.

Meanwhile, Harry becomes determined to bare his true feelings to Maggie. A subplot involves Maggie's mother, Darlene (Norah Long), who wants so much for her daughter to be asked to the prom, being romantically drawn to Mr. Otto/Vulcan. Then there is Mr. Minkler, the AV Club sponsor, forever taking photos to document every aspect of school life.

The impulses behind the story feel sweet and sincere, and there is potential to make something whole of it, something that pokes fun at high school social strata and its relentless pressure to be something other than yourself. At present, though, it plays as separate parts, as if a series of comedy sketches, some of which are quite entertaining—such as "Helltown," a musical number that Qualls kicks into high gear; "Zombie Love Song," sung by Michaels with a winning blend of humor and tenderness; and "I Smell the Magic", a goofy but sincere ode to romance in middle age shared by Dieter Bierbrauer and Nora Long. But too many of the songs feel like bridges to get from one scene to another, while the narrative unrolling is not particularly compelling. Because the actors who play the adults double as the high school students, we never get them all on stage together to generate the energy that the story needs to ignite it. The atmosphere of faux glamour that attends a senior prom is never created, and the dance elements do little to spark the story. Even when Michaels lets loose with terrific dance moves, it feels like a pause in the story to showcase his abundant talent, not a tool for telling the story. And why are there four Roman-named gods—Mars, Vulcan, Venus and Diana—mixed up with Greek gods Hades, and Zeus? Is there a sense that it doesn't matter, as it's just a story? Perhaps, but such lapses nudge the story in the direction of a cartoon or a series of sketch comedy scenes.

A Night in Olympus has several other things in its favor. The seven-piece band under music director Jason Hansen plays the score with heart. McKinnley Aitchison's appearance as Maggie is wisely unchanged—other than letting down her hair—when she is transformed into a raving beauty, underscoring the point that she is the same person at heart. Well- played by Aitchison, with the presence of a young Liza Minnelli, we believe Maggie's essential goodness in spite of her misguided pursuit of narcissistic Chad. Adam Qualls entertains in all his guises: narcissistic Chad, custodian Rolfe, and Hades. Norah Long creates a warm and believable character as Maggie's mom, but seems to be vamping as the teen siren Vanessa, and is a bloodless stick figure as Ms. Boylan/Diana. All the cast members work hard, but given little to work with, there just is not a big payoff for their efforts.

While I chuckled here and there, and felt my heart warmed now and then, there is not enough substance in A Night in Olympus for the show to be something to think about, not enough buoyant energy for it to elevate one's spirits, and not enough artistry for it to impress on the basis of high theatrical craft. With its clever premise and a hugely talented creative team, the potential may be there to bring this show aloft, but at this point it seems like an Olympian task.

The world premiere production of A Night in Olympus continues through June 4, 2016, at the Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets are $23.00 - 42.00. For tickets call 612- 339-4944 or go to illusiontheater.org.

Music and Lyrics: Chan Poling; Book: Jeffrey Hatcher and Bill Corbett; Director: Michael Robins; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Musical Arrangements: Robert Elhai; Choreography: Karis Sloss; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Costume Design: Barbara Portinga ; Sound Design: Twin Cities Sound; Scenic Artist: Lara Hohanshelt; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: William Harmon; Production Manager and Prop Design: Sarah Salisbury

Cast: McKinnley Aitchison (Maggie), Dieter Bierbrauer (Randy, Mr. Otto), Aimee K. Bryant (Kimberly, Ms. Stenger), Norah Long (Darlene, Vanessa, Ms. Boylan), Tyler Michaels (Harry), Adam Qualls (Chad, Janitor Rolfe), Mark Rosenwinkel (Coach Thornton, O'McO'Malley), Randy Schmeling (Lyle, Mr. Minkler),


Privacy Policy