With Glensheen at History Theatre, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher and composer Chan Poling created one of the best shows of 2015. Telling the true story of the Duluth mansion's 1977 murders, Hatcher and Poling mined the saga's black humor without losing sight of its human pathos.
$23-$42; $15 previews
The duo's new musical, A Night in Olympus at Illusion Theater, is a much lighter affair. It gives Poling an opportunity to showcase some sweet ballads, but the quick-witted Hatcher — working here with co-writer Bill Corbett — seems lost at times. The quips fail to connect in a needlessly complex story about ancient Roman gods coming to Earth in Olympus, Indiana.
There's a lot of talent involved with director Michael Robins's production, including leads Tyler Michaels and McKinnley Aitchison. Michaels, who recently landed an emerging-artist Ivey Award, is the marquee name here, and, as expected, he makes the most of his role as Harry, an endearing, zombie-loving teen. Aitchison, a recent UW-La Crosse grad who's less familiar to local audiences, plays Harry's classmate Maggie, and goes toe-to-toe with Michaels as a warm singer and precise dancer.
The challenge for Aitchison — and the show's writers — is to convince us that Maggie's identity crisis is so acute that it takes her two full acts to realize what's apparent to the audience from the moment the show begins: She and Harry are soulmates, surrounded by losers. The distinction between these two and the rest of the cast is reinforced by the fact that the other actors (varying widely in age) all play multiple roles, as students and teachers and parents and, um, gods.
Blind to Harry's devotion and convinced there are no perks to being a wallflower, Maggie allows Venus (the wonderful Aimee K. Bryant) to turn her into an alter ego so gorgeous she's unrecognizable. We know the transformation has occurred largely because Aitchison literally lets her hair down, causing all the other characters to do double-takes. That wins Maggie the attention of resident studmuffin Chad (Adam Qualls), who doesn't need a divine makeover to feel good about his looks, because patriarchy.
Will Maggie ever recognize that her true beauty is within, and that her destiny is to snuggle in front of a B-movie with Harry instead of canoodling under the bleachers with Chad? Not before the two come to terms with the growing menace of godliness in their midst, as the hateful Hades (it would be a spoiler if I told you who plays him) makes a play for Maggie's eternal ardor. (Watch Michaels's impressively Jacksonesque defiance of gravity when Hades takes control of his body.)
A Night in Olympus is at its best during its most quiet musical moments, including Maggie's wistful piano-driven solo "Somebody Else," Harry's hopeful "Zombie Love Song," and especially their together-yet-apart duet "Nobody Cares." In a play that's premised on obfuscation, the real magic trick was managing to hide a Pretty in Pink heart inside this Hoosier State Clash of the Titans.
$23-$42; $15 previews