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REVIEW: A Night on Olympus (Illusion Theater)

Harry (Tyler Michaels), Chad (Adam Qualls), and Maggie (McKinnley Aitchison) in A Night on Olympus.
Photo by Lauren B Photography.

Prom night, teenage love, zombies, and errant Greek gods combine in A Night in Olympus. This Illusion Theater production is a collaboration between composer and lyricist Chan Poling, and playwrights Jeffrey Hatcher and William Corbett. This production, directed by Michael Robins, is an improved version of a work in progress that was performed at Illusion Theatre in 2012 with many of the same cast members.

The story concerns an ordinary teenage girl named Maggie (McKinnley Aitchison) who is best friends with zombie enthusiast Harry (Tyler Michaels). Maggie wants to go to prom with Chad (Adam Qualls who also plays the Janitor and Hades), the best looking guy at school. Chad has no interest in Maggie until Venus (Aimee K. Bryant who also plays Kimberly and Ms. Stenger) transforms Maggie into the best looking girl at school. There are two other major subplots, including a group of gods who have been exiled to Olympus, Indiana and who are seeking to use their god powers, and the god Hades’s plot to put everyone else under his power.

Other than Maggie and Harry, the other roles are played by an ensemble cast of six actors. In addition to Bryant and Stenger, these multiple roles are played by Norah Long (who plays Maggie’s mother, teacher Ms. Bolan and the goddess Diana), Dieter Bierbrauer (who plays Randy, shop teacher Mr. Otto and the god Vulcan), Mark Rosenwinkel (who plays the Coach and the god Mars) and Randy Schmeling (who plays Lyle, Mr. Minkler and Zeus). It is a very talented cast that does its best with the limited storyline. Michaels shows some incredible zombie moves on stage and is a standout in the production.

Robert Elhai’s musical arrangements and the musical direction of Jason Hanson bring 19 songs to the stage. Although there are too many musical numbers, the campy tunes are the best part of the show.  My favorites were “I’m the One”  by Aitchison and company, the entire cast singing “The Most Beautiful Parking Lot in the World,” and the quartet of Aitchison, Long, Bryant, and Rosenwinkel singing “Retail Therapy.” There are a couple of songs where the instrumentalists overwhelm the singers and one has to strain to hear the words, however.

This show has greatly improved since I saw its work-in-progress version in 2012, when it was part of Illusion Theater’s Fresh Ink Series. There has been a great improvement in the musical numbers, but the show still suffers from the structural flaws that were apparent in 2012. As in the 2012 production, the key drawback is the sudden shifts in plot lines. The show is half-way into the first act before the audience even learns that there is a god in Olympus, Indiana. We then learn there are several gods and, finally, at the end of the first act we learn there is another god, Hades, who has an undisclosed plot against the other gods. Then bizarre things start to happen, such as chipmunks eating human flesh. The different subplots finally converge at the end, but in a hurried and not the most logical manner. More importantly, the subplots do not directly contribute to the show’s central theme of self-acceptance.

There is a lot of random humor in the show and the running gag about the parking lot is hilarious. But most of the humor is not situational humor which is often the key to great musical comedies like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or The Book of Mormon. But despite the structural flaws, the audience on opening night was very enthusiastic about the music and gave the cast a standing ovation.

A Night on Olympus plays through June 4 at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis.

Bev Wolfe