STRANGER SINGS!

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
  at _WOLVERHAMPTON GRAND.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _17th JAN.

January 16, 2024

Ahh, the musical parody. Darling of the festival scene. Copyright-swerving bane of many a studio or Estate. Much like their more, ahem… adult cousins, the ubiquity of these fair use fun times has bloomed over recent years.

The appeal of plastering one of the Marvel or DC ouevre or, in this instance, Netflix megahit, Stranger Things, on a poster to invite bums on seats is fairly obvious. Even the bloodthirsty litigious titans at Disney have been able to do little to stymie the cult success of Unfortunate, which sees The Little Mermaid’s Ursula the Sea Witch get a Wicked-style musical reappraisal of her own.

Sorry, musical parody.

And yet, the obvious pitfall lingers ominously. If you can slap an iconic Disney villain or Millie Bobby Brown lookalikee on your marketing, does it really matter how good a parody, or indeed musical, it even is?

Strangers Sings! proves itself to be as unexpected and bizarre an anomaly as the sci-fi happenings of the original show upon which it riffs. For, despite a modest budget, its off-Broadway roots, and being the debut offering from New York-based Jonathan Hogue, it all works remarkably, unprecedentedly well.

“There is more than a flair of the French and Saunders or Saturday Night Live in its winningly low-budget simulacra.”

Sure, aesthetically it has something of a feel of community theatre about it, with its cardboard-faced demogorgans, Smiffys wigs and joyous, almost B-movie flourishes. And yet, for a parody this only adds to the nudge-nudge, wink-wink, fringe charm of it all. There is more than a flair of the French and Saunders or Saturday Night Live in its winningly low-budget simulacra.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Strangers Sings! works surprisingly well as a comedic, satirical musical in its own right. The songs are routinely catchy and witty, and littered with plenty of in-jokes for fans of the show. “And best friends never DIE…” croons ill-fated internet favourite, Barb (Philippa Leadbetter). Most inspired of all is a bonkers, fourth-wall breaking ode to Things’ cast member Winona Ryder, complete with cameos from her past hits. Howard Jenkins’ Hopper not only uncannily channels David Harbour’s gruff officer, but also makes good use of his tragic backstory, never quite allowing him to get his Dear Evan Hansen moment to musically pine for his lost child.

“Those unfamiliar with Stranger Things itself will be lost on the full extent to which Sings! does indeed parody the source material…”

Those unfamiliar with Stranger Things itself will be lost on the full extent to which Sings! does indeed parody the source material (the opening number alone offers plenty of digs at how rote many of its cast of characters are), but it is plenty funny and silly enough throughout to keep even the unfamiliar entertained. Hogue’s book also does a fairly solid job of summarising what is mainly the first season of the show (which a couple of later season subplots and cameos woven in) and mercilessly lampoons everything from Joyce’s (Verity Power) certainty that her son is communicating via Christmas tree lights, to the the innate silliness of the show’s cookie cutter mad scientists and generally ineffective child protagonists. There’s even a soupçon of Avenue Q-style fun to be had with Joyce’s missing son, Will (also Power, on dual-role, puppeteering duty).

The laughs and visual gags come thick and fast, and Hogue even wheels through some old musical theatre favourites for good measure. Not all of it lands, but thankfully the jokes are frequent and zany enough that the duds don’t linger for long.

And the character work is impressive across-the-board. Anna Amelia showcases impressive versatility as the enigmatic lab escapee, ‘Eleven’ and a Nancy dialled up to beyond ditzy, whilst William Shackleton serves up a hilarious imitation of Gaten Matarazzo as loveable doofus, Dustin. Elliot Wooster is in fine voice as young Mike, and the aforementioned Jenkins is perfect casting as as swaggering, droll Hopper. Leadbetter vamps up a late-game Sondheim type with relish, but it is regularly Alfie Doohan, equally hilarious as cocksure jock the Steve Harrington as he is the nervy, nerdy Jonathan, and Power in full unhinged Winona Ryder mode, who regularly steal the show.

As with practically anything so reliant on its intertextuality, those wholly alien to Stranger Things will get considerably less mileage here. That being said, anecdotally there were people in the performance reviewed who had never seen an episode of the show, and still happened to love it.

“…as it to be expected for anything Things-related, it is positive drenched in all things Eighties…”

There’s clearly a deep knowledge and passion for the source material, which makes for an effective piece of both ridicule and pastiche. And as it to be expected for anything Things-related, it is positive drenched in all things Eighties, with the obligatory nods to NeverEnding Story, Dungeons & Dragons and Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” all present and accounted for.

It won’t be giving Chekov or Keats a run for their money anytime soon, but if you’re in the market for silly, unpretentious musical tomfoolery based on a hugely popular IP (and who isn’t at this time of year?), and just an overall fun, funny time at the theatre, head on (upside) down to Hawkins Town and enjoy a quirky, zany show peppered with colourful performances, goofy humour, and a musical parody that genuinely sings.

Working surprisingly well as satire and musical both, Hogue’s bonkers return to Hawkins won’t turn anyone’s world upside down, but is certainly good for a laugh, and with plenty of colourful, character fun, proves an inspired must for fans of the show.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Viewerd at Mansfield Theatre 16 March.
    Amazing, hilarious 10/10 all funny and loved the sherifs expressions.

    Reply

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You can read Kyle’s full review on the TWE site (link in bio), and can catch ‘Unfortuante’ at @brumhippodrome until Saturday, and then at @wolvesgrand in July! 

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