The Off-Broadway return of the zany 2021 multi-award-winning Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical – an irreverent spoof of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things, soon to enter its fifth and final season – opened at Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s for a limited engagement through New Year’s Day 2023, and it has all the makings of a perennial cult classic – so much so that it has been extended by popular demand through Sunday, May 7. For those not familiar with the TV sci-fi mystery horror show, it takes place in the 1980s, in the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana, where a number of supernatural events and paranormal activities, including the accidental creation of a portal to the alternate dimension of The Upside Down, have a dramatic impact on its young residents and adults. But even if you’ve never seen the television series, you’ll still be wildly entertained by this sidesplitting send-up from the inspired mind of Jonathan Hogue (book, music, and lyrics), now pursuing his MFA at Columbia University, and the terrific cast and creative team.
Set in 1983, the high-camp musical mostly revolves around the characters and plot points of the series’ first season, taken to outrageously funny over-the-top extremes. Directed by Nick Flatto with high energy and an eye on the non-stop satirical laughs, the production is staged in the round, with the actors playing to all four sides of the audience and entering from the corners of the theater’s completely reconfigured space, totally immersing us in the pop culture of the decade.
Walt Spangler’s period-style set – a paneled basement loaded with toys, games, lights, and memorabilia (with props supervision by Brendan McCann), including a wall phone, strings of colorful Christmas tree bulbs, Dungeons and Dragons tabletop figurines, a movable Spoofs Ahoy! ice cream shop (cleverly changed from the original Scoops Ahoy!), and beanbag chairs for the front row – references both the decade and the TV show, and easily switches to the dark woods and the other dimension, into which the characters unheedingly enter to find adventure and the missing child Will, suggested by the tree branches overhead and eerie shifts in Jamie Roderick’s mood-setting lighting and Germán Martínez’s creepy sound.
Matthew Solomon’s costumes and hair design – into which the cast members appearing in multiple roles make quick changes – capture the familiar look of the era and the array of identifiable characters and strange creatures from the TV series. Hogue also makes frequent witty allusions to an assortment of songs, dances, scenes, and figures from other popular shows, ranging from Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Heathers, and Little Women (in which Stranger Things star Winona Ryder appeared), The Muppet Movie (a reimagined version of “Rainbow Connection” sung by Will, who here takes the form of a Muppet; puppet design by Matt Anderson), Titanic, Xanadu, A Chorus Line, Gypsy, and many more – all adding to the big laughs and making it fun for the audience to try to identify the parodied sources from the stage and screen.
The complex multi-layered take-off, in addition to the main theme of kids being abducted by inter-dimensional monsters and one having supernatural powers, also follows stories of a young love triangle, friendships, nerds vs cool kids, mad scientists, bad and crazy parents, and, according to Hogue’s hilarious script, other “stereotypes” in a place where “everything is a total cliché.” And the consistently excellent cast of eight rising stars (some returning from the 2021 production, some making their Off-Broadway debuts) masters it all, from the riotous humor to the powerhouse vocals, rich group harmonies, and killer dance moves, with spirited musical arrangements, orchestrations, and music supervision by Michael Kaish and exuberant choreography by Ashley Marinelli. (Please note that although the show is a musical, the printed program distributed in the theater does not include a song list, but you can stream the original Off-Broadway cast album here).
Caroline Huerta makes a hysterically hyperbolic farce of Winona Ryder’s Netflix portrayal of Joyce, mother of the missing Will (whom she also puppeteers), demanding an Emmy for her melodramatic performance in one of the musical’s many meta-theatrical breaks. Shawn Smith is the cop Hopper, who, despite all the strange things going on, is comically low-key in his investigation and his dealings with the kids in town – the plucky tween trio of Jeremiah Garcia as Dustin, Jeffrey Laughrun as Mike, and Jamir Brown as Lucas (who also appears as the Demogorgon, a threatening monster who dances smoothly to MJ’s “Thriller”) – but somehow manages to thwart Joyce’s receipt of the coveted award.
And there is the subplot of the unlikely adolescent BFFs Nancy, well played by Harley Seger, who abandons SLee’s less popular Barb to “do homework” with the attractive boys who compete for her – the hot and aggressive Steve and the not-so-confident Jonathan, whose opposite personalities (and big hair) are captured to perfection by Garrett Poladian. Seger also appears as Eleven, a taciturn teen the scientists endowed with abilities of telekinesis, who joins the other youths in Hawkins to battle the evil forces, including her own intensely villainous but gracefully balletic Dad (in another great characterization by Poladian, formerly a company dancer with the Ballet Pensacola). The musical’s major climactic scene comes when Barb, who also went missing into The Upside Down after being left alone by Nancy, reappears and, like Gypsy’s Mama Rose, claims her turn with a show-stopping blockbuster vocal.
If you’re in the mood for a trip back to the ‘80s, a visit to a weird dimension, and a goofy good time, be sure to catch Stranger Sings! It kept me laughing out loud and clapping loud for a phenomenal show, cast, and team that never failed to impress with their across-the-board talent and spot-on wacky humor.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 5 minutes, including an intermission.
Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical plays through Sunday, May 7, 2023, at Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s, 308 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $39-111, plus fees), go online. Everyone must wear a mask inside the theater.
Before you go – and you should – you can watch the trailer here: