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Monday, November 5, 2018

F3Stage Review: Stranger Things gets a spirited Unauthorized Musical Parody

Film Flam Flummox

The creatives--to use that term in every conceivable sense--behind the Unauthorized Musical Parody Of... (familiarly abbreviated, and henceforth here referred to as, UMPO) live theater series based at Rockwell Table & Stage in Los Feliz always have their work cut out for them when setting their satiric sights on any cinematic target. Distilling the essence of an iconic two-hour film into a briskly-paced, ninety-minute joke fest while shoehorning in a bevy of familiar, semi-plot-approriate pop tunes at various junctures is daunting enough, but to even attempt to give the same treatment to a season's worth of serialized series television is venturing into the territory of the insane. Of course, to no one's surprise, the UMPO crew is crazy enough to try, but also to no surprise to anyone who's seen--or, rather, experienced, an UMPO production, they pull off such a seemingly impossible task with wit, style, and infectious energy with The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Stranger Things.

The first season of the Duffer Brothers' '80s-set, youth-centered sci-fi/horror/fantasy/adventure may run shorter than most television seasons, but that's still eight densely plotted hours to cover in an an hour and a half that also must accommodate a full jukebox score of pop music hits past and present. (Even the fearless UMPO knows better than to try to include the show's second season for this go-round.) As is typically the case with previous UMPO shows, familiarity with the source material is kind of a prerequisite to glean any sort of narrative cohesion or coherence, and that goes double, maybe even triple, for this specific production. Not only does this play even more like story bullet points strung together by song given the expanded ground it has to cover, writer/executive producer Kate Pazakis and director Nathan Moore go even further in obscuring the narrative by adding in an additional wrinkle, a first for an UMPO production. At certain key points in the show, the action stops dead for a Choose Your Own Adventure novel-like moment where the roll of a die from an audience member determines where the narrative goes. It's certainly not exactly a necessary enhancement to the proceedings, but it's certainly keeping in the anything goes ethos of UMPO and, more importantly, totally consistent with the spirit of Stranger Things, what with its nostalgic simulation and celebration of all pop culture touchstones associated with growing up in the 1980s.

Not going into any specific story or character details here is intentional, not only because, as mentioned, a familiarity with the actual Stranger Things season one arc is necessary to understand what's going on, but also--as with all UMPO productions, it's ultimately completely unneccessary to get what's going on: nothing less than incredibly versatile and talented troupe of artists/performers going for broke in the name of exuberant, infectious, everything-including-the-kitchen-sink entertainment. For certain, the sharp, spot-on specificity of the jokes--such as those revolved around barely seen, ultimately doomed, and most unexpected and unlikely fan favorite Barb, played here by Tony Award winner Marissa Jaret Winokur--will only be fully appreciated by those who know the references, but as with any good satire, the jokes will still be funny for anyone lacking the context. Plus, as with all UMPO shows, Pazakis and Moore leave no stone unturned, relevant or otherwise, for a joke, whether it be an easy callback to Stranger Things star Winona Ryder's infamous shoplifting scandal or hilariously referencing Flashdance's not-so-inconspicuous use of a dance double in an act one number set to Michael Sembello's iconic soundtrack cut "Maniac."

The song choices are typically cheeky and as, as expected, often knowingly a stretch, but the entire ensemble (in addition to Winokur, Pitch Perfect series alumna Kelley Jakle; Hairspray Live!'s Garrett Clayton; erstwhile Wicked Elphaba, Emma Hunton; Lana McKissack; Sterling Sulieman; Eric Peterson; Damon Gravina; and Owain Rhys-Davies fill out the canvas) gamely and skillfully handle the vocal and dance duties. But it's all not just campy fun and games. While there are enjoyably over-the-top numbers such as a boy band choreography-heavy (by Mallory Butcher) take on Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" energetically essayed by Sulieman, Clayton, and Gravina, the cast and musical director Gregory Nabours also pull out some earnest musical knockouts. In this production, it's a stunningly gorgeous trio treatment of Radiohead's "Creep" by McKissack, Hunton, and Gravina; even if genuine emotion is just about near or at the bottom of the overall UMPO priority list, the sublime vocals and arrangement cannot help but wrenchingly pierce the heart, even if just for an isolated moment.

What is pierced consistently throughout, however, is one's funny bone, and that the whole UMPO crew do that as well as offer something extra makes for another clever and satisfying evening of entertainment. Now having successfully pulled off a skewering celebration of a season's worth of television, the possibilities for where Pazakis and her crazy crew target their sights next are truly endless, and endlessly promising.

The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Jurassic Park is now playing at Rockwell Table & Stage in Hollywood through Sunday, December 2.

(Special thanks to Lobeline Communications and Rockwell Table & Stage)

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