Unauthorized Musical Parody Series: Stranger Things
If you haven’t heard of the Netflix phenomenon Stranger Things, you’ve probably been living in the Upside Down. The nostalgic, supernatural series has a massive cult following and has inspired a pop-up bar in Chicago, a Google game app, and a haunt at Universal Halloween Horror Nights – among other collectibles, cosplay and paraphernalia. Rockwell Table & Stage’s resident musical theater company, the Unauthorized Musical Parody (of) Series, has wisely taken the fascination with Eleven and her friends (and foes) to the next level in their latest production. Offering some light fare for the fall season, Stranger Things takes the popular show, adds extraordinarily talented actor-singers, and mixes them together with a healthy dose of parody and winks to the audience.
It’s 1983 in Indiana and 12-year-old Will Byers (a hand-puppet in this production) has mysteriously disappeared. With some help from Sheriff Hopper, Will’s family – mother Joyce and brother Jonathan – and friends – Mike, Dustin and Lucas – conduct a search for him. They soon discover that something supernatural has come into their world, including their psychokinetic friend Eleven and the monstrous Demogorgon. Also along for the ride are Mike’s sister Nancy, her boyfriend Steve, and Nancy’s friend Barb. Can the group get Will out of the Upside Down (a parallel reality) in time – or will the Demogorgon get to him first?
Choose Your Own Adventure
A staple of the UMPO series is their incorporation of thematic songs that supplement the unfolding drama. Taking place in the ’80s, Stranger Things is full of catchy pop tunes from the era; “Poison,” “Call Me,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” and “Flashdance” – among others – perfectly punctuate the action and dialogue. The band’s excellent musicianship makes it hard for the audience to NOT sing along with the rousing songs, or shimmy in their seats during absurdly fun dance numbers.
Stranger Things hits all the main beats of Season 1 of the series – Joyce’s obsession with Christmas lights, Barb’s unfortunate disappearance, Eleven’s make-over, and Mike’s brush with bully Troy – with a few of their own inventive embellishments. Along with the inclusion of exciting song-and-dance numbers, Stranger Things has a choose-your-own-adventure element that provides some surprising plot twists for both the audience and the actors. At three crucial times during the show, Owain Rhys-Davies (in one of his multiple roles) selects an audience member to roll a 20-sided die to see what the characters will do next – a nice nod to the characters’ love for Dungeons & Dragons. With branching plot lines reliant upon the roll of a die, each performance has the opportunity to take a new path, warranting return visits.
Up to Eleven
The vibrant cast of Stranger Things fires on all cylinders – singing, dancing and acting in expert performances. From the increasingly frazzled Joyce to the hand-holding Demogorgon, there is nary a weak link in the bunch. For me, standouts include UMPO veteran Emma Hunton (Joyce), Eric Petersen (Hopper), and Garrett Clayton (Dustin and Steve). Hunton crackles like the lights she obsesses over; her voice is crystal clear as she skyrockets into the high notes of “Call Me,” and oozes with sex appeal during her tryst with Petersen’s Hopper. Peterson shows off his range as misogynistic Hopper and the angelic voice of puppet-Will. It was great fun seeing Joyce blast Hopper into being more woke. In an onstage quick-change, Clayton (UMPO: Clueless) deftly displays his knack for characterizations; one second he’s the handsome and egotistical Steve, and the next he’s the lisping, curly-haired Dustin (my personal favorite).
The show’s underdog, Barb, is charmingly played by Tony award-winner Marissa Jaret Winokur (Hairspray). Owain Rhys-Davies (UMPO: Jurassic Park) shines in a handful of roles including Jonathan Byers and Eleven’s brilliant dance double. Sterling Sulieman brings a sweet enthusiasm to Lucas and a not-so-scary Demogorgon. Kelley Jackle’s wide-eyed Nancy is the perfect counterpart to Clayton’s Steve. Lana McKissack (Eleven) and Damon Gravina (Mike) stunned me in their absolutely beautiful rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” (along with Hunton). The characters are perfectly cast and brilliantly brought to life.
Into the Upside Down
Directed by Nathan Moore and executive produced by writer Kate Pazakis, Stranger Things is a bright, tongue-in-cheek send-up to the Netflix show. The production had me smiling from ear to ear, laughing along with actors who are in on the jokes, singing to the ’80s tunes, and left me wanting even more. Go for the supernatural action, but stay for the outstanding “Creep,” Hunton’s fiery vocals, Clayton’s lovable Dustin, and the overall magic that UMPO: Stranger Things brings to the stage. I sincerely hope they tackle Season 2!
UMPO: Stranger Things has been extended and will be playing at Rockwell Table & Stage through December 2nd. Check out UMPO’s Facebook page for more information, and get your tickets here. Act fast – the Demogorgon is waiting!