While the Netflix streaming series Stranger Things has built a strong fan following thanks in large part to its supernatural chills, this coming-of-age uber-pastiche set in the early 1980’s also offers a special nostalgic tingle for recently middle-aged Gen-Xers whose childhoods–gory detours into monster-filled, parallel dimensions aside–are reflected back at them with an emotional verisimilitude that is perhaps the show’s eeriest effect.
A litany of well-known, as well as completely arcane, pop culture references from the era adds to the uncanny sense of time and place the series evokes, though, occasionally, some confusion creeps into memories of both as doubts arise about where one’s actual childhood began and The Goonies ended. For a generation of latchkey kids, Stranger Things is also a stark reminder of another salient feature of Reagan’s America, parental absence, which, ideally, would have led to exciting adventures of self-discovery with your best buddies but, in reality, mostly just resulted in too much television watching, too much aimless hanging out at the mall, and lots of therapy bills.
The show has a plot, too, or, more accurately, variations on the same overarching plot that is repeated season after season: hellish creatures torment a close-knit group of socially challenged boys from a small Indiana town until Eleven, a bloody nosed girl and government lab experiment with psychokinetic abilities, stops them. Somehow there are also Cold War implications. The greatest surprise of Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical is that anyone thought this silliness required parodying.
To be fair, for those in the know about the series, composer, lyricist, and book writer Jonathan Hogue finds a few expected and not-so-expected laughs in his source material, especially when he lets his imagination embellish it. While Hogue tees up obvious jokes about the show’s geeky pubescent male quartet (the decidedly grown-up Jalen Bunch, Dean Cestari, Patrick Howard, and Adele Simms), he is particularly adept at tapping into the goofy potential of the show’s most fearsome bogeyman, the petal-headed, sharp-toothed, and slimy limbed Demogorgan (Bunch). The standout bits include a Thriller-inspired Demogorgan pas seul; a to-the-death-dance-off between the Demogorgan and Eleven (Ariana Perlson) that’s choreographed with impressive jazzercise gusto by Ashley Marinelli; and some hilariously unauthorized fan service involving the resurrection of a now Demogorgan-smitten Barb (the delightful Savannah-Lee Mumford), a popular but ill-fated first-season character-cum-internet obsession whom the actual show’s creators, to this point, have been perfectly content to leave moldering in a Demogorgan’s belly.
Mostly, though, Hogue settles for highlighting Stranger Things’ myriad 1980’s tropes, which is an empty exercise given that the series is nothing if not giddily self-aware of its own hackneyed insprirations. In fact, it revels in them, with the writers even believing that a ludicrously middling season centered on a Red Dawn-style defense of the local mall could be salvaged by having a couple of lovie-dovie nerds sing the theme song from The NeverEnding Story to each other. Boy, they were so right!
Since it’s difficult to make fun of something that was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place, Hogue and director Nick Flatto are often left to spin their wheels by simply rehashing their subject matter’s underbaked characters and shamelessly derivative storytelling, which all-too-often turns Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical into a glorified clip show. Hogue further hampers himself by largely sticking to the series’ first season, as if he only had time to skim the second and third. It’s an especially odd choice that leaves Hogue needing to rely on unfunny, if not downright offensive, parodic padding.
The lowlight of this unwanted excess comes at the expense of actor Winona Ryder who portrays Joyce on the Netflix series, a character perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown because of her menial job, a fraught romantic life that includes one sweet-natured boyfriend being devoured by a pack of satanic dogs, as well as having the unluckiest son on the show when it comes to her community’s bizarrely accessible underworld. Joyce’s ridiculous burdens offer a lot of comic opportunity. Unfortunately, Hogue goes off the good-taste rails by conflating Ryder with her character, striking nothing but sour notes in a song titled “Crazy” that mocks Ryder’s very public mental health struggles. More than cringeworthy, it’s actually cruel.
It’s also one of the few memorable numbers in Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical, the best being “Barb’s Turn,” which Mumford performs with so much Sondheim flare you wish she were in a Sondheim show. The other actors also far outshine what their given to do on James Ortiz’s ticky-tack set that lighting designer Jesse Scott and sound designer Megan “Deetz” Culley manage to imbue with some faint echo of the Netflix series’ visual and aural style. Mostly, though, Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical is just a mundane reminder that season four of the real Stranger Things is coming soon.
Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical (through September 5, 2021)
The Players Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-475-1449 or visit http://www.strangersingsthemusical.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission