By Stanford Friedman
Eight actors and one hand puppet portray over a dozen characters in Jonathan Hogue’s pressurized fire hose of a musical, Stranger Sings! This parody of the hit Netflix series, Stranger Things, had its initial run in 2021 and blasts back with original director Nick Flatto, several original cast members, and some new recruits, all getting down to rowdy business in Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s, which scenic designer Walt Spangler has converted into an in-the-round paneled basement circa 1983, complete with bean bag chairs for a few lucky audience members.
If you’ve never seen Stranger Things, prepare to be hopelessly lost when it comes to the entangled plotlines, but stick around for the handful of dynamic performances, clever choreography by Ashley Marinelli, numerous nods to Broadway classics, and amusing shoutouts to film musicals ranging from Yentl to Xanadu, from Dirty Dancing to The Muppet Movie.
More or less following the developments of the show’s first season back in 2016, the story begins with the disappearance of young Will into the mysterious netherworld known as the Upside Down. Portrayed by a pint-sized actor on TV, Will shows up here as a puppet, manipulated by Caroline Huerta, who simultaneously plays Will’s mother, Joyce. This dynamic – a boy’s dependence on his mother, a mother made more complete by her son – is surprisingly touching, in both senses of the word.
Will’s best friends go hunting for him, propelling the musical along. There is Lucas (Jamir Brown), as undeveloped a character here as he is in the series. Fortunately, Brown gets to perform some amazing dance moves in a couple smaller roles. There is Mike (Jeffrey Laughrun), a kind of romantic lead if that can be said of a 12-year-old. And there is the snack-loving go-getter Dustin (Jeremiah Garcia). On TV, Dustin is portrayed by Gaten Matarazzo, an actor with a noticeable lisp brought on by cleidocranial dysplasia. Garcia finds himself in the precarious position of having to imitate the lisp without making fun of it, in the middle of a very mocking parody. He never quite finds the right balance, nor manages the sheer glee that is Matarazzo’s hallmark. This Dustin has too much hungry and not enough goofy.
Faring better are the characters that orbit around the boys. Police chief Hopper (Shawn W. Smith) is sexy, in an Indiana sort of way. Mike’s teen sister, Nancy (Harley Seger), is attracted to both the hunky, big-haired Steve and stoic, flat-haired Jonathan (played in alternating wigs by Garrett Poladian). Eleven (Seger) is at the center of a dark subplot full of mind control and nose bleeds while not missing a beat in singing the stirring “The Dad I Never Had” as well as a charmingly awkward duet with Mike called “Stranger.” Barb (SLee) is Nancy’s straight-laced friend who escapes the fatal fate of her TV counterpart. Barb and Nancy’s “Forever” duet is close cousin to “We Go Together,” from Grease. And in an all-consuming solo called “Barb’s Turn,” SLee goes full-out Gypsy to stop the show.
The night’s other dazzler features Huerta as a spot-on Winona Ryder (who plays Joyce on the series) trapped in a nightmare dance sequence haunted by characters from her past films, including Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. It’s a truly weird and loving tribute to Ryder’s career in over-acting and just the kind of stranger danger that gives this production its sharp edge.
Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical – By Jonathan Hogue, directed by Nick Flatto.
WITH: Caroline Huerta (Joyce/Will), Garrett Poladian (Steve / Jonathan), SLee (Barb), Jamir Brown (Lucas), Jeremiah Garcia (Dustin), Jeffrey Laughrun (Mike), Harley Seger (Eleven / Nancy), and Shawn W. Smith (Hopper).
Michael Kaish (Music Supervision, Arrangements, & Orchestration), Ashley Marinelli (Choreographer), Walt Spangler (Scenic Design), Matthew Solomon (Costume Design), Jamie Roderick (Lighting Design), Germán Martínez (Sound Design). Playhouse 46 at St. Luke’s, 308 W. 46th St. https://www.strangersingsthemusical.com. Masks required. Through Sunday, January 1. Running time: 110 minutes.