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'Stranger Sings' review — musical parody turns the hit TV show upside down

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

If Stranger Things Twitter, theatre Twitter, and '80s kids all created a show together, it would look something like Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical.

Jonathan Hogue, who wrote the show's book, music, and lyrics, seems to represent all those culture niches in one. Stranger Sings! is not only stuffed to the brim with nostalgic jokes, but it is also perfectly on the pulse with fan conversations around the show (speaking from personal experience, as a Stranger Things fan), perhaps even more so now that it's back in New York for an encore run.

To keep things manageable plot-wise, Stranger Sings! is still rooted mostly in the first season's adventures: In 1983, a trio of middle schoolers (Mike, Dustin, and Lucas) and their families must save their friend Will from interdimensional monsters, dubbed "demogorgons" after fictional foes from their Dungeons & Dragons campaign. (But a third season of Stranger Things came out between the musical's first 2018 concert and the first full Off-Broadway run in 2021, and another still between then and the current engagement.

Smartly, Stranger Sings! handpicks only a few key moments from the latter seasons to add, making the show feel up-to-date without being overwhelming. Those include a duet between Steve and Dustin (everyone's favorite bromance) at Scoops Ahoy, with cameos from Robin and Erica; and a short snippet of Running Up That Hill, the Kate Bush song that season four relaunched to the top of the charts. Plus, some allusions to Will's implied homosexuality — an especially hot topic since season four premiered — land with extra weight.

All that said, at times it still feels like there's almost too much going on — like in Stranger Things itself, there are so many characters and subplots that it sometimes feels like the writers don't know what to do with them all. The telepathic Eleven and the police chief Hopper, two major characters in the TV series, are the victims here, getting reduced to minor-character status. Lots more oxygen is given to the love triangle between high schoolers Steve, Nancy, and Jonathan, and how neither finding Will nor Nancy's friend Barb is quite as important as canoodling in the woods.

It's forgivable, though, because scenes like that play into fans' real critiques of the show. There's plenty more fun fan service, too, in the form of a showstopping 11 o'clock number from a forgotten character, '80s pop culture (a demogorgon dancing to "Thriller" is a particular highlight), and theatre jokes — there's a smart new joke about Hopper picking up the Handbook for the Recently Deceased (a prop from the cult classic 80s movie Beetlejuice) at the gift shop of the Marriott (where the Beetlejuice musical adaptation is currently playing).

On a related note, Beetlejuice himself — as well as Heather Chandler, Edward Scissorhands, and more characters from Winona Ryder movies — make cameos in the show's most wildly divergent, yet best, number, "Crazy." The manic Joyce (played by Ryder in the TV show, and here by a superb Caroline Huerta) insists she is Winona and desperately wonders where her Emmy is.

The number makes Joyce the one character who, though she only gets a few scenes, doesn't get swallowed up in the chaos of the musical as a whole. Plus, Ryder should have an Emmy, and if nothing else, Stranger Sings! is successful as a campaign for that alone.

Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical is at Playhouse 46 @ St. Luke's through January 1. Get Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical tickets now.

Photo credit: Jamir Brown, Jeffrey Laughrun, Jeremiah Garcia, Caroline Huerta, SLee, Garrett Poladian, Harley Seger, and Shawn W. Smith in Stranger Sings! (Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

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