Review: Stranger Sings! – The Parody Musical

Meat Market, North Melbourne
4 – 19 November
Salty Theatre

You are hit with a surreal nostalgia entering the foyer of Melbourne’s Meat Market, one of the most unique performing spaces in town.  There is a sense of history in the air as the crowd cattle drive towards the entrance, all sharing general admission and the anticipation for a journey that will not disappoint. Low lights, blue corridors and red filters are all in your surrounds and as the door swings open BOOM you have traveled into a time warp with the 80’s drums and familiar vocals of Queen and David Bowie.  Smoke filters across the excited audience that wonders what stranger things may await us on a Saturday evening, and you know you have most definitely arrived in Hawkins, Indiana.

Welcomed in with symbolic low lit neon Christmas lights, the dull blue and yellow spots set the darkened woods with questions as to what is to come.  For those that are familiar with the Duffer brothers’ most addictive streamed Netflix series, you will already have the association of Joyce Byers’ madness with her missing son and the alphabet painted hurriedly across the walls.  But for those who don’t hold memories of the popular American science fiction show, mystery fills the whole performance space well.  

Photos by Angel Leggas

As the voice of the character Barb Holland blasts an opening asking for patrons to minimise digital devices or be sent to the alternative dimension – The Upside Down, the audience murmurs knowing full well as any true fan does – the pop culture phenomenon whereby the hashtag #justiceforbarb movement spiked on social media worldwide, referring to the sudden death of the first victim in the series.  In a very quick nutshell, the story of Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical follows seasons 1 and 2 of Stranger Things, with very small plot references to seasons 3 and 4.  When twelve year old Will Byers goes missing his Dungeons & Dragons obsessed friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas rally to find him. They are soon assisted by Mike’s older sister aspiring journalist Nancy, her typical jock boyfriend Steve and Will’s introverted brother Jonathan who find themselves in a teen love triangle subplot. Will’s mother Joyce desperately turns to high school friend and local chief of police Jim Hopper to investigate, and whilst there is visible romantic innuendos between them the existence of lurking monsters behind the walls gives them minimal time to explore this.  As all characters quickly find themselves struggling to comprehend the existence of a dark parallel universe that has various gateways popping up all around town, the appearance of the young girl Eleven who can manipulate and control things with her mind makes for a major shift in reality as we know it.  Suddenly there is a world of mad scientists and a fearful alien-like creation known as the demogorgon crawling around capturing and eating people.  If you don’t know the show you will struggle to understand many of the parody plays but that is not to say this musical is not to be enjoyed.

The entire cast play delightfully off each other and completely submerge themselves in their characters. All performers portray multiple roles with skillful quick changes, and whether it be into another lead, ensemble or backup dancer they throw their whole heart into it and truly bring to life the digital versions.  Jess Ridler’s portrayal of Nancy Wheeler was a stand out, capturing the innocence of the character and so too her facial expressions.  She’s sincere in her friendship with Barb when she states “You could never be replaced by Steve.” which introduces me to Stacey-Louise Camilleri’s strength in her role of Barb Holland who so off handedly then replies “Unless I die in the next few pages!”.  Both Ridler and Camilleri’s send up of the friendship is relatable to the short experience viewers received, so there is much humour in the character development Barb never had.  I also must make mention here to Camilleri’s outstanding vocal work that echos out to every corner of the market.  Ridler also does justice to Eleven, who seems like a lesser of a character in this parody but nonetheless she captures the audience in her solos standing under a blue light and eating waffles.  Jack Duff embodies the character of Mike Wheeler as a bright eyed teenage boy with a natural smile and great dialogue, Liam J. Kirkpatrick is superb as Dustin Henderson embodying his mannerisms and speech patterns, and Guillaume Gentil is believable as the loyal Lucas Sinclair who graces us with some gorgeous harmony lines.  Special mention must go out here to Gentil’s portrayal of the demogorgon (who at moments sometimes reflects Madonna) and his skillfully apt dance moves!

Gabrielle Ward as Will Byers is believable and her performance in “Where there’s a Will” spotlit by flashing torches and surrounded by puppets is a highlight.  Asher Griffith-Jones brings hilarity to the stage in all of his roles, with strength in his physicality portraying a more crazy eyed Jonathan Byers and a stereotyped macho Steve Harrington summed up with “Ooh yeh, call me by my first name!”.  Stephanie John brings power to Joyce Byers with fabulous characterisation and true moments where we can recognise the “Winona”.  Her vocals are truly remarkable and her solo in “Crazy” with all its cameo movie characters is one of the best parts of the production.  Ian Andrew as Jim Hopper embodies his role brilliantly and displays a lovely tone in his voice, matching beautifully when in duet with his counterparts.  This adds to the touching moments between he and Eleven at the ending.

When Stranger Sings! The Musical Parody reaches the interval, it’s like you’ve been binge watching all 4 seasons of the show at once and suddenly you’ve pressed pause.  The team at Salty Theatre have done a tremendous job of putting together a steller of a production that you just want to see again and again!  

Jonathan Hogue shows great comedic skill in writing this entertaining parody that I believe is highly enjoyable, and you can see why it has won so many awards.  Hats off to the director Ashley Taylor Tickell for her stunningly neat direction of the show, with Madeline Pratt’s sharp and witty choreography accentuating the characters. Many highlights were in the song movements, where Eleven is lifted into the air by the scientists, neon ribbons grace the stage, and Steve and Dustin do a little Grease Lightnin’.  Vocals were all controlled and clear, with tight harmony, precise character in tone and comedic timing with the smooth accompaniment of skillful musicians.  Musical directors Geoff Scarlett and Stephen McMahon should be very highly commended. The opening number came out like a strong punch to the face, enjoyed by all and setting the standard for the rest of the show that too, continued with high enthusiasm, energy and power.

Special mention to Gabriel Bethune for highly effective and engaging use of lighting.  It was simple but important to the storyline, as were the fitting costumes, wigs and well thought out use of props.  The bike handles in multiple scenes was very clever, as was the humour in the erecting lightsaber.  Set changes were also highly appropriate with good use of music, lighting and comedic skit.  

As a fan of the series I thought the entire evening was an absolute treat.  There’s such great show references – “Friends don’t lie”, storyline moments – “I’ll just wait for you here on the diving board”, and cast member jokes throughout (including a bit on Winona Ryder and her absent Emmy).  There’s even a scene for running up the hill with Kate Bush!  The on stage cast comradery was highly evident and as they had fun, so did we.  If you haven’t seen Stranger Things though, you will enjoy the 80’s references and the supernatural to the almost absurd storyline that is injected with satire.  The music is electric and colourful and the lyrics are great fun. There are touches of Dear Evan Hanson and Rainbow Connection in the music, and enjoyable flashes of many pop culture references including ET.

So, like me you’ll either jump in the car afterwards and Spotify the Stranger Sings! The Musical Parody entire album all the way home, or you’ll get back and jump on your couch to see what the show is all about!  If you tried the demogorgon burger and kept the sauce, this is something else that you can not miss and will want to savour.

You will smile from the start right until the outstanding cast hit that final note.

I was thrilled to be there for opening night and urge you all to attend the Australian premiere of this brilliant production.

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Wendy Samantha

Wendy Samantha

Wendy Samantha is a writer and director and runs her own performing arts school. She has worked on many shows and musicals and is head of primary music at a prestigious Melbourne private school.
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