BWW Review: FRIENDS!: THE MUSICAL PARODY Is The One You Want to See with Your Millennial BFFs
No one told me life was going to be this way...
I live in a world where "Friends" ended fifteen years ago, and now my youngest friends have never seen a single episode.
Its theme song is an oldie, its reruns play on Nick at Nite, and one of its six lead actors has hair as white as Ursula's (of the sea, not Buffay).
That happened fast.
Now I find myself in a room of about a hundred other early-gen millennials at Melbourne's King Center Studio Theatre for a traveling show called FRIENDS!: THE MUSICAL PARODY.
The show is an unauthorized love letter to the series, condensing its entire ten-season arc into just two acts - no small feat - and singing songs along the way. They're bouncy if forgettable, but lyrically good for a laugh, tackling the show's biggest plot lines and most befuddling idiosyncrasies.
Among the targets: the economic improbability of the "Friends" characters' lifestyles, the writers' propensity to pair up all their leads, and the show's penchant for celebrity cameos.
None of this is groundbreaking stuff. These same observations have been made in everything from Tumblr posts to academic journals, but they are funny as executed here, and that's what matters.
Even better than the material, though, is the cast. Three of them are dead ringers for the characters we know. Sami Griffith's Rachel Green rivals Vanessa Bayer's on SNL. Domenic Servidio's resemblance to Joey begins and ends with his muscles, but he's got the mannerisms and speech patterns down pat. And Madison Fuller's every "Oh no" as Phoebe Buffay brings the house down.
The other three actors take a different approach. Tyler Fromson, Maggie McMeans, and Aaron C. Rutherford don't much look, sound, or move like Ross, Monica, or Chandler, respectively. Instead, they approach their characters as roles in a stage play.
This blend of uncanny impersonation and fresh interpretation was the biggest surprise of the night for me, and the thing I walked away raving about. Too far to one end of the spectrum, and this might not have passed as parody. Too far to the other, and it might have seemed like a puppet show. Whether the half-and-half approach is intentional or happenstance, I don't know, but it works as a nice blend of comedy and theatre.
Another surprise: all six actors sing really well. For something that isn't a "serious" musical or an Actors' Equity production, I might have expected less (and the producers could probably have gotten away with less).
Rutherford frequently steps away from his Chandler duties to play our favorite recurring personalities: Janice, Richard, Paolo, and so on. Each entry gets the audience hooting with affection, and me along with them, but I must say that the rationale for Rutherford's gravely, Harvey Fierstein-esque take on Ursula was lost on me.
Gunther is here too, courtesy of Nick Palazzo, who doubles as a swing for the rest of the cast.
FRIENDS!: THE MUSICAL PARODY, written by Bob and Tobly McSmith, originated Off-Broadway in New York and later set up shop in Las Vegas, where it is still in residency. The touring production runs concurrently in an ongoing circuit throughout North America, apparently focusing on smaller venues in smaller towns. The set design on tour is much sparser than what I've seen of its Vegas counterpart, but the black box nature of the setup works as a complement to the meta nature of this show.
Someone more cynical than I am might call the whole thing a rip-off or a cash grab.
Indeed, that's exactly the stance that most major reviews have taken, and one from which I humbly dissent.
Certainly, the show is unauthorized. The best parodies are. ("Weird Al" prefers to get permission for his songs as a matter of personal policy, but they aren't exactly "official.") Who wants to see what the suits at Warner Brothers or NBCUniversal are willing to bless? I'd rather hear from fans with talent, even if it means they can't sing "Smelly Cat," and that's what we get.
As a parody, the show is thoughtful and amusing, if not always razor sharp. As a celebration of the sitcom, it is even more effective. Nostalgia is king, and this show worships at that throne, but with the kind of irony and irreverence we millennials love. Tonally, it is not unlike Los Angeles's The Unauthorized Musical Parody of Hocus Pocus, an unrelated production starring Marissa Jaret Winokur, which generally received much kinder reviews. I was in the audience for both and came away thinking that each had fanned the flames of fandom in all the best ways. (Full disclosure: I wrote a book about Hocus Pocus, which producers featured at that production.) Unlike this show, the HoPo parody repurposed existing pop songs instead of writing its own; I'm surprised critics haven't given the FRIENDS equivalent credit for going the extra mile.
Parody isn't everyone's cup of tea, of course, and it isn't often done well. But when the tone is right, it can really lead to reflection.
In other words, effective parody isn't that common, it doesn't happen to every iconic TV show, and it IS a big deal!
I walked out of the King Center feeling like I'd spent an evening celebrating my generation with other people who grew up in it. The show has a communal effect that might be lost on those who haven't sat through the entire series more than once. But for those who have, FRIENDS!: THE MUSICAL PARODY is consistently funny, unexpectedly theatrical, and even genuinely moving when all is said and done.
The Melbourne production was a one-night-only affair, but you can pivot your way to the next nearest city by visiting the show's touring schedule online.
What did you think of FRIENDS!: THE MUSICAL PARODY? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: FRIENDS!: THE MUSICAL PARODY - North American Tour
(Editorial note: the set depicted in the promotional photograph differs somewhat from the set used at the King Center on the night of review)