Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: This Show is On Fire

"The Hunger Games" is a blockbuster film and young adult book series that first caught fire seven years ago. The love story slash death-match saga has sparked a craze that turned rising stars into household names. Since its appearance on the pop culture scene, the Suzanne Collins penned epic has found itself lampooned and parodied on tv and film but never on stage. Until now. In The Hungry Hungry Games: an Unauthorized Musical Parody, with book and lyrics by Christopher Willam Barnes and music by Ryan Mercy, "The Hunger Games" gets the musical theater treatment through a laugh-a-minute parody that pokes fun at the ridiculousness that is our obsession with the source material.
Using both the first book and film as inspiration, The Hungry Hungry Games tells the story of a future or modern land called Pan Am where youngsters in every district are raffled off to fight to the death in a reality tv style killing spree. So where's the humor in this drama? Everywhere! From teenage sexual tension to the battle royale nature of this world to the ridiculous sponsors to the fact that children are reading and seeing a story about murder, nothing is off limits. What works in The Hungry Hungry Games is there are bits and moments that land and bring out the laughter. From the Buzz Ballet to Rue's vocal reveal to the brilliant girl on fire bit to some hungry hungry visitors, the jokes worked. But for every one that worked there were moments that died like a fallen tribute. Part of this is due to the various directions and ideas the musical goes in. Even though the book came first, audiences expect direct rip-offs of the film version. There are shades of this but it must go further. Instantaneous recognition is integral for a piece like this. When an iconic character pops onto stage, say Effie, you know who she is. The wig. The makeup. She’s identifiable. But then you have complete throwaways in Haymitch as he does not appear or act like the Woody Harrelson boozy legend we know from the movie. There are so many missed opportunities of jokes and jabs that Barnes passes up. The audience expects certain iconic lines and moments from the film that when they’re not present, it’s a bummer. Sure, time is of the essence and the current length The Hungry Hungry Games is quite wonderful, but rediscovering those key moments and finding ways to insert them would be fruitful. But hey, if the cheap laugh isn’t the goal, perhaps that’s why they’re missing.  Despite the physical flaws, most of the characters spoof some of their hilarious traits. From Katnisss and Jennifer Lawrence’s constant intensity to Peeta being a complete pussy, Barnes does a fine job picking what to mock. Structurally, Barnes and Mercy use Caesar Flickerman as the emcee of the evening. It’s an brilliant theatrical device for this piece. The musical opens with a slow-mo rush to the supplies at the start of The Games. It’s a grand moment. There is musical underscoring. But no song. Beginning a musical, parody or not, without a musical number is a giant risk. And it didn’t pay off. The score by Mercy borrows a plethora of musical stylings. From sweeping numbers to toe-tapping production numbers, The Hungry Hungry Games gives you it all. The story is epic by design so when Mercy employs the high drama numbers for Katniss and friends, it works. And when he uses more uptempo colorful number for Caesar and Effie, it makes sense. When it strays from this formula, something feels off.
The company of The Hungry Hungry Games bring the fun from start to finish. And some give astounding performances. Not only does Natalie Sullivan have the comedic capability to give Katniss uproarious angst, she has the vocal chops to bring down the house. And she does so many many times. Just reference that Act I closer, one of the strongest numbers in the entire score. It's true, Jay Malsky is goddamn adorable. He plays up the wonderfully naive boy-like charm of Peeta yet you still love him for being dim. Malsky’s breakout moment in “My Love Song” deserves the long applause it gets. Though it’s a bummer that the hilarious height discrepancy that Lawrence and Hutcherson can’t be mocked in this production, Sullivan and Malsky have such great chemistry as the “will they, won’t they” tributes from District 12. Adrian Sexton as the flamboyant Effie Trinket is wonderful. Trinket floats around stage in such brilliant manner. Possibly due to the constraints of theatrical storytelling, Gale, the third wheel, doesn’t get much action. But Chris Simpson’s Gale provided the Hemsworth charm. As adorable and fan favorite Rue, Shongedzai Matangira provided one of the biggest laughs of the night. Who knew vocal change could be so funny. As Caesar, Pat Swearingen is eccentric-lite. With so many jabs at musical theater, The Hungry Hungry Games only gave us one hunky chorus boy. But Connor Lyons steals the show with his extraordinary step routine during the Stomp moment.
Scribe Christopher Willam Barnes puts on the director hat as well, something that may not be best suited for the show. It’s no secret, there are jokes that don’t land. Whether it’s due to the writing or the direction, a fresh eye in the director’s chair could be very beneficial. The directorial vocabulary that Barnes uses varies from applause to no applause post songs. With an audience unsure when they should clap, mostly due to the applause sign going off way too many times, there were some brilliant numbers that got no love. One device that Barnes touches upon is audience participation. As we learn in the closing number, the writers want to hold a mirror up to the audience and blame us for the success of “The Hunger Games.” To truly get this point across, going further with breaking the fourth wall would be helpful. Perhaps making certain audience members participate as sponsors could get us into the action. But maybe lose the iPhone whatever number references in the process.
The Hungry Hungry Games is on its way to becoming a cult classic. There is such hope in the material that with some detailed refining, you could see this parody musical outside of The PIT.