Thomas Burns Scully
There have been a slew of unauthorized musical parodies off-Broadway recently. Among the more successful ones are ‘Silence!’, ‘Potted Potter’ and ‘Fifty Shades of F*****d Up’. For each one that get wide attention, there are likely a dozen that fall by the wayside. I’ve heard tell of parodies of ‘Saved by the Bell’, ‘Orange is the New Black’, a dozen redundant ‘Fifty Shades’ knock offs and many others. A person with the right mind for it could probably create a kind of ‘Parody-Mill’ where they constantly churned out these musical parodies, in the same manner as The Asylum churns out ‘Mockbusters’. Into this arena steps a group with just such an agenda, a theatre company called ‘Unauthorized: The Musical’. Based on popular movies selected by their audience, ‘Unauthorized’ throws together new musical parodies in the space of about a month. Previous works have included parodies of ‘Ghostbusters’, ‘Back to the Future’ and ‘Steel Magnolias’. Their latest offering is ‘The Hungry Hungry Games’, a parody of ‘The Hunger Games’. What to make of it?
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last seven years, you’ve probably had some kind of exposure to ‘The Hunger Games’, and will have a rough idea of the story. It is set in a dystopian society called Panem, which is divided in to twelve districts and a Capitol. Each year the districts offer two tributes to fight in a battle to the death for the amusement of the populace. Katniss Everdeen gets embroiled in the games, falls for her co-tribute Peeta (but maybe not) and… you know all this. The only difference here is it’s all set to jaunty song and dance numbers, and is played almost exclusively for laughs. But does it get those laughs?
Well, that’s a more complicated question than you’d think. The honest answer is: yes and no. There is stuff in this show that made me laugh out loud and whoop and cheer. And there’s also stuff in it that’s so misguided and/or overly lowest common denominator that it made me nostalgic for the time when I was still young enough to think that the ‘Scary Movie’ series was comedy genius. There is a musical number in which the capitol’s ‘Avox’ citizens are introduced (former political terrorists who have had their tongues cut out), and on one of the choruses they are asked to join in. They do, but of course are completely incoherent because they’ve had their tongues cut out. It’s hilariously wrong, and it flirts with being comedy genius. However there are numerous riffs on Apple product-placement that aren’t particularly funny, don’t go anywhere, and yet are continually called back to as a running gag. These, and other, jokes feel crowbarred in for the purposes of “look how funny and topical we’re being!” that don’t come naturally out of the story.
This is what I found to be the biggest problem with ‘Hungry Hungry Games’. It goes out of its way to parody and joke about things that aren’t actually in the source material. Katniss is portrayed (by Natalie Sullivan) as a borderline-grotesque man-girl who expresses her complicated teenage emotions in hackneyed, overly simplistic dialogue.The show seems to be encouraging us to point and laugh at the excellent parodic observation it has made, but it’s not an excellent parodic observation. It’s a generic lampoon of a non-specific character from a teen-drama. It bares little resemblance to Suzanne Collins writing, or Jennifer Lawrence’s characterization, and as such makes the character of Katniss seem weird, clunky and out of place. Similarly, Peeta is portrayed (by Jay Malsky) as a naive man-child who is worryingly oblivious to the obvious horrors around him. He bares no resemblance to the conscientious, soft-spoken Peeta shown in the books or movies.
I’m by no means saying that the ‘Hunger Games’ are sacred texts that must be strictly adhered to (I like the franchise, but I’m not in love with it), but the job of a parody is to observe and caricature. When your two main protagonists seem a million miles removed from their dramatic dopplegangers, it hints at poor observation, and, hence, lazy writing. Christopher William Barnes’ book chooses generic pandering over actual satire seventy-five percent of the time, leaving vast seams of potential comedy un-mined. And the songs? Well, they’re functional. They get you from point A to point B, but I couldn’t quote you a single line from a song, or hum a melody for you. Ryan Mercy’s music and Barnes’ lyrics, again, fall in to genericism.
Except I’m being unfair. The show did have these problems, but their prevalence decreased dramatically in the second half of the show. The second half, overall, was much tighter, cleverer and entertaining than the first. Perhaps the compactness of the setting (it takes place almost exclusively during the games) gave it a focus that the first half didn’t. The observations and jokes are better too. There’s a great payoff for a series of gags about Rue, there’s a sudden homage to ‘Stomp’, a psychedelic bee ballet, and other silly gags that all seem to land a lot better than the first act’s highlights. There’s even a song which I can just about hum: ‘Keep-at-it-tude’, an upbeat song and dance number where the tributes sing to keep their spirits up, whilst also killing one another off. Rather fun. And the finale hits the nail on the head spectacularly, giving ‘Hungry Hungry Games’ the satirical chops its been clamoring at for nearly two hours. In the final number the writers take the central theme of ‘The Hunger Games’ (reality TV voyeurism) and, with the help of some sneaky stagecraft, (and a lot of hand mirrors) bludgeon the audience half to death with it. They expertly make fun of the way ‘The Hunger Games’ heavy-handedly delivers its subtextual message, by making it in to glaringly obvious actual text in the way that the books and movies may as well have done. Bravo, loved it.
I also need to take the time to single out Pat Swearingen as Ceaser. He is a powerhouse as the over-produced TV host that Stanley Tucci played in the film. He essentially drives the show, giving it a pace, wit and sinisterness that isn’t always there in the script. By the end of the first act I was in love, by the end of the second I had discovered a new emotion stronger than that to feel just for him. Shongedzai Matangira (Rue) and Katie Hutch (Clove) also gave the show some real class. Matangira with her switching between a sweet little girl voice and a deep, sultry singing voice; and Hutch with her ‘kick you right in the teeth’ attitude and ‘kick you right in the teeth’ vocal prowess made for great viewing. As did Adrian Sexton as the ever bizarre Effie. Much love all round.
So where does all this leave us? What did I feel about ‘The Hungry Hungry Games’ overall? Well, like Katniss says in the show: my feelings are very complicated. There’s enough in this show that works, and works well, that I could easily give it a pass and an out-and-out recommendation. But there’s also a lot in it that doesn’t work, and were it not for it’s weighty redeeming features, I would tell you to stay well away. However, in passing a final judgement, I feel like I’m more inclined to be kind. The idea behind ‘Unauthorized’ is a very good one, and the people involved have clearly worked very hard on ‘Hungry Games’. I don’t want to discourage a potentially great production venture, because one of their early offerings was occasionally sub-par. It would be akin to canceling Seinfeld based on it’s pilot (Something which almost happened). In weighing everything up, although I am still ambivalent, and have a lot I could say about the script… I’m willing to give a little love and a little latitude. Go see it. But watch it, ‘Unauthorized’… I’ve got my eye on you.
Info and Show Schedules: http://www.unauthorizedmusical.com/
Ticket Link: http://thepit-nyc.com/event/unauthorized-the-hungry-hungry-games-2/