‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ was (Central) Perk-y.
So no one told you theatre was gonna be this way *clap clap clap clap*.
It is one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time, with an enduring fanbase that appears to be growing from strength to strength. Nearly two decades after the finale aired, ‘Friends’ continues to prove it is more than just a television show. It is a phenomenon. With its legacy ingrained in popular culture, it was only a matter of time before the show made its way onto the theatre stage. Switching its New York origins for Melbourne’s iconic Athenaeum Theatre, ‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ is bringing the laughs to audiences who have been waiting for a day, week, month, or even a year.
‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ aims to retell the key plotlines of the show’s 10 seasons in a condensed 90 minutes. Core moments from the lives of everyone’s favourite caffeinated sextet (plus a few cameos) are highlighted.
Originally penned by the comedy partnership of Bob and Tobly McSmith (and with music by Assaf Gleizner), ‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ premiered at New York’s St Luke’s Theatre on 11 October 2017. With the production being an unofficial parody of the television series, all music used in the show is new and unaffiliated. This actually works in the musical’s favour as it allows for the songs to be specifically tailored to particular narrative plot points. With several songs borrowing melodies from other Broadway classics (“Cell Block Tango” from ‘Chicago’; “Seasons of Love” from ‘Rent’; “One Day More” from ‘Les Misérables’), ‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ pays homage to both its namesake show and to the medium it utilises.
With ‘Friends’ being such an iconic entity, the production team understand that making the set look authentic, yet also fresh, is imperative. Frances Story’s set design is innovatively dynamic. With the turning of the wall panel, the quaint stylings of the Central Perk coffee shop transform into the lilac hues of Monica’s apartment. Story’s set is almost reminiscent of a child’s pop-up picture book, with numerous easter eggs from the show hiding within the audience’s sight of the stage. Eagle-eyed audience members are likely to revel in the challenge of spotting every little Friends-related detail – though accomplishing this is another matter.
In conjunction with her set design, Story, in collaboration with Kent Green (Head of Wardrobe), exhibits a strong eye for detail in costuming. Taking inspiration from the characters’ television counterparts, each outfit is specifically rendered to establish their given personality. From Phoebe’s bohemian skirts to Janice’s leopard print ensemble, each design aims to encapsulate the essence of ‘Friends’ nostalgia. That being said, it is when the costumes go ‘off book’ that the hilarity really ensues. A geriatric Tom Sellick and a chain-smoking Estelle in angel form (complete with portable cigarette buggy) are two of the production’s most outrageously hysterical standouts. Story’s costume design demonstrates a talent for paying satirical homage to the beloved sitcom in a loving and humorous way.
Of course, translating ‘Friends’ from television series to stage could not be accomplished without the theatre essentials of lighting and sound design. Enter Jason Glenwright, Allyssa Tonks, Steven Kramer, Paul Sinkinson, and Matthew Morrison.
As Head of Lighting and Lighting Designer respectively, Tonks and Glenwright lean into a more theatrically traditional aesthetic for the production. Spotlights, colourful shades, and strobes are used in quintessential fashion. However, that does not mean they are above stemming a laugh from the audience. Occasionally (and intentionally) angling the spotlight too high or low for the performers gives rise to raucous laughter – both in the audience and on stage.
The sound team are similarly up for having a laugh. Morrison, as Head of Audio, elicits a soundtrack of slapstick sounds to heighten the satire. The thunderclaps used to signify the recurring entrance of Janice Litman-Goralnik (nee Hosenstein) are particularly comical. Pairing Morrison’s audio with Kramer and Sinkinson’s vocal and musical direction allows each melodic interlude to nicely balance comedy and theatre. Various genres and styles are explored throughout ‘Friends! The Musical Parody’. The contrasting 1990s rap-inspired “Oh My God, It’s Janice” and the heartfelt ballad “Could I Be Anymore In Love With You?” are definitive highlights. While at times lyrics are drowned out by the booming musical score, this adds merit to the satirical nature of the show. Like a melodic metaphor for the core six protagonists, the music and sound of ‘Friends!’ is eclectic and complementary.
Bringing such a celebrated American show to Australian audiences is no easy feat. The direction team of Dash Kruck, Jack Biggs, Kristen Barros, and Cameron Mitchell relish the task.
Placing emphasis upon the joy ‘Friends’ brings to its legions of fans; Director Kruck exhibits a talent for comedic direction. Comedic timing is an important ingredient in ensemble pieces. Kruck, Assistant Director Biggs, Resident Director Barros, and Choreographer Mitchell direct their performers to listen not simply to themselves and each other, but to the audience as well. Instead of firing through jokes and slapstick movements, they permit their audience to enjoy several moments of extended laughter which in turn allows for humour to marinate. As this is a key skill within situation comedy, the translation of this to the theatre is very welcome.
Of course, ‘Friends’ would not be ‘Friends’ without everyone’s favourite six, well, friends. Each of the seven cast members has their individual moments to shine. The ensemble shares undeniable chemistry onstage, allowing for engaging performances a-plenty.
Annie Chiswell performs Monica with a refreshing dose of physicality and warmth. Conor Putland brings nuance to the lovably dense Joey. Belinda Jenkin is engrossingly quirky as the ‘flaky’ Phoebe Buffay. As Ross, Tyran Stig shifts emotions and sensibilities expertly from scene to scene. Eleanor MacIntyre steps into Rachel Green’s Bloomingdale shoes with charm and pizazz.
Maverick Newman and Dom Hennequin are decisive standouts, however. Both take on the task of performing more than one character throughout the show. Newman, who for the most part dons the role of fan favourite Chandler, is delightfully goofy. Newman also intermittently plays the role of the shrill-voiced, obnoxious Janice, whereby his physical and vocal comedy chops really shine. Similarly, Hennequin proves to be a comedic chameleon, taking on the roles of the above-mentioned Tom Sellick and Estelle, as well as Ursula Buffay and the unofficial seventh ‘friend’, Gunther. Hennequin’s dedication to each character is commendable, making each of their appearances memorable and fresh.
With a devoted fan base and an impressive legacy within television comedy, ‘Friends’ proves itself to be a prime subject for musical parody treatment. Acting as both a love letter to and a cheeky dig at the iconic sitcom, ‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ is sure to please diehard fans and novices alike. So, bring your chick, duck, and Hugsy toy and pivot your way down to the Athenaeum Theatre to be there for ‘Friends! The Musical Parody’, as they’ll be there for you too.
‘Friends! The Musical Parody’ performs until Saturday, 17 December 2022 at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre. For more information about the show, or to book tickets, visit Friends! The Musical Parody’s website.