It has been almost 20 years since the TV show Friends ended its original run, yet the popularity of the series about six young adults cruising through life in the streets of Manhattan never seems to fade. The off-Broadway show Friends! The Musical Parody, playing at St. Luke’s Theatre, taps into this continued fanaticism and makes its audiences laugh from the nostalgic joy of a simpler era.
Like the original series, the musical follows characters Rachel Green, Joey Tribbiani, Phoebe Buffay, Chandler Bing and siblings Monica and Ross Geller on their journey of discovering the world together. The book and lyrics by Bob and Tobly McSmith pack the content of 10 seasons into a 2 1/2 hour theatrical performance in a notable effort that eventually pays off as audiences that may be unfamiliar with Friends can understand the whole story.
Although the staged version strives to be inclusive and entertaining, the biggest plot drive and source of comedy eventually comes from the bombardment of references to the TV show, some of which will not land with viewers who have not watched the series. Nevertheless, the most memorable moments such as Ross practicing the ancient self-awareness technique of “Unagi” or Joey playing with live birds all contribute to the show’s nonsensical farce without ever losing focus.
Through remarkably clever scene changes between Central Perk and the girls’ apartment, the show succeeds at finding comedy by shamelessly calling out the whole original series, where characters seem to spend all of their time doing everything but actually working and being productive. From the get-go, the events onstage demand the audience to suspend their disbelief and let the actors deconstruct what established Friends as a symbol of American pop culture.
The altogether satisfying but unmemorable score by Assaf Gleizner borrows the best traditions of the musical parody genre, meshing together the hits of Broadway and television. The score bluntly includes a number inspired by the song “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago, documenting the struggles of the cataclysmic relationship between Ross and Rachel, as well as melodious allusions to Fiddler on the Roof and Rent. Unfortunately, the show lacks actual musical references from the series such as Phoebe’s meme-worthy “Smelly Cat” or the opening theme, “I’ll Be There for You” by The Rembrandts.
While condensing 10 seasons of Friends is challenging, the musical’s cast has a task of an almost impossible magnitude: to make the iconic characters distinct from those portrayed by the original cast, which included major stars such as Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry and Lisa Kudrow.
Landon Zwick puts the most effort and thought into his character, portraying Ross with a unique charm that makes him a cartoonish sweetheart. In collaboration with Patricia Sabulis’ Rachel — a spot-on Aniston doppelganger — Zwick is the heart and the body of the show. Nevertheless, Katie Johantgen steals the spotlight every time her atrocious skirts sweep dust off the stage. As Phoebe, Johantgen creates her own kooky reality that she refuses to leave, much to the audience’s delight. The series’ favorite womanizer, Joey, is portrayed by Alan Trinca with an appropriate infantilism and contagious “How you doin’?” swagger.
Monica’s character appears like an abandoned blueprint: it is hard not to think that actress Lisa Graye was more focused on distancing herself from Courtney Cox’s TV portrayal than on actually shaping a complete character, resulting in something that looks like a warm-up exercise in an acting summer camp. Her romance with Chandler in the second act is at times almost painful to watch.
Seth Blum loses everything that makes Chandler’s character lovable on television: Blum’s Chandler is not an adorable nerd who uses humor to hide his personal insecurities, but rather an irritating pervert with a bad hairline. Ironically, Blum also portrays Janice, Chandler’s skin-crawling girlfriend who could kill flies with her voice. Additionally, Blum plays Ross’ monkey, Marcel, who grinds on audience members as if by random choice. Both Marcel and Janice snatch the night’s most thunderous reactions, exacerbating Chandler’s position as it really is not his day, week, month or even year.
Whether one watched the Emmy Award-winning show in the ‘90s when it originally ran, binge-watched all 10 seasons during a winter break or never even heard of the series, this musical is as entertaining as it can be. Friends! The Musical Parody provides a good opportunity to take visiting family members to watch New York theater or an agreeable alternative to a stay-at-home Friday night.