Over the past ten years, Team Starkid has produced twelve full-length musicals (including their newest, Black Friday), eventually going on to post those shows on their YouTube page and making good, original theatre far more accessible than most theatre-lovers are used to. It’s been a delight to see how Starkid has grown from a group of plucky college kids making silly Harry Potter musical parodies into a full-fledged company that’s gone on multiple nationwide tours and written musicals that could legitimately give more “professional”/Broadway shows a run for their money. Like any group that’s been around for such a length of time, the quality of their work has ebbed and flowed; after all, not every show can be a masterpiece. But their most recent show, The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, seemed to reignite a fire within the group and their fanbase, leading to unprecedented success in their Kickstarter campaign for their 10th anniversary season – a reunion concert featuring every Starkid performer willing to return and a brand new musical, Black Friday. With Black Friday having opened last week and the digital ticket being released earlier this week, it seemed like an apt opportunity to take a look at Starkid’s newest musical and see just what’s happening in Hatchetfield this time around. The biggest question: how is the show? In short, it’s really good. In fact, it might be one of my favorite shows from Starkid.
(This review is based on the Digital Ticket released earlier this week. As such, none of the technical elements of the show – aside from its set and basic lighting design – will be discussed as it seems unfair to judge them based on a single camera angle. Also, this review will be as spoiler-free as possible.)
Black Friday (music and lyrics by Jeff Blim; book by Matt and Nick Lang; directed by Nick Lang)
Somewhere in the American Midwest, at the crossroads of nightmare and imagination, there is a tiny town where the veil of reality wears thin and eldritch forces threaten to unravel the fabric of the universe… Black Friday is a new horror-comedy musical about the shopping day from hell. When the holiday season’s hottest new toy, the Tickle-Me Wiggly, hits the shelves, the city of Hatchetfield goes mad for it, literally. That’s when Tom Houston, Lex Foster, Becky Barnes and a few familiar faces, must fight through a sea of murderous mall-goers to save humanity from an inter dimensional being with a taste for chaos. When Wiggly comes to town, will the world survive Black Friday?
To say that I loved Black Friday would be an understatement. In fact, Black Friday feels like a new evolution in Starkid’s shows. In many ways, it doesn’t really feel like a Starkid show at all. Sure, many of the same actors we’ve seen in other Starkid shows appear here and there are plenty of jokes and good songs, but everything else feels different. The tone is different – it’s significantly darker than nearly every other Starkid musical; the way the plot unfolds is different – the whole show is significantly more character-driven than others have been, so a lot of the “plot” happens in the background as we focus on a particular character; even the characters and their backgrounds are different – most notably in the extremely complex and morally gray backstories that multiple characters possess. Everything is different – in a really good way. It all feels a bit more adult, a bit more complex. If the previous 11 musicals were the first chapter of Starkid’s story, Black Friday feels like the beginning of the second chapter. Those first eleven shows are all really enjoyable and good, but Black Friday is a good musical for almost entirely different reasons.
Starkid shows often have pretty solid scripts; after all, Nick and Matt Lang have gotten pretty good at writing the kinds of shows Starkid makes. But Black Friday might be one of the best scripts they’ve written. The plot of the show is simultaneously simple and complex: a new toy, Tickle-Me-Wiggly, is being released on Black Friday and everyone in Hatchetfield wants one and are willing to do whatever it takes to get their hands on it – the catch is, of course, that Wiggly is actually an extra-dimensional monster bent on world domination. Sounds simple enough on the surface, but the show goes into an admirable amount of depth about Wiggly’s origins – where does he come from, what does he want, and why is he doing this now? Couple all of that with the storylines of over half-a-dozen characters, and you have a complicated night of theatre. Miraculously, the Lang brothers manage to balance all of these elements – and some surprisingly complex themes that I don’t want to spoil here – remarkably well.
They are able to balance all of these elements by grounding the musical in the lives and experiences of a sizeable ensemble of characters – a change from Starkid’s usual formula. Instead of focusing on one or two “main characters”, Black Friday focuses on an ensemble of roughly eight characters, allowing each one the opportunity to have a big moment within the show. The complexities of the plot end up taking a backseat to the lives and experiences of these characters as they go through all of the events within the musical. That’s not to say Wiggly and the rest of his plot go unexplored – in fact, one character’s plotline is closely tied with Wiggly and the Lang Brothers use this plotline as the method through which they explore Wiggly’s origin and plan – but the show’s focus is clearly on its characters. I think this approach ends up working for the better as it gives the Lang Brothers the chance to really develop these characters in ways that they haven’t been able to develop the characters in previous Starkid shows. While we don’t spend as much time with any of these characters as we would with a “main character” in other Starkid shows, we spend enough time with them to understand their wants and their needs and what makes them tick – and, in an ensemble show, that’s what’s important. In Black Friday, all of these characters truly feel like real people who have been trapped within this nightmarish situation. The story bounces back and forth between various characters, meaning we can go for significant chunks of time without checking in on a character. As is the nature for an ensemble show, you spend just enough time with a character to understand who they are and where they fit into the overall storyline and then you do the same for another character and juggle all of the stories together into a cohesive whole – which is exactly what the Lang Brothers do here.
It’s this kind of structure that makes Black Friday feel so different from other Starkid shows. Because we’re really experiencing the story through the eyes of these characters, we become intimately familiar with their backgrounds – most notably, their traumas. It’s here where we get the bulk of the show’s darkness; these characters are painfully human. They’re all flawed in one way or another, all selfish in one way or another. More than any other Starkid show, these characters feel like someone you might run into on the street. It’s these very real characterizations that allow a lot of the show’s darker elements and themes to shine through. This approach results in a much scarier, far less comedic show than The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, the first musical in the Hatchetfield series. While The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals was purposely a very cheesy, very loving sendup of old sci-fi B-movies, Black Friday is not that at all – instead, it’s a story about this group of realistic humans facing this existential threat and how they react to it. This results in a musical that’s less comedic and more dramatic. Sure, there are still plenty of jokes, but everything is grounded in the reality of these characters and everything we see on stage is filtered through their points of view and I absolutely love it. Now, to be fair, this approach isn’t 100% perfect – there are a few questions left unanswered (presumably to be tackled in a future Hatchetfield show) and the second act tries to juggle just a few too many things, which makes a few events a little hard to follow – but repeat viewing seems to solve this problem, so I’m inclined to give it a pass. I never had trouble understanding what was happening, why it was happening (aside from a brief moment in act 2 – but that got fixed when I rewatched the show and paid closer attention to it the scene in question), and why it mattered. It’s not the kind of show that will spoonfeed you everything, but it’s not hard to follow if you’re willing to work with it and pay attention. Ultimately, I really enjoyed the script for this show. It’s an unusual format for a Starkid show, but it worked really well. I loved the complexity of the characters and the themes that were explored. I enjoyed how the script carefully timed each reveal to ensure peak dramatic effect. I feel it’s the Lang Brothers’ best writing to date and I’m extremely excited to see where they go from here if this is the style of thing they want to write.
If you’ll recall, I’ve previously found Jeff Blim’s songs hit or miss – I enjoyed the music in Trail to Oregon but I largely felt the songs in The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals didn’t work as well as they could have. Happily, Black Friday has none of those problems – in fact, I think it’s Blim’s best work with Starkid to date. Every single song feels important to either the overarching plot or to our understanding of whichever character is singing it. The lyrics flow really nicely alongside the music and it makes for a really fun experience. The score, itself, feels more complex than a lot of other Starkid shows. Jeff Blim’s really outdone himself, here, as the score feels really cohesive – often featuring motifs that appear earlier in the evening, but repurposing them for new and exciting uses. Also, for fans of the previous Hatchetfield show, Blim reuses some melodies from that show in some of the instrumental work for Black Friday and every time you hear one of those reused tunes, it’s an absolute joy. Some of my personal favorite songs include: “Made in America”, “Adore Me”, “What Tim Wants”, and “Our Doors Are Open” – but all of the songs are honestly winners. It’s a great score with some frequently-clever lyrics and some really catchy melodies. It’s excellent.
Not only is Black Friday really good from a script and score perspective, it’s also really good from an acting and design perspective! The cast all bring their A-Games to the material. I’d normally name some standouts from the cast, but honestly, every single cast member had a standout moment at one point in the show, and all of them rose to the occasion. The newer additions to the Starkid team – Kim Whalen, Curt Mega, Angela Giarratana, James Tolbert, and Kendall Nicole Yakshe – all fit in perfectly with the returning members – Robert Manion, Lauren Lopez, Joey Richter, Jon Matteson, Jeff Blim, Corey Dorris, Jaime Lyn Beatty, and Dylan Saunders. Everyone plays at least two characters and every actor is able to breathe life into those characters in ways that are entertaining and very realistic. It’s a great cast operating at the top of their games and it’s a joy to watch. James Tolbert’s choreography is excellent; it never draws attention to itself but is always enjoyable to look at, allowing the actors some really fun chances to show off what they can do. The set design, by Corey Lubowich, is minimalistic but perfectly evokes a department store during Christmastime and, when combined with Sarah Petty’s light design, works remarkably well. It’s visually interesting and gets the job done. Speaking of Petty’s light design, she does some really good work here. Rarely is it particularly flashy, but the script requires her to get really creative with the lighting for certain locations and she pulls it off with ease. Likewise, Gilly Moon’s sound design is tasked with accomplishing similar feats and ends up being equally successful; to say more would venture into spoilers, so we’ll just leave it at that. Robert Merkel’s costumes are minimalistic but perfect fit in within this grounded world created by the writing. All in all, the acting and all of the design elements are just as good as the excellent writing and score.
Ultimately, Black Friday is a really good musical. With great writing, great pacing, great music, and excellent performances, it makes for a really enjoyable piece of theatre. The writing feels like a new evolution for Starkid musicals; taking a more character-based approach to storytelling and allowing that approach to lead into some darker themes proved to be a really good choice for a story like this. While it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s still a really damn good show and one that’s easily one of my favorites from Starkid’s entire catalog. For fans of The Guy Who Didn’t Like Musicals, there are some really fun callbacks to that show – including music references and maybe even some returning characters. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun revisiting the crazy town of Hatchetfield. For Starkid fans, in general, there’s still a lot of comedy to be found here, but this is a show that feels a bit more grown-up and, to be fair, the Starkids are growing up, as are their original fans. So, this all makes sense. I can see how it might be controversial with fans who are used to Starkid’s lighter, less complicated shows, but I appreciated the ambition and the complexity within the show – even if it didn’t necessarily perfectly stick the landing. At the end of the day, Black Friday is a super solid musical. It makes me really excited to see what Starkid might do next. But until then, this is a musical I’ll be revisiting a whole lot when it has its full DVD/YouTube release early next year. If you can’t wait until then, the digital ticket is a great way to experience the show. The quality is solid and the show is easily worth the price.
4.5 out of 5 wands