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‘Friends’ stage parody pales in comparison to TV series behemoth

The cast of "Friends! A Musical Parody." | Right Angle Entertainment

It’s no small irony that “Friends! The Musical Parody” has chosen the Broadway Playhouse as its Chicago home, just across the street from Lookingglass, the Tony Award-winning theater company co-founded by actor (and “Friends” the TV series star) David Schwimmer. The odds are long that Mr. Schwimmer — who occasionally returns home to work at Lookingglass — will be making the short trip across Pearson Street to see what this other show is all about. In fact, I’m fairly certain he’d rather eat glass. Luckily for him, he won’t be missing out on much. Despite a couple engrossing songs and a few winning performances, “Friends! The Musical Parody” is little more than a house of knowing references. It’s key insight is that the hit sitcom “Friends” was and is popular — so much so, in fact, that one can build an entire show out of acknowledging many of its most beloved moments.

‘Friends: The Musical Parody’
★1⁄2
When: Through March 3
Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut
Tickets $35-$72
Info: broadwayinchicago.com
Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes, with one intermission

Co-creators Bob and Tobly McSmith open the stage show with the cast spinning multi-colored umbrellas (of course) and singing about how silly it is to dance in a fountain. The gang’s all there: Ross (Tyler Fromson), Monica (Maggie McMeans), Chandler (Aaron C. Rutherford), Phoebe (Madison Fuller), and Joey (Domenic Servidio). The only person missing is Rachel (Sami Griffith), who soon appears in her wedding dress, exactly the way she made her entrance on the TV series. Therein lies the  problem with this show (which will repeat itself again and again and again): A TV episode reference is made — sometimes via song — the audience chuckles knowingly or offers some light applause, and repeat. If the source material weren’t already so funny to begin with, there wouldn’t be much to laugh at. Besides, why try to one-up a comedy classic?

On the subject of impressions: Griffith’s spot-on Rachel is the evening’s clear standout. With the rest of the cast, it feels like director Tim Drucker drilled their character’s mannerisms into his actors through rote memorization — except for Fromson, whose Ross is just all wrong. Rutherford’s Chandler might actually be passable, but it’s hard to tell as the show pretty much punts the TV character entirely, content instead to mock Matthew Perry’s well-publicized addiction to painkillers and numerous stints in rehab. But Rutherford does get to the opportunity to play a number of supporting characters, including the infamous Janice, Marcel the monkey, and an aged Tom Selleck, all of which he attacks with great relish. Old Man Selleck, in particular, is really quite funny.

Musically, the show’s finest moments are the ones where it is also parodies other well-known songs; the friction from the mashing-up process creates some semblance of spark. When Ross and Rachel sing about their exes, they do so in the style of the “Cell Block Tango” from “Chicago,” and their recurring ballad “Will They or Won’t They” is never better than when it recalls the mournful “It’s Quiet Uptown” from “Hamilton.” One of the night’s biggest laughs comes from a tallying of the “Friends” actors’ massive residuals by way of “Rent.” The Marcel song also works, sans any direct musical link, but that’s mainly because it’s about a monkey humping anything in sight.

Even after airing for 10 seasons and remaining a staple in syndication, “Friends” has found a whole new life on Netflix with younger generations. The sitcom has its flaws, many of of which the stage show is happy to point out; the song “495 Grove Street – How Can We Afford This Place?” and  running jokes about Joey’s plummeting IQ are both right on-the-money. It’s a series that people keep returning to — the kind of precisely baked, easily digestible comedy that makes for perfect pop culture comfort food.

In its closing number, the cast of “Friends! The Musical Parody” looks out over the audience and warmly croon how “we’ll always be there for you”— tapping directly into what makes the series an audience favorite to this day. Still, the question remains: Why would audiences choose to spend a night at the theater with a pale facsimile when they could be snuggled up at home with the real thing?

Alex Huntsberger is a local freelance writer.