The Great American Melodrama has always played on our nostalgia, transporting us back into the world of 19th-century theater. This time, though, director Dan Schultz brings a very different time period to the stage: the 1980s.
Even if you haven't seen the "The Karate Kid" (1984), you probably already know the plot: A teen moves from the East Coast to the West, where he becomes the target of local bullies. Then, with the help of an unlikely mentor, he overcomes them via a sporting competition. As a movie parody, "The Karaoke Kid" (also written by Schultz) isn't interested in saying much about the original, or the underdog sports genre in general. It mostly sticks to the joke presented in the title: replacing "karate" with "karaoke," but treating it as if it's just as serious and dangerous. It's sort of like an extended "SNL" sketch. The other major source of humor is changing the setting from L.A. to Pismo Beach, which allows for numerous local references. The cast goes at the comedy with a lot of over the top energy, cavorting about the stage. There are some funny lines, which benefit from the performers' good comic timing.
The score consists of familiar rock, pop and rap tunes with parody lyrics. How familiar? If there's a song you'd imagine being in a karaoke-themed show, it's probably in this one. The tone is set by opening number, Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'." The selections generally fit the 1980s setting, though we're told that locals have the ability to sing songs from "THE FUTURE!," allowing for more recent material to be included as well. Most of the parody lyrics (by Schultz and Colleen Perry) don't add jokes, they just slightly tweak the lyrics to fit what's happening in the story. And when they do have a joke to them, it's usually something like changing "the only man who could ever reach me was the son of a preacher man," to "the only man who could ever reach me was the pizza delivery boy." One character even comments that the real reason for the lyric changes is "copyright."
There isn't much to say about the individual performances, as most of the characters stay within their parody archetypes: unlikely hero Daniel (Mike Fiore), his love interest (Rachel Tietz), the quirky mentor (Sierra Wells), the mean girl (Molly Wetzel), her geeky suitor (Jeff Salsbury), the rival coach (Salsbury again), the bully (Geoffrey Eggleston) and his morally conflicted sidekick (Toby Tropper). These traits are instantly recognizable with the help of Renee Van Niel's costume design. It also helps transport us into the distinctly '80s world of ultra-permed hair and flip-up sunglasses.
Wells and Salsbury probably have the most fun as the good and evil mentor figures, respectively. The takeoff of "Mr. Miyagi" is called Mrs. Muskogee, and she's more cowgirl than sensei. She teaches Daniel through the famous "wax on, wax off" method, though this time, Daniel is waxing the kitschy "tikis" that decorate her trailer park. (Set design by Brandon PT Davis.) Salsbury's Mr. Mason comes the closest to resembling a parody of the performance from the movie. He and his bully protege, Johnny (Eggleston), draw the traditional Melodrama "boos" from the audience.
Things improve in Act Two, where the focus is more on the singing and less on the plot. As is typical for the Melodrama, the cast is full of strong singers and dancers (choreography by Zach Johnson) -- strong enough that it would be nice to hear them perform a couple of numbers in a less jokey manner. In the climactic karaoke competition, one impressive sequence is the "Round Robin" challenge. Here, the five teen characters tear through a medley of song snippets, switching from one to another with lightning speed.
Tietz's girlfriend character, Elizabeth, gets a refreshing opportunity to break out of her supportive sweetness in the second act.
The third act is a vaudeville revue with a camping theme, "The Great Outdoors," directed by Suzy Newman with musical direction by Kevin Lawson. The song parodies featured here are in the same vein as "Karaoke Kid," though drawing more from standards and show tunes than pop. A comedy routine between an inept ranger and an informed "Weasel Scout" is inexplicably set to the tune of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame." Later, we get another Rodgers and Hammerstein parody: "I Enjoy Being a Girl" becomes "I Enjoy Being a Squirrel." It's not exactly funny, but at least it's a pun on the original. The cast gathers around the campfire to sing "Ghost Chickens in the Sky," which is a highlight because of their creative use of rubber chickens. "Full Moon of Love," a trio between the three female cast members, features some lovely harmonies and is one of the evening's few moments of sincerity.
"The Karaoke Kid" is two solid hours of nostalgia and silliness. If that sounds appealing to you, you'll probably enjoy it. At the attended performance, the show played to a nearly full house, and got plenty of laughs throughout. However, if you're a bit picky about your parody, you might be better off spending the evening going out to sing karaoke yourself.