That! Big! 80s! Musical! at the Hideout

This improvised take on Footloose-style musicals wasn't exactly polished, but the cast's catchy enthusiasm brought genuine laughs

Anne Dowd (center) and the cast of That! Big! 80s! Musical! (Photo by Steve Rogers)

Perhaps it's our exhausting social climate, where oppression weighs heavily on the mind of any sensible adult, that played a role in the rise of recent 1980s nostalgia (evidenced by media like Stranger Things and It). Though I'm not a product of the time period, I can see the appeal in revisiting indulgent Greed Decade staples like Footloose and Dirty Dancing, where big-haired teens with acid wash dreams push back against strict parents and oppressive societies that just don't understand art, man.

While this comfortable familiarity makes Hideout Theatre's latest improvised student show, That! Big! 80s! Musical!, a timely programming choice, it wasn't the reason I attended. Improvised musicals have always piqued my interest. I saw Hideout stage one such production last February: Grand Misery, a Les Miserables-inspired send-up wherein a whopping cast of 15 improvised a Broadway mega-hit.

Creating a full musical on the fly – lyrics and all – seemed a tall order then and still does today. As veterans of Grand Misery, 80s! Musical! Director Mallory Schlossberg and Assistant Director Shay Millheiser faced the challenge of creating a spontaneous epic on a smaller scale, with a cast of seven performers – fewer than any other Hideout show I've seen. As expected, That! Big! 80s! Musical! featured rough moments but also a hefty number of laughs. Overall, to attend this production was to peer behind the curtain and see what an improvised musical might look like before reaching the Hideout's mainstage level of professionalism.

80s! begins with an audience suggestion for what should be banned in the show's small-town setting (à la dancing in Footloose). The night I attended, the chosen suggestion – movies – morphed over time into a ban on entertainment as a whole. An interesting choice, considering that anytime a joke landed, players would warn each other, "Careful, this is beginning to sound too ... entertaining! *Gasp*." This one-note Orwellian gag grew old quickly in Act 1, but somehow became not only funny again but hysterical in Act 2. Repetition is a hell of a comedic tool.

This performance followed a set formula: dialogue-heavy scenes ending in a solo (or duet) musical number, with pianist Ryan Fechter supplying rattling drum tracks and punchy synths from his offstage keyboard command post. By forcing performers to flesh out their characters often, these scene-capping lyrical soliloquies (and in one such case, an interpretive flashdance) proved invaluable to structuring the show's narrative. These pop-monologues birthed the backstories of our main characters, Jerod Espinosa-Setchko's brooding teenage rocker Josh, who falls for Mandy Smith's Sandy, a writer whose latest novel faces censorship for being too darn entertaining.

With the musical numbers doing the narrative heavy lifting, the cast of 80s! Musical! seemed comfortable stretching their legs as improvisers, taking chances on outlandish characters and choreography, but mainly just trying to make each other laugh. Improv doesn't necessarily have to appear enjoyable to succeed, but in this case, a group keeping each other smiling (and often breaking character) proves infectiously entertaining.

That! Big! 80s! Musical! wasn't what I'd call a polished production, but thanks to the direction of veterans Schlossberg and Millheiser, the performers knew exactly how much they could bite off. Their story never became needlessly complex (as I've seen in other student shows), and the scenes that did drag were usually followed by genuine laughs. I might've been unable to relate to the show's dated concept, but thanks to this cast's catchy enthusiasm, that didn't matter.

I didn't get lost in the neon Eighties world this cast tried to create. Rather, I found myself laughing alongside them as it was pieced together.

That! Big! 80s! Musical!

Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress
Through Aug. 24
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

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Hideout Theatre, Mallory Schlossberg, Shay Millheiser, Ryan Fechter, Mandy Smith, Jared Espinosa-Setchko

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