MURRAY — Desert Star’s melodramatic musicals are kind of like a long-running sitcom; the characters are familiar and the plots generally predictable, but episode after episode they are still funny. There is always a risk, though, that with familiarity will come complacency, and the audience may start to skip an episode here or there. But if you had planned to skip this latest episode at Desert Star, reconsider. The Hungry Games is a can’t-miss for Desert Star enthusiasts and a great place to start if you’re new to the “series.”
Although the setting and many characters were derived from the popular book and movie The Hunger Games, this plot centers on Donald MacRonald (Matt Kohler) and his daughter, Little Debbie (Erica Nicole Walters) as they try to sustain the MacRonald empire by hosting a rigged, to-the-death competition. Eager to win the million dollar prize, the Neverclean sisters, Katnip (Brittney Marie Nielson) and Grimrose (Kaitlin Rose Williams), compete against the tragically mispronounced Gail Rodriguez (Bryan Dayley) and the endlessly overlooked Pizza Malarky (Jason Craig West). As is generally the case in these tales, good eventually triumphs over evil, but not before some hilarious mishaps occur on stage.
It’s a simple enough premise, and one that gave Bryan Dayley the opportunity to create a script with diverse comedic targets. It seemed nothing was sacred as Dayley penned shots at everything from the Utah typical (Republicans, LDS missionaries, food storage) to the practically unavoidable (Miley Cyrus, heath care reform) to the delightfully surprising (reality cooking shows and the NSA). Dayley’s dialogue often included the nuances of pop culture, including the omnipresent hashtag, and in one scene, Haymitch Hogan (played by Matt O’Malley) even dropped a “totes cray cray.”
This diversity extended into the songs chosen as the melodic base for the show’s musical numbers. The Hungry Games gave a nod to classic musical theater including “Masquerade” from The Phantom of the Opera and “Canaan Days” from Joseph (including an in-song jab at the song’s traditionally long note). Fiddler on the Roof‘s “Matchmaker” effortlessly became “Mac maker, mac maker, make me a mac.” But interspersed between these classics, Dayley drew from entirely different genres, using “Hungry Like a Wolf” and “Life’s a Happy Song” to round out the numbers. I appreciated Jill Flanagan‘s musical direction in each of these numbers, especially as I could easily understand the alternate lyrics. As West confessed Pizza Malarky’s love for Katnip, I understood each word of the original spin on REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling.”
Under the direction of Scott Holman and Mary Parker Williams, each of the actors brought hilarity to their character in a different way. Nielson ended her jokes looking straight at the audience, waiting for the laugh she had earned. West remained in his inconspicuous character, holding momentarily to allow an audience response. But it was Grimrose and Gail (it’s Guy-el) who ran away with the most laughs. Williams’s portrayal of Katnip’s sadistic little sister incorporated everything from her posture to her purple lipstick and from her delightfully creepy expressions to her skull-appliqued satchel. She killed angry birds and reveled in the expectations of a fight-to-the-death in her completely contrasting little girl’s voice. And when Williams knew she had set up her joke perfectly, she would recant it, quickly explaining away whatever inappropriate reaction she had just displayed. In one of my favorite scenes, Katnip approached Grimrose to give her a grateful hug, and Williams’s don’t-touch-me response was a highlight of the evening. Dayley was equally entertaining as the self-absorbed Gail. Whether he was busy making Katnip gather the firewood (he didn’t want to ruin his nails), or once again correcting the pronunciation of his name, Dayley brought a combination of flair and consistency to a potentially stagnant character. I expected the long-running Gay-el, Purell, Giselle, etc. gag to eventually lose its luster, but somehow it remained funny right up to the final mispronunciation.
The Hungry Games incorporated an excellent balance of running gags and one liners. Pizza Malarky’s seeming invisibility not only worked well as written, but it also provided a great cover late in the show when Katnip’s archery skills when somewhat awry. O’Malley as Hogan delivered several of my favorite moments including his “Mexican Judo” joke (I won’t give away the punchline), his solution to the high note at the end of “He-Man Days,” an his appropriate use of the game’s safeword, “banana.” I also enjoyed the unexpected surprises, such as Vance’s unexpected bit of Macarena.
The night ended in the Desert Star tradition with a collection of songs presented as the “olio.” The theme was “Songs of Comedy Olio,” and the actors each presented a well-known or original parody. Although the Weird Al medley was fun, I particularly enjoyed the original, stand alone parodies by Desert Star’s own actors, writers, and directors. I always enjoy the opportunity to see the actors set aside the show’s characters and play the part of themselves on stage. However, as a long-time patron of Desert Star, I have to mention that I missed the traditionally live preshow music. Pianist Jill Flanagan played throughout the show and provided the accompaniment for the audience singalongs, but it seems Desert Star has chosen to replace the live ragtime music with a prerecorded track which played as a background to the Desert Star trivia projected on a dropped screen. I enjoyed guessing at the trivia, but Desert Star just didn’t feel the same without the inimitable energy of a live musician.
The Hungry Games is a success because of its well-rounded script, its talented cast of quirky characters, and the inescapable tongue-in-cheek Desert Star charm. Appropriate for all ages, this show is great for a great date, a girls’ night out, or a family activity. If you’ve never been to Desert Star, this is a great first experience. And if you already know you love the format, don’t pass on The Hungry Games.