Parody is alive and well in the lineup of independent shows in this year’s Fringe Festival. When I paged through the festival catalog last month, three stood out: Gay Mis, The Break Fast Club, and Khan!!! The Musical!!! Together, these very different shows took viewers on a journey through time, space, high school, Broadway, and cheese.
Star Trek, unauthorized
Khan!!! The Musical!!! is an unauthorized Star Trek musical parody that incorporates elements of sci-fi, musical theater, and more. It was co-conceived by Dany Roth and Brent Black, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book. Black also starred as Captain Kirk, a move that seemed self-importantly Shatner-esque until a joke reminded me that Lin-Manuel Miranda did the same with Hamilton. In the world of Khan!!! The Musical!!!, Miranda is the president.
I would gladly visit this world, a meta-musical place full of mutant chickens and Vulcan tap dancing. A reading of the script rather than a fully staged production, the performance drew me in with witty jokes and the actors’ gusto. Black’s Kirk had great comic timing and played well off Chase Byrd’s straight-man Spock. But Bobby Fabulous stole the show as Khan, mashing up the Ricardo Montalbán role with Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Fittingly, Khan’s song “My Wrath” borrowed the tune of “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A new Breakfast Club
The Break Fast Club also borrows from a beloved movie: John Hughes’s teen comedy The Breakfast Club (1985). This parody includes performers from the “theater tribe” from Tribe 12’s Jewish social community. It wasn’t as tight and polished as the professional shows, and it abridged the movie plot about teen archetypes who find common ground in detention. But in changing the story’s setting to a Jewish day school, The Break Fast Club found a fun spin to the familiar story. Some updates were cute, like when the principal assigned an essay written in Hebrew. Others offered sweet tributes to Jewish culture, as when the students dance the hora after the pot-smoking scene. I appreciated clever use of sound effects for flashback sequences, and Selah Maya Zighelboim’s performance captured the spirit of Ally Sheedy’s role.
Just like gender
Gay Mis brought the cheese, in more ways than one, with its parody of the Broadway musical Les Misérables: Jean Valjean becomes Parmesan, Fantine is Fontina, Éponine is the sandwich-like Epanini, and Cosette is replaced with a baguette. From multi-talented mastermind Eric Jaffe, Gay Mis is fun with a purpose, abandoning Broadway’s binary gender roles and heteronormativity in favor of celebrating non-binary identities and bodies of different races, ages, and sizes. After all, as Jaffe’s program notes point out, musicals may be “the gayest art form.”
The most thoughtful and realized of these parodies, Gay Mis juxtaposed lowbrow fart jokes with commentary on the structural flaws of Les Mis. Though the musical is set in turbulent 19th-century France, the audience learns nothing about the history thanks to confusing temporal leaps and plotlines “all over the place... like my gender!” Jaffe quipped. Despite its occasionally kitchen-sink approach—the first act included “The Time Warp” (Rocky Horror again) and the second concluded with “Nowadays” from Chicago—Gay Mis made more sense than Les Mis. There’s finally a good reason for Javert’s obsession with Jean Valjean: the police inspector is in love with the petty criminal.
These three parodies offer reminders of humor’s power to sustain and transform us and the world we live in. It can build bridges between art forms, as well as between humans. Together, Gay Mis, Khan!!! The Musical!!!, and The Break Fast Club drew on common strengths as they blended imitation with innovation to generate laughter.
What, When, Where
Gay Mis, through September 15 at Franky Bradley’s, 1320 Chancellor Street, Philadelphia. Khan!!! The Musical!!!, through September 15 at 954 Dance Movement Collective, 954 North 8th Street, Philadelphia. The Break Fast Club, September 11 and 12 at Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.