“Threat level mid-afternoon!”: The Office! A Musical Parody brings the fun, but plays it safe

The cast of The Office! A Musical Parody; photo: Russ Rowland

We really love The Office. My wife and I kept a faithful weekly appointment Thursdays at 9 pm during its original run (while also re-watching episodes with every season release on DVD), and just last week we finished our second complete return trip through all nine seasons on Netflix.

So we were excited to check out The Office! A Musical Parody, which has set up at the CAA Theatre for an extended run until August 25. This popular show, which is also in the midst of an open-ended off-Broadway run, was created by the prolific team of Bob and Tobly McSmith, who have brought to the stage successful musical parodies of numerous other iconic shows including Saved by the Bell, Full House, and Friends (which visited Toronto in November of 2018).

They clearly know what they’re doing, so it’s no surprise that we enjoyed The Office! A Musical Parody. But the experience of watching the show is, well, a bit odd because of some unique challenges posed by The Office

The main reason to do this show is the fanatical fan base. The Office struck such a deep chord with audiences that six years after its final episode first aired, it remains one of the top shows streamed on Netflix. Younger audiences continue to fall under its spell – so much so that NBC recently outbid Netflix for the rights to begin streaming the show exclusively on their NBC-Universal streaming service starting in 2021. So there is a massive and motivated built-in potential audience, who are predisposed to laugh at almost any recognizable version of these characters and situations.  

But can you prompt meaningful, memorable laughter by parodying a show which is already parodying the familiar modern workplace? The goal of parody is to celebrate and send up the source material by presenting it in an ultra-distilled, extreme form. Turn the volume up to 11 on character catchphrases and foibles. Surface the recurring tropes. Skewer the plot patterns. 

This works phenomenally well when the subject matter is serious – think of the way Potted Potter spoofs the seven Harry Potter books in “70 hilarious minutes”. The distance the audience must travel to get from the deathly serious, high-stakes novels or movies to the laughs of the parody is far. As a result, the laughter runs deep, and the skill of the parodists is deeply appreciated. With a savvy comedy like The Office, the belly laughs – many of them already rooted in parodic elements – are right there in the source material. It’s a much shorter trip to any on-stage laughs, so the laughs are by default going to be shallower.

Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly in Marry Me Beesly; photo: Russ Rowland

For the most part, The Office! A Musical Parody rises to this creative challenge – especially in the second half. Here, creative plot shuffling and manic compression (for instance, in the clever the way they deal with the post-Michael Scott seasons) take over. And in meta-moments that echo fan discussions, certain characters are called not by their name, but by the name of the larger-than-life actor who originated the role. But from start to finish, the script plays the core Pam/Jim romance straight and sweet. Just like on the original, Pam and Jim are likeable, funny people, and the only jokes at their expense skewer the compression of their romance to a single day. (By contrast, the tv show did a masterful slow burn, engineering trials and tribulations that delayed Jim and Pam’s marriage until season six). The verbatim callbacks to the show and the sweet songs Pam and Jim sing are a bit of a cheat: the show wants to have its sentimental cake, but call it parody, too. 

The show’s mission is to pack the highlights of nine seasons into a single day that straddles lunch hour, which is intermission. In addition to Pam and Jim, almost all of the other key office relationships also unfold during this day. It’s fun to experience the individual episodes get a detailed send-up, and to spot the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-them” throwaway references rounding out the experience for real fans. A major highlight is the song “Threat-level: Mid-afternoon”, during which the cast race comprehensively through a skifully-choreographed performance of Michael’s secret agent caper film “Threat level: Midnight”. 

The main characters are spot-on, and all the actors are strong singers. Sarah Mackenzie Baron as Michael is the true standout. She brings a manic energy to every utterance and action. She has the gymnastic flexibility to bust a move (as when the cast “do the Scarn”) and truly takes no prisoners whether she is berating Toby, awarding Dundees or murmuring Michael’s main catchphrase. She’s gifted at channelling Michael’s excesses, and as a real-life woman, her gender turns un-PC discomfort into simple absurdity. Christian Fary’s Dwight has the verbal cadence and manic energy of the Assistant to the Regional Manager down pat, and he is even funnier in a surprise second role. Patrick Constant – whether he’s playing sardonic Jim or over-the-top Andy – gets everything right from the head nods to the verbal and vocal tics. And all of the women in the cast do double or triple duty, putting strong voices, chameleon-like abilities and facility with quick changes to good use: Madeline Glenn Thomas as Pam and Erin, Gabrielle Filloux as Angela and several others, and Kelsey Ann Sutton as Phyllis, Meredith, Kevin and others. 

There are some missteps, however. Tim Powers, who plays Toby and Creed, is not given strong material to work with, and it doesn’t help that his makeup doesn’t make him look anything like Creed. Devina Sabnis plays Kelly Kapoor (comically just called “Mindy Kaling”) as a brassier version, minus Kaling’s spacily overconfident charm, and she also appears in an odd and off-putting turn as Jim’s momentary love interest Karen Filippelli. And the parody simply erases The Office’s two major Black characters, Stanley and Darryl (played by Leslie David Baker and Craig Robinson in the original show). The occasional (and repulsive) Todd Packer finds his way onto the stage . . . but these two regulars, whose roles spanned the life of the show and injected needed diversity, are the only major characters not to appear. I’m not sure if this is simple economics (one less actor needed?), but the show suffers for their loss.

But the bottom line is this: if you have fond memories of The Office – or you’re manically re-living the laughs on Netflix, The Office! A Musical Parody is worthy of your time. Yes, it’s an odd experience and no, it’s not a real stretch – but it does boast strong performances, clever moments, good laughs and great songs. It’s a fun way to get off your couch for an evening . . . without going too far. 

(That’s what she said.)

News You Can Use

What: The Office! A Musical Parody written by Bob and Tobly McSmith; produced by Right Angle Entertainment; music and orchestrations by Assaf Gleizner; directed and choreographed by Donald Garverick
Performed by Sarah Mackenzie Baron (Michael), Christian Fary (Dwight), Patrick Constant (Jim & Andy), Madeline Glenn Thomas (Pam & Erin), Gabrielle Filloux (Angela & others), Tim Powers (Toby & Creed), Devina Sabnis (Kelly & others), Kelsey Ann Sutton (Phyllis, Meredith, & others), Yamuna Meleth & Nathan David Smith (swings)

Who: Audiences 12 years of age and older

When: On stage until August 25, 2019

Where: CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: Mirvish.com

© Scott Sneddon, Sesaya/ SesayArts Magazine, 2019

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon

Scott Sneddon is Senior Editor on SesayArts Magazine where he is also a critic and contributor.