By Bryson David Hoff
Parody is tricky.
Its success depends on the audience knowing the original well enough to appreciate the commentary provided while holding enough of a sense of humor about the property to be open to poking at its flaws and idiosyncrasies. This is the line that the Annoyance Theatre walks in its musical parody Shark Tank: The Musical.
Based on the reality competition show/capitalist nightmare of the same name, Shark Tank is structured as a revue of songs and sketches centered on a televised competition in which small business owners pitch their business ideas to a panel of wealthy investors with the hope of cutting a life-changing deal.
Written by Jennifer Eastlin and Greg Ott, both of whom also perform in the show, the script takes a while to find it’s rhythm, but eventually settles into a groove of being charming and clever while just barely grazing the edge of criticism. Audience members who are already fans of the reality show will doubtlessly enjoy the show more than those who have only a passing familiarity, as the evening’s proceedings definitely come off as a loving parody.
The decision to formulate the show as a revue of loosely related vignettes instead of trying to apply a consistent narrative is a very intelligent one that allows the play to touch on many different observations about the subject matter without anything seeming shoehorned. The issue with this approach is that, in this particular instance, the second act is much sharper and funnier than the first, to the point where the evening feels a bit lopsided. Comedy is, however, the most subjective of the dramatic forms, so this may be just an individual impression.
The score, written by longtime Annoyance ensemble member Lisa McQueen, is on the whole well composed and provides the two most striking moments in the show. First, a solo number delivered by Charles Pettitt as a perfectly smarmy Mark Cuban in which he applies The Economist’s famous Big Mac Index to his own $3.3 billion net worth in a nice showcase for a truly gifted comic actor. Second, in the most incisive moment in the show, the panel of “sharks” decides to teach a team of hopeful entrepreneurs a lesson and, through mind-games and fast-talking, buys their entire company out from under them. It’s a brilliant piece of satire that is both funny and infuriating in its historical context.
And that’s the main criticism to be made in regard to Shark Tank. While it succeeds at being consistently humorous, it is only in a few moments that it succeeds in using that humor to make a statement in a way that feels cathartic in the current economic atmosphere. It’s not fair to say that it’s a shortcoming, as the intent of a creator is not always the same as the desire of the audience nor is the audience’s desire in any way a consensus. But it does feel odd for a parody of a show that glamorizes and celebrates the power of the investor class to be as loving and tongue-in-cheek as Shark Tank is.
In short, this is the type of show that is hard to stamp a solid recommendation on one way or the other. If you’re looking for a light evening’s entertainment with some good laughs and solid performances, this is a good bet for a night out, but if you’re looking for something with a bit more of an edge on it to satisfy the angst and unease that all of us seem to feel on a daily basis, this might not have enough teeth for you.
The Annoyance Theatre presents “Shark Tank: The Musical” Friday nights through March 30 at 851 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.