“We need something a little theatrical.” Boy, does excited Bob Newby (Christopher Buckley) get his wish. He’s trying to solve a staging problem in “The Dark of the Moon,” the school play he and the other kids are secretly putting on in Hawkins, Ind., in 1959. But audiences watching “Stranger Things: The First Shadow” will likely greet the line with a wry smile because immense, intense theatricality is there for all to see. Are the three plot-driven hours of virtuoso, state-of-the-art stagecraft always matched by sustained drama? Not quite. Does that matter? Not at all.
At the time of the opening, 55% of audiences were first-time theatergoers. This neatly underlines the idea that no one going to see this theatrical spin-off from Netflix’s four-season phenomenon is looking for a well-made play. They’re in search of a more visceral, live hit of the show’s successful comedy-horror-sci-fi combination, and that’s what director Stephen Daldry’s eye-widening, often heart-racing production delivers.
Daldry was the instigator of the project. Together with his co-director Justin Martin (“Prima Facie”), TV show creators The Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) and series writer Kate Trefry, he has conjured an origin story for Henry Creel, the original Hawkins Lab test subject who surfaced in Season 4.
The tightrope the team has to walk is to create a new story that ties satisfyingly into audiences’ deep knowledge of the cult show, while not being so integral to its future development that TV audiences unable to see this will lose out. The laughs — and here the comedy element is mercifully intact — the shudders, the gasps and, at the most spectacular moments, the screams throughout the auditorium are testament to its effectiveness.
Set for the most part during the teenage years of the TV show’s central adults, Joyce (Isabelle Pappas) and Jim (Oscar Loyd) exhibit a nicely light touch tossing out references to their future selves. But the humor is embedded in a far darker tale that, couched in the frame of a kids’ investigative adventure, opens out onto the hidden terrors of the monsters from the Upside Down. The beginnings of those monsters are explored through the slow burn of the expository first act, climaxing with a big reveal of a young version of a central character from the show.
Stakes are raised high by the initial plot-set-up — no spoilers here — but throughout the evening they climb higher thanks in large part to the bravura physical staging. Although the evening includes a fully choreographed production number with a church choir in which Henry (Louis McCartney) encourages Ella Karuna Williams’s arrestingly poised Patty to reach inside to confront her dreams, “The First Shadow” is actually everything except a musical. But Daldry is the man who turned a good movie, “Billy Elliot,” into a better musical, and his skill meshing every production element is everywhere apparent.
It’s not just the ideal control of light, sound stings and alarming visions that impresses. Netflix has clearly emptied its coffers here, but it’s not the budget on display, it’s the imaginative flair used to create astonishing fluidity. The story comes in bits but the show makes you feel everything is in its rightful place, leading inexorably into the truth behind the darkness. Every technique imaginable is used to blend the multiple locations of designer Miriam Buether’s cunningly suggestive sets, which blend perfectly with first-rate video and projection work; emotional states are introduced by Paul Arditti’s all-encompassing sound and held and illustrated by Jon Clark’s masterly lighting.
Better yet, the cast are up to the demands of a story that moves ever deeper into horror. There are patches of expository writing closer to treatment than script, but the most central character trajectories are piercing, most especially Louis McCartney’s superb Henry, a shuddering, terrified nerd whose monster creates havoc without and horror within. Emotionally, the show hangs on his shoulders, and its success is due in no small part to the way he holds focus even in the midst of one coup-de-theatre after another.
Daldry’s last theater outing, “The Inheritance,” won him the Tony for realizing a long play across a raised bare floor with almost nothing but Clark’s lighting. Here his marshalling of massive theatrical forces in service of a far more commercially viable story may yet yield him another. Nothing in the town of Hawkins can ever be taken for granted, but this has the feeling of a major hit.