Improv

Comedy and Cabaret Cocktail

Audiences at the Broadway Comedy Club are in for some head-scratching and knee-slapping as the cast of On The Spot improvises and sings its way to creating a zany new musical performance every Monday night. The cast, made up of five singers, four improv actors and one pianist work together to create an entertaining, eclectic and somewhat perplexing hour and a half of comedy and cabaret.

The cabaret singers (Darby Puckett, Alyssa Beckman, Amanda Gallagher, Sydney Beck and Leigh Akin) all know the songs they’ll be performing before the start of the show. But the players (Patrick Reidy, Chris Catalano, Meg Reilly and Andrew Del Vecchio) have no clue what will come out of the singers’ mouths. Their job is to create a 10- 15-minute “scene” after each song, completely “on the spot.”

Songs during the July 27 performance ranged from Arthur Hamilton’s “Cry Me A River” to “Frank Mills” from the iconic 1960s musical Hair. Alyssa Beckman’s belting was impressive, while Sydney Beck brought a ton of personality to her performance of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.” Unfortunately, the resulting scenes were very hit-or-miss. Often, entire scenes passed without one reference to the song that had been sung and situations seemed to be disjointed and sloppy. 

As the night went on (each singer performed two songs) the skits began to refer back to situations, themes and jokes from previous scenes which helped to create more flow. Regrettably, to describe this as the creation of a “musical” throughout the course of the night seemed misleading. That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of laughter at the laid-back venue. A two-drink minimum kept people in good spirits while the acting and quick wit of Patrick Reidy (long-time New York City improv regular and On The Spot director) stood out among the cast of characters. Meg Reilly, though hilarious, seemed stuck in the same deadpan delivery of similar-sounding jokes throughout the night.  

Relaxed, relatable and sometimes raunchy, On The Spot appealed to audiences with one-liners about fingers covered in Dorito dust and Steve Harvey on Family Feud. Themes ranged from ants avoiding death-by-stomping, to children playing hockey with a baseball bat in the library, to a “secondhand poetry night.” A bright spot in the performance was pianist Andrew Whitback’s moment to shine—playing and singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” to the delight of the audience, who found themselves involved and clapping along.

The performance seems to regularly end with singers and players alike ad-libbing along to “Oh What A Night.” Though somewhat cheesy, it worked to wrap things up after an otherwise chaotic show. For a small-scale production with no bells and whistles in terms of costumes, lights or sets, On The Spot still succeeds in bringing laughter, charm and great vocal performances.

On The Spot currently runs every Monday at 8 p.m. at the Broadway Comedy Club (318 West 53rd Street) in Manhattan. For more information, call 212-757-2323 or visit onthespotnyc.com

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“The Ring Has Awoken…”

Sam Gamgee, in the movie Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, righteously declares that "there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo…  and it’s worth fighting for.” Good theater is also worth fighting for, and you may very well find yourself battling to get a ticket to see Fly, You Fools! Presented by Recent Cutbacks, it is currently playing Friday evenings at Peoples Improv Theater in Manhattan.

While some of Fly, You Fools! is improvisational, don’t be misled: this is a tightly woven and well-thought-out spoof of Lord of the Rings. Three actors (and a fourth who also handles sound) re-create with great hilarity and intimate reverence the story of Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin and their journey as they encounter practically every other character from the popular movie trilogy.

Nick Abeel, Kyle Schaefer and Matt Zambrano, along with Blair Busbee, in the style of the golden age of radio, refreshingly deliver Lord of the Rings with extraordinary deference to the art of great storytelling and comedy. The three barefoot actors are in a ring (it is Lord of the Rings, after all) surrounded by props.They include a long white wig (hello, Gandalf the White), an electric fan (because every movie in the franchise has lots of snow), two toy boats (they have to traverse the raging river somehow), two very long white pompoms (when wizards fight, there’s always a light show to be had), and a seemingly unending array of other household items. Each actor is dressed in black workout pants and a zippered hoodie that is brilliantly employed to create characters from hobbits to dwarves and the Elfin Prince. And then there’s Gollum, taking “my precious” to new, hilarious heights.

Busbee, as the sound and foley artist, has her own cadre of toys to create the effects and music to enhance the performance, from the crack of lightning to ethereal vocals. It’s easy to overlook her musical and timing talents amid the nonstop action and sheer unadulterated fun on stage. However, she finally, and rightfully, takes her moment in the spotlight within a male-dominated movie as she represents Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel, windswept hair and all.

This is a live-action radio show at its finest, and the audience loved every minute due to the comedic timing and expressively talented actors directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker (Hold On To Your Butts and Kapow-i GoGo.) 
 
“The Ring has awoken, it’s heard its masters call,” according to Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s films. If you enjoy the Shire and Middle-earth and have a penchant for the irreverent, you may also want to answer the call. 
 
Fly, You Fools! runs at 8 p.m. on Friday nights through May 20 at Peoples Improv Theaters,123 E 24th St. between Park and Lexington. Tickets are $20 for general admission and are available at thepit-nyc.com and at the door. For more information, visit thepit-nyc.com/fools.
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Whose Lyric Is It, Anyway?

Back when I was in high school, my cousin and I made up an impromptu jazz-age musical called Loser: The Musical, wherein a lowly, poor broom boy (based on a broom boy at the local Dunkin' Donuts whom my cousin and her sister insisted I had a crush on — don't ask) falls in love with a rich girl he stumbles upon one day. As one could expect, there were cheesy numbers galore, with inclusion — of course — of the musical's title theme, "Loser," which our hero would sing forlornly as the rich girl drove away with her Also-Rich-But-Also-A-Jerk fiance.  Needless to say, Loser never got past my living room couch in Queens (thank God), though I do regret we never recorded any of the hilarious tunes my cousin made up off the top of her head. Such is life, as the poets say — and apparently, such is theater.

It is practically biblical testament that in theater, not one performance is ever the same night after night. Theater is ephemeral. A new show currently playing at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) called Blank! The Musical is taking this idea to a whole new level, with the clever inclusion of an iPhone application. Yes, you read that right. In an age where everyone can personalize everything from music playlists to their social network profile pages (all hail the invention of cover photos), an app with which a different audience night after night can create their own personalized musical seems long overdue.  

And how! 

Created and produced by Second City and ImprovBoston alums Michael Girts, T.J. Shanoff and Mike Descoteaux (who here also serves as the show's music director and deserves a kudos-filled shout-out; you'll find out the reason why in a minute) in conjunction with Upright Citizens Brigade, Blank's conceit is simple enough: come to the show fully equipped with an iPhone and, when prompted, log onto the show's wi-fi connection with the password provided and visit the Blank! App. As the show's emcee T.J. Mannix greets you onstage (all the while charming the pants off you), you are told to follow his instructions carefully and get ready to create your own musical!  With the show's spiffy app — designed by LiveCube — audience members get to choose the musical's title, its signature songs, the score's signature theme and even a dramatic piece of dialogue (this night's choice line, taken from a brave dude who shouts it out hilariously from the back of the theater: "There's nothing left for us here in this storage locker"). As a result, we are left with Is This Supposed to Smell? The Musical, about the life and times of the good people (and whales) who frequent a local car depot in Portland, Maine.  By the time the actors come out and the show finally gets going ("Maine is (The Maine Thing)"), all you need do is sit back and watch your weird but wonderful creation come to life.

Here, the cast of characters of Is This Supposed to Smell? range from a couple of cabbies (Douglas Widick and Andrew Knox), who fall in love with two best girlfriends who wish to go out on the road and change their life ("Think Bigger"), to a rich May-December couple who take on the decision of having a child, only to have it backfire in ways they could never imagine ("We Were Way Off"), to the endangered whales of the Pacific Northwest whose only problem seem to be some literally stinky and painful dental work ("Ouch! My Baileen"). Tackling material that was never-before-rehearsed until this night is no doubt a difficult task, and the actors pull it off effortlessly, if by breaking out of character every once in a while to let out a chuckle or two themselves. It's perfectly ridiculous fun watching them come up with the stuff they do; Dufresne and Van Colton, in particular, are hilarious as the elder(ly?) wife recently deceased from failure to carry a child — which should be heartbreaking, if not for Van Colton's turn as the husband who somehow manages to carry a child himself (the child ends up being a weird whale-human half-breed).

Yep, it's that kind of show.

Just as with the book and lyrics, none of the music has been rehearsed, either. Descoteaux and his band (which also consists of Daniel Bennett on reeds and Al Vetere on drums, with Descoteaux himself on piano) do a fantastic job not only in keeping with the night's chosen chord structure (D/E/F/G) thematically throughout, but also in following along the each of the actors' whims, especially when Hastings goes on one of her signature let's-jam-some-extra-syllables-into-the-lyrics-because-this-is-all-totally-made-up-so-why-not riffs, garnering some extra giggles from the crowd.  

For the irregular theater-goer looking for an unconventional musical to check out, Blank! The Musical is the show to see. To put it in tech-speak: it'll not only make you "LOL," but also "ROTFLYAO.".. and then some!  

Blank! The Musical is running in a special limited engagement at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street) through Dec. 14. Performances are Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m; and Sunday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $29-$69 and can be purchased at Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or at www.telecharge.com. For more information, visit www.blankthemusical.com

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Political Pandering

The cleverly titled Tail! Spin! is only tangentially related to a deadly airplane maneuver. Think of “tail” as a euphemism for sex, and “spin” as the result, and you’ll be close to the subject of the sketches satirizing four politicians whose sex scandals were once hot but now are receding from memory. "Tailspin" might be applied to what happened to their careers as a result.

The freshest is that of Anthony Weiner; he’s joined by South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, former Idaho Senator Larry Craig, and former Florida congressman Mark Foley. Rachel Dratch, the petite Saturday Night Live alumna, takes on an array of betrayed wives, as well as Barbara Walters. Mocking the hypocrisy of these men is the chief aim of playwright Mario Correa, and the dialogue is taken from the record. At the outset, a projection reads, “Honestly. This is what they actually said.”

Correa intercuts the interviews and denials, the confessions and the sanctimonious interrogations, so cleverly that it freshens the old news, while reminding us of the details that have faded. Further helpful projections by Caite Hevner Kemp advise, for instance, that Craig was in the Singing Senators, a barbershop quartet; Craig, you may remember, was arrested in a public toilet at the Minneapolis airport in 2007 for soliciting an undercover policeman for sex. Sean Dugan plays him with a faux-resonant voice as if he were trying hard to keep it in a manly register.

The crazy-quilt of dialogue yields surprising results. In an interview with Craig, NBC News’s Matt Lauer asks, “You wouldn’t view [being homosexual] as a source of great shame if you had to admit it?” Craig responds, “I’m not sure that I’ve ever looked at anyone else’s sex life as a great shame.” And immediately Correa pops in a flashback to 1998 and a speech by the bristling politico: “The American people already know Bill Clinton is a bad boy, a naughty boy. I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state who, in the majority, think Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.”

The four politicians are skewered mercilessly, but Correa doesn’t stop there. From the pompous news inquisitors to the “wronged women,” everyone comes in for the drubbing they deserve.

For instance, there's Sydney Leathers, an “Indiana progressive activist” who was “poked” on Facebook by Weiner and later spoke against him. The projection displays the information that “Leathers went on to star in the porno Weiner and Me,” and Dratch, as the activist, reads it off with a smile of pride, but then checks herself, darkens her countenance, and says, “I’m disgusted by him.”

Dan Knechtes's sharp production also calls for improvisation. When Burton as Mark Foley, the closeted Florida congressman who lewdly pursued male pages on the Internet and in person, delivers a speech to the audience, he singles out one man in the front row (the night I attended, Burton’s choice was a bodybuilder). Foley lasciviously eyes the man’s thigh, asks whether he works out, and then pokes and squeezes the well-developed leg. 

In the last sketch, Tom Galantich plays a strikingly handsome, gray-haired Mark Sanford with smooth likability, making it all the more believable that South Carolinians actually reelected him even after his scandal, which involved an affair with an Argentinean woman and the ruse from his staff that Sanford, who was in Buenos Aires, was “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Dratch plays his wife, Jenny, and, with their marriage on the rocks, the scene of Sanford wheedling her like a schoolboy to let him have an affair—“Why can’t you just give me permission?”—is bound to bring a smile. 

Indeed, smiles and grins are plentiful in this smartly conceived and skillfully played burlesque, although belly laughs are scarcer. Perhaps the hypocrisy on display is the reason. That, too, can be blamed on the politicians.

 

Tickets to Tail! Spin! range from $25–$75 and can be arranged online at www.tailspinshow.com or by calling 866-811-4111. The show plays through Nov. 30 at the Culture Project, Lynn Redgrave Theater, 45 Bleecker St. at Lafayette. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays.

 

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