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Thursday, July 16, 1998
Hey, gang! Let’s put on a musical!

There have been countless attempts to define improvisation, a style of theatrical entertainment that has achieved nirvana in Chicago. But one of the best is a simple comparison: improv is to theater what jazz is to music.
Great jazz and improv have much in common. In each, one admires the technical skill of the players, the whimsical flights of fancy, the apparent unity of different artists all making up stuff as they go along, the danger of striking a wrong chord and the ever-present possibility of momentary greatness that will never be repeated.
At "MUSICAL! the musical," the quite remarkable new long-form improv playing in the Royal George Theatre’s cramped Gallery space, one can enjoy the fun of both jazz and theatrical improv all in the same evening.
What you get for your money here is the chance to see a full-length Broadway-style musical (replete with live music, heart-wrenching ballads, throaty ensemble numbers, quick-fire dialogue scenes, comic digressions and all of the other familiar hallmarks of the genre) based on audience suggestion and entirely made up on the spur of the moment. No kidding.
Without performers of great skill, this scenario would be a blueprint for a creative disaster. But not only are the bunch of mature improvisers in Nancy Howland Walker’s troupe excellent singers with an astounding ability to harmonize spontaneously, but they have quick minds and a nicely tuned sense of comic timing. They would, however, be nowhere without the skill of musical director Luke Nelson, a multi-instrumentalist, who picks hummable melodies out of thin air and instantly carves out an overture as if he were reading a preprinted score (he’s not looking at anything).
In the night of this review, the less-than-imaginative audience requested a musical version of the movie, "Casablanca" (other recent improvised shows have included Broadway versions of the India-Pakistan nuclear testing conflict, "Jaws," "The Godfather," and the Life and Times of Alexander Graham Bell). Given the recent propensity to produce real Broadway musicals about Siamese twins and sinking ships, these topics are not all that absurd.
The seven-person cast is exceptionally strong (Walker, an improv teacher, also performs), but Colleen McHugh deserves special mention for her tuneful emotional intensity that will have you rolling with laughter. A delightful summer entertainment for anyone who enjoys (or hates) Broadway musicals, this fine addition to the Chicago improv tradition deserves a long and successful run.

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Thursday, July 9, 1998
Chosen as #1 of 5 SHOWS TO SEE NOW!!!

Anyone who might accidentally wander into the Royal George Gallery Theatre after this fully improvised, two-act musical has begun might think they've stumbled upon a polished, Broadway-bound show on the emotional level of "Les Mis." I realize how exaggerated this statement must sound. But the seven improvisers, guided by the humble virtuosity of musical director Luke Nelson, have achieved a stunning feat: a theater piece that is sharp, intelligent, impeccably structured within the conventions of musical theater yet far from the formulaic - and thoroughly spontaneous. Audiences suggest a title, which must have familiar plot line (a book, movie or current political situation).
On the night I attended this tightly unified team presented "Alamo!: The Musical." The actors endowed historic figures - like Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Santa Ana - with complex dimensions and an uproarious comedic edge. The brainchild of director Nancy Howland Walker (with sponsorship from Beck Institute for the Arts), the improvised musical concept firmly grounds improv in a powerfully entertaining context. All the players - Howland Walker, Randall Gary Craig, Mike Shreeman, Jason Sperling, Colleen McHugh, Miriam Plotkin and Daren Stephens - intently listen to each other and pick up nuances of each character so that every line reveals a vigorous command of history, musical theater stylistics and the well-placed double entendre. They tackle with finesse believable love triangles (with McHugh's burly frontierswoman lamenting to her secret love Davy Crockett that "your saddle gets ridden more than I do"); songs that contain grand interlocking harmonies, and precision-perfect one-liners. I hope someone is recording these shows. These are the people who should be filling Broadway's allegedly spent musical coffers.

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The Chicago Reader -
Friday, July 3, 1998

MUSICAL! THE MUSICAL, at The Royal George Theater Gallery. The name of this entirely improvised musical changes nightly; I saw Moby!, a version of Melville's classic complicated by a pair of stowaway Greenpeacers (with their own reasons for saving the whales), a first mate (with his own reason for standing by his captain), and a runaway daughter disguised as a crewman named - you guessed it - Ishmael. During this 90-minute spoof, however, we were served not only the usual salty ballads and pantheistic contemplations but honky-tonk commentary by dockside whores, choral editorials by Moby-Dick's finned friends, and a plea for sympathy by the "family mammal" himself. The whole was neatly finished off with an inspirational hymn calling for tolerance among all nature's children.
Despite the last two decades of recitative-dense scores for musicals, the prospect of ad-libbing in rhyme and melody is still daunting. But director Nancy Howland Walker's ensemble has a sharp ear for the cliches of the genre - no sooner does one player utter the word "gale" than Luke Nelson's accompaniment changes from robust agilmente to sea-breeze legato. And the cast usually comes up with ditties no more inharmonious or lead-footed than you'd find at New Tuners Theatre. The subject is supplied by the audience - previous titles include Jaws!, Papillion! and Busy! (based on the life of Alexander Graham Bell) - so the possibilities for a tuneful good time are almost limitless.

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July 7, 2000

A song's structure makes it more difficult to ad-lib than dialogue. Nevertheless, the eight cast members in Musical! the Musical are able to improvise a tuneful 90-minute production night after night on the basis of audience suggestions - including a three-note combination that will provide the foundation for one of the score's highlights. They cover all the bases in this improvised Broadway show (formerly at the Royal George): romantic ballads, inspirational anthems, full-cast dance sequences, an intricately harmonized spectacle just before intermission, and a tear-jerking finale with the obligatory a cappella penultimate chorus. As with all good improv, however, what keeps the parody (of the film The Sixth Sense on the night I attended) from degenerating into juvenile silliness is the wholesale commitment of the cast (including Michael Descotaeux, the lightning-fingered accompanist) to their hastily assembled universe. It might be a comment on the state of musical theater nowadays that even lines like "Every suit of armor has a few dents/ Every beating heart has a sixth sense" can make out throats tighten and eyes moisten.

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Wednesday, July 15, 1998

It was bound to happen. The Chicago school of improvised comedy, which began as theater games, evolved into skits, blossomed into Second City, gave birth to "Saturday Night Live" and "SCTV" and transmuted into long-form improv, has now reached the final frontier: a fully improvised two-act musical.
"Musical!, The Musical" has arrived for what is sure to be a lengthy run at the Royal George complex. Its strength or weakness depends on the cleverness of the audience's suggestions and the ease of translating the players' choices into concepts. But this troupe has both the musical and comedic goods to pull off this tricky and rather insane idea.
Director Nancy Howland Walker has extensive improv experience and participated in most of the great Free Associates long-form shows, including "Cast on a Hot Tin Roof" (a Tennessee Williams spoof) and "As We Like It" (some guy named Shakespeare). She has recruited a group of wacky young people who differ from other improv jocks in one important regard - most of them have great pipes and can carry (and invent) a tune.
The night I went, the troupe stumbled a bit when it picked up on an audience shout of "Casablanca!" to create "Blanca!, The Musical." Doing an unprepared satire of an iconic movie is a great challenge in and of itself. Adding to the challenge is making songs up for a film with the most famous song in the movies.
Still, there was much laughter, with the stunning Miriam Plotkin launching a "Les Miserables"-like anthem titled "Emotions are Heightened in Time of war" and the resourceful Colleen McHugh taking the role of Rick (gender-bending continued throughout - Ilsa was a man, married to - you guessed it - Victoria Laszlo).
Funnyman Randall Gary Craig was particularly suited to "Blanca!" as he looks like a sort of cross between Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. The elastic Jason Sperling injected good physical comedy as the bardboy, and strapping Mike Shreeman offered a great send-up of an idiotic romantic lead as Ilsa.
None of this could happen without musical director Luke Nelson. A Veteran of long-running "Pump Boys and Dinettes" and Goodman's "As You Like It," he can play anything without skipping a beat.
No show is repeated, and past offerings I wish I had seen have included "Busy! The Musical (The Life and Times of Alexander Graham Bell)" and "Bomb! The Musical (The India/Pakistan Nuclear Testing Conflict)." Bring this gang a good idea and watch the members run, sing and dance with it.

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Thursday January 7, 1999

Improv, by nature, is a hit-or-miss affair. In Chicago. where the form has strong roots, there is an overabundance of troupes who try to spice up this cheap and spontaneous entertainment with all sorts of gimmicks, like game-show or sporting-event formats. For the past six months, a remarkably talented group of performers led by director and actor Nancy Howland Walker has mastered one of the most ambitious and difficult versions yet: a two-act musical based on an audience suggestion, fully improvised on the spot. Their confidence and showmanship are head-and-shoulders above the anemic offerings of most improv shows, and their obvious love of performing makes these ingenious inventions is a joy to watch.
Considering how much mental agility is required from the performers in decent improv, it's discouraging to see how unimaginative most audience suggestions are. Thankfully, at this particular performance, the choices were pretty good. After some deliberation and a charmingly unscientific applause meter, the group settled on "Pandora! The Musical." Through a funny coincidence, an audience member happened to have a book outlining the plot of the Greek myth. But based on the titles of some of their past productions, these actors already possess an impressively broad range of cultural and historical knowledge. They've done everything from "Thelma & Louise! The Musical" to "Duke! The Musical," the latter based on the events that kicked off World War I. Most intriguing is "Bomb! The Musical," inspired by the India-Pakistan tit-for tat nuclear testing crisis.
For "Pandora!" the scene is set, in a brilliant opener, when the cast members portray a group of peasants meekly working the soil, building their clever vocal solos into a rousing chorus. They have a cunning way with the structures and cliches of musical theater; so much so that they manage to mock the genre's manipulative qualities while simultaneously reveling in its emotional power. This is especially apparent during Miriam Plotkin's initial solo ("I've Got a Whole World to Explore") as the title character. It's mind-boggling that she's able to create a melody out of thin air, match it to a string of ingeniously rhymed lyrics and perform it with a professional mixture of wide-eyed amazement and dramatic flair.
This high-wire act (even the best improv has a nerve-wracking quality to it) continues through the rest of the show as the cast members not only invent their characters' traits and tics but use these complexities as ingredients for humor. So when Plotkin's lethally curious Pandora cheerfully blurts, "I'm not good with surprises," it becomes a hilarious understatement.
Likewise, Mary McCain's Hera is a viciously jealous matron who schemes to destroy her younger, prettier competition, all the while bellowing love songs to Mike Shreeman's booming Zeus, who's bored with godly life. Jason Sperling's Hermes is a wonderfully campy incarnation, while Walker leads the Greek peasants (complete with incongruously funny cockney accents) in the wickedly titled showstopper "Thank God for the Gods."

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August 18, 2000
Setting a New Standard
Creative "MUSICAL! the musical" unlike any other improv show in Chicago

By Jack Helbig

If improv was a country, Chicagoland would be its capital. We easily have more improvisers per capita than any other city, even Los Angeles, thanks to the industrious folks at Second City, the ImprovOlympic, the Annoyance, the Players Workshop and the host of other smaller training schools.
We also have many more improv groups than any other city in the country. On any given night you can find improvisers performing - at the ImprovOlympic, at the Second City, at the Playground, in the back rooms of bars, in coffee shops, wherever three or more people have persuaded a proprietor to let them set up a makeshift performing area.
Face it, Chicagoland is lousy with improv. And a lot of it is just that - lousy. But a lot of it isn't. There are phenomenal improvisers everywhere you turn. Which makes it all the more amazing when a truly amazing improv ensemble comes along. The guys who make up '
Musical! the Musical' are such a group. Founded roughly a year and a half ago by Nancy Howland Walker, 'MUSICAL! the musical' is dedicated to the proposition that a hip, talented group of improvisers, with decent singing skills, and the willingness to listen to each other, can create a fully improvised two-act musical.
Yes, you read that right. A two-act fully improvised musical. There are a couple of other groups that attempt a half hour to 45 minute musical, most notably ImprovOlympic's inspired and inspiring troupe, Baby Wants Candy.
But no one else on the scene attempts to spin two hours worth of material out of a single suggestion.
They begin, as most improv troupes do, by asking for audience suggestions. In this case, they ask the audience to supply the name of books, movies, and plays that have never been made into musicals.
"These days," Walker says, "most musicals are based on other works. 'Jekyll & Hyde' was a book, 'Saturday Night Fever' was a movie, 'Cabaret' was based on a play." ('I am a Camera,' itself based on a series of short stories, 'The Berlin Stories,' by Christopher Isherwood.)
The day I caught the show the audience shouted out all kinds of titles. Of them, the best three were "The Perfect Storm," "The Giving Tree," and "The Exorcist." We were allowed to vote by applause and in the blink of an eye, the group had embarked on "Exorcist! the musical." According to the program, previous efforts of theirs have included "Lolita! The musical," "Jaws! The musical," even "Angela's Ashes! The musical."
Now any improv troupe worth their salt could fake their way through 10 minutes of a movie parody. But these guys followed the movie beat by beat, retelling the famous hit horror film about an anguished young girl possessed by the devil.
Even more impressive, every five to seven minutes, they found a perfectly good reason to break into song. And the songs they created played the role songs are supposed to play in musicals - they deepened the chartacter development, they advanced the storyline or both.
Some actors had nice voices: Kristen Freilich and Andrew Ritter, in particular, had pleasing singing voices. But even those who did not gave all they had, charming the audience with their determination and spirit.
I would have been disappointed if they had not all known how to improvise songs on stage. These days, for whatever reason, every improv troupe loves to try their hand at this.
What is rare in improv troupes is unity and teamwork. These six performers perform together as if they had one, very clever brain. This was especially true in a witty, bluesy demonic dance they created out of thin air in the middle of the second act. Starting with a few clever dance steps, the six were by the end of the song, leaping and cavorting around the stage as if they had been choreographed by the ghost of Jerome Robbins.
This was terrific stuff.
A group of less experienced improvisers would have messed this up somehow by trying to grab the spotlight or by panicking and ending the scene too early. These actors, however, have, according to the program, paid their dues at other improv theaters. Many of them, in fact, seem to have come from the Free Associates, a particularly intelligent improv group known for their one-act improvised parodies of recognized authors like Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill and, no kidding, the Brontes.
I see also by the program that these six are just a part of a larger ensemble of performers, who must rotate in and out of the show. That makes their group mind all the more impressive.
But what really won me over, was the musical director, Michael Descoteaux. Off to himself on the side of the theater barricaded behind several keyboards and facing toward the stage, this maestro managed to create a fully improvised score that was at once varied enough to pass for a Broadway score but simple enough that a gaggle of actors on stage could follow.
From the get-go this young composer showed us he was as willing as his acting friends to take risks. He asked the audience to plunk out three random notes on his keyboard. This would be the leitmotif of the show, and all music in the score would contain a repetition or variation of these three notes.
And Descoteaux remained true to his promise, finding a place for the three-note theme in every tune. Still a student at Northwestern University, where he has studied with such masters of composing and musical theater as Northwestern professor and Marriott Director Dominic Missimi, Descoteaux has a bright future ahead.
I hope the same is true for his actor colleagues. Such selfless, brilliant, entertaining work is hard to find, even in Chicago.
For the time being they can be found performing three nights a week at the Theatre Building. That is, until, as happens to all great improv troupes, they get gobbled up by some larger, richer comedy organization, like Second City, or lured east to Saturday Night Live or west to Hollywood Babylon. Which is a long way of saying, catch them while you can.

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