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July 16, 1998
Hey, gang! Lets 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.
the musical," the quite remarkable new long-form improv
playing in the Royal George Theatres 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.
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 Walkers 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 (hes
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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July 9, 1998
Chosen as #1 of 5 SHOWS TO SEE NOW!!!
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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Chicago Reader -
Friday, July 3, 1998
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
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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,
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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January 7, 1999
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
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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Setting a New Standard
Creative "MUSICAL! the
musical" unlike any other improv show in Chicago
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
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
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
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
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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