Improvised musical arrives on the Toronto stage
Earlier this year, I reviewed a Fringe show that promised a completely improvised musical over the course of one hour after just one suggestion from the audience. Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is that show writ large; instead of an accomplished local comedy troupe, the accomplished performers (The Showstoppers) are here on tour from England; instead of one suggestion, they incorporate several over the course of the evening; instead of a Fringe space, they must fill the cavernous Panasonic Theatre, and instead of one hour, they run a bit over two with intermission.
However, their challenge is the same: can they tell a complete story without leaving too many loose threads? Can they make catchy, harmonic music of varying styles, while rhyming? Can they run the gamut from The Sound of Music to Hamilton on the audience’s whim? Showstopper! does a great job with its constraints, it’s loads of fun, and it’s pretty easy on the ears.
The able narrator/facilitator (Dylan Emery) explains the conceit to us, which is that the set has been held up in Customs and that they need to create a brand-new musical in two hours to please producer Cameron Mackintosh. He takes suggestions of location, title, and four musicals/composers from the audience, the audience votes, and we’re off. At the break, audience members are encouraged to submit plot twists and further styles. (A word of warning for the shy: if you tweet and your tweet is read out, you will be named and encouraged to identify yourself).
The facilitator keeps things going smoothly, deciding on song style changes, making the players occasionally sing spontaneously in unison (a truly difficult feat), or create ludicrously extended monologues.
The audience certainly didn’t give the group an easy task; on their first night in an unfamiliar country, they were given the hyper-local suggestion of “A 7-11 in Scarborough” to set up their musical, Slurpee! However, with a few inquiries about the city’s characteristics (strip malls, stabbings, bungalows) and speech patterns (eh), they delighted the audience with a reasonably accurate rendition of its stereotypes.
Highlights included a Les Mis-style second act opener about everything wrong with Scarborough, a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-inspired cliffhanger, and a Fiddler on the Roof-style morality parable about temptation and a dead wife. Everyone is good, but the two creative standouts were Adam Meggido as the Reverend Aloysius, and Pippa Evans as Norma Schwartzkopf the 7-11 owner, whose forbidden passion for each other was surprising but bizarrely touching (in more ways than one).
Sure, there’s a lot of reliance on the easier building blocks of lyrics (me/see/you/do, etc.), but every once in a while, someone comes up with a surprisingly good rhyme (or slant rhyme) that gets waves of approval (such as “believe it/leaflet”). There were almost no awkward pauses or dropped lines, effective callbacks abounded, and they even pulled off an ending Hamilton-esque rap. I have to give a shout-out to the small but mighty band, whose ability to instantly mimic various styles without directly lifting from shows was on point.
The set is largely trunks and generic props; the facilitator claimed that it wasn’t just a conceit and that their set had actually been held up in Customs. I have no idea if that’s true or yet another joke; it doesn’t matter, though, because I found that the generic pieces worked with the vibe of the show. The Fringe-type vibe also makes the up-to-$79 ticket prices seem a little steep, but just think of it as getting your own handcrafted artisan musical (I was in the $25 seats and it worked just fine).
The audience in general seemed very knowledgeable about musicals and tropes, and I think those of us who are musical theatre nerds are the show’s target audience. You’ll certainly enjoy the pastiches of various well-known musicals more if you know what a pastiche is. That doesn’t mean that the references are purely for insiders, though: even if you (gasp) hate musical theatre, you can enjoy it as a send-up of the form. Honestly, I’ve probably seen worse shows that had a five-year development period, and I’m fairly certain that just about anyone could get a kick out of watching improv masters put together a two-hour musical as if it were another day at the office.
- Showstopper! The Improvised Musical is playing until June 25th at the Panasonic Theatre (651 Yonge St.)
- Shows run Tuesday to Sunday at 8pm, with Saturday and Sunday 2pm matinees
- Tickets are $25-$79 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416-872-1212.
Photo of Showstopper! cast by Geraint Lewis