Review: Improv Showdown (Second City/Hotel X)

Photo of Nkasi Ogbonnah and Chelsea Larkin in Second City Improv Showdown by Steve BlackburnGames and improv feature in this family-oriented comedy show

Hotel X, the new luxury lodgings on Exhibition grounds, is hosting Second City’s family-oriented Improv Showdown during the month of December and early January as part of their holiday programming.

Kids, their parents, and other hotel guests who have booked a Family Fun Package are invited to watch two small teams of veteran Second City improvisers take on a variety of games in a quick 50-minute set. Members of the public can purchase tickets to the show too ($20 for adults, $15 for kids).

Sitting in the extremely comfortable chairs of the theatre, the audience is introduced to the concept of improv by host Tom Hearn, who also introduces the two teams of the “competitive improv head-to-head matchup,” and gives each side of the room a team to support. The teams then play a series of games involving suggestions and volunteers from the audience; the games themselves are determined by random chance, picked out of a chest.

Games include “Raise the Flag,” drawing flags from audience suggestions; “Pan Left/Right,” where we zoom back and forth between different scenes involving each possible pairing; a “Greatest Hits” song game; a Match Game-type panel but for finding a babysitter; a rhyme-off; and the audience participation duo of “Sound Effects” and “Instagram Slideshow.” (It was hard to tell whether the multiple references to Spotify and Instagram were bids for relevancy, or product placement).

Hearn and musical director Nicole Byblow each award the teams an amusingly arbitrary point after each game, for achievements such as a team member saying something that reminded the judge of a favourite food. The third point is up to the audience. As we’ve been assigned our allegiance, naturally, all votes result in a clear split, but other points are awarded based on audience actions, such as dance moves, staying silent, or miming animals.

The performers (Nkasi Ogbonnah, Chelsea Larkin, Andrew Bushell, Devon Henderson) are talented, and each comes with a strong track record. They are strong improvisers here as well, but hampered by the need for general, multigenerational appeal, and jokes that kids can understand. It was hard to tell if the kids in the audience were getting everything anyway, but they seemed eager to yell out suggestions and get on stage.

The longer sketches were the afternoon’s highlights. Improvised rap and folk songs by Ogbonnah and Henderson on the subject of coal mining were enjoyable, particularly when they were woven together, and the rogue’s gallery of babysitters gave us some entertaining character work. The teams also did a good job making the kids on stage feel safe, though relying on children for the crucial moments of scenes has its own hazards. The show will likely be extremely high-energy when the season actually starts and the audience is full.

I would liken this show to watching a kid-friendly comedy show on a cruise ship or at the CNE – designed to gently amuse and not offend anyone, with a lighthearted, participatory air. It’s cute, easy, and inessential. If I were staying at the hotel with my family and show times were convenient, I could convince myself to go back to check it out a second time.


  • The Second City’s Improv Showdown begins December 13 and runs until January 5th, 2020 at Hotel X (111 Princes’ Boulevard; entrance off Lakeshore)
  • Shows are at 4:30PM on December 14, 21, 26-30, and January 2-5; 7:00PM on December 13 and 20, and 1:30PM on December 15 and 22.
  • Tickets are free for hotel guests. For non-guests they are $20 for adults, $15 for kids. They can be purchased online.

Photo of Nkasi Ogbonnah and Chelsea Larkin by Steve Blackburn