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The cast of Spontaneous Broadway
(Photo © Jonathan Slaff)
There have been times when I have envisioned a musical comedy world wherein real-life people would instantly break into song without pause or hesitation; but it's important to remember that writing a musical is a lot more difficult than it seems, and that the witty lyrics of a Lorenz Hart or a Stephen Sondheim didn't just fall out of the sky. The dire consequences of such an envisioned world are revealed in the Freelance Theater Company's Spontaneous Broadway, a dull collection of two-and-a-half minute solos and duets with childlike rhyme schemes.

This improvisation piece, which advertises every night as an opening night, is built upon a very appealing idea: to improvise an entire musical based on audience suggestions. The premise will appeal to comedy improv enthusiasts as well as to musical theater fans who are sick of the revivals that fill so many Broadway theaters. Give the show credit for being spontaneous, but take points away for its lack of humor. The performers do not have the demanding mix of acting, singing, and improvisational skills to do the job well. On the other hand, music director Benjamin Toth is full of energy at the piano and provides some pleasant melodies.

Upon arrival at the performance I attended, audience members were asked to write down song titles to inspire Toth and the cast. Among the titles suggested were "My Foot Itches" and "You Knocked Me Up, Baby." The improvised Act 1 took place at a 1940s-style cocktail party attended by the seven performers. (Jessica Krause's set consists of a backdrop of the New York City skyline, red drapes, and a few small tables and stools.) After some canned lines setting up relationships such as the ex-wife, the new wife, and the random old woman in the corner, each attendee performed a song from a supposedly obscure musical by randomly choosing a piece of paper from the bowl on the top of Troth's piano. Lines like "I need a hug -- it's the best kind of drug" and "2-4-6-8, that chick sure looks great" demonstrate the average level of humor at hand. As each person performs his or her solo number, the rest of the cast quietly sits on stools, staring into space and looking as bored as the audience.

At the end of the act, the audience voted on which of the performed songs they would like turned into a musical for Act 2; it was hard to choose, since not one of the spontaneous songs heard in Act I was enjoyable or funny. After a tie-breaker, the audience decided that the doo-wop ballad "You Knocked Me Up, Baby," performed by Laura Livingston, would become the title song of the improvised musical. What we saw after intermission was a humorless parody on melodramatic teen dramas: In the course of about a dozen songs and short scenes, the performers highlighted sex, drive-in movies, and football, ultimately ending with Matt Merrill's character winning the high school football game and with the coach (Mike Durkin) dying on the field. During his scenes, Durkin repeatedly called attention to himself by coughing violently; it was one of those situations when you're not sure if a performer is trying to be dramatic or funny, or both.

When cheerleader Livingston told her quarterback boyfriend Merrill that he impregnated her, she broke into the title song. Unfortunately, Livingston didn't act the number very well; the look on her face demonstrated that she was thinking about what she was going to sing next rather than staying "in the moment." Throughout the spontaneous musical, the improvised lyrics were unamusing -- and no one sang them very well, either. Audience laughs were faint, few, and far between.

There were only a few moments when the ensemble tried to work together, usually at the end of another actor's solo number. One had the feeling that if the show had more of this interaction and fewer solo numbers, the concept could actually have worked. Of all the performers, Merrill alone seemed to have the raw energy necessary to succeed in this demanding form of improvisational musical comedy, yet even he had trouble creating comedic lyrics and dialogue on the spot. (Of course, one can't expect the cast to simultaneously sing improvised lyrics -- though that would really be something to see and hear! But the group dynamic is a pivotal part of improvisational theater, and there should be more of it in this show.)

Instantaneous musical comedy is a very interesting and appealing idea; one day, perhaps, a different group of people will do it justice. In the meantime, it's important to realize that improvising a musical is not the same thing as improvising a good musical. Ironically, the famous show tunes that are played over the sound system prior to the start of Spontaneous Broadway and during intermission only serve to make the show's creations seem worse by comparison.

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