Review – Showstopper, The Musical – The Drill Hall

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“What?” I said. “A musical that is fully improved? The lyrics, the music, everything? How does that work?” Still, that carrot was more than enough to entice me and two musicals-loving friends to London’s Drill Hall to see “Showstopper! The Improvised Musical.”

The gimmick (the night we saw it anyway) worked like this: as the lights come up, a bearded impresario is on stage, taking a call from a producer. To the far right of the stage, a pianist and clarinetist (well, multi instrumentalist) sit in front of a pair of overburdened hat racks. The impresario is taking a call about a musical he’s trying to sell – well, actually, he’s taking a rejection call … but he’s got a great new musical “in the Christmas spirit!” It’s called … (he looks at us expectantly) … “The Gift of Life” (a name we voted on) … with a soaring tune in the style of … Rogers and Hammerstein! and interludes inspired by … Gilbert and Sullivan! Set in – a postapocalyptic – Dubai – rodeo! With a touch of … Sherman and Sherman!

And then the lights came up on the stage and a bunch of actors came out, already dressed in headscarves, and started singing! You could see them kind of passing the ball to each other with the lyrics – but how had they had the time to make the costumes? It had barely started and I was already impressed.

As the night wore on, it became clear that the impresario was to serve not just as inspiration, but also as referee … and sometimes torturer. He’d stop actors when they were rambling, announce to the audience that he was going to re-write that scene “so that it shows more of the relationship between Al and Sue,” then have the actors do it again. He had a camel (for some reason played by four actors) realign itself TWICE so that its hump was more visible. He constantly provided stage directions on how they should exit the stage … “in the style of a carousel” (the actors swirl and rise up and down as they clear the stage) … “no, that’s too distracting, they exit quickly.” Every now and then he’d stop a scene and announce that someone was going to now do a solo “explaining her love for the sheik in a way that draws new insight into his character” (the suddenly front and center performer grimaces) “in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.” And then somehow we got a song about a tap dancing sheik. It was madness.

While I was constantly on edge waiting for the actors to drop the ball (or laugh so hard they just couldn’t do a scene), in fact I found the evening just loads of fun. Highlights included a Pinter-esque negotiation scene; a horse race that ended with the horse’s head collapsed in giggles on the stage; a solo done while the lead woman’s tongue was stuck to the wall of an ice palace (she “ripped” it away in the middle so she could finish singing properly); the “palm trees” and “sacrificial fire” made of red umbrellas and feather boas; and … oh, the grand finale, when the audience was singing along to the song the cast had just made up about forty minutes before as if we’d all heard it before. How did they do it?

Pippa Evans really deserves props for both managing to understand all of the styles called for (she did a great Pinter) and also remembering to move the plot forward with her dialogue and lyrics; and Ruth Bratt gets the prize for best upstaging character actress for her hysterical impression of both Maisie and My Jihad, the horses behind the throne. It was just really fun and I’d just about go to the Leicester Square Theater to see their December 17th show and see what they come up with next. Meanwhile, lucky Brightonians can see them at the Komedia every night from 27 Dec to 30 Dec 2009. If you’re a musical theater fan … or you like improv … this is a great night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, December 8th, 2009. The musical we created, “The Gift of Life,” with its soaring, Rogers and Hammerstein like epic song, “Ride on,” will likely never be sung again … “Ride on … through the desert/Ride on … Through the fear/ Ride on … through the valley/You know that this will be our year.” So sad.)

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