They’ve improvised William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, and Film Noir to side-splitting success. Now, the comic geniuses that call themselves ImproTheatre strut their musical comedy stuff in Sondheim UnScripted, running in rep with their Will and Williams shows at the Odyssey Theatre.

As with their other smash hits, the stars of Sondheim UnScripted concoct a full-length, two-act play (or in this case musical) completely from scratch and brand new every night, the truth of which can easily be proven by a return visit. Trust me. I’ve gone back.

Last night’s entirely original pseudo-Sondheim musical took as its title an audience suggestion—Hookers. Here’s a taste what transpired:

Act One, Scene One: A trio of working girls (Lisa Fredrickson, Kelly Holden-Bashar, and Edi Patterson) take their cue from musical director/onstage keyboardist Peter Smith, and before you know it, a Sondheim-esque tune about “Walkin’ The Street” (“It ain’t easy”) gets sung in perfect three-part counterpoint and harmony, the show’s male cast members (Brian Michael Jones, Brian Lohman, and Floyd VanBuskirk) adding some fancy footwork as the wacky Fredrickson brings down the house with some hilariously well-timed shrieks and cackles.

A plot is quickly hatched involving a bunch of bootleggers (“I got the entire police force on my tail. They found my stash of hooch.”) and the b-girls who work for them. (“We got some special customers coming in tonight, and I want you to break out the one-two.”) “The Old One-Two” becomes the evening’s leitmotif, both in dialog and in song: “A girl’s got to make a buck with the old one-two.” “I’ve done the old one-two one too many times.” “Is this what you wanted, the one-two-three-four?”

Gwen and Stella soon tire of “the life,” and following some musical reminiscing about their longtime friendship, Gwen determines to run away and start over from scratch, Stella accompanying her after Gwen makes her promise that “you won’t see what you’re going to see.”

An offstage accident (an actual one) causes the temporary exit of the evening’s female contingent, leaving it up to Lohman and VanBuskirk to vamp, brilliantly, in a song they entitle “Dumbin’ It Down,” “to make it understandable for those on the ground.”

With the ladies of the evening once again on stage, our two runaways soon find themselves in a seedy neighborhood, Stella shooing away a Mission Lady, whose mom “used to talk about the old one two.” After some initial resistance, Gwen and Stella decide to accompany Zelda (Holden-Bashar) to the mission, run by Father Jenkins (Jones) and Zelda, who turns out to be a cute, perky nun rescued by the priest “before she had to do the one-two.” The good Father and his guests sit down for dinner, singing a Sondheim-esque “Thank You For This Soup” in four-part harmony. Father Jenkins then reveals a secret of his past: “Before I dressed in black, I followed women dressed in black for their husbands’ funerals.” Why? To bilk them of their money, of course, but then “I reformed.”

Act Two has Gwen and Stella locked up by Father Jenkins, who finds himself haunted by ghosts of past lovers. The girls decide to snoop around, Stella coming across a severed finger. After breaking down the door with an improvised (i.e. mimed) bed, Gwen and Stella nearly get found by Jenkins and a crony until one of them comes up with an idea: “Quick, act like a statue,” with Fredrickson and Patterson holding their poses for far longer than either probably expected when the idea popped into their heads.

Finally free to continue fleeing, Gwen and Stella discover Zelda’s death certificate. (It turns out she’s a ghost!) The girls find a car and start driving away, tailed by Father Jenkins and, in some inspired “chairplay,” nearly get sideswiped off the road. The chase ends with the priest’s car (i.e. chair) going into a hilariously improvised tailspin and crashing, sending Father Jenkins heavenward.

Not long after, a stranger from Barcelona (VanBuskirk) provides Gwen and Stella with a way out of their dilemma, singing “Come to Barcelona for your happy ending…with Armando,” as the lights dims on two young women heading for a brand new start.

Naturally, none of the above will repeat itself in future performances of Sondheim UnScripted, thereby providing ample reason for audience members to make return visits, or to check out the concurrently running Shakespeare and/or Tennessee Williams shows.

Sondheim UnScripted ends up less Sondheim-specific than other ImproTheatre shows are to their genre, the Sondheim oeuvre lacking the iconic characters or storylines that keep reappearing in Jane Austen and Film Noir, and only a few times did this reviewer hear specific Sondheim references: A comment that Smith’s keyboard intro sounded “too much like ‘art’,” one of the runaways commenting that they were “just trying to get out of the woods,” and Armando’s being a native of Barcelona. (Sondheim buffs will recognize which show is referenced in each.) At times, too, the songs sounded a bit more like Kander & Ebb or Cy Coleman than Sondheim, though that may have been due to Hookers’ close resemblance to Chicago, Sweet Charity, and The Life.

But no matter. Like the other UnScripted Shows, Sondheim UnScripted is inspired lunacy (and in this case melody) from start to finish, one of the delights being the unexpected gems that pop out of the cast’s mouths, often as surprising to them as to the audience. Here are a few:

–What would happen if the girls ended up back on the streets?
–They’d be eaten up by the appetite of the city.

–Father, you disgust me, but then I disgust myself.

–This is no time for praying. This is the time for slaying.

Sondheim UnScripted is co-directed by Dan O’Connor and Michele Spears, the latter of whom had to drop out mid-performance due to that offstage accident. (She is fortunately on the mend.) The pair have honed their skills to a fine edge, and the entire cast rises to their high standards, this time adding vocal prowess, the ability to impro-harmonize, and some snappy footwork to the list of their multi-talents.

Smith is equally deserving of applause for his tuneful (and since this is Sondheim, occasionally atonal) melodic cues, keyboardist in perfect sync with the cast. The multilevel all-black set (by scenic designer Caitlin Lainoff with Sandra Burns and Trefoni Michael Rizzi) makes for a multipurpose setting for whatever musical the improv team comes up with. Will Adashek’s versatile lighting design is ingeniously improvised by a rotating team of lighting improvisers—Lisette Jean-Marie, Ian Gotler, and (at the performance reviewed) Mikaela Bennett. Costume designer Burns has created outfits that help the cast create their characters. Sound improviser Jason Murphy and cast members improvise often live sound effects.

Kari Coleman, Stephen Kearin, Lauren Rose Lewis, Nick Massouh, Jo McGinley,, O’Connor, and Paul Rogan, complete the rotating Williams-Shakespeare-Sondheim casts.

Odyssey audiences have a treat in store for them with any of the rotating Impro Theatre shows. Sondheim UnScripted, like Shakespeare UnScripted and Jane Austen UnScripted, ought to come with a warning label. These shows may prove addictive! Be prepared for laughter … and multiple return visits.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
April 14, 2011

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