The improvisational geniuses who call themselves Impro Theatre are back at the Falcon with another of their surefire crowd-pleasers, Sondheim UnScripted, confectioning a fabulously original “Stephen Sondheim musical” each and every time they take the stage.
As they’ve done with William Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, L.A. Film Noir, and The Western, the stars of Sondheim UnScripted work their two-act magic completely from scratch, or as one cast member put it, “You are the only audience who will ever see what ‘it’ turns out to be.”
All it takes is an audience-prompted “family heirloom” (last night it was a crock-pot inherited from a grandmother who couldn’t cook) to inspire the evening’s plot, and four notes of the musical scale shouted out by four different audience members (E flat, G sharp, A, and D at the performance reviewed) to provide a dissonant musical leitmotif to do Sondheim proud, and before you know it, an alternating cast of improvistas will be “Back In Business.” (That’s a Dick Tracy reference, for those not familiar with the entire Sondheim oeuvre.)
A previously reviewed Sondheim UnScripted centered around “Hookers” (the audience prompt) and their bootlegging partners in 1920s crime.
Last night’s offering could not have been more different, transporting several characters from Greek mythology to the year 1944 with the fate of the free world depending on the invention of Atomicality (or something like that).
It was up to cast member (and co-director) Michele Spears to start things bubbling in the abovementioned crock-pot (soon redubbed a cauldron) with the first of the evening’s original Sondheim ditties “Come Join My Pot.” (“Mix it all together, what will you get? Come to me and join my pot.”)
Before long 1940s friends Marcus (Brian Michael Jones) and Johnson (Brian Lohmann) discover the pot (“We don’t know what it is but it landed right here. I think it’s from the past!”), then find themselves joined by Candice and Fiona (Kelly Holden-Bashar and Lisa Frederickson), who started out a pair of cackling witches but (as often happens in improv) soon discover they were meant to be Greek goddesses taken human form.
Also stirred into the pot are “Big Guy” (Floyd VanBuskirk), because what would a Greek myth be without Zeus, and Hades (Ryan Smith), who declares himself none too happy that Minerva is “always cooking for others” because “sometimes I wanna eat what Mama’s cooking.”
Marcus and Johnson are in the midst of sampling from Minerva’s pot when who should arrive but Candice and Fiona. (“We seem to have lost something.” “Our way.”)
Talk and song soon turn to “Butterflies” (“nature’s most romantic animal”) and “Time” (“such a silly concept”), with Minerva noting to Hades that “We have nothing but time, and that gets boring” because “eternity is not an easy thing to deal with.”
As so often happens with goddesses, Minerva finds herself starting to like the mortals, starting to wish that she might be human herself. (She’d also like not to have power over something because “What would happen if you had an ‘if’?”)
Candice and Fiona also express a wish to stick around in 1944, but Minerva wants them back with her, and soon it’s just one of the girls all by herself … and we still haven’t met Hermes (Cory Rouse) yet.
Thankfully what makes Sondheim UnScripted work is not plot cohesiveness, but the inspired lunacy Impro Theatre has in store for audiences … for the first and last time every performance.
There are the unexpected gems that keep popping out of the cast’s mouths, often as surprising to them as to the audience:
“There’s no one I’d rather partake strange food with.” “Come on ladies. Let’s hop on my hibachi and see where this thing goes.” “Remember the Renaissance?” “It was long.” “The pitter patter of hoven clooves”
And since this is Sondheim, you can expect abundant atonal melodies and songs sung in counterpoint like Marcus and Johnson’s “Perfect Women” and “Pretty Little Soup.”
Admittedly, Sondheim UnScripted does end up less author/genre-specific than other I.T. shows, the legendary songwriter’s oeuvre lacking the iconic characters and storylines that keep reappearing in Jane Austen, Film Noir, or The Western, and its songs can at times sound more Kander & Ebb than Sondheim.
Still, only the impurest of purists will complain when Ladies (Candice and Fiona) Sing The Blues (“Indigestion”) or when a show-stopping Spears give Velma or Roxie a run for their money in straw hat and cane.
Dan O’Connor and Spears direct with a savvy and flair honed through countless Theatre Impro-vised shows, the entire cast showing off vocal prowess, harmonizing know-how, and some snappy footwork to boot.
Upcoming performances will feature a seemingly endless mix of cast members that might include any number of last night’s extraordinary eight or some of the nine who took the night off (Daniel Blinkoff, Ted Cannon, Kari Coleman, Josh Dean, O’Connor, Edi Patterson, Jen Reiter, Paul Rogan, and Patty Wortham), past Impro Theatre visits having made it abundantly clear that whomever you see onstage, you’ll be seeing improv artists at their most gifted.
Musical director Peter Smith gets highest marks for his tuneful (and since this is Sondheim, occasionally discordant) melodic cues, keyboardist and cast in perfect sync.
Costume/scenic designer Sandra Burns gives the Falcon Theatre production a snazzy multipurpose set to suit whatever musical the improv team comes up with, and she outfits her cast in a color-coordinated wardrobe that can work for any era. Leigh Allen’s expert lighting design is improvised to perfection by stage managers Michael Becker and Alex Caan.
Matthew Loren Green and Jonathan Green are guest musical directors. Emily Rose Jacogson is assistant stage manager and Mike Jespersen is technical director.
As befits any Stephen Sondheim show worth his reputation, Sondheim UnScripted may not give you “a song you can hum, … a song that goes ‘dum dum dum di dum,’” let alone a show chock full of them.
What you will get is “Comedy Tonight,” so just sit back, relax, and let Falcon Theatre “Send In The [Impro Theatre] Clowns.”
Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.
August 28, 2105
Photos: Jill Mamey