Theater Review by Joshua Rose
A state of the art, digital, interactive, improv musical. It’s what we used to dream about, think twice before you poo-poo it. Please forgive me for paraphrasing Jonathan Larson’s, RENT. It just seemed too easy, and the easy laugh is, after all, the backbone of improv. Keeping the audience laughing is what hides the bumps and seams and detours inherent in the immediacy of improv. It also helps that you can use the laugh break to figure out what you’re going to say or do next.
Unlike some other improv musicals, that work improvised dialogue and elements into a predetermined structure, the musical you will see at Blank! is created from scratch with some input from the audience at the beginning. The cast is comprised of leading musical improvisers from around the country. They had the folks at livecube.com build them an interactive web app (no download required, but you will need to surrender your email address) the audience can use to submit ideas as the Host asks for the various ideas. Starting with the title for the show, every element – down to the chord progression for the main theme – is put together from these audience suggestions gathered electronically into that handy app and then voted on by the audience. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. At the performance I attended, the web app experienced a few technical difficulties at the start; so we had to do it the old fashioned way, shouting things out and waving our hands. The show did not seem to suffer from this glitch, as your mobile devices are only useful for the first fifteen minutes of the show. Once all the audience participation has been input, the Host kindly insists you put that phone away.
While everything is technically improvised on the spot, it is done using tried and true musical theater tropes, cliches and gimmicks. As with all good improv, the cast and crew (yes even the lighting and sound are improvised) are well rehearsed on making things up as they go, and picking up the ball and running with it.
Produced by the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), it’s not surprising that the improv is good and the performers are mostly sharp, talented, and creative. There were a few missteps here and there were performers who broke the first and second rules of improv. Rule number one is, “always say yes.” No matter what your scene partner throws at you, run with it. Rule number two is, “always stay in the moment (or character)” especially as the situation or character is changing to fit what’s been added. There were a few instances of performers saying “no,” or breaking character with a “really? Is that what we’re doing?” I’m not sure how much the technical glitches interfered with the performers’ usual process and I look forward to going back to see how it all changes.
The musical I got to see, which will never be seen again, was Kidnapped on Uber! Its plot is unimportant as your show will be completely different. And while the musicians and cast are very talented, it does prove how difficult it truly is to write an actually good musical. Whatever musical your audience ends up creating, it will be unexpected, it will be absurd, and it will be funny, but it will not actually be good. If you spend the evening laughing, what does good matter. Blank! is an entertaining escape and doesn’t need to be anything more than that.
Blank! The Musical Created by Michael Girts, T. J. Shanoff (also directs) and Mike Descoteaux, New World Stages on West 50th Street runs about two hours with various performance dates through Dec. 14th. See www.blankthemusical.com for ore information, dates and times, and to purchase tickets.