Los Angeles Theater Review: SONDHEIM UNSCRIPTED (Impro Theatre at the Falcon Theatre in Burbank)

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by Jason Rohrer on September 4, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


My editor and I didn’t toss a coin to see who would write the review – he’s smarter than that; he wrote a very nice preview piece, the kind I find very difficult, and that was that. Neither one of us wanted to write a review because we’re out of words to describe Impro Theatre, the impossibly skilled and talented longform improvisational troupe. I’ve written about this company at least six times for Stage and Cinema alone, a few times for Bitter Lemons, once for American Theatre. I’ve written about how they’ll get you laid. I’ve written of their importance to the salvation of The Theater. I’ve written that they’ll restore your faith in humanity. I’m out of superlatives. I got nothin’. What am I gonna write now? “Go see them?” I’m done.

SondheimUnScripted05Or, I was.

This time I took a friend who had never seen them, a friend who likes musicals. I, for the most part, do not.

I find the vast majority of musicals tiresome, and not just because they’re insipid and corny. I think that for his work on Phantom, Andrew Lloyd Webber should be executed for songs against humanity. I think that the one rousing chorus of the “Marseillaise” in Casablanca contains more revolutionary spirit than all sixteen pompous hours of Les Miz. And it goes beyond subjective opinion into the realm of physical law that the 60-second number “Everyone Has AIDS” from the Rent parody in Team America: World Police is morally, intellectually, and spiritually superior to the entire smug, precious, shrink-wrapped Kleenex box that is the actual Rent.

I have observed that even in the very best musicals, the kind Fosse or Sondheim (or both) had something to do with, it is perfectly acceptable for the jokes to thud straight from the Catskills, and for the characters to come across as broad as the winks. And all but the very best musicals’ books treat the great questions of life frivolously, as a matter of course; war, love and loss, faith, death, are excuses for handsome men and shiny women with lots of hair to imitate 8th graders acting for the first time, and to sing trite lyrics in the style of white Baptist church soloists. The dancing often wakes me up; I like dancing. But I like singing, too, and I hardly ever recognize what goes on in a musical as singing, or acting, or writing. I think, in fact, that most musicals are at best idiotic and at worst, idiotic and pretentious.


But the one time about a year ago that I saw Impro improvise a thing very much like a Sondheim musical, I liked it tremendously, so much so that for a moment I thought maybe I liked Sondheim. And now they were going to do it again, and I was going to take my friend.

My friend said, “If they’re going to do an authentic Sondheim show, the first act will be great and the second act will suck.”

I knew I had brought the right person.

We saw the show.

We both were delighted; watching performers of this caliber (Lisa Fredrickson, Kelly Holden-Bashar, Brian Michael Jones, Brian Lohman, Cory Rouse, Ryan Smith, Michele Spears, Floyd VanBuskirk opening night) write and perform (and play: Peter Smith improvised a stunningly Sondheimesque score) under the direction of Spears and Dan O’Connor, one is allowed disbelief but not disinterest. Your investment is mandatory.


And yet:

A few days later, my very smart friend wrote that the show was “delightful, if frivolous.”

Frivolous, a word I use every time I describe why I don’t like musicals.

And when he wrote that, I realized that the very worst thing about musicals is that if you watch or god forbid perform in enough of them, they can blind you to the knowledge of good and evil.


What my friend saw was a musical that, like just about every fucking musical ever fucking staged, had fine moments of acting and singing, dialogue and lyrics, music, dance and gesture, that aligned perfectly with the theme, story and plot; and some less perfectly aligned moments. What my friend saw was a musical as good as the average pretty good musical, and more, a commentary on the nature of musicals, on what makes musicals likeable and grotesque and cuddly and dumb and smart and fun.

SondheimUnScripted04What he didn’t see was the thunderbolts and lightning right before his eyes, the uber-circumstance. By creating as good a version of this art form as anyone has a right to expect under the most forgiving of circumstances, except here IN REAL TIME, LIVE, IMPROMPTU, these nine human beings proved a basic truth about the art form, and about the constructive capabilities of the modern homo sapien: in our work and in our recreation, we almost always settle for far less than we’re capable of doing, and of appreciating.

What Impro does every time I see them, whether they’re improvising in the manner of Shakespeare or Chekhov or Tennessee Williams or Stephen God’s Man on Musical Earth Sondheim. It would be the same message if they were riffing on Little Golden Books or Diff’rent Strokes: They show me that what I’m alive to do is to be as much as I can be. All it took them was a lifetime of work, and hell, I’ve got that, and so do you.

photos by Jill Mamey

Sondheim UnScripted
Impro Theatre at the Falcon Theatre
4252 Riverside Dr. in Burbank
Wed-Sat at 8; Sun at 4
ends on September 27, 2015
for tickets, call 818-955-8101 or visit www.falcontheatre.com
for more info, visit www.improtheatre.com

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