Comedy Review: Spontaneous Sondheim: Improvised Musical Comedy from “Thank You, Places”
Generally, there are two types of people who attend a Broadway musical: those who have listened to the soundtrack and are built-in fans, and those who go in blind hoping to be won over.
What if you had no choice to live the life of the latter?
That’s the idea behind “Thank You, Places.” Each performance is the opening and closing night of a musical in which nobody — not the audience, not the director or accompanist, not even the cast — knows what will happen.
Staged two Fridays per month at Philly Improv Theater on Sansom Street (formally called PHIT Comedy), each show is based on a one-word suggestion from the audience. Using that suggestion, the cast launches into an opening number that introduces characters and the setting, which could be anything from a mid-90s zombie prom to the failing offices of “Teen Beat” magazine to, in their most recent performance this past weekend, a mystical circus in crisis. The team then has about an hour to explore the storylines they just set up and come to some kind of conclusion, making the whole thing up as they go.
A bit of inside baseball: one of the early lessons of improv is making sure your character has a clearly defined “want” — something that drives that character’s actions throughout the scene. The experienced cast of Thank You, Places, does this with remarkable proficiency. The characters express their desires early and often, reminding the audience what’s at stake. The actors play well as a team, building realities together and helping each other to heighten the action.
Of course, good fundamental improv skills are just half the equation here. The musical side of the coin is just as strong. A performance can feature any style of musical theater, from the fast-talking Sondheim to the broad Rodgers and Hammerstein. The actors move deftly between the styles, with no discernable weak point. And the technical singing is strong, especially among the female cast. If you attend one of the performances that one of the women decide to break out the belting, you’re in for a treat. Add in the concept that the lyrics are being written on the fly and you can’t help but walk away impressed.
As with any improvised performance, attending Thank You, Places can be a bit of a gamble. Occasionally, an important storyline will be left unresolved, or one of the actors will attempt a flight of fancy that winds up undermining a good scene. But the team’s batting average in this case is very high; they take care of each other and put together a high-quality show in almost every aspect.
The cast of Thank You, Places is Alanna Shaffer, Angelina Meehan, Claire Halberstadt, Felicia Ricci, Rob Alesiani, Scott Hinners, Steven Holland and Sue Taney. Direction is by Dave Sucharski and music direction by Kevin Mucchetti. The curtain rises at 7:30 pm every first and third Friday of the month at PHIT. Tickets are $12 and are general admission. Their next performance is Friday, August 25.
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