Review: Musical theater meets improv comedy ‘On The Spot’.
- OnStage New York Critic
Monday nights in the city are a strange kind of animal. Some part of you resists the thought that the weekend is over and wants to party on. Another part wants to just sit back and do nothing. Well, luckily there is just the right place where both needs can be satisfied and that is On The Spot, the show where talented singers meet on stage with brilliant improvisation actors. Producer Nathan Armstrong picks the hottest young talent in town while the co-author of the show and it’s director, Patrick Reidy, keeps his improv group of 4 to 7 “on their toes”. “We’d like to think of it as we are creating a family”- says Nathan. I truly felt like a part of the family and even got to chat with some of its members.
As I walk into the Broadway Comedy Club on Monday night, the first people I see are the singers stumbling nervously from foot to foot in anticipation of their New York debut. Tonight On The Spot features eight graduates from The Citrus Singers, a 3-year music and performance program in Citrus Collage, California. Carlene O’Neill, Delia Trear, Edward Little, Julia Iacopetti, Kelly Grandmaison, Kylie Molnar, Steven Federoff, and Taylor Barbata; their brief visit to New York is packed with sightseeing and going to the theater but they are used to intense schedules as the group tours a lot domestically and internationally.
“In the last three years I have gone to Germany, Check Republic, and China. And in four days I am going to Philippines and China again to perform with the Citrus Singers and to do a Broadway review!” – Kylie Molnar shares with me excitedly while we are waiting for the house to open. The energy of a bright eyed, perky musical theater lover is doubled by the thrill of just being in New York. I can only imagine how it feels for the singer to see a Broadway musical on stage for the first time. Well, actually I don’t need to imagine as Kylie is radiating the contagious joy after seeing Something Rotten, Matilda and Fun Home. She is going to see She Loves Me the next day, she said: “I love Laura Benanti so much, I’m gonna die”!
This great energy and love for the musical theater supported by Kylie’s talent made her performance that night electrifying. To be honest, all eight singers were really good. Each of them prepared the song without any idea of what’s going to happen. The director of On The Spot and one of the improv actors, Patrick Reidy fills me in: “Tonight there are eight singers, usually we have four that do two songs each. And they pick their songs and the actors can’t know what they are. We will just sit there and listen for the lyrics and emotion and something from it will inspire one of the four of us for a scene. And hopefully that scene is funny”.
Tonight Patrick directs three other actors besides himself: Meg Reilly, Chris Catalano and Andrew Del Vecchio. To stay in tune with each other, the actors meet for a couple of hours a week and practice; this is what the “rehearsal” process for improv is like. When asked to define the role of director in an improve, Patrick says the following: “There is no script. But you are still using the same set of skills: the characters, the plot and the story, so I think you need to have a little bit of a director brain to be an improviser. So the other improvisers definitely have a lot of say in what happens in the story and I am there to help control it as well. If anything needs a firm director’s grasp on it I can literary jump into the show and steer it in the direction that I think will work best for everybody and will bring up all the characters and show them in the best possible light”.
With ten years of experience as an improv actor and the support of his stage-mates, Patrick can turn even the saddest song upside down and make you laugh hysterically a moment after you were nearly sobbing at a touching piece of a musical theater. “Some of the songs that they bring in are so sad and we are sitting there thinking: how can we make anything funny about it, - the improviser says, - But in reality no matter how dark and depressive our lives get sometimes, there is always a sense of humor in there that keeps us going so that’s kind of what we go for. The drama is necessary to have a big laugh, to take a step back and enjoy the fact that you are still here”.
Before the show I briefly meet Nathan Armstrong, the producer and co-creator of On The Spot. He nervously adjusts his cufflinks while giving the last instructions before the public will flood the cozy cabaret. As he told me later, “99% of being the producer is just to put out one fire after another, dealing with all kinds of crazy situations, trying to be the calm one in the room as everything else is crumbling around you. But for that one percent when things are right and it’s your show up there, and that’s what you have envisioned, that one percent is one of the greatest feelings”.
Nathan also admitted that he was particularly nervous that night because his show was hosting students from his Alma Mater; he himself was a member of the Citrus Singers. In the honor of them he sang the opening number and, oh my, did he transform! All of a sudden a business looking guy lights up with the fire coming from within and fills the room with his gorgeous voice. The applause hadn’t even stopped yet as Patrick, Meg, Chris and Andrew took the space to improvise a story about two Jersey Boys coming to study in Hogwarts. The audience met these characters again in a couple of other sketches. The evening also gave birth to such individuals as a gay cave man, a dog who had thumbs, a girl who makes the world fade away when she yodels and many more.
Andrew Whitbeck, playing the piano, was rocking it. Andy Scannell, technical director, was working the lights, which, besides creating an atmosphere, is an important narrative tool as Andy is the one who “cuts” the scene namely by doing blackouts. Even the bartender was almost dancing between the tightly packed tables without being destructive. I was amazed by how well harmonized, not only the performers, but also the backstage people are.
I was looking forward to Kylie’s performance, as during the short interaction with her before the show I already became a fan. As she sang “Cute boys with short haircuts” from Vanities, I truly felt for the heroine even tough I have no idea what the musical is about. For a few minutes I got carried away to the world of girl’s heartaches and witnessed an entire story in miniature. I had a chance to experience something that Kylie said to me earlier: “I don’t think it really matters where you get to perform as long as you get to perform. It can be on a Broadway stage or it can be in a coffee shop. You are performing for people who care and if they are there to watch, they are there to watch. What kind of a performer are you if you don’t make them feel something no matter where you are”.
Improvisers, as per usual, turned the story upside down. That was one of my favourite moments in the show when the strongest emotional tension was immediately followed by the biggest laugh. “Cute boys with short haircuts”, which felt like a page in a young girl’s diary was turned into a scene of an audition for the part of a “boy with a short haircut” for Law and Order. And this is the beauty of On The Spot, the mixture of emotionally charged musical theater and down-to-earth timely humor. ¬¬¬
The melting of these two elements creates a completely new narrative. When I asked Nathan if the song of the musical theater loses its sense when put out of context, he answered the following: “Some numbers are very contextual so in order really to understand it you have to understand what’s going on before and after that. But what I think we are trying to do is to create that before and after outside of what it was originally intended. What we are really doing is creating a new story for these songs to be a part of”.
On The Spot is a great show to see on a Monday night for both musical theater and improv comedy enthusiasts. Even if you don’t think of yourself as either, like myself, come share a laugh, maybe a couple of tears and a drink with your New York theater family.
On The Spot is happening every Monday at 8pm (doors open at 7:30pm) in Broadway Comedy Club - 318 West 53rd Street, New York. For more information and tickets visit http://www.onthespotnyc.com/home.html