At the Eisemann Center, the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical stirs up the laughs.
published Friday, November 9, 2012
Broadway‘s Next H!T Musical may be formulaic, but it’s fun. Spoofing both awards shows and Broadway, it’s a fast-paced and breezy 90-minute production that on a good night delivers plenty of laughs and on an off night will still serve up plenty of fine singing. It runs through Sunday at the Eisemann Center for the Performing Arts.
The formula is this: Before the show, gather suggestions of song titles from the audience and put them in a bowl. Performers select song titles and create them instantly with the help of an amazingly versatile pianist, in this case Eric March. The audience votes on which one they like best. It’s presented like an awards show, complete with smug female emcee in a tight dress, played by Annie Schiffmann. The second half features both the song and the musical it came from. All of it made up on the spot. A nice touch: the award is called The PHONY.
The show rests on the good-hearted interplay of the tall nebbish Robert Z. Grant, whose physical humor, facial expressions and sheer silliness is superb, and super-sharp wry comic sparkplug Rob Schiffmann, who has producer and director credits. Their choreography, if you could call it that, is consistently hilarious, often eclipsing the jokey songs. The nuclear dense center belongs to co-producer and director Deb Rabbai, a quip machine who propels the plots forward. Kobi Libii has an actor’s depth, able to quickly form characters completely different from himself.
In Broadway‘s Next H!T Musical, the jokes are gentle, the quips are clean and the music mainstream. The opening night audience of primarily folks over 50 lapped it up. It’s part of an entertainment trend of acts that are usually seen in smoky, cramped comedy clubs with crappy drinks, instead being presented in comfortable performance halls with better libations. It may not have the relaxed conviviality of folks gathered around cocktail tables, but it sure is easier on those of us who done their time in nightclubs, thank you very much.
An unfortunately selected song “Dallas Plow Down His History Musical” from the musical Medieval Times was a muddy mash-up of Civil War and Shakespeare, but about the best that could be done with such a title. “You Are My Love, Just Like the Other 20” from the musical Good Gone Bad had a Grease panache that garnered the biggest laughs and had my vote. Still don’t know what “Vida da Vida” from The Museum‘s Closed musical was about.
The song winner was the tritely titled “We Could Have Had It All,” that became an Adele homage with Broadway insider jokes, from the Mel Brookish musical 1 Limb, 2 Limb, Me Limb, You Limb about a mad doctor’s creation of a full-body prosthetic. It won because everyone wanted to see Grant, as the injured patient, do his stilted monster-mash dancing again. As the full musical, it had an insanely stupid plot, but plenty of slapstick and choreography from Grant.
For a process geek like me, it was fascinating. When the performer selected the random song title, he or she explained it ala pretentious awards-show style, describing the gist of the lyrics and the tune’s placement in the musical. This was done in a comically entertaining way, but also crucially let the other performers off stage know what the lead performer’s plans were. This allowed a few seconds of vital preplanning before launching into the bit, which consists of a theatrical preamble followed by the song.
After the audience votes by applause for their favorite song, the performers take bows and skitter off stage to madly frame out an entire musical while the emcee pads for time by reading out unselected song titles, a surprisingly funny bit. Many provided far better comic song fodder than ones chosen. Our offerings were: “Let’s Call This Crime Wave a Spree” and the country anthem “Cold Beer, Hot Queso and Ballet.”
In the second half, the pianist, who never leaves the stage, really gets to shine. Once ready for the musical, March plays an overture of a half-dozen melodic song snippets, giving performers advance notice of the number and style of songs he intends for them to create, in addition to reprising the winning tune already performed. Theatrical interludes alternate with songs and March keeps the pace up, nudging the performers into the next song when action lags.
The nearly non-stop, full volume, full-throated Broadway style singing can be wearying if you’re a jazz snob like me, and the bad luck of selecting a bum song title can bog things down, but overall a good night of laughter at no risk of offense.
You can get a hint of the set-up and song process in this video on YouTube.