A Freestyle Thing

In the 90’s freestyling, an improvisational form of rapping in which lyrics are produced off-the-top-of-the-head, was the test to prove a rapper’s true MCing prowess.   With an accompaniment of a beat box, track or simply acapella, rappers proved why this burgeoning form of music was truly an art.  In the theatre, the art of improvisation is nothing new; improvised performing can be traced back as far back as the 16th centuries across Europe.  Modern improv is generally accredited to Viola Spolin, widely considered to be the grandmother of improvisational theatre and falls into two groupings, shortform and longform.

Fusing the best of shortform (short scenes initiated by an audience suggestion) and longform (a production in which short scenes are connected by the story and characters), Baby Wants Candy is an autoschediastical klatsch of epic proportions.  A cast of rotating players breaks the fourth wall (generally a standard in live theatre) and asks the audience for a title to a production that has never been seen.  Once one is shouted out, the actors and a live band construct a side-splitting musical that is guaranteed to be one of the blithest 60-minutes one will ever spend in a theatre.  Baby Wants Candy offers an once-in-a-lifetime theatre experience; the scenes, dialogue and musical numbers are only displayed for that performance.  If you missed it, then you missed it.  But the silver lining is there is always an innovative, clever, inspiring musical on the horizon just waiting for the audience to name it.  Baby Wants Candy is an unforgettable display of the human imagination.

Like hip hop, jazz is another musical genre that welcomes improvisation.  A group of players on stage make an offer, inviting us to come on an aural journey of pop-up riffs and harmonious ad-libs. It is an offer most times the audience can not refuse.  In improvisational theatre, an offer, which refers to an actor defining a scene, is also made.  Once an offer is accepted, another actor will initiate a new offer and so on creating a spontaneous house of cards.  Improvisers call this “Yes, And…”  While watching artisans on stage, I also have a sort of “Yes, And…” experience.  Generally it happens when something is lacking in the performance, but with this troupe of zany entertainers, I did not say, “Yes, and…,” I screamed, “Woohoo!”  On the way home I had to convince myself that the audience member that provided the title was not a mole, which I believe is the greatest testimony to the cast’s mastery of their art.  Baby Wants Candy makes me crave improv. 

Baby Wants Candy will be performing Saturday evenings at the SoHo Playhouse, located on 15 Vandam Street, until February 26.  To learn more about Baby Wants Candy, click www.babywantscandy.com.

Cast photo and logo courtesy of Noreen Heron & Associates, Inc.

Time Traveling With The Scottsboro Boys

All aboard!  This train is travelling to Dixie, but not the “Hooray Dixie Land” sung in lyrics, it is Jim Crow’s Dixie that is the subject matter of this musical.  The Scottsboro Boys, playing at the Vineyard Theatre, is a portal into a time in America’s history that has been forgotten.  It almost seems peculiar that a story as heavy as the Scottsboro Boys trial,  a series of trials in which nine black youths were tried and convicted of raping two white women, would end up on stage as a musical, but it is the musical numbers that makes the subject matter more palatable.  The musical takes on some of elements of minstrel show and is a nonstop rollercoaster of emotions.  At times I was offended, other times I was brought to the brink of tears and at certain times I could not help but to burst with laughter, regardless of what I was feeling I was always entertained.

I enjoy viewing productions in which the actors play multiple roles because the audience gets a true glimpse of the actors’ range.  The cast with exception of Sharon Washington (the omnipresent female figure) play several parts and the character changes are as smooth as the choreography. 

Each character was thoroughly developed and the passion for the material was reflected in the actors’ performances. Another interesting aspect of the production is the cast with exception of the Interlocutor, brilliantly portrayed by two-time Tony award winner John Cullum, are all black.   Watching black actors playing white southerners so convincingly proved the level of depth and talent that illuminated the stage.  Lights make the actors come alive, but it is the actors that make the stage come alive.   

When the curtain opens with a woman waiting to get on a bus then the mood suddenly becomes electric as Mr. Bones, Mr. Tambo and the Scottsboro boys make a raucous entrance down the aisle steps to the stage for the first musical number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.”    The set is basically comprised of chairs and wooden planks that are seamlessly transitioned by the cast to suit a scene or musical number, and it is the musical numbers that are the real treat of this production.  “Financial Advice” was a scream, “Make Friends with the Truth” was equally as hilarious, “You Can’t Do Me” was compelling, but my favorite was “Electric Chair.” 

The thought of turning capital punishment into a song and dance may appear to be reaching, but reaching is exactly what John Kander, Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman did and the result is a thrilling tap sequence that Bojangles and Gregory Hines would have been proud of.  From the opening number to the closing one, the songs and choreography transformed The Scottsboro Boys from experimental theater into a rootin’ tootin’ time.  I was completely mesmerized.

Bold, contemporary and filled with vigor, The Scottsboro Boys sizzles with electricity, hats off to the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman.  I also salute the cast; they worked like a well-oiled machine oozing with experience and raw soul.  In the wake of President Obama’s historic ascension to the highest office in our country, it may be easy for some, the youth in particular, to overlook this nation’s turbulent history with regards to race.  The most important component about The Scottsboro Boys is that it builds a bridge between the past and present and through quality art like this production an interest can be sparked inspiring us to learn more about the countless stories that prelude the day Rosa Parks decided not to go to the back of the bus.

Photos:  Carol Rosegg