TJ & DAVE: Improv Extraordinaires

TJ & Dave

Last month, I went to The Town Hall theatre to check out TJ & Dave for the first time. You comedy fans out there may have heard of these guys. I hadn’t until my improv class instructor told us about them. TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi are a comedy duo, performing together since the early 2000s. Master improvisers, their shows entail the two of them making up a one-hour play on the spot. Yup, a whole play. Just TJ, Dave, and three chairs. Their tagline is, “trust us, this is all made up.”

After doing a little research, I realized I knew these two individually but not as a team. TJ you might recognize from the Sonic commercials. And Dave was Stew on the forever-fabulous “Strangers with Candy” which aired on Comedy Central back in 1999. If you know me personally, you’ve likely heard me quote this gem of a show starring Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, and Stephen Colbert (maybe you’ve heard of him?). Dave played the butcher who Jerri Blank’s mother is having an affair with. The show is crazy, weird, and offensive. I highly recommend it.

But I digress. Back to TJ & Dave’s show! They were great. It feels silly to tell you about the story since it will never exist again. What surprised me was that it wasn’t just funny but also ended up being quite an insightful portrayal of human behavior. You can immediately identify with these characters (or you’ve at least met someone like them). It’s realistic, relatable, and sometimes has moments so perfect that it’s hard to believe it was made up that second. Their pacing, introduction of new characters (there were eight in this show), and the right usage of callbacks (references/shout-outs to earlier jokes) were super cool to witness. Plus I appreciated that they weren’t afraid to sit in silence at times. It got me all the more excited to take Level 2 at Magnet Theater, in which we start to study long form improv.

TJ & Dave are in the city occasionally, but their home base is Chicago, so if you find yourselves out there, look ‘em up! I think Colbert says it best, “”One of these guys is the best improviser in the world. And the other one is better.”

It Shoulda Been You

It Shoulda Been You

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but It Shoulda Been You is not the way to go this season. The premise is promising – an old fashioned wedding story of families colliding with a modern twist – but this brand new musical comedy misses the mark.

It’s Rebecca’s wedding day, and nothing is going well. Her mother and the groom’s mother aren’t getting along, her ex-boyfriend has gotten wind of the nuptials and is on his way to crash the ceremony, and her sister Jenny, always the bridesmaid, is expected to keep everything together (click here for highlights).

The book is weak and offensive. I suppose I might be more forgiving if the score were likeable, but the songs, after an hour and a half, were like nails on a chalkboard to my ears. The lyrics also include gems like, “How you pulled that out of your hat is making me smile like a Cheshire cat.” The music is made up of random notes following one another, trying to force a melody. I was looking forward to Lisa Howard’s 11 o’clock number because that woman has pipes, but I sat there thinking, this is what she has to sing every night?

Speaking of my excitement for Lisa Howard, I was so psyched for her to finally have a lead role on Broadway, but there’s a terrible subplot about her weight and her mother’s rude comments. The book is packed with fat jokes, Jewish jokes, black jokes, gay jokes, and alcoholic jokes, but none are smart. Mostly they made me cringe, and I’m not easily offended. I’m typically fine with that style of humor (The Book of Mormon, anyone?), but when written poorly, it just comes off as mean.

What a waste of talent. It’s a fantastic cast full of big names (Tyne Daly, Harriet Harris, Chip Zien, Sierra Boggess, David Burtka), and the brilliant David Hyde Pierce at the helm directing, so I can’t help but wonder what went wrong here. I’ll give it this much: there’s a surprise in the show that neither Matt nor I saw coming, and I don’t know the last time I was that genuinely surprised by a plot shift. But it doesn’t save the show by any means. For a brief moment I did think, “Oh, this will help the story,” but it only made it more convoluted.

But really, the show’s tagline is, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll be home by 10.” I mean, what? Their best foot forward is how short the show is?! That’s not gonna cut it for me. It shoulda been better.

It Shoulda Been You
Book & Lyrics by Brian Hargrove, Music by Barbara Anselni, Directed by David Hyde Pierce
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Open-ended
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Lisa Howard

You Can’t Take It With You

You Can't Take It With You

What. A. Ball. I knew I would have a good time at You Can’t Take It With You, but I didn’t know I would have that good a time. And what a great way to be introduced! I had never seen the play, the movie, nor the short-lived 80s sitcom (of which you have to watch the trailer). Who knew such an old-school play could feel so new and contemporary? And I mean, olllld. This play, written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman, originally opened on Broadway in 1936 and won the Pulitzer in 1937 (click here for a little more history). It has since had several revivals, and I firmly believe Broadway will welcome back this most recent production with open arms.

I love this kind of screwball comedy. It doesn’t quite fall into the farce category, but it is still a full-fledged comedy packed with slapstick, visual gags, witty humor, and hilarious situations. What I like is that the humor is not relying fully on misunderstandings and mix-ups (except, albeit, for one big one); rather it generates from the quirkiest, happiest family you’ll ever meet.

The Sycamores live together in New York. All of them. Mom, Dad, Grandpa, daughters Alice and Essie, and Essie’s husband Ed. Plus the maid, her boyfriend, the dance teacher who is always there, and the delivery guy who never left. It’s actually a surprise to see such a big cast up on stage, and it’s wonderful, especially with this group of performers, but I’ll come back to that. Let’s return to the plot. Alice has fallen in love with Anthony Kirby, son of Mr. Kirby, president of Kirby and Co. down on Wall Street. The Kirbys are, to put it lightly, a little more straight-laced than the Sycamores, and Alice worries that the two families meeting might ruin any future she could have with Tony. When the Kirbys come over for dinner on the wrong night and the Sycamores are going about their evening in true Sycamore fashion, things go awry very quickly (much to our delight).

It’s hard to describe the Sycamore family in words; so much of what makes them hilarious and “out there” is visual. The walls of their house alone give you an idea of what these people are like. But despite how “crazy” they may or may not be, there is so much love in this family. They are genuinely happy to be together and to be going about their business. And with a cast like this, you’ve never been in better hands.

Now comes the time in my review when I stop everything to talk about Annaleigh Ashford. If she does not get a Tony nomination for her performance, I will picket Broadway. I have loved her since the days of Legally Blonde. From Dogfight to her Tony-nominated performance in Kinky Boots, and now that I’m an avid viewer of “Masters of Sex,” I can’t get enough of her these days. Now she’s playing Essie in a show packed with stars and winning performances all around, and she still practically steals the show. I, for one, in the big group scenes, couldn’t help but watch whatever the heck she was up to. Her grasp of physical comedy is amazing, and her line deliveries are like no other.

Okay, I think I got my gushing out of my system. Other standouts include Will Brill as her husband (just wait until you see his physicality); they make an hysterical pair. Kristine Nielson, as you know, is another favorite of mine (she plays Penny, the mother). Then there’s Reg Rogers as Essie’s Russian dance teacher, who always gets me; Julie Halston who stops the show by walking up the stairs; Rose Byrne making a great debut; and I haven’t even mentioned James Earl Jones or the rest of the brilliant cast.

I’m telling you now, readers: get thee to the Longacre for a joyous couple of hours packed with belly laughs and smiles that leave your face exhausted. Just do yourself a favor, and go spend an evening with the Sycamores. You won’t be sorry.

You Can’t Take It With You
Written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, Directed by Scott Ellis
Longacre Theatre, Closing February 22nd, 2015
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Annaleigh Ashford and Reg Rogers

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

What a jolly good time! What’s that you say? An entirely new musical? Original writing, choreography, a wonderful cast and director, AND a success as this year’s Tony-winning Best Musical? What a breath of fresh air. A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder was the underdog of the season, despite the fantastic reviews this past fall. It simply fell in the shadow of blockbusters like Aladdin, but as the Act One Finale “The Last One You’d Expect” states, this was the musical to take home the awards this year (Best Musical, Book, Costume Design, and Direction) plus six additional Tony nominations.

Written by Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) and Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics – and a welcome newcomer to Broadway), Gentleman’s Guide is based on a 1907 novel by Roy Horniman. Bryce Pinkham plays the titular character, a gentleman named Monty Navarro. Monty tells his story from prison as he takes us back to how everything began – when he finds out that he is a distant relative of the royal family, the D’Ysquiths. In fact, only eight relations stand between him and the current Earl of Highhurst. Meanwhile, Jefferson Mays plays all of said relations, and after being scorned by the family, Monty begins to take them out, one by one, getting closer and closer to the Earl himself. Both men are hilarious and spot-on in their roles(sss). Monty also finds himself torn between two women, Sibella and Phoebe, played by Lisa O’Hare and Lauren Worsham respectively, who are making fantastic Broadway debuts.

To say the least, the show is a romp full of catchy, clever songs. It’s packed with mugging and “wink winks” at the audience, and it works because the jokes are solid, and the actors telling them know what they’re doing. Once your ear adjusts to the English accent, it’s pretty much non-stop laughter with comedy ranging from sly wit to full-out slapstick. To the best of my knowledge, farcical musicals are few and far between. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the closest thing I can compare it to within the musical genre. Like Drood, this is clean and sharp. The number performed on the Tony Awards, although it seems like it’s in hyper speed taken out of context, certainly does the show justice in my book.

Another reason the show is so successful is you can tell that the cast is having a blast, too. I mean, how can you not with material like that? Murder has never been so much fun.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder
Book and Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman, Music and Lyrics by Steven Lutvak, Directed by Darko Tresnjak
Walter Kerr Theatre, Open-Ended
Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich
Pictured: Jefferson Mays and the Cast of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder