The Music Men
Solo improviser and veteran group present a mixed
bag in Magnet Theater's new festival.
Blaine Swen, and members of Centralia.
One of the shows caught in the Magnet Theater’s first annual New York
Musical Improv Festival on November 7, a pairing of “Bash,” a one-man
performance by Blaine Swen, and a group show by Centralia, who formed
and performed for years at the People’s Improv Theater, had different
degrees of fealty to the idea of musical improv.
Largely, musical improv as a form, if you’re not familiar, plays out
its situations, characters and scenes through an overlay of a musical
play, or parody thereof. Once the improvisers hit on the story they want
to tell or at least pursue, they do it through inventing songs on the
spot, breaking up the action just as in a musical. The humor comes from
the improvisation just as it would normally, but depending on the
improvisers’ inclination, they may add a layer of making fun of the
conventions of a musical as they go.
In short, Swen proved masterful at going from zero to 60 in his
performance, working from the one-word suggestion of “grapes” and
spinning off multiple characters with interlocking stories, going
backward and forward in time, weaving in very funny improvised songs
along the way. [Some musical improv groups or performers will seek an
audience suggestion of a title for an imagined musical, giving them
slightly more to go on]. Swen played a woman who works as a AAA
dispatcher, a creepy date she meets and eventually marries, her
co-worker who’s a less than diligent dispatcher, and a few other
ancillary supporting characters to boot. A peak came at a point where
the creepy guy sang a duet with his own (anthropomorphized) hand.
Centralia, a gifted veteran group featuring Jay Rhoderick, Kevin
Scott, Matt Higgins, Dion Flynn and Matt Oberg, did not have much
concern about getting musical aspects into their performance. While they
hit some inspired peaks in the first half of their performance, they
didn’t seem to hew as closely to keeping a clear story arc to their show
as Swen did, even along with musical elements.
Centralia instead did hit upon striking scenes, like the exterminator
being tempted by a sexed-up housewife and Oberg’s john picking up
Higgins’ outlandish transvestite prostitute character, “Chlorine.” The
members of Centralia took the stage following an excellent video
introduction that pumped up the energy of the room with a fast pace
succession of words praising New York City. All dressed in business
suits, giving them a uniformity that made the differences in their
personalities when playing characters stand out more, they displayed a
great of energy moving around the stage and each other in playing out
Their set, though, did seem to lose a little of this energy and focus
as it went on. The group didn’t seek out much connective tissue between
these scenes, and the level of invention seemed to drop toward the end
of the show. Without visibly taking a suggestion, some might surmise at
least the beginnings of the show had some forethought, especially the
most specific and fleshed out characters. The group is nonetheless
entertaining and skilled at what they do, but without inventing songs to
add to their action, it wasn’t really a fit for a musical improv
festival. By comparison, it makes it all the more evident that Swen is
one to watch in the future, seeing how much he could do completely on
his own (other than the keyboard accompanists both shows had).