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The Music Men

Solo improviser and veteran group present a mixed bag in Magnet Theater's new festival.

Pictured: 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 scenes.

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).




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