Vancouver TheatreSports takes improv to new heights with The ImprovMusical

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I had some vocal jazz playing in the car recently when my five-year-old son popped up from the back seat: “What language is that?” “It’s no language. It’s called scat singing. It’s too hard to make up words as you go along, so the singers just sing made-up words,” I explained.

Little did I know. The Vancouver TheatreSports League is proving that it is possible not only to create lyrics on the fly, but to harmonize them and do backing vocals, choruses, and choreography throughout a one-hour performance.

The show is a regular Wednesday-night production called The ImprovMusical, which isn’t so much a send-up of a Broadway musical as it is a reasonable facsimile. The original tunes are so catchy, it’s a little suspicious that the thing is improvised. It continues to December at the brand-spanking-new Improv Centre on Granville Island.

Located at the gateway of the fake island, the Improv Centre is a little cozier (at 186 seats) than the company’s previous home at the New Revue Stage. But it’s way better suited to live theatre, thanks to the graded seating (with cabaret-style tables up front) and excellent acoustics, which are a must for a nonmiked show. And with an indoor-outdoor lounge area with a spectacular view, there’s a place you can hang for a bit, pre- or post-show.

But without a quality product on-stage, it’s all for naught. The performance on July 28 featured creator Alan Marriott, Michael Robinson, Ellen Kennedy, Elizabeth Bowen, and Shaun Stewart, and damned if they all didn’t have musical chops. Sure, there was the odd bit of unintentional melisma as a player searched for the right note to match the outstanding accompaniment of Glen Stevenson on upright piano, but that’s to be expected.

Each week a full-blown musical is created on the spot, based solely on the suggestion of an occupation solicited from the crowd. On this night, it was veterinarian, and they were off and running, starting with an overture that introduced the characters and basic story line. The production was a little too good for the first half—that is, it was more impressive than funny. They were playing it a little too straight.

But Marriott and Robinson, probably sensing that themselves, grabbed everyone by the proverbial collar and got things cooking. The two veterans had incredible chemistry as the evil Dr. Freon (Robinson) and his Mexican sidekick, Manuel (Marriott), hatching a plot to collect wayward pets to cryogenically freeze them, and the ensemble found their comedy legs the rest of the way. The actual story was beside the point. The joy was in the journey—in watching the unrehearsed high-wire act of performers trying to rhyme in song off-the-cuff, instead of the high-priced, rehearsed high-wire acts at Kooza.

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