Every once and awhile the Toronto Comedy Community is lucky enough to get to play host to an exorbitantly talented improviser from New York City named Christian Capozzoli, a founding member of the wildly popular Improv company 4track, about whom NBC Morning once said, “high octane, fast physical comedy [4Track is] one of the best Improv shows in the city.” On Friday evening I went to the Bad Dog Theatre where Capozzoli was guest starring in one of that theatre’s mainstay shows and then performing a special Toronto edition of 4Track with three Canadian improvisers of similar esteem.
The first show I saw was Canadian Comedy Award nominated Troubadour: Competitive Musical Improv, which was created by Darryl Pring and plays every Friday night at 8pm at the Bad Dog Theatre. The premise is potentially confusing to explain, but becomes obvious once the momentum starts building. Essentially, there are four improvisers who begin the evening by singing an improvised ballad for the audience based on their suggestions. Each of these four are then joined by a fifth improviser and all together they improvise scenes based on the song that was just sung. So, at the end of the first round the audience has seen four improvised songs and four complementary scenes. Then the audience votes (by rounds of applause) on which scene and song they would like to see continue, and the troubadour who received the weakest applause is eliminated. This format continues until there is one remaining troubadour singing one final song and one ongoing improvised scene and that troubadour is crowned the champion of the evening.
There is a wide array of talented musical improvisers that appear in this show and the show that I saw boasted of the talents of Lauren Ash, Rob Bartlett, Natasha Boomer, returning champion Alastair Forbes, and Christian Capozzoli, who improvised the scenes but did not sing as a troubadour. I found that something really interesting happened as the audience contemplated which troubadour they wanted to see continue onto the next round because it was clear that they were not just voting for that one specific troubadour nor necessarily reflecting his or her prowess with the form, but rather, also considering the merits of the connected scene and whether or not its story was one that they felt connected to and wanted to see developed further. In this way, Troubadour: Competitive Musical Improv seems initially to endorse an individualistic spirit of challenge and rivalry between the four troubadours, as they are each vying to be the last one remaining, and yet, in the show I saw, it was rare for the troubadour to appear in the scene that corresponded to his or her song, therefore, there was still a very integral foundation of teamwork at play. In this case, everyone must work together to build a strong improvised scene that the audience can feel invested in, so that at the end of the show, it is not just the troubadour, but actually all the improvisers also who were involved in the creation of the scene, who also achieve victory for the evening. This is actually quite an inclusive and collaborative style competition. How so very “Canadian” of us!
Alistair Forbes has a lovely, bright voice and Lauren Ash at one point pulled this incredibly inspired rhyme about eclipses and putting your head in a burlap sack out of her metaphorical pocket, but musically, Natasha Boomer and Rob Bartlett dominated the evening, and this is what was so fascinating to me. Bartlett took inspiration from the names of two audience members, Jack and Margaret, and constructed a ballad, almost akin to an epic poem, chronically their romance. As an improviser, Bartlett was able to keep his story unfolding in a concise and lucid manner, which is no small feat for improvised songs, especially since most of them rhyme. However, as a performer, Bartlett was less strong. Musically, he always kept his songs very safe, staying within a range of a very limited amount of notes, and he projected a feeling of some insecurity which robbed his songs of some of their potential power. Natasha Boomer, on the other hand, was a force to be reckoned with! She is a sassy, confident, beltress who can improvise a powerhouse song, with the help, of course of the ludicrously talented two time Dora Award winner Waylen Miki on the keys, who improvises the accompaniment for all the troubadours. Together Boomer and Miki can trick an audience member into thinking that they’re hearing either an obscure contemporary musical theatre number, or a forgotten old jazz or pop standard from gramophones gone by. Boomer’s song told the tale of a girl who fell in love with an accountant, who later turned out to be hideously disfigured underneath a mask, which was brought to hilarious life by Alistair Forbes and Lauren Ash. Yet, it was Bartlett who ultimately was crowned champion of the evening, despite the fact that Boomer was quite obviously the stronger troubadour performer.
There were, I think, two reasons that Bartlett won out the evening. The first was simply that Boomer I think was a bit frazzled from playing a hilarious trailer trash Mama, who had an unconventional reaction to her son and his boyfriend coming out to her in the scene based on Ash’s song and also the accountant as Rotten Cantaloupe Face scene had become so bizarre it was likely difficult for Boomer to instantaneously know in which odd direction she should take it. Therefore, she ended up with a final song that was a little less inspired than she was probably capable of. However, I think the main reason that Bartlett was so successful in his ballad of Jack and Margaret was the beautiful scenes that Boomer and Christian Capozzoli created to accompany it; ones that I felt left the audience entirely captivated by characters that they had become enraptured with and invested in their journey.
Capozzoli is one of the most incredible improvisers I have ever had the fortune of seeing onstage. I am not entirely sure how to do him any justice on paper, but he has the ability to make his characters earnestly vulnerable and in a way that does not usually reduce them to being the constant butt of a tirade of jokes. He brings a certain dignity and grace of empathy to Improv which is contagious to his scene partners, and this creates the most charming and intricate sorts of characters and relationships. Then, because he is as quick witted and hilarious as he is delightful, and because the other improvisers he plays with are as well, the comedy just follows naturally along, like the balloon at the end of a string.
This scene about Jack and Margaret was improvisational magic which was simultaneously touching and strange, beautiful and tragic, funny and absurd in just the right ways. Boomer sang a gorgeous song about Italy, there were some particularly insightful and poetic lines about not growing enough and being simple minded, along with some hysterically inspired jokes, such as Jack buying lottery tickets and calling that a job. Lauren Ash eventually created a wonderful awkward daughter for the couple who had a fantastic dynamic with her father, and we ended up seeing them all off to Italy where Jack finally learns to stand up for himself, in an improvised moment that caused the audience to burst into cheers. Sometimes Improv can be so esoteric it borders on the divine, and this scene seemed to sort of float on a higher plain for me than most.
I don’t mean to sound as though Bartlett was not integral to the creation of this story, but just that it was so clear to me that, as in Improv in general, even this sort of competition is not a solitary sport, and that it is important for all the components to be working strongly in tandem for the team to emerge victorious.
Troubadour: Competitive Musical Improv plays at the Bad Dog Theatre (138 Danforth Avenue) every Friday evening at 8pm. The talented cast is often varied and there are often special guests in appearance, but I would recommend attending when Natasha Boomer is playing in particular, because her delicious voice doesn’t disappoint. You’re in luck, however, for Waylen Miki is always on the keys and he will always beguile your senses and warm your heart with his ingenious improvised piano tunes. For more information or to book your tickets (which are $12.00) please call 416.491.3115 or visit this website or join this Facebook page.