Reviewer: Lizz Clark
The umbrella of “musicals” encompasses many styles, from the tongue-twisting harmonies of light opera, through the syrupy Rogers and Hammerstein, right up to present-day attractions like Wicked, Hamilton or – playing in the Lowry’s Lyric Theatre this week – Gary Barlow’s The Band. Since 2008, the cast of Showstopper! The Improvised Musical have been playing around under that umbrella, probably twirling it rakishly in the style of Singin’ in the Rain.
Supervised by a directorial figure (Sean McCann), who has confidently promised his producer that he can whip up a new musical in the course of two hours, these accomplished improvisers take audience suggestions for setting, title and musical styles. From these raw materials they somehow, unbelievably, create a new show from scratch every night.
It’s remarkable how much is going on during any given moment of Showstopper. Not only are two lovers duetting – in this case, cynical cheesemaker Marie and rakish Aussie Bruce – but three kangaroos are dancing about in the background. Not only does the wise old Madame Eloise recount the romantic stories of her youth, but she does it in the smooth, crooning style of George Gershwin. Not only are the cast telling a unique and hilarious story – they’re making it all up as they go along.
The musical chops of the cast, and the musicians who accompany them, should not be underestimated – they make the collaboration look effortless, musicians setting the style and improvisers seamlessly filling in melodies and lyrics. Our suggested pastiches include Gilbert and Sullivan, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the aforementioned Barlow. All are carried off beautifully, especially the Barlow number, which turns on a dime from covering Patience-style sincerity to the razzle-dazzle toe-tapping of Shine. It’s wondrous to watch.
This cast can be trusted to take just about any prompt and spin it into comedy gold. Ruth Bratt, in particular, is a delight, really getting her teeth into audience suggestions like “Lady Gaga” or “fake your own death”, all the while in-character as a wizened old French cheesemaker. The whole cast adapt their movement to each new style, creating settings from as little as a doorway or staircase, and throwing out a non-stop barrage of ideas. Even when they’re not involved in the action, they’re hovering upstage behind a gauze, ready to jump in with new plot elements or backing lyrics.
The only criticism that can be levelled at the cast is that they are too few – just five improvisers and the ‘director’. Certain limits are imposed by this – how many characters, and particularly, how much plot can develop once they are established. This leaves the second half a little less satisfying than the first, mostly just tying up existing elements. With more improvisers, the results might be spectacular, with plots, subplots and an even more dazzling variety of musical influences. But, as it is, the company have more than enough ingenuity and talent to fill up the Quays Theatre, and it’s a joyous experience to watch them work their magic.
Reviewed on 17th January 2019