‘Best Musical!’ turns weary Wednesday nights into lyrical lunacy

What do you get when you take five singer/comedians, one pianist, a top hat filled with fictional song titles and shove them on a stage? You get BEST MUSICAL! A Completely Improvised Musical Comedy!

Musicals often take years — even decades! — to develop. Just look how long it’s taking the folks in Smash to develop their Marilyn musical. At the rate they’re going, what with Debbie Messing’s character having pajama-topped dalliances with a creepily aggressive Will Chase, they’ll have a working draft by the time Blago is free.

But Best Musical (which is created by Matthew Loren Cohen and directed by Amanda Blake Davis) proves you can create an entertaining musical comedy during an intermission with just a little dose of inspiration.

Here’s the setup: Audience members submit made up songs titles which provide the seed for an on-the-spot production number when chosen by each cast member (sample song titles the night I attended included “I Have a Dream (But It’s a Stupid One),” “I Am My Own Sugardaddy” and “My Nana”). Then, the audience votes on the best performance. The audience takes an intermission while the cast plans out a one-act musical comedy based on the winning song, including book scenes, blocking and costumes.

And that’s not even the best part: the musical must include the winning song, which leads to all sorts of hilarity as we watch this freakishly talented cast attempt to recreate an improvisational moment, word for word, note for note and dance step for dance sept. And because they’re using the same space as Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of A Catered Affair (Porchlight’s presenting this show’s Chicago premiere), Brian Sidney Bembridge’s vintage storied apartment set provides many clever staging opportunities which this cast mines.

I deeply respect improv performers. The notions of “yes, AND,” “there are no mistakes,” and “make statements” (all pulled from Tina Fey’s “Bossypants“) are smart rules to live by — and incredibility hard to master. And if you add music to the mix, well, the stakes are so high, it has the potential to come crashing down in flames of off-key glory.

Thankfully, this quintet of performers (including Matthew Van Colton, Brandon Dahlquist, Lauren Dowden, Erica Elam and Tim Sniffen) works exceedingly well together. All capable singers, they know how to take a nonsense idea and turn it into a witty song with a beginning, middle and end. And they frequently pitch in to build on a musical idea, oftentimes in three part harmony.

And they would be nowhere without Cohen’s seemingly precognizant keyboard accompaniment. To keep things moving along, the droll Cody Dove serves as MC.

Oh, and what was the musical of the evening the night I saw it? Well, nothing more than that little known jewel box of a show, JonBenét: The Musical! (with Elam, a standout in this remarkably talented cast, giving a multi-faceted [read: bipolar] take on the tragic pageant princess). Completely tasteless and deliciously funny. Though a little long-winded — the group needed to tighten the storytelling pace.

But next Wednesday it’s a completely different Best Musical! So check it out.

“BEST MUSICAL! A Completely Improvised Musical Comedy” plays Wednesday nights at Stage 773 through March 28. More info here >;;

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