There was a time when improvisational comedy and musical theatre existed as mutually exclusive realms, separate from the other.
Fortunately, this is no longer the case, because there now exists a show that satiates our need for the fusion of these two art forms, a need we didn’t even realize was there until it happened. The show that has been helmed to fully realize this peculiarity is, of course, the new off-Broadway production Blank! The Musical, currently playing at New World Stages for a limited engagement through December 14. In a seemingly impossible and bizarre manifestation of creator Michael Girts’ brainchild, Blank! The Musical takes six actors, three pit musicians, and several other run crew members, and destroys the notion that a Broadway musical—or any musical or play for that matter—takes years to go from conception to opening night by creating a full-length musical from scratch in front of the audience’s very eyes.
The audience, of course, plays a crucial role in how this unique show pans out, and what the show is even going to be. As they repeat over and over, nothing is prepared beforehand. In a Whose Line Is It Anyway fashion, audience members are asked to shout out suggestions for song titles, musical themes, dance styles, and even lines, which are then voted upon using smartphones connected to the show’s Wi-Fi network, after which, the show begins. It seems overly audacious and risky to have prepared nothing, zilch, but if the 90 minutes that followed were any indication, the cast and crew of Blank triumphantly proves that even when the painstakingly long and complicated process of making a musical is reduced to a mere ten minutes, and that when extensive rehearsal and preview periods are replaced instead by a generous dose of human ingenuity and wit, not only can it be done, but in fact, the results can be quite spectacular.
The six performers, Katie Dufresne, Nicole C. Hastings, Tessa Hersh, Andrew Knox, Matthew Van Colton, and Douglas Widick, are, as expected, the lifeblood of Blank! The Musical, and they are all standouts in their own right. Besides a couple of elevated platforms and four unassuming chairs, they’re all that is onstage. They take improvisational comedy to a whole new level, singing and dancing with joyous abandon, making fools of themselves for our pleasure. The energy and commitment to whatever the heck was going on in every moment was never short of amazing. Piecing together lyrics and hooks and melodies on the spot from what the audience provided and where the musical had progressed to at that point, while still trying to land rhymes and harmonies with their fellow actors was something of a nightmare turned beautiful. Having said this, what is perhaps more extraordinary was the work of the three pit musicians, who, save for a meager four-note musical theme voted on by the audience at the beginning of the show, improvised the entire show as well. The pianist/conductor, woodwind player, and drummer, worked seamlessly with each other and with the actors, a collaboration that was key to conquering the absolutely ridiculous but enticing concept that the show is.
It’s mind-boggling to think that a story involving two cabbies chasing after two girls in Maine can be intertwined with a sub-plot involving whale dentists and baleens, which is interwoven still with a story concerning a man’s quest to have children with his 76 year-old wife, all of which is then synthesized and set to music and dance then titled “Is This Supposed to Smell?”, but Blank! The Musical did it, and it is quite something else. It is, with a nice PG-13 sensibility, something no one has ever seen before (obviously) or will see ever again.