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Friday, June 14, 2024

Theatre review: the cast of BroadWHAT?! is fearless

I have a confession to make. I think improvisers are da bomb (do the kids still use that phrase?). The cast of Off Key Improv’s BroadWHAT?! are not only that, they are also fearless.

It’s hard not to appreciate an art form that requires an ensemble of actors to instantly form a narrative around a few audience suggestions. The improvisers must rely on their own skills to create a story without the benefit of a script.  It also relies on a level of trust from their fellow improvisers, creating what can be the theatrical equivalent of working a circus act without a safety net.

What makes this Off Key Improv show that much more dangerous is the addition of music. In BroadWHAT?! the improvisers must not only create a story from a few unrelated suggestions, they must also instantly create songs to help tell that story.

While using music in improv is not new, it is typically done as small parts of a larger work.  With BroadWHAT?! Off Key Improv takes the genre to the extreme by attempting to create a full-length, two act musical.

On opening night, audience suggestions included a Baptist Minister, frogs, dislocated fingers, the phrase “what goes up must come down”, and the black plague.  Not surprisingly, given the suggestions, last evening’s show took a decidedly darker turn than one would normally associate with improv. Fortunately, there were enough skilled hands on stage to lighten the mood.

Even as the cast worked hard against its darker theme, the real trick, just like in a scripted musical, is using the songs to help propel the narrative. It is one thing to underscore a scene with a song, it is quite another to use those songs to keep the show’s story moving forward. The imperative is an integrated whole, and while there were a few glimmers on opening night, many of the musical numbers repeated what we had already heard.

Despite its repetition, the skill on stage is undeniable. Standouts in the ensemble included featured players Riley Qualtieri, Jennifer Pielak, and Katie Purych.  Qualtieri has the vocal chops, Pielak helped with story, and Purych lightened the mood. That isn’t to say that the rest of the ensemble were left behind, but it was hard to keep your eyes off the trio each time they took centre stage. Special kudos to Morgan Churla who helped to wrap things up with an unexpected ending, and Evan Thompson for his running joke of the night.

Given the variety of styles presented last night – everything from Sondheim to Andrew Lloyd Webber and gospel to jazz – it is apparent the Off Key Improv cast knows their musical stuff. Hopefully, as the show progresses through its short run, they find an opportunity to add a real showstopper to the more quiet numbers they seem to feel most comfortable with.

A big part of musical theatre is not just the dialogue and songs, but movement as well. It is said that “when the emotion becomes too strong for speech you sing; when it becomes too strong for song, you dance.” In BroadWHAT?! the dances are organically created by the cast, usually as a backdrop to a song. More emphasis and a tighter inclusion into the musical numbers would help.

The cast is helped immensely by three fine musicians: Bryron Abando on drums, Peter Abando on piano, and in an inspired and pleasant surprise, Katie Stewart on violin. Rarely overpowering the un-microphoned cast, the small band helped both guide some of the musical choices and adapted as required.  In the lighting booth, Jordan Boivin was on point to help set the mood, with his skills on display as actors often times found themselves having difficulty finding their light.

While not always successful in using song (and dance) to help its story on opening night, the fearlessness of this cast shines through.  That they create something new every night, with music no less, is hard to ignore.

BroadWHAT?! Directed by Eleanor Felton. Musical direction by Peter Abando. An Off Key Improv production on stage at Studio 1398 on Granville Island until June 19. Visit for tickets and information.

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