Club Review: “Broadway’s Next Hit Musical”

July 19, 2022 | By

You know that gothic musical, Haunted Garden, and its brooding lament that’s been done to death: The Pavement Grows Flowers While Our Garden Is Empty? It’s a chestnut in the American Songbook. 

Cue record scratch.

Um—no, you don’t know it. It’s never been heard before and you’ll never hear it again—it existed in an instant at 54 Below on July 13, 2022 and disappeared back into the proverbial mist. Like Brigadoon.

Rob Schiffmann and Deb Rabbai

Music improv is a tricky thing to do well, but, trust me, you won’t be disappointed when you see Broadway’s Next Hit Musical with artistic directors Rob Schiffmann and Deb Rabbai at the helm. Bringing silly to this polished, professional level takes years of work and hundreds of hours on stage. Clever structure, snappy pacing, and the performers’ responsive minds create a solid ground where they can throw themselves, often bodily, into risk and spontaneity. Kid-like playful humor holds hands with adorably snarky theatre references. Music director and pianist Gary Adler ably lays the groundwork for each musical style. The audience is welcomed as collaborators, generating a fishbowl full of fictional song titles and invited into a few key moments of the creative process—and we’re responsible for choosing which made-up song and show title will be developed into a mini-musical in the second half. The audience is also told they will be blamed when things go wrong, which only seems fair. Emcee Greg Triggs throws a fair amount of hilarious shade in general, reserving the serious stuff for the stellar cast— Schiffmann, Rabbai, Mallory Kinney, and Pat Swearingen. It’s done much the way you’d harass your siblings at a family reunion—because you love them and want to point out their quirks before anyone else does.

Everyone showed up in the first half. We had a small-ego-ed Putin who was excited to take his shirt off and ride a horse, a Zelensky who was accidentally half-Borat, and a hunchback…but a timely satire about fundamentalist religion ultimately won the audience’s vote for what to feature in the second half.

As an interlude, guest performer Missa Thompson took her chances with our fishbowl of terrible song ideas and sang “No More Birds, Please” from Tuppence, A Dead Bird. As if Hitchcock directed Mary Poppins. Adler set her up with a contemporary musical theatre power ballad on piano, and she blew the roof off with vocal power.

To develop the powerful new musical, Abstin-lutely with its catchy gospel hit “Man’s Rejection Is God’s Protection,” Rob Schiffman valiantly searched his memory on the fly for the words that would express the approximate dates of the Salem Witch Trials, and when it came out a little pear-shaped, the new show was obligingly re-set in the 1800s with random Southern accents. Adler gave us a stirring overture quoting the newly-minted hit, as well as “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Son of A Preacher Man.” And lo, something vaguely inspired by The Crucible was entertainingly reborn feet-first, with establishing scenes leading into showtunes including “Stick to the Path (Or You’ll Feel His Wrath),” and “May the Lord Allow Me to Touch You.” I mean, really. Ultimately, love and freedom won, I’m happy to report.

The cast can really sing, even busting out three-part harmonies. And the improvised songs rhyme, have stories, continuity, and memorable choruses. The fact that they spontaneously spring to life before our eyes seems almost impossible.

I loved it. “Broadway’s Next Hit Musical is full of heart; so goofy and so smart.” That’s a lyric from the show I Hope You Get an Off-Broadway Run and Celebrities See It, And Then You Have a Limited Series on Showtime.

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Presented at 54 Below on July 13, 2022. 

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

From Canada, Penelope Thomas came to NY to study dance with Merce Cunningham; then through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, she wound up back in singing and acting. Credits include lead vocals with FauveMuseum on two albums and live at Symphony Space, singing back-up for Bistro Awards director Shellen Lubin at the Metropolitan Room, reading poet Ann Carson’s work at the Whitney, and touring North America and Europe with Mikel Rouse’s The End of Cinematics. In Toronto, she studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and cello with the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and in New York she studied music theory with Mark Wade. She's taught in the New School’s Sweat musical theatre intensive and taught dance in public schools and conservatories.

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