Showstopper: the glorious joy of creating musical theatre
by DREW ROWSOME
A cast of master improvisers were forced to improvise further when the sets and props for Showstopper were detained at customs. A bare stage and minimal effects reduced the song-and-dancers to only their wits and talent. Fortunately they were up to the challenge and if they can be this entertaining under adverse conditions, they are sure to be spectacular when in their comfort zone. Thought it can't be too comfortable at the best of times, every word, lyric, melody and dance move is made up on the spot.
And therein lies a quandary for this review. It was a preview to begin with and not only did I see a show that was missing key elements, but the show will be different every night for the rest of the run. So I'm not going to review, other than to state emphatically that I laughed heartily many times and left humming several non-existent show tunes, but instead offer some of the many thoughts that wound up ricocheting through my head.
The cast and musicians are uniformly outstanding and were having such a good time that it was infectious. Not only were they were working to entertain the audience, but they seemed to take great joy in cracking each other up. And therein lies one of the major appeals of Showstopper. A musical that is set, and it usually has to be to keep all the multiple moving parts from colliding and collapsing, has been repeated many times. Sometimes many, many times. These performers get a fresh show every night. And it is a show that they create. The ecstasy on their faces when a gag locks into place, a plot point makes sense, or a harmony comes together, is ecstatic for an audience.
The framework of Showstopper is that the cast and musicians are creating a musical for a producer "Cameron" (presumably referring to Cameron Mackintosh who is famous for creating the mega-musical and many of the clichés that Showstopper lampoons) who is never seen but checks in by phone. Suggestions are solicited from the audience and from there the musical begins. Here again the creators of Showstopper are very clever. One of the more famous, and certainly most involving, musical theatre tropes is the backstage musical or the "let's put on a show" musical. And in this case, the audience participates and are in on the creative process.
Anyone who has ever sung along to a musical or imagined dancing on stage - and I'm pretty sure that is almost everyone, that is one of the vicarious thrills of a musical - is instantly, intensely involved. Before the lights go down, there is a soundtrack mashing up snippets from famous musicals: before the cast hits the stage, the audience is already singing along. And having suggestions subliminally placed in their heads.
Documentaries and behind-the-scenes observing of the creative and rehearsal processes are time-honoured fascinations that Showstopper gleefully exploits. Watching the performers subtly cue each other to keep a song together rhythmically or to anticipate lyrics, or noticing the arpeggio that the keyboard player uses to cue a modulation, is an insider joy that is only outclassed by the wink in a performer's eye, or a double take, that signals, "Can you believe I pulled that off?" The audience becomes co-conspirators in the very best way. And what would be a mediocre musical if rehearsed and delivered, becomes a brilliant creation we have created.
And therein lies another way that Showstopper lures the audience to investing their hearts into the show. There is an old circus trick where an acrobat flubs an attempt at a reputedly very difficult part of their act. They are encouraged to try again and the audience is right there with them, willing them to be able to perform this death-defying feat. When they do, it is glorious, a releasing relief. In their own way the cast of Showstopper steps onto a high wire every night. But any mis-step does not result in a plunge to certain death, it creates comedy. And the audience becomes even more involved in seeing if they can actually complete their death-defying task.
At the preview the audience suggestions (and yes everyone was aware we were being subtly steered) resulted in the musical being set in a 7-Eleven in Scarborough and entitled Slurpee! The audience burst into guffaws every time Scarborough was mentioned so the comedy portion was, a bit smarmily, taken care of. From there is was a matter of satirizing musical theatre clichés (though surprisingly no jazz hands. Too obvious?) and delving into theatrical tropes. And that they did very well. And we all left laughing, humming formerly non-existent show tunes, and wanting to see what Showstopper is like with a full production and different driving directives. Like a 7-Eleven Slurpee or a trip to Scarborough, it's hard to settle for just once.
Showstopper runs until Sun, June 25 at the Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St. mirvish.com