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The Second City Does Baltimore

Jan 07, 2011 12:25AM ● Published by Anonymous

Second City has a national reputation. If you are making a visit to Chicago, it’s one of those “must dos” when compiling a list of theatrical performances to include in your visit. But rather than being a particular show, or a place, or a group of specific actors; Second City is a theater company that has multiple shows and ensemble groups performing comedy reviews and musical stage productions with names like Rod Blagojevich Superstar! and Barack Stars. At the heart of it all, is improvisation, because Second City was founded in 1959 on the concept that original sketches that dealt with topical issues, when paired with original lyrics sung to familiar tunes, would entertain audiences night after night. They’ve been very successful at it. The launching ground for a bevy of performers that include the names John and Jim Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Candy, and George Wendt—who then went on to perform in Saturday Night Live and a host of sitcoms and movies that are still being replayed and enjoyed decades later—Second City Theatricals is now a multi-faceted corporation.

Now they have arrived in Baltimore with a show being performed in Centerstage’s Head Theater which runs through Sunday February 20th. The name of the show is The Second City Does Baltimore. The location, a cabaret style setting, is perfect for the show that relies on the talents of six actors— Warren Johnson, Brett Lyons, Dana Quercioli, Tim Sniffen, Niccole Thurman, and Megan Wilkins, accompanied by musical director and pianist Joe Drennan. Written by Megan Grano and T. J. Shanoff and directed by Matt Hoyde, the show fuses musical numbers and prepared skits specific to Baltimore that are combined with generic skits and improvised sketches based on words provided by the audience, and body poses that are selected by one of the members of the ensemble.

The best parts of the show are the improvisations. My favorite, the one that seemed to really have the audience howling with laughter, was the standard device of using a hackneyed private eye to tell a story, or in this case an author typing his mystery novel and reading it aloud while a randomly selected member of the audience reenacted the role of the “private dick”— who went by the name of Jim (the real name of the audience participant) and went in pursuit of a missing “car stereo” (an item called out by the audience). Also worthy of mention were several of the musical numbers. Particularly clever was the farewell to the Baltimore Sun, performed to the tune of “Sunrise Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, complete with the aging parents extolling the past virtues of their son or is it sun? As the daily newspaper continues to shrink, will the hometown newspaper for Baltimore become the Washington Post? With a little more research the writers could have mentioned there was once a Morning Sun and an Evening Sun (many subscribers used to read both newspapers) and there was also the News American that folded in May of 1986.

“ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was a wonderful song to use for recounting the exploits and performances of past Baltimore mayors, and who would not want to lament the departure of the Baltimore Colts in the stealth of night to Indianapolis in 1984. But the writers’ knowledge of Baltimore wears thin because how much can you really learn about a city in one week, which is all the time they had to collect material to start creating their script?

Wednesday nights, Baltimore celebrities join the ensemble as guests to be interviewed, which will then provide fodder for related improvisations. But what happens when the guests themselves are recent transplants from other cities. Such was the case last night with former police commissioner and radio show host Ed Norris, who moved to Baltimore 10 years ago from New York. Norris had some great stories to share, particularly related to police work, but they did not add any “Baltimore” inspiration to the skits that followed. Looking at the list of upcoming guests, I’m surprised there weren’t more natives or longer-term residents on it. Special guest Marin Alsop, scheduled for January 26th, came to head the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007, and artist and musician Dan Deacon, scheduled for February 9th, moved to Baltimore in 2004, but as every performance is unique, it is hard to predict what will be said and what will be created. That is part of the fun of live theater, particularly live improvisation of the caliber provided by Second City.

I can’t close this review without giving special recognition to the Scenic Designer, Jennifer Stearns. What a wonderful rendition of Baltimore row houses with their formstone decoration, complete with painted screens, graces the stage. Lesley Boeckman designed the lighting and Amy C. Wedel was the sound designer. For more information on upcoming performances call 410-332-0033 or visit the Centerstage website at www.centerstage.org.

Nadja Maril has to confess that she was born in Baltimore and so were her parents, although now she lives in Annapolis, Maryland.

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