Comedy on Shuffle: “iMusical” mixes song and improv

Whether you’re in the mood for comedic improv or musical theater, “iMusical” will not disappoint you. Judging by the graphic on the show’s promotional items, the show borrows the idea of an iPod on shuffle: you never know what you’re going to get. “iMusical” blends singing and improvisational comedy to achieve a cohesive plot, as opposed to improvising a series of sketches.

When you arrive at the intimate Mead Theatre Lab, you are handed a scene suggestion card along with your ticket. The card requests that you write down a creative scene and place it in a fishbowl on the stage before the show begins. During the director’s introduction, he draws a card from the fishbowl and reads it aloud to be the actors’ only instructions for how the rest of the show will play out. From that point on, “iMusical” continues uninterrupted, and the audience can laugh as a never-before-seen show is created right before their eyes.

Each show is different, but the performance I saw involved the plot of a city health inspector closing a restaurant for vermin problems (an audience member’s card suggestion) twisted with a baby factory disguised as a camp for pregnant teens. In the opening scene, the actor playing the health inspector improvised a song with the refrain “I’ve got a job to do.” In the next scene, the baby collector repeats the line “I’ve got a job to do” to set up the parallel plots until they intertwine – the restaurant ended up selling baby meat. The absurd renderings of this plot progressed surprisingly coherently because the actors create imaginative and amusing songs to move toward a finale. However, don’t expect all the loose ends to tie together at the end of the show – I’m still wondering what happened to the pregnant teen’s parents from scene two.

The director and pianist, Travis Ploeger, is a veteran of “Chicago City Limits” in New York City and invents new songs and melodies on the spot to match the scenes the actors create on stage. In an interview, Ploeger said that each actor has the responsibility to work with the material as best they can to develop characters and scenes with the information that is generated at the beginning of the show. Ploeger said, “With improv, you can’t edit.”

When Ploeger was asked about the cast of eight and their theater experience, he commented that most of them had a stronger background in improv than music. Finding talented performers who could do comedic improv and sing can be challenging, but Ploeger said that actors just have to commit time and energy to the training. After the rehearsals the group has had together, and with Ploeger’s brilliant musical direction during the performance, the actors produce what Ploeger calls “legitimate songs.” The “legitimate songs” sound as if they are scripted because the words are funny and the actors sing in sync once they establish a chorus.

Some of the performers’ improv abilities were weak, and they were were upstaged by others. While many of the actors were hilarious and convincing, a couple were obviously nervous and looked as if they were trying too hard. Most of the actors had incredible singing voices, but a couple of the guys fell flat. However, intentional or not, the occasional wrong note oftentimes ended up aiding in the comedy.

Ploeger aptly described the actors’ spontaneous interactions during the performance: “If I believe in your character, I’m going to like your song.” Not every part of the improvised narrative made sense, but the characters were funny and the musical component enhanced the silliness. “iMusical” is unpredictable – a creative new take on musical theater.

“iMusical” will be at The Mead Theatre Lab at 916 G Street, N.W., from Thursday to Oct. 29. Tickets are $15 and can be ordered from the show’s Web site, iMusical.org.

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