With everything going on in the world these days, heaven knows we all need some good laughs. Thanks to Florida Studio Theatre’s ninth annual Sarasota Improv Festival, Sarasota audiences just had a weekend of them.
Twenty-two improv groups from all over, with some close to home, entertained in a plethora of performances July 13-15. And while one needs more free time (and stamina) than I had to attend them all, I’m sure there were plenty of improv aficionados who got their money’s worth by seeing every show.
For me, Saturday night was back-to-back improv with three troupes. The first was led by well-known improviser Joe Bill, who teamed with “Friends” including David Christopher, Erin Goldsmith, Ali Reed, Stacey Smith, Mike Carr and FST’s own Will Luera, who proudly announced that the group had never played together before launching into a musical created at an audience member’s suggestion of the word “canary.” That led, naturally enough, perhaps, to a 40-minute show set in a coal mine.
The improvisers became miners swinging picks and then, eventually, such pairs as a former high school quarterback (Bill) and his ex-cheerleader girlfriend; another consisting of evil schemers trying to keep the miners trapped underground; and an inexplicably British duo (Goldsmith and Carr) doing a bit about eating a sausage. Goldsmith also scored when she became a replacement canary, talking in a birdlike voice and using her arms as wings, and another where she became, however improbably, a drill bit used to bore a hole to reach the miners below.
Along the way keyboardist Mike Descoteaux led the group on songs ranging from “Every Scar Tells a Story” to “Hold That Shaft” to “Caught Between You and a Eunuch” (Luera got to play that luckless fellow). Fast and fun.
Descoteaux, who serves as artistic director of ImprovBoston, was up next with that ensemble, consisting of Sara Burns, Deana Criess, Matthew Fear and again, Luera. Here the approach was to debate about something you normally wouldn’t debate about—in this case, at audience suggestion, types of hats. Various hat stories surfaced, including one about a graduation mortarboard; another involving a very negative version of marriage therapy; a drunken cowboy; and an Uber driver whose transport is his horse. Also tied in here: a nod to regional Tonys and community theater that kept Criess’ voice soaring ever higher and higher on a really big number.
Finally, the festival’s headliner took the stage at the Gompertz Theatre. Blank! The Musical has played off-Broadway, and, although each performance is both opening and, sadly, closing night for a new musical, the one staged here is something you’d probably be happy to pay to see in New York.
Again, audience suggestions start things off, leading to a musical improbably called Pimp Daddy Cobb, with song titles shouted out, such as “Salad’s on Me,” “Polkatella,” and “Bang Bang Long Time.” Musical notes for the show’s theme (B, F, C, G), a dramatic line of dialogue (“No more avocado!”), a dance number (the Flaccid Periscope) and a musical style (jazz) are all thrown at the company, too. And they respond with a 70-minute show about a drought causing potato famine in Idaho, a moblike business guy named Danny Pokatelli, a couple working their way from best friends to true love, and a cow named Bessie.
It’s often hysterically funny, but what’s amazing about it is that, as again led by Mike Descoteaux (with Hunter Brown on drums), the music here often sounds like it could really be from a Broadway musical, whether it’s the anthemic “Look Ahead,” the blazing “Salad’s on Me” or the upbeat “No Phones, No Fun.” And the songs work to provide some of the same emotions that you expect from a Broadway show, too, amply aided by energetic and clever choreography (how much of that is planned ahead and how much on the fly is anyone’s guess) and some really strong musical theater voices.
This year’s fest may be over, but ImprovBoston is hanging around for two shows this coming weekend, July 21 and 22. And of course FST Improv performs every Saturday night at the Bowne Theatre on the FST campus. For more info about both, call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.