‘Broadway’s Next Hit Musical’ at Hylton Performing Arts Center

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Cue the bright lights. Quick witted, theatrically smart, and skillful  improv artistry took to the stage of the gleaming Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas bringing good cheer to the full-house audience in the 1100 seat Merchant Hall. It was opening night for the Hylton Center’s 5th season with the on-the-spot invented songs and theatrics from the Broadway’s Next Hit Musical troupe.

Broadway's Next Hit Musical
Photo courtesy of Hylton Performing Arts Center

The evening was chockfull of soft-edged, PG-rated humor, usually briskly invented songs and musical-tinged mini-plays, with physical movement and pratfalls, gag props backed up by a well -played piano. This was last Saturday evening’s performance of the New York City-based comic comedy, Broadway’s Next Hit Musical.

With a six member cast on the Hylton stage, Broadway’s Next Hit Musical brought to life its motto: “Every song is fresh. Every scene is new. Every night is different. It’s all improvised and it’s all funny.”

So, how did they do that? Well, before the performance as the audience arrived in the Hylton foyer, they were asked to write suggestions for song titles and place them into a centrally located “job jar.” Members of the improv troupe were mingling with the crowd and coxing them to write down their ideas for songs. Not an exact title of an actual song, but an idea for one. Then as a job-jar was filled with little slips of paper it was time for the audience to get to their seats and the performance began.

An emcee warmed up the audience. He explained that they were not at the Tony Awards, but at the “Phonies.” Throughout the show he kept things moving along at a brisk pace. Four performers each took a turn at digging into the job jar to find a slip of paper to read a song title idea. Each in turn then launched into a dreamed-up song with an invented back-story to go along. As expected with improv, some songs took a moment to conjure while others moved more efficiently. Some struck pay dirt and others, well less so. It was open air musical comedy sausage-making.

All the songs were accompanied, if not really propelled forward, by a sharply played piano. The pianist (a talented Eric March) was like a great point guard on a well practiced professional basketball team. He feed the performers the ball and they took from there. The four separate song skirts took about 10 minutes apiece. The audience the winner of the night’s “Phonies” through clapping and shouts  to decide a winner of the night’s “Phonies.” The cast then took the winning number and developed a mini-musical comedy mash-up production of about 30 minutes. It often had the lively chaotic, full-speed ahead land of Jonathan Winters and Robin Williams.

Broadway’s Next Hit Musical included Rob Gorden as a dead-pan, mocking warm-up act, and far-from august Emcee. He introduced each of the performers each in turn. He was the opposite of Ed Sullivan, if that cultural reference still has a ringing bell to it. The performers were Robert Z. Grant, Katie Hammond, Deb Rabbai, and Jeff Scherer.

Grant found himself with this title, “My Boy Friend Fell off the Roof and is Now in the Gutter.” He riffed into Medieval Paris with various accents and injured legs using his height to advantage. Hammond took on the “Suicide Blond” and added a “pocketful of poison” as she found the floor and rolled about. Rabbai, the most skilled and thoughtful of the cast, found herself with “A Rope and Hope.” She turned the phrase into a gleeful bit on airplane travel in the current times. In her other theatrical work she is a voice for animated features and voice-over work. It showed. Schere made up a ditty from the suggested title, “48 Years with Mom” riffing himself into an old guy of 70 who is the “Harley Motorcycle Man” needing to get away from his wife and unctuous granddaughter.

As each performer made-up a song, the other cast members sauntered in from the wings to become set pieces and animated human props. They could be little kids as airplanes with arms stretched-out like wings, or a human carpet rolling on the floor. The choreography ran a wide gamut with a highlight the mimicked moves of M.C. Hammer from decades ago.

The evening could feel stretched and long at times. Each skit was the same length of chronological time, but some seemed way longer than others and overstayed. Never life-less the production, as at any improv performance, had its ups and down. The final “full-production” mini-musical seemed as if the cast worked hard to find an appropriate ending. There were not lots of “right-now” contemporary cultural references. Perhaps the cast members self-censured themselves in what they thought would be winners for the audience. Not that there is anything wrong with that. That is only your reviewer’s guess.

Cast of 'Broadway's Next Hit Musical'
Cast of ‘Broadway’s Next Hit Musical.’ Photo by James Shubinski.

Overall Broadway’s Next Hit Musical was pleasantly conjured bits-and-pieces reminiscent of the old Carol Burnett Comedy Hour television show, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show and the early days of the DC-based Capitol Steps. Hats off to the troupe for its homework as they brought Manassas-centric references whenever they could.

Finally, enough praise cannot be given to those behind the building of the Hylton Performing Arts Center. The Hylton’s main performance space, the 1,123 seat Merchant Hall, is described in marketing material as a most “elegantly styled opera house” where audience members have “an intimate experience.” This is not hyperbole. The seating is comfortable plush seats with impressive acoustics and a terrific looking three tiers of balconies. Driving distances are always a strange calculation. The Hylton is about 30 miles west on I-66 from DC. There is plenty of free-parking.

All-in-all, Broadway’s Next Hit Musical was a cute-concept production with its share of good humor. It was a one-and-done as the troupe heads off next to its next venues. One can only speculate what songs titles other audiences will suggest. But, your reviewer does wonder what a midnight show at some downstairs club or dive might bring. Hmmm.

Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.

Broadway’s Next Musical played for one night only on Saturday, September 20, 2014 at Hylton Performing Arts Center-10960 George Mason Circle, in Manassas, VA. For future events at The Hylton Performance Arts Center, go to their performance calendar

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