The Ultimate Improv Challenge: Musical Comedy

The topic was chicken, the tone was lusty, and the tribute was to Mary Preston, a restaurant owner who happened to be in the Roosevelt Hotel's Cinegrill audience that night.

But what came out of these ingredients was not your average dish. It was a fully harmonized, country musical confection, verses and all, improvised on the spot, using suggestions from raucous audience members.

Performed by a group of four musician-actors, known as the Impromptones, this ballad was part of a 90-minute evening of spontaneous musical comedy. The group's four musician-actors mine every musical tradition they can think of, from jazz to Gregorian chants to rock opera - plus whatever the audience throws in, sewn together with the slightest of banter.

With its narrow focus on musical creation, this group is pushing the envelope of a discipline that has been popular for decades, the art of comedy improvisation.

"These guys have taken a niche of comedy improv and evolved it," comments Ed Carter, executive producer of the Big Stinkin' International Improv and Sketch Comedy Festival in Austin, Texas. He explains that many comedy improv groups use musical numbers in their routines, "but usually, they're not as skilled musicians as they are actors." All four of the Impromptones are equally skilled as actors and musicians, he points out. And they rely on their music to carry the show, not their acting.

The group performed at Mr. Carter's most recent festival in April. He says the four received a standing ovation from their peers.

The three singers, Jeff Davis, Joe Whyte, and James Thomas Bailey, work with pianist Michael Pollock. "It's the ultimate improv challenge," muses Mr. Bailey. He observes that making up lyrics is hard enough, but inventing and resolving three-part harmonies in a variety of musical styles at the same time is like performing the ultimate high-wire act. "People love to see us take this kind of risk, and they really love it when we succeed," he says.

Bailey laughs when he thinks of those "very rare!" times when a lyric or musical lick eludes the group, but he says, "We laugh at ourselves so the audience gets to join in on that, too."

Mr. Whyte says the group started out in improvisational comedy but wanted to take the work in a new direction. They decided that narrowing their focus to music would make them distinctive. Whyte says the choice is a perfect fit because they draw their improvisational spirit from jazz. "We're looking for the combination of pure form and pure freedom that comes out of the jazz tradition."

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