Best Musical | Live Review

And the nominees are: "It's All About My Nana," from the musical Haywire, "Dinky Donkey Song," from the musical Badlands, "I'm My Own Sugar Daddy," from You Gotta Dream Big, "I Have A Dream, But It's A Stupid One," from Shortbus and "No One Can Spoil This Investigation," from the musical Jon Benet. If you were in the audience this week for BEST MUSICAL!, an improvised musical and awards-show parody from Porchlight Music Theatre happening Wednesdays at Stage 773 through March 28, chances are you're grinning while reading this and perhaps even on the verge of laughing out loud. There are only two weeks left to see this show (although it will return in the fall) so make a reservation now.

The premise, based on a form perfected in New York over the last decade, is a juicy one. BEST MUSICAL! is divided into two halves (and my only complaint might be that it's nearly two hours long). In Act I, we're on the set of a Tonys-like award ceremonies called the Besties in which the nominees for Best Musical are being announced. Each of the five nominees proceeds to randomly pull a song title (submitted by audience members beforehand) out of a hat and perform the "nominated" number on the spot. At the end of the first half of the show, the audience then votes on their favorite number and that musical is performed in its entirety in Act II.

With lesser talent, a show this premise-specific could be a bust. But in the capable hands of creator and musical director Matthew Cohen (who deserves heaps of credit for his mastery of show tunes), director Amanda Blake Davis (Second City e.t.c.) and a stellar cast of six, BEST MUSICAL! is outrageous, uproarious and kinda brilliant. Even the most hardened audience member (and I don't think there were any when I saw it) would agree it exhibits remarkable polish and marvelous group mind. Not suprisingly, it received a standing ovation.

There are many reasons why it works. First and foremost, the specificity and attention to genre is magnificent. In the same way that Waiting for Guffman lampoons community theater, BEST MUSICAL! nails the shameless mugging and self-seriousness of awards shows. Cody Dove (Second City Improv All Stars) performs his share of heavy lifting as the master of ceremonies. He's terrific. Not only does he exude just the right amount of smarm, like when he degrades the nominees with lines like, "We have nowhere to go but horribly down," but he has the body language down pat. Watch the way he pivots on his heels and nimbly moves around the stage engaging audience members in witty banter along the way. He's all game-show host and it's beautiful.

The cast of nominees, including improvisers Brandon Dahlquist, Lauren Dowden, Erica Elam, Tim Sniffen and Matthew Van Colton, are equally impressive. Not only do they have the vocal cords and musical improv skills (many have performed with cult fixture Baby Wants Candy) to pull this off, but each is ruthlessly vain and self-congratulatory in a way so many awards recipients are.

What is most wonderful about BEST MUSICAL! is that as ridiculous as the song titles and the musicals they come from are, actual Broadway itself builds upon such outlandish narratives that there's something almost believable about a song titled, "No One Can Spoil This Investigation," from a musical called Jon Benet. Would any of us really find it that far-fetched if the story of the mysterious death of a child beauty queen ended up on the Great White Way? That by the way, was the audience favorite and became the basis for Act 2.

It was a perfect choice. Elam played Jon Benet Ramsey with Kewpie Doll perfection, uttering lines to her mom and dad like, "Mommy, your cigarettes smell like happiness!" Dowden and Van Colton, meanwhile, played the parents with icy perfection while Dahlquist portrayed a forgotten sibling and Sniffen rounded out the cast as the town reporter/investigator. It bodes well that the Ramsey case is a familiar one, allowing lots of insider references and  hilarious (and even chilling) one-liners like this one from Sniffen: "I remember you dragging her to her first pageant, her bones still hardening."

I could go on and on and on, but suffice it to say BEST MUSICAL! was the best improv show I've seen in a long time. Go see it.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)