Bear right

I Eat Pandas has the musical-improv goods

GOOD EATERS McMurray, Skinner and Ploeger, from left.

GOOD EATERS McMurray, Skinner and Ploeger, from left.

Like a good rock radio station and a Democratic mayor, a true-blue musical-improv troupe is needed in New York. Okay, various members of The Next Big Broadway Musical reunite sporadically, Chicago’s Baby Wants Candy visits a few times a year and Freestyle Love Supreme improvises rap, which is technically music. But we want more—as evidenced by the fact that those three play to packed and delighted houses every time they take the stage.

“Musical improv is a lot of work for something that will never get you on a sitcom,” says Eliza Skinner, one third of I Eat Pandas, a group that formed in 2004 (to compete in a three-person-team improv tournament), continued to build steam and now has a run at Under St. Marks on Monday nights. In other words, a lot of people venture into the genre, yet don’t stick with it long enough to build a following. “But it’s something I can’t help putting this much work into,” she continues. “It’s one of the few things I can say I’m really good at.”

The show’s program claims that the cast can do in 25 minutes what it takes Andrew Lloyd Webber years to do—“crap out a musical.” Their excretions are far from waste. On keyboard, Travis Ploeger creates textured and varied tunes, while Skinner and Glennis McMurray layer them with rich characters, strong relationships and spot-on harmony—plus, they can really sing. In addition to gushing adoration from the audience, that combination recently won them (while performing with friends) the title of East Coast Champion in the annual Cagematch competition. They head to the Chicago Improv Festival in April to defend their title.

“I’m in a much better mood now than when I walked in the door,” a young man was overheard saying, exiting the tiny basement theater after a recent performance. Will Hines, who’d opened that show with a set of stand-up jokes, echoes the sentiment, “I like watching the crowd during their shows because, more and more, people just start smiling.” It’s because we like musical improv. And we like the way I Eat Pandas does it: Go see them before they decide it’s too much work.

I Eat Pandas performs Monday nights. See listings.