Chicago City Limits
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 24, 2007
Forget Young Frankenstein and Spamalot: the funniest musical I've seen lately is without a doubt "Jordan Gets a MacBook," which was invented right before the audience's eyes—based on the life of one its members, no less—by the always astonishing and faithfully hilarious denizens of Chicago City Limits. Now, you won't get to see this 20-minute mini-epic when you go to CCL's new show Without a Net, but you'll see something sort-of like it: a Broadway-style musical comedy improvised by four performers and their intrepid accompanist, on the spot, following a three-or-four minute conversation with a patron about some event that recently happened in his or her life. (Jordan talked about how he got a new MacBook with the Leopard O/S as an early Chanukah gift; this led to a truly inspired song in which Rob Schiffman, as Jordan, rhymed Leopard not only with "peppered" but also "shepherd," as well as a very funny scene in an Apple Store that featured a musical number that the Apple people may want to use for themselves.)
Great stuff, and I've only just started to scratch the surface of the excellent time had by all on the night I caught CCL's Without a Net. Regular cast members Schiffman, Annie Figenshu, and Joe De Gise II, along with understudies Sharon Fogarty and (at the piano) Ben Rauch, were totally on a roll: practically every sketch in this 90+% improvised show landed solidly on target. There was a game of Jeopardy (a long-running bit at CCL) whose contestants were Fogarty as a pregnant Romanian schoolteacher, De Gise as a counselor, and Figenshu as a phone sex operator (occupations all courtesy of audience suggestions, mind you); a one-act play about Orpheus's plan to fly to the sun performed in styles ranging from Shakespeare and Hip-Hop to Scorsese and Sex and the City; a deliciously convoluted group storytelling bit in which Fogarty played a lab technician who falls in love with Schiffman's miraculously straight-arrow gas station attendant; and of course the signature CCL finale, dubbed "Torture the Actor," in which one of the performers has to guess an uncommon phrase suggested by someone in the audience based only on clues provided, often charades-style, by her fellow CCL-ers. The phrase of this particular night: illegitimi non carborundum.
Maybe the highlight of the evening, though, was Schiffman's set, in which he chatted with folks in the audience and then composed and sang faux-folk songs about them. The results were an unexpected treat, I imagine, for the army accountant from Fort Bragg and the husband and wife from Atlanta who came in to see a show and left having become mini-celebrities for the evening as the subjects of Schiffman's clever ditties.
It amounted to a delightful, light-hearted evening, one of the best times I've ever had in my many visits to CCL. This company never lets us down: they provide smart, topical humor that never lapses into vulgarity and seldom even stoops to cheap laughs; they're inventive and fresh even within the confines of improv styles and games they've been working on and perfecting for, yes, decades; they're respectful of their audiences and genuinely seem to enjoy the challenge of entertaining us and each other for 90 fast-moving minutes.
Strike or no strike, they're one of the few sure things in the Theatre District, and that's saying a lot when the subject is comedy improv. Kudos to artistic director Paul Zuckerman for keeping this franchise at peak form for more than a decade.