Baby Wants Candy
nytheatre.com review by Shelley Molad
January 10, 2011
As I was browsing through show titles to review this week, I was struck by one particular title: Baby Wants Candy. (Babies and Candy are two things I love, so, naturally, my eye went to this title.) As I read the description for this show, I was struck again: An improvised musical? I couldn't wait to check out an evening of impromptu musical theatre—what seemed to me like the ultimate theatrical paradox.
Here's how it works: At the start of every show, the performers ask the audience members to suggest the title of a never-been-done musical. Past titles include "Hanukkah Bloody Hanukkah," "Puke and Rally," "I'm the Only Black Person in This Room," "Love on the F Train," and "John Wilkes Books and His Magical Talking Tooth." (The possibilities are endless.) As announced at the start of the show, every performance is its own opening and closing night, so none of what I write will spoil the show you decide to check out—and I insist you do.
My audience members seemed to have summoned up a title prior to the show because a group of guys immediately shouted, "Zombie Nuclear Bombs!" I thought to myself, Oh dear, how are they going to pull that off? But the artists eagerly accepted and before I knew it half of them were standing with their arms stretched out in front of them doing a zombie-like dance. Meanwhile the band had already begun playing the opening song.
I couldn't believe these gifted performers, which include A-list comedians and notable Broadway and TV actors, came up with such clever lyrics on the spot. Of course at times it was more obvious than others, such as when Rebecca Drysdale used the church windows on stage (the set of another play being put on at Soho Playhouse) to inform a song in which she advised Nicole Parker how to hold on to her man. But the lyrics were witty and resulted in a duet that was familiar and fun. For the most part, the performers took care of one another, as it should be in improv. Meaning, they knew when to stop a scene that wasn't going anywhere or fill in where there were holes or break out into song where it was called for. As soon as an improvised scene got heated, or the stakes were high enough, the live band—who were wonderful and comprised of Jody Shelton as musical director, Steve Jabas on guitar, Johnny Pisano on bass and Al Veteri on drums—started playing as if to cue the performers that it was time for a song. After all, song is a heightened form of expression and when the characters sing in a musical it's because they have no choice but to sing.
I realized throughout the night that the whole notion of an impromptu musical isn't so impromptu after all because the form itself is so recognizable. The trick to making "Zombie Nuclear Bomb," or any randomly selected musical title, work is to make the show appealing by creating storylines that are mundane, yet universal, and put the characters in really heightened circumstances. For instance, Nicole Parker started the show off by begging Peter Gwinn to propose: With zombies threatening the world, why not commit now? Rebecca Drysdale introduced her new zombie boyfriend to her dad and begged him to accept their differences. Jeff Hiller played a gay teenage boy whose perfectly planned prom night was ruined by the Zombie attack—but this was his chance to claim the dream title of Prom Queen. Sound cheesy? It is. But these guys have no problem admitting this, and it was their commitment to every song and circumstance that made the whole show so entertaining.
Parker stood out from the bunch and that was before I learned that she played Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and had a recurring role on MADtv. She comes off as a traditional music theatre actress but also surprises with great comic chops.
The only thing that vexed me, momentarily, was Gwinn's random riff on Will Smith. I felt like I didn't know enough current gossip about Will Smith to get the jokes, but as I was thinking this, Hiller walked across the stage in zombie form calling out "Social commentary, social commentary, social commentary," as well as "Change the subject, change the subject." The audience laughed. But Gwinn wouldn't drop the Will Smith bit, so Michael Kayne, another standout, finally broke out into the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song and everyone started free styling at the Zombie Prom, which was priceless.
I recommend Baby Wants Candy to anyone who loves or detests musicals. You can laugh at how formulaic musicals are or just enjoy the fact that these guys can act and sing and are pretty damn funny.