The Second City sextet gives us Something to celebrate.
SOMETHING WICKED AWESOME THIS WAY COMES... written and performed by Rob Baker, Dale Boyer, Adam Cawley, Caitlin Howden, Inessa Frantowski and Kris Siddiqi, directed by Chris Earle. Presented by the Second City (51 Mercer). Indefinite run. $24-$29. 416-343-0011. See Listings. Rating: NNNNN
Why have I been so harsh in my reviews of recent Second City shows, while other critics - many of whom hardly ever see any other live comedy - have showered them with praise? Clearly I've been waiting for when Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes. And it has.
That's the name of SC Toronto's 66th revue, the most consistently funny show I've seen the troupe do in years. Great cast. Sharp writing. Impeccable direction. It's no surprise that writer/director/actor Chris Earle is at the helm. He's got a theatrical eye, edgy sense of humour and knows which topical references will capture the zeitgeist yet also remain classic. I can see many of this revue's sketches included in future best-of compilations.
The show begins by putting us on our guard - literally - as the six-member cast, outfitted like G20 police officers, prowl around the audience, surrounding tables and grunting contradictory statements to sniff out possible subversives. The scene's payoff - an audience member is "arrested" then promptly released from custody amidst "Free [insert name of audience member]" signs - defines the term comic relief.
Mindful of the demographics of their core audience, the troupe has over the years attempted many sketches about ambivalent parents, but none succeeds as well as one about a young couple (Adam Cawley and Dale Boyer) who decide to permanently dump their children on friends (Rob Baker and newcomer Inessa Frantowski). What begins as a simple, cute premise gradually becomes a darkly funny look at shattered dreams.
For sheer fun, there's no beating two terrific sketches in the first act, one involving two Facebook friends (Caitlin Howden and Cawley) who accidentally and awkwardly meet up in person, the other involving an annoying iPhone user (Cawley) on his way to a business conference. Both involve technology, but Earle and the cast make sure we get a feel for the characters and the setting.
Two other sketches show just how much the digital landscape has changed our lives. Kris Siddiqi plays a son still mourning the death of his father, whose funeral was hampered by a tragic mishap. When his friends (Cawley and Baker) visit and tell him that a video of the accident was caught on YouTube, it's a classic case of comedy being tragedy plus time. When the scene is revisited near the end of the second act, it's even funnier.
And the act one closer, a sort of love triangle played out in a nightclub that's straight out of Donkey Kong, integrates video game technology into the structure of the show as playfully as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.
There's a terrific sense of physicality in that scene, with the cast members making use of every inch of Camellia Koo's set. This happens again in a clever sequence set in space, as a Canadian astronaut (Sidiqqi) literally gets his American and Russian colleagues high. And one of the best scenes involves Frantowski and Baker playing ex-lovers who meet awkwardly in a café, trying to convince themselves that they're still not attracted to each other. This could play in any language and be just as funny.
Besides the opening bit, the other political sketches include Boyer as a smugly sincere cabinet minister fielding questions about the environment (painfully funny because it hits so close to home), the other a no-they-didn't scene about two friends (Baker and Cawley) who debate the situation in Israel. I'm still amazed that the cast made it work: thoughtful, serious yet funny as hell.
Music director Matthew Reid's work enhances each scene, most notably in Howden's number where she sings a song that - I don't want to ruin the surprise here - sends up just how banal pop music has become. Like the other sketches, the bit starts somewhere and builds to something unexpected.
This sketch is reprised near the end, in a glorious callback of many of the best sketches, including the opening one. To go from chuckles to laughs to fear in 20 seconds? That's simply brilliant.