Review by Carly Fisher
Improvised musical theatre has become so popular it is almost a style of its own at this point. Though its bones borrow from the same familiar chords and phrases of musicals that we know and love, the form requires a completely unique blend of comedic and musical talents to execute well.
Shamilton is the latest offering from US comedy group Baby Wants Candy who are credited with being the original improvised musical theatre group. The company has performed around the world and received extensive awards and praise for its work. Shamilton takes their award winning formula and focuses each performance on a particular historical figure.
The show opens strong with just a hint of Hamilton to get musical theatre nerds like me totally excited. Unfortunately it is a long time before Hamilton is included too closely again so if you are coming because you’re a huge Hamilfan, I caution you that the show has virtually nothing to do with the Hamilton musical…just a clever, if not slightly clickbait, title to get your attention and to imply an hour of musical improv genius ahead about a singular historical figure.
I must admit, I was totally into this concept - as a history lover and being totally obsessed with musical theatre, this could not have been more up my alley! When the team onstage took to the audience for suggestions of historical figures, my session started strong with some fun options - Prince Andrew, to me, being the clear stand out for an hour of hilarity, but with multiple strong options to choose from. Unfortunately, just as the audience was about to vote, a last minute suggestion of Pikachu came through and won over the younger, louder members of the audience.
My own lack of pokemon knowledge aside, the disappointment here was that this, in my opinion, strayed from the premise of the show - pikachu, though a beloved character, is not a historical figure, and so, reviewing this show is complicated because the talent on stage was clearly exceptional but the show was incapable in the session I was at of delivering on its promise.
So, storyline aside, this show will always work and both excite and impress audiences, despite the topic, because the talent on stage is clear and the complexity of what they are achieving in every moment on stage is not lost on anyone in the audience. To make all of this up, on the spot, without ever missing a beat, is completely thrilling to watch.
Katy Berry was the unquestionable stand out on stage for me. Having participated in some basic improv myself, there was no question watching her that she is the type of team member that every improv troupe needs. She is quick, clever and unafraid to jump in as the leader when required. Berry cleverly incorporated Hamilton and musical theatre references at large into the show whenever possible, keeping the musical theatre fans amongst us onside as she went. Clearly having less pokemon knowledge than some of the others on stage, Berry was relatable too as she learned info about the characters and then adapted them to be digestible for the audience at large. It was incredibly interesting watching her brain work so quickly…she is a real asset to this team.
Nathan Jansen too, really stood out in the group as being quick witted and unafraid to prioritize a joke over all else. Though not as quick always as Berry, Jansen’s one liners were stellar and he offered the group an important foundation in being able to progress the story along whilst keeping the humour rolling.
Truly, as an ensemble in general, this group is so exceptionally strong and clearly comfortable with one another that undoubtedly different shows would best highlight different performers.
The resident band - the Shamiltones - made up of a pianist, Adrien Pellerin, on keyboard and a drummer, Kenny Miller, are truly exceptional. They keep the energy high, are just as quick and witty as the cast and impressively, when they are messed around with by the cast (eg. trying to unplug the keyboard, removing the cymbals from the drum, even stealing the drumsticks), not only do they not miss a beat, they perfectly remind the audience of just how spontaneous this all is by laughing along with us. They were a pleasure to watch and a total highlight of the show.
I won’t lie - it was a shame to get the topic that I got for this show because whilst I liked the performance, I can see I easily would have loved it if I’d been presented a historical figure as promoted…however, as an artist, watching shows like this is a lesson in ensemble work, in the strength of one’s imagination and a masterclass in this complicated form known as improv musical theatre. I look forward to seeing the troupe again asap.