Remember that time you forgot to do your homework and had to rapidly think of an excuse to tell your teacher or professor while they blankly stared at you for an explanation? For 85 minutes, that’s exactly what Broadway’s Next H!t Musical is—a constant scramble for ideas and storylines with a skill that would convince that teacher homework isn’t important.
An improvisational comedy show, BNHM straps you in for almost two hours of side-splitting laughter using scenes and storylines they have had no preparation for. That’s right; every single play has no script, no plot, no rules—anything goes in love and improv.
The play opened with emcee Brad Barton coming out on stage in a sort of stand-up comedy routine, telling some slightly amusing jokes about politics and the history of West Long Branch. I could tell by the delayed, unsettling laughter that most of the crowd, including myself, was apprehensive about what we had gotten ourselves into.
Barton then went on to explain the arrangement of the show. Before it began, audience members were asked to write down ideas for storylines on pieces of paper that could be used by the actors in their skits. This would be the basis for the fake competition going on throughout the production, “The Phony Awards.” Each actor would pick a slip of paper out of the large jar on stage and use whatever was written as the title for a “Broadway song” they would have to perform—the audience later deciding which of the four songs is deserving of the precious Phony Award.
The cast consisted of Deb Rabbai, Rob Schiffmann, Annie Schiffmann and Stefan Schick. All award-winning performers in their own right, they had an amazing chemistry on stage that only comes with years of practice and knowledge of the craft of improvisational comedy. They fed off each other, keeping the stories entertaining and making the audience—and even sometimes one another—laugh when it came to songs such as, “I Hate Passwords,” or “The Pope Only Loves Donald Trump.”
There is a rawness that comes with theatre—watching live people on stage performing lines in front of a living, breathing audience. And what’s astounding about BNHM is that there are no lines to memorize; each individual show has never been done before since the scenes are all created by that particular audience. These actors have only their improv skillset as their tools to work with when they step out in front of the crowd. Imagine performing Hamlet with a different script every night.
Although the songs were more for a comedic effect than a truly musical one, all four actors had great voices and an outstanding ability to keep a consistent melody, even when creating the words on the spot. Annie Schiffmann and Deb Rabbai produced sharp, clear sounds with pitches that could shatter glass, and Rob Schiffmann boasted a powerful and full voice. Schick did not quite match up to the vocal ability of his peers, but what he lacked in musical range he more than made up in wittiness and comedic prowess—being a vital component of multiple skits throughout the show.
All that being said, Rob Schiffmann put on a performance that truly stole the show. To be fair, he did receive the funniest topic, “The Pope Only Loves Donald Trump,” but his ability to deliver lines in an awkwardly-perfect way had the audience booming with laughter for every scene he appeared in. Also not to be forgotten was the musical ability of talented pianist Jody Shelton, who played the instrumentals to every song that was created.
When all the songs were performed, the audience had their chance to vote with applause which they enjoyed the most. To no one’s surprise, Schiffmann’s ballad about Donald Trump hypnotizing The Pope into supporting his campaign took home the Phony. Then, after a brief stint of Barton reading some audience suggestions that didn’t get picked, the actors came out and produced a condensed mini-play using the audience’s song as the anchor.
BNHM is truly a play for anyone who appreciates a good laugh. I am not an avid theatre-goer myself, but you don’t have to be to see this play, which is what makes it so attractive and down-to-earth. And for anyone who’s ever been put on the spot to think of an excuse or backstory, you’ll be amazed at how these artists can do it for almost two full hours. Like Schick said, “the ambiguity is the beauty,” and that couldn’t be truer for this show.