As the musical director of the hit improv comedy series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” for the past twenty years, Laura Hall has created funny musical moments on the spot on national television and on the show’s spinoff tours.
Now she’s returned to her performance roots in Chicago to assemble a troupe of actors called Phony Award Winning, who have an ambitious challenge: to learn classic Broadway musicals inside and out, and then improvise the plot and lyrical content based on each night’s audience suggestions.
Their latest show is “Improvised Little Shop of Horrors,” which they were presenting on Sunday nights at the iO Improv Olympic theater leading up to a December 17 closing performance. Yet the show has proven so popular, it’s been added to the New Year’s Eve slate of shows at the esteemed comedy venue.
“The idea for Phony Award Winning was conceived by me and my friend Lisa McQueen, who’s also a musical director that I’ve known since we started our careers in Chicago back in the eighties at Second City and the Annoyance,” says Hall. “We had each been gone a long time from the city’s improv scene and iO invited us to a meeting and asked us what would be our dream project to do, and we told them the concept and they went for it.”
The first Phony show was last season’s take on “Guys and Dolls,” and the dynamic duo decided to go for “Shop” as a big turn in another direction. The troupe’s adept vocal harmonizing comes to the fore in the doo-wop and R&B style of the classic show’s score.
The plot of “Shop” follows a hapless, nerdy florist shop worker named Seymour who raises a plant that feeds on human blood and flesh. He must contend with the plant’s ever-growing appetite (and size) as he also attempts to win the heart of a woman named Audrey, whose jerk boyfriend makes Seymour’s life hell.
That show debuted in New York City in 1982 as an Off-Off-Broadway show, but grew so popular that it became a hit on the Great White Way, and eventually a 1986 movie starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin. The improvised show takes a daringly different leap away from such star power.
“The show has a rotating cast, so there are no lead performers and the actors switch roles from week to week,” says Hall. “They often gender-bend the lead roles by having Seymour played by a woman actor and Audrey by a man, and they can decide whether they want to play the roles in a masculine or feminine way.
“We take the basic character tracks from the original show of a Seymour and an Audrey and the boyfriend plus a creature that turns into a giant, but the audience decides things like what kind of shop Seymour works in and what kind of giant. At the last show, the audience picked that he works in a tennis shoe store, and the monster lived in a shoebox that had a never-ending appetite for shoelaces.”
The creature in each show is “intentionally designed as an all-purpose green alien-ish giant puppet that can become anything.” The songs are completely improvised as R&B and doo-wop, but don’t incorporate any of the original lyrics outside of the opening number. Hall and McQueen alternate playing the piano for each performance.
While Hall still serves as a musical director on the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” tour, a live stage version of the TV series, she feels she’s really found her sweet spot with the Phony team.
“I feel like this work at the iO is me returning to the improv community in Chicago, and it’s definitely more fun coming back here with all the experience I have from ‘Whose Line?’ because that really sharpened my abilities,” says Hall. “I’m really enjoying working with the new talent coming up in Chicago. Doing this show is like a discovery of comic greats every week.”
Phony Award Winning performs at 7pm on Sundays through December 17 at the iO Theater, 1501 North Kingsbury. Tickets are $27.80 with fees. The show will also be performed at 8pm on New Year’s Eve. Tickets are $32.80 with fees. Call (312)300-3350 or visit ioimprov.com for tickets.