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article imageReview: Second City/Toronto Symphony show mixes music, comedy into gold Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Dec 1, 2014 in Entertainment
Toronto - Classical music and madcap comedy may sound like a strange mix, but they do have a longstanding relationship with each other. Remember those great Bugs Bunny cartoons that introduced you to Rossini, Wagner and Strauss? Remember Victor Borge?
So a collaborative show between two of Toronto’s best-loved local cultural institutions, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) and Second City (SC), should be a near-perfect marriage. And I’m happy to report that it was. Led by TSO Music Director Peter Oundjian and director Chris Earle – along with host Colin Mochrie and a cast of amazingly talented SC veterans including Matt Baram, Marty Adams and Ashley Botting – The Second City Guide to the Symphony was something of a magical experience, a work of sheer beauty and bliss for anyone who appreciates both art forms. It was both a wonderful concert and the funniest SC revue I’ve seen since 2009’s 0% Down, 100% Screwed.
The only real problem with the show was that it ran for only two days – an evening performance on Saturday and a matinee yesterday. Why? I certainly hope they’ll bring it back at some point (during the TSO’s next season, perhaps), so that I’m not just raving and recommending a show that nobody will have a chance to see again.
From an early scene about Gustav Mahler (Baram) working in an advertising agency, to a brief 2001: A Space Odyssey parody in which an audience member was chosen to mimic the movements of three prehistoric apes (Baram, Kevin Vidal, Allison Price) accompanied by Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, Guide was full of brilliant sketches rivaling the comedy company’s best recent work. They not only worked great as stand-alone comedy – they also made spectacular use of the world-class orchestra sitting behind them. There's nothing like hearing the world's greatest music played live in a great concert venue like Roy Thomson Hall, and the TSO provided the loftiest score you can imagine for a sketch revue.
It’s hard to isolate highlights from the show when there were so many of them. Adams performed a brilliant, Bon Jovi-style rock ballad about the hardcore sex appeal of the “motherf--king flute”, calling it the “instrument shaped like a sex toy.” He and Vidal later performed a hilarious “Bach-Off” – a rap battle between two of Johann Sebastian Bach’s many sons, competing in order to win a composing post in Hamburg. Price provided a witty song about having love affairs with different orchestra members, trying to “find a player with the finest piece of brass.”
Another great moment involved the cast turning the audience itself into the orchestra – segmenting different seating areas into sections to stomp, snap, clap or sing, in order to conduct brief snippets of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout”. There was also a bit that combined both comedic and musical improvisation by members of both teams, although the reticent audience member at the show I attended didn’t provide much of a story.
There were even a few interludes of pure music, without comedy, as the TSO performed the overtures from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila. It gave the cast members a couple of breaks, while reminding you that this was still a symphony concert – probably to appease older, regular TSO-goers who may have been taken aback by the crudity and rude language of the comedy scenes.
Most SC revues – indeed, most sketch-comedy revues in general – are hit-and-miss affairs, but this one had far more hit than miss. Only a few scenes didn’t really work, such as a musical number about overzealous TSO ushers barring latecomers from entry, which I found too long and heavy-handed, and a lightweight opening bit featuring the cast as sportscasters introducing Oundjian and the orchestra, which didn’t hit the target as strongly as it could have. These were exceptions in a refreshingly consistent show.
But one emotional highlight was a late song performed by Carly Heffernan, playing a concert-goer singing to her husband (Baram) about how the TSO’s music made her forget the troubles of her life. Although the scene wasn’t especially funny, I found it unexpectedly cathartic. Intentionally or not, the lyrics really nailed something that comedy and music have in common: both can make you temporarily forget the worries and frustrations of real life. They take different approaches, of course: music will sweep you away into a separate world with its beauty, while comedy can make you see the absurdities and contradictions in all the things that you otherwise take seriously. But mix them together, and it's no wonder that musical comedies have remained a staple of popular theatre, from Anything Goes to The Book of Mormon.
In addition to Oundjian, Mochrie, Earle, the players and the orchestra, laurels must also go to co-writers Heffernan, Scott Montgomery and Klaus Schuller for a script so full of wit, sauciness and surprising musical knowledge, as well as to SC Musical Director Matthew Reid, for contributing original music that somehow held its own alongside familiar works by the old masters. And it’s also worth noting that, believe it or not, this cast could sing.
The Second City Guide to the Symphony was a wonderful experience. I wish you could have been there too. (Unless, of course, you were one of the lucky few who did catch it.) Cross your fingers that they’ll remount it in 2015, because it’s the best thing Second City has done in years.
More about Classical music, Comedy, toronto symphony orchestra, tso, Second City
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