(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Thanks to multiple podcasts, television shows, and hard-working local theaters, improv comedy has become more popular than ever in recent years.
But what place is there, in the world of off-the-cuff comedy, for children? Or, more importantly, for dogs?
The answer to that can be found in “What’s the Story, Steve?,” a family-friendly improv show that is a collaboration between Move Your Tale (a group that offers classes, camps, and shows for “families and youth with an interest in storytelling, improvisation, and performance”) and ColdTowne Theater, where it plays every Saturday morning.
The star of the show, Steve Scott, is an adorable poodle whose inner monologue is shared via backstage microphone in a free-flowing hour of improv emceed by Steve’s human, Kristin Henn.
The scene-stealers here are the kids in the audience who play an active and vital role in helping the improvisers (a talented and hilarious troupe, including seasoned performers Adam Oestrich, Drew Wesely, Becca Wilson, Conor Sullivan, and Bonnie Oh) create freewheeling comedic skits based on their suggestions and involvement.
This proves to be delightful for both the adults and the children in the audience. The former can appreciate the sly jokes and meta-commentary inserted by the performers (nothing inappropriate, but still over the heads of the young ones), while the kids enjoy the pure surrealist delight of adults acting according to their instructions. If there’s anything kids love more than grown-ups acting silly, it’s grown-ups acting silly in a way that they’re told to by children. Add in a talking dog, and what’s there for a kid not to love?
Every performance of “What’s the Story, Steve?” is obviously different from the last, but Henn starts each show by explaining to the audience what improv is, and letting them in on the joke that we’ll get to hear what Steve is thinking. She also tells the kids that they’ll have a chance to participate in the show, and to be kind and gentle to Steve when they do.
Some of the kids who volunteer end up being quite shy, while others love to ham it up, and Henn and the cast are experts at dealing with both personality types. They are also phenomenally talented at picking up on the kids’ cues without question, and especially without talking down to them, so that every contribution is valued and honored.
The show ends with a giant dance party featuring the cast and the kids, so that even the shyest of children can take part in the fun if they want to.
By engaging in the time-honored tradition of taking kids seriously, while still recognizing their own senses of humor, the cast of “What’s the Story, Steve?” creates an endearing show that is sure to amuse parents/guardians and kids alike.
“What’s the Story, Steve?” plays Saturdays at 10 a.m. Tickets are pay-what-you-want with a $3-$5 suggested donation. coldtownetheater.com