A smarmy host, attention-deficient celebrity guests, an oftentimes inebriated and flustered public, and a flashing applause sign can only mean one thing: It's a game show!
Instead of a television studio, though, this particular contest takes place in the Bartell Theatre. The end result isn't entirely different. With The Game Show Show, WhoopDeDoo Productions and StageQ have teamed up to mix the oftentimes corny, surreal world of game shows with that oft-dreaded concept, audience participation, in a live theatrical work. What they've created is a thoroughly entertaining, mildly chaotic and lighthearted affair that's definitely meant for the more outgoing arts patron.
So-called interactive theatre is a hit-or-miss proposition. Ultimately, the success of shows in this vein hinges a great deal on how willing and competent the audience is when it comes to the direct involvement being asked of them. That's a scary enough idea to keep a lot of companies and potential audience members away, but the cast and crew of this particular romp proved themselves up to the task.
The audience members and contestants were good sports all around, too -- if sometimes a little slow on the uptake.
A sizeable crowd of theatergoers braved torrential rains and the threat of tornadoes Thursday evening to attend the opening of the play, conceived by Tony Reitano and Michael Bruno. Audience members were encouraged to show up early to apply for a slot as a contestant on the show, a process that involved taking a short quiz. Four civilians were chosen for the roles and, with the help of a panel of "celebrity" guests like Betty White (played with remarkable accuracy by Sarah Whelan) and two-out-of-three Jonas Brothers (Carver and Riley Campos) faced off in a game of Capitol Squares in order to win actual, honest-to-goodness prizes, like tickets to special events and several packs of batteries.
Capitol Squares turns out to be suspiciously similar to Hollywood Squares, but it's allowed to slide on account of not wanting anyone to get sued. The celebrity impersonations, on the other hand, are fair game -- though each night will feature one actual, local personality of a varying degree of repute.
And that's the premise of the play. It's literally a game show with some theatrics thrown in for good measure. Bruno started the night out by warming up the crowd with a sort of opening monologue, riffing on the people in attendance while handing out (sometimes hilariously age-inappropriate) door prizes. Once the "taping" got rolling the cast itself took over. They appeared to have been given some prearranged dialogue but mixed in a great deal of very respectable improvisation, since the format requires that everyone react to how the unpredictable civilians comport themselves.
As it turned out, a few of the contestants didn't seem to fully grasp the concept of tic-tac-toe, or couldn't remember celebrity names, or flat-out missed the heavy-handed cues given to them about right and wrong answers. Happily, those unexpected events tended to make things more interesting. And keeping the show glued together was the slick Willy of a host (played with great dedication to character by Patrick Fernan), who ably handled all of the bumps with a suitably smarmy quip or zinger, or sometimes just by not wearing pants.
A few of the jokes fell flat, and some of the transitions between the "live taping" and the commercials (for real places, it should be noted, that sponsored the show in some way) felt a little awkward. It's not an Emmy contender, sure, but the show's cumulative effect was the creation of a thoroughly fun event that kept its ticket holders totally engaged.
You'll want to be in the right mood to see The Game Show Show -- preferably a sociable and/or tipsy one -- but it's worth it. If nothing else, after all, you could walk away with a free pack of batteries.