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Improv so smooth, you'll ask if it's scripted

June 30, 2010

For those wanting a good laugh, "CHiPS the Musical" has plenty. I've seen few shows as sharp as this one, and all the praise must go to the Troubadour Theater Company. A talented ensemble of actors, comedians and musicians, the Troubies, as they like to call themselves, have been performing on Southern California's stages for 15 years. Some of their most recent work pokes fun at everyone from Stevie Wonder ("It's a Stevie Wonderful Life") to Shakespeare ("Hamlet, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince of Denmark"). This time around, they chose a campy TV show from the 1970s, which proved to be great fodder for improvisation.

Not five minutes into the lavish opening number "We Are CHiPS," Officer John Baker (Matt Walker, who also directed) pointed to a few disruptive latecomers and jumped in to an impromptu rendition of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain." Before long, everyone in attendance clapped and joined in. I'm still uncertain if this was part of some elaborate ruse orchestrated by Walker, or just an impeccably timed bit of improvisation. Perhaps I wasn't alone in asking myself, "Was that scripted?"

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When we're introduced to John and his partner "Ponch" (Rick Batalla, who co-wrote the show with Henry Phillips), we notice they don't resemble their TV namesakes, except for the tight uniforms. But they can sing, and belted out numbers like "Sexual Tension," "Frankly Frankie" and "Seven Mary Three," with about as much pizzazz as one can expect from a couple of retired TV sex symbols. Did I mention that a live rock band inside a prison cage backed them? It was difficult to trump the onstage antics of John and Ponch, but the guitar heavy sounds of Phillips and company came pretty close.

Between all the musical numbers and improvisation, there was even a story (although a thin one). John and Ponch must stop a radical group of environmental terrorists called Gang Green. The group is led by a synthetic albino named KG (Beth Kennedy), who looks a lot like David Bowie, and intends to wreak havoc on a pollution-happy restaurant owner named Jim (the hilarious Joel McCrary). Can John and Ponch stop Gang Green from further destruction? Well, they'll have to travel through someone's living room, on top of a roller coaster, even outer space before they get there. Who said motorcycles were built only for the highway?

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