The first time was the charm. Last season's smash at Center Stage, "The Second City Does Baltimore," enjoyed the element of surprise as it skewered a lot of those quaint little quirks that make us so, well, skewer-able.
If the sequel doesn't feel quite as novel, "The Second City: Charmed and Dangerous," which has settled into the theater for another long run, still holds up well.
It doesn't feel like a package of leftovers. The writers — Ed Furman and Tim Sniffen (he performed in "The Second City Does Baltimore") — spent time in our midst over the summer to gather fresh inspiration, and they've inserted plenty of up-to-date references to people, places and things.
Also, as before, there's a likable cast, though the actors are a little suppler in scripted segments than in improvised ones.
Director Matt Hovde keeps the pacing taut enough to prevent clunkier moments, among them some surprisingly weak jabs at the Grand Prix, from dragging things down. And, judging by the night I attended, the improv is kept on a much tighter leash than in last winter's show, which also helps with the flow.
There's a colorful new set (from the always reliable Daniel Ettinger) that suggests one of Baltimore's less trendy blocks, and several workable songs (Matthew Loren Cohen is the fine pianist and music director).
"Charmed and Dangerous" is framed by a smidgen of plot involving an artist who paints a mural of Baltimore. That device borders on the corny at times (the last thing you'd ever expect from Second City), but it does provide a welcome touch of structure.
Not that audiences come to a production like this seeking a smooth theatrical arc. The joke's the thing.
The best gags hit us where it hurts — the city that gets perpetually left off of national weather maps, that can't quite get a grip on crime, that still experiences awkward relations between the races. Not to mention the city that cares about only one war (hint: its bicentennial is coming up).
Some of us will never tire of poking fun at the pretenses of Baltimore's tonier folks, and those bits, including one about a farmers' market addict, provoke good laughs. It's nice to see the targets spread a little beyond the Beltway. Columbia, where a chain restaurant "is as romantic as it gets," comes in for a particularly satisfying whack.
Speaking of food, Brooke Breit (a former Center Stage intern) shines in a portrayal of a West Virginia transplant who has developed a likin' for crabs, and an exceedingly personalized way of consuming them.
A Tom Kiefaber figure makes a disruptive entrance, as you would expect from a Tom Kiefaber figure. You just knew that the copyrighted "hon" nonsense would get another round of pummeling. It does — literally, you might say.
There also had to be mention of a dearly departed icon, but the William Donald Schaefer sketch is a stretch; an up-in-heaven-with-St.-Peter routine doesn't cut it. A skit about our enterprising transvestites feels just lazy. And while a nod to Fluid Movement, Baltimore's aquatic exotica, starts off promisingly, the humor drains quickly.
On the flip side, a routine about the first name "Johns" (out-of-towners sure find that perplexing) opens in belabored fashion, only to segue into some of the brightest, most biting material of the show, aimed at a certain monolithic hospital with an insatiable appetite for city property.
As in "The Second City Does Baltimore," there's a considerable amount of generic, could-fit-any-locale comedy. Some of that material really crackles, including a hilarious gag about why people smoke. Aside from a Hampden-style fashion statement, a stand-up/audience-participation segment with a pseudo-psychic could be set anywhere, but it would still be funny because Chelsea Devantez is a natural at it.
A rambunctious musical act with built-in improv showcases another dynamic cast member, Lili-Anne Brown, as a lead singer determined to find a man, while Breit and Devantez provide raucous backup.
The male half of the ensemble — Ryan Archibald, Cody Dove, Ric Walker — also does engaging work throughout "Charmed and Dangerous," a show that ultimately delivers with more pluses than minuses. Sort of like Baltimore.
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