Charm City gets Second City treatment

Let's face it. Baltimore is ripe for satirizing. We've probably got more offbeat people, more distinctive edifices, more colorful history and habits per block than any metropolitan area in the country. Oh yeah, and some crime.

The folks at Second City Theatricals, a wing of the venerable Chicago-based Second City enterprise, burrowed earlier this season into our little world, with all of its carefully demarcated neighborhoods. The material they gathered from the experience has been fashioned into a customized show that has settled into Center Stage for a long, no doubt profitable, run.

"The Second City Does Baltimore" may be a little long for its own good, and may hit some obvious targets in, well, obvious ways, but there is an awful lot of fresh and very funny stuff here.

You may well find yourself trying to recreate some of the skits for unsuspecting friends and families afterward. Personally, I'd love to get all the words to the parody of "Sunrise, Sunset," here a dirge for a certain Baltimore daily paper ever so slightly smaller than it once was, so I could teach them to my colleagues in the newsroom.

Another ditty, performed a la Andrews Sisters, recounts Baltimore's mayoral history in likewise clever, amusing fashion (some of us relative newcomers can, I trust, be forgiven for not knowing the city once had Republicans running city hall — gee, these Second City guys sure did their homework).

Naturally, a certain Baltimore-based cop show turns up for a grilling. Let's just say that "'The Wire': The Musical" is everything you might expect, and quite a bit more. Adding to the fun is how it gets introduced into the show by Megan Wilkins, doing a delicious parody of Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis ("I'm from New York so I'll do it my way").

A skit that owes something to Garrison Keillor's "Guy Noir" segments on "A Prairie Home Companion" is loaded with potential. This largely improvised routine involves picking an audience member to participate. The cast lucked out the night I attended, with a remarkably ready, willing, even hammy victim.

There is a devastating assault on the Stepford-like husbands and wives of Ruxton (I think I know where the Second City shopped to rub shoulders with those types). Niccole Thurman does a sensational job as a singer at a certain eco-friendly establishment; her "Whale Song" could stir up things in the Atlantic.

The show manages to be very up to the minute, with references to the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and to a certain Hampden woman who has trademarked a common expression.

A few attempts at Baltimore accents are more or less successful. One understandable slip: Pronouncing Lombard Street the West Coast way.

The kinetic, amiable cast, directed by Matt Hovde, also includes Warren Johnson (he's got an extra dash of comic star potential), Brett Lyons, Dana Quercioli and Tim Sniffen. None of them can sing with much more than enthusiasm, but they put over the songs effectively. The top-notch pianist is musical director Joe Drennan.

Jennifer Stearns' cutely detailed scenic design could have future use in high-school productions of "Hairspray."

Not surprisingly, the show is at its strongest when its sticks to a script (several routines could work in any locale). The periodic gear-switching into improvisational comedy is, of course, less predictable.

On Wednesday, things really dragged during a tacked-on spot that involved cast members interviewing Ed Norris, our disgraced former police commissioner who did jail time, and then doing improv based on what they pick up from that conversation. (Other local celebs are slated to participate in these "Walk-On Wednesdays" during the run.)

The biggest problem with this portion was its placement as a kind of encore. It would be much better to put it at the top of the second act, so the rest of the show could proceed smoothly and divertingly to the nicely done finale. Nothing wrong with structure and pacing, you know, even in a comic outing.

If you go

"The Second City Does Baltimore" runs through Feb. 20 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. $10 to $45. Call 410-332-0033 or go to