Theater

Empire Revue Still Going Strong

One of Providence's most enduring, inexpensive and entertaining shows

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Sunday night, traditionally, marks the saddest time of the weekend. The fun is behind you; the work-week stretches before you. The stress hangs overhead like a black cloud, while the unfeeling E! Network broadcasts an endless parade of Kardashians mocking your lifestyle. Into this seeming abyss comes the Empire Revue. Featuring rockin’ music, sketch comedy and specialty acts, the variety show at AS220 – staged the first Sunday of every month – will buck you up and send you off to face your week with renewed vigor. It might buoy your mood for the rest of the month, as well.

I speak from experience, having enjoyed the December “Holiday Extravaganza” and January “Hangover” shows. The bar at AS220, adjacent to the performance space, was packed well beforehand on both nights, with a boisterous crowd sipping drinks, standing in line for tickets and appreciating the pre-show antics of the revue’s comedy troupe, the Sparkling Beatniks. Once the audience was seated, the Superchief Trio (the self-proclaimed "largest trio in RI," boasting five members) set the mood with a swinging opening theme song. Poets, burlesque dancers, stand-up comedians and singers took the stage between original skits by the Beatniks and music by the Trio. By the time the cast sang the closing number with the lyrics, “Get up, get out,” none of the audience wanted to leave.

The concept for the revue sprang from a discussion between director and host Keith Munslow (who also tickles the ivories with the Superchief Trio) and AS220’s artistic director, Umberto Crenca. Munslow took the helm and developed a program with curated guest acts (rather than an open mic format), an in-house comedy troupe and his group as the house band. Now in its sixth year, the revue has grown into a large-scale, highly collaborative effort. The production incorporates a monthly theme, recurring characters, running gags, original music and material and a diversity of acts. And while there’s a vintage feel to it at times, it’s experimental, too. Munslow says audiences can expect to see “a fast paced, funny variety show with a definite edge. If we were on TV, we’d be aired late night.”

The revue’s talented creative team includes the Sparkling Beatniks (Melissa Bowler, Hannah Devine, Eric Fulford, Richard Goulis, Kate Lohman, Steve Lynch and Stuart Wilson), the Superchief Trio (Pam Murray, John Cote, Tom Ferraro and Steve Bigelow) and stage manager Nicky Mariani. The core performers rehearse just four times in the month leading up to the show – brainstorming ideas, writing sketches, composing comic songs and parodies and creating eight to ten original pieces. To keep the show moving at a rapid clip, guest acts are limited to five minutes and most sketches to three. This also serves to keep the audience on its toes.

“There is a strong sense of community connected to the revue, shared by cast and audience alike,” notes Munslow. “We pride ourselves on our relationship with the audience. We’re always looking for new ways to involve them in the show, be it with our participatory pre-shows or as volunteers for guest acts, sketches or sing-alongs. Regulars have a real sense of ownership of the show.” That sense of community and inclusive party atmosphere contribute to the show’s popularity – and potential to sell out. So get there early for the next edition, on February 5, which boasts a theme of “Love and Traffic” and the disclaimer “not an SVU episode.”

I was delighted to find the revue funnier, bawdier and more polished than ever these past few months. Particular highlights were Beatniks Melissa Bowler and Stuart Wilson’s power ballad about one night stands, Erminio Pinque’s (of Big Nazo) hauntingly hilarious puppetry with a chicken, and a side-splitting rou- tine by local comic Tim Vargulish. Each line-up was unique, each evening memorable. I found myself repeating the jokes (poorly) for weeks afterwards. It’s the kind of light-hearted, high-spirited production that proves, at least on the first Sunday of the month, that there is hope for the rest of the week.

Empire Revue runs the first Sunday of every month at 8pm at AS220. Tickets are $8.