Review: Jason Kravits Standing Room Only at Birdland Theater For OFF THE TOP!

Improvisational musical comedy show a true original.

By: Mar. 28, 2023
Review: Jason Kravits Standing Room Only at Birdland Theater For OFF THE TOP!
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I didn't sit at my usual table at Birdland last night. Usually, the club generously saves me a seat from which I can take photos for my reviews, but last night I had a cold and a cough and I didn't want to be That Guy sitting in the middle of Birdland Theater disrupting the show with a cough in the time of Covid-consciousness. So I asked the staff if I might have a seat somewhere more discreet, and I found myself happily and comfortably at a hightop at the back of the club by the sound booth. There, with my mask, my handkerchief, and a row of Ricola, I was able to watch not one but two different shows, each of them mightily wonderful.

My assignment for the night was the wildly popular show by Jason Kravits titled OFF The TOP!, which the television actor and Broadway alum has been doing for eight years, to growing acclaim (so popular that last night's show had a waitlist). I had heard how incredible the musical improv show was but had never seen it, and this was to be my first exposure to the series, one that always features a guest artist of note, on hand to participate in the in-real-time creation of hilarious songs inspired by suggestions from the audience (gathered in a fish bowl pre-show). I had heard, but I wasn't prepared. I didn't have a full picture in my head of what Jason Kravits does during an episode of OFF The TOP!, and that is the first show I want to talk about in this review.

Review: Jason Kravits Standing Room Only at Birdland Theater For OFF THE TOP!

For some reason, I thought Jason Kravits was going to come out onstage as Jason Kravits and talk to the audience, walking them through the improvisation of songs based on their suggestions. I envisioned a kind of magician, playing with the crowd and performing acts of prestidigitation with words and music, as he talked with them about their day and the trick he was about to perform. The magic was real. But there was no Jason Kravits. Instead, there was a man named Benjamin Riverside from Oklahoma City - a character created through audience suggestions just before guest artist Julie Benko introduced him to the stage. From the moment Broadway's breakout star of 2022 said, "Welcome to the stage Benjamin Riverside" to the curtain call, the proceedings belonged to this fictional character, there to regale the audience with the absurd tale of his search for self and success during a cross-country trip to New York City where he landed one of the most bizarre acting jobs ever to be described, detailed, or discussed. And like some marvelous person in a Norman Lear sitcom, Benjamin Riverside was outrageous, original, and off the top of Jason Kravits' head.

Reaching, repeatedly, into the fishbowl of suggestions, Mr. Kravits used these audience suggestions as fodder for the story of Benjamin Riverside and, more importantly, he used them to build thirteen brand new songs with titles like "The Cheese Stands Alone" and "I'll Put It In The Suitcase But First It Has To Be Steamed" - in fact, it was only twelve songs because Kravits hilariously aborted the number "If You've Got It, Flaunt It" after a three minute monologue about what the song was about. The bit, indeed the entire show, was comedy worthy of the great cabaret entertainers of the Nineteen Sixties West Village and Borscht Belt, serving up laughs and surprises at every turn. Conversations with the patrons in the front row led to songs like "The Paver's Song" which told the story of Benjamin Riverside's father's vocation, and the pinnacle of the entire evening was when Benjamin Riverside did some of every song from the musical "The Lazy Man Works The Hardest" - all of the songs taken off of one fishbowl card and developed in rapid succession, right before our very eyes. And Kravits never faltered. He didnt blink, he didn't break a sweat, he just took the titles and ran with them. Well, there may have been an instance or two when a suggestion from a card made Kravits scoff slightly, but he still made it work, as any prudent improv artist would.

Review: Jason Kravits Standing Room Only at Birdland Theater For OFF THE TOP!

Two factors of OFF The TOP! that are particularly worth mentioning are (Number One) the fact that Jason Kravits is able to create songs reminiscent of composers we all already know. Particular creations last night were songs designed to say to the audience Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Sondheim, Billy Joel. And it wasn't vague or misrepresentational: the style of the famous composers was palpable. One of the pastiche numbers was an Elton John Disney type of song that included two special guests, and that is Number Two on the short list of special mentions, here. Julie Benko was billed as Jason Kravits' special guest for his 8:30 show, but it turns out Julie was upstairs on the Birdland Mainstage, performing with her husband, Jason Yeager, whose septet was playing at 7 pm. So when the Jason Yeager Septet had completed their show, the newest darlings of the cabaret and concert industry simply walked downstairs and walked onstage: two for the price of one. With Mr. Yeager at the piano and Kravits and Benko side by side at the mics (she with a clarinet in her hand), the threesome created a number from a fictionalized Disney musical in which Benjamin Riverside played Mendel the Menorah and Julie Benko played Disney's first-ever Jewish American Princess, Yentebarbra. It wasn't just hilarious - it was Hi-Ho-Effing-Larious. And, ps, the song sounded like an Elton John song. The whole program last night was the kind that makes people talk about laughing til their sides and face hurt. And that's where we segue into the second wonderful show I saw at Birdland Theater, from my seat at the back of the room.

It isn't easy to take your eyes off of Jason Kravits when he is working, but it is advisable. With the right vantage point, if you look away from the stage during an installment of OFF The TOP!, if you look at the audience, you'll see a thing of beauty. Last night, Birdland Theater was filled with joy. It was filled with people who were engaged. It was filled with people who were in on the joke, participating by raising their votives into the air during a comedy ballad, engaging with one another through shared glances, mutual laughter, and group shock at Jason Kravits' insane talent. People weren't looking at their phones, they weren't talking through the show (which happens a lot during a musical cabaret), they weren't checking their watches. Three times the audience joined in on songs, singing along with Benjamin Riverside on a song that was being improvised in the moment. Jason Kravits had everyone in the palm of his hand, and they were happy there. (Incidentally, from so far back one can also see and appreciate how hard working and stealthy the Birdland hospitality staff are - they are an impressive lot of service artists.) When Jason Kravits got to the end of his show, circling his story back to one perfectly pointed plotline front he very beginning of the show, he created a fishbowl-suggested song (the title of which cannot be printed here) that had the entire room singing, like the end of a rock concert or a movie where everything turned out alright at the end. It was more than impressive, it was memorable. From start to finish, last night's presentation of OFF The TOP! was proof positive that Jason Kravits has built something worth his efforts - something that makes people happy... after making them wonder how the heck he does it. But it doesn't matter how Jason Kravits does it - all that matters is that he keeps doing it.

The OFF The TOP! band is Musical Director Phil Orr on piano, Michael O'Brien on bass, and Sean Dixon on percussion.

Visit the Jason Kravits website HERE and the OFF The TOP! website HERE.

Find great shows to see on the Birdland website HERE.

THIS is the Julie Benko website and HERE is the Jason Yeager website.


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