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The Gist podcast with Mike Pesca
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You’ve surely seen Jason Kravits before, and often enough that you may be surprised at where you’ll be able to see him this Saturday night.

Mr. Kravits is one of those Everyman actors who are all over television in supporting roles, and when he’s not on TV he might be on a Broadway or Off Broadway stage. Even if you haven’t absorbed the name, you know the face — “Oh, yeah, that guy,” you might say if he were pointed out to you.

Well, that guy, despite the steady supply of decent-paying jobs, can also be found now and again in the intimate performance space upstairs at the Duplex in Greenwich Village, working a small crowd in a hilarious show he calls “Off the Top!” that is best described as improv cabaret.

“I think I just wanted to do something scary,” Mr. Kravits, 50, said over lunch this week, describing how the cabaret show came about. “At a certain point you want to do something that you don’t have in your vest pocket.”

“Off the Top!,” which he has been honing for a year and a half, starts out with a variation on a time-honored improvisational gimmick, suggestions from the audience. Before Mr. Kravits takes the stage, audience members fill out a questionnaire with entries like “A Place,” “A Thing,” “A Short Phrase,” “Words to Live By” and “The Last Text Message You Sent or Received.”

The questionnaires go into a bowl, and Mr. Kravits spends the show pulling one after another out, using what’s written there to tell a musical biographical story of a character he’s inventing on the spot. The improvising begins even before he comes out, with an M.C. bestowing a name and hometown on the fictional character based on call-outs from the audience. Mr. Kravits, who is generally backed by a three-piece band, takes it from there.

“I’m really telling the life story of the most famous person you’ve never heard of,” he explained.

But the show isn’t merely a string of improvised gags. It’s also a serial homage to various cabaret and Broadway stylings. Mr. Kravits might channel Frank Sinatra for a number or two, or come up with a song that Stephen Sondheim could have written while sleep-deprived.

“I really started digging into the format of a song, what makes a song work,” Mr. Kravits said of his preparation. “And also what makes a cabaret work.”

Mr. Kravits does a fair amount of theater — he was in the “Encores!” revisiting of “The Golden Apple” last month at City Center, the original Broadway cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” and more — and he’ll sometimes bring a theater friend onstage to help his character along. He once dragooned Alexander Gemignani, who has played Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables,” into doing a song called “Sometimes You’re the Pigeon, Sometimes You’re the Statue,” a title taken off one of those questionnaires.

Improv has always been part of Mr. Kravits’s résumé, but he’s far better known for traditional character-actor sorts of roles on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” “The Practice” (where he had a long run as the assistant district attorney Richard Bay) and many others. He has that kind of face.

“If you look at my credits in television, you’re going to see a lot of doctors and lawyers and a few psychiatrists,” he said. “But,” he clarified in self-deprecating fashion, “a range of lawyers.”

Saturday’s show is the last before he has a run in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at the Muny in St. Louis (a theater with about 11,000 more seats than the Duplex Cabaret), and then takes “Off the Top!” to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland this summer. If improvising an entire show off questionnaires full of place names and such filled out by Americans is challenging, doing so in Edinburgh is going to be downright frightening.

“I’m thinking about it already,” Mr. Kravits said. “I’m studying up on Scotland.”

Jason Kravits

January 28, 2016 | By Gerry Geddes 

 

Jason Kravits is one of those good, reliable television character actors whose name might escape you, but whose face has you saying, “Oh yeah, that’s the long-suffering district attorney from The Practice,” or “I remember that guy from Grey’s Anatomy” or from one of the seemingly endless list of shows on which he has co-starred or guest-starred. Once you see him command the stage at the Duplex in his brilliantly funny improvisational musical comedy show, “Off the Top!,” this will no longer be a problem. Trust me, you will remember his name.

 

Even before the show begins, the audience is asked to participate by filling out slips of paper on each table, entering a place, an adjective, a phrase, some words to live by, and the most recent text on their cell phone. The papers are collected and put into a fishbowl that is then placed on the piano. The answers that were jotted down will give Kravits the building blocks for a smart, hilarious, surprising, and unique evening centered around a fictional character that is conjured out of three simple questions asked of the audience by his pianist. The answers to those questions give us a first- and last name and a hometown. From then on we’re flying with him and we don’t touch down for an hour.

 

The star of the night I attended turned out to be one Ray Holmwood from Tallahassee, a down-on-his-luck singer/actor trying to break into the big time in NYC by doing a cabaret at the Duplex after failing to make it in theatre. I don’t really have to worry about spoilers here, as might be the case with other comedy shows, because each show is different since it’s fueled by the contemporaneous answers of the audience. The set-up is nothing new for improv comedy, but the dexterity and consistency of the delivery and the sheer number of levels on which the show operates (and succeeds) sets it apart from other endeavors—in fact, it is downright dazzling.

Whether he’s managing to make a tasteless suggestion like “booger” palatable in a song (the pun is definitely intended), or delivering a stirring ode to Melbourne, Australia, or dueting (and tapdancing) with special guest Robert Creighton (called up from the audience as one of Ray’s nightclub cronies from Florida), he hits all of the traditional improv targets dead center. But he’s after much, much more. When he takes on Stephen Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown, his musical commentary is on the money as well, revealing the partially clay feet of these revered masters. I don’t think I will be able to listen to “Stars and the Moon” again without remembering Kravits’s syrupy sweet rendition of a touching high school love ballad called “Remember the Alamo,” set up as Ray’s big number from a failed Brown workshop. Jazz and R&B also come under the scalpel as the night goes on.

 

Here, and throughout the evening, the remarkable backing trio not only supports the star’s improv, but also contributes quite a bit of its own; kudos to drummer Sean Dixon, bassist Jeff Kerestes, and, especially, pianist Jody Shelton.

 

As things progress, it becomes apparent that Kravits is working on another level as well. He is gently, but pointedly, commenting on the entire process of creating a cabaret show. In fact, one of the biggest laughs of the night comes in a quick dissertation on stage directions when performing in a cabaret room. That one I won’t spoil, but the audience roared.

 

I have not laughed as much, or as heartily, in a cabaret in a very long time. I cannot recommend Jason Kravits highly enough. He will be back on The Duplex stage next month creating a whole new world of delights on the spot. I plan to be there.

 

Jason Kravits – King of Music Improv at 54 Below

I first met Jason Kravits at a party. Well, not exactly… Wait. Let’s back up.

 

I often play catchup on TV programs and movies, sometimes coming to them years after the fanfare has died. For example, the TV show “The Practice” was pretty big in the late 90’s to mid 2000’s - not for me. I came to it years later at a time when I was doing a lot of running around. It became my show to watch on cell phone in-between other life tasks.

 

One of the characters on this series was an annoying district attorney ((Richard Bay) who always commanded the screen. He was such a strong ‘character’ that I really noticed him and looked forward to his storyline.

 

CUT TO:

Completely disconnected: New York’s a cool town. We have amazing celebrities that you can find walking on stage at silly little variety shows on small stages. For example, one night I saw, rather randomly, EGOT winner Robert Lopez on stage with Tony winner Michael Cerveris and a bunch of other kooky celebs and unknowns jamming it up in Bleeker streets “(le) poisson rouge” basement.

 

At this show, there was one guy there that really stood out. Hysterically quick and funny.

 

HARD SWIPE LEFT TO:

One year later. I’m walking into a party (remember how this article started? yeah… the party.) putting my phone away from watching another “Practice” episode. I’m introduced to Jason Kravits as “That Guy” who was so funny at last years show… and Oh (I think you know what’s coming), he’s on my freaking phone right now as a very serious actor in a major TV series. The two personas seemed so disconnected that I had trouble believing it was the same guy.

 

SCREAMING FAST FORWARD TO:

So a little while back I was invited to see Jason’s one-man show at 54 Below. Without much knowledge of what to expect, I had no hesitation going. I already know that this guy can pretty much kill at anything he touches (that’s the good kill, not the bad one - let’s keep our slang in check).

Last week, he did the show again, so take this as a review of both shows.

 

Simply put, this guy is brilliant. The audience is asked to write random keywords and sentences on scraps of paper before the show. Then as the show progresses, he keeps pulling them out of the bowl, weaving stories and songs on-the-spot, along with his wonderful musicians who follow along.

 

Lets get this straight. I’ve seen many people get up on stages and perform musical improv. Heck, there was a major Off-Broadway show this winter based on doing just that. But Mr. Kravits simply takes it to a new level. His lyrics are so clever, and so complex (not just simple rhymes) that you find yourself forgetting that it’s being made up in the moment. These are songs that someone else might have spent many laborious months crafting. Plus, he does this all while simultaneously concocting melodies and keeping tempo. Plus, he’s a Broadway veteran (“The Drowsy Chaperone” and more), with a voice that's really top-notch.

 

THE BOTTOM LINE:
If you ever get the chance to see Jason Kravits perform. Grab it. He’s a fantastic dramatic actor (his IMDB lists over 70 productions) but seeing him perform comedy is just magic. And if you’re the musical-theater type, he’s got that too.

I hear he even dances, you really got to hate people like that. - by Evan Seplow

     Alvin Gleeb from Savannah was how Jason Kravits hit the stage at the Duplex on Friday last. The name and location came from shout outs from the audience. We knew the drill. We had all filled out our cards with the 1) the name of a place 2) a favorite phrase (mine was “Dumber than a donut”) 3) a thing 4) a person etc. etc. etc. These are all fodder for Kravits in his show Off The Top: Improv, music and comedy…without a net! 

 

     Kravits arrives as though shot out of a cannon. He drapes his new identity over his shoulder and takes off. One card at a time is pulled from the glass jar, and Kravits creates songs on the spot. His first upbeat tune was “No Means No (Or Does It Mean Yes?)” followed by one of his crooning favorites – “Mt. Everest.” The entire evening is improv. Apparently, what would be considered patter under any other circumstance is really verbal nonsense while his inner brain is searching for a doorway into the song. Kravits only gave up once (The Phrase was “God I love how he doesn’t just sit and veg all the time”), and who can blame him for that?

     A special guest, Jordan Gelber, was invited up onto the stage, and a historical character was pulled from the bowl – Ulysses S. Grant.  Gelber and Kravits leapt in to perform a song from a little known musical by (card pull) Sting about Grant and his secretary of state Wellington. This turned into a thundering anthem that could easily fit into a musical fit for a, well, president. Soon to be seen on the Great White Way no doubt. They tore the place apart.

     Next up was a blues number that depended on the advice from a cabbie (card draw): “Trust In The Lord, Lean Not On Your Own Understanding.” Being Alvin Gleeb from Savannah, Kravits had no trouble remembering this old saw from his youth. The excellent band –  Jody Shelton, piano; Jeff Kerestes, bass; Sean Dixon, drums – created an entire chorus within seconds.

     And, not for nothin’, but watching this band, especially Shelton, watch Kravits is nearly 50% of the fun. These guys are on him like white on rice. They are not only excellent musicians and his allies, they are his best audience.

     A waltz, “Hava-Naga,” turned out to be a greeting from Equatorial Africa and included a xylophone solo. This introduced the sweet sentimental portion of the evening. “Who is lucky in love?” Kravits asked, and up popped Becca. Her love story was revealed. She and Tony met at a party, after which Becca had to track Tony down by phone call after phone call. The resulting progeny was mentioned as well as the details of their first date – you know what happened there…. Next up was Tony himself who was looped into a 70’s style Motown duet with Kravits, during which Tony waited for cues that were way slow in coming while he gazed at his beloved.  Finally he was able to mutter a few lines fed to him by Kravits.  Tony was barely audible, but who cares? It was a night that this couple will never forget, and one that their son Bennet will be hearing about for the next few decades.

 

     Kravits then slipped into a Stephen Sondheim number (card draw) “Be Helpful or Fuck Off,” a litany of complaints to an unknown partner that was part hope and part desperation.

     This was followed by a jazz riff from the show in which Kravits was cast long ago, “Don’t Forget To Put The Toilet Seat Down” also known as “Always Flush Twice.” He delivered the following songs: “Top Of The Empire State Building;” “Pizza;” “Empty;” “These Peas Are Delicious” and “I Have An Umbrella.”  The medley morphed into a life and death situation, involving tossing a coin off the Empire State Building, that depended entirely on the position of the afore mentioned toilet seat.

     Songs of inspiration followed because there are days when you do feel “Dumber Than A Donut” so “Give Me Liberty or Give Me French Fries” was a call to action. It is no accident that his last song, a poignant lullaby “You’ll Have To Figure It Out”  was sprinkled liberally with black humor.  Nothing is simple when Jason Kravits delivers it to you.

     How this man does what he does is a mystery.  Not only is he smart, he is surprising and silly and, most of all, talented.  In this case his confines himself to improv.  By this I mean there is also a talent that he is not sharing with us, and that is his full blown talent as a cabaret artist.  The disadvantage to presenting an evening that is entirely improvisation is that we, the audience, get lost.  He is so brilliant and inventive that one song tops another until we are awash in a sea of improv.  Kravits is in competition with himself as we egg him on.

All About Entertainment - Adelaide Cabaret Festival Reviews Off The Top - with Jason Kravits 

Whilst I sat entertained for the first 15 minutes of Off the Top, billed as totally improvised cabaret starring US TV star Jason Kravits (Smash, The Practice), I enjoyed the songs, admired the vocal talent of Kravits and tightness of the supporting band, but couldn’t help but feel cheated that the slickness wreaked of a well rehearsed act. The audience, on arrival, were asked to fill in a list of random topics which Kravits would later pull from a glass bowl, allegedly inserting said words into songs. I wasn’t buying it. About seven songs in, Kravits spoke to a random couple in the audience asking them specifics about their life. It was then the table turned for this reviewer. Kravits sang a song of this narrative as if he had been singing the tune for years as a cabaret standard. Instantly I was overcome with awe for this highly skilled entertainer, this wasn’t honed cabaret, this was seat of your pants perfection. Kravits has been given a gift and he shares it with the audience in Off the Top.

During the evening, Kravits tells a fictive tale of his journey from local boy to off, off, off Broadway star. Kravits’ strong American accent only adds to the hilarious implausibility; however, he is so genuine in his insincerity that you could easily take each word as gospel.

Kravits’ singing would rival any Broadway legend and no style is beyond his reach, be it Sinatra or Sondheim or melancholy to mirthful, each tune is delivered with themed precision, all whilst dancing like Bojangles (almost) and guitaring like Santana.

Providing musical support is pianist John Thorn, Alana Dawes on double bass and drummer Holly Thomas who each seamlessly follow Kravits in his many and varied musical styles. Their ability to engage “ad hock” for each number, whist being melodically perfect is a testament to the skill of each.

Kravits is a pocket dynamo who will sing all the favourites you never knew you knew.


Off the Top is more than improv, it’s slick cabaret, however you spin it.

Highly recommended!

 ⭐  ⭐  ⭐  ⭐  ⭐

'Off The Top!' was supposed to be silly. It was supposed to be disposable, a series of improvised gags that resembled a long segment of 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?'.

 

And yet, by the time it was over, Jason Kravits was singing a song that changed meaning entirely halfway through, a profound reflection on failure and staying true to oneself.

 

To get there, the audience filled out chits with entries like 'Words To Live By', 'A Place In The World' and 'The Last Text You Sent Or Received'. Then Jason – newly christened as “the pride of Barmera, Douglas Derwent” turned them into show tunes that he interspersed with the improbable story of his journey from Barmera to Broadway. This was filled with wry reflections and running gags but it was just a framework to introduce the songs.

 

These were performed with a small jazz combo of piano and drumkit at first, then with double bass from Alanna Dawes when she finished playing at the Cabaret festival's closing gala. She didn’t skip a beat and neither did Jason, ahem, Douglas.

 

The songs were most entertaining when he didn't dive straight into the punchline but set it up over time and some of the results were surprisingly catchy, like the smooth jazz ballad 'Don't Fear The Storm, Find Someone To Dance In The Rain' or the slightly wilder 'So Damn Hot!', which sat somewhere between post-bop and beat poetry.

 

Part of the magic was the way Jason treated the inane and the profound with equal gravity, and the audience suggestions were the source of much mirth at times – no more so than when he told the story of a young couple's romance to date. But even when he had less to work with he knew how to find his way to the joke, whether by calling on unexpected styles or additional collaborators. As the audience, we always knew what was coming once he read out the title – that he still made us laugh when he delivered the punchline was a tribute to his skill.