By Tulis McCall
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.
I wonder what would happen if this skill were only a slice of the evening? Marilyn Maye does this in her “By Request” section of her shows. While Kravits is a never ending supply of improvisation, the audience is the party who is limited. Too much of one flavor leaves us thinking, “That’s what he does.” But it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that there is much more to this man’s talent. I look forward to watching him let the whole shebang loose – and soon.