Improvised Musical Podcast OFF BOOK Hits Trill Fest Without A Net

Off Book doesn't stick to the script - they burn it!
Off Book doesn't stick to the script - they burn it! Photo by Robyn Von Swank

Improv is hard enough.

Musicals are hard enough!


An Improvised Musical Comedy? Well, let’s just say that’s not for beginners.

But with Off Book, a popular stage show turned podcast created and performed by LA-based improvisers Jessica McKenna and Zach Reino, the challenge of conjuring instant entertainment is part of the thrill.

“We’ve been doing the non-podcast version of this show for a while,” says Reino of the Earwolf produced podcast that launched last year. “But basically, most people get their intro to musical improv through short-form. This is basically a longer version of that. So if you know improv, you basically making everything up on the spot and in addition, we also make up melodies and rhymes and lyrics and plot: all on the spot! That’s kind of like the broad strokes version of what it is.”

McKenna jumps in, hyping the pluses of having a vast history of American musicals to play off of. “It’s fun to play with musical theatre tropes, but really not necessary, and certainly not necessary for our audiences to know musicals to listen to the show. I think for us to sometimes keep the variety in there, its nice to know any genre of music. Specifically, its nice to think about the trope of the “Hero’s Want Song”, which you see in a lot of Disney movies. I think we’re trying to pull all different types of musical styles and every once in a while we’re nerd out and throw in a musical theater reference that is maybe for a smaller portion of our audience or maybe to just make ourselves laugh in the room.”

Do the dynamic duo believe the American stage is seeing a bit of a renaissance with the cult-smash of Hamilton breaking norms and box office records? “Hamilton is kind of its own separate individual form,” reasons Reino. “There are people who like Hamilton and don’t like musicals. It is in a way its own thing. And I know a lot of people who like hip-hop but don’t dig Hamilton. But I think that’s what musical theater does: it adapts to current music and its just ever so slightly behind the curve because its kind of serving multiple masters.”

McKenna goes further, and highlights the virtue of the improvised musical. “I think that’s what musical theater used to be more, pulling from the radio or people like Cole Porter. And I think musical theater got away from it, there are always moments that reflect the times, but like Zach says: it can be behind the times, but it just depends on how long it takes a musical to get to Broadway. They could be writing the best the 1990s has to offer and then when the show premieres in 2000, you’re like OK!” Removing the gatekeepers that guard what hits Broadway and when, Off Book has the unique opportunity to drop a one-night only every episode.

click to enlarge McKenna and Reino are redefining musical improv with Off Book - PHOTO BY ROBYN VON SWANK
McKenna and Reino are redefining musical improv with Off Book
Photo by Robyn Von Swank

Beyond delighting audiences, the show has brought the two comedians closer together and like most improvisers – they now have a good road map of how each other’s brains operate. “We’re drawn to similar ‘moves’ anyway, and I think we perform on larger teams at Upright Citizens Brigade here in LA,” says McKenna. “When we perform Off Book, we’re literally sitting across the table from each other and making like eye contact. We can pretty much predict what the other person is gonna do — or mess with them a little bit.”

With the performers can carry the show as a duo, they’ve had some famous comedy faces jump on the mike in the past year including Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom, SNL stars Taran Killiam and Chriss Redd, Houstonian YouTuber Jon Cozart and stand-up master Paul F. Tomkins.

But, the unsung hero, Reino argues is their piano player, Scott Passarella. ”When music is involved, there is a third person in the room in Scott, who is probably a more driving force than either of us – we’re just doing melodies that react to him.

Before catching Off-Book at Station Theatre’s Trill Fest, why not pep up your commute with a podcast trial? While many episodes are behind the paywall via Stitcher Premium, Reino suggests a few highlights you can hear for free: Episode 42 Stranger Sings with Great News’ Briga Heelan and Episode 55, The Kids Are At Night with AP Bio’s Mary Sohn, as well as the aforementioned “Live” episode with Rachel Bloom. “There are very few episodes that are a-typical of what we do,” says Reino. “They are all really silly.”

A performance is scheduled for October 5 at 8:30 p.m. at 1230 Houston. For information, call 832-786-0413 or visit $12 - $70

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee