Chicago improv in the Philly burbs

Bristol Riverside Theatre presents The Second City: Comedian Rhapsody

4 minute read
One actor leans over backward balancing on the rump of another, leaning forward with hands on knees. A third runs toward them
Members of Second City, now onstage at Bristol Riverside Theatre. (Photo by Timothy M. Schmidt.)

After a lackluster 2023 performance at the Kimmel Cultural Campus, historic Chicago improv troupe Second City returns to the Philly area for its 65th anniversary. This time, they’re landing at Bristol Riverside Theatre through June 2, 2024, and this show, Comedian Rhapsody, is far better than last year’s.

I was hesitant to attend—after last year, I didn’t want to see anything Second City ever again (which is saying something if you like improv). Last year, the six-person ensemble looked TIRED. Seriously tired. Plus, the comedy was ridiculously bland. The improv portions were a series of dull short-form games. If I hadn't paid for parking, I would've left at intermission. Improv friends who saw the show on other days also complained about the tepid skits and quiet cast.

A retooled setlist

But I went back, and I’m glad I did. Although the first 30 minutes of this performance felt paint-by-numbers, the talents of Rich Alfonso, Kennedy Baldwin, Anna Bortnick, Karl Bradley, Claire Favret, and Ross Taylor shone through as the show continued. Anne Libera directed a very tight show with excellent tableaus. The cast seamlessly transitioned from musical theater to three-line skits to short-form comedy to long-form scenes. If you've never seen improv before (or if you have), this is a fun way to spend the night (suitable for most ages).

I'm glad Second City has retooled its touring company setlist for 2024. The show I saw on Friday, May 17, lacked last year's weak, canned portions, and dropped a lot of the energy-draining short-form games. The troupe tightened up the stage picture and brought on diverse cast members who were invested, energized, and committed, each creating strong characters. Even better, the skits pulled from differing backgrounds, didn't shrink from the weird, and gave the scenes time to build.

Admittedly, for the first 15-25 minutes, the cast looked like they were forced hostages on a Disney Cruise circa 1988, forced to read from a teleprompter and aggressively SMILE to survive. There were also a couple dated jokes (including the canned "Thank God, we were gonna do it anyway" response after asking if the audience wanted improv). There was also a dated girlfriend-slept-with-guy's-boss-to-get-him-a-job skit and an old let's-poke-fun-at-allergies three-liner (where being gluten intolerant equated to being upper-middle class).

Slow burns and good signs

My favorite skits were typically the ones with a slow burn or an absurdist bent. Kudos to Baldwin (a standout), Bradley, and Alfonso for their lackadaisical 1950s parents who forced their kid into dramatic love tests. It felt very Kids in the Hall. Bortnick, Favret, and Taylor truly came alive in their awkward midwestern parents sketch. Alfonso's thespian overcoming rogues with stage combat will continue to be my favorite (despite the dated thespian/lesbian wordplay joke). The more the performers stepped away from old-school jokes to smart observational comedy, the more fun I had. The partially improvised musical scene about "what makes you mad" was HILARIOUS. Shout-out to the barista-style def comedy jam roast, the midwestern dancer meets Julliard, the brilliant two-act rewind, and the 1980s action heroes.

My least favorite skit last year was a Weather Girls-style girl group singing “What’s Your Sign” to the audience. It felt as if the cast didn’t care about the audience responses, and the singing and choreography were so limp, I wondered if Second City had given the actors any breaks between venues. But this year’s team took that limp biscuit and cooked it in a fiery pot. What arrived was a ton of unsuspecting male audience members musically and astrologically eviscerated.

Improv means unplanned

Sometimes people forget that improv comedy isn't always smooth. Shout-out to Alfonso (and the cast) for gently handling an audience volunteer who refused to say the lines they gave her, who felt Alfonso up at the skit’s end, and also shouted racist things like “he wants Taco Bell.” She also prematurely shouted the punchline of their final joke. This is the third time I've seen similar bad audience behavior at an improv show, after one incident at Philly Improv Theater and another at Free Style Love Supreme.

I teach improv myself, and a lot of my beginner students typically have an idea of what improv SHOULD be—and even when I directly say, “NO, that’s not it,” they continue. This audience volunteer was another example of someone believing improv is just a bunch of wild and crazy guys shouting over-the-top sentences. While she enjoyed the spotlight, she didn’t notice the lack of laughter or the clear concern of the performers held hostage by her behavior. Kudos to the cast, including Baldwin, for trying to help. I hope you continue to do the skit (and I hope this wasn’t a representative sample of Philly-area audiences).

So if you like SNL, want to see professional improv (but are scared by the local barprov scene), and want to take a friend, this is a fun way to enjoy downtown Bristol and see a nationally recognized ensemble trained by some of the best.

What, When, Where

The Second City: Comedian Rhapsody. Directed by Anne Libera. Through June 2, 2024, at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol. (215) 785-0100 or


Bristol Riverside Theatre is a wheelchair-accessible venue (excluding the second floor). Call the box office when purchasing tickets to request wheelchair accommodations.

Masks are optional.

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