Fearless superheroes battling feathered evildoers, male Martians having their egg sacs (!) violated by their disgusted compadres, and pint-sized sidekicks being brainwashed by Nazi vamps to assassinate President Roosevelt, all in an evening's entertainment for the intrepid cast of the Thrilling Adventure Hour series, now in its fourth month at Largo after a successful run at the much-smaller M Bar since 2005. The live, mock-vintage radio serial – co-written by the fantastically talented team of Acker & Blacker and boasting an impressive cast of regulars in addition to excellent guest stars for each month's installment — delivered what few would argue was one of their best shows to date last Saturday night in front of a beyond-sold out crowd. (A goodly-sized group of hopefuls were turned away at the door, a first for the show in the larger Largo digs.) Lending name power to the show on this month were Kids in the Hall legend Dave Foley; Freaks & Geeks vets Linda Cardellini and Martin Starr; Web Soup and Nerdist.com honcho Chris Hardwick; Heroes and Alias vet David Anders (who was a surprise addition); and Castle star Nathan Fillion, whose ginormous fan base from his days in the captain's seat on Firefly no doubt contributed a bit to the rush for tickets. (An especially fervent fan sent Fillion flowers at the theater earlier in the day. “I never get flowers,” Hardwick joked before the show, “although a guy once gave me a firewall as a present.”)
As nostalgic trips go, Thrilling Adventure Hour is great, packed with broad, clever characterizations and perfectly-pitched serial shenanigans, bracketed with classic sponsor pitches (WorkJuice coffee and Patriot brand cigarettes, they're all you need to get through the day!) and more singalong perfection (courtesy of the excellent Andy Paley Orchestra) than you can shake a stick at. As straight-up comedy, it's head-spinningly hilarious. Actor Marc Evan Jackson, whose main role is as the title character in “Sparks Nevada: Marshal on Mars,” effuses “Acker and Blacker are amazing. It's a crime that they are not famous because, as you just witnessed, it was a solid hour and a half of… four laughs a page? A crazy ratio.” Truth.
For almost five years at M Bar, the show packed the room, and the teeny, tiny stage, with its enormous cast and sizeable band, plus a sound effects engineer, until it simply demanded a bigger venue. “[At] M Bar, one of the lovely things is the energy is right in your face, and you can smell what they're eating,” Jackson explains. “But more people wanted to see the show at one time than M Bar can accommodate… We don't know of a room in town that is two-times-M Bar that is willing to give up their Saturday night rather than be a club. When the crowds grew, it became Friday and Saturday night, and the energy that you witnessed tonight, if we tried to harness that a second time then it wasn't the same. Just schedule-wise, too, especially with this caliber of talent, people are shooting movies and television. It's hard to be able [to secure the guest cast] two nights in a row, super hard.”
Paget Brewster, currently a regular on Criminal Minds and one of the cast's regular leading ladies, agrees. “I liked it [at M Bar] 'cause it was kinda ghetto, and it was like 'Yeah, get it done!' And we were able to hang out with people, there was no backstage and it was kinda great. But now we can have a chance to have mics and more people, and a bigger orchestra. And honestly I'm a little surprised that the audience is so ebullient. I really was afraid that if we were on a stage, with a riser and slightly removed, that they won't feel like they're with us. But I've never seen a crowd like [tonight], that was bananas.”
Hardly a surprise, really, that they are able to snare such terrific guests as they had for Saturday's installment — Starr and Cardellini as teenage sidekicks in the superhero sketch “The Adventures of Captain Laserbeam”, with Hardwick pulling Frank Gorshin-esque villain duty as quacking baddie The Water Fowl — some of whom they'd been hoping to get in the show for some time. “Dave Foley we wanted to get and we wrote a part for him years ago,” Ben Acker says. “We wrote it for Foley, but he was busy that month… The part that he's playing tonight is FDR, and he absolutely kills it.” (When asked after the show how it felt to be cast as the President, Foley kidded, “Um… inappropriate. Not only because I'm not a citizen of this great country, but because I cannot do a Roosevelt impression!”) Acker notes also that frequently the guest slots, such as Fillion's lead role in the WWII goof “Jefferson Reid, Ace American!”, are born out of necessity when one of their regulars isn't available: “Paul F. Tompkins originally played that character the first time [we did it], and then he moved to New York with Best Week Ever. James Urbaniak [took over] and really made that part his own, [but] this week he got cast in a thing in New York so he's out of town, and Nathan is stepping in. And killing it also!”
It's hard to overstate, really, how much killing of the proverbial “it” took place during Saturday's show, from Common Rotation (the folk-pop combo lead by Adam Busch and Eric Kufs are the show's regular opening act, they delighted the crowd with a couple of tunes, including their stupendous acoustic take on M.I.A. “Paper Planes,” with cast regular John DiMaggio – a.k.a. the voice of Futurama's Bender, a.k.a. the aforementioned Captaaaain Laserbeam! – pitching in the beat-box, complete with shotgun blasts and a load of “ch-ching!”) straight through to the curtain call. The highlight of which, it must be said, was completely unplanned: Foley's daughter Alina, running in from the wings as the cast was announced, began a frenzied little impromptu dance, right under the spotlight. The cast and crew could only giggle so long before doing what only seemed appropriate: joining right in and dancing along with her. The moment she caught on that her artistic endeavor was being plagiarized, of course, she stopped and marched off. Classic.
For a show crammed with so much talent, impromptu moments like Alina's leg-shaking showstopper are relatively rare; Thrilling Adventure Hour is so tightly scripted that it actually leaves very little room for improvisation. After the show, Fillion commented, “I started doing improv back in Edmonton, Alberta, that was pretty much all the stage acting I did. A couple of musicals in high school and stuff…this is a actually a lot more prepared than the stuff I would usually do. [And] it's so well-written, too.” As co-honcho Ben Blacker puts it, “We stick very closely to the script. We let the actors play a little bit, and we usually find that stuff in rehearsal, but in general we pretty much know the actors we're writing for and we know the kind of stuff they're [good at]. We love to be surprised, though.”
One of the cast's stalwart utility men – he plays “countless” characters in all the regular sketches – is Samm Levine, late of Freaks & Geeks and Inglorious Basterds. He agrees that the improvs are rare, but on occasion they can make for good laughs. “When we used to do the show at the M Bar, I was hanging outside talking to one of the other actors in, and apparently I was supposed to be on stage. They were waiting for me, standing around. I was supposed to be [playing] this maniac director. And I'm outside talking, and then Ben Acker charges out the door and looks at me with absolute hate in his eyes: 'Sam! You're on!' And I ran onto the stage, and so I just started riffing with “Sorry, I was directing another picture…outside. Times are tough!” Levine also expected to be out of town Saturday, but when his plans changed he coaxed Acker & Blacker into giving him something, anything to do in the show, which ended up being one brief bit of dialogue at the top of “Sparks Nevada,” but he delivered it with aplomb.
Brewster also found herself angling for something to do this time around, given that her regular stint — opposite Tompkins in “Beyond Belief,” where the two play boozing Nick-and-Nora style mediums confronting the supernatural — was absent along with her co-star. She ended up stealing the show in the “Jefferson Reid” sketch, as Fillion's stars-and-stripes mentor who, as it turns out, is a diabolical Nazi femme fatale. (Replete with jodphurs, SS hat and blonde bob; cue our clueless hero: 'What?! Mrs. Blaufgenstein's not a Kraut!') As a shining example of the cast's love for and dedication to the show, she put together her own costume with no small amount of struggle: “I went to Hollywood Toy and Costume, and they're very upset about people looking for Nazi things,” she laughs. “I talked to the guy and I'm like…” (apologetically)… “Listen. I need help …it's for a play, and I die! But I need a Nazi hat. I'm trying to tell him it's okay, like whatever [nationality] he is…I'm sorry!' And he's like, 'NO. No Nazi!' ” In the end she made most of her accessories, even hot-glue-gunning the pads from a bustier into a turbo push-up bra: “This shit is killing me. Look at it, touch it… it's like plaster! [But] I just tell them, I will do anything, if Paul's out of town I will do anything you have. That's how we all should be, right? The play's the thing. Be a donkey for the show!”
If you missed out on this month's spectacular Thrilling Adventure Hour, never fear kiddies, they'll be back July 10 at Largo with more thrills, exciting guests — and no doubt even greater demand, so be on your toes. Check for updates at www.thrillingadventurehour.com, or follow them on Twitter at @ThrillingAdv