"The Second City Does Baltimore" cast features… (Michael Brosilow, Handout…)
Restaurateur Cindy Wolf is an expert at keeping a souffle from collapsing, but not a lighter-than-air comedy routine. And Marin Alsop definitely does not encourage improvisation when she is conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
They are just two of the half-dozen local celebrities who will gamely (and, perhaps, foolishly) join members of the nation's most famous comedy troupe on stage in the Head Theater during select performances of " Second City Does Baltimore."
This is the Chicago-based troupe that has launched the careers of such famous funny men and women as Steve Carell, Tina Fey, John Belushi and Stephen Colbert. The comedy company was commissioned by Center Stage to prepare an original show tailored to the people and history of Charm City.
Though the shows primarily consist of sketch comedy scenes, they traditionally end with an improvised segment. So what could be more natural than "Walk-On Wednesdays," which will feature 10-minute, seat-of-their-pants performances by a variety of local big shots?
"It's funny how many of the celebrities said yes," says Charisse Nichols, Center Stage's director of promotions." I kept saying, 'This is an unpaid gig.' But they seemed more excited about it than we were. It's a good chance for them to strut their stuff."
"Walk-on Wednesdays" debuts Jan. 5 with special guest Ed Norris, a radio-show host on WJZ-FM and former Baltimore police commissioner who has demonstrated impressive chops for talking his way out of tight situations.
The Jan. 12 show will not include an improvised segment or special guest (Second City has two performances scheduled that day). But the troupe is sure to have some fowl play in store for their next visitor: Poe, one of the Baltimore Ravens mascots, takes the stage Jan. 19.
"That should be hilarious, especially since Poe doesn't speak," Nichols said.
On Jan. 26, Alsop will have what is for her the rare experience of performing while facing the audience. She'll pass the baton to chef Wolf for the Feb. 2 performance.
The final two Wednesdays will consist of appearances by musician Dan Deacon on Feb. 9 — with or without a mosh pit — and Fox TV's resident daredevil, anchor Patrice Harris, on Feb. 16.
"One of the fun things about the Walk-On Wednesdays is that they're not scripted," Nichols said. "The people at Second City have made it clear that it's their job to make sure the special guest looks like the smartest and funniest person on stage. We want our celebrities to be themselves and to be very natural in their responses."
Prescott Gaylord, a member of Baltimore Improv Group, has no fears for Alsop et al.
"A really good improviser can make anybody look good, including an untrained audience member," he said. "It's a whole mind-set of giving gifts to your partner on stage. You give them something that's very specific, that's interesting to the audience, and that's fun to play."
Gaylord is looking forward to joining the Windy City comics on stage himself. Specific dates are still being worked out, but two local comedy troupes — BIG and the Flying Tongues — will join Second City on stage for the improvised segments during select performances.
"I kind of look at it as a happy combination of Baltimore Old School, Baltimore New School and The School," says James Kinstle, one of the original Tongues.
As he explains it, "old school," the brand of comedy the Tongues specialize in, consists of isolated scenes, each inspired by one or more suggestions from the audience. "New school" as performed by BIG uses a single audience suggestion that is elaborated and developed through successive scenes.
As for The School? Well, let's just say that any performer who is serious about honing his or her skills in improvised comedy eventually makes a pilgrimage to Chicago to do an intensive workshop with Second City.
"Improvisation is the purest form of theater for me, because anything is possible," Kinstle said. "Being able to explore that form with some of the best in the nation is very exciting."
• Get more information about the Second City Stage Does Baltimore show at Center Stage
If you go
"Second City Stage Does Baltimore" opens at 7 p.m. Thursday and runs through Feb. 20 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $10-$60. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org for showtimes.