By Carolyn Hayes Harmer
If Tommy LeRoy isn’t already a local legend in metro Detroit theater, he should be. Seen the low-tech, high-impact blood and animatronic effects in the long-running “Evil Dead: The Musical”? That was Tommy LeRoy. Remember the larger-than-life ED-209 robot in “Robocop: The Musical”? Classic Tommy LeRoy. Point to anything that’s ever been rigged to do an unexpected thing, any custom-built exactly-to-scale prop, or any visionary proportion-defying costume in an original production, and those in the know won’t need many guesses to identify the source.
It’s worth noting because Go Comedy! Improv Theater’s untamed late-Thursday time slot is not just being overrun by any old puppets, but by Tommy LeRoy puppets. The do-it-yourself ingenuity impresario is creator and director of the fluffy and flashy “Fuzzballs,” in essence a live-action staging of a puppet TV show.
The production cites Jim Henson’s “The Muppet Show” as inspiration, and its presentation borrows from the stage show “Puppet Up!,” created by Henson’s son. There are two major components to the setup: the playing area to one side of the Go stage, where scenes unfold live for a camera, and the simultaneous video image projected above center stage. (More so than usual at Go Comedy!, there are good seats and less-good seats for this production; for best results, aim for a clear view of the area in front of the “Fuzzballs” backdrop.) The puppeteers aren’t masking themselves, but merely hovering out of frame, so viewers can choose to watch either the final product or how the sausage is made – or to compare the two, which is a mind-expander in and of itself.
LeRoy and company (numbering about sixteen in total, of which around half appear in any given performance) have scores of puppets at their disposal, from classic flap-head/floppy-arm to perfectly sculpted dinosaurs to everyday objects with rudimentary rubber-band mouths. Each is meticulously detailed and possessed of real personality, which is furthered by deft manipulation on the parts of the puppeteers. The work implies careful study of the shimmies and adjustments that inject life even into a puppet at “rest,” as well as camera-specific use of perspective and foreground/background focus.
Essentially, if the Muppets had a single set, a cable-access budget and a need to create a whole show on the fly, this is probably what it would look like. The one-act production features a blend of scripted vignettes and short-form improvisational games, contrasting chaotic free play with exhaustively constructed bits, many dependent on music. Although the sensibility is recognizably Henson, as “Avenue Q” taught the world, there’s nothing like watching puppets saying filthy things. So while this show hardly wallows in its impiety, any time improvisers are allowed to work blue, four-letter words and adult subject matter tend to make an appearance.
The improvisational elements are skillful and good for some laughs, although what they gain by the puppetry medium is not as clear as what they sometimes lose. Setup drag and stilted transitions tend to remind the viewer of the benefits of editing, and the selected games’ reliance on strings of one-liners holds the expressive puppet characters back in a talking-head purgatory of their own making.
Rather, this production is undoubtedly best in innovative segments that are engineered to be heightened by the format. These predominantly visual gags are dually splendid in concept and in execution, some with complexity that really rewards the behind-the-curtain view. Another particular highlight is a pair of friendly, disarming creatures (expertly characterized on press night by Tommy LeRoy and Michelle LeRoy) that seek out – and inevitably find – willing partners in cute gameplay; their assembled physicality, voice, rapport and objective make a harmonious combination with exponential opportunities for humor.
There’s truth in advertising in “Fuzzballs,” whose subtitle reads, simply, “Comedy With Puppets.” Comedy indeed winds throughout this peculiar grab bag of clever scripted and bawdy improvised fare. But ultimately, it’s when the puppets stop being an incidental gimmick and start being the linchpin of the humor that this production intermittently finds its rewarding and hilarious groove.
Go Comedy! Improv Theater
261 E. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale
10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, 28, Sept. 4, 11
11:59 p.m. Aug. 23
45 minutes; no intermission
$10 ($5 midnight performance)