Billed as “an evening of stand-up, music and magic” it’s difficult to know exactly what to expect, especially when one of the acts features a psychic parrot. On June 7, comedian Ray Romano, musician Todd Schroeder, illusionist Dana Danielson and a surprise guest put together a wildly entertaining variety show for the diverse audience at UCLA’s Royce Hall. The production value was simple, but the talent on stage was immense, proving that less sometimes really is more.
It wasn’t a packed house that evening, but it was crowded enough to be enveloped by the murmur of the surrounding people. Everyone was eager to see the headline act, Ray Romano¸ star of Everybody Loves Raymond and, more recently, Men of a Certain Age. Romano has been performing stand-up comedy for over 20 years and it’s always a joy to watch comics with so much experience, because they typically have finely honed material on almost every topic.
The stage was relatively bare, with just a few microphones, a grand piano and a few other odds and ends to punctuate the environment. After everyone took their seats, the lights dimmed and Todd Schroeder sat down at the piano to play an instrumental Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. Listening to the piece without words really showcased how wonderful the music is and just how much the lyrics really add another level to it. Audience members could be heard softly singing the words and Todd Schroeder looked out into the crowd and flashed a grin.
After a round of applause, Schroeder played a jazz swing cover of Prince’s Kiss, accompanied by a bongo player, sporting a sloppy hairdo that obscured his face. Despite the odd-looking addition, the song was an amazing arrangement of a very familiar piece and did a marvelous job of getting the crowd involved as Schroeder devoted himself more and more to the music. After the song ended, the long-haired bongo player exited the stage only to return later and reveal himself as none other than Jason Alexander. The crowd roared with applause.
After a short introduction, reiterating the three main components of the evening – stand-up, music and magic, Alexander explained a bit about the creative team behind the production – the Reprise Theatre Company of which Alexander is a board member. Then, to showcase more of the musical aspect of the night’s festivities, he told the audience that they would help him create a brand new song at that very moment and all he needed were some personal details from two audience members. The participants were a man who works in human resources who looks for women with shiny eyes and a woman who works with special education kids and who finds the island Kawai to be a romantic getaway spot. Alexander joked that so many words rhyme with “human resources.” Nevertheless, when Schroeder began playing a soft love ballad, Alexander crafted a song that not only rhymed, but was perfectly listenable and would be a great fit in any silly musical.
After his performance, Alexander engaged the audience with a small confession, admitting that he had always wanted to perform magic, but unfortunately became a world-renowned comedian instead. This was, of course, a perfect introduction to illusionist Dana Danielson and his psychic parrot Luigi.
For those unfamiliar with Danielson’s act, it’s best described as failed magic, allowing Danielson to be the butt of the joke as his illusions fail. So when Luigi doesn’t choose the right card from the deck, Danielson turns to the audience and says, “It’s a bird!” with a what-did-you-expect tone in his voice. Moreover, Danielson really sells his act by playing a kind of cynical, world-weary illusionist, exhausted after doing the same act over and over again.
“We’re short on time,” he says early on, “so I’m just going to show you the end of the tricks.” Then he pulls out a chain of three rings, shaking them and saying, “Look! They’re linked!” Later, he explains that he’s ahead of the accompanying music, so he moves very slowly until it catches up. Danielson continually sets the bar low for himself, so when he does perform an illusion successfully, the audience is appropriately impressed. If you ever get a chance to catch Dana Danielson’s act, it’s definitely recommended. He’ll baffle you and make you laugh at the same time.
After Danielson exited the stage, Jason Alexander returned for more music. While explaining his musical aspirations, Todd Schroeder interrupted him to make assumptions about Alexander’s sexual orientation, based on his affinity for musicals among other things. This led to Schroeder breaking out in song about accepting Alexander’s lifestyle. Alexander retorted in kind, pointing out Schroeder’s manicured physical appearance, which led to more song about homosexual acceptance. There was also an echo of Seinfeld with Alexander proclaiming, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Afterwards, Alexander offered another confession, explaining that he had always had a dream of performing in specific roles in musicals, but was always turned down because he “wasn’t right” for the part. To prove his critics wrong, Alexander asked the audience to rate him via applause as he launched into a medley of all the Broadway songs and roles he was passed over for. The songs ranged from iconic musicals, like The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, including some outlandish roles, like Eva Peron from Evita and Maria from West Side Story. Surprisingly – or not, depending on how familiar you are with Alexander’s talent – he performed admirably and definitely satisfied the musical aspect of the evening.
Closing the night was Ray Romano, who sauntered on stage after a lengthy introduction form Alexander, extoling Romano’s many successes and credits. Romano, for his part, looked very at home on stage and it was great to see him returning to his roots – if only for a night. Romano’s comedy is mostly observational, touching on universal human experience and incorporating hilarious personal anecdotes to illustrate. Romano opened with some new material, which mainly encompassed his deteriorating body as he gets older. He talked about how getting hit in the groin no longer hurt as much as he remembered, because he doesn’t need that equipment as much as he once did.
“It’s hard to write new jokes,” Romano said, walking back to his set list after he exhausted his new material. While he fell back on his old material, he still managed to keep it fresh but inserting new segues between jokes. Nevertheless, fans were treated to favorite bits delivered with master craftsmanship. Romano has hit that sweet spot that every comedian strives to live in where he’s no longer performing jokes; he’s simply standing on stage telling stories that make people laugh.
While the audience could have listened to him all night, the evening had to end, but before he exited, Jason Alexander joined Romano on stage for a quick Q&A. They entertained questions about joke writing and who the better poker player is. Romano also took a few moments to campaign for his show Men of a Certain Age on TNT. Then they left the stage leaving the audience on a high, feeling as though they had definitely experienced something special and proving that UCLA Live is one of the best choices for live entertainment in Los Angeles.