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Mariachi Improv Group Finds Home in Bar-Prov Scene

By Chloe Riley | April 2, 2013 6:38am

ALBANY PARK — Take the joy of being serenaded by a mariachi band in a taco joint and throw in five people willing to say whatever comes off the top of their heads, and you have Los Improviachis, a mariachi improv group.

The Chicago-based team operates through Salsation Theater Company, a sketch-based comedy group in Albany Park, and performs at both traditional black box theaters such as The Second City all the way to the “Bar-prov” scene.

Nelson Velazquez, the Salsation member who started the improv-ing mariachis, said the company originally focused more on improv and he wanted to bring it back to its roots.

“I thought, ‘Mariachis.’ Why hasn’t anyone done this yet?” said Velazquez, who has a background in musical theater improv.

Playing off a traditional mariachi band, the group — armed with sombreros and toy horns — goes into the audience and turns the spectators' life choices into fodder for song.

“We totally respect that there is an art form to it that we don’t want to make fun of,” Improviachi Joy Valdez-Pappas said of the mariachi music. “We truly pay homage to it.”

According to Velazquez, it’s that perfect meld of American musical tricks combined with the culture of mariachi that makes the group a hit.

“They love when we interact with them. When we step out and sort of start acting like that mariachi that they see in a restaurant,” Valdez-Pappas said.

Frankie Benavides, who joined the group in November, said he sees influences of the blues in Mariachi.

“You could say that a mariachi is kind of like the Mexican culture’s analog to, say, a blues man because they’re this artform that reflects the good and the sad parts of life,” he said.

Many of Los Improviachis songs are based on traditional mariachi songs from the Mexican state of Jalisco, where the art of Mariachi originated.

But, of course, just as many are not.

“We’ll do rap, we’ll do rock, we’ll do blues, we’ll do '70s,” Velazquez said. “We’ll maybe do some Prince tonight.”

“I think one time we had, like, lesbian folk music so we channeled Melissa Etheridge,” Benavides said.

The current cast of five — together since September — includes Velazquez, Megan Powell, Joy Valdez-Pappas, Benavides and Lyric Opera singer Rose Guccione.

Or, as their respective mariachi characters, Señor Vicente Foxxx, Stephanie Shaw, Corazoncito Allegria, Lorenzo de la Verga and La Viagra.

Not all the characters are firmly rooted in Hispanic culture. Stephanie Shaw, company member Powell’s character, is a white beauty pageant queen from Kentucky.

“I’m Stephanie Shaw and I took a cruise to Cozumel and never came home,” Powell said with Southern twang.

You can find Stephanie Shaw and the other Improviachis at the Chicago Improv Fest, which runs through April 7.

Los Improviachis will perform on Wednesday at Chemically Imbalanced Comedy Theater (1422 W. Irving Park Road) at 8 p.m. and Friday at 7 p.m. at the Upstairs Gallery (5219 N. Clark St.).