The musical comedy “Terror at 35,000 Feet” opens with Albert Samuels as a co-pilot begrudgingly sharing the cockpit with his ex-wife and the Make-a-Wish foundation cancer boy whose last wish was to fly. He soon turns to the boy when a bomb is found on the plane and they need someone with “small hands and nothing to live for!” to diffuse it. Samuels’ character resolves to throw the cancer boy off the plane with the bomb tied around his neck. In an emotional closing number, the boy finally gets his wish and is flying, only to explode mid-song with the bomb midair.
Though the show remains one of Samuels’ personal favorites and received a great audience response, it closed the same night it opened. This wasn’t because of lack of interest. The show was a part of Samuels’ brainchild, Baby Wants Candy, a comedy group that presents completely improvised musicals and never show the same performance twice.
Samuels, 43, founded Baby Wants Candy in Chicago in 1997 and the company soon spread to New York City and began touring all around the world. At the peak of this success, Samuels is moving to Los Angeles to expand the company even further and begin pursuing other media outlets such as television and film.
Samuels counts on the huge number of performers in Los Angeles to round out his company and feels Baby Wants Candy will thrive there just as it has in Chicago and New York City. While there, he will be expanding his own theatrical repertoire by pitching ideas for television shows and movies that he hopes to have some acting role in.
In high school Samuels’ theatre experience was limited to operating the spotlight for shows like “Mame” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” and he admits when asked to join an improv group in college, the idea was terrifying and inconceivable to him. He specifically mentions an exercise in which people would line up in two opposite lines eventually meeting their partner to perform a scene once they reached the front.
“I was so nervous every time I would get close to the front, it was so ridiculous. I would come up with [an excuse], ‘I have to go to the bathroom!’ then be at the back of the line again,” Samuels said eagerly, perched on a chair with his calm yet animated voice. “I finally got into a scene, and it was really, really fun.”
Ever since then Samuels knew he would be combining his new love of theatre with his desire to study business. While attending Stanford University’s business school, Samuels’ focus swayed more to theatre especially after his mother, a very passionate concert pianist, passed away.
“I went to business school, and my mom died my second year there, which is hilarious!” Samuels joked. “No, it was hard. It was very heartbreaking, and I think I really found refuge in theatre and drama.”
Samuels business background and love of theatre spurred him to start his own companies, Spark Creative and Baby Wants Candy. This allowed him to create something his friends struggling in the arts could take advantage of. Now with Baby Wants Candy, Samuels dons both hats, acting as a producer and a player in the show. While Samuels feels this creates a challenge for how he critiques the other players, his colleagues disagree.
“It’s not hard on my ego to get notes from him because he’s someone I really respect,” said Erica Elam, a player who has been with Baby Wants Candy since 2005. She respects not only to his leadership but also his skills as an improv performer.
“Al’s the king of entering a scene with a hilarious bit,” Elam said. “Two people will be having a scene, you won’t really know who they are, and Al will enter as the janitor and say, ‘Excuse me, Margaret Thatcher, you have a call on line one,’ and now that person has to be Margaret Thatcher for the rest of the show.”
Respect for Samuels goes beyond professional realm. Joanna Feldman, the associate producer of Baby Wants Candy who has only been with the company for a little over a year, recalls a time last year when a friend of hers was in the hospital with cancer. Samuels visited Feldman’s friend at the hospital and sent her flowers.
“He’s as nice as a person can be,” Feldman said. “He really is real all the time.”
Apart from the attention of his colleagues, Samuels easily catches the eye of audience members in the way he performs and carries himself on stage. Dylan Schaefer, a Columbia College Chicago theatre student who is studying improv, has gone to almost every Chicago performance since February. He pegs Samuels as an easy favorite.
“He’s so knowledgeable and the best improvisers are very smart in general,” Schaefer said. “It’s evident he holds the show together.”
Emily Dorezas, Baby Wants Candy’s executive producer, agrees that Samuels is a great performer and is often looked to to wrap up the show and tie up loose ends. Dorezas also sees Samuels as someone who makes both the cast and the audience feel welcome during every performance.
Feldman also sees Samuels with a welcoming connection to the audience and admits that sometimes she feels like he’s an extra audience member who has an inside joke going with the audience while on stage. As far as making the cast and crew feel welcome, Samuels loves group hangouts and Baby Wants Candy bonding, according to Feldman. There is a family feel within the group.
“We had a scary movie night, and Al brought snacks,” Feldman said with a smile. “We refer to the cast as babies, and Al really acts as their dad.”
As Samuels moves onto the next step in his journey, it is obvious he will be missed in Chicago by colleagues and fans alike. He has faith that he is leaving behind seasoned performers and a thriving improv company.
“You plant some seeds in the ground and you don’t know which ones are going to grow,” Samuels said. “And then you watch, and you’re like, oh wow, that one’s really growing and its growing faster and bigger and in ways you never realized. It’s really heartwarming in that way.”