Before a grade-school backdrop depicting heathery hills, a pair of confused theatre-goers struggle with an outdated map of Broadway while an offstage chorus sings, “Brink of doom, Brink of do-om,” and before you can say “Come ye to the spoof,” the cast of Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking is promising that, “Just like Jesus and Judy Garland, we’re resurrected again.”
Gerard Alessandrini's ever-updated madcap revue satirizing the current Broadway musical scene has had other hiatuses since the show was first conceived in 1982, but the recent three-year absence seemed to mirror the emptiness that was felt in the New York theatre community when The Fantasticks was forced to close, before having the original production remounted uptown at the Snapple. Like the Jones/Schmidt musical, Forbidden Broadway feels like an indispensible part of this town, like the Empire State Building… or at least Marie’s Crisis.
What began as an intimate nightclub entertainment featuring a company draped in formal wear has evolved through the years into a loud, wacky stage show boasting comical costumes and frequently vicious celebrity impersonations. But the basics have never varied; two men, two women and a piano player gleefully making bloody carnage of Broadway’s hits through Alessandrini's clever and critical parody lyrics. And while a great love for the theatre is always prevalent, the material can get somewhat nasty when the author addresses those who soil the stage with what he considers to be inferior artistry or overly commercial crassness.
This time around the strongest venom seems reserved for Book of Mormon writers Trey Parker and Matt Stone (Bobby Lopez got a free pass, I guess.), depicted as a pair of smarmy punks who thumb their noses at the Church of Sondheim to cash in on vulgarity (“And I believe / That ancient Jews like Richard Rodgers didn’t write very good musicals.”), with enough left over for Evita’s Elena Roger, described as having an “utter lack of star quality” and hoping that New York audiences would think she’s Chita Rivera. (“And if ever it goes too high / I distract you and flash my thigh / And use my thin soprano.”)
Roger is mimicked by Jenny Lee Stern, who is just smashing in her many celebrity aliases. While certainly not the first Forbidden actress to portray Bernadette Peters, her imitation of the star’s voice at this stage of her career (“In Stephen’s ears / I’m still on key a lot.”) is both precise in its vulnerability and loving in its presentation. She tackles familiar FB targets like Patti LuPone and Sutton Foster with aplomb and is hilariously deadpan as Cristin Milioti. But perhaps her most interesting turn comes in a very straightforward, non-comical impersonation of Judy Garland singing lyrics critical of Tracie Bennett’s over-the-top End of The Rainbow portrayal. (“You made me loony. / I wish you hadn’t done it. / I wish you hadn’t done it.”)
Opposite her LuPone and Roger is Marcus Stevens as an attention-hungry Mandy Patinkin desperately emoting through roles he’s outgrown (“My boy Bill / Should be forty by now…”) and a hip-swiveling Ricky Martin playing Broadway to pay for his kids’ braces and school supplies. His most impressive bit of hilarity is a copy of Matthew Broderick’s unique mannerisms in “Nice Song If I Could Sing It.”
His Kelli O’Hara in that bit is Natalie Charlé Ellis, lamenting the star’s lack of comedic chops (“The laughs are on a roll / But not with me.”), but that’s no problem for her, as evidenced by her Tony-greedy Audra McDonald and musically-challenged Catherine Zeta-Jones. (“Send In The Hounds”)
Scott Richard Foster is the rocker specialist, with his highlights including an angsty Steve Kazee, an out-of-control Stacee Jaxx from Rock of Ages celebrating the less-refined side of Broadway (“We filled this city with NASCAR shows”) and a frustrated Bono, who, in an especially inspired move, sings a certain, very appropriate Guys and Dolls duet with Ellis’ Julie Taymor.
Another inspired moment has Stephen Sondheim expressing his “Agony” from watching the Central Park production of Into The Woods while Donna Murphy echoes the sentiment for having to perform in a tree costume. (Hmm… “Someone In A Tree” might have been a nice choice for that spot.)
Longtime Forbidden Broadway director Phillip George keeps the show at its usual brisk and silly pace and music director David Caldwell, also a vet of the show, provides the peppy on-stage piano accompaniment. For fifteen years the brilliant Alvin Colt costumed the show before his death in 2008. One of his classics, The Lion King’s Rafiki, accessorized in plastic spoons and Disney souvenirs, remains with the show. Philip Heckman’s new designs are less cartoonish than his predecessor’s, but still charming and effective.
As can be expected with any production of Forbidden Broadway, some bits are more smile-inducing than laugh-out-loud funny (The Annie routine stretches its one joke too thin and the spoof of Norm Lewis’ octave-jumping, melody-changing performance in Porgy and Bess doesn’t quite hit its mark because the singer doesn’t seem to be instructed to do enough of what the lyric is describing.) but the production is always so meticulously mounted and executed that even during slower moments there’s always the feel of something very funny about to happen.
Smash and Newsies also figure in the mix, as do revived routines spoofing Wicked and Jersey Boys, but the new Bring It On seems to have been egregiously overlooked. Perhaps it will leap into the proceedings after one or two recently closed shows have been axed. Same goes for the upcoming Chaplin.
The new entry is billed as a limited run. Let’s hope it’s the same kind of limited run Newsies had planned.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Jenny Lee Stern and Scott Richard Foster; Bottom: Marcus Stevens and Scott Richard Foster.
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