BWW Reviews: Funny Parodies Rule MTW's FORBIDDEN BROADWAY 2, Ends 4/29
Full of biting wit and downright funny parodies of various popular Broadway shows—and the famous actors that star in them—Musical Theatre West's cabaret-style send-up FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: GREATEST HITS, VOLUME 2 plays its final, laugh-filled set of performances this weekend ending April 29 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach.
Much like the first "volume" of Forbidden Broadway that MTW mounted a few years ago, this equally-amusing sequel affectionately skewers many current and past Broadway hits and stage personalities—and does so with a cast of four very skilled actors that morph from one character to another with such ease almost instantaneously: Larry Raben (THE PRODUCERS), David Engel (SEUSSICAL, LA CAGE), Susanne Blakeslee (a veteran of the FORBIDDEN BROADWAY companies Off-Broadway and at MTW), and Valerie Fagan (The Addams Family).
In various combinations and solo moments, the foursome entertain—in a dizzying non-stop rapid-fire sequence—with one gleeful parody after another. The pointed yet still fairly benign mockery is often hilarious without being too mean-spirited. The magical transformations happens just beyond the edges of the wings (and, at times, right on stage!), as the cast morphs into each new character with quick costume changes and the donning of a few carefully selected wigs.
They're also joined on-stage by hard working music director Matthew Smedal, who provides musical accompaniment behind a grand piano downstage (he too gets to sing an adorable song mid-way in the show). The subjects of their sketches range from ubiquitous shows Beauty and the Beast, Rent, and Annie, to populist phenoms The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, and The Sound of Music. Even Broadway personalities Mandy Patinkin, Idina Menzel, Liza Minnelli, Carol Channing and Ethel Merman get lampooned with side-splitting results.
While a scant few sketches outstay their one-joke trick, most of the parodies are genuine gut-busting gems. Highlights include a production number that features freshly-out Ricky Martin (played by Raben) singing a hip-swiveling ode to his current role in the Broadway revival of Evita titled, naturally, "Living EVITA Loca" to the squeals of both women and men in the audience; a proposed "Part 2" lost sequel for The Sound of Music that finds young Nazi Rolf chasing Maria (played by Blakeslee) and the Von Trapp family in America, and a sketch that finds the morosely-smudged actors of Les Misérables having to master the intricacies of the show's infamous turntable.
The body of work from musical theater greats Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber also gets the FORBIDDEN BROADWAY tongue-in-cheek treatment as well: the former for the head-scratching complexity of his "wordy" lyrics, and the latter for his shows' unabashed, over-dramatic histrionics.
Webber gets slapped around quite a bit, actually: the sight of the four actors doing Cats a lá A Chorus Line is a hoot—coupled with their frequent refrain that the show is mostly reviled... this despite the fact that MTW mounted its own production of the very musical just last season. They also perform "I Sleep With Everyone" sung to the tune of "Love Changes Everything" from Webber's cheeky re-envisioned Aspects of LUST.
And during the show's opening night performance, I quietly applauded the cast's bravery to myself as I sat behind actor Davis Gaines—a frequent MTW cast member that is also credited for turning in the most performances in the title role in The Phantom of the Opera—leaning forward watching this production's silly spoof of Webber's most famous musical and the "heavy-breathing" quality of its title character.
But more than anything, what these funny vignettes do best is reveal each actor's ability to do spot-on impersonations. Engel does a really funny caricature of the allegedly forgetful Robert Goulet, while Raben ratchets up the grand gestures and over-acting as "self-indulgent" Mandy Patinkin (a number revived from MTW's first FORBIDDEN volume). But the show, honestly, really belongs to the two impressive women in the cast.
More specifically, the two ladies have perfected their impersonation skills with such ferocious accuracy, that sometimes you'll think their real doppelgängers are actually on stage. Fagan is vividly over-the-top as bigger-than-life star Ethel Merman, whose audible bellow is the basis for a scene in which she coaches the Phantom not to rely so much on a damn headset mic. Later she dons Elphaba green, channeling Wicked/Glee Star Idina Menzel about the virtues of "Defying Subtlety" (another number that appeared in MTW's first volume).
Then jaws literally drop each time standout Blakeslee came on stage mimicking yet another new personality: you will absolutely thrill in her takes of Julie Andrews (both as Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins), Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Carol Channing—the latter in her umpteenth gig in Hello, Dolly! Seriously, this woman is amazing!
While I thought the pair's Chita Rivera vs. Rita Moreno bit (set to the tune of Bernstein/Sondheim's "America" from, of course, West Side Story) goes on longer than it should have, both possess such a natural comic timing and an unwavering commitment to finish punchlines with panache, that it still comes off rather, well, divalicious.
With a focus on its rapid succession of comedy bits, FORBIDDEN BROADWAY 2—which, like MTW's first volume, is under the direction of William Selby—is a considerably less "flashy" production than what most have come to expect from MTW, but is nevertheless still quite an enjoyable romp that many will find incredibly funny. You don't even need to be too versed in the musical theater world to get some of the parodies on this laugh-filled conveyor belt.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Ken Jacques Photography. Top: (from left) Larry Raben, Susan Blakeslee, David Engel and Valerie Fagan. Middle: Blakeslee as Channing. Bottom: Fagan as Merman.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: GREATEST HITS, VOLUME 2 continue through this Sunday, April 29 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.
For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.