BWW Reviews: FORBIDDEN BROADWAY COMES OUT SWINGING Attacks Corporate Theatre Blandness
An expressionless figure clad in a black business suit quietly takes the stage and sings a chilling anthem from Cabaret in a reverent voice:
The neon on Broadway is vibrant and bright,
The spectacle stunning to see.
It takes corporations to do it right,
And Broadway belongs to me.
He turns his black briefcase toward the audience to reveal a Chase logo. He's joined one-by-one by three colleagues, all dressed in the same business uniform and each carrying a briefcase with a different corporate logo. One sings:
My job as the corporate fundraising head
Is funding art safe as can be.
And groundbreaking theatre is fin'lly dead,
And Broadway belongs to me.
During the 30+ years that the brilliant Gerard Alessandrini and his talented cohorts have been spoofing The Great White Way's hits and misses in Forbidden Broadway, the continually updated review has been most known for its spot-on jabs at stars like Elaine Stritch, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Stephen Sondheim and, perhaps most viciously/lovingly, Patti LuPone. But every so often, the expert parodist has been known to slip in harsh sobering commentary about the state of Broadway theatre.
While stars with talent are respectfully ribbed for their eccentricities, Alessandrini has often used the show as a bully pulpit to attack those who would soil our theatres with productions that settle for mediocrity (or less) by coddling audiences with comforting familiarity. In his new version, Cyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein of Kinky Boots offer advice on how to easily churn out a Broadway hit:
To take art higher,
And don't ignite
With dramatic fire.
Don't surprise them,
Get your Broadway design
Off an assembly line.
The casts of several jukebox musicals mourn Broadway's lack of originality with:
Oh, what a blight!
Why'd they take so long to see the lights?
They don't need new writers, just the rights.
That's not to say that Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging goes totally Brectian on us. Fortunately, musical theatre is still producing a few extreme personalities to inspire formidable routines. Mia Gentile admirably belts her face off as Idina Menzel, who advises young vocalists who wish to risk destroying their vocal chords by trying to sing like her to, "Let it blow! Let it blow!"
Marcus Stevens drips with smarminess as a self-centered Jason Robert Brown who can't get over the brilliance of The Bridges of Madison County ("It is my fourth and best musical about adultery. I mean, you have to write about what you know, right?") as Gentile and Scott Richard Foster, as Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, justify their characters' behavior. ("Adultery is only for ugly people. For attractive people it's inevitable true love. So it's okay.")
Even when he dips into the past to work with a reliable laugh-getter like Liza Minnelli, he approaches it from the modern angle. Using Cabaret's "So What?" ("When you're as strange as I / Is anyone as strange as I?") the beloved diva sings that, despite being at the stage of her career that Sondheim once described as "Then you're camp," she doesn't mind the small roles and struggling through her diminished capabilities because being on stage is what she wants to do. Though Liza Minnelli has been regularly spoofed by Alessandrini and imitated by some of the show's most talented mimics, he has never written for her in such a touching manner, and while Carter Calvert certainly earns her laugh, her subject's gutsiness is loaded with empathy and her performance makes us love Minnelli all the more.
On the male diva side of the coin, Mandy Patinkin makes an appearance in this edition, perhaps for no other reason than that Stevens is just so good singing the tongue-twisting patter, "Super-Frantic-Hyperactive-Self-Indulgent Mandy."
High tech production values trying to mask substandard writing has always been a target of the lyricist's satirical darts, which is why a bit where Les Miserables' legendary turntable (Stevens) sadly sings of not being used in the show's latest revival seems especially triumphant.
A Gentleman's Guide To Love And Murder is strangely missing from the proceedings, but there's plenty of fodder provided by Bullets Over Broadway ("Let's Misdirect"), Pippin ("We've Got Damage To Do"), Matilda ("We Are Exploited Children") and Cinderella ("Five Decades Ago I Saw You"). Audra McDonald tries to help Carrie Underwood find the courage to try and do Act II of The Sound of Music and Sylvester Stallone gives Andy Karl a coaching in how to play Rocky, replacing his understandable diction with incoherent mumbling.
Phillip George returns to direct and does his usual sparkling work. David Caldwell supplies the music at the onstage grand piano and costume designers Dustin Cross and Philip Heckman and wig designer Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik carry on the show's tradition of hilarious parody visuals changed at lightening speeds.
My only reservation is that, with appearances by Patina Miller, Audra McDonald and Diana Ross, it might have been a good idea to cast an actress of color for this edition. But that's not a slight on the strong ensemble currently assembled, making Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging another crackling good night of high satire and low comedy.