BWW Reviews: FORBIDDEN BROADWAY, Menier Chocolate Factory, July 2 2014
Forbidden Broadway is back at the Menier Chocolate Factory (last seen there in 2009) and it's like it never left. With a first class cast, excellent musical direction and a ceaseless barrage of jibes about your favourite shows, this is a jolly, fun night out.
The show has been around for a long time - premiering off-Broadway in 1982 and playing almost continually since then - and has crafted a reliable if unadventurous formula: take a hit show or theatre personality and pop their ego with some well-placed satire.
Highlights include a relentless takedown of Irish guitar-noodler Once and an hysterical send-up of Miss Saigon as a tuneless, soupy pho of clichés and melodrama. Harshest of all is a claws-out parody of The Pyjama Game, berating lazy, dated revivals in general.
Unfortunately, this very problem is one suffered by Forbidden Broadway where these on-the-button jabs are mixed in with familiar, stale parodies of Les Mis ("It's long!"), Wicked ("It's loud!") and Mamma Mia! ("It's inane!") which slightly blunt the teeth of proceedings; satire relies on timeliness and topicality, and sadly the sprinkling of newer references and shows is somewhat stultified by the older clunkers. One real nadir is a pointless look at Cameron Mackintosh's famously mercantile disposition, a spoof titled 'The Americans Cream'. Damian Humbley does his very best with it, but the joke is the title, and it's a poor one at that.
Humbley and the rest of the cast do a sterling job - he continues to be one of the hardest working, continually sublime actors around, handling the vocal demands of the Phantom, the Mormons and Jean Valjean with ease. Ben Lewis makes for a dashing, smooth-voiced parodist whose funniest performance comes as Once's angsty Guy, strumming hopelessly on a guitar while Sophie-Louise Dann's stony-faced Babushka cavorts around him, accordion-ing violently.
Indeed, it is the women of the cast, Dann and an irrepressible Anna-Jane Casey, that most impress. Dann proves herself to be both comedienne and chameleon, and the cast's greatest impressionist. Her Bernadette Peters is spot on, as is her diminutive take on Elaine Paige (eliciting cacophonous guffaws from Paige herself in the fourth row). Even better are her vocals, particularly evident in an interesting Spamalot section.
Anna-Jane Casey is hysterical throughout, whether writhing on the piano as a frenetic Liza Minnelli or belting to the back wall as Idina Menzel. She is musical theatre's brilliant answer to Kristen Wiig and Forbidden Broadway is the perfect showcase for her many talents. The cast is ably led and supported by the brilliant Joel Fram, who makes a single piano as grand and evocative of the sound of Broadway as a full band.
As a revue, Forbidden Broadway suffers from two real problems. One, unfortunately, is occasional lazy writing - the laughs come not from cleverness or wit, but are simply laughs of recognition: "haha, there's a helicopter, they have a helicopter in that show as well," or, "look, Gene, he's dressed like the boy from that cute ballet show". This feels like a cop-out, a reaction unearned by quality, simply by reference.
The second issue is less to do with the show itself and more to do with the theatrical climate in which it now exists. Parody and pastiche have (post-9/11, the academics would contend) become staples of the musical theatre mainstream, and are no longer edgy, biting. Shows like Urinetown, The Producers and, pointedly, Spamalot, make parody of musical theatre conventions and history their stock in trade; we are inured to it now and it cannot be effectively used as a tool for satire or subversion.
Forbidden Broadway seems tantalisingly close to addressing this interesting point during the Spamalot number, in which Dann and Lewis sing a word-for-word identical version of The Song That Goes Like This from that show, before going on to explain that Spamalot actually plagiarised that kind of song from them, and in revenge, they were stealing it back. This only served to flag up the total saturation of parody in modern musical theatre, without going on to provide comment or satire - this is an opportunity missed and an example of the occasional lack of insight from which the show suffers.
That omission aside, Forbidden Broadway does what it sets out to do. It is a funny, smart, energetic evening brought to life by another of the Menier's supremely talented casts, and should delight everyone from musical know-it-alls to the more casual theatregoer. And definitely Elaine Paige.