Scott Richard Foster (left), Marcus Stevens (center), Carter Calvert (kneeling), Mia Gentile (right). Credit Carol Rosegg
Since its modest inception in 1981,FORBIDDEN BROADWAY, the Tony-Obie-Drama-Desk-Lortel-award winning revue created and written by Gerard Alessandrini, has become a staple as index, parody, and loving satire of what’s going down on the Great White Way. Its best feature is that it reminds us that Broadway is a small-town in many ways, and that our love-hate relationship with the various products and stars binds us together (tourists and New Yorkers, audiences and performers alike) as a very passionate community. Thank God it’s back. And it’s at what was the former Primary Stages theatre, now the Davenport Theatre, at 354 West 45th Street.
The performers (4, plus the invaluable musical director/pianist David Caldwell) in the show are, historically, triple-threats, and their voices are always to be marveled at, and this incarnation is no exception. Everyone shines at different points: Carter Calvert’s multi-layered performance as an out-of-shape, blue-haired Liza singing Lotte Lenya’s song in “Cabaret” because she’s now willing to take the lesser roles and “So What?” is a stunner; Marcus Stevens’ clowning throughout, particularly in his marvelous derogatory/celebratory take on Mandy Patinkin’s infuriating genius, is on the money; Scott Richard Foster’s ability to turn deadpan to such advantage when he satirizes Pasquale’s lunkhead-hunk in “Bridges of Madison County,” the Valli impersonators in “Jersey Boys,” and Stallone himself, are charming; and doe-eyed Mia Gentile, with her consistently wondrous voice, can actually, thrillingly “do” Idina Menzel (as well as a slew of ingenues), while making fun of the screech-er that she is.
The show is a mix of Mad magazine parody and incisive satire of what’s really wrong with Broadway, and it’s a great primer for theatre-goers about where we stand and what “we” know about our dear world of show:
(SOME JOKE SPOILERS FOLLOW:)
The idea that there’s much “wrong” with Broadway right now, in its reliance on re-cycling and corporate money, is front-and-center. The chilling finale, to the tune of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” justifiably lays blame on the corporate take-over of producership where there used to be Merricks and Whiteheads. When Valjean and Javert wrestle with the mechanics of an over-head opaque projector, it’s both fun and astute to have electronic slide-projections skewered for what they’ve done to the design elements in many shows, and the extended “Les Mis” section works on a lot of levels (the obsolete turn-table is itself mournfully personified).
Each of the shows that are examined are aptly targetted, with an extended riff on “Bridges of Madison County” and on Jason Robert Brown for that show’s unexamined exploitation of sexuality; a dig, via “Aladdin,” at “Disney cheese, eager to please”; an excellent, physicalized parody of the “Once” director’s indulgences (“We’re so unpretentious that now we’re pretentious”); and an adorably executed session about “Rocky” where Stallone himself comes to coach Andy Karl on how to be inarticulate.
Like most revues, sometimes it’s hit-or-miss. There probably could have been more to the Woody Allen-Susan Stroman partnership on “Bullets over Broadway” since there’s so much fodder there that wasn’t addressed–only one Mia joke? The brief scandal over “Mathilda”’s exploitation of children makes its point but doesn’t really build. Some of the scenes which only assert that the performances or shows just aren’t really very good (Fran Drescher and “Cinderella,” “Pippin”’s hollowness with Patina as muscled automaton, both of which come early in the show, as well as Carrie Underwood’s amateurish Maria and Michelle Williams’ reportedly under-developed Sally) are just demonstrations of an opinion, which may be correct but leaves you sort of sad. There’s not much for a gifted performer to do when they’re singing about how they’re not very good.
What’s most exciting are the pieces where performers/performances are exposed, flaws and all, but we’re left reveling in the fact that, no matter what, they’re simultaneously triumphant (Liza, Idina, “Rocky,” “Book of Mormon”) or where the time is taken to develop an idea about what goes/went wrong in the hit-fabrication machine that Broadway has lately become. The put-down of the Lauper/Fierstein softening of edges to make their show palatable is a put-down well earned, and it’s a joy to see gross caricatures of a beloved Broadway stalwart like Fierstein, here played by the ever-jubilant Stevens, and of an award-hungry Lauper.
Granted, FORBIDDEN BROADWAY is not meant to be a serious steward for standards, although it is that, with its knowing wink at revival/recycle-itis. It’s essentially meant to be a blast, a tonic, to be as game and energizing and free as a series of Saturday Night Live sketches, and to remind us that the Fabulous Invalid is still alive and kicking. That some of the targets are so weak to begin with (“Bridges of Madison County” will close May 18) enervates the proceedings to some extent, but that’s the fault of the satire’s subjects and not of the show itself. Surprisingly to me, there’s not a focus on the practice of shoe-horning Hollywood names into shows, although Drescher and Michele Williams are pilloried separately, and the James Franco-Ben Brantley scuffle is not even noted. There’s nothing on “If/Then,” either, but maybe there will be in the near future. Overall, this supple show, energetically performed, with its wigs and headdresses, reliably perfect costume-parodies, and that shiny upstage curtain as consistent, glitzy back-drop, does what is always has. It celebrates the zany, unbridled love of show biz, and leaves an audiences chattering, curious and excited to be a part of this world and Allessandrini’s devoted take on it.
I saw the show at one of the last performances before opening, and there could still have been more of an element of spontaneity in the show. Granted, it’s comedy with complex music on a small stage with only four people carrying the entire show, and it’s just opening, so it’s to be expected that they weren’t quite ready to “let go”. There was, however, a moment where an energetic Fantine’s wig was pulled off her head by one of Valjean’s buttons, thus becoming an element of the unexpected to which the audience and the actors responded. Nice.
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY COMES OUT SWINGING!, created/written by Gerard Allessandrini with musical direction by David Caldwell, Directed by Phillip George and Gerard Allessandrini
WITH Carter Calvert, Mia Gentile, Scott Richard Foster, and Marcus Stevens.
Costume Design by Dustin Cross and Philip Heckman, Lighting by Mark T. Simpson, Sound Design by Matt Kraus, Wigs by Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik, Set by Megan K. Halpern, with additional dialogue by Phillip George. Produced by John Freedson, Harriet Yellin and Paul Bartz in association with Paul G. Rice, Jamie deRoy, Carol Ostrow/Paxton Quigley, Robert Driemeyer, Lawrence Poster, Tweiss Productions and Allessandrini. midtown at the Davenport Theatre, 354 West 46th Street,www.forbiddenbroadway.com, Tickets at the theatre or at 212-239-6200 andwww.telecharge.com, Mondays and Tuesdays at 7pm: Wednesdays at 2pm; Friday at 8pm; Saturdays at 2 and 8; Sundays at 3 and 7pm. (Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes including a 15 minute intermission)