For the past 27 years, New York City audiences have been treated to Forbidden Broadway, a series of ten or so revues spoofing The Great White Way’s latest hits (and flops). Since 1982, a revolving quartet of supertalented performers backed by a piano—and the master-satirizer that is writer/creator Gerard Alessandrini—have lampooned Broadway legends like Carol Channing and Liza Minnelli, current hit shows a la Jersey Boys and Mary Poppins, and musical theater classics such as Man Of La Mancha and Gypsy. Coming up with a new revue every two or three years, Alessandrini and company have created their own special franchise—which now gets its first original L.A. regional theater staging at Long Beach’s Musical Theatre West. Dubbed Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits, Volume One, the resulting concoction makes for one of the funniest CLO shows you’re likely to see this year.
Directed and staged by William Selby, whose history with Forbidden Broadway dates to way back when, this “Best Of” compilation reunites David Engel and Larry Raben, stars of the recent smash The Producers—and a better (or more boffo) pair of triple-threats MTW could not have found. Add to that Forbidden Broadway’s original cast star Susanne Blakeslee, L.A. favorite (and NYC Forbidden Broadway vet) Whitney Allen, and quadruple-threat Michael Paternostro on the piano, and you have an evening of music and laughs sure to entertain Broadway buffs as well as audience members who see only a handful of shows a year (and have no idea who the heck they’re singing about when they spoof Patti, Mandy, and Idina).
Alessandrini’s formula is a sure-fire one, and one he’s stuck with for the past two-and-a-half-plus decades. Take a familiar show, say “Fiddler On The Roof,” and a familiar song from the show, say “Tradition,” retitle it (“Ambition” in this case), and write lyrics which recall the original’s but with devilish twists, e.g. “Tradition”: “At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade. I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty. The son, the son! Tradition! “Ambition”: “At ten I was a pretty boy, at seventeen, a dream. I never had a pimple so I do commercials. Complexion. Complexion. Ambition!”
Mary Poppins’ “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” becomes “Stupid Careless Fictional Nonsensical Verboseness,” Hairspray’s “You Can’t Stop The Beat” becomes “You Can’t Stop The Camp,” and Man Of La Mancha’s “The Impossible Dream” becomes “The Impossible Song.” (“To sing, the impossible song. To clear, my unclearable throat.”)
Lampooned theater stars get their own “theme songs.” Sondheim interpreter extraordinaire Mandy Patinkin sings “Somewhat Overindulgent” to the tune of “Over The Rainbow.” Cameron Mackintosh, dubbed by the New York Times “the most successful, influential and powerful theatrical producer in the world” touts “My Souvenir Things” to the tune of “My Favorite Things.” The one-and-only Liza Minnelli sings “Liza One-Note” to the tune of “Johnny One-Note.” (“I’m Liza One-Note, got no vibrato and can’t sing legato at all.”) Even Sondheim himself makes an appearnce.
As you may infer from “Liza One-Note,” these song parodies can get more than a trifle bitchy, as when a prosthetically buck-toothed Sarah Brightman aka “the ex-Mrs. Lloyd Webber,” sings (to the tune of “Con te partirò,” her duet with Andrea Bocelli) “Time I said goodbye. My welcome is wearing thin. I should be charged for a crime for what I’ve done.” Ouch!
Shows themselves are no less immune to spoofing than celebs. Les Misérables becomes “Les Misera-blah,” Jersey Boys is ragged for “using narration. Scary, but it saves lots of time.” Julie Taymor’s highly uncomfortable costumes in The Lion King become food for lampooning in “Can You Feel The Pain Tonight.”
Out-of-town audiences aren’t let off the hook any easier. In “Feed The Burbs” to the tune of “Feed The Birds,” Mary Poppins sings, “Early each day down at T-K-T-S, the crowds from Connecticut come. They prefer a smart play, but they all acquiesce, and instead they attend something dumb.”
Just as at the Friars Celebrity Roasts, however, you can’t stop laughing, even when the joke just might be on you (or me)—and Forbidden Broadway revues have become some of the funniest off-Broadway shows ever. Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits, Volume One is no exception, especially with a cast like this one!
Blakeslee may be one of the few entertainers who can do spot-on imitations of Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, and Julie Andrews, all within what seems hardly more than a single breath. The same can be said for Engel, who can morph effortlessly from an operatic Phantom to Harvey Fierstein in Edna drag in “You Can’t Stop The Camp.” Raben’s Mandy Patinkin is spot-on, every high note hit to perfection in “Somewhat Overindulgent,” and he has just as much fun with Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe’s much talked about nude scene in the Broadway revival of Equus—to the tune of stripper extraordinaire Gypsy Rose Lee’s “Let Me Entertain You.” I’ve never seen or heard a better Liza Minnelli imitation than the one Allen does here (allowing a lucky audience member to touch her, but only for a split-second). Finally, backing them on at the onstage grand piano is Paternostro, doubtless the only man who can sing-dance-act Carmen Ghia in The Producers and return for the next show as its musical director.
Though I’ve heard most of the Forbidden Broadway CDs, just listening to the song spoofs on CD is no substitute for actually seeing them performed live on stage. Costume designer Alvin Colt’s Lion King-esque costumes, Blakeslee in full Carol Channing/Dolly regalia, Allen attempting to navigate in The Little Mermaid fins, Engel a dead ringer for Harvey as Edna in Hairspray. Selby’s Fosse-esque choreography in “Glosse Fosse” (to the tune of “Razzle Dazzle”) performed by a Bebe Neuwirth-bewigged Allen and a shirtless and be-muscled Engel & Raben. Cast members pretending to perform on Les Miz’s trademark revolving set and proving themselves adept puppeteers in the Avenue Q-Lion King-Little Shop Of Horrors spoof “You Get A Puppet” (to the tune of Gypsy’s “You Gotta Get A Gimmick.) They’re all winners!
Kevin Clowes’ scenic and lighting design transfers an intimate “supper club” show to the huge Carpenter Center stage—quite successfully, I must say (though it helps to be seated close to the stage as I was). Julie Ferrin’s sound design is perfection. Justin “Squigs” Robertson’s wonderful Al Hirshfeldesque caricatures surround the proscenium with images of the Broadway legends being spoofed.
L.A. musical theater fans are hereby forbidden to miss Forbidden Broadway Greatest Hits, Volume One. You’ll have the greatest time!
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
May 7. 2009
Photos: Alysa Brennan