Dear God, what can be said about Forbidden Broadway? Even the most overwhelmingly devoted theatergoers who see the thing can't think of much to say on the ride home. Mostly, the postshow wrapup goes something like this: "Hey! Remember when they sang 'Liza One Note'? That was funny, wasn't it?" To which one answers, "Yeah! That sure was funny! Hilarious, even!"
Forbidden Broadway is hilarious, at least to some people. A parody of assorted musicals and musical stars from across the past three decades, it is slapstick humor for theater fanboys of all genders; an evening of in-jokes so inside that sometimes you laugh not because of wit, but because of recognition. When I saw Forbidden Broadway last Saturday, I was surrounded on all sides by folks trying to guess the derivation of each lampoon before it gave itself away. "Is that The Lion King? It is! It's The Lion King!" For some reason, this makes people laugh.
My guest at the show was my mother. When I voiced this complaint, if it's a complaint, she smacked me on the back of the head. "Shut up!" she said. "Why do you have to shit on everything nice?" And that's a good point. Because, yes, you can shoot Forbidden Broadway full of holes for its obvious and dumb parodies of shows involving puppets, or its lame attempt to halt its own slow slide into formula by injecting Ethel Merman into a spoof of The Phantom of the Opera. But why bother? Forbidden Broadway is a pleasure.
Through May 4; Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722, www.arshtcenter.org
It's a pleasure because, like operas, musicals really are ridiculous. Any time an artist has to stop in midcreation to naturalistically perform an action that nobody would ever naturally do, much accidental comedy will follow. Gerard Alessandrini, who birthed the Forbidden franchise in 1982 and has kept it stocked with fresh victims ever since, understands this. He knows what's automatically funny about Broadway — its lavishness, its put-on solemnity, its frequent shameless pandering to nostalgia, its obsession with the big hit and the long run. And he's angry enough about its true foibles to bite when he barks. When he's got an actress up there impersonating Sarah Brightman, explaining it's "Time" for her "to Say Goodbye" on account of her many sins against good taste, he makes the tipsy, buck-toothed divette hit the high notes in an overwhelming bray that canary-with-a-cold Brightman could never manage. Alessandrini, you figure, doesn't much like Brightman. Disney, either. In this version of Forbidden Broadway, Disney's growing stranglehold over musical theater (the Lion King/Tarzan/Little Mermaid triumvirate) is brought up again and again, and usually not happily.
Or maybe Alessandrini is not obsessed with Disney, and the repetition is a coincidence. This is a real possibility, since most of these spoofs were never meant to be jammed together. The Broadway on display at the Arsht Center is tailor-made for South Florida, mostly sticking to desecrations that local audiences are likely to get. Wise move. Last Saturday the theaterati dug the mauling of Wicked, Hairspray, Annie, Phantom, Les Misérables, Gypsy, Spamalot, The Lion King, Chicago, Hello Dolly, Mamma Mia!, and Avenue Q. When the show tried spoofing Light in the Piazza, an alleged classic-in-the-making from 2005 that hasn't found much traction here, the laughs got thin.
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Too bad, too, because the Piazza spoof must be a bitch to sing. Its primary subject matter is Piazza's faux-operatic score, which means that when the parody comes late in the second act, the actors are forced to sing slow, lung-busting coloratura passages at top volume. That's tricky, applause-worthy stuff, and you've got to be impressed with the cast's sheer vocal chops. Jared Bradshaw, Janet Dickinson, Michael West, and especially Gina Kreiezmar intersperse big, belty tunes with throat-rending character voices all night with no noticeable decline in tone or energy. Discerning audience members might not fare so well.
Alessandrini's real feeling for his subject has kept his franchise fresh through 26 years and 10 albums. In this, he has done better than other theater people who've sought to establish and maintain a brand. Endless repetition has turned the once-edgy Abridged Shakespeare Company, for example, into an unfunny purveyor of flaccid product, and its work since the mid-Nineties has had all the shine of a new Rolling Stones double album.
But Alessandrini's avoidance of this fate doesn't mean he's smart. Far too often in Broadway, a given song's funniness is derived from its title (the Wicked spoof is called "Defying Subtlety"), or else rests on a gimmick. "Saucy Fosse" is a good name for a Chicago roast, but the funniest thing about it is the pair of enormous fake eyebrows worn by the actress playing Brooke Shields (Dickinson). Gags such as that one might eventually wear on the nerves of those craving serious parody. Yet often when Alessandrini means to develop a more complicated joke — say, about the vertebra-crushing body puppets from The Lion King — the resulting entertainment has more to do with good performers and great Elton John melodies than with humor. In such moments, Alessandrini is guilty of the same sin for which he castigates big-time musical theater: valuing expediency over standards, and sure things over real inspiration.
But that's just bitching — shitting on something nice. Why not go see Forbidden Broadway anyway? It's got problems and it's not deep and you won't learn much, and you might even hate yourself for laughing at its ugliest and most obvious jokes. But you will keep laughing, which is the important thing. And what a cast! They want nothing more than to give you a night of honest fun. Honest fun being the rare commodity it is, you'd be a fool to turn it down. Standards? Fuck standards. If Broadway doesn't need any, why should you?