Critic's Notebook: Top Five Parodies in 'Forbidden Broadway'
A New York theater institution since 1982, the annual roast skewers everyone from Idina Menzel and Neil Patrick Harris to Mandy Patinkin and Carrie Underwood.
NEW YORK – End-of-season theater fatigue getting to you? Already tired of all the Tony Awards talk? Forbidden Broadway: Comes Out Swinging! is the perfect antidote, continuing a 30-year tradition of razor-toothed parody that holds nothing sacred.
Introduced by frustrated performer Gerard Alessandrini in 1982, the annual revue is built out of cheap tat, tinsel and a go-for-the-jugular irreverence toward current stage trends. It earned a Special Tony Award for Excellence in the Theatre in 2006, suggesting that the Broadway community can take a joke – even those jokes not exactly intended in the spirit of kindness.
With a Mylar curtain, a piano, four multitasking castmembers and a stash of wigs, costumes and props that might have come from a Halloween supply store, the show is the proudly low-rent antithesis of big, splashy over-produced Broadway.
Alessandrini and his co-director, Phillip George, are not averse to easy targets like jukebox musicals, child performers, recycled revivals and Disney. But Forbidden Broadway has always been at its best when it's mercilessly specific, as in a reworking of the Nazi anthem from Cabaret, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," that takes deadly aim at the relentless corporatization of the Great White Way.
As always, there are more hits than misses, though it's surprising that takedowns of some this season's ripest targets don't quite hit the mark.
The Bullets Over Broadway slam, with Susan Stroman (Carter Calvert) and Woody Allen (Marcus Stevens) singing "Let's Misdirect" (to the tune of "Let's Misbehave"), is only halfway funny. Likewise the Rocky riff with Sylvester Stallone (Scott Richard Foster) giving diction lessons to his stage successor in the title role, Andy Karl (Stevens) – though the toy boxing ring is a hilarious jab at Alex Timbers' tricked-out staging for the Broadway musical. Impersonated by Foster, Neil Patrick Harris' turn as the transgender rocker in Hedwig and the Angry Inch gets a cute obligatory nod but proves a less-than-fertile source of inspiration.
However, a number of the new sketches hit the bull's-eye. And some choice nuggets from past editions make a welcome return, among them the dirgelike desecration of Glen Hansard's neo-folk tunes in Once, and the nailing of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's money machine The Book of Mormon, identifying greenbacks as the one true God worshipped by the South Park creators.
The actors (Mia Gentile rounds out the quartet) are all talented hams whose affection for the folks they are mocking turns even the meanest digs into tart valentines. And music director-pianist David Caldwell's clever arrangements capture the essence of every song and show that gets caught in the line of fire.
It's unfair to single out one performer among such a uniformly hardworking bunch of vocal and comedic talents. But Calvert is a particular delight, whether doing a frumpy Carole King, a kooky Cyndi Lauper, or finding unexpected fresh sparks in someone who already flirts deliriously with self-parody, Liza Minnelli.
For this reviewer, the latest edition of Forbidden Broadway yielded five standouts:
Idina Menzel singing "Let It Blow"
The expiration date is up on the Adele Dazeem jokes, but Gentile channels the leather-lunged screecher with "wicked" accuracy, becoming a human volcano that knows no decibel limit. Proclaiming herself the undisputed queen of "little girl grade school nation," Gentile's Idina wraps up her killer spoof of the Frozen hit, singing, "Let my chords blow out! My nodes never bothered me anyway."
Jason Robert Brown's The Bridges of Madison County
Not known for his humility, composer Brown is an off-the-charts egomaniac in Stevens' portrayal. He gets so lathered up while Kelli O'Hara (Calvert) and Steven Pasquale (Foster) rip into one of his overheated ballads from this season's Tony-nominated Bridges that Brown turns their characters' adulterous affair into a torrid three-way.
Carrie Underwood in The Sound of Music Live!
As the country superstar who caused Julie Andrews no loss of sleep, Calvert is a hoot. She delivers a twangy chorus of the Rodgers and Hammerstein title song before retreating to the NBC green room to lick her wounds and seek solace from Audra McDonald's Mother Abbess (Gentile) after her acting earns her brickbats, not only from across the Twittersphere but even from her co-stars.
The New-Fangled Les Miserables
The Victor Hugo Cliff's Notes blockbuster that defines the '80s mega-musical has been a repeat Forbidden Broadway target over the years. But the show's current revival, which dispenses with the signature turntable set, yields a witty lament for the days before technology swallowed the Broadway musical, utilizing that quaint dinosaur of the classroom, the overhead projector. "One Run More" is also the ideal hymn for the show that refuses to die.
Mandy Patinkin Goes Yiddish
Patinkin is another oldie but goodie in the Forbidden Broadway playbook. Stevens gives the Homeland star and his emotionally overwrought musical stylings the royal treatment with a salute that retools "Hava Nagila" and "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel," before launching into "Super-Frantic-Hyperactive-Self-Indulgent Mandy." And if you can't guess what tune that's sung to, you need to turn in your show-queen card.
"Forbidden Broadway: Comes Out Swinging!" is playing through July 20 at the Davenport Theatre in New York.