Monday, September 10, 2012

REVIEW: Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking!

Review of the Saturday, September 8 matinee performance at the 47th Street Theatre, New York City.  Starring David Caldwell, Natalie Charle Ellis, Scott Richard Foster, Jenny Lee Stern and Marcus Stevens. Created and written by Gerard  Alessandrini.  Additional dialogue by Phillip George.  Directed by Phillip George and Gerard Alessandrini.  1 hour 45 minutes, including an intermission.

Grade: B+

After an absence of several years, Gerard Alessandrini and company are back to lampoon all of the latest Broadway shows, Broadway news events, and a few Broadway legends.  It seems no one is left untouched in this latest version of Forbidden Broadway, Alive and Kicking!  As usual, the production values are purposely low, wickedly on point, and seriously funny.  Most of the time, the parody comes from a loving spot (though I'm not sure how Elena Roger would take the way they treat her).  And most of the time the jokes are funnier than you expect, with the lyrics of the show tunes creatively razor-sharp.  Only a few times does the show miss the mark, and just two days after opening night, two bits are already just a tad in need of updating.  Still, fans of Broadway (and even a few foes of such legends as Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Mandy Patinkin and Stephen Sondheim) should take great delight in this fast-paced revue.

David Caldwell
Everything about the production, even the theatre itself, seems to be a parody of Broadway.  The stage, about the size of a dining room table is carpeted, the big spotlights go on and off and do nothing else (and yet you can see everything perfectly - designed by Mark T. Simpson), and even the seats seem to send up the notorious lack of legroom in a Broadway house, though the mezzanine, where we sat this time around is down right spacious compared to the "orchestra" seats!  Speaking of the orchestra, overtures from Broadway's glory days play while we wait for the show to start, and when it does, it is simple a grand piano (which looks even more enormous on that tiny stage).  But that does not keep accompanist David Caldwell from playing the hell out of the score.  Throughout, he keeps things moving at a brisk pace, with a very full sound - he doesn't just play the melody, that's for sure.

As for the rest of the production, one imagines a small army of interns scouring Village vintage shops and Goodwill shops for costume pieces and props, while another small army of assistants to costume designer Phillip Heckman (The Lion King costumes were designed by Alvin Colt) assemble spot-on knock offs and send ups of the real thing!  You may never look at a Snuggie the same way again!  Or a fake beard.  Or chopsticks.  In short, just by looking at the costumes you know right away what they are sending up, and that is no small task. The outfits for The Lion King, Once and Donna Murphy's witch costume from Into the Woods are especially perfect for the occasion.

They say your have really made it on Broadway when your name is above the title, you win a Tony Award and you get your likeness drawn for the walls at Sardi's.  I might add inclusion in Forbidden Broadway to that list.  So congratulations to Steve Kazee, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, Audra McDonald and Sutton Foster, all of whom are named in the lyrics and are portrayed on stage!  They really lampoon the Tony-winners of that bunch to great success - the angst of Kazee, the histrionic, unintelligible belt of McDonald, the insufferable cheeriness of Foster - amping up what works for all three into riotous excess.

Anything Goes


Like the costumes, which you recognize immediately, but aren't exact replicas, the cast of four doesn't really attempt Vegas-style impersonations, but rather loving "approximations" that exploit signature characteristics of their targets.  Stephen Richard Foster is really terrific (and a hoot to boot) as Steve Kazee in the Once sequence, and is literally a scream as ANY of the actors who have played Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages.  Natalie Charle Ellis is one limber gal, as evidenced by her use of Mr. Foster as a pole upon which to dance in the same sequence.  She also shines as Katharine McPhee in the Smash sequence, and is a stiff as a board Mary Poppins, and her Audra as Bess is too funny, almost insulting if it weren't so exactly right.  Marcus Stevens really gets the ball rolling as Ricky Martin the "Livin' Evita Loca" sequence, nailing that sexy grin and sending up the Latin dance moves with dexterity.  He is also extremely funny as Mandy Patinkin in the Patti/Mandy sequence.  In both cases, his scene partner is the breakout star of the show, Jenny Lee Stern, who makes the most of several roles.  I'm telling you the woman is a chameleon, with the physicality of Lucy and the vocal range any three opera divas.  I laughed til I cried at her wide-eyed "Girl" from Once, and her work as Kelli O'Hara, Sutton Foster and especially Bernadette Peters are a marvel to watch and laugh at.  I also loved her turn as Elena Roger, who is either a really good sport or a complete diva in real life.


Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin


The best line in the whole show is during the Once sequence - "we are so unpretentious we've become pretentious!"  Best non-speaking/singing performance is also from the Once bit - Ellis as Anne Nathan, the accordion-toting mother figure on the show.  I just know when I see that actual show, I am going to giggle every time the accordion plays!  The best back-up dancing has to be the two guys doing the tap dancing during the Anything Goes sketch, complete with not quite masculine sailors, boring repetition and faux breathlessness at the end.  Aside from the Once sequence, which is really a show unto itself, the next best sketches are a tie between the dead-on ridiculousness Nice Work If You Can Get It and its real-life non-chemistry between Broderick and O'Hara (Mr. Stevens and Ms. Stern are so good, you wish it were them playing at the Imperial).  And the other winner is the Patti and Mandy Back on Broadway sequence, which nails Patinkin's self-absorption and true lack of singing ability, along with all the delicious facial contortions of La LuPone.  But the best part of it all is their eewwy-gooey lovey dovey groping of each other as they work so hard to get us to believe they love each other THAT much... "let's make a baby right here" she coos as she dry humps his backside while the lights dim...


Less successful bits include the Spider-Man sketch which pits Bono against Julie Taymor, which doesn't work because in reality, they have both become a parody of themselves, and jokes about actor almost dying are inappropriate.  The Annie thing is funny, but not, and probably only included because she's coming back to Broadway soon.  And the Idina Menzel/Wicked number is too well sung... not once does Ms. Ellis go off key.  Has she never seen the infamous Tony Awards segment?  And comments about Jeremy Jordan being the leading man and Audra not doing 8 shows a week worked during previews, but he's not the lead anymore and she's doing all 8 again (allegedly).

But all of that takes up less than 10 minutes, which, compared to the 85 other minutes of near perfection of the rest of the show is reason enough to cheer Forbidden Broadway's triumphant return.  Long may you be alive and kicking!  (I'll come back when you add Chaplin and Bring It On, for sure!)

(Production photos by Carol Rosegg)

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