Halsted Theatre Centre

There’s nothing particularly “forbidden” about Forbidden Broadway, a musical spoof of the New York theater industry that has settled in at the Halsted Theatre Centre for a brief run. Consisting primarily of well-known show tunes outfitted with parody lyrics, this revue, written and directed by Gerard Alessandrini, purports to skewer the sacred cows of show business; but it’s hard to skewer a cow with a sledgehammer–or with a handful of sour grapes.

Though it’s hyped as a takeoff on the great and not-so-great stars, writers, and directors of Broadway, the real topic of this show is work–who’s got it, who doesn’t, and how it’s paid for. Underlying Alessandrini’s scattershot spoofs of well-known performers, writers, and directors is a basic sense of resentment: they’re successful and I’m not. Ironically, this attitude has made Alessandrini quite successful; his show has been running off-Broadway in various updated editions on and off for almost ten years and has spawned various touring and regional versions. This makes some sense: We’ve all felt jealous because someone else got the work, money, and acclaim we think we deserve, so just about everyone can identify with the snide tone that permeates Alessandrini’s heavy-handed mockery.

Forbidden Broadway’s concern with the bottom line on the chorus line is clear from the very first number, in which a pair of unemployed actors enviously wail “Who do they know?” as they consider their employed colleagues. Of course, things aren’t exactly easy for the folks who have a job either, and the plight of the performer is a theme that runs through several sketches. “Bring it down,” screeches a singer in Les Miserables, complaining about the high falsetto range of that show’s “Bring Him Home.” Choreographer Jerome Robbins, rehearsing a West Side Story sequence in his brilliant dance anthology Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, warns an effeminate dancer to “be butch, boy, real butch.” (The joke here is not institutionalized homophobia, but rather the discomfort felt by a swishy dancer trying to project a macho image.) And just in case you’re wondering why performers put up with all this hassle, Alessandrini delivers the answer in a spoof of Fiddler on the Roof in which “ambition” replaces “tradition” (never mind artistic aspiration) as the driving force in an actor’s life.

Given the crassness of Alessandrini’s comic vision, it’s not surprising that Forbidden Broadway is at its best when it dishes the business behind the shows. Steppenwolf Theatre’s commercially unsuccessful Broadway import, The Grapes of Wrath, is spoofed not for its theatrical content but for its inept, overwrought TV commercials, which emulated candid-camera soap ads in their use of audience members’ videotaped testimony about the drama’s cathartic effect. A trio of sleazy ticket scalpers offer high-priced entry to sold-out shows to the tune of “Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls; schlockmeister Cameron Mackintosh (producer of Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera) lets us know that his shows are mainly excuses for souvenir-merchandising campaigns; classical diva Kiri Te Kanawa sings in a K-Tel-style TV commercial for her operatic recordings of musical comedies; and, in a takeoff on “The Rain in Spain” from My Fair Lady, tough-talking David Mamet and Gregory Mosher, writer and director of Speed-the-Plow, cast pop star Madonna in the show’s female lead to guarantee boffo BO and then work overtime teaching her how to speak her lines.

But Forbidden Broadway generally falls short of the mark when it seeks to spoof the stylistic hallmarks of the artists who, in the end, make Broadway a continuing and viable force. In some cases the problem is simply that Alessandrini’s material is dated, giving the lie to his claim that he keeps his show fresh by adding new material and taking out old stuff. A routine mocking Stephen Sondheim as box-office poison–a Sondheim stand-in sings “Where are the crowds?” to the tune of “Send in the Clowns”–is long overdue for retirement, given the success of Into the Woods; similarly decayed is a scene showing Carol Channing embarking on her umpteenth tour of Hello, Dolly!, a show Channing long ago left behind. (No mention is made of Channing’s ripe-for-satirizing play Legends!–but then that touring show never made it to New York, and if it didn’t happen in New York, by Alessandrini’s lights, it didn’t really happen.) And a scene in which Patti LuPone bemoans losing the film rights to her Evita role to a better-known star (“Don’t cry for me, Barbra Streisand”) tastes like a chicken from last May now that Madonna is being considered for the role.

These vignettes from past editions of Forbidden Broadway would be worth keeping around if they were well written; but though Alessandrini’s adept at coming up with a lyrical idea, he’s not very good at sustaining it. The level of these songs is about on a par with those old Mad magazine parodies of movie musicals: the rhymes are obvious, the joke payoffs predictable, and the humor bland. When Alessandrini mocks Stephen Sondheim’s craftsmanship or Jerome Robbins’s penchant for perfectionism, one can only note that Alessandrini will never be attacked for those flaws.

Still, as in many a hit show, the mediocre material is saved by a topflight cast. The two men and two women imported from out of town for this production are gifted singers whose impersonations of stars are quite enjoyable. Tall, gangly Linda Strasser’s manic Liza Minnelli and beatifically batty Mary Martin are particularly funny, the closest to “forbidden” the show gets; running a close second is Kevin Ligon’s eccentric Mandy Patinkin, who’s hilarious, despite Alessandrini’s unfair slam at Patinkin’s provocative interpretations as “overindulgent.” Karen Murphy as a crudely belting Ethel Merman and Nicholas Augustus as a hammy Richard Harris making mincemeat out of Camelot are also entertaining. By dint of their talent and professionalism, these four (ably accompanied by the seemingly tireless pianist Vincent Trovato and outfitted in surprisingly elaborate costumes by Erika Dyson and wigs by Teresa Vuoso) play Forbidden Broadway for much more than it’s worth.

While we’re on the subject of giving actors their due, let me correct an error in my review of Pegasus Players’ Into the Woods (August 24): Scott Mikita, not Russell Alan Rowe, plays Cinderella’s prince.