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Theatre in Review: Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation (Triad)

Jenny Lee Stern, Chris Collins-Pisano. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Really, I think of Gerard Alessandrini as a kind of superhero: In a show business world gone mad, you can always count on Forbidden Broadway, his long-running satirical revue, to rise up, phoenix-like, ready to smack down the poseurs and pretenders who would appropriate the Broadway stage for their own nefarious purposes. The current commercial theatre scene has given Alessandrini plenty to work with, resulting in one of his freshest, funniest efforts. It's an evening of expertly executed mayhem that can be enjoyed equally by insiders and casual fans alike.

As always, Alessandrini's Broadway is a fallen place where idiotically trendy concepts proliferate, stars shamelessly plunder their bags of tricks, designers run amok with financially ruinous fancies, and producers pander to lowest-common-denominator audiences. He is always at his liveliest when the Times Square neighborhood is packed with pretentious and overreaching entertainments, so let's just say he has plenty to work with here. He has merciless fun with Moulin Rouge, portrayed as a soulless parade of irrelevant chartbusters, adding, by way of Jule Styne, "Don't risk some new flop song/Just stick in a pop song/Juke box is a star's best friend." The jukebox trend is always an FB target: Satine, Moulin Rouge's doomed heroine, starts coughing up blood, announcing that the doctor has given her only "seventy-five pop songs" to live.

In a rare swipe at legit drama, The Ferryman gets manhandled in a sketch featuring that show's mentally adrift Aunt Maggie, who warbles "How Are Things in Irish Drama?" ("Aunt Maggie has arisen from her coma!" someone announces. "And she remembers Finian's Rainbow!" another notes.) Asked where she goes during her spells, she mutters, "I dreamt I was Harper Lee and I was suin' Aaron Sorkin for claiming he wrote To Kill a Mockingbird." Perhaps this edition's masterpiece, however, is Woke-lahoma!," which lampoons the stylistic tics in Daniel Fish's politically correct take on the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, from the onstage chili dinners to the bloodstained finale and general air of depression. Leaping into the title tune, the cast warns, "Our ballet will give you a chill/When we crucify Agnes DeMille!"

Interestingly enough for LSA readers, more often than not production designs are on the firing line, from the budget-busting Moulin Rouge to Oklahoma!'s acid green lighting, blackouts, and video effects. The number "Overblown" lays waste to Frozen's overbearing style: "Our huge Norwegian set is dirty Danish brown/Our puppet snowman should be cute, but he's a scary clown/Our LED projections fake an icy blast/Too many costumes on a hot and sweaty cast."

Once again, Alessandrini, who also directed, has found some skilled partners in crime. Chris Collins-Pisano makes short work of Danny Burstein as Moulin Rouge's emcee, Alex Brightman in Beetlejuice, and Tevye in the Fiddler on the Roof revival, urging audiences to "Brush Up Your Yiddish." He partners gleefully with Jenny Lee Stern as Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, delightedly acting out their dysfunctional marriage for millions of television viewers. Stern stops the show as Judy Garland, back from the other side and ticked off as all get-out about Renée Zellweger's new film.

Immanuel Houston is plenty of fun as André De Shields, leading a nervous family of tourists through Forbidden Hadestown; a cross-dressing Billy Porter, claiming the role of Gypsy's Madame Rose in "Everything Now Is Inclusive"; and Jennifer Holliday, complaining about her dearth of roles since Dreamgirls. Aline Mayagoitia is an especially deft character assassin, whether the victim is Karen Olivo, slinking and pouting her way through Moulin Rouge, or Bernadette Peters, announcing plans to shed her Betty Boop personality to play a bitch on cable TV. In keeping with the show's title, the teenage Joshua Turchin earns laughs as a replacement Evan Hansen, acting ever more neurotically to earn the audience's love ("What's the matter with you?" asks a bemused possible girlfriend. "Can't you act like a normal male ingenue?"); he also makes a startling appearance as Santino Fontana in full drag, for a number noting Tootsie's ever-declining box office figures.

This may be the most intensively choreographed Forbidden Broadway ever, what with the Fosse/Verdon sequence and the finale, based on "It's Time to Dance," from The Prom, which notes that if you end a show with a big, athletic production number, nobody will remember all those pesky dangling plot points; Gerry McIntyre's musical staging is especially accomplished, considering the postage-stamp stage at the Triad. The only credited design aspect is Dustin Cross' costumes, which are wickedly accurate and primed for split-second changes.

Of course, not everything works perfectly, but the batting average is more than high enough to keep the audience in stitches. Unusually, Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation ends on an optimistic, even touching, note, with a parody of "Our Time" from Merrily We Roll Along, which pays tribute to stars old and new, followed by the late Harold Prince, as Carousel's Starkeeper, to graduate the cast members, sending them off to greater things. It's not typical for Alessandrini to gaze into the future, but this time he has every reason to do so, given this season's upcoming shows. What, I wonder, will he make of the basket cases of Jagged Little Pill, the emotional miasma suffusing Girl from the North Country, Ivo van Hove's excoriating take on West Side Story, and Flying Over Sunset, a musical in which Clare Boothe Luce and Cary Grant groove on LSD? I can't wait to find out. --David Barbour

(22 October 2019)

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