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Theatre in Review: Spamilton (The Triad)

Nicholas Edwards. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Has Gerard Alessandrini, Broadway's court jester since (seemingly) the dawn of time, changed his ways? In every edition of Forbidden Broadway since 1982, our reigning stage satirist has laid waste to an entire season's worth of theatrical follies in a series of brief musical sketches; based on the title of his latest effort, one assumes that he is launching a full frontal assault on Lin-Manuel Miranda's era-defining blockbuster. This is a misimpression: Although Spamilton never strays far from its source material, Alessandrini uses it as a framework, allowing him to take aim at a variety of Broadway shows and personalities. In a sense, it's a rebranded version of Forbidden Broadway in a modified format, marked by such bizarre, hilarious tangents as An American Psycho in Paris ("I'll kill my friends/In my underwear/With a big axe ev'ryday.") and The Lion King and I ("Shall we roar?/Shall we keep on running evermore?/People like what they know and what's in store.").

Still, more than half of this barbed entertainment is devoted to Hamilton, a show that seems to have really gotten under Alessandrini's skin; he has always played fair with his targets, studying them closely in order to turn their own styles against them. Here, the line between parody and homage seems to have collapsed; Alessandrini's approach so closely mirrors Miranda's style that one is less amused by his lyrics than impressed by their sheer technical skill. His handling of Miranda's run-on style is so accurate and so relentlessly tongue-tripping that one is often left breathless, if sometimes without room to laugh. Equally impressive is the seamless way he weaves standard Broadway musical tropes -- Molly Brown's "I Ain't Down Yet," some Harold Hill talk-singing, and, inevitably, "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy -- into the action. In its sheer intricacy and its inside-baseball knowledge, Spamilton may be best enjoyed by hard-core musical theatre fans rather than general audiences.

As the biggest Broadway hit in decades, Hamilton must have presented Alessandrini with an irresistible target; still, as an object of satire, it proves to be surprisingly elusive. Of course, he has fun with the sheer verbosity of Miranda's lyrics. Thomas Jefferson's big number is refocused as a message to bewildered audience members, asking them, "What'd you miss?/The lyrics go by so fast/You are in the abyss." None other than Stephen Sondheim shows up to condemn rap lyrics, commenting, "These are the rhymes that try men souls." Eliza, Hamilton's widow, complains, "There's 525,000 words in this play, but I can't take too long cause we're running out of time." Alessandrini also takes a wicked swipe at the Times' ludicrously excessive coverage, noting, "There will be a Hamilton section ev'ry day." And he tweaks the show's tear-jerking finale, particularly the announcement that, in her widowhood, Eliza opened an orphanage, which allows him to trot out Broadway's most famous orphan for a rendition of "Tomorrow."

All of this, while admittedly very funny, constitutes so much nipping around the edges, however, and Alessandrini repeatedly struggles to find a big idea that would skewer Hamilton in the manner of his classic takedowns of Les Misérables, Grand Hotel, and Titanic. He has always done best with big, bloated, overly solemn efforts, which is why the pop operas of the 1980s provided him with such fertile material; here, he is a tad lumbered by Hamilton's inventiveness and youthful high spirits. Indeed, his intensely close reading of the original material sometimes seems like an expression of envy. Overall, he seems more at home with more familiar subjects, rewriting the opening number of Assassins ('Ev'ry big show has the right to be vapid/Last year's fad is not as bad as it seems."); imagining a #HollywoodSoWhite film version of Hamilton starring Russell Crowe, Shia LaBeouf, and Neil Patrick Harris; and trotting out gleeful caricatures of various Broadway divas.

Acting as his own director, Alessandrini maintains a lightning pace, aided by Gerry McIntyre's choreography and John Znidarsic's additional musical staging, taking some amusing potshots at Andy Blankenbuehler's strenuous, nonstop Hamilton choreography. As always, he has enlisted some nimble and fearless young talents. Juwan Crawley excels as Sondheim, here reconfigured as Benjamin Franklin, who advises, "Careful the rap you play/No one will listen." (Crawley even maintains his sangfroid when dressed as Little Orphan Annie.) Chris Anthony Giles does an eerily exact Leslie Odom, Jr., who, as Aaron Burr, advises Hamilton to "smile more/rhyme less." Nicholas Edwards nails Daveed Diggs' airheaded party-boy demeanor as Thomas Jefferson. Dan Rosales is a dead ringer for Miranda, who here suffers from a Messiah complex, announcing, "I am not going to let Broadway rot!" Best of all is Nora Schell as a sassy Renée Elise Goldsberry, a put-out Audra McDonald ("The has-been," Miranda sneers. "You haven't won a Tony in months!"), and Barbra Streisand, coolly making Hamilton's history-making Tony win all about her. It's worth noting that any of these gifted performers could step right into Hamilton tomorrow and nobody would be the wiser.

Also, certain performances feature special guest appearances by Christine Pedi as a deliriously out-of-it Liza Minnelli, singing "Down with Rap" ("I love syntax," she coos to an audience member. "Don't you?"), and Glenn Bassett as a miffed Jonathan Groff, who notes that, thanks to the virile cast of Hamilton, "Straight is back/Soon you'll see/Campy musicals went out with Glee."

As a nightclub revue, Spamilton isn't really big on design values but Dustin Cross' costumes make their own wicked statement about Paul Tazewell's body-hugging Hamilton outfits; I also enjoyed the appearance of Aladdin's Genie in a sparkly blue outfit embroidered with Mickey Mouse heads. Matt Weber's sound design is a model of clarity.

Fans of Forbidden Broadway won't want to miss this latest edition, and, given Hamilton's astounding success, knowledgeable audience members will not be in short supply. Still, this fitfully hilarious, yet scattershot, effort clarifies something that has seemed increasingly obvious for some time. Forbidden Broadway began as a young writer's attack on the stale formulas and calcified personalities of 1980s Broadway; over the years, Alessandrini has evolved into a conservative warrior, defending the castle of traditional musical theatre against incursions from jukebox tuners, the Disney Organization, rap masters, and other barbarian hordes. His weapon is satire, but underneath the laughter one detects a persistent ache, a longing for a Broadway that is never coming back. -- David Barbour

(8 September 2016)

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