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Home > Past Buzz > The Proof is in the Spoofing
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NY TIMES
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 25, 2005
Megan Lewis

Here's a curious paradox for you: The most inviting introduction to the new season on Broadway may well be Gerard Alessandrini's merciless evisceration of the last one, in the retooled, consistently riotous latest edition of "Forbidden Broadway."

The coming theatrical year promises such potentially dubious gifts as another jukebox musical (or two), another trip to the Disney cellblock and another singing vampire. But these apparitions don't seem so baleful with the prospect of future takedowns by Mr. Alessandrini looming behind them, like more frolicsome dopelgängers.

Before the producers of the afore-alluded-to shows fire off sour letters, let me assure one and all that, as always, I sincerely hope that every new Broadway production will prove to be an artful, intelligent, thoroughly rewarding night at the theater. I'm a hopeful guy, truly.

But even living in hype, one may also fear the worst. So it's comforting to know that Mr. Alessandrini will suffer along with us, and will in time translate his own anguish into entertainment that shines a merciless light on a year's misadventures in Midtown.

His indispensable franchise, more than 20 years old and newly ensconced at the 47th Street Theater, right now looks considerably more chipper than the industry it makes such delicious sport of. While Broadway shows lumber through the long process of readings, workshops, tryouts and previews, Mr. Alessandrini, like rag-trade knockoff specialist, whips up his miniature spoofs instantly, and often comes up with skits and musical goofs that contain more charm than the originals.

The latest version of Mr. Alessandrini's enduring vehicle, "Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims' Unit," is less than a year old, but Mr. Alessandrini ahs already freshened it with numbers inspired by a half-dozen recent shows. He has even included a few cheeky references to star turns that have yet to be exposed to the glare of critical appraisal, such as Rosie O'Donnell's arrival in Anatevka and Brook Shields's in "Chicago."

The newest material is some of the funniest in the show. Mr. Allessandini's pocket version of "The Light in the Piazza" will certainly offend anyone's sensitive to comic depictions of the mentally handicapped. The young lass portrayed by a twitching Megan Lewis shows rather more pronounced evidence of mental deficiency than Kelli O'Hara, who plays the character in the original. Of course she couldn't really display any less. In exaggerating the deficiencies of the show's mentally underdeveloped heroine, Mr. Allesandrini hints that a flaw in the musical's execution: its hesitancy to confront the delicate subject at the crux of the plot, ("You'll have to forgive her, " says Jeanne Montano, as Victoria Clark's proper Southern matron, to the girl's puzzled young suitor. "She has a horrible secret that can't be revealed until Act II.")

Mr. Alessandrini also makes hay with the show's signature special effect, the levitating chapeau, and of course the musical challenges of Adam Guettel's score.

Nonetheless, his affection and respect for "Piazza" as a continuation of Broadway tradition shines through the well-made segment. Less sturdily constructed shows get looser and decidedly more vicious treatment. His roasting of the departing "Lennon" opens with a swaggering cowboy, symbol of sterling old-school musicals as exemplified by the works of Mr. Guettel's grandfather, Richard Rodgers, confronting the force behind the latest example of the genre that has all but supplanted it.

"There's a bright golden jukebox on Broadway," sings Jason Mills to the strains that open "Oklahoma!" Sidling onstage, the cowpoke is baffled and impishly teased by Ms. Monano's pidgin-spouting Yoko Ono. Later, to the tune of "Imagine," she sings, "Imagine five John Lennons, when a seat you buy/ No gross below us above tomatoes fly/ Imagine all the critics shrivel up and die."

Ms. Lewis, the most gifted mimic in the show's hard-working cast of four, sends up Cherry Jones' gruffly antagonistic Sister Aloysius to perfection in the choice segment that makes sport of one of the year's tenser Tony battles, between s. Jones and Kathleen Turner in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" With her mouth set in a precise imitation of Sister A's grim capsized smile, Ms. Lewis excoriates her vanquished opponent for her boozy ways, and then performs an exorcism to the tune of the gospel-inflected R&B anthem "Shout!"

The show's most inspired moment arrives when Ron Bohmer, a veteran of several leading man stints on Broadway who clearly knows whereof he spoofs, joins Ms. Montano for Mrs. Alessandrini's priceless tit-for-tat tangle with the season's megahit "Spamalot."

You may well wonder how Mr. Alessandrini can send up a show that sends itself up so relentlessly. Trust him to find a way. To describe it would be a crime more egregious than any of those of the producers Mrs. Alessandrini prosecutes, but it justifies a visit all by itself.

Of course, if soberly assessed, the criticisms Mr. Alessandrini levels would be cause for despair. You might even be inspired to forswear Broadway forever as a cesspool of crass commercialism and degenerate artistic standards. But wouldn't you rather laugh along with Mr. Alessandrini than cry in your beer? In fact, as you leave "Forbidden Broadway," you're likely to feel not anguish but the warm glow that committed theater-lovers can get only from a night spent indulging this addiction. Counterintuitive though it may seem, you'll be primed to face the new season not with a cynical smirk, but a welcome smile. As illuminated by the flares of Mr. Alessandrini's unflappable with, the bleak future has never looked brighter.

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