Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit
The theater has its rituals, and one that cannot be denied is the annual midseason pilgrimage to "Forbidden Broadway," to see the new shows all pink and nekkid and running for cover from Gerard Alessandrini's satirical lashes at their imperfect private parts. Opening with a delicious sneer from impersonators of "Law & Order" vets Jerry Orbach and B.D. Wong, this year's edition raises its whip to such newbies as " 'night, Mother" and "Bombay Dreams," deflates some hit shows that are making too much money for their own good and initiates what promises to be a passionate kiss-kiss, knock-knock relationship with the just-opened revival of "La Cage aux Folles."
Huge, overproduced or ill-conceived musicals have always been the prime inspiration for Alessandrini, who was rumored to have tried to open a vein when Andrew Lloyd Webber left town. But he's rolling in clover here with a fresh field of presumptuous overachievers.
To a screeching chorus of Shakalaka Babies, "Bombay Dreams" is drowned in its own fountain for outsourcing jobs and importing vulgarity. The up-in-the-air "Dracula" takes a drubbing for trying to fly away from its own score. ("They keep me flying/They hoist me in the air," wails Jason Mills' Tom Hewitt, "but nobody seems to care.") And the goyishe revival of "Fiddler" inspires a full production number bemoaning the way that "egomaniacal" British directors such as Sam Mendes, David Leveaux and Trevor Nunn systematically "destroy and dismantle our masterpieces."
That hypersensitivity to overamped, undistinguished musicals even becomes the dramatic motivation for suicide in " 'night, Mother." "I used to think that if there was just one great new musical opening, I could stay alive for that," Edie Falco (Megan Lewis) laments. "But what did we get? Eden Espinosa in 'Brooklyn!' " Not even the opening-night tickets for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" that Jennifer Simard's Brenda Blethyn waves in front of her can lighten her despair.
It was no cheesy musical, though, but a dramatic play that inspired one of the most sublime sketches in the show -- "I Am My Own Cast" -- which not only sends up "I Am My Own Wife" and "Cabaret" but also takes down the Tony Awards. "Wilkommen, bienvenue, strangers/I am the new German weirdo," Mills smirks as he minces across the stage in the tasteful black drag-mit-pearls that looked so perversely stylish on Jefferson Mays. "Wir sagen/To win a Tony/Act crazy/Star in a play/Even more gay/Than 'Cabaret.' "
For a fuller trouncing of the Tony Awards (the "gay subversive program" that "straight people turn off"), stay tuned for "Welcome to the Tonys," a cheerfully vicious replay of the 2004 broadcast that fulfilled the show's annual mission to be "the weirdest program no one wants to see."
A combination of wit and attitude gives the show its smart style, and this edition's special victims are well deserving of the spoofery. But embedded in every clever sendup is some shrewd and sad observation about the current state of legit: the downsizing of productions ("Beauty's Been Decreased"), the cultural blight of 42nd Street ("Let's Ruin Times Square Again"), the appropriation of material (Billy Joel gets snippy about Twyla Tharp raiding his songbook for "Movin' Out"), the sellout to the movies ("Thoroughly Perky Millie") and the trend to animation ("Ya Gotta Get a Puppet").
Because Alessandrini writes from the perspective of an unabashed industry insider, there's also beaucoup bitching from hard-working chorus hoofers, along with good dish from the thesps in the green room. The backstage gossip about the feuding witches in "Wicked" is especially ... well, wicked, in a number that sets up Lewis to blow the house down as the leather-lunged Idina Menzel. ("I am the loudest witch in Oz/And no one's gonna turn my volume down!")
All four performers dissect their characters with skill worthy of Sweeney Todd. Ron Bohmer's piece de resistance is Michael Crawford in full tenor affectation as the Phantom. Simard is the kindred spirit of demanding divas like Judy Garland, Bernadette Peters and that "cute obnoxious phony" Kristin Chenoweth. And what Mills does to Hugh Jackman is probably actionable. But Lewis scores a personal coup, first for stepping in at the last minute for an ailing Christine Pedi, then for belting the hell out of belters like Patti LuPone and Ethel Merman.
The kid's triumph is so darn "42nd Street," Alessandrini will probably write it into his next show.
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