Donna English and Michael Westin Forbidden Broadway(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Donna English and Michael West
in Forbidden Broadway
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Gerard Alessandrini has been doing professionally and lucratively for 20 years what members of Broadway casts have been doing during Equity breaks for dogs' years: making fun of Broadway shows and, in particular, musicals. There's no doubt that, among the 390 sketches he's written, there are a number of classics. For instance, the Alessandrini send-up of Les Misérables, with the actors pretending to be victims of that famous, relentless turntable, is hilarious. The satirist's lyrics and mockery of that show's other verbal and choreographic tics are so bang-on that he has rarely dropped the lengthy number from any edition since it was introduced.

And here it is again, serving as a first-act exclamation point for Forbidden Broadway: 20th Anniversary Celebration. It's the funniest number in the newest edition, which has occasioned Alessandrini's press people to put together a fact sheet that ought to impress. In one version or another, Forbidden Broadway has played over 6,600 performances in Manhattan aside from its many tours and productions in other cities. It has boasted 350 cast members to date and there have been some 508,800 costume changes and 535 wigs. The longest-running pieces involve Carol Channing and Cats, neither of which is included in the current frame. The most spoofed performer is Liza Minnelli and she gets hers again this time around as she tootles, "I just got married for the fourth time / Ding, dong, I hope this one is straight."

The not-very-witty Minnelli bit sparks a few thoughts about what's behind the show: The cast members, costumes, and wigs go a long way towards explaining why Forbidden Broadway has been such a consistent hoot over the years. Singing, dancing, and acting expertly is not enough to qualify for these funny follies; mimicry is also needed. It isn't sufficient that a guy or gal sing and deliver gags as well as Merman or Channing or Preston--he or she has to sound like Merman, Channing or Preston and have a grasp of the original manufacturer's telling mannerisms.

How many people around can pull all of that off with pulse and pizzazz? Well, the regularly adroit Forbidden Broadway casts seem to prove that their number is legion. The current quartet, smartly backed by Glenn Gordon at the piano, is no exception. Michael West, Kristine Zbornik, and Donna English are Alessandrini veterans and don't let the show down; nor does FB neophyte Daniel Reichard, who jumps into and out of impersonations as speedily as he jumps into and out of Velcroed togs. Zbornik's Merman, dominating a duet with Reichard's Elton John, blows the house down. The big-grinned West gets to do an amusing Maurice Chevalier along his merry way. Notably, the performers are never caught huffing and puffing as a result of the quick changes they have to make, sometimes in the middle of a single spoof.

In light of this below-par edition, the question becomes: What does Alessandrini bring to the party? Well, of course, he brings the premise, which carries him far. He also brings his facility for stringing new and abundant lyrics on familiar melodic lines. And he brings his batting average, which seems to be somewhere in the .400 range. That is, about two in five of his pieces are inspired enough to hit the comic bull's eye--which means that, of the 390 sketches he's done over two decades, approximately 150 may be top-drawer stuff. Not bad, really. What seems a shame is that, of those 150 or so, only four or five are currently on view. There's the old Les Miz reliable, to be sure. Alessandrini's Stephen Sondheim sally, a sing-along to the Into the Woods title tune, remains a humdinger. The time-tested number in which Chita Rivera insists she is not Rita Moreno, and Rita insists vice versa, still scores. Having Elaine Stritch and Bea Arthur gargle about being "Boozin' Buddies" is another peachy notion, even if this number and the takeoff of Stritch doing "Zip" both imply in apparent contradiction of the facts that the toast of the 2001-2002 season isn't really on the wagon. The show's opener, "No Leading Lady Tonight" (taken from Guys and Dolls' "Luck Be a Lady [Tonight]"), wrings solid yocks from the past year's spate of star absences.

Kristine Zbornik and Daniel Reichardin Forbidden Broadway(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Kristine Zbornik and Daniel Reichard
in Forbidden Broadway
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
And that's about it for genuine entertainment. Though there would seem to be plenty of new grist for Alessandrini's humor mill, he hasn't found it. For Oklahoma!, he's come up with a song called "Old Revivals." Unamusing. He's lumped Urinetown together with Cabaret and The Producers for a piece about musicals these days having to be disgusting in order to be admired. Possibly insightful, but also not unamusing. The showbiz figures he lamely ribs, not for the first time, include Cameron Mackintosh and Mandy Patinkin. In reference to both Barbara Cook and Kathleen Turner, the stout fellow cracks a few unfunny fat jokes.

Speaking of fat jokes: There is a noticeable pattern to Alessandrini's work that isn't appealing. Over the years, he has tended to kid the ladies by referring to their advancing age or their ample weight. Cumulatively, these pieces add up to a misogynic outlook; diverting though Alessandrini may sometimes be, this proclivity gives him the air of a cad, so he might want to look more closely at it. (Is there an unconscious reason why the perennially troubled Liza Minnelli has so often been the butt of his jokes?) At the same time, Alessandrini manages repeatedly to get the men in his shows stripped to the waist. He and co-director Phillip George are not the first to do this; it used to be and perhaps still is a regular feature of Broadway musicals. But shouldn't Alessandrini be poking fun at the practice rather than perpetuating it?

Finally, there are the missing targets that a theatergoer rightly or wrongly may be expecting. It's too early for Alessandrini to have gotten around to Sweet Smell of Success, but what about Metamorphoses? Now, there's a body of work and a body of water to go after! It's probably unfair to challenge him on what he hasn't broached, so another bad word won't be said on the subject. It's just unfortunate that there aren't more good words to say in general about the 20th anniversary edition of Forbidden Broadway.