Advertised as an equal opportunity offender, Forbidden Broadway ridicules anything and everything that might provide a hearty laugh. It attacks highly praised work like Contact as readily as it knocks Saturday Night Fever. The latest edition of the show at the Stardust Theatre, Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey, is yet another fun-fest. Alessandrini co-directed the show with Phillip George, and the whole enterprise is staged with such economy and precision that there is hardly time to breathe between laughs, let alone between each sketch and/or musical number. The material is wonderfully edgy stuff that tickles us because, for all its sass, the sentiments expressed are often fundamentally true. When, pretending to be Cheryl Ladd in Annie Get Your Gun, Felicia Finley sings the lyric "There's No Business Like Show Business" as "I've No Business in Show Business," the audience laughs its guts out. The joke is that it's not a joke, and that's why we roar.
We are tempted to rattle off more of the show's gags, but we don't want to ruin too many surprises. Suffice it to say that Alessandrini and company sink their teeth into such Broadway fare as Aida, The Lion King, Kiss Me, Kate, and The Music Man. Among the personalities lacerated are Elton John, Stephen Sondheim, Elaine Stritch, Sarah Brightman, and Ethel Merman. The depth and breadth of the satiric subject matter is impressive in its own right, but one of the hallmarks of the show is the fresh way in which it launches its zingers. Rarely does Alessandrini take the obvious approach. For instance, as a follow-up to his earlier, brilliant spoofs of Les Misérables, he now offers a number that predicts the show will run "Ten Years More" as the cast marches confidently forward, eliciting screaming laughter from an audience that loves being treated like insiders.
The show rarely falters. In the first act, Danny Gurwin performs Alessandrini's version of "Trouble" from The Music Man, a sharp satire of the entire contemporary theatergoing experience. In the second act, there is a wickedly funny duet between Elton John (Gurwin) and Ethel Merman (Pedi) as they musically quarrel about the current state of the theater.
This leads us to what is still probably the most often asked question about Forbidden Broadway: Do you need to know the shows and stars that are being satirized in order to get the gags? For the most part, no; these songs and skits are written and performed so as to be understood out of context. Of course, a certain amount of theater knowledge is helpful. If you don't know who Ben Brantley is, for instance, you're at a disadvantage when your hear that Marin Mazzie's big number from Kiss Me, Kate (performed by Christine Pedi) has been changed from "I Hate Men" to "I Hate Ben." You're further disadvantaged if you don't know the original song. Still, the number is directed in a way to help you out: Pedi is seen reading The New York Times before ripping it up, which gives you the clue that Ben is the paper's chief theater critic. And the song itself is so clever that you don't have to know the original lyrics; the parody works on its own terms.
Every bit as good as the material are the four performers who make up the cast. Exceptional entertainers have always been a hallmark of Forbidden Broadway, and several of the show's alums have gone on to Broadway careers--e.g., Jason Alexander, Dee Hoty, and Bryan Batt. The most wildly versatile member of the current cast is Pedi, who does a dead-on Elaine Stritch--not to mention a hilarious Judi Dench, a wicked Marin Mazzie, a stunning Barbra Streisand, a tremulous Edith Piaf, and an amazing Patti LuPone. In all cases, Pedi actually sounds like these stars and gestures like them, as well. We'd say it's freaky, but instead we'll say it's "Rafreaky" (from The Lion King), whom Gurwin so comically plays. Felicia Finley is a blonde standout in the show; her takeoff on Aida's Heather Headley singing an Elton John song that has been retitled "It's Cheesy" will make you laugh uncontrollably. Tony Nation, the most under-used member of the foursome, has his best moment as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever.
Forbidden Broadway has always displayed wit and whimsy in its inspired, low-rent costuming. Alvin Colt's costumes this year are actually more elaborate than in the past, but they could not be funnier, from the high-concept getups that earn laughs the moment you see them to the little bits of detail--like having Cheryl Ladd, as Annie Oakley, carry a hair dryer in her holster instead of a gun.
We've seen almost every edition of Forbidden Broadway since the show's inception 18 years ago. This one is as good as any, and better than most. If you love the theater--and you wouldn't be logged on to TheaterMania if you didn't--you will adore this show.