After an on-and-off run spanning 31 years in 19 editions and more than 9,000 performances, Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway is one off-Broadway fixture that doesn't need to prove it has legs. Yet here those long, long legs are, on the road, 600 miles from home through Sunday at Booth Playhouse, the one and only Forbidden Broadway Alive & Kicking!
To have the resolve and the chutzpah to satirize Broadway and proclaim what's wrong with it for more than three decades, even from the wicked and snarky vantage point of off-Broadway, you need to have a pretty firm and righteous convictions about what would be right. You will no doubt catch Alessandrini's viewpoint loud and clear if you heed the lyrics of his most devastating song parodies. But Alessandrini, an original cast member when the first Forbidden edition went up in 1982, also applies his high standards to packaging his baby for the road.
The cheesy little theater on 47th Street where I saw Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab in 2008 and Alive & Kicking this past February doesn't boast a stage that's even a quarter of the size of the Booth's. So draping the entire upstage with a seedy Mylar curtain requires considerably more cash than the New York staging. Yet Alessandrini, in co-directing the roadshow with Phillip George, another former cast member, rightly judges that the far taller stages in Forbidden Broadway's travels would still look bare without a spread of parodied show posters hovering over the action.
So what we see at the Booth truly approximates the rancid glitz I fondly recall at the 47th Street Theatre, especially since Alvin Colt's costume designs and Carol Sherry's wigs are along for the ride — and pulling their weight drawing laughs. Better yet, all four players at the Booth are seasoned actors who, like their directors, have performed in the ratty off-Broadway venue. In fact, my wife Sue and I have seen three of the four members of the Charlotte cast during our past Forbidden pilgrimages, Scott Richard Foster and Marcus Stevens in Alive & Kicking and Gina Kreiezmar in Goes to Rehab.
Parts of both shows — and more — make their way into the current touring version of Alive & Kicking, underlining a grim truth: the indomitable skits of Forbidden Broadway frequently outlive the weak prey they're mimicking and satirizing so deftly. Matthew Broderick and Nice Work If You Can Get It have gotten pink slips and closed since they were fair game in February, and the revival of Cole Porter's Anything Goes is gone, so we're also deprived of a wondrous Sutton Foster parody, "Everything Blows." Nor are these the most wretched bombs that Forbidden has assaulted. Five years after Goes to Rehab pounced on them, the musicalized Young Frankenstein and Tale of Two Cities wouldn't draw a flicker of recognition.
Truth is, Alive & Kicking must dig deep into Forbidden Broadway inventory to field enough targets to kick. In our trips to the mothership, we never saw skits about Chicago, Cameron Mackintosh or Sarah Brightman. Skits skewering Once and Lion King are longer and funnier than the ones we saw in New York. On the weekend we saw Alive & Kicking in New York, they were just adding "This Song's Too High" to roast Hugh Jackman's performance in the film version of Les Miz. Now they've exhumed a full-length onslaught, and in its crosshairs is the legendary turntable from the original 1987 Broadway production.
The turntable commotion would be pure chaos in the cramped quarters of 47th Street Theatre, but they're pretty damn hilarious here, too.
Judging that we still care about Ricky Martin's impossibly cheery Che Guevara, Alive & Kicking retains the Evita sketch in the rotation. So after a revamped opening that's far too swift, allusive and musically obscure, Kicking gets off to a somewhat lame start with Evita and Chicago. Once they start targeting the hits that have toured here in recent years — including Jersey Boys, Mary Poppins, and Avenue Q — the show quickly gels.
Kreiezmar was killing Patti Lupone and Liza Minelli when I saw her five years ago, and she still demolishes them, adding Ethel Merman to her special victims list. Scott Foster still nails the pathetic Jean Valjean in the Les Miz takedown and the incoherent Philip Seymour Hoffman in a skit about a bad acting school, collaborating with Stevens as the inflexibly eccentric Al Pacino. Better yet is Stevens' impression of Mandy Patimkin, adding far more malice and lagniappe than I witnessed in New York. Choosing a favorite between this egocentric Patimkin and Jeanne Montano's magnificently chaste, shrill, off-key, and cross-eyed Sarah Brightman, the original Phantom of the Opera waif, is a daunting task. Montano also lowers the boom on Wicked icon Idina Menzel.
If Evita and a brief cut of Little Shop of Horrors have outlived their shelf life, what are we to say about the cannonades aimed at shows we haven't seen yet? Sue and I have seen Once in New York, felt it was way overhyped, and welcomed the fresh ridicule the touring Kicking is heaping on it. Here the reception on opening night wasn't nearly as strong as the roars greeting the "Circle of Mice" from The Lion King or the "One More Tour" parody from Les Miz. There's no way of getting around the fact that the Once sketch would play better at the Booth after it opens at the Belk next September.
The Book of Mormon sketch that appears deeper into Act 2 will be easier to absorb, despite the fact that tickets are near-impossible to snag on Broadway and the tour doesn't arrive here until after Christmas. Although Alessandrini aims most of his deliciously venomous attacks on particular shows and performers — and, more generally speaking, on critics who worship this dreck — he also can take the long view and bewail the trends that are destroying the medium he loves. Jukebox musicals, gimmicky puppets, elaborate costumes and stunts all draw fire from Alive & Kicking, and for Alessandrini, Book of Mormon exemplifies another phenomenon that gets his goat.
He cares. Deeply. And that's the real reason Forbidden Broadway is still so kicky after 31 years.