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Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Forbidden Broadway
Marcus Stevens, Natalie Charlé Ellis, Jenny Lee Stern, and Scott Richard Foster.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The return engagement of Forbidden Broadway at the 47th Street Theatre, subtitled Alive and Kicking, spends so much of its time roasting (relatively) current theatre trends and personalities that it doesn't have much of a chance to dig into the distant past. Yet while watching this deliriously entertaining revue reclaim its title as one of Off-Broadway's most valuable institutions, the lyric that most frequently flitted through my head was a 48-year-old one of Jerry Herman's: "It's so nice to have you back where you belong!"

Well, hello Gerard Alessandrini, and thanks for reopening your long-running, cynical-but-wise view of the promise and (especially) the perils of the theatre business. It's been a while since the last incarnation (Goes to Rehab) closed in 2009, and there have been plenty of openings and closings that haven't received the Forbidden Broadway treatment so many have longed for. Since its inception in 1982, the series was great at keeping high-level showmakers honest and finding fun in even the dreariest, deadest offerings.

So it's a pleasure to report that, working with co-writer and co-director Phillip George, Alessandrini has devised a truly transporting evening. The hardcore theatre lover will be thrilled that the duo has brought back everything they've long loved — and been frustrated by — with this seminal skewering of everything the Great White Way gets wrong (and occasionally right). And those who aren't yet in the know-everything category may feel as though they've been catapulted into it with this caustic, yet oddly caressing, tribute.

But before it can consider the present, mustn't the past be addressed? Yes, and so things begin with a glimpse at two trench-coat-wrapped men (Scott Richard Foster and Marcus Stevens) wending their way through dark and unfamiliar alleys in search of Peter and the Starcatcher before winding up in the shadowy environs of Off-Broadway. Happening upon the ghostly theater where Alessandrini's revue once played, they're lulled by its Brigadoon-like promise that the best things in life rarely disappear forever.

Within moments, Alessandrini has launched us into uproarious excavations of three flay-worthy Main Stem tenants: the revival at the Marquis, which headliner Ricky Martin (Stevens) describes as "Livin' Evita Loca" with female lead Elena Roger (Jenny Lee Stern) displaying her "utter lack of star quality"; Nice Work if You Can Get It, with a constipated Matthew Broderick (Stevens again) struggling through intricate Gershwin with a complete lack of grace and costar Kelli O'Hara (Natalie Charlé Ellis) incapable of garnering laughs; and Steve Kazee (Foster) and Cristin Milioti (Stern) lamenting Once's iffy writing and having to also function as the band in a muddled-concept movie adaptation.

Their portrayals are first rate, with Stern and Stevens proving particular standouts as they sing far better than Roger and Broderick while still maintaining firm comic authority, and the lyrics wryly expressing angst at so many productions' misplaced priorities. Just as delightful later on are Stevens's portrayal of Stephen Sondheim, leading a tour through his stripped-down revivals (including the most recent Into the Woods in Central Park), Stern's piercing send-up of Tracie Bennett's approximate Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, and a ruthlessly funny vivisection of Diane Paulus's rethinking of Porgy and Bess.

It's for such topics that Alessandrini reserves his most corrosive acid; a couple of more high-profile pairings get off slightly easier. The women occupy a brief but juicy tweak to the Broadway-themed TV drama Smash, for example, and the men transform into inelegant but energetic (and, just maybe, not completely destructive) Matt Stone and Trey Parker as they work on their own musical theatre debut, The Book of Morons. The writing, staging, and even the costumes and wigs (Philip Heckman did the former, Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik the latter) are always at their best when the takedown target just ahead is firm and fresh.

This is, alas, not always the case. Outdated or well-worn skits have been Forbidden Broadway mainstays in the past, but Alessandrini has rarely (if ever) had three years to dream up new material. Seeing so many re-re-recycled bits from the likes of The Lion King, Jersey Boys, and Wicked, and a strong focus on things that have long since closed — the revival of Follies, Catherine Zeta-Jones (who ended her run in A Little Night Music more than two years ago), Sutton Foster in Anything Goes, and An Evening with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin — can be dispiriting for those more interested in gnawing on red meat.

Still, that bit of staleness is not a deal-breaking price. One can't predict, and doesn't want to try, whether Alessandrini will keep Forbidden Broadway going for another 25 years or so. But if he can maintain the level of inspiration he's latched onto with Alive and Kicking, the chances are excellent that it "will never go away again." Those who care as much about the theatre as Alessandrini does likely would have it no other way


Forbidden Broadway
47th Street Theatre, 304 West 47th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes including a 15 minute intermission.
Tickets and current schedule Telecharge