Theatre District denizens who’ve depended on Gerard Alessandrini’s satirical revue to voice their anguish about the direction of commercial theatre are about to find out. On January 15, this latest version, titled Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, is slated to close up shop, spelling the end of the 27-year franchise and the beginning of the search for cleansing sanity outside the world of show business.
Alessandrini, who also directs with Phillip George, has long contended that the inmates were slowly assuming control of the asylum, and that the only prescription was more of the singular crazies who established the Broadway mystique. Very few of them appear this time around: You’ll run into Kelli O’Hara, Harvey Fierstein, and a certain Rose from Gypsy, but Alessandrini wants to make it quite clear who - and what - is in need of healing.
“I’m a Broadway-holic,” admits Jared Bradshaw, one of the show’s four cast members, during the opening number. He, like the others (Christina Bianco, Gina Kreiezmar, and Michael West), are trying to kick their habitual bonds to that magical drug called the theatre, preferably by force-feeding it doses of its own bitter medicine. Which, in the series of predictably hilarious scenes that follows, they do.
A rap-addicted Lin-Manuel Miranda (West) compensates for his acting and rhyming skills by transforming his show In the Heights into a white-pleasing “contemporary West Side Story / Full of Latinos, but not as good or gory.” The [title of show] quartet freebases cleverness, complete with edgy swearing and innovative blackouts every 30 seconds or so, but is dumbfounded when trying to find a point to their inchoate ramblings. And Kerry Butler (Bianco) does everything she can to hook audiences on her sexy but half-baked and quarter-talented Xanadu costar Cheyenne Jackson (Bradshaw)
None of the acts wants for bite, and more surprises abound than usual. A certain theatre discussion forum comes under good-natured attack for its obsessive chatterati, backed by a classic John Kander vamp. There’s a pugilistic tribute to the knock-out plot twists of August: Osage County. And A Tale of Two Cities star James Barbour obliquely referencing his recent trouble with the law. There are, as always, some decaying holdovers - are Wicked’s ear-splitting excess and The Lion King’s dangerous costumes those shows’ only fodder? - and a bizarrely straight-faced Stephen Sondheim tribute that’s as heartwarming as it is baffling.
As always, the cast’s energy and versatility make compelling pitches for the dustier items. The most valuable is Bianco, whose tiny frame and enormously accomplished voice combine into the most spot-on portrayal yet seen of Kristin Chenoweth. In “Glitter and Be Glib,” about Chenoweth’s meteoric rise to almost-fame, Bianco hits the singer’s stratospheric notes with equivalent facility and, dare I say it, more enviable diction.) The others deliver casually convincing characterizations, but seldom develop with the kind of verve that leaves you scratching your head in amazement.
Kreiezmar invigorates as both a mush-mouthed Patti LuPone and a mushy Liza Minnelli, each of whom misses her respective point so spectacularly you can’t help but laugh. “Funny / Here in Gypsy you’re wasted / Small part, isn’t it?” she sings to West’s Boyd Gaines before changing every “you” to “I” in “Everything’s Coming Up Patti.” Minnelli, on the other hand, calls for a moment of seriousness in the middle of “Liza One Note” then consumes it while staring disjointedly into space.
Perhaps Minnelli proves so dynamic because of her own sordid history? Perhaps she understands all too well what diehard theatre lovers will face without Alessandrini there to keep the powers-that-be and the powers-that-don’t honest? Or perhaps she, like LuPone, is too wrapped up in herself to give any of this much more thought than she gives the upcoming election? Regardless, she proves one thing: She’s the cure for the doldrums inspired by the vanilla stars who pepper today’s shows.
What the remedy will be in another few months is anyone’s guess. But that’s all the more reason to see the show again, or for the first time: Stock up on the antidote before the pandemic arrives. Alessandrini hints that survival is not an impossibility while he administers heavy overdoses himself, that all hope is not lost - you just need to get yourself where you can do the most good for yourself. For at least the next few months, and hopefully for a long while afterward, that place remains Forbidden Broadway.
Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab