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Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

After over 20 years of skewering Broadway shows, songs, and personalities, Gerard Alessandrini has now set his sights on audiences.

But while theatregoers are undoubtedly the most frequent targets of Alessandrini's assaults in the latest installment of his long-running revue Forbidden Broadway at the Douglas Fairbanks, they're also the objects of his most fervent sympathies and affections. The show's Law & Order-influenced subtitle, Special Victims Unit, conjures up images of heinous crimes being perpetrated against hapless victims - what better way, Alessandrini argues, to explain the current theatre climate?

It's as much the paucity of good new shows as the decimation of old ones through misguided revivals that he sees as unraveling the fabric of Broadway. To illustrate this decimation of tradition, he opens the show with one of his most familiar characters - the aged, cigarette-smoking Annie (Jennifer Simard), standing center stage and belting in ever higher keys her signature tune ("I'm thirty years old / Tomorrow") - being viciously gunned down.

Jerry Orbach (Ron Bohmer) and B.D. Wong (Jason Mills) arrive from Broadway's Special Victims Unit (which investigates homicides of a theatrical nature) to interview a witness (Megan Lewis) to a recent tragedy: The show had dark lighting, confusing choreography, no visible plot or orchestra, and a British director. "They say bad art is not a crime on Broadway," sings Bohmer sadly, summing up the situation. "But some producers should do time in jail."

Those producers might escape prison, but can't avoid Alessandrini, who unyieldingly takes them - and audiences - to task for their transgressions. But he does it with the singular style and biting humor that have always graced Forbidden Broadway and made it one of New York theatre's most cherished and valuable institutions. And as aided by his co-director Phillip George and a sterling cast, it's hard to not love this acidic, scathing, and hilarious indictment of Main Stem complacency more than most of the shows it satirizes.

Using felt as a replacement for flesh and blood may be an accepted practice in the wake of Avenue Q, but "You Gotta Get a Puppet" handily challenges it. Some of Broadway's most visible losers - Brooke Shields, Tom Hewitt (who makes his first entrance horizontally), and Stephen Schwartz - sing of their woes in "It Sucks to Be Me" before realizing that audiences suffering through their shows are worse off and sing "It Sucks to Be You" instead. Julie Andrews hosts a look forward at the next century, when Broadway has withered under the likes of All Shook Up and Good Vibrations.

While there are biting assessments of Wicked's bombast and Bombay Dreams's spectacle, the show's strongest segment is a lengthy examination of Fiddler, finding Alfred Molina and Harvey Fierstein milling about while two of Tevye's children ("the daughters from Dublin") give each other sponge baths. Why, Molina (Bohmer) asks the audience, do British directors want to take on - and dismantle - American musicals? "That I can tell you in one word," he says: "Direction!"

Forbidden Broadway's direction, however, remains strong and caustic, with Alvin Colt's deliciously parodic costumes and David Caldwell's musical direction similarly ideal. The cast is wonderfully talented, and everyone gets his or her share of showstopping comic moments. Special note should be made of Lewis, who - if not as sharp an impersonator as Christine Pedi (whom she replaced due to illness) - more than holds her own as dynamic divas both timeless (Ethel Merman) and timely (Idina Menzel).

A few entries of the show's entries are less than fresh; some ("Beauty's Been Decreased," about Disney downsizing, and a Sarah Brightman sketch) were old news when used four years ago, and more relevant items (Patti LuPone in Can-Can, Bernadette Peters in Gypsy, and riffs on Thoroughly Modern Millie and I Am My Own Wife) also seem dated. This dulls the show's impact somewhat, but even Alessandrini's staler material is funnier and more incisive than many recent second, third, and fourth-rate imitations (The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! springs to mind).

But feel free to take this as a sly comment on the nature of what there is to parody: producers unwilling to tackle intelligent musicals or revive old ones properly and audiences willing to accept such choices. At least Forbidden Broadway remains a vibrant reminder of Broadway at its worst and best - where else can you count on Ethel Merman, Rex Harrison, Yul Brynner, and Mary Martin showing up to strut their stuff amid their considerably less vivid counterparts of today?

"There's no Broadway like our Broadway," they sing in the show's sobering yet uplifting penultimate number. "But you wouldn't trade us for a sack of gold," they point out, and they're right; their place in theatre history, which must recall their uniquely irreproducible charisma and talent, is assured. So is that of Forbidden Broadway, for its willingness to complain in grandly humorous style about what's wrong with Broadway. If only more people would listen.

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Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, 432 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge