And if a bit of that complacency has crept into the show itself, which Alessandrini has written (and directed) with frequent collaborator Phillip George, well, perhaps that’s understandable. When you see your targets are the likes of a lifeless revival of Pippin, a by-committee Cinderella, a cynical Rocky, and “Disney cheese” dispenser Aladdin, it can’t be easy to drum up the enthusiasm to vivisect something that’s barely breathing in the first place. That’s why, in the finale, when four briefcase-wielding corporate types threaten the audience with a tricked-out version of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from Cabaret, it’s just as chilling as when the Nazis in that Kander-Ebb classic use it to forward their own agendas. Sometimes the truth hurts just a little too much to laugh at.
At least Alessandrini and George, working with a typically crack cast (Carter Calvert, Scott Richard Foster, Mia Gentile, and Marcus Stevens), can still figure out (much of the time, anyone) just how much truth you can bear. Their funniest bit comes courtesy of one of last season’s least-funny entries, The Bridges of Madison County, with Jason Robert Brown (Stevens) narrating a look at his “fourth and best musical about adultery,” which he gushes was just too good to run on Broadway: an incomprehensible story adorned with gorgeous leads who do nothing except wait to sleep together for only one scene. Brown may acknowledge that he’s “writing too fast,” echoing a number from The Last Five Years, but it doesn’t stop him from appearing every bit the stereotypically smarmy egotist — traits Stevens plays to the hilarious hilt.
Calvert, donning a short black wig (by Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik) and a piercing blue pantsuit (the just-right costumes are by Dustin Cross and Philip Heckman), makes for a pitch-perfect Liza Minnelli in the evening’s other celestial tour-de-force. To the tune of a number from Cabaret, she laments her increasingly limited choice of roles (“If the parts are small / And they’re not so hot / So who cares / So what?”), but demonstrates the from-inside wattage that made her a defining Sally Bowles once upon a time, and allows her to usurp the stage from the well-meaning Michelle Williams (Gentile) even today. Gentile’s Idina Menzel (introduced, naturally, as Adele Dazeem), if uncharacteristically restrained singing “Let It Blow” (about her vocal cords, borrowing from Frozen), and Stevens’s Woody Allen (thrilled that “Yes, we have no composers / Composers just get in the way” for Bullets Over Broadway) are likewise solid creations that don’t skimp on the glitter.
But the lack of enduring personalities on the boards saps a bit of the voyeuristic fun that’s always fueled the show. The exploited children of Matilda, Annie, and Billy Elliot; the leads of the jukebox quartet of Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys, Motown, and Beautiful; the swirling cartoons of Aladdin; and even Carrie Underwood and Audra McDonald from the NBC broadcast of The Sound of Music are fluffier targets in which the arrows of parody don’t stick too easily. A couple of particularly ridiculous holdover titles (from Once and The Book of Mormon) fare better, but one sure thing — Stevens’s hard-working Andy Karl meeting a mush-mouthed Sylvester Stallone (Foster at his best) while working on Rocky — fails to get much traction.
The first-act finale, on the other hand, certainly does. A return engagement of Les Misérables means a return engagement of priceless tweaking, and here there’s no disappointment. From the Eponine who’s distracted by her smartphone to a discarded turntable lamenting its unemployment to the swooning bombast of the full-company “One Run More” (“Tomorrow I’ll be mummified / Tomorrow I’ll be ossified / Tomorrow you’ll be terrified / There’s nothing really new in store”), it’s as if you can hear Alessandrini rubbing his hands together and cackling at the chance to gnaw on a show that trades on size, scope, energy, and drama in almost ridiculous proportions, even if they resort to silly projections to do it this time around. (Stevens and Foster fighting over shadow puppets to use with the onstage overhead projector is priceless.)
It’s one of the rare times during the night that there’s a target that, whatever else it may be, is inescapably theatrical. It’s impossible to overstate how much that buoys Alessandrini and the show in general, and reminds you of the valuable service both perform. If there are moments that this installment of the venerable series doesn’t live up to others that have come before, it’s only because today’s Broadway is too often too reluctant to live up to the stratospheric expectations Forbidden Broadway has for it.
Forbidden Broadway: Comes Out Swinging!