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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits
Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3

Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits
(clockwise from top): Jennie Eisenhower, Sonny Leo, Ellie Mooney and Marcus Stevens
For over a quarter century, Forbidden Broadway has been one of New York theater's greatest pleasures: it's a revue which satirizes musicals with a lot of good-natured (well, usually good-natured) ribbing. If you've never had the chance to see it—or even if, like me, you've seen it a few times—the Walnut's new production of Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits is guaranteed to make you laugh. It's as smart as it is funny, and the jokes are served up with zest by a talented cast.

But wait—this is a "Greatest Hits" show. Doesn't that mean that some of the sketches a little, well, dated? Sure, a show that makes light of 1980s hits like Cats and Phantom of the Opera might seem moldy on the surface, and a lyric like "Now Les Miz is here to stay" doesn't help. But thanks to the wit of lyricist Gerard Alessandrini, just about everything in this version of the show feels fresh. Nothing is sacred to Alessandrini, and that gives his lampoons plenty of bite. The more you know about Broadway, of course, the more you'll enjoy the show—but because this is a "Greatest Hits" edition, none of the references are too obscure.

For instance, there's the "salute" to Chicago in which the singers ridicule that show's choreography and production values ("Run through your dance like greased machinery / They'll never spot we've got no scenery"). Rent's "Seasons of Love" becomes "Seasons of Hype," with the cast singing about "525,600 write-ups." And a routine about Cameron Mackintosh ends up with the famed producer hawking souvenirs, illustrating that the merchandise has too often become more important than the shows themselves.

None of this would work, though, without a cheeky cast that doesn't mind being outrageous—and occasionally looking foolish—in the name of art. Jennie Eisenhower's expressive face gets a workout in this show; she plays a wide-mouthed Carol Channing, a wide-eyed Liza Minnelli, and a sleepy-eyed Bernadette Peters. Her superb voice perfectly captures the flavor of stars from Ethel Merman to Idina Menzel. Ellie Mooney slinks and slides around the floor as Bebe Neuwirth in the Chicago number, then does a spot-on impression of Barbra Streisand. Marcus Stevens is debonair as the Phantom and amusingly overbearing as Mandy Patinkin, while Sonny Leo is the resident clown, impersonating Hairspray's Harvey Fierstein and a cat who probably needs a flea bath from Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Under the direction of Bruce Lumpkin, everyone seems to be having a whole lot of fun. Michelle Gaudette provides the choreography, Colleen Grady supplies lots and lots of costumes, and Gina Giachero accompanies the actors flawlessly on the piano.

There are only a few minor missteps here. Having the hairy, overweight Leo play Chita Rivera seems cruel (not to mention far from accurate). Some of the lyrics in the Les Miz medley are hard to hear because Mooney doesn't have as big a voice as her co-stars. And one scene, a critique of Spamalot, falls completely flat: It consists of Alessandrini congratulating himself for influencing a Broadway-mocking number in that show. It's a surprisingly smug lapse on the author's part.

But one bad skit out of twenty-one is a pretty good batting average. Forbidden Broadway is an amazingly durable show, and Lumpkin's gifted troupe helps make this edition a real joy.

Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits runs through June 28, 2009 at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.

Forbidden Broadway's Greatest Hits
Written and created by Gerard Alessandrini
Directed by Bruce Lumpkin
Choreographer ... Michelle Gaudette
Music and Vocal Director, Accompanist ... Gina Giachero
Set Designer ... Robert Kramer
Costume Designer ... Colleen Grady
Lighting Designer ... Adam Macks
Stage Manager ... Sara May

Cast:
Jennie Eisenhower, Sonny Leo, Ellie Mooney, Marcus Stevens


-- Tim Dunleavy



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