Off-Broadway This Season
Forbidden Broadway & Heathers
The high-spirited spoof revue series that aims its darts at the not-always Great White Way, Forbidden Broadway, was back to its old tricks in a new, albeit brief, run with a new cast recording (Volume 12!). Of course, with some Broadway shows holding on for years and a dearth of original scores or idiosyncratic stars to sink darts into, some seasons have more "fresh meat" to dig into than others. As in the past, the luck of the draw of what's out there drawing in the crowds or keeping them away lets the parodying focus on things recent seasons have in common: the careers of The Four Seasons, Carole King, and Motown stars spotlighted in jukebox musicals; shows featuring kids; and Rodgers & Hammerstein chestnuts reheated lukewarmly (one on stage, one on TV). And sometimes things are fortuitously aligned for rhyming, such as stars named Patina and Idina. Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging is stinging as always, but this twelfth volume is not as inspired and loaded with "lol" lines as most. The four singers, however, are spunky and quite versatile, theatrical chameleons all. Those lamenting Broadway's dependence on properties being revived again, musicals spawned from movies, and commercial flashor love to pan the flash-in-the-pan gimmickswill be in their "misery loves company" glory. Contrarily, even if they're hard on a show or star that's a sacred cow for you, you'll probably enjoy the rest of the roast.
The first target taken to task is the Pippin revival. As usual, Gerard Alessandrini's skillful lyrics are set to a melody of the musical in question, addressing its questionable aspects. In the case of this circus revamp of the Stephen Schwartz-scored musical, borrowing the tune of "Magic to Do," the company sings that the changes and casting brought "mischief to do" via desperate distractions. And there's mischief galore ahead, including pokes at other old material reupholstered: Les Mis missing its turntable stage ("It's now reborn/ as Victor Hugo's porn" and yes, the turntable sings), and Cabaret's leading lady du jour gets pointers from the star of the film version (Carter Calvert effectively all tics and chuckles and "terrrifffic!!!" cheer as Liza Minnelli, who also sings the score's "So What" about adjustments to aging"If the parts are small and they're not so hot, so who cares?). Comments on the tweaked Rodgers & Hammerstein Cinderella's mixed-bag casting and tone include using the score's "Five Minutes Ago" to talk about how the created-for-TV score was more loved "Five Decades Ago" (" ...For years they re-ran you/ But now critics pan you ... This production is confusing/ Is it kitschy or clever or canned?/ Our new book is rather edgy/ But the whole thing comes off Disney bland"). And the latest R&H score to come to TV, The Sound of Music, provides scene and song for Mia Gentile as Audra McDonald to be Mother Superior and act quite superior to Calvert's in-over-her-head, underwhelming Carrie Underwood. Both ladies shine in the would-be bonding moment/advice session.
In similar circumstances, on the Rocky road to acting chops, Scott Richard Foster as Sylvester Stallone shares his mastery of mumbling, mentoring Marcus Stevens as Andy Karl, prepping for his role. The two men are quite amusingly incoherent. To make points about some pointless overblowing of the story, Alessandrini's lyrics pull no punches, as the same poppy melodies snatched from the film franchise for Broadway are snatched here, rather than sampling the Flaherty/Ahrens score. Likewise, the segment on Kinky Boots avoids the actual stage score (and cast), instead imitating its songwriter, Cyndi Lauper, and employing her big pop hit as recording artist, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," as celeb and song would be more familiar to a wider audience. Similarly, while Idina Menzel's power belt and stylizations are impressively approximated by Gentile, the commentary is set not to something from If/Then, but they go with her Frozen movie hit, "Let It Go."
Taking no prisoners, there are glib jibes at some inflated egos, with three men devastatingly paraded, bathed in self-satisfied smarminess by Stevens. Jason Robert Brown is introduced as "the president of the Jason Robert Brown Fan Club" in a smug monologue where he says he's been meaning to give Sondheim some pointers. He brings back Mandy Patinkin, capturing his franticness and unusual but recognizable vocal qualities. As Woody Allen, he nails the identifiable nebbish factor/New Yawk-ism in the voice and manner, using as ammunition a Bullets Over Broadway borrowing, Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave." It becomes a gleeful "Let's Mis-Direct," joining forces with director-choreographer Susan Stroman (Calvert).
David Caldwell is again at the piano, nimble as ever, capturing flavors and finding crisp emphasis. Lyrics aren't included, nor are credits given for names and original writers of the songs used. Note that you may have heard different material in the evolving show and that while the Forbidden family finds no one safe from slaughter, and no love is lost, the album has no nods to A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. It's always fun to see and hear these parodies and to see which shows close before their spoofs do.
The battlefield of hell known as high school is the claustrophobic world of Heathers. Smartly embracing and expanding the same-named movie it's based on, the musical is its cocktail of the silly, subversive, sarcastic and sensationalized elements. Underneath the layers of teen angst and easily lost perspectives, there's a kind of odd sweetness to the musical meal of popcorn, cheese, and broken glass washed down with a punch made of equal parts Red Bull, whisky, and Slurpee. The power plays for popularity, epitomized by three "mean girls" all named Heather, show that stakes are high. The cool rule the school and more's the pity for the bullied or the misfit. It comes through loud and clear through the cast albummaybe sometimes too loud and cacophonous, pumped-up rock rants with pounding percussion, but it often feels right. And it certainly intensifies the "noises" in any tormented teen's head. For me, some jangling, raging songssung hard and played hard by a seven-person bandseem to go on just a bit too long, wearing out their welcomes with the points made early and often. More respite from the raw nerves and harrowing pleas would have been welcome. Still, it's a grand guilty pleasure of politically incorrect sass and style. There's a lurking conscience and bright ray of hope when the frequent explosions of teen angst, vitriol, violence, and parodies of peer pressure subside.
The songs by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe sometimes recall the latter's edgy winner Bat Boy and the cruelty and desperation of Carrie. (Plagued with doubts, various students wonder, in the opening "Beautiful": "Why do they hate me?/ Why don't I fight back?/ Why do I act like such a creep?/ Why won't he date me? ... Somebody fix me!") The material and characterizations, sometimes over the top (but deliciously so) are dived into with relish by the cast. Things are anchored by the effective and likeable performance of Barrett Wilbert Reed as Veronica, the girl more than tempted by the drugs known as acceptance, love, and control as she falls under the spell of a boyfriend who knows his way around bullets and bombs, with a thirst for revenge. The skillful Miss Reed finds just the right natural method of letting individual words see-saw between being sung and semi-spoken as she muses over courses of action privately or interacts with others, reviewing the situations or challenging someone. (In "Big Fun," she's all about "Dreams are coming true/ When people laugh, but not at you! / I'm not alone!") The boyfriend, J.D., is dynamically sung by Ryan McCartan, but the characterization is not as mercurial, disturbed, and slyly seductive as would be ideal. It needs more of an arc shown from seeming refreshingly kind to maybe out of his mind and misguided.
The three bitchy and brittle self-absorbed Heathers (Jessica Keenan Wynn, Elle McLemore, Alice Lee) play their roles nimbly and entertainingly, getting lots of juice from their put-down lines and put-upon attitudes. Glorying in their reign as entitled masters of all they survey, their big number "Candy Store" builds nicely as a strut ("I like looking hot/ Buying stuff they cannot/ I like drinking hard/ Maxing Dad's credit card ..."). The adults have their moments, too, especially Anthony Crivello ("My Dead Gay Son") and, as the teacher urging catharsis and sharing, Michelle Duffy.
The CD is packaged with a booklet containing all the lyrics and dialog heard (some very slightly altered), some color photos, a plot synopsis, and a brief intro/endorsement from Daniel Waters, the film's screenwriter.
Of course, with publicized news stories haunting our society, it's dicey to consider teen suicide lightly as comic fodder, even in this plot where they are deaths made to look like suicides. It may seem more insensitive now than when the film came out, particularly with homophobia being an element. But, again, it's not what most of the characters are tricked into believing, and there's some satire that's more the focus. The crucial tightrope walk defining the tone is evident right away in the long (eight minutes), busy, but effective opening segment in the school. In this ("Beautiful," which swirls in many quick encounters through the halls), we observe the name-calling, bullying, and frustrations, and Veronica is clearly established as the underdog whom we root for, who is human enough to be tempted to trade principles for popularity. She could have been a cartoon, but the actress keeps it real to keep our interest. In her several out-of-control bits, including one fueled by fear and lust ("Dead Girl Walking"), things lose the subtle touch and the humor. There are several tracks where four-letter words would prevent FCC-approved airplay and might upset those easily offended by such language. In this case, however, it does fit.
When horrors mount, despite the flashes of humor and camp, the longing to have a simpler teen life as one thinks it could be /should be, the yearning to be a sweeter "Seventeen" is quite moving in song. While it flirts with crossing the border to power ballad territory in its first appearance, it is at its core touching. And reprised at the end when the plot has thickened and sickened, it's that much more heart-wrenching, in its own way approaching the longing of West Side Story's for a safe, free place "Somewhere." Without being too preachy, a message of tolerance and lessons from loss of life and loss of self-control reverberate through the finely etched performance ("We'll endure it. We'll survive it ...If no one loves me now,/ Someday somebody will/ We can be seventeen,/ Still time to make things right ..."). At other times, like "Blue" with its crass male horniness-based frustration, things feel juvenile. And there are song builds that just add up to noisy overkill. But Heathers is edgy and takes risks. Many pay off. Whether it joins the ranks of cult musical or popular regional theatre staple for more adventurous audiences looking for provocative contemporary musicals is anyone's guess. But it has something to say, and does it in its own way, and it's often entertaining and savvy along the way.