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Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Valerie Fagan (as Wendla), Janet Dickinson (as Donna Murphy in LoveMusik), and Jared Bradshaw (as Melchior)
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Robert Brustein, Eric Bentley... Gerard Alessandrini?

Yes, it might be time to officially add another critic to that exclusive pantheon of men who use their intimate knowledge of, and boundless affection for the theatre, for the greater good of audiences everywhere. Off-Broadway awards, even a Tony Honor no longer seem sufficient for recognizing the unique and vital accomplishments of Alessandrini, whose 25-year-young revue Forbidden Broadway carves its cutting commentary with music and lyrics rather than the mere written word.

And with the latest edition that just re-opened at the 47th Street Theatre, Rude Awakening, creator, writer, and co-director (with Phillip George) Alessandrini is taking his most pointed and potent shots yet at the ailing art of big-time Broadway. So devastating are his critiques of onstage lewdness, creeping camp, and even real estate development that Alessandrini would be decried as vocally and as often as the New York Post's backstage crusader Michael Riedel if he didn't couch every venomous barb in first-class comedy. After all, how do you stay angry when you can barely stop laughing?

Only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo will likely be able to resist Rude Awakening, as they're the ones most frequently in its crosshairs. Those who consider the sexually forward (and some might say overly explicit) posturing of Spring Awakening to be groundbreaking get the first knock, when two visiting tourists declare "It's depressing, it's demented, it's disgusting!" to the strains of Cole Porter when faced with too much self-groping Lea Michele. John Doyle's directorial attitudinizing in Company is slammed by disgruntled cast members singing "No strings / No drums / Unaccompanied" with blaring out on instruments they have no right to play, while shortly after Raul Esparza spends more time in the same show "Being Intense" than being his character.

"Insane is inane, not intense," he sings, in what could well be considered the evening's theme statement. But if the insanities and the inanities amusingly inform everything from David Hyde Pierce's performance as the lumbering detective in Curtains (his number: "Slow People," with uproarious stop-motion choreography) and Jersey Boy's lowest-common-denominator excitement to the engorged epicness of Les Miserables (its medley of tunes is, after a brief hiatus, at last back home where it belongs), they sometimes have their more contemplative side, too. Two winged primates from Wicked warn developers "Don't Monkey With Broadway," Ariel from The Little Mermaid burbles about the Main Stem becoming "Part Disneyworld," and the cast of A Chorus Line salute their own unwillingness to kiss today goodbye: Their routing of the things they see destroying Broadway is what they do for love.

In moments like these, when Forbidden Broadway's sad streak grows more prominent, it transcends parody to become something deeper. It's for that reason, and certainly not one of talent, that Rude Awakening's cast is one of the least overtly memorable I've seen. Jared Bradshaw, Janet Dickinson, James Donegan, and Valerie Fagan are of the usual crop of astonishing mimics, spectacular singers, and 24-carat comedians that long-time followers of the series have come to expect, and they're aided in their portrayals by the ever-witty costumes of the agelessly inventive Alvin Colt. But this time around, the performers vanish into their roles more as dramatic actors do, resulting in less sizzle and more sting.

Janet Dickinson (as Barbara Walsh), Michael West, Jared Bradshaw (as Raul Esparza), and Valerie Fagan (as Elizabeth Stanley as April)
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

"Dumber Broadway," uniting Grease and Xanadu with The Coast of Utopia and Meryl Streep, uses the wistfulness of "Summer Nights" to strangely unsettling effect. When Little Edie from Grey Gardens sings "the metamusical need not be / the end of musical history," you may have to suppress a chill. John Travolta's appearance to do a drag duet with Harvey Fierstein is equal parts silly and surreal, while Lotte Lenya kicks off the Spring Awakening section in deliciously low style that brings a touch of class to the swearing and sado-masochism. Alessandrini nails every one, of course, but their echoes of urgency linger longer than they usually do, as if to underscore the importance of every single word.

That point is made most ably at the top of Act II, when a Phantom whispering his way through a tightly miked "Music of the Night" receives a visit from the bane of all present-day stars: Ethel Merman herself. Recognizing the Phantom's radio-mic growth as a symptom of "Andrew Lloyd Webber disease," she yanks it from his face, shoves aside her own stand microphone, and teaches a lesson in natural singing with all the grin-inducing jauntiness Irving Berlin's "You're Just in Love" can summon. "You don't need amplifying," she blares brightly.

She's right - he doesn't. Both the Phantom and Merman prove it in their duet, which in cleverness and clarity could already provide a point too high for anything else this season to top. After a few minutes, it's over and the microphones return, a reminder that everything sooner or later comes to end. Everyone who loves what the Great White Way was and can be as much as Alessandrini does should hope that Forbidden Broadway itself never will.

Forbidden Broadway: Rude Awakening
47th Street Theatre, 304 West 47th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 97 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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