“Forbidden Broadway” is an NYC off-Broadway institution that has been skewering Broadway shows since 1982. That is before I was even born! Gerard Alessandrini started the riotous, biting revue to mock his beloved musical theatre as only a true fan could do. It’s like how the Comedy Central roasters were so mean (and so funny) the closer they were to the person being roasted. I mean back when they were funny, not in recent years when they roasted like James Franco.
My main reason for going, besides my usual ‘I just have to see everything’ reason, is that Christina Bianco joined the cast. You may have seen Bianco on Ellen or in Time or taking over the internet with her impersonations of musical theatre and pop divas. She is astounding, nabbing everyone from Chenoweth to Idina to Bernadette to, my favorites, Julie Andrews and Celine Dion, with unbelievable precision. Luckily, most of her best impressions are featured in the show. She is like the musical and female Bill Hader who can sing like the best of them. So, nothing like Bill Hader. While the other cast members weren’t as successful in their interpretations (Mandy Patinkin and Liza Minelli sounded nothing like them), they were still as talented and as entertaining in their mockeries. Across the board, the comedic timing was near perfection, with the staging of some numbers even funnier than the lines being sung.
And oh my, the lines. The first main number that had me literally convulsing attacked “Matilda”, starting with “My mummy says I’m a triple threat” instead of the opening line of the show “My mummy says I’m a miracle”, and it’s sung by the big child stars of London – Billy Elliot, Gavroche from Les Mis, and, of course, Matilda. Bianco plays Matilda here, and it’s amazing because she not only is actually child-sized, but she also has the famous Matilda arm movements (hands on hips, then blowing her fists and other random and stilted movements) down pat. Then, instead of the rocking power song “We are revolting children”, the cast sings “We are exploited children living in exploiting times, we sing exhausting songs, using explicit rhymes.” It was perfect!
Bianco’s spot-on Matilda was only topped by her Kristin Chenoweth. It helps that she’s the same size, but she can do her exact voice. And not just the squeaky talking and chest-voice voice, but the opera-trained super-soprano that Cheno does as well, in shows like “Candide”, where her big song as Cunegonde is the famous “Glitter and be Gay”. (You should really watch this clip, starting at about minute 3). Well, here, it’s a send-up of Chenoweth herself, so it’s “Glitter and be Glib”. As Bianco talks one moment in Cheno’s recognizable voice about how great and famous she is, she jumps in the next moment and sings the insanely difficult opera parts about how glib she is – while also throwing in bits from “Popular” (from “Wicked”) and “My New Philosophy” (from Cheno’s Tony-winning role in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”). It’s one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in a long time, ending of course with a note higher than you expected that sent the (obvious) theatre students sitting next to me into spirals of self-doubt.
The funniest part, and the most hilariously offensive, was the “Miss Saigon” section. Oh my god. Bianco was dressed as Kim but in a red Chinese dress and long black wig, and Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis were Chris and John in their Army fatigues. “Sun and Moon”, between Kim and Chris, one of the most beautiful songs, turned from “You are sunlight and I moon” to something like “I’ll sing clichés and you’ll sing haikus”. So mean and so funny. When Kim pops out (literally) her child, Ben Lewis as John storms onstage and sings accusingly, “Is that Bui Doi??” in a send-up of John’s song about his charity for orphans of Vietnam. It’s AWFUL. It’s so funny.
But it didn’t even touch the final “Miss Saigon” part. Damian Humbley came onstage dressed as The Engineer, ostensibly to do his big and best number “The American Dream”. But no, he announces “My name is Cameron Mackintosh”, legendary, ridiculously successful producer of Saigon, Les Mis, etc. The opening notes of “American Dream” begin...and Damian-as-Cameron sings something along the lines of “When I transfer shows to New York…the Americans cream…” Oh my god people were CRYING. It hurt it was so funny. And it didn’t get less funny the more that line was repeated as Cameron shared his producing secrets: “All these bright lights and loud noise!...the Americans cream…” I still can’t believe this one. It was the best.
The “Les Miserables” section was almost as enjoyable, if a little long. While “God It’s High” (a play on “Bring Him Home” and how freaking high that song is written), a “Forbidden Broadway” standard, was here again, the new staging of the famous Les Mis turntable and some new songs like “On My Phone” made up for it. If you aren’t familiar with 99% of Les Mis productions, they use a turntable a lot of the time so the cast is often rotating. They spoof that here, first with the cast shuffling in circles, then with Javert and Eponine repeatedly missing the microphone and just getting bits of their solos out, then with other characters readying themselves to jump onto the turntable and joining in the shuffling, all while Jean Valjean shuffles by in the background every so often. It’s so freaking hilarious. It ends with the cast, dressed as various Les Mis characters, singing “Ten Years More”, about how Les Mis’s run will never end. The songs didn’t have the most creative lyrics, but the staging more than made up for it, sending the audience into hysterics. Also, Damian Humbley played Valjean, and it gave him the chance to really show off his impressive talents.
Actually, a lot of the stuff wasn’t new, sadly, but most of it was still enjoyable for me, and definitely for the rest of the uninitiated audience. “Into The Words” is a wonderful, somewhat intellectual, satire of how difficult Sondheim’s scores are to sing. In one of my favorite and easiest ways to get audiences on your side, we joined in a sing-along to see just how hard his stuff is: “Into The Woods” became “Into the words that trip your lip and fry your brain and sprain your tongue…” It nails everything wonderful and irritating about Sondheim classics, “the metaphors the synonyms the perfect scan”. This is one that has been on the recordings for years, but it still holds up.
Other classics that are rehashed here include the “Jersey Boys” parody “Walk Like A Man, Sing Like A Girl”, which you can’t not love, but the other “Jersey Boys” song, “Scary”, instead of “Sherry”, doesn’t really make you laugh. Also unwelcome was the “Wicked”/Idina Menzel spoof “Defying Subtlety”, which I hated 4 years ago and groaned when they began again here. I also did not appreciate sitting through “The Circle Of Mice”, about Disney’s takeover of theatre, for the like 9th time.
A different Idina standard, “Let It Go”, got much better treatment, mostly because of Bianco’s ridiculous impression of Menzel. The “Frozen” song became “Let It Blow”, about how loud and crazy Idina sings, and ends with “My nodes never bothered me anyway.” Kind of trite, but the impression sold it.
“Frozen” was one of the few new things in the second act that really worked. Sadly, the most lackluster part was “The Book of Mormon” spoof called “The Book of Morons”. It was Trey Parker and Matt Stone dressed in BOM costume and singing about how they made a masterpiece because theatre should be dirty and stuff. I guess it’s hard to really make fun of the funniest show currently running anywhere. Like how do you make good jokes about jokes? So yeah it was a wasted opportunity I guess. The “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory” number was a little better, with Ben Lewis perfectly costumed as Willy Wonka and singing “Come with me and you’ll see there’s a show with no imagination.” That opening line was the funniest part, but the rest wasn’t bad.
Really, the best part of this show, and of revues like it, is that if you are a true theatre fanatic, it rewards you for being one. You can enjoy the show if you are a theatre novice, but you can’t really appreciate all of the little genius jokes and asides and even some movements that are all inside jokes. All of these jokes and hilarious songs are only funny because you know the base material. You know that Bernadette Peters has a raspy and odd voice (impersonated to perfection again by Bianco begging her audience to “See Me On A Monday”, please). You know that Liza Minnelli moves about manically (though why Bianco didn’t do this impression I’ll never understand). You know how the opening moves to “A Chorus Line” get chanted “step kick kick leap kick touch! Again! Step kick kick leap kick touch!” and laugh when they are here changed to mock the upcoming production of “Cats”, to “lick scratch scratch purr lick scratch! Again!” Even though it’s pretty mean a lot of the time, “Forbidden Broadway” is really a love letter, albeit a sick one, to its current season and really all of musical theatre. And since most of the best songs get recycled every year, you can plan to catch it next time and enjoy pretty much the same stuff I did.