Just when the 2013-14 season officially closes with the announcements of awards nominations and when audiences are feeling helplessly besieged by the unusual number of musicals -- too many of them less than hoped for -- the cavalry charges over the horizon in the persons of satirist Gerard Alessandrini, co-director (with Alessandrini) Phillip George, pianist-conductor David Caldwell and cast members Carter Calvert, Scott Richard Foster, Mia Gentile and Marcus Stevens.
Yes, tuner lovers everywhere, Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging! hurtles forth in the nick of time to entertain us at the Davenport with its send-ups--this edition, as all editions, stuffed with laughs and insights into the quirks behind shows received in varying degrees of enthusiasm and regret.
(Perhaps more regrets than enthusiasm this year?)
And before we go any further in this grateful review, it must be said that in the forefront of Alessandrini's forces are costume designers Dustin Cross and Philip Heckman and wig designer Bobbie Cliffton Zlotnik. Without their keen observation and humor, it would be impossible for their fearless, peerless leader to advance.
So where to start listing the laughs that, to change metaphors, Alessandrini et al pull out of their barrel? Let's just say that since 1981 when the maestro began his spoof-y song and dance, he's often had a great time mocking Les Miserables, and producer Cameron Mackintosh has afforded him the opportunity by repeatedly reviving the warhorse.
So here it came again a few months back but with an overhaul that provides Alessandrini and group with another form of attack. This time included in the lengthy but thoroughly lovable first-act finale, the 2014 emphasis on projections is mocked mercilessly.
After those have been kidded, the players enter with large Os yoking their necks. They represent the revolving stage that's been the centerpiece of all previous Les Miz incarnations but has now been retired for those projections. The turntable's lament may the most inspired notion of this FB outing.
But choosing the best of so many belly-laugh-provoking numbers is tough, and it should be noted that they include rib-pokes at shows from previous seasons like Once, Matilda, Cinderella, Kinky Boots and Pippin.
Alessandrini also vents his barely disguised annoyance at the proliferation of jukebox musicals. Specifically, he knocks this year's Beautiful (Carole King) and holdovers Mamma Mia (Abba), Jersey Boys (Frankie Valli, et cetera) and Motown The Musical (Berry Gordy's stable, natch). The fellow also assails the inevitable revivals.
Individual recent shows he stalks mercilessly (thank providence!) are The Bridges of Madison County, Rocky, Aladdin, If/Then and Bullets Over Broadway. Curiously, although he quickly refers to A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder and Big Fish, he doesn't bruise them at length. Maybe he figures the drubbing he gives Susan Stroman in the Bullets Over Broadway scuffle suffices. Is it possible he considers Gentleman's Guide..., the year's major nominations collector, too good to chastise? And what about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which gets short shrift during the Kinky Boots attack?
The master B'way cynic also sets his sights on specific figures. He's always had enormous fun with Liza Minnelli, and here she is joining Sally Bowles successor Michelle Williams and bemoaning her aging out of ingénue roles. Alessandrini also targets Cinderella's Fran Drescher for her boldness at taking on a musical comedy role when not entirely prepared for the rigors involved. Bridges tunesmith Jason Robert Brown gets his comeuppance for the hard-to-miss self-aggrandizing inclinations.
Then there's If/Then's Idina Menzel knocked for her vocal poundings, Carrie Underwood for her countrified Sound of Music Maria on television and -- are you ready for it? -- Mandy Patinkin for just about everything having to do with his (yuk, yuk) unique song stylings. (Is this number an oldie? It could be, but I don't remember ever having seen it.)
Then there are the one-liners Alessandrini slings in lyrics and dialogue almost before you realize he's slung them. In the Matilda sequence where he's also calling attention to the proliferation of child actors on stage, he has his Miss Trunchbull figure threaten the kiddies with "I shall make your ears bleed like a Frank Wildhorn score."
His Idina Menzel insists, frozenly, "My nodes never bothered me anyway." His Sound of Music Mother Superior Audra (for McDonald, of course) tells the worried Carrie Underwood that she has to face the cameras, because "You must ruin the role you weren't born to play." Susan Stroman assures Woody Allen, "I'll be excessive," and doesn't that get right to the core of her mistakes on both Big Fish and Bullets Over Broadway? Michelle Williams exclaims, "My talent is M. I. A."
Apologies to Gentile, Calvert, Foster and Stevens for getting to their innumerable accomplishments this late in the review. To call them hardworking is barely to suggest what joy they offer the audience.
Gentile, whose pipes seem to be constructed of the same steel as are Menzel's, knocks audience socks off with her portrayal of that same bellowing diva. She also takes care of Patina Miller and anyone who's every shown up as Fantine and Eponine. She's tall, thin, good-looking, new to town and very, very welcome.
Calvert hits her high point with one of the best Liza Minnellis ever in this age of Minnelli impersonators. She knows exactly how to pronounce the "ch" in "Cabaret"'s "Old chum" lyric, and which direction to fling her arms during the rendition. In baseball cap with ponytail swinging, she does a mean Susan Stroman.
Stevens shines throughout, but no more than as Trunchbull, as the self-impressed Jason Robert Brown imposing himself on the Bridges of Mad County scenes and especially as the bearded, vocal-range show-off Patinkin. Whether enough audience members will recognize the brilliance of this latter undertaking is uncertain, but it certainly works for those who do.
Foster, who also has a voice to reckon with, is a notable Sylvester Stallone when coaching Stevens's Andy Karl as Rocky to slur his words more effectively. He not only looks a hoot with red pastries like bruises as Alan Cumming's decadent Cabaret host, but he's got the moves down pat. His Neil Patrick Harris as Hedwig is also spot-on.
When Forbidden Broadway comes out swinging, not everything receives a knockout punch, which is more or less Alessandrini's usual result. Enough does, however, and after the kind of season we've just endured, musical lovers should bow down before him as he has Michelle Williams bow before Liza Minnelli in deference to her superior Sally.