Stage Door: Forbidden Broadway, To Be or Not To Be

11/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Say it ain't so! After 27 years and 18 glorious editions, Gerard Alessandrini, the brains behind Forbidden Broadway, is calling it quits. The satiric revue of Broadway will air its final performance Jan 15. So run, don't walk to the 47th Street Theater and catch Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab. It's savagely funny and perfectly staged. In a world of crashing markets and political unrest, FB is a tonic for our times.

After all, the Disneyfication of Broadway, coupled with the proliferation of movies turned musicals, is enough to send any serious theater fan screaming into the night. But when that fan is Alessandrini, an astute theatergoer and sassy writer, it's a declaration of war. In the battle for cultural sanity, he's our Henry V, valiantly going "once more unto the breach" year after glorious year. His long-running theatrical revenge, thanks to a rapier wit, is a delight. This round, he spoofs South Pacific, Tale of Two Cities, Equus, Patti Lupone and Mel Brooks, among others.

Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab is a heady satiric brew that pays homage to the very institution it savages; only a passionate stage lover could pen such an insightful score. Performed by four talented actors -- Christina Bianco, Jared Bradshaw, Gina Kreiezmar and Michael West -- FB is a masterpiece of sting. And no one is spared.

Whether it's lampooning Hairspray's, "you can't stop the camp," the bland rap of In the Heights or the Jersey Boys' "walk like a man, sing like a girl," the hits just keep on coming. And don't worry if you haven't seen every Broadway musical, you'll get the jokes and revel in the infra digs. Alessandrini's gift is to capture the essence of a work in broad strokes. No small achievement; parody requires a deft touch and a careful eye.

First, the performers have to ring true. Whether lampooning the overly muscular lead in Xanadu or the suburban draw of Mary Poppins, they click. Plus, they mimic without bitchiness or hostility, thanks to strong singing voices, humorous lyrics and an abundance of energy. The show is performed at lightning speed. That's thanks to directors Alessandrini and Phillip George, whose efforts are aided by the late inventive costume designer Alvin Colt and David Moyer.

Forbidden Broadway is an affectionate, but tart valentine to The Great White Way. Whatever its target, its aim is true.

Conversely, To Be or Not To Be, based on the provocative 1942 Ernst Lubitsch movie, misses its mark. Set in the Polski Theater in 1939 Warsaw, two performers, the egotistical Josef (David Rasche) and the beautiful Maria (Jan Maxwell) and their troupe are opening a play. At the same time, the German invasion of Poland is underway. Burning with patriotic fervor, a Polish bomber pilot smitten with Maria (Steve Kazee) asks the duo to help catch a spy.

The black comedy, among the first to mock the Nazis, has been somewhat revamped for the stage by playwright Nick Whitby. The Lubitsch movie, thanks to Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, mixed seriousness and parody with ease. Lubitsch lampooned the Nazis, even as he illustrated the power of acting and the importance of resistance. Here, however, the production is oddly calibrated. The sets work, the cast works (Rasche sounds remarkably like Jack Benny), but the rewrites don't. The tone is wrong, and sans that delicate balance, the Manhattan Theater Club's To Be or Not to Be is not to be.