Over the years Broadway, one of the most storied institutions in American theater, has developed into the make or break testing ground for musicals.
This reputation of self-importance — bordering on pretentiousness — makes Broadway a prime target for mockery. Debuting in 1982, and running for the last 30 years under various iterations, Forbidden Broadway has made a business of doing exactly that.
After a three year hiatus, the Tony award winning play has returned under the new animated title Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking. Following its run on both London’s West End and ironically, Broadway, the play has come to Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
The play ran Oct. 1-4 at the Samueli Theater, a 300 seat cabaret theater in the heart of the Segerstrom Center. Dim blue lights and candles gave the room a jazz-bar atmosphere, while the shimmering Mylar curtain and grand piano immediately transported the audience to Broadway.
The production opens with three of the disguised cast members ushering the audience down a “street” that few have seen in order to witness the other side of Broadway. From there, the play is a non-stop ride through thirty years of Broadway history. Starting with Chicago, not a single play is spared from their lighthearted scorn.
By virtue of belonging to the musical sketch-comedy genre, it is an anachronistic grab bag of intellectual and lowest common denominator satire. While the overall play is a laugh a minute, there are moments where the quality of writing dips severely. This is particularly apparent in their spoofs of Lion King, and Avenue Q. The concept of criticizing Broadway plays for using puppets does not hold much comedic value no matter how catchy the show-tune it is placed to. However, these moments only stand out in contrast to the overall quality of the show.
Musical director and pianist Catherine Stornetta performed the entirety of the musical score live. The songs were immediately recognizable, and quickly engage the audience in the conceit of each spoof.
Because the show is largely a rapid fire succession of vocal renditions, the quality of singers could easily make or break the performance. Luckily the entire cast consists of well trained vocalists, and the singing is never awful.
Forbidden Broadway goes to point out the history of terrible singing on Broadway, from Sarah Brightman’s trills, which give the “wrong kind of chills,” to Elsa’s ridiculously raspy solo in Frozen.
While the pacing of the show takes a downturn in the beginning of the second act, it quickly recovers steam culminating into a musical reprise of the opening song.
In its best moments, Forbidden Broadway is a whirlwind of cutting humor not only directed at Broadway, but at their own audience. Throughout the show clever commentary is provided on the kind of people who attend Broadway performances, Forbidden included.
Whether they are poking fun at pretentious Stephen Sondheim musicals or singing “What keeps us from ending up in Garden Grove? Ambition!” the writer, Gerard Alessandrini, knows exactly how to laugh at his audience’s expense and have them laugh along with him.
While this risks making the production seem, as they say, “So unpretentious that [it’s] pretentious,” the humor is too irreverent to ever risk crossing that line. Rest assured that if it ever did they would quickly turn their wit on themselves.
Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking is an exhaustive, rapid-fire attack on one of America’s grandest theatrical traditions. It is packed with undeniable energy and charm, all delivered at a breakneck, Monty Python-esque pace. If you are not afraid of comedic whiplash, Forbidden Broadway is a must see.