Kansas City has been good to Forbidden Broadway, Gerard Alessandrini’s parody of bloated big-time musicals that’s been evolving since its 1982 New York debut. In turn, Forbidden Broadway has been very good to Kansas City-bred actors such as Cathy Barnett, Becky Barta and Don Richard. All three have done the show here and across the continent, including Barta’s engagement in New York. At the City Stage, the trio is joined by John-Michael Zuerlein and pianist Holly Wilson in a production that shows that even after more than twenty years, shredding pompous theater with bitchiness has no expiration date.
In this version, directed at breakneck speed by William Selby, some of the oldest gags are still amusing: a jaded, cigarette-smoking Annie singing (to the tune of that show’s biggest hit) I’m 30 years old/Tomorrow. A lesser number of them, on the other hand, ought to be taken out and shot. For example, there’s the witless take on producer Cameron Macintosh’s marketing mania, as in Miss Saigon souvenir mugs and beach towels. But Macintosh hasn’t been a vital presence in New York for some time, and he didn’t invent product tie-ins anyway, so the joke is more tiring than funny.
At least Selby has some respect for his Kansas City audience, leaving out some of Forbidden Broadway‘s well-worn numbers and replacing them with stabs at fresher targets that assume we’re keeping up on what’s happening in New York all the way out here on the prairie. There’s a swipe at the sugary shallowness of Thoroughly Modern Millie, for example, and a jab at Hugh Jackman (now on Broadway playing the flamboyantly queeny entertainer Peter Allen), who always makes sure to remind his interviewers that he’s heterosexual.
Sometimes the numbers offer new tweaks to old standbys. With the Les Miserables parody, Alessandrini has kept some of the better jokes about the show’s content intact while adding a postscript about those who welcomed its eventual closing. He seems to have tinkered similarly with a dig at Julie Andrews. The first half of the skit rather harshly makes light of her vocal-cord injuries, then imagines what a woman of her reputation might be like in an empty-calorie show like Mamma Mia. It’s mean, but it’s funny.
Of the four performers, Barta scores the most consistent laughs. Her Liza Minnelli impersonation is dead-on, and her take on the dentally challenged Sarah Brightman butt-ugly. In the skit about Rent and its propensity toward hype, she delivers a throwaway line with a mix of street attitude and Yiddish inflection. It’s only a few seconds, but it’s evidence of great comic skill.
Richard and Barnett get their fair share of laughs as well, Richard with a Lion King parody and Barnett as dim bulb Melanie Griffith in Chicago. But I was more impressed with Zuerlein’s jab at Mandy Patinkin. Patinkin has been off the radar for a while, but anyone who’s seen his concert performances will relate to Zuerlein’s “superfrantic, hyperactive, self-indulgent” Mandy, sung to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins. Like most of Forbidden Broadway, it’s at once below the belt and above board. There’s truth in even the lowest blows.
Postscript: Of the half-dozen shows I saw on a short trip to New York last week, three of them ought to catch the eye of Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn Theatre’s artistic director for upcoming seasons. Each is a Unicorn kind of show, melding dark comedy and provocative drama into a brutally tasty concoction.
Frozen is Bryon Lavery’s wonderfully constructed play about a child sex murderer and the mother of one of his victims. Brian F. O’ Byrne received his third Tony acting nomination for his portrayal of Ralph, a pedophile who brings order to his psychic chaos only by alphabetizing his kiddie-porn collection. Swoosie Kurtz, meanwhile, is the grieving mother of his victim. The pair’s climactic meeting is gut-wrenching, heartbreaking and beautifully played — to quote Kurtz’s first-act closing line, “It’s too much. It’s too much. It’s too much.”
Some of Tracy Lett’s new play, Bug, also proved too much for some audience members. Graphic scenes of self-mutilation had many playgoers visibly cringing in their seats. But the play’s skittish romance between a fortyish bartender (Shannon Cochran) and a twentysomething hunk named Peter (Michael Shannon) in a residence hotel somewhere hot and filthy in Oklahoma has a frantic, haunting payoff. Cochran and Shannon (featured nude in the May 17 New Yorker) are mesmerizing.
Playwright Lisa Kron, a founding member of the theatrical company the Five Lesbian Brothers, is known chiefly for one-woman shows such as 1999’s 2.5 Minute Ride. But her superb new piece, Well, features other actors as well, including Jayne Houdyshell playing her mother. Missouri Rep audiences may remember Houdyshell as Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman a few seasons back.
Though the play is autobiographical, there’s no reason the right actors cast here in the right roles (maybe even Houdyshell, who is marvelous) can’t faithfully re-create the show, one that’s funny and razor-sharp but had audiences members weeping in the lobby afterward.