BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | They say you never know what you have until you lose it. And I’d add to that, you never know how much you’ve missed something until you get it back again.
Such is the case with “Forbidden Broadway,” back after a nearly three-year absence, and it’s as sharp, funny, and deliciously wicked as ever. Creator Gerard Alessandrini has lost nothing of his wit in the interim. What has always made him such an accomplished satirist –– Alessandrini’s been at it for three decades –– is his uncanny ability to find just the right points to tweak. So, even when shows that I love like “Once” get his gimlet-eyed treatment, it’s possible to laugh uproariously at the send-up without losing a bit of affection for the original. That’s how to do satire successfully.
To give away many of the specific jokes would be unkind, but suffice to say that all the predictable targets get a mirthful, musical shellacking. One of the best moments comes right near the beginning, when Ricky Martin is spoofed with “Living Evita Loca.” “Once” gets taken to task for its simplicity in a world of over-produced spectacles. Sondheim comes in for his share of ribbing for “Follies” and “Into the Woods,” and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance of “Send in the Clowns” at the 2010 Tonys (look it up on YouTube) is recalled.
Sutton Foster takes it on the tap shoe for her turn in “Anything Goes,” and not even Audra McDonald is spared. There’s also a great bit about “Newsies,” and, while not new in the past season, there are fresh pokes at “The Book of Mormon,” “Spider-Man,” “Wicked,” and “Mary Poppins.” There’s even a parody of the TV show “Smash” –– unexpected and quite wonderful. My only complaint is that the show is way too kind to Matthew Broderick –– though “Nice Song If You Could Sing It” starts to get there.
As in the previous editions, all the parts are played by a seemingly inexhaustible and very talented group of four performers who are required to do everything from broad impressions to full-throated Broadway singing. They are all are newcomers to the “Forbidden Broadway” world, and they’ve taken to it naturally. Natalie Charlé Ellis (the tall one) takes on Elphaba, Bess, and Donna Murphy. She has a beautiful legitimate voice and a clear talent for dead-on impressions. Jenny Lee Stern (the small one) tackles Elena Roger in “Evita” and Patti LuPone as well as Cristin Milioti from “Once.” She’s simply spectacular.
Scott Richard Foster is an equally accomplished singer and comic, whether spoofing Porgy or reminding us how truly wretched “Rock of Ages” is. Marcus Stevens is tireless, taking on Harvey Fierstein, Mandy Patinkin, and Stephen Sondheim.
The cast members work together beautifully under the fluid direction of Phillip George and Alessandrini and ably abetted by David Caldwell on the piano. Fans of the show will miss some of the outlandish costumes from long-time “Forbidden Broadway” designer Alvin Colt, but Philip Heckman is a worthy successor who knows how to poke fun.
This edition, currently scheduled to run only through January 6, is called “Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking.” It certainly is, and that’s a very happy event for all of us who love theater — and love to make fun of it just as much.
Philip Ridley’s new play “Tender Napalm,” getting its US premier at 59E59 Theaters, very nearly works. Staged in the theater’s diminutive black box, the entire playing area is a strip of linoleum down the center, with the audience raked on either side. The two characters, identified only as “Man” and “Woman,” engage in an extended cage match, which is mostly linguistic but at times physical –– either way, in a violent manner.
A tempestuous relationship is played out through a variety of narrative styles, ranging from epic to comic book, and each of the characters takes on different roles in the changing stories. Intellectually, it’s engaging to watch two fairly ordinary people, who meet at a party, go on prolonged flights of fantasy, which, one assumes, are metaphors for the ups and downs of the relationship. We get a bit of information dropped here and there to ground us in what their reality might be, but long stretches of the 100 minutes are spent in an argument about which person’s band of blue monkeys is more powerful.
The poetry is sometimes quite beautiful, but the piece remains cerebral until very near the end when we finally see something in each of the characters that humanizes them, making them almost real rather than esoteric creations of the playwright. Ridley has an interesting idea, but he’s unwilling to share it on an emotional level and so his faux-absurdist artifice hobbles the potential for real connection between the audience and the characters. He ends up showing off rather than showing us anything about the nature of love and relationships.
Blake Ellis as Man and Amelia Workman as Woman are what make the evening. They are fascinating to watch, and each is very much in control and committed to what they’re doing. They seem to know what’s going on, even if no one else does.
FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: ALIVE AND KICKING | 47th Street Theatre | 304 W. 47th St. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m. | $29-$79 | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200
TENDER NAPALM | 59E59 Theaters | 59 E. 59th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3:30 p.m. | $18 | 59e59.org or 212-279-4200