It takes tremendous talent to write songs that are supposed to be mediocre while making them successfully satirical and incisive at the same time. Composer Joe Patrick Ward (who also wrote the book and appears as the pianist in the show) accomplishes this brilliantly in “The Grave White Way,” a witty spoof of Broadway flops since 1933. His lyrics cut deep yet manage to remain affectionate and good humored. Like “Forbidden Broadway,” Ward’s show has a limitless future.
The story centers on five deceased performers who must perform for God and convince him their talents entitle them to enter paradise. After launching their program with a lively ensemble opening, “Hooray for the Grave White Way,” Ward skewers “Showboat” with “My Parents Like Him So” from “Riverboat Regina.” This number benefits from a ferocious, passionately physical rendition by Lesli Margherita.
Margherita has a wildly expressive face, a powerful voice and an ability to toss herself totally into a number.
Another extraordinarily gifted singer-comedian, Shannon Stoeke, teams up with the polished Craig A. Curtis for a primly amusing change of pace, “Chummy Chummy Chum” from the fictitious Broadway failure, “I’m Just Wilde About Oscar.” This rib-tickling romantic duet, in which two close friends ask the question ‘Won’t you be my virile valentine?,” is done with impeccable comic timing and perfectly evokes the spirit of Noel Coward. The funniest number in the first act is “Bury the Hatchet” from “40 Whacks 40!” in which Joshua Finkel, Amy Rutberg and Margherita show the simmering hostility within a family that led to Lizzie Borden’s ax murders.
A few vignettes, though entertaining (“Were I an Ordinary Man” and “He’s Clean and She’s Not”) are comparatively mild. But these are more than balanced by such potential classics as “Oh, Helen” from the fictional Broadway bomb of the same time. Margherita and the blonde, hilariously blank-eyed Rutberg are Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, and Sullivan is so ecstatic that her pupil can speak that she knocks her around and shoves her against a piano in her excitement. Equally on target is “Who’s the New Guy?” from “Nazareth High,” a take on Jesus as a high school student. We then flash forward to “My Heart Is in My Chest” by Margherita and the multitalented singer-dancer Finkel. The exaggerated gestures and vocal gymnastics of “Miss Saigon” are mercilessly satirized here.
A special treat is the Sondheim roasting “Eat Me” from “Winter in the Woods With Donner.” The five stars have a field day poking fun at Sondheim’s rapid-fire lyrics and distinctively dissonant chords.
“The Grave White Way” is scheduled to feature a different guest celebrity every night. For the opening, John Raitt came on stage and nearly stole the show with his effortlessly playful performance of “Darling Sally From Death Valley.” Appearances by Stephen Schwartz, Robby Benson, Jason Graae and Davis Gaines are planned.
Director Sarah Gurfield allows her actors freedom to attack their roles with zest, and they reward her by giving their all without going overboard.
Kay Cole’s choreographic sendups of Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, “A Chorus Line” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” nail every nuance. Gary Wissman’s simple set, with its velvet curtains and winding stairway, has an authentically tacky theatrical feeling.