Solid but unspectacular, “Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab,” the final New York installment of the long-running satirical revue, proves why the show has become an institution and why, after 26 years, it’s probably time for a break. When he’s on, writer-creator Gerard Alessandrini still offers up vicious parody, but when he’s coasting, he just repeats a basic set of gripes.
Blatantly commercial tuners are still his biggest targets. A swipe at the just-opened “A Tale of Two Cities,” sung in part by a disgruntled Madame Defarge (Gina Kreiezmar), complains that the show exists only because “revolutions are big biz,” and as they flounce around in short-shorts, a knockoff Kerry Butler (Christina Bianco) and Cheyenne Jackson (Jared Bradshaw) dismiss “Xanadu” as “Broadway fast food” that owes its popularity to Jackson’s ripped body.
Those are fair points, but since Alessandrini also includes older numbers that razz the greed in “Mary Poppins,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Jersey Boys,” the joke quickly gets old.
And since so many tuners are criticized for being corporate machines, it’s odd that “In the Heights” gets teased for not being commercial enough. When Lin-Manuel Miranda (Michael West) raps that “tourists from Japan” will “stay far away” from his overly ethnic show, the dig feels out of place. (Not to mention inaccurate, given the tuner’s box office.)
One number, however, injects life into the formula. “Old Young Frankenstein,” to the tune of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” has Mel Brooks (West) and his green-faced monster (Bradshaw) openly mock audiences who keep “puttin’ up with shit.” As West cackles and Bradshaw groans his way through unintelligible lines, we get a delicious interpretation of how pride and avarice turn artists into freaks.
But the smartest number is “Title No Show,” which notes how “[title of show]” wouldn’t exist without the example of “Forbidden Broadway.” “All those obscure references about other Broadway shows,” scoffs one character. “It’ll never run.” But obviously Alessandrini has proven such a market exists.
It’s also fun to see how closely Alessandrini and co-director Phillip George mimic “[title of show’s]” original staging, aping blocking choices and the sudden blackouts that end scenes. That close mimicry has always been part of the fun. Likewise, late costumer Alvin Colt — whose work this time is augmented by David Moyer — has crafted spot-on riffs on original outfits.
And once again, the “Forbidden Broadway” ensemble is remarkably virtuosic, gliding easily between power notes, character singing and hammy acting. Bianco especially scores with a series of unstable loons, including a creepy-perky Kelli O’Hara in “South Pacific” and a hyper-precocious Billy Elliot.
The consistent quality of production is part of the reason “Forbidden Broadway” matters. If talented people work this hard to parody something, it reminds us that their subject still has vitality. Now that Alessandrini is on sabbatical, here’s hoping someone else cares enough about theater to pick up his slack.