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Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits — Act II Playhouse

11229830_10153381436834349_2771397384713010796_nTo someone who has been seeing Broadway fare since Roscius was an actor in Rome, Gerard Alessandrini is as valued a being as Stephen Sondheim or Fred Ebb.

For more than 30 years, Alessandrini has parodied Broadway offerings in an almost series of shows called “Forbidden Broadway.” His spoofs can be affectionate or respectful, but most of the time, even with shows that seem sacred or unassailable, Alessandrini finds that one trait or moment that stands out as ripe for satirical lampoon.

“Forbidden Broadway” is veritable compendium of Broadway turning a jaundiced eye on itself. Send-ups of individual shows are laced with knocks at Broadway legend and lore.

Act II Playhouse director Tony Braithwaite was judicious when he selected numbers from Alessandrini’s by-now voluminous repertoire. He avoided the arcane and stuck with parodies of shows and performers people don’t need an expert’s knowledge of Broadway to get and savor.

In making his choices, Braithwaite picked what might be my three favorite all-time bits from the “Forbidden Broadway” canon, including my absolute favorite, a snide, competitive dance-off between Latina spitfires Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno to the tune of Leonard Bernstein’s “America.” Costumer Alisa Secora Kleckner enhances the Chita-Rita showdown at Act II by dressing Elena Camp and Tracie Higgins in a seductive Anita dress that fits tightly in lavender on the bodice and top of the shirt, then gives way to hot pink crinoline Camp and Higgins can flounce and twirl.

Good stuff! And a number both Rivera and Moreno, friends in real life, both love.

Braithwaite also includes by all-time Number Two from the Alessandrini arsenal. It involves Ethel Merman telling a performer he’d better see a doctor because he has a big mole on his forehead, dead center, right around the hairline. “You might want to get that mole checked. It could be serious.” The actor tells The Merm it’s not a mole at all and shows her it’s a microphone.

“What do you need that for?” Merman asks. “So people the audience can hear us,” the actor replies. “Pish tush,” the diva resumes. “We just used our voices.” The Merman surrogate, at Act II, Braithwaite, the launches into a diatribe against microphones to the tune of the counterpoint to “You’re Just in Love” from one of Merman’s biggest hits, “Call Me Madam. “You don’t need amplifyin’,”Braithwaite’s Ethel counsels, eventually telling the singer to, “Use your diaphragm.”

Folderol from “Les Misérables,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Cats” and the careers of Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and heaven bless her, Andrea McArdle are all lined up for skewering. Braithwaite, jonesing on drag, has an especially good time playing the much imitable Carol, even making a bit of putting on her makeup crookedly.,

Alessandrini has had a field day with Les Miz since it opened, and Braithwaite’s roster contains a medley of numbers that mock Cameron Mackintosh’s sturdy hit (that for all it can be spoofed and spoofed savagely, holds up effectively, and affectingly, as in the production being done currently at Allentown’s Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, about 25 miles up the road from Act II).

Braithwaite and company, which includes Jeffrey Coon and Sonny Leo with Camp and Higgins, have an obvious good time as they go through their parodic paces. By sticking with the familiar and staying away from newer material about “The Book of Mormon,” “Kinky Boots,” or even “Hairspray,” Braithwaite insures he won’t lost the Act II audience by doing anything that might be foreign to them or they won’t understand.

The Act II cast is durable and gets its comedy across. Laughs are well-earned, and individual performers, particularly Leo and Coon, offer much that is admirable.

Yet, and I fear this is where my experience and familiarity with Alessandrini’s spoofs and their models turns me into a curmudgeon when I can just summarize with “happy,” “delightful”, “fun,” or some other one-word pull quote, I found a lot of Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” sloppy, slapdash, and without sophistication or teeth.

This is a good show, and the Act II makes it work, but I can’t help thinking simultaneously they are getting away with murder.

It’s a Philadelphia syndrome. Though I live in and thoroughly cover a city I which what I see allows me to boast Philadelphia can stand up to any town in the United States in terms of its quantity and quality of theater, I often marvel at the naivety and half-baked approaches to things.

NealBoxI’m caviling. I’m asking for a degree of meticulousness, perfection, and perhaps understanding that might be too strict a standard and may smack of snobbery. It’s not that anything in Philadelphia, or in “Forbidden Broadway” is misplayed or embarrassing in its presentation. It’s just that the element that makes Alessandrini a genius is passed over for the easier elemental comedy that is more general but doesn’t get to the jugular is the way the material could.

Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” is not the only example of this. Arden’s “Passion” suffers from the same fault. Let me put this way, in a light that is a tad more positive and certainly gives more accurate (and articulate) perspective to what I’m saying. Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” is a contented B+ when it has the potential, based on Alessandrini’s material and Braithwaite’s performers, to compete for the A.

Two essential things are missing. One is edge. As with Arden’s “Passion,” Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” is nice when it needs to be nervy. It suggest jokes rather than playing or nailing them. (“Passion” has a different problem. It softens difficult material, being reasonable and rational when is needs to be sad and mix disgust with pity.)

Braithwaite and company never go for the throat. They kill, but they do it with kindness. There’s no impulse to cross the border to disrespectful, even when a show doesn’t necessarily deserve to be knocked, so there’s no blood drawn. This is gentle mockery, a light making fun. The beloved will be treated as beloved and not lampooned with gusto or venom.

This choice, by the way, is OK. I don’t find it wrong as much as incomplete. Braithwaite is getting strong and positive audience reaction, and he’s dealing with an audience that might be turned off by being evil to Barbra Streisand instead of politely exaggerating her tics.

I understand all of this, but it kept Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” too mild and too bland for my taste.

I emphasize “for my taste.” I don’t want to come off as holier than thou, or anyone else. I don’t mean to be picky beyond necessity because what Braithwaite puts on the Act II is entertaining and diverting enough to please, and even charm or thrill. I know I am in a minority, if not in my own snooty world, in not lauding or going overboard to appreciate this production.

I just can’t. I found too much to be acceptable without being great or more than congenially satisfying.

When I leave Alessandrini’s shows, I can feel the stings. I revel in the satire. I, who love most of the shows and people being lampooned, have fun seeing them roasted so thoroughly. And intelligently.

Because that’s my other cavil, the one that mitigated the fun I know I should have had at Act II, the one that sets me apart in a way I’d prefer to control, from much of the audience.

I didn’t think one person on stage, except for Sonny Leo, had the slightest clue about what he or she was parodying. I saw by-the-book impressions of who Carol Channing or Liza Minnelli is. I saw a high schooler’s take on Idina Menzel and “Wicked.” I did not see love of Broadway, keen knowledge of shows or stars, or a sign that anyone at Act II had the right to attempt to spoof people and material that are so obviously their betters.

There. I said it. I took me a month. But ze cat, she is out of ze bag. I wanted to go on stage and correct so much, to fine tune, to educate there, to explain what’s really funny someplace else, to say “You’re being perfunctory when you need to be crisp, gutsy, and mean.”

I watched Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” as if I was two separate people. One was having a good time and enjoying the élan of Tony in drag, Jeff singing the parody of Les Miz’s “Bring Him Home” while knowing no song is out of Coon’s glorious range, getting joy from the Chita-Rita passage and the Ethel Merman microphone gambit, and of seeing the good will and humor Braithwaite, Coon, Higgins, Leo, and camp exuded.

“This is a good show,” I kept telling myself. “See, that worked,” I would say. “Oh, Bravo, Jeff, you nailed the ‘Phantom” sequence. You played more than the obvious, given joke.”

The other was the nefarious, surgical critic, not looking for anything or go wrong or particularly wanting anything to be anything less than fulfilling, but finding it in untapped details, passages that didn’t measure up to the model let alone comment on it comically, and a realization that one performer or another didn’t thoroughly know the show he or she was spoofing.

11071701_10153381430034349_263360960061187103_nThe casual theatergoer was amused. The critic was apoplectic. Partially because “casual” and “easygoing” was the best the theatergoer was going to get while the critic kept wanting more.

The critic wanted to see pithier understanding of the core material. The critic wanted to see acting that went beyond sketch mode to playing a part in earnest, if satirically. The critic was to see more than an impression of Channing, Streisand, or Minnelli. He wanted to see a portrait, a carefully etched impersonation that captured the eccentricities of the performer while revealing why each is a genius.

The critic wanted to see sharpness and polish. He was not happy in thinking the cast is doing the minimum it needs to do to get by and is depending on entertainer’s charm instead of artist’s craft. The critic wanted to see theater and felt as if he was watching television, a lightly rehearsed variety show that was funny enough but never strived for excellence.

The critic wondered why, with all Gerard Alessandrini provides, and all of Tony Braithwaite’s surefire intuitiveness at choosing the bits, nothing looked planned or honed. All of the trappings and symbols were there, but no sequence got to a show’s essence.

The critic marveled, and marvels, that the most successful number of Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” occurred when Sonny Leo stepped away from his piano, intoned, “Remember when actors played humans” to the tune of “Memory,” and stripped off his tux to show the cat costume underneath.

This sequence was done with high professional aplomb. Its timing and execution were on the mark. Alessandrini’s joke, stated in his parody’s first line, made an immediate and lasting point. Leo’s performance wasn’t a toss-away bit of poofery at a show’s expense. It was a genuine, well-paced commentary.

Best of all, it did take recognition or familiarity for granted. It played into the audience’s desire to see some blood spilled.

Leo was exceptional. He provided the only minute I thought Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” was producing satire instead of juvenilely playing at it. I enjoyed seeing this cat. (Alessandrini passes over Andrew Lloyd Webber to take advantage of Richard Rodgers for this most felicitous of bits.)

The critic, for once, was as happy and contented as the theatergoer. A passage finally went out of the realm of mild entertainment. Something delectable happened on the Act II stage. “Cats,” and the humor Alessandrini wants to evoke from it, is understood.

Sure, the “Fiddler” sequence has some bite. Braithwaite, helped again by Kleckner’s costumes, balanced affection and deep parody as his cast turned “Tradition” to “Ambition” and commented as much on the theater and they did on the Bock and Harnick hit. Every sequence should have enjoyed such care. The overall result would have been a show to admire as well as like.

Keeping up the schizoid mode, it was interesting to both the critic and the theatergoer that Braithwaite stopped a decade ago, with “Wicked” and “Spamalot,” and didn’t opt for Alessandrini takes on “Spring Awakening” “Grey Gardens,” “Kinky Boots,” or “Once,” three of which earned Tonys as Best Musical. As I mentioned at the beginning, I thought his choices were judicious and were done with a mind towards what his audience would recognize.

“Defying Subtlety,” Alessandrini’s song to parody “Wicked,” is a particular gem, and Elena Camp had fun doing the flourish — “Wha-ah-ah-oh-oh-oh–oh” — with which Idina Menzel chose to end the number.

Act II’s “Forbidden Broadway” is one of those times I wish the critic could have relaxed more, or stayed home, to let the theatergoer indulge in the amiable fun and talent on hand. Unfortunately, the critic kept waiting for fun to be tinged with artistry and perspicacity, and, alas, that only happened once, when Leo has his cameo.

“Forbidden Broadway’s Greatest Hits” runs through Sunday, June 28, at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Avenue, in Ambler, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. No performances are scheduled for either the matinee or evening of Saturday, June 27. Tickets range from $41 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-654-0200 or by visiting www.act2.org. (The Act II web site reports all seats are sold for the duration of the run.)

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