Hooray for theater camp

This is both a timely and melancholy moment for the spoofy Forbidden Broadway to open at the Cameo Theatre downtown. Gerard Alessandrini, the show’s creator and muse for over a quarter century, recently announced a permanent hiatus for the Manhattan incarnation, largely because Broadway has become a parody of, well, itself. Satire, after all, thrives on serious art, or at least some deliciously misguided attempts thereat; what it can’t handle is self-parody or blandness, qualities in abundant display these past few years on the Great White Way. (Think merely of The Little Mermaid, and you can see where Broadway is headed, viz. the crapper.)

So the Cameo’s fizzy production — full of insider hijinks and buoyed by a talented cast — is a welcome throwback to Broadway’s heyday, when Les Miz ruled the (revolving) boards, and a crashing chandelier could earn a hand. A few thoroughly modern musicals have been included in this production — a hilarious skewering of Wicked, for instance, presages that show’s sit-down at the Majestic next summer — but mostly this is a nostalgic evisceration of showbiz past, including outsized personalities and overproduced tuners.

The cast works hard at making its over-the-top caricatures suitably ridiculous. Jillian Cox is a gifted mimic, turning in a pitch-perfect rendition of a superannuated Annie, now “thirty years old/TOMORROW” and well on her way to emphysema and hooking in Times Square. Likewise, Cox’s send-up of Liza Minnelli (“Liza One Note”) concludes with Minnelli’s blaring foghorn of a vibrato, on top of Liza’s blaring foghorn of a personality. Roy Bumgarner II throws himself into every overblown role, including a spot-on, “somewhat overindulgent” Mandy Patinkin. (This skit was, alas, mystifying to many members of the audience: Apparently not everyone has memorized the roster of Tony winners from 1980. Hmpf.). Though Bumgarner is equally amusing as the more-rustic-than-thou Topol of Fiddler on the Roof, he truly shines as the pretentious protagonist of RENT, head-banging to his own mysterious drummer. (For the record, Bumgarner plays a bitchin’ air guitar.)

The Les Miz send-up — arguably Forbidden Broadway’s finest sequence — still features the delightful parody of John Napier’s centrifugal, panic-inducing set. It showcases as well the fine talents of Katy Moore as the miserable Fantine, dreaming oh-so-wistfully of a time “when shows were fun/ and they used bright lighting.”

Isidro Medina III boasts a lovely voice — ideal for the show’s occasional narrators — but he isn’t as versatile a character actor as the rest of the cast; though a respectable feline and respectable Fierstein, his breathy Phantom sequence fell flat. (It didn’t help that audio problems seemed to plague that particular number.)

While Maryclaire Becan’s simple choreography could be more obviously parodic, Rose Nixon’s costumes more than compensate. (Check out Nixon’s trippy ’60s threads in the Hairspray parody; they’re like Project Runway on LSD.) The whole shebang is directed with obvious affection — and just enough malice — by James Zaccaria (with Jane Haas at the keyboard).

The show works slightly better, I think, in a somewhat smaller venue. I’ve caught productions in both Manhattan and Chicago, and the intimacy of those true cabaret spaces helped to emphasize the show’s inherent goofiness — it’s funnier to have all of Broadway’s excesses crammed onto a stage the size of a postage stamp. The Cameo’s larger space requires additional amplification and mixing, and opening night’s levels were a bit off: Forbidden Broadway is nothing without its laser-sharp lyrics, and when the keyboard occasionally overpowered the vocals, it was as if humor, not Broadway, were verboten.

But mostly, I enjoyed myself — at times, immensely — and I’m sure others will, too; while I was likely the only one to catch the evening’s concluding Laura Bell Bundy joke, I’m not sure that’s an achievement to mention to anyone. Ever. (It turns out that my non-theater-maven companion — or, as he’s known in the business, a ‘civilian’ — didn’t know Stephen Sondheim from his elbow, yet still chortled at the “Into the Words” sequence. We remain close but wary friends.) I can thus safely assure theater neophytes that this trip down Broadway’s memory lane remains accessible, witty, and smart. All appearances (and nomenclature) to the contrary, a visit to St. Paul’s Square is absolutely encouraged — not
forbidden. •


Forbidden Broadway
8pm Thu-Sat,
2pm Sun
Through Oct 12
$33; $15 military, student
Cameo Theatre
1131 E. Commerce
(210) 212-5454

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