The trouble with parody is that it has to imitate and, to some extent, collude with what it parodies. Forbidden Broadway, taking the form of a musical revue – song after song, wig after wig – aims it sights at musical theatre (and specifically at Broadway) and in doing so it has to be what it mocks. The excellent and highly regarded performers ridicule hammy acting by acting hammy, they point an accusatory finger, albeit in a very mild way, at the megabucks musical industry by stuffing their gala opening night of the West End transfer with some of the richest people in the business.
Gerard Alessandrini’s concept, endlessly updated and performed since 1982, niftily rewrites the lyrics to some of musical theatre’s most famous songs to poke fun at a show, a performer, a producer or a murky aspect of the industry. The formula, warped characters delivering Weird Al style parodies (Defying Gravity becomes Defying Subtlety), wears thin by the end: deliberately DIY props – a miniature helicopter from Miss Saigon or a miniature chandelier from Phantom, a miniature glass elevator from Charlie And The Chocolate Factory – make the show’s point over and again.
It feels like the whole show is one mega tweet by @westendproducer, with #dear persistently hanging somewhere in the ether. The gala opening night provides the perfect audience: Nica Burns is there, so is Wayne Sleep – even Robert Lindsay, who is the subject of one of the fondly scathing songs. These people are in on the joke, they understand the backstage politics and get the references to producers and the faded Broadway stars of yester-decade. But will anyone else? Much of the humour is niche, even though it sits alongside parodies of the most popular Broadway/West End hits.
Occasionally the humour bites: “I will crush your hopes like a new Lloyd Webber score” is a zinger, as is the unremitting evisceration of Cameron Mackintosh, his unbridled greed, his disregard for performers’ welfare and his complete lack of interest in artistic merit. Occasionally the show edges into fiercer satire and targets the facile qualities of musicals, like reductive racial stereotypes (Miss Saigon) or, worse, performers pretending to play another nationality by adopting a badly imitative, borderline racist accent (again, Miss Saigon). One excellent song has Miss Trunchbull as a producer handing out P45s to Matilda, Billy Elliott and Gavroche because they’ve turned 10 (‘vermin with Oliviers’ as she calls them). But this is mismatched with pat jibes at physical attributes like Elaine Page’s height and Angela Lansbury’s age.
So far, so-so. But the show’s most remarkable aspect is its cast – particularly Christina Bianco who embodies the singers she imitates both physically and vocally. Within her pitch perfect interpretations of Kristin Chenoweth and Elaine Page are precise coloratura runs. The hushed audience and then rapturous applause that meet her nasal Idina Menzel-style rendition of Let It Go suggest that we are lulled into listening to a great singer sing a great song (and it is a great song), more than listening to the comic lyrics. We fall prey to the spine tingles and the appeal to broad brushstrokes of emotion that the show is trying to reproach.
But how far can it go? Everyone involved, presumably, makes their living from musical theatre. No bridges are being burned here (except, perhaps with Mackintosh). So, rather than being a damning critique, this is a mostly funny, often witty and sometimes satirical love-in, propped up by four stunning performances.