By Jenn McKee
A “Sound of Music” revenge fantasy, featuring young Nazi Rolf taking out some VonTrapps? If this premise sounds irresistible to you – and it should, it’s hilarious – then you should consider making your way to the Gem Theatre for Gerard Alessandrini’s “A Forbidden Broadway Christmas.”
The revue skewers musicals and egocentric singers, with four performers doing (usually) spot-on impersonations while singing satirically altered lyrics. Classics like “Guys and Dolls” and “Fiddler on the Roof” (by way of a song titled, “If I were a Gentile”) get a poke, as do blockbusters like “The Lion King,” “Les Miserables,” “Wicked,” “Jersey Boys” and “Hairspray.”
As with most revues, there are numbers in “Forbidden” that really work, and numbers that don’t (and even this probably changes from performance to performance, depending on the crowd and the players). The up side of this, of course, is that because most sketches are brief, if a number isn’t doing much for you, you know it won’t be long before another one bounds onto the stage.
I use the word “bounds” deliberately, since a show like “Forbidden” demands tons of energy from its performers, and the talented Gem Theatre crew is more than up to the job.
Mark David Kaplan gets his best chance to shine during a protracted, hysterical “Les Miserables” bit (I guess since the musical clocks in at more than three hours, it merits more than one song making fun of it in “Forbidden” – fair is fair). Jason Richards, meanwhile, offers strong vocals throughout, as well as a sublimely deadpan, purposely annoying solo rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” (“I’ll drive you up a wall, pa rumpa pum pum”).
The show’s two female performers, Kimberly Vanbiesbrouck and Janet Caine, combine terrific singing with great comic sensibilities and uncanny impersonations, right down to capturing Julie Andrews’ and Judy Garland’s little mouth-twitches (and, in the case of Vanbiesbrouch, Andrews’ wildly emphatic enunciation in both “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music.”) Caine also gets to showcase her talents for physical comedy while flopping around on the stage in a riff on “The Little Mermaid.”
Generally, the show’s momentum flags in sketches that highlight larger-than-life (in their own mind) singers like Celine Dion, Barbara Streisand, Tony Bennett and Liza Minelli. The central joke seems to be that these performers are blithely, obliviously full of themselves, but beyond that, there’s not much to the bits. And a segment that set “Annie” squarely within our current recession fell flat – perhaps because we’ve been living in the heart of that recession for so long now.
And while the show’s promotional materials insist that you needn’t be a fan of musicals to enjoy “Forbidden,” it’s hard to imagine a non-fan getting much out of a number about blockbuster British theater producer Cameron Mackintosh and his gift for marketing show-related merchandise.
For “Forbidden” is at its best when it offers comic, but nonetheless pointed, critiques of musicals, giving even fans of those shows some pause. “Jersey Boys”‘ tendency to rely heavily on narration is mocked (as is Franki Valli’s voice in “Walk like a Man, Sing like a Girl”), as is “Wicked”‘s bloated sense of its own importance (“Defying Gravity” becomes “Defying Subtlety”) and “The Lion King”‘s gorgeous but physically unwieldy costume design.
The “Sound of Music” sketch was the hands-down winner on opening night, though – not only for following through on our communal secret desire to see something so maddeningly earnest and pure de-faced, but also because “Forbidden”‘s cast members got caught up in the hilarity themselves. Caine, thanks to some jerry-rigged pigtails, started to giggle, and then, after becoming Rolf’s first victim, she was lying on the stage, cracking up, making Richards hide behind Vanbiesbrouck to hide his own laughter. This spontaneity added to what was already the show’s most entertaining chapter.
In terms of technical elements, wardrobe supervisor Andrea Kannon and wigmaster Salomon DeWane deserve their own round of applause, given the variety, quality and sheer volume of materials with which they must work. Music director and accompanist Ed Wells does marvelous work, responding to and adjusting as things happen on stage while consistently providing the perfect backdrop; and director William Selby directs the material with a sense of fun and polish.
So if you know a fan of musicals, tickets to “Forbidden” would make for a pretty good gift this holiday season.
‘A Forbidden Broadway Christmas’
The Gem Theatre, 333 Madison St., Detroit. Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 31 (excluding Dec. 24-25), plus Dec. 22, 28 & 29. 39.50; New Year’s Eve $45. 313-963-9800. http://www.gemtheatre.com