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Hello, Drolly: the cast of Stageworks/Hudson’s Forbidden Broadway.

Sweet Parody

By James Yeara

Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1

Written and created by Gerard Alessandrini, directed by Billy Kimmel, musical numbers staged by Billy Kimmel StageWorks/Hudson, through July 12

Forbidden Broadway is full of love: for musical theater, for entertainment, for the craft of acting, the talent for dancing, and the art of singing. People who truly love musical theater will be smitten by this 90-minute Valentine to musical theater. People who love to be entertained will be thrilled with this 27-year Off-Broadway veteran, which has been honored in the past with a Tony Award, an Obie Award, and a Drama Desk Award. People who admire ensemble acting, deft dancing, and eclectic singing will exalt the talents of Forbidden Broadway’s four-person cast. This pastiche parody is like a beautiful love affair.

Of course, as with most love affairs, Forbidden Broadway has a fair amount of slap and tickle, playful stings and bites, gratuitous displays, and the odd moment tied to a picnic table while covered in maple syrup, but such occasional awkward moments are the stuff true love is made on.

Briskly paced, the 20 scenes of StageWorks/Hudson’s regional premiere of Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (there are various compilations of this recently closed show, repeatedly rewritten by creator Gerard Alessandrini as Broadway’s follies, excesses, and successes rolled out season by season) tumble by in a Vaudevillian pattern of blackouts and scenes. From the opening number, a parody of the Great White Way, Forbidden Broadway simultaneously skewers and admires shows from Chicago (an excellent number called “Glossy Fosse” uses the tune of “Razzle Dazzle” and features such lyrics as “Saucy Fosse’em/Spread the fingers/Wear a bowler hat/Though the set looks shoddy/Everybody likes a naked body”) to Disney’s The Lion King (“The Circle of Mice” sums up all you need to know about the Magic Kingdom’s aesthetic with the concluding “ker-ching”).

Billy Kimmel, an Off-Broadway veteran of Forbidden Broadway, serves as this production’s director/choreographer and as a quarter of the the four-member cast of actor-singer-dancers (all equally adept at each). Molly Parker-Myers proves a spot-on Bebe Neuwirth impressionist and offers a killer Chita Rivera in a West Side Story lampoon. Stephen Joshua Thompson’s “pussy on the stairs” and pose at the beginning of “I Enjoy Being a Cat” killed the audience with laughter. And Molly Marie Walsh was pure perfection; her washed-up grown-up Annie singing “Revive me, revive Me . . . before my red hair turns gray,” Rita Moreno in the “Chita/Rita” West Side Story duel (“I’m a talented actress/So long as you stay on the mattress”) and Liza Minnelli in “Liza One Note” all earned their standing ovations.

While the laughter poured out like a cold front from the west, the expertise displayed in the Les Mis medley made me applaud the cast’s serious talents even as I kept chuckling at the dead-on skewering of the musical. Just as excellent is the ensemble number “Ambition,” parodying Fiddler on the Roof. The cast was accompanied to perfection by pianist and music director Kurt Perry, and special note must be paid to “wig stylist” Stephen Joshua Thompson, without whom the sight gags wouldn’t have achieved their pop.

The ancient Greeks stated that the comedic playwright gives a barb-wire enema to hypocrites. (It sounds better in the original Greek). Freud wrote that humor was a path to the truth. (It sounds more profound in the original Freud). But Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 sounds better than the originals it mocks, mimics, and manhandles, even pulling off that Chaucerian special: apologizing for vulgarly exposing hypocrites, frauds, and the powerful even as you expose, unapologetically, the vulgarity of the powerful, frauds, and hypocrites. Here’s hoping that StageWorks/Hudson doesn’t fail to bring Forbidden Broadway: Greatest Hits, Vol 1 back for a deserved encore, or leap upon the chance to produce Volume 2 as soon as it’s available.

Oh, Grow Up

Children

By A.R Gurney, directed by John Tillinger

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through July 12

Sitting through this bit of childishness, which was chosen out of all the plays in all the world to open the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s 55th season, leaves one feeling far more restive than festive. Perhaps this is an attempt to give Williamstown audiences a sense of the familiar with a play by A.R. Gurney, who has a long history with the festival. Or perhaps the raison d’être lies in saving money (it is being produced in association with the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut). Whatever the familial or financial considerations, it squanders a quarter of the main stage season with theater as nourishing as a piece of cold, desiccated white bread.

Written 35 years ago, the characters are Gurney’s usual WASPs, unsuccessfully struggling, in this case, with the aftereffects of their repressive upbringings, which have left them emotionally stunted and unhappy despite their lives of relative privilege. As usual, the setting is New England—this time the terrace of a summer home on an island off the coast of Massachusetts during a Fourth of July family gathering.

James Noone has designed a well- manicured set with realistic trees and gardens, lightly weathered shingles, and glimpses into the house’s interior that remain as elusive as the emotional centers of three of the play’s four characters. Grand but sterile, it is perfectly at home in the ’62 Center’s soulless main theater. Delicately lit by Rui Rita with gradual transitions from morning to afternoon to evening, the whole tasteful affair is rather more substantial than the play itself, which is about a different set of affairs altogether. It is so slight an experience, such a nonevent, that one wonders why one is sitting in the WTF as opposed to in front of a television screen. Live theater? Nah.

In the case of James Waterston’s performance as Randy, dead would be preferable. True, Randy is an irritating man who remains petulantly childish in ways that beggar the imagination, but Waterston is merely annoying and lacking in sufficient depth to make Randy’s severely arrested development at all believable, except in his postpubescent randiness.

Judith Light’s widowed matriarch is sporadically humorous. Simply called Mother, she has led a Chekhovian life of quiet desperation, and her own Fourth of July fireworks offer a temporary respite from the dry restraint of all that has come before. Seemingly channeling Katharine Hepburn at moments, Light perhaps drew inspiration from her character’s professed love of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the character that Hepburn played in The Lion in Winter. But this is really Chekhov lite; while Mother may have claws, they are mostly retracted, and her uncompelling and unrealized existence has scant interior life.

Given her surroundings, it is a small miracle that Katie Finneran turns Barbara, the daughter, into a living, flesh-and-blood character. It is really through the sheer force of her sharp, intelligent performance that we feel the angst that has been stirring beneath her composed exterior, and when she finally makes a maternally incorrect remark, it results in dark laughter that is well-earned.

Continual references to children’s children, ironic constructs meant to point up the immaturity of their parents, become wearing. I’d sooner watch a rerun of HBO’s In Treatment, any half-hour of which offers far more character insight than the whole of Gurney’s dysfunctional Children.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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