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Review Round-up: Third Time Lucky for Forbidden?

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Forbidden Broadway commenced its third and possibly final London run last week (3 July 2009, previews from 25 June) at Off-West End powerhouse the Menier Chocolate Factory, fresh from finishing its award-winning, record-breaking 27-year run in New York (See News, 17 Apr 2009).

Conceived and written by Gerard Alessandrini (who, at the time, was an out-of-work actor) and co-directed by Phillip George, Forbidden Broadway premiered in 1982 in New York, where it became a long-running – and continuously updated - Theatreland institution. It made its first transatlantic transfer to the Fortune Theatre in 1989, and again ten years later when its home was the Jermyn Street Theatre (and subsequently the Albery) - though on both occassions its stay was brief.

The London cast features  Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Alasdair Harvey and Steven Kynman, who under the direction of Phillip George take pot-shots at a host of West End and Broadway shows, including recent Chocolate Factory exports La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music. It continues until 13 September 2009.

Among the overnight and weekend critics, there was a divide between those who found the evening an “almost constant pleasure”, and those who labelled the ageing revue show “narcissistic” and “limp”. But the “sparky, larky” cast of four came in for praise from both sides, as did the costumes of legendary designer Alvin Colt (who passed away last year), which “ensure laughs before a note’s been sung”. So although not all were in on the joke, overall it seems that Forbidden Broadway has retained its formidable reputation as “a must for anyone who really loves theatre”.

  • Theo Bosanquet on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Not everything hits its mark - the Andrew Lloyd Webber skit is not a patch on the Sondheim one which follows - but the majority are sharply observed and superbly executed … The parodying is broad and generally merciless, with Billy Elliot (or 'Silly Idiot') and Jersey Boys ('Walk like a man/Sing like a girl') among the shows going through the wringer. Others get off relatively lightly - Priscilla and Mamma Mia! only get the briefest of mentions - but wider comments on overuse of projection and proliferation of puppetry certainly hit home … director Phillip George moves it all along at a lick and ensures that, if this is to the be the swansong of Gerard Alessandrini's masterful creation, it's going out on a high.”

  • Lyn Gardner in the Guardian (two stars) - “Like a mysterious piece of brightly coloured belly-button fluff, this lame musical spoof arrives at the Menier - home to so many delicious musical revivals - making you wonder how on earth it got there and what could possibly be its purpose … Forbidden Broadway offers two hours of mildly entertaining, mildly irritating sendups of well-known shows … It certainly helps that the tight-knit cast of Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Alasdair Harvey and Steven Kynman perform with expertise and an infectious delight. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the whole thing lacks wit … It's all just a little limp.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “Here’s a treat for the summer, a revue that gleefully skewers almost every major musical of the past 30 years … Occasionally, I felt that the show could do with sharper teeth, though both Elaine Paige and Liza Minnelli are mercilessly mocked … But these are minor complaints in a night of almost constant pleasure. The show lives up to its promise that 'It’s a trifle rude and we may get sued' … As well as the sharp wit, the chief pleasure is the versatility of the four-strong company … who gleefully put the knife into show after show, while singing and dancing with unquenchable energy. All four … deserve medals for energy and wit, but Harvey’s Sondheim ('Every year they reinvent my classics/Even though they are older than Jurassics') and Casey’s breathless, giggling, stridently one-note Minnelli are especially cherishable.”

  • Jenny Gilbert in the Independent on Sunday - “As always, Forbidden Broadway ... is performed by just four singers and a pianist - here the tireless Joel Fram. A chief delight is the speed of the show's costume-and-wig changes and the variety of styles and stars that come under fire, the puckish Steven Kynman morphing from Billy Elliot to a coy Daniel Radcliffe in Equus, performing a strip-tease out of his Hogwarts uniform, to Andrew Lloyd Webber cuddling a toy cat which viciously attacks him … What's the betting this Chocolate Factory offering won't make the leap to the West End, like A Little Night Music and La Cage aux Folles before it. It deserves to.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (two stars) - “The show feels inward-looking, even incestuous, especially when it’s transposed to our less self-infatuated theatrical city … The only tough-minded number is a reworking of Nancy’s love song to Bill Sikes in Oliver! with his splattered victim wailing 'as long as he beats me' … in the past the show has had sharper things to say about Les Mis than that it overuses its revolve and is boring its actors by running for ever. Still, a sparky, larky cast - Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Alasdair Harvey, Steven Kynman - have a go at pretty well every West End musical … The show makes the odd good point: too many film projections, too much cheesy marketing, too-high seat prices. But overall Forbidden Broadway is one for a niche audience - and though that niche whooped and cheered on opening night, its enthusiasm didn’t make the evening less narcissistic.”

  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “The parodies are hardly subtle but their details are cannily observed. And they are mostly very funny - much funnier than précis can convey … Animatedly accompanied by musical director Joel Fram on piano, the four performers show fine versatility, with Anna-Jane Casey and Steven Kynman the standouts, while Alvin Colt’s costumes ensure laughs before a note’s been sung. Undoubtedly, it would be possible to balk at the show’s sheer knowingness. We’re meant to grasp exactly what’s being mocked - and to feel pretty smug about doing so. Some won’t. But the verve and vocal excellence of the performances ensure broad appeal, and Forbidden Broadway should be another big success for this little Southwark powerhouse.”

  • Kat Brown in thelondonpaper (four stars) - “For a format that was refreshed yearly during its 27 years on (well, off) Broadway, there's a lot of tenuous linking to make this sometimes dated edition London-centric. Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang closed yonks ago and NY hit Legally Blonde, parodied in an ode to camp, doesn't even open here till December. Thankfully, its all hilarious. The real London stuff is great: from the Albert Hall's cavernous The King and I, recast as a puppet show at Wembley, to Billy Elliot being force-fed oestrogen in Stephen Daldry's basement to delay puberty. Less encyclopaedic musical fans may miss some jokes, but this waspish and wonderful take on Broadway is still a must for anyone who really loves theatre.”
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