I hate Broadway. There, I've said it, and now I feel better. I am not cavalier about my bile, either. If you had to sit through touring productions of failed musicals such as Big and Saturday Night Fever, as I do, enmity for the Great White Way would likewise take seed in your heart. There are only so many extravaganzas that can be built out of Disney films--and, honestly, what is the difference between Beauty and the Beast and Ice Follies but the skates? By what strange logic do Broadway producers come to the conclusion that audiences will pay hundreds of dollars to watch television performers fill in roles in Grease or Annie Get Your Gun when we can see these same performers on television for free, and need not hear them sing? Toni Tennille in the musical adaptation of Victor/Victoria? When that contract was signed, somewhere an angel lost its wings.
So I had great hopes for Forbidden Broadway, currently playing at the lovely Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown St. Paul. For two decades, composer/lyricist Gerard Alessandrini's musical-comedy revue has been skewering Broadway by taking off-Broadway potshots at the foibles of America's theatrical equivalent to a theme park. Since the show debuted in 1982, Broadway has not simply deteriorated, it has abandoned its importance. No less than the New York Times declared early this year that Broadway no longer mattered, and if theatergoers want worthwhile productions they must go off-Broadway, presumably to shows such as Forbidden Broadway, which has borne witness to the decline. It seemed likely that Alessandrini's notorious song parodies would reflect some of the rage that lovers of theater feel about the deterioration of the Great White Way. And if the songs did not rage, would they not mourn? Was it possible that this show might reflect my own feelings? Would there be hate?
Perhaps such strong emotions exist in the current Manhattan production, but that is a different affair than the Forbidden Broadway currently playing in St. Paul, which has the feel of a "greatest hits" package about it. After all, a show that opens with all four of its performers simultaneously impersonating Carol Channing is not exactly tearing its punch lines from today's headlines. Singer Susanne Blakeslee does chilling, note-perfect impersonations of both Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews, but when she addresses a song, in Andrews's voice, to the notion that the original Victor/Victoria star can no longer hit the high notes, and so instead must modulate down a key--well, these aren't lyrics etched in acid. Many of the songs are one-note jokes, such as a musical argument between Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno (set to the tune of "America" from West Side Story) in which they argue that they are not the same woman, and should not be mistaken for each other. Well, duh--does the song really need to go on for more than one rhymed couplet?
This is not to say that the show lacks charm. Its cast of four (Blakeslee, Becky Barta, Mark-David Kaplan, and Kevin B. McGlynn) are uniformly excellent singers with great comic chops, and they make more of their limited material than the revue really warrants. They parody Les Misérables in a series of songs, and while they do so they spin around on the stage, propelled by their own fast-moving feet as though trapped on Les Mis's notorious turntable set, shouting out their song lyrics as they pass the microphone. This effect is silly, and to be fair, the play as a whole is fun. Perhaps the only failing of the show is its subject: When you parody something as trifling as Broadway, eventually you will also cease to matter.
Forbidden Broadway does offer the interesting statistic that there are 40,000 actors in Manhattan, a factoid that will certainly prove itself to be useful at Minneapolis cocktail parties, where the conversation would then logically turn to puzzling over the number of actors in the Twin Cities. I won't hazard a guess, as I am still bewildered by the number of actors that are new to me--and I often see five shows a week. In Absurd Person Singular at the Theatre in the Round, I have only come across two of the cast in previous shows. Perhaps this would be unremarkable if the performers were mediocre. After all, Theatre in the Round is a community theater, and we should not be surprised if middling actors surface there with some regularity, only to disappear and never be heard from again.
But this is not the case with the Theatre in the Round Players' current production. Alan Ayckbourn's play, which details the eroding relationships between three sets of British couples over three successive holidays, is a demanding bit of writing. Absurd Person Singular shifts wildly in mood in its three acts, moving from light domestic comedy to black humor, finally closing with a bleak, sadistic dénouement that could easily flummox an inexperienced performer. One particularly tricky scene has a woman repeatedly attempting suicide while her party guests go about various household chores, ignorant of her attempts at wrist slashing and self-immolation. As if that were not enough of a bear to act out, our potential suicide gets no dialogue whatsoever until the end of the scene--one suspects even Buster Keaton would have balked at being asked to perform so physical a sequence sans dialogue. But actor Karla Reck tackles the action as though in a frenzy, chasing after spilled pills and wrapping ropes around her neck with a hysteria that is almost exhausting to watch.
The remainder of the cast (most notably David Coral and Linda Sue Anderson) is likewise excellent; how is it possible that I have seen so few of these actors over the past year? Where are these thespians hiding? The program to Absurd Person Singular points out that Theatre in Round first produced this play in 1978 with such performers as Paula Lenski and Elsa Cornell. I haven't heard of these folks, either, but I fully expect to see them pop up in a show any month now.