Satire Never Dies: Forbidden Broadway at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Sunday 22nd June 2014, matinée

We waited a long five years for Forbidden Broadway to come back to London.  This show, first conceived in 1982 by Gerard Alessandrini is as much an institution on Broadway as the mega-musicals it lampoons.  Given the English reputation for self-parody it seems ironic (yes we’re supposed to be good at that too) that this show hasn’t taken off to the same extent on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps he was just waiting for some new shows to open (a theme the show touches upon).  Whatever the reason, we are grateful to have another chance to see it at the Menier Chocolate Factory, and to have a show perfectly tailored to the West End.

‘Forbidden Broadway’ gives us the best of both worlds – high quality music sung by professionals, and highly comedic lyrics courtesy of Alessandrini.  It seems ironic that due to the current state of the West End, the best chance of seeing a really excellent cast is to watch them taking the proverbial out of their own livelihoods.  And here we have a truly luxurious gathering of fine singers whose comedic talents more than match their vocal chords. Damien Humbley, who really brightened up the recent Menier production of ‘Merrily we roll along’, here runs the gamut from Jean Valjean in ‘Bring it down’ (God it’s High/This song is high/bring it down….) to a fantastic Miss Trunchbull in a skit of ‘Matilda’. Not to mention a wicked take-off of Mandy Pantinkin, whose show (or by all accounts ‘love-in’) with Patti LuPone is mercilessly mocked (‘My boy Bill should be 40 by now….’).  Ben Lewis is so unfeasibly tall that we honestly thought he was on stilts when he came on stage as Willy Wonka.  Next to him, they could have used the normal-sized cast as Oompa Loompas. It is a delight to hear his beautifully sung rendition to the tune of ‘Pure Imagination’, here rendered as ‘The show with no imagination’ while watching his bizarre antics with the notorious glass elevator.  He does a great turn as Stephen Sondheim, and proves himself a liar by singing ‘The Impossible Song’ (‘The Impossible Dream’) perfectly, complete with well placed warbling.  We’re not sure if this one is aimed at a famous singer who is reluctant to retire, but it doesn’t really matter, the conceit is beautifully carried off.  Anna Jane-Casey is an absolute fireball of frenetic energy with a fantastic voice to match.  She takes on the great icons with mischievous delight – Liza Minelli (‘Poor Liza one-note’ – ouch!), Chita Riveira, who gets into a verbal, musical and physical cat-fight with Rita Moreno to the tune of West Side Story’s ‘America’, and as her piece de resistance she perfectly imitates Idina Menzel (while singing a song about how impossible to imitate she is) in the wonderful ‘Defying Subtlety’ – and defy subtlety she certainly does!  Sophie Louise-Dann is the chameleon of the troupe with a genius for characterisation.  From a ten year old Matilda wannabee (‘My Mum says I’m a triple threat’) receiving her P45, to the 82 year old Angela Lansbury, singing ‘I Don’t want to know’ from Jerry Herman’s ‘Dear World’ as an explanation for her retreat into Miss Marple and cameo parts.  It’s a genuinely touching moment, yet simultaneously hilarious and we look forward to seeing Sophie’s Mabel Normand one day.  As Miss Saigon, she gives a fantastically simpering performance as the ill-fated bar-girl.

We could go on.  The gems just keep coming and are a delight to watch.  But what we also love about Forbidden Broadway is the spot on analysis of what’s going on in the West End which makes this comedy truly satirical, not just mindless fun (although there is plenty of that as well).  We have child exploitation in a mash-up of Matilda, Billy Elliot, and Les Mis’s Gavroche.  With some long-running shows now running their own ‘academies’ to supply them with regular child stars, the idea of a school of West End wannabees run by the monstrous Miss Trunchbull doesn’t seem that far off the mark. Then we have the curse of the long run, with a whole segment on ‘Les Mis’, including ‘Ten Years More’ in which the cast both celebrate and bemoan the shows success.  The biggest irony here is that the songs themselves have become iconic – Colm Wilkinson mentioned ‘Bring It Down’ with obvious glee in his own Broadway show.  We’re sure ‘Ten Years More’ will run and run as long as Les Mis is around and we hope it does.  Miss Saigon takes on the mantle of ‘unworthy revival’ in a segment which mercilessly shows up the score’s inconsistencies and the clichéd plot, which, the show suggests, hasn’t aged well – we couldn’t possibly comment.  And in a truly spine-tingling finale, the Nazi anthem from ‘Cabaret’ is used to highlight the tendency towards corporate takeover on both sides of the atlantic in ‘Broadway belongs to me’.

We hope we won’t have to wait another five years for the show’s return and we look forward to enjoying the old favourites with some new additions. We wonder if Alessandrini began writing skits on ‘Stephen Ward’ or ‘From Here to Eternity’ and had to tear them up.  Or what delights he might have found in shows long-closed.  Something about Cameron Mackintosh using that ever-so-catchy tune from ‘Betty Blue Eyes’ springs to mind.  With a back-catalogue of twelve albums, there is a rich and ever-growing seam of material to choose from, and long may it continue.  Whether you love the West End, or hate what’s happening to it, we can’t recommend this show enough.

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