My face hurts. This is a good thing.
I fully intended to see Forbidden Broadway when it was at The Menier Chocolate Factory earlier this summer. But I was performing in a play myself and tickets were like gold dust, so that plan was scuppered. It was a huge relief that they transferred it to the West End – right on the doorstep of the very shows it parodies. I like musicals (rather than love them). Well, some of them. I prefer plays. I’m not systematically trying to see every musical in order to tick them off some sort of list. Some of my more musical-obsessed friends are horrified that I haven’t seen Les Mis, Phantom, Cats, The Lion King etc. So in some ways I’m a pretty good litmus test on how well the jokes in Forbidden Broadway work.
Ultimately, this is a spangly satirical revue which gleefully tears several strips off showtunes with wit and perfect mimicry. Our talented and versatile cast of 4 are Christina Bianco, Anna-Jane Casey, Damian Humbley and Ben Lewis, with Joel Fram at the piano – they contort their voices into all sorts of styles, impersonating everyone from Idina Menzel to Liza Minelli to Hugh Jackman. The show bounces along at a merry pace with a relentless stream of costume changes (all with a deliberately low-budget look) to complement every single scene. The format has been running off-Broadway since 1982, but this version has been tailored for the West End and its current shows in residence – it appears there may have been some minor updates since the transfer in response to current events (e.g. the casting of Ronan Keating in Once). Whether you like, love, hate or haven’t seen many musicals, there is something in this show for you.
We begin with “Everybody Thinks They’re A Critic” – aimed squarely at people like me who take it upon themselves to write about theatre (I smiled a wry smile), neatly followed by a reworded Matilda song “Exploiting Children” about pushy stage parents and merciless producers. There’s a riff on the tongue-twisting lyrics of Sondheim, a tribute to Wicked in “Defying Subtlety”, and a whole section on Les Miserables which takes a pop at the fact that it’s been cluttering up the Queen’s Theatre for so long. In spite of having not seen Les Mis, I was cackling helplessly at them shuffling round and round in a circle (I’m assuming they use the stage revolve quite a lot). No musical is safe – not even West End must-see The Book of Mormon. If you’ve seen the musical in question, you’ll get the references straight away – if you haven’t, the content is generally accessible enough for you to get the jist.
Most of it is an affectionate send up of the West End – e.g. “Can You Feel The Pain Tonight?”, a nod to the cumbersome headdresses in The Lion King, and “Walk Like A Man, Sing Like a Girl” from Jersey Boys, but there are a couple of skits which really don’t pull their punches. I adored Once when I saw it (that music haunted me for days after), but their ruthless attack on the angsty-yet-subtle melodies elicited several pained “ooohhhs” and sharp intakes of breath from the audience around me rather than the belly laughs. Clearly London audiences have taken Once to their hearts!
But perhaps my favourite guilty pleasure was when they took several chunks out of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory: “…Come with me, and you’ll see, a show with no imagination…”. Sorry Sam Mendes, but they are right – beyond the song pinched from the film, the score is completely unmemorable. I howled with laughter (no one else did) at their take on the great glass elevator, which was plagued with technical difficulties in the early shows. I saw Charlie in preview, when they simply had to do without their showstopping set piece – they sat on a black stage all but for a generous scattering of twinkling fairy lights and sang “Pure Imagination”. It was simple, beautiful, classy and a piece of understated theatrical magic. When I saw it a second time, the same scene was completed with a hideous glowing turquoise phonebox which juddered clumsily out over the audience, with about as much elegance as a bloated walrus.
Overall the show is well judged – acerbic without being too malicious. There were a few scenes which were utterly lost on me (I just didn’t get the references), but in some ways, it was nice to have a few minutes respite in amongst the relentless torrent of hilarity just to give my cheeks a break from laughing. An evening well spent.
Forbidden Broadway is playing until Saturday 22nd November 2014 at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 The Strand, London, WC2R 0NH. For tickets and more information, go to http://www.nimaxtheatres.com/vaudeville-theatre/forbidden_broadway/