As soon as we saw that Forbidden Broadway was returning to the Menier, the booking was made in an instant. We saw it last time, in 2009, and thought it was a complete hoot. Well, it’s returned, as is just as hooty as it was before. It’s not the same show of course – it’s been completely rewritten, with loads more musicals to parody and loads more musical performers to tease mercilessly.
There’s no pretension, no back story, no hidden meaning to this show – it just takes the “four performers and a pianist” format, showers the stage with glitzy star lighting, has tinselly curtains on every available wall, and four entrances from which our performers can make continuous star appearances. Actually, given all the quick costume and number changes, this is less like a show and more like a showbiz triathlon. They must be the fittest actors in London.
A series of musical sketches rapidly follow each other, in which no holds are barred with the extent to which they ridicule, humiliate and lampoon our most beloved musicals. The traditional shows come in for their regular treatment – Phantom, Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Lion King; but we also have new kids on the block in the form of Book of Mormon, Once, Jersey Boys and Charlie (of the Other Chocolate Factory). Obviously, if you‘ve actually seen the show they’re parodying it makes it a lot funnier and a lot easier to understand. We realised that we’ve got a bit behind with our London musicals, and there were probably more shows featured that we hadn’t seen, than that we had. However, for the most part, this doesn’t matter because the sketches themselves are so funny and superbly performed that you can enjoy them regardless.
There are also some extra numbers that don’t reflect any one particular show – there’s an homage to Cameron Mackintosh (which we understood completely), a showbiz love-in between Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone which nicely took the rise out of those gushing, artificial combinations of stars done purely for “entertainment” that you get sometimes – without actually realising that the two of them really are doing shows together in America; and a slightly odd number combining Hugh Jackman and Peter Allen which we didn’t follow at all. I’ve Googled it now, and discovered that Mr Jackman did a show about Mr Allen about eleven years ago – in America; but I think that’s a bit distant and esoteric even for the Menier. We enjoyed it though, as the teenage Mrs Chrisparkle had a crush on Peter Allen and there’s not many weeks that pass by without an enthusiastic burst from her in the shower of “I Go to Rio”. And of course, we had our traditional, brief appearance of Elaine Paige on the radio, cruel but hilarious. We can only think that EP must be a damned good sport.
The majority of the sketches are pant-wettingly funny, and as a result of this show, we certainly now have no intention of seeing Once – any combination of all those elements must make for the most ghastly night at the theatre. Oh, that accordion. I loved the presentation of Miss Saigon as a shouting contest (that’s another show we haven’t seen) and Jersey Boys looked and sounded hilarious – for all the wrong reasons – again new to me, but Mrs C who saw it in America whilst on business assures me it was a perfect parody. Not sure I’ll ever be able to think of “Walk Like a Man” in the same way. The treatment of Book of Mormon was clever rather than outrageous – but then the original show is so wacky that it must be hard to devise a version that’s funnier than the original. There was a brilliant updating of Guys and Dolls’ Fugue for Tinhorns, a wonderful fantasia on Sondheim (Into the Words), a rather telling number about child exploitation on stage (whilst still keeping it light), a battle (literally) between Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, and Wicked’s fantastic “Defying Subtlety”.
My two favourite sketches were the Lion King – primarily because of the fabulously stupid costumes and the excruciating (this time for all the right reasons) song about wearing the heavy headpieces; but most of all their treatment of Les Miserables, with the perils of the revolving stage and the incredibly funny rewrites to those favourites, On My Own, Bring Him Home, One Day More and Master of the House. To tell you what they did to them would spoil the surprise – but we were completely in tears of laughter.
No matter how cleverly the whole thing has been written and assembled it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the four amazing performers – the showbizzy Anna-Jane Casey and Ben Lewis who can also do wry, and the wry Sophie-Louise Dann and Damian Humbley who can also do showbizzy. They’re all magnificent. In amongst all the rest of it, Miss Casey did a splendidly ditzy Liza Minelli which included simulated hows-your-father with the man sitting next to Mrs C – much to his delight; Miss Dann did an incredibly accurate Angela Lansbury, which soared musically and became much more of a genuine appreciation of the Grande Dame than a micky-take; Mr Humbley raised his Sweeney razor directly at me and threatened, and threatened closer, so I had to shrink further back and back in my seat; and Mr Lewis bestrode the stage like the Colossus he is and didn’t mind being referred to as the one we didn’t like in Candide. Not to forget the sterling work put in by Mr Joel Fram on the piano, whose entertaining musical arrangements can summon up any mood you want.
I said there was no hidden meaning to the show – but the final number which draws our attention to the effects of increased commercial sponsorship in the West End, whilst funny, is as hard-hitting as a jackboot in your privates. The fact that the season virtually sold out so quickly, has a two week extension at the Menier until the end of August, and is now scheduled to transfer to the Vaudeville later in the year, tells its own story. One of the funniest things you can see on a stage!
The super production photos are by Alastair Muir.