Taking the mickey out of popular musicals is an old tradition, and still a delightfully wicked form of entertainment. Especially when the shows are lampooned with wit and intelligence, as they are in Forbidden Broadway.
We’ve seen it before with regular doses of offbeat Broadway, and while this production spoofs some of the same shows, it feels fresh and immensely funny.
Wild-eyed choreographer Clint Lesch dominates the show, taking most of the leading male roles and adding some narration too. Yet he’s created plenty of room for the young students behind him to shine, and some do so superbly. The 11 lithe and skinny dancers are dressed in simple but striking skinny jeans and white shirts, instantly giving cohesion to their chorus lines. They sing some beautiful harmonies together and fill the stage without ever crowding it.
Forbidden Broadway was first created in 1982 by Gerard Alessandrini, who has refreshed it more than a dozen times to parody newer shows. It’s usually performed by two men, two women and a pianist, but local director Greg Homann has stocked it with extra dancers and the choreography by Lesch brings them all into play perfectly. The dance routines are sassy and funny, backed by a striking set by JC Laurent with great lighting to build up the atmosphere.
To fully appreciate the biting wit you have to listen intently, although with this appealing cast that’s a pleasure. The lyrics have been reworked by Alessandrini to deliberately pick up on the faults or foibles of the original show. That’s a strong reminder that satire is always far funnier if you’re familiar with the material under fire.
Deogracious Dube gives us some early humour as an ageing Annie, looking haggard and moaning that she’s 30 – tomorrow. That sets the tone beautifully, with clever lyrics set to the original music to become even more entertaining than the genuine versions. The Phantom drew applause of recognition the instant a shallow boat was punted on stage. The lyrics by the man in the mask weren’t always clear, but that was part of the joke, since a spoof of power-packed old timer Ethel Merman appears to berate today’s singers for weak voices that have to be amplified by a microphone.
Les Misérables was sent up superbly, with the lyrics re-written to explain the convoluted plot, and Kerutse Tlhoaele fabulous as a bored actress texting her friends while she sings On My Phone. There’s plenty of humour in the movements too, with the cast tripping up each time they walk into the revolving circle of light projected on Les Mis stage. Some lyrics are hilarious, and Lesch is brilliant as Jean Valjean painfully pleading: “This song’s too high, much too high!”
Tlhoaele is also striking in Hello Dolly, sexily belting out “Don’t be annoyed fellas, I’m keeping you employed, fellas”. The Cats scene – a dreadful musical – is also very funny, with singers yearning for the days when they played humans, but carrying on because they’re clawing in the dollars.
With some in-jokes it helps to be familiar with the shows, to appreciate how Alessandrini has altered the lyrics specifically to parody that production. The spoof Mamma Mia tells us this is considered high art in New York, where the literary skills of Shakespeare have been traded in for dancing queens.
In the corner stoically driving all the numbers is pianist Rowan Bakker, on the fringe of the limelight yet keeping everything together perfectly.
It was encouraging to see such talented youngsters in the cast, although these UJ students are studying subjects such as accounting and maths, so the stage may be a temporary diversion rather than a calling. But the thunderous applause they earned could prove too addictive to give up. DM
Forbidden Broadway runs at the UJ Con Cowan Theatre until 21 May.
All photos by Jan Potgieter.