Oh, We Got Trouble! Right Here in New York City

Not so long ago, I asked you who–off the top off your head, taking a wild shot in the dark–would you vote for as the best theater critic in town? That is, discounting those two celebrated critics, Liz Smith and Rosie O’Donnell. No disrespect to the girls, but neither of them ever met a bad show they didn’t like. So who, my children, is the wisest, wittiest drama critic of them all?

Should you not know the outcome of this foregone conclusion, let me keep you in suspense no longer. His name is Gerard Alessandrini.

And you thought it was me! If by chance you are murmuring to yourself, “Gerard who?”–do not pass go and proceed to jail immediately. The brilliant Mr. Alessandrini is the best and funniest Broadway critic there has ever been in history. He’s the creator, writer and co-director of my favorite show on earth, the parody of Broadway musicals Forbidden Broadway , and I love him.

I always think understatement is a good thing, don’t you? But every season, I find myself eagerly looking forward to each new edition of his revue as if my partial sanity depended on it. (It does. And so, I trust, does yours.) Let us not hold back, then. There’s the Chrysler building, there’s Elaine’s and there’s Forbidden Broadway . There might be other irreplaceable things in town. But I can’t think of them right now. The good Mr. Alessandrini never lets us down. Come what may on Broadway, he always has us convulsed with laughter. He defines the irresistible higher lunacies of showbiz for us. He goes where no drama critic has dared to tread before. He slams everything ! With love and horror, of course.

He possesses both the affection of a true fan and the smile of an assassin. He likes what he skewers (sort of). He proves that all things can be parodied. But so much ? Everything is fair game in that oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York–but of late, they’re handing it to him on a plate. Mr. Alessandrini cheerfully nails one and all, adapting his own witty, sometimes withering lyrics to the original show tunes. Thus, in the current edition, Forbidden Broadway 2001: A Spoof Odyssey , which has just opened at the Stardust Theatre on the fringes of Broadway itself, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Marin Mazzie from Kiss Me, Kate waltz onstage singing a lusty new version of “Wunderbar”: “Would be stars / Would be stars! …” And the startling appearance of Cheryl Ladd as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun inspires a lethally new lyric to “There’s No Business Like Show Business”: “I’ve no business in show business ….”

There’s the ritual, wired appearance of Liza Minelli. (“Can we be serious for a moment? Do the words ‘Third Reich’ mean anything to you? Because they do to me.”) There’s the ever-modest Patti LuPone (“I tour all alone / And sing monotone / Making you groan / Being LuPone”). And, as always, there’s the beloved ghost of Broadways past, the old belter Ethel Merman, this time in duet with Sir Elton John, who admires her dress.

“Swell! Gee, but it’s good to be back!” says the irrepressible Ethel, who was present at the birth of theater, when Broadway was a muddy swamp and chorus boys had to forage for sustenance. “Hi ya, everybody!” She then turns to say to Elton enthusiastically: “You know I love a good old-fashioned show tune, don’t you?” And Elton replies, “Not really….”

To be sure, Mr. Alessandrini looks back nostalgically to the good old days of pre-Disneyfied Broadway, before the Great Corporate White Way became over-cute, over-miked, over-sold and under-age. An inspired, lunatic silliness is one of the revue’s appealing calling cards–from crashing toy helicopters to the endlessly revolving dizzy cast of Les Misérables , to the “show as old time / Worn as it could be”–the now-downsized Beauty and the Beast :

Just a little change

Says the Disney beast

Profits growing thin

Downsizing is in

Beauty ‘s been decreased.

This season, the send-ups that had me on the floor with laughter were a frantic Aida (“Cheesy” and “Elaborate Sets”), Les Miz (“Ten Years More”) and a Lion King with its cast of elaborately costumed lions and giraffes wearing neck braces (“Can you feel the pain tonight?”). As we invariably think at Forbidden Broadway , the immensely talented cast of four appears on the postage-stamp-size stage to be more gifted–and more fun–than anyone on Broadway. All thanks to trusty Christine Pedi, to Tony Nation and Danny Gurwin, and to Felicia Finley in her super debut with the company.

This much I know. If it’s time for Forbidden Broadway , all’s well with the world–nearly. Which brings us, reluctantly, to the opening of Seussical, The Musical at the Richard Rodgers. Or as Mr. Alessandrini puts it in his spoof of The Music Man :

Oh, we got trouble!

Right here in New York City

Right here in New York City

With a capital T

And that rhymes with D

And that stands for DULL!

IS THERE A DR. IN THE HOUSE?

Seussical hadn’t yet opened when I saw Forbidden Broadway , and Mr. Alessandrini made only a passing, prescient reference to it: “Now the Cat in the Hat’s here / Validating your worst fear….” But I’m afraid that “dull” would be putting it quite kindly for this most troubled new musical.

The bad word of mouth before its opening–the numerous firings and departures, including the loss of its director, Frank Galati, whose name still appears in the program although he left the show in Boston–weren’t the healthiest sign. But flops have been salvaged at the last minute before. In fact, you find yourself wishing Seussical well–hoping those fixed, desperate, beaming smiles glued to the faces of the game performers could make all the problems, all the charmless, ill-conceived Technicolor Munchkinland goo of it go away.

But it won’t. Based on the works of Dr. Seuss, and conceived by lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (with Eric Idle of Monty Python), the piece turns out to be less Seuss, more low-rent Disney. Forget that the vulgar costumes by William Ivey Long actually make rent boys out of monkeys. We may wonder from the outset whether adults would wish to see a musical involving a love affair between a cute little bird and a wan elephant. And if so, why? The children at the performance I attended seemed pretty unexcited by the mild, token story cobbled together from Seuss’ Horton the elephant and naughty Jo-Jo and the invisible Whos et al.

We may wonder, too, why they would cast a mime as the star of a musical. David Shiner is without question a wonderful mime, but one feels for him and his Cat in the Hat here. His genius resides in his untamable risky anarchy, like the Cat’s. But they’ve gone and shackled him! They’ve reined in his joyful, subversive free spirit–in the name of what?

Sweetness is all, harmless, unimaginative and cheap–like the relentlessly bouncy tunes, the cheesy, blindingly lit jungle that scarcely suggests a jungle at all, the familiar, dated disco choreography, the modest, intelligent Seussian statements now writ large and blatant and patronizingly “child-like” for unhappy families on Broadway.