The world of musical theatre can be emotional and masterful. It can also be shallow and ridiculous. Forbidden Broadway, a revue that’s something of an off-Broadway institution (it’s been running, off and on, since 1982), straddles that line with lovable self-awareness.
It’s a good fit for Squabbalogic, the indie musical theatre darling that combines serious talent with a strong, enviable understanding of how musicals work, and keeps a twinkle lodged in its eye. In this return season of Forbidden Broadway, nestled onstage at the Vanguard in Newtown, Broadway stars, composers, and shows are lampooned, and while it doesn’t pull any punches, earning the big laughs with the right-on jokes, it’s never nasty.
Honestly, it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of material on the Great White Way to mine for laughs without needing to make it spiteful. There are the distinctive styles of Mandy Patinkin, Ethel Merman, or Idina Menzel. There’s the iconic choreography of Fosse, the deliberate wordiness of Stephen Sondheim, and there’s the length and pathos of Les Miserables.
The show makes good use of the tiny Vanguard stage – the small-scale choreography by Joanne Gilmour brings the space to life. It helps too that Jay James-Moody, the show’s director, has a strong sense of timing both in musical performance and in comedy; transitions are quick and it’s rare for a punchline not to land, because the space is given for every important line or beat to make its mark.
The cast are consummate and extremely versatile performers, bringing their best impressions to the stage. The lyrics and the jokes come first – the actors know when to let their voices crack and never let vanity win over character integrity – but it’s very easy to see how vocally gifted these performers actually are.
After all, who can channel Carol Channing and Rita Moreno? Christina Byrne can, and she does it with aplomb. She even does a great Bernadette Peters (with that Bernadette Peters expression. You know the one). But her shining moment of the night is undoubtedly her Wicked-themed Idina Menzel number. A funny song, Byrne makes it howlingly so with her Menzel impression (the gusto, the volume, even the breath control). This was, perhaps, especially funny right after Idina’s recent stint at the Sydney Opera House.
Blake Erickson continues to be one of the most rewarding and versatile theatre actors in Sydney. Already known to be a gifted character actor, he proved his mettle with Orson Welles last year in a solo show. He brings that attention to detail and fearless study to Mandy Patinkin in an incredible parody in his best moment, but his Anthony Rapp dancing is so spot-on it hurts, and his roster of other characters and appearances throughout the show demonstrates he is able to wear many, many hats.
Tackling the divas was Linda Hale, with an Ethel Merman, a Liza, a Barbra, and so much more, and every single one of them was full of verve and audaciousness – belying masterful vocals. A naturally funny performer, Hale is a pleasure to watch and draws the eye.
Rounding out the principal cast of incredible performers (who should all have much more recognition and mainstage opportunity) is the exceedingly likable Mark Simpson. His Stephen Sondheim is a thing of beauty, but it’s his Michael Crawford that earns the most laughs. His skits and spotlight moments are intuitively knowing.
And then there’s Liz Webby, the increasingly put-upon stage manager who is a running gag and a very, very good – possibly the funniest part of the show, as difficult as that is to pinpoint. As Fantine warbles, the stage manager appears to hack the hair off her wig – only to have Cosette sweep it up later with that iconic straw boom. She reluctantly dances backup. She sourly plays tambourine. She is brilliant.
There were some great guilty pleasure laughs, too, and all in the form of local humour. A Moonshadow reference here, a Strictly Ballroom reference there. And then there’s an Officer and a Gentleman joke that absolutely slays – mostly because it’s not one you’ve heard before and it’s not a cheap shot, just a good observation contained in a silly parody of a big Hairspray number.
The spirit of this Forbidden Broadway is tempered exactly right. This is a group that loves our theatre community, is happy to be part of it, and presents that community and its sister community abroad in all its wacky, confusing, beautiful, bizarre glory, and says, ‘We know, we get it. We know why you’re here seeing this and you know why we do this’.
And that is a joyous feeling.