Satire, as everyone knows, is tricky business. When it scores, there are few things more wickedly funny, and when it doesn’t, well, it’s as flat as can be.
Happily when scores are the subject––along with scripts, actors, voracious corporations and the entire Broadway scene––there is no better hand at turning out pithy, hilarious and truly satisfying satire than Gerard Alessandrini.
As one delights in the latest edition in the “Forbidden Broadway” series, “Special Victims Unit,” it’s clear that the genesis of the piece is anything but malice. It’s an often trenchant and always pointed look at the musical form and the Broadway world from a place that is undeniably smitten with both. If you want mean, you can turn on “The Bacehlorette.” If you want true satire, get over to the Douglas Fairbanks.
Alessandrini has a wonderfully developed gimlet eye to be sure, but like any die-hard theater fan, you can tell that he takes it personally when something disappoints or the form is cheapened. His satire, one might legitimately say, is not nasty; it’s been provoked.
The show, which has gotten more and more sophisticated with each successive edition, is a series of parodies of songs from current and classic Broadway shows that poke fun at the same. While there is a great deal of inside baseball in the show—Kristen Chenoweth’s diva-like antics while maintaining a sunny veneer after losing the Tony for “Wicked” or Disney’s ongoing cost reduction on the long-running “Beauty and the Beast”—there is enough that is broad enough that anyone who is a theater fan will find plenty to amuse them.
I was particularly impressed by a send-up of Bernadette Peters in “Gypsy” and a jab at “The Producers” that skewers Mel Brooks’ equal-opportunity offensiveness. “Wicked” and “Avenue Q” get particularly apt treatments, but “Brooklyn” seems to escape—perhaps it’s enough of a satire on its own. One of the other notable elements of this edition is that Alessandrini just keeps getting better at the writing. Where lyrics in earlier editions sometimes seemed forced in meter and rhyme, in his “Special Victims Unit,” there is a fluidity and subtlety in the writing that sharpens the parody.
None of this would work quite so well were it not for the amazingly talented cast. Ron Bohmer, Megan Lewis, Jason Mills and Jennifer Simard are all legitimate Broadway talents to start with. What’s remarkable about each of them is the vocal versatility that they are called upon to use. There are the dead-on impressions—such as Simard’s Bernadette Peters, Bohmer’s Billy Joel, to name just two. Yet the show also requires a season’s worth of singing from each of the actors ranging from high belting to bel canto and everything in between, and all four of them deliver with a serious level of talent that is impressive in such a lighthearted show. But then, without this level of performance, the jokes wouldn’t land as well as they do—and virtually every one does.
The costumes by Alvin Colt have just the right amount of cheesiness and wit, but to say any more would be to ruin the abundant visual surprises.
The entire evening a real must-see for anyone who loves musicals even half as much as Alessandrini and his distinguished company.