On Tuesday it was time for the highlight of my theatrical summer season. I’m not talking about the sold-out, anti-sunny days Jude Law’s Hamlet – Godot is a no go – and while the all-male Pirates of Penzance might be fun, nothing had tickled my theatrical “gotta go” bone like the launch of Forbidden Broadway at the Menier Chocolate Factory, an event I heard about months in advance and decided to go to in the kind of blind, not-even-concerned-about-ticket-price way large producing organizations salivate over. I had a great time when I’d seen this show in New York on Christmas Day. It seemed to be written for me – a jaded old “been there, seen that, left at intermission” gal who is torn between her true and deep love of the theater and her dislike of wasting her time on tripe. All I wanna do is see a show that sends me out into the night singing my heart out … and a show making fun of the foibles of the world of theater seemed like just the ticket. And it was.
I wondered, though: was this going to be a straight import, the same show and cast I’d seen before? I’m pleased to report the cast is all original (and English), and the various numbers, while they may not be original, are at least widely varied from “Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab” – 70% of the first half was different, and about half the about half of the second half was.
Skipping ahead to the “but was it good” bit, well, I laughed my head off. Off course, the evening was spiked by going in the company of the West End Whingers, who about split their pants when they were namedropped in the first number (“All That Chat”). (I’m convinced this destroyed any semblance of distance they might have attempted to maintain for the rest of the evening. And of course I was seething with envy. Sure, I might have been mentioned in the New York Times on Sunday, but on stage? I was green.)
The thing was, though, even though that one bit was especially funny, it was met by song after song that had us in stitches. OH the wrong of the Billy Elliot/Elton John number, OH the campness of the Hairspray number, OH just SO many clever songs. I got a little tired toward the end of act one (the long Lion King and Les Mis pieces kind of wore me out), but by the end of the evening I was singing along (it was a singalong and not just because I was drunk, as I was not, though this changed afterwards) and completely charged up and pleased.
Part of this was, I think, because the performers were just totally on. Sophie-Louse Damn had a certain twitch to her upper lip that had me nearly hysterical, and everyone really had the pipes (and personal endurance) to make it thorugh the evening in high style. But my God, Steven Kynman’s Daniel Radcliffe put the American version to shame – his flitatiousness and insouciance, the little wink and giggle, made it just so painfully shameless that I laughed far more than I had six months earlier. Well done!
Unfortunately, part of the “new” bit of the first half were pieces making fun of old stodgy shows that I don’t really consider part of London’s theater culture so much. FBGR was very much hitting the “what is happening right now” nose of the scene, so I was expecting a bit more relevance to UK theatre’s problems, such as the omnipresent juke box musical phenom (the Jersey Boys number sort of hit that, but the treatment indicated that it was a unique problem to this show), star-based casting and the lack of new shows (just how many versions of Hamlet do we need in a year, no matter who is in it?).
However, so many of the problems they described were shared on both sides of the Atlantic – overpriced tickets (mocked in an Oliver sketch that was done fresh for this production), the preference for cute shows over those with substance, and even (my personal favorite) the rise in the use of animated backdrops as sets (Carousel was the show being mocked, though I didn’t know it was being performed on Broadway – however, this problem has apparently cropped up again for the Kensington Gardens’ Peter Pan, which would be a good replacement for the “Finding Nemo” projection shown during this number). And while the Mary Poppins “Feed the Burbs” might have been seen mostly as a stab at the Disneyfication of Broadway (a huge theme for the December show), the broader theme … “Tepid! Vapid! Musicals pay! …” is just as true a sentiment here as it is in New York.
Despite the roasting of the negative aspects of Theatre-land, overall this show was very upbeat – it was about loving the theater, not hating it. (As Katy noted, the Hairspray number actually made us want to see it again, rather than making us writhe in shame at how much we like that show.) For me, it was all the fun I wished I’d had at Priscilla wrapped up in one tinselly (and tart) evening. I liked it so much I think I’m going to go back before the end of the run -in the hope that they’ll have added in some new numbers, but mostly just because it was such a good evening. With the timid attitude of producers today, it will be ages before something so witty turns up on the London stage again.
(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, June 30th. It continues through September 13th, 2009.)