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STAGE : 'FORBIDDEN BROADWAY' : All in Fun : The series of spoofs of musical revues has become a cult favorite. It will be at the Lobero Theatre Wednesday.

April 18, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As the spotlight hits the sultry Latin singer, you rack your brains to place her--the curly dark hair, the fiery red dress, the glitzy earrings all seem hauntingly familiar. Then she begins her sensuous croon with a new set to the opening strains of "I Like to be in America," and you've got it . . . it's Chita Rivera! Or is it the other one?

As if echoing your question, Chita pouts her identity crisis; "Miss Moreno/Her r-r-rude gyr-r-rations/Are all lousy imitations/Though we both did "West Side Story"/Hers was like chicken cacciatore!"

But wait! Onto the stage bounces another spitfire wearing identical wig, dress and earrings. To the familiar chorus melody she sings: "My name is Rita and not Chita/Though I look like you a lot, Chita/When people smoke too much pot, Chita/They think you're me and I'm not Rita!"

Actually, they're neither Chita nor Rita, just Janis Thomas and Christine Pedi in a moment of typically irreverent satire from the national touring production of "Forbidden Broadway." Since 1981, the longest-running musical revue in off-Broadway history has become a cult favorite among New York theatergoers, critics and performers for its deft parodies of our best-known stage icons. The national touring production will make its central coast stop at the Lobero Theatre Wednesday.

The show's four-member cast and piano accompanist haul us through a rapid-fire tour of musical theater, sometimes taking less than 30 seconds to create completely costumed characters for numbers spoofing "Cats," "Evita," "Fiddler on the Roof," or "Phantom of the Opera."

The onstage duet between Rita (Pedi) and Chita (Thomas) escalates into a full-scale fight.

Rita: "I am a versatile actress!"

Chita: " 'Long as you stay on the mattress!"

Rita: "I can play any role I choose!"

Chita: "Gypsies, Italians and black Jews!"

Other sequences feature a stage Evita bitter about losing the movie role in "Don't Cry for Me, Barbra Streisand," a deranged Andrew Lloyd Weber as his own Phantom, and a down-at-heels woman in a frizzy red wig dragging on a cigarette and whining: "I'm 30 years old TOMORROW/And I haven't worked since I played Annie/When I was 10 . . ."

"Forbidden Broadway" is the brainchild of Gerard Alessandrini, a lyricist some critics rank with master parody songwriters like Tom Lehrer and Mark Russell. But unlike Lehrer's broad social range or Russell's political thrust, Alessandrini's focus has always been on his passion for the Great White Way.

"Broadway has always been a forbidden entity for me," he once wrote. "My father, in his well-meaning effort to keep my mind on classical music, forbid me to keep or play cast albums and soundtracks. . . . When I came to New York to perform, Broadway was still forbidden. But at least I could go to shows, and I even found that my friends would let me sing the show tunes as long as I changed the lyrics."

The show was born in 1981 when Alessandrini, then an archetypal struggling waiter-actor, put together a collection of his scribblings and blocked a series of skits in his New York apartment. Staging them with a few friends at a local bar blossomed into a steady job. Each year, Alessandrini updates the show.

He also maintains tight control over the show's performance rights.

The current tour director, John Freedson, is one of only two authorized "Forbidden Broadway" directors.

In selecting the numbers for the touring production, particular care was taken to draw from material familiar to regional audiences, company manager Donna Forfiri says. "If you spoof "Grand Hotel," which was only played New York, they're not going to get it."

On the other hand, she points out that "usually the spoofs are so funny by themselves that you get the jokes even if you haven't seen the show. There's a sequence from 'Les Miserables' where instead of 'Bring Him Home,' he sings 'God it's high/the song's too high/Pity me/Change the key.' The beauty of that sequence is that people who don't even know the show find it inherently funny."

Actor Brad Von Nostrand, who plays the falsetto Jean Valjean, has toured with the show for two years. After more than 300 performances, he says, "my favorite part is still the 'Camelot' number, where I play a tipsy Richard Harris, and 'I wonder what the king is doing tonight' becomes 'I wonder what the king is drinking tonight.' "

Satire like this always walks a fine line between humor and malice, and Von Nostrand says that setting the right tone for the show is critical.

"You have to keep the tone funny and real, not mean-spirited or bitter," he says. "Our director really pulls us back when we're going too far and keeps the show within the bounds of really high comedy. It's broad, but it's intelligent and witty and classy."

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Forbidden Broadway" plays Wednesday at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $18 and $16. Call (805) 963-0761 for reservations or further information.

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