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THEATER REVIEW : 'Forbidden Broadway' Returns With Fresh Songs and Skewers : 'Volume 2' production takes dead aim at the Great White Way's personalities and pretensions.

March 17, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dressed in her tattered rags, the forlorn beggar woman looks suitably earnest as the piano breaks into the opening bars of "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Miserables."

Yet instead of the expected tugs at our social conscience, what we get is a yearning ode to Broadway in its prime:

I dreamed a show in days gone by,

Where all the scenery looked so pretty,

I didn't sing one song then die,

And all my costumes weren't so gritty . . .

It can only mean one thing. "Forbidden Broadway" is back, hurling its dead-on satirical barbs at the bigger-than-life personalities and pretensions of the Great White Way.

As the song continues, the singer turns to the hypocritical hype that attended "Les Miz":

Come watch us grovel in the dirt,

Then buy a souvenir--and darn it!

Rich folks pay twenty bucks a shirt

That has a starving pauper on it . . . \f7

The wickedly funny parody lyrics bear the signature wit of creator Gerard Alessandrini, who updates his New York-based revue each year to stay current with the latest crop of Broadway shows.

The touring production of "Forbidden Broadway, Volume II," which arrives at Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre for a single performance Friday, features some of the most popular numbers culled from the show's 12-year history, and is in many ways a retrospective of the Broadway musical itself.

Included will be parodies of classics--"Evita," "Man of La Mancha," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Cats" and "The Sound of Music"--as well as more contemporary pieces like "Will Rogers' Follies," "Aspects of Love" and "Miss Saigon."

"It's like watching your favorite stars who've just been given a shot of truth serum," explained director John Freedson, who started out as a "Forbidden Broadway" cast member in 1984 and has been directing the authorized touring productions since 1988.

The show, he said, is an affectionate homage to the celebrities it spoofs.

"Occasionally, the lyrics step over the line, but that's usually because they make a good rhyme rather than because Gerard was feeling really vicious," he said.

Besides, he added, being skewered in a "Forbidden Broadway" number has become something of a status symbol over the years. Rather than taking offense, celebrities are often the show's biggest supporters. Carol Channing, for example, appears on the company's latest "Volume III" soundtrack, in a number parodying herself.

"Stephen Sondheim routinely sent us his music when it was finished," Freedson went on, "and he'd attach a note saying 'I know that you will want to parody this. Be as mean as possible.' "

The few objections to the show's use of songs have typically come from the estates of deceased composers, he said, but a notable exception is Andrew Lloyd Webber, who declared his Broadway scores officially forbidden after hearing Alessandrini's "Evita" satire.

"We didn't think that was fair since he stole so many of his own pieces from other people," Freedson said. "We got around the restriction by writing pastiche versions of 'Phantom' and 'Aspects of Love,' which aren't quite the Lloyd Webber tune but sound enough like it so they're recognizable."

But last week's Supreme Court ruling upholding 2 Live Crew's use of "Pretty Woman" should finally allow unrestricted use of even Webber songs as long as royalties are paid, said Freedson. "Now we can just say 'Here, we're using your tunes--here's your check.' "

But it takes more than clever lyrics to make a show like this work. Freedson stressed that the critical ingredient in "Forbidden Broadway" is the versatility of the cast. The four performers have to be good actors--they must look and sound like the people they're imitating, with minimal costume and makeup changes. And they have to be superb singers.

"If they can't sing as well as the people they are parodying," he said, "the whole thing comes off sort of sour grape-sy."

Audiences, this week, can choose from two Southland productions--Freedson's touring show appearing at the Lobero, and a version running April 6 through May 22 at the Tiffany Theatre in Hollywood.

The Tiffany production, directed by Alessandrini, features the New York cast (currently on hiatus until enough new shows provide material for the next version).

Details

* WHAT: "Forbidden Broadway, Volume II"

* WHEN: Friday at 8.

* WHERE: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido in Santa Barbara.

* COST: $20.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call (805) 962-8606.

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