June 18, 2004


Ramping up the familiar
By David Ollington

In 1982, New York lyricist Gerard Allessandrini put together a musical revue to showcase his talents, to get his work heard. He took legendary Broadway songs and wrote alternate, satirical lyrics, poking fun at Broadway’s performers, directors, producers and audience. The showcase, titled Forbidden Broadway, became a phenomenon, has played at theatres all over the U.S., and currently runs at the H&R Block City Stage Theater in Union Station. Theatre League produced it.

(from left to right, clockwise) Don Richard (The Phantom of the Opera), Becky Barta (Disney's Beauty and the Beast), John-Michael Zuerlein (Disney's The Lion King) and Cathy Barnett (Thoroughly Modern Millie). (photograph courtesy Union Station)

If you have seen Forbidden Broadway before, rest assured: this production is different. Every version has its own mix: new musical numbers, older songs and a respectively unique order of events. Performers in the show often have sung it before so each cast member has her or his specialties or favorite features that color the various manifestations of the revue. Allessandrini stays current and regularly adds parodies of contemporary Broadway events, adding to the flexibility of each production.
With voices of steel and comic expertise, the four performers in this production, Cathy Barnett, Becky Barta, Don Richard, and John-Michael Zuerlein shine. All make use of flexible, brassy voices, broad physical comedy and sardonic impressions of stars. Accompanist Holly Wilson adds her talent on the piano.

"No Leading Lady Tonight," to the tune of "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" from Guys and Dolls, pokes fun at a common Broadway mishap, an understudy's replacement of a big name female star. Barta appears dressed as Belle from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, singing "Beauty's Been Decreased" about the continual downsizing of the extravagant production and the firing of performers: "Pink slips everywhere . . ."

The tune of Jules Styne's "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" from Gypsy accompanies the lyrics of "You've Gotta Be Disgusting" about Broadway's current penchant to mount productions with seedier themes. Barnett with a toilet brush sings about Urinetown's success, Richard dons a police uniform and hat to reference the popularity of The Full Monty, and Zurlein enters with a stuffed goat belting lyrics that depict Albee's inter-species love affair play, The Goat.

A Les Miserables medley may be the strongest sequence in the show. The actors shuffle in a circle during the transitions between each number, satirizing the large turntable so apparent in Les Mis. Richard sings a wordy explanation of the complicated plot; Barnett listens and expresses hilarious confusion over the story's confusing twists. A parody of the ballad "Bring Him Home" has Richard crooning stratospheric tones with the lyric "It's Too High."

Zurlein makes light of the actor/singer Mandy Patinkin's extravagant performing style with the song "Super Frantic Hyperactive Self-Indulgent Mandy."

Humor is often a veil used to cover pain and, despite the cleverness of Forbidden Broadway's lyrics and the excellence of the performing, an underlying darkness infuses the show. Many jokes spring from the desperation suffered by the numerous out-of-work actors in show business. The piece itself has achieved high recognition by pointing out and magnifying flaws in the hard work of Broadway's artisans.

Barta appears dressed as the title role in Annie and sings "I'm 30 years old tomorrow" pleading to be used in the role again. Barta later delivers a caricature of Julie Andrews singing "I Couldn't Hit the Note" to the tune of the "I Could Have Danced All Night." Andrew's ringing voice suffered a tragic blow in 1997 when she had to undergo vocal surgery. This particular musical parody is mean-spirited.

Like many local productions, the program credits no choreographer, yet dancing figures prominently into the event. The opening number even includes the lyric "An arty dance doesn't stand a chance." Then the number "Give 'Em the Old Saucy Fosse" almost immediately follows, with conspicuously arty cartooning of Fosse's salacious, laconic choreography. A send-up of Carol Channing's perpetual appearance as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! has her flanked by Richard and Zurlein, all three dancing a tongue-in-cheek rendition of Gower Champion's original choreography.

One star of the show gets no stage time or bow but deserves enormous applause: Wardrobe Supervisor Thom Davis. The singers repeatedly exit, make lightning-swift costume, wig and hat changes, and appear onstage without missing a note.

For example, the actors suffer under the weight of Lion King–inspired headdresses for the number "Can You Feel the Strain Tonight?" then they exit to quickly emerge in contrasting attire. Richard dresses as Yul Brenner in The King and I for the final number "There's No Broadway Like Old Broadway," then manages to reappear onstage in a tuxedo for the bow. The complete costume change seems instant.

Despite some disturbing elements, Forbidden Broadway, thanks to four consummate actor/singers and a hard-working production staff, is hilarious, fun and worth witnessing. It runs until Aug. 1 (Theatre League hopes to extend it) at the Union Station City Stage, 8 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, and 7 p.m. on Sunday. Call 816-460-2020.

David Ollington can be contacted at



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