Menier Chocolate Factory
31 July 2014
You are ten. You are let loose at a dessert buffet. There is all the ice-cream you can eat; chocolate in various forms, hard, soft, filled cups, small animal figures, chips; fruit of exotic colour, shape, texture and familiarity; cakes, some plain, some drowning in syrup, some decorated with cream or custard or both, some hot, some very cold, some tart and tangy; sauces and syrups, thick, sugary and sometimes creamy; pies, slices, biscuits, donuts, flans, gateaux; jellies, trifles, fruit pies, macaroons, eclairs, Willy Wonka would be proud of the infinite and varied selection.
Eyes wide, smiling all the time, sometimes laughing with unexpected joy at some tempting morsel of pleasure, sometimes wrinkling your nose when you see a sweet you don’t really fancy, your ten year old self stuffs her/his face. Endlessly. And finally there is the silence that comes from the sheer exhaustion of sating yourself with sweets. Your have a haze of contentment, a memory of real pleasure, but you don’t especially remember the very best mouthful and there might be a lingering sensation of nudging nausea.
The same, I suspect, applies to aficionados of musical theatre who attend productions of Forbidden Broadway, the satirical revue which has, in one form or another, been playing in New York for something like 30 years, an updated, Londonized, version of which is now playing at The Menier Chocolate Factory.
Certainly, that has always been my reaction.
The concept is irresistible. Take four gifted vocalists and a witty writer, and skewer, as viciously or lovingly (or both) as possible, Broadway musicals, divas and stars, writers and composers, directors and choreographers – well, really, anything to do with musicals.
And when all the elements combine together, the result is delicious and addictive. But, just like a dessert buffet, there can be too much of a good thing, it can become blandly/sickly sweet and not all of it as perfectly formed or prepared as it might be. I can’t listen to entire albums of Forbidden Broadway recordings in one sitting for this reason; it just becomes too much.
And so it is with the live version. The overall takeaway impression is of a really good time, but pressed to identify the key elements which make up that impression and the sweet haze intervenes.
Conceived and directed here by Gerard Alessandrini, who has usually had a hand in incarnations of Forbidden Broadway, there is plenty of glitz and glamour and clever words. But not all the writing hits the right note – the lampooning of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory with “No Imagination” seems more trite than inspired and the Wicked and Jersey Boys send-ups were much the same. Into The Words seemed simply mean-spirited.
On the other hand, there was inspirational stuff mocking Once, Lion King, The Book Of Mormon, Matilda, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables; the last is old material but still fresh and funny thanks to such crisp and energetic performances.
The performers here are very talented. They can all sing (superbly and robustly) and dance – with ease. Part of the allure of Forbidden Broadway in the past has been the ability of its performers to imitate real life performers, sometimes with astonishing unerring accuracy. And one of the key joys has been seeing the same performer imitate more than one singer expertly.
But here, by and large, there is more impression than imitation. And, indeed, mostly, impression works better – Damian Humbley’s impression of Mandy Patinkin provided much joy, for instance. On the other hand, Sophie-Louise Dann excelled at imitating Julie Andrews. But she and Anna-Jane Casey were less successful in other imitations – La Lansbury, La Minelli and La Menzel; these were more impressions than anything else. Still, they were often humorous, even if the funny bone only received glancing blows.
The very best work here involved duos, trios or quartets – Ben Lewis and Humbley in the snippy take on Book Of Mormon; Casey and Dann jousting at the rivalry between Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera; the trio spoofing Guys and Dolls’ opening number or all four performers shredding the credibility of Once or roasting the style of Lion King.
Casey and Humbley seemed the most at ease with the Revue style, jumping from scene to scene and vocal style to vocal style and both were willing to be extreme in their acting choices in pursuit of the jokes. The image of Humbley tweaking his own nipple in sexual pleasure as a garish Trunchbull (from Matilda) will linger in the memory for a long time. And Casey’s assault on Frozen, Let It Blow, was very funny. As was the hilariously truthful sentiment behind This is The Song They Stole From Us, delivered in truly arch and camp form by Lewis and Dann.
And the final, dark commentary on the state of corporate Broadway was an excellent way to bring the curtain down.
This is a very good time at the theatre – but it does partly depend upon an intimate knowledge of Musicals of recent years and the stars who made them popular – which is no bad thing. The public should know about the popular culture of the musical theatre.
With these gifted performers, the evening ensures a surfeit of pleasure. But there is the unmistakable after-dessert-buffet feeling that lingers on.