SEND UP THE CLOWNS

After seeing the latest version of Forbidden Broadway, I left Herberger Theater Center depressed. My reaction was like the one I had when a shock jock started telling jokes about the homeless. His routine was clever, all right, but wasn't the subject too sad to be funny?

Forbidden Broadway 1994, a cabaret act presented by Theatre League with four singers and a piano, relies on recent musicals for its satirical fodder. The idea has been popular ever since Bob Hope went out to entertain the troops: Give a guy a wig, tell him to sing and they'll be littering the aisles in helpless laughter.

But sitting through two hours of comedy based on second-rate (or worse) musicals only emphasizes the depths to which we've sunk. Over the last few years, we've paid our money to see Miss Saigon, Les Mis‚rables and The Phantom of the Opera, and gaped at the helicopter onstage and the ominous chandelier overhead. But if this is the best Broadway can do in an age in which musicals mean inane music and huge spectacle, do we want to be reminded of it? If we laugh at all, we're laughing at ourselves for being taken in.

Forbidden Broadway has been a tradition in New York for more than a decade. Its creators put out a new version whenever enough fresh material can be assembled. Some of the jokes make sense only if you've seen the original shows, and others only if you've kept up on scandals in the entertainment world--such as Jonathan Pryce being cast as an Asian in Miss Saigon or Faye Dunaway being dropped from the Los Angeles production of Sunset Boulevard before the show had even opened. A routine that is particularly apropos to Phoenix audiences, though, is a send-up of last season's national tour of Camelot. An aging Robert Goulet as King Arthur wanders onstage to explain his new show: a tacky, listless act named "Camelounge." They're even laughing at us in New York for what we put up with.

The biggest target, of course, is Andrew Lloyd Webber, and various numbers in the show lampoon Evita, Cats, Aspects of Love, The Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard. It's scary, though, to realize that making fun of Webber and his lucrative entertainment empire is pointless in the way it's pointless for lovers of architecture to rail against Las Vegas--it's there, and people gladly part with their money. What's art got to do with it?

The laughs at the Webber phenomenon in Forbidden Broadway 1994, however, don't come from the material of the shows as much as from the bandwagon mentality of stars like Madonna and Barbra Streisand, who want to hop on for the ride to the bank. Unbelievably, they've both been offered the lead in Evita. Granted, this is funny, but it gives you pause to think that the Material Girl might someday really end up warbling "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" at the local cineplex.

The weakest parts of Forbidden Broadway 1994 are the impersonations; none of the four performers could manage a decent one. It was a mystery why they couldn't even get Carol Channing right when an entire number was devoted to how easy she is to mimic. And a woman should never attempt Streisand, not when the world is full of female impersonators who have proved they can portray her so much better.

The makers of Forbidden Broadway see their show as a healthy by-product of a thriving industry that ought to be able to laugh at itself, but the effect is like telling jokes on the way to the cemetery. The Herberger made a big mistake in playing show tunes from classic recordings before the show started and during intermission. Once Forbidden Broadway 1994 had mired itself in a long spoof of Les Mis‚rables, I was ready to go home and dust off Oklahoma!. That would cheer me up a lot more than pondering Andrew Lloyd Webber's expected profits from sales of Sunset Boulevard tee shirts.

 
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