TAMPA — Far too often over the years, cabaret shows at the Jaeb Theater have combined enthralling performances with witless material.
That makes the current staging of Forbidden Broadway especially refreshing. The cast is among the best ever assembled for these shows, and the show itself is bright, crisp and often hilarious.
Forbidden Broadway, which consists mostly of parodies of familiar show tunes, dates back to the early 1980s. Its original incarnation ran for many years off Broadway, and writer Gerard Alessandrini has updated it several times. The version that local audiences can see at the Jaeb (subtitled "Greatest Hits: Vol. 1") concentrates on fairly recent shows (Wicked, Mary Poppins, etc.), but includes references to such classics as Hello, Dolly.
A bit of rudimentary knowledge of Broadway shows, trends and personalities is requisite. You'll be lost for long stretches if you don't know who Cameron Mackintosh or Patti LuPone are, or if you don't have a sense of what Disney has done for Broadway (or to Broadway) in the past 15 years or so.
But Alessandrini's song sendups are funny enough that you don't have to understand all the references to enjoy the show.
The show requires some serious acting and singing talent, and the wondrous four-person cast (Jaeb regular Heather Krueger and newcomers Lauren Gemilli, Derek Baxter and Justin Michael Lore, directed by Edward Staudenmayer) is up to the challenge. All four offer impressive vocal performances and equally impressive comedic acting. Gemilli is especially appealing, but the whole cast is a treat.
The set is all but nonexistent. There's a tinsel backdrop that's actually kind of distracting, and a sign with the show's title. Gemilli, Krueger, Baxter and Lore, who are joined onstage by pianist Michael Sebastian, are so entertaining that you never miss the visuals.
The show's opening number is distressingly obvious; a take on Comedy Tonight that simply promises "parody tonight" — but after that come about two dozen much more clever parodies. Among the early highlights has Krueger in the familiar red dress from Annie, smoking a cigarette and singing: I'm 30 years old/ Tomorrow/ And I haven't worked since I played Annie/ When I was 10.
The show is at its best when it's aiming its mild barbs at trends (shows with massive budgets and huge merchandising campaigns, musicals with plots too complicated to comprehend and the preponderance of puppets in recent years) and at parodies of specific shows. The simulation of the turntable for Les Mis is hilarious, and pulled off perfectly by the cast.
The weak spots, which aren't all that weak, come mostly in the beginning of the second act with a series of impersonations. As fine as this cast is, they're all singers and actors, not impressionists, so their impersonations aren't up to the level of the rest of their performances.
One really refreshing element of Forbidden Broadway, and of this production in particular, is that through all the snarkiness they maintain an obvious affection for Broadway musicals. So even if you don't get the jokes, you can enjoy two hours worth of great show tune melodies performed beautifully.