If you can't beat 'em, parody 'em.
Gerard Alessandrini, the man behind the popular “Forbidden Broadway” series, has made his theatrical career spoofing his musical theater betters. He’s turned theatrical lampooning into an art form, sending up the excesses of bloated shows and caricaturing the mannerism of divas.
Alessandrini has had much to mock over the span of 25 “Forbidden Broadways,” from the fervid pop operas of Andrew Lloyd Webber to the empty-headed jukebox musicals that, until recently, had a commercial stranglehold on the American musical theater.
The success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” has inaugurated a new and more promising era. The show, too much a game-changer to be crowded into a skewering revue, is the target of Alessandrini’s “Spamilton,” which opened last weekend at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
The show (created, written and directed by Alessandrini) tweaks the familiar logo of “Hamilton” to leave no doubt about the teasing intentions. A pianist (music director James Lent) pounds away discreetly at the keys on a mostly bare stage. The ensemble is surprisingly populous, but the production still has the feeling of a small-scale cabaret.
“Spamilton” substitutes the story of Miranda, a Broadway revolutionary, for the story of Alexander Hamilton, the original American revolutionary. The rhymes of “Alexander Hamilton,” the opening number from “Hamilton,” are rejiggered to introduce Broadway’s reigning king, whose Tony-winning show has become one of the hottest tickets in the land.
How does a whipper snapper
Student of rap
And a Latin
Trapped in the middle of a
With Broadway accolades
While other writers kiss
The corporate dollar
Grow up to be a hip-hop op’ra
These words are sung by Wilkie Ferguson III, who plays Leslie Odom Jr., the “Hamilton” cast member who won a Tony for playing Aaron Burr. Hamilton’s rival is still bitterly competitive, though in “Spamilton” the two characters argue about artistic integrity, not politics.
Everyone knows that Lin-Manuel (William Cooper Howell) is destined to “build a better Broadway,” but it’s not going to be an easy road. Audiences like to stick to the familiar, and the commercial temptations and traps have grown only more extreme.
But this hot young talent means business. In “His Shot,” Lin-Manuel roars, “I am not gonna let Broadway rot” — and both the swagger and nobility of his ambition come through.
The structure of the show seems jury-rigged. The story readily gives way to gag numbers. Impersonations of Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand are de rigueur. The spirit of “Spamilton” is mostly adulatory, but Alessandrini, a shrewd observer of musicals, takes a few gentle shots at Miranda.
“Be terser in your verse, sir/You’re no Johnny Mercer,” critiques Odom in a rhyme that demonstrates Alessandrini’s own rap prowess. After “Hamilton” becomes a blockbuster, Lin-Manuel comes on and self-deprecatingly introduces himself: “I’m slightly obnoxious/Too broad, too pained/My voice is strained/and thin/I’m Lin-Manuel!”
The “Spamilton” cast infuses the show with nonstop energy. Zakiya Young summons Renée Elise Goldsberry as effectively as she conjures Audra McDonald and J-Lo. John Devereaux simulates the cool, lanky, big-haired eccentricity of Daveed Diggs.
Glenn Bassett, who plays crazy King George, camps it up in “Straight Is Back,” a “Penny Lane”-like ditty (converted, if you will, from “You’ll Be Back”) bemoaning the way “Hamilton” has made Broadway conspicuously less gay.
Some of the raillery, while funny, feels like overkill. The mash-up of shows, combinations that are like Frankenstein’s monster (“The Lion King and I”), might be more amusing in a nightclub serving drinks.
Alessandrini is on steadier ground when bringing in Stephen Sondheim. “Spamilton” pokes fun at Miranda’s hero worship. (Is there a note of Eve Harrington in Lin-Manuel’s earnest praise?) “Sweeney Todd” is invoked in a running gag in which a beggar woman cacophonously pleads not for alms but for “Hamilton” tickets.
Yet Alessandrini detects more lyrical kinship between these composers than might be obvious to a civilian theatergoer. Sondheim’s deft wordplay seems like a precursor to Miranda’s rap style by the end of a section in which Renée repeatedly sings, “And another hundred syllables/Came out of his brain.”
“Spamilton” infuses original insights into a show that without these kernels might seem tiresomely broad. The musical unfolds as a sort of dream of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, who made “Hamilton” the “Camelot” of their administration. The production can get surreally silly at points, but Alessandrini treats Miranda’s masterpiece with the rambunctious love this watershed musical deserves.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions); ends Jan. 7
Price: $55-$99 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (no intermission)