Props to Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a few pokes, in Gerard Alessandrini’s ‘Spamilton’
One of the most astute and insightful theater critics in the country is technically not a theater critic at all.
I’m speaking of Gerard Alessandrini, parodist extraordinaire and impresario of the “Forbidden Broadway’’ series. While building his remarkable franchise over the past four decades, the Needham native has never been content merely to send up Broadway shows and stars — though he has most assuredly, and mercilessly, done that.
But if you scratch Alessandrini’s cynicism, you find his idealism. Funny though they invariably are, the “Forbidden Broadway’’ productions are often laced with messages about what Broadway could be, if only it aimed higher and were less focused on the tourist-fattened bottom line. It’s never been hard to figure out who Alessandrini’s heroes are. Stephen Sondheim, for example, clearly reposes within Alessandrini’s personal pantheon of musical-theater titans. So does Richard Rodgers.
Though obviously not yet in the company of those immortals, Lin-Manuel Miranda has now also managed to win Alessandrini’s admiration, to judge by “Spamilton: An American Parody.’’ Alessandrini comes not to bury “Hamilton’’ but to praise it in “Spamilton,’’ albeit in a sideways, tongue-in-cheek fashion. The result is uproariously entertaining.
It’s not that either Miranda or his blockbuster creation escape entirely unscathed in “Spamilton,’’ which is now at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre, directed by Alessandrini and presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. “Spamilton’’ does tweak certain aspects of “Hamilton,’’ from its convoluted story line (“I cannot let this plot ruin the play,’’ sings Miranda, wittily incarnated in “Spamilton’’ by Adrian Lopez) to its elaborate choreography and its Revolutionary-era costumes. There’s a very funny bit inspired by the exhaustive will-this-ever-end? wrapup at the “Hamilton’’ finale by Eliza Hamilton, and there are jabs at the extreme difficulty of landing tickets to the hit musical. A barbed reference is made to the “horrendous’’ syntax of Miranda’s lyrics, especially compared to Sondheim (whose shows are repeatedly referenced in “Spamilton’’).
But in general Miranda gets off much easier than countless other musical-theater eminentos whom Alessandrini has skewered over the years. Consider, to cite just one of many examples, his demolition of composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown and Brown’s “The Bridges of Madison County’’ in a recent edition of “Forbidden Broadway.’’ By contrast, it’s evident in “Spamilton’’ that Alessandrini sees Miranda as a kindred spirit in the quest to make Broadway better.
Indeed, the show is framed as the tale of Miranda trying to do just that. “There’s a better Broadway out there, and I’m gonna find it, or build it,’’ he declares early in “Spamilton,’’ just before singing “I am not gonna let Broadway rot!’’ to the tune of “My Shot.’’ The show then chronicles, in deliriously wayward fashion, Miranda’s efforts to create “Hamilton,’’ to prove to naysayers that his Tony-winning “In the Heights’’ was no fluke, and to enlist a cast who can fulfill his bold vision of a hip-hop-infused historical epic.
Which brings us to another one of the hallmarks of Alessandrini’s work over the years that is once again present in “Spamilton’’: the extraordinary versatility of his performers. The standout on his chameleonic roster is the blazingly talented Ani Djirdjirian, who transitions expertly within a gallery of characters who include Julie Andrews, Liza Minnelli, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Barbra Streisand, and the Beggar Woman from “Sweeney Todd.’’ Djirdjirian’s parody of “Another Hundred People,’’ from Sondheim’s “Company’’ (“Another hundred syllables came out of my mouth’’) is one of the high points of the show.
Datus Puryear is superb as both Aaron Burr and as the dulcet-voiced actor who played him in “Hamilton,’’ Leslie Odom Jr. Dominic Pecikonis makes for an amusingly loose-limbed, big-haired Daveed Diggs, while Chuckie Benson adeptly shifts among Ben Franklin, George Washington, and others. Brandon Kinley makes a brief but winning appearance as King George III.
As all this may suggest, to fully enjoy “Spamilton’’ it helps to have seen “Hamilton’’ or at least listened to the cast album. A working knowledge of musical theater history also comes in handy, because the impersonations, allusions, and homages fly thick and fast.
So, of course, do the takedowns. But you sense throughout that Alessandrini, whose creativity so often has been fueled by a kind of disappointed love, is in agreement with something Puryear’s Odom says about Miranda near the beginning of “Spamilton’’: “Broadway’s been less crappy since the happy day he came.’’
SPAMILTON: AN AMERICAN PARODY
Created, written, and directed by Gerard Alessandrini
Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through April 7. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org