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No longer ‘Forbidden,’ Rust Belt returns

Lynn Sabeh rehearses a scene from the musical revue “Forbidden Youngstown,” which opens Friday at the Calvin Center.

Rust Belt Theater Company returns Friday to live performances with an old favorite.

The musical revue “Forbidden Youngstown” will be staged for five shows over three weekends at the Calvin Center.

“The audience is familiar with it, and I knew a lot of the performers would want to come back,” Rust Belt founder Robert Dennick Joki said. “It was a smart choice to ease back into live performances.”

First staged in 2013, “Forbidden Youngstown” takes a similar approach as “Forbidden Broadway,” which spoofs the biggest shows in New York. The local production, written and directed by Joki, spoofs the foibles of community theater far, far removed from the Great White Way.

Like the Broadway version, Joki regularly updates the show and adds songs to reflect what’s happening now. That doesn’t mean the latest edition will be filled with COVID-19 jokes.

“I tried specifically with this show to concentrate on distracting people from things that make them sad, like the pandemic,” Joki said. “I’m sick to death of everything being a pandemic joke. There are a couple new songs that mention it a little bit, but I wrote however many numbers about it for ‘Quarantine’ (an online musical Rust Belt presented during the pandemic) and am hoping to move on.”

The cast for this year’s production features Nicole Zayas, Lisa Torrence, Kage Coven, Celena Coven, Lynn Sabeh, Jessica Patoray, Janelle Yohman, Jash Yohman, Jeremy Grimes and PK Lankford.

In recent years, Joki has been letting other directors stage his shows, but he’s back at the helm of “Forbidden Youngstown.” He learned firsthand during the pandemic how much it hurts to put so much time and effort into a show only to have it canceled, and Joki said he’d feel even worse if it happened to someone else in the director’s chair.

“I missed a lot of the things I make fun of on a regular basis,” Joki said. “I’ve often said directing actors is like herding cats, and I missed my cats.”

All of the cast is vaccinated. Even though current state guidelines allow indoor performances at full capacity, Joki is limiting the audience size to 50 people per show, half-capacity for the performance space. He also changed some of the blocking and choreography to make the show a little less interactive than it has been in the past.

Joki still is plotting out the rest of Rust Belt’s 2021 season. “Living Dead the Musical” will return in October and the holiday favorite “How the Drag Queen Stole Christmas” is planned for December.

“This is a little bit of a litmus test to see if we have an audience that wants to come see live shows,” he said. “We’ll start out slowly and build up to ‘Living Dead’ and ‘Drag Queen.’ I might try a play for our next show to reach out to local theater performers who haven’t had a chance to do anything. It all depends on this show. If we don’t get much of a turnout, we may need to lay low until October.”

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