By Erin Fleming
The bad news is that the national tour of Bullets Over Broadway, now playing in Chicago at The PrivateBank Theatre, is full of hits and misses.
The good news is that hits win out.
Tony Award-winning Choreographer/Director Susan Stroman is acclaimed for her work on many Broadway originals and revivals, including Young Frankenstein, Big Fish, The Producers, Oklahoma! and The Music Man. For Bullets Over Broadway” she collaborated closely with Oscar-winning Writer/Director Woody Allen, creating a show fairly faithful to Allen’s 1994 Oscar-winning film of the same name.
HIT : The premise. The source material provides a great foundation for a musical comedy. As Stroman says, it’s a backstage story, and backstage stories make the best musicals.
This story centers around idealistic playwright David Shayne, known for writing earnestly thoughtful plays—all of them commercial flops. He is determined to reverse this trend by directing his next play himself, but In order to acquire the necessary financial backing, he has to agree to a deal with local mobster Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino). Valenti will gladly foot the bill, as long as his tragically untalented exotic dancer girlfriend Olive (Jemma Jane) gets a good role.
Shayne reluctantly agrees, and so begins the first of many compromises he will make until eventually everything he thought he knew about art, morality and himself is challenged. Things really get complicated when Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Jeff Brooks) steps in with a few suggestions during rehearsals and ends up rewriting entire scenes, revealing himself to be the unlikely kind of natural genius Shayne has always wanted to be. The two strike a kind of Faustian bargain, with Shayne claiming Cheech’s words as his own. Shayne becomes involved with his leading lady; his girlfriend Ellen (Hannah Rose DeFlumeri) in turn has an affair with his best friend; and he is increasingly privy to the seedy underworld doings of the gangsters.
MISS: Some of the time needed to develop character and relationships has been sacrificed for jokes. It’s not clear what draws some of the lovers together, for instance, and characters like flaky actress Eden and the philosophical blow-hard Flender have very little justified stage time.
HIT: The score of jazz standards from the 1920s contains some great classics like “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I do,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “I’m Sitting On Top of the World” and “You Rascal You.”
MISS:One wonders if the show would have been better served by original music. Marvin Hamlisch took a crack at it in 2000, but Allen was reportedly unimpressed and shelved the project for many years until it was suggested he use the music of the period instead. Many of the songs seemed forced upon the characters without a clear tie to the plot. The most glaring example being the puzzling choice of using, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” for the festive finale.
HIT: Stroman’s stylish staging and athletic choreography energize every scene. The opening dance club number “Tiger Rag (Hold That Tiger)” showcases the fantastic ensemble of Atta-Girls (Mary Callahan, Elizabeth Dugas, Cariss Fiorillo, Lainee Hunter Corinne Munsch, Kaylee Olson and Lexie Plath) high-kicking their way in and out of impossible geometric patterns. Not to be outdone by the dolls, the guys (Jak Corcoran, Patrick Graver, Andrew Hendrick, Justin Jutras, Conor McGiffin, Brian Martin, Joey Ortolani and Ian Saunders) get their moment in a spectacular gangster tap routine led by Cheech that rightfully brought down the house opening night.
MISS: Many of the non-musical scenes fall flat, possibly because the actors are struggling too hard put their own spin on well-known characters, possibly because some of the roles seem underwritten in their journey from screenplay to stage.
HIT: The non-Equity cast features a bevy of talented performers soon to be stars, including Emma Stratton, simply divine as the seductively self-serving grand theatre dame Helen Sinclair, and Bradley Allan Zarr, wincingly funny as Warner Purcell, the leading man with an unchecked appetite for rich food and the wrong kinda woman.
MISS: The cast as a whole skews young, resulting in a lack of a certain well-worn gravitas that would lend more authenticity to fading stars and world-weary artists.
HIT: William Ivey Long’s costumes are evocative and innovative. In a recent interview, Long explained that the challenge with costuming a show set in the ‘20s is that the dresses are based on pillowcase like shifts, and shifts don’t dance. “But,” he says, “I figured out how to incorporate that ’20s silhouette with a spinning skirt. The secret is a dropped waist. When it stands still, the dress looks like Lady Mary on ‘Downton Abbey,’ but when it dances, it has a whole new trajectory.”
HIT: Most importantly, it’s hilarious, full of wonderful satire of classic theater people types, and Woody Allen one-liners, many of them delivered in Jemma Jones’ relentlessly crass, low-brow squeal: “I want to play Lady Macbeth like I did in Union City. And this time not in pasties.”
All in all, this Bullets Over Broadway is an enjoyable if uneven production, making up in laughs and spectacle what it lacks in cohesion. Maybe they could sneak the script to Cheech for a quick revision.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Bullets Over Broadway” through May 1 at The PrivateBank Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St. Chicago. performances are Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7:30 pm Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm (no evening performance on May 1). More information and tickets ($19 – $85) are available by calling (312) 977-1710 or online here.