By Ian Rigg
A company known for bold ambition and risks, Night Blue loads its latest chamber with Bullets Over Broadway, a zany, if flawed, adaptation of the Woody Allen movie of the same name.
The comedy ushers audiences into the world of a young playwright looking to make his mark on the theatre, and the gangsters looking to do the same (even if the impact is a bullet hole). Writer David Shayne thinks he’s found his big break, only to find it’s financed by a gangster hell-bent on casting his talentless girlfriend in a key role, whose bodyguard is insistent on providing artistic direction. Of course, comedic capers and antics abound.
Firing such a tricky firearm, it helps to have expert marksmen. Smart scenic designer Bob Knuth combines speakeasy brick doorways with Art Deco backgrounds to help ground us in a world gone by. And the quadruple punch of costuming from David Walters, Joann and Anna Robertson, and Laura Walters is pitch-perfect (and not a single item of the costume plot is rented). They capture everything from pinstriped and plaid suited gangsters in fedoras and two-tone shoes, to showgirls with trains atop their heads, and portray it in a manner that blends comic rendering and historical verisimilitude.
Director and choreographer Kevin Bellie sets the right tone for this madcap microcosm. Right from the get-go, his projection design tommy guns the show’s logo into being. Bellie wisely lets the characterizations be caricatures in what is ultimately a spoof of gangster flicks and movie musicals. The choreography is spot-on, and perhaps the most entertaining and excellently-executed element of the production. This cast can tap and kick in time like nobody’s business.
Music director Carolyn Brady Riley coaxes pleasing melodies out of the show’s borrowed classics like Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave” and shines up the original numbers right with a talented pit.
And there are certainly standout performances in the cast. Rachel Juncker is clearly having a ball as the utterly talentless Olive Neal, with the squeaky New York accent befitting of a gangster’s paramour. In the role of actor and compulsive over-eater Warner Purcell, Jack Wright proves a talented dancer, singer and character actor, committing to every chicken drumstick he pulls from his pocket. Maddy Kelly hits great notes as the put-upon girlfriend Ellen, even if her character is under-served by the script. Monica Szaflik garners laughs as the satin-gown-clad diva Helen Sinclair, having the boozy ego and old-timey flair to match. And the play’s pivotal role, the brutish enforcer and clandestine playwright Cheech, is played with deadpan delight by Jonathan Rivera.
The ensemble as a whole brings the production its shine in large group numbers like the opening “Tiger Rag” and the double Act 1 finale of “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do” and “Runnin’ Wild,” featuring a great cohesion and dazzling dancing.
And yet, Bullets Over Broadway isn’t quite the bang it could be. Make no mistake, it’s a well-constructed, clearly rehearsed and enjoyable performance: the missing spark lies in the source material. There’s a reason it didn’t exactly soar in its initial Broadway run. There is fun to be had, of course, but Allen’s acerbic and subtle humor doesn’t necessarily translate well to the big and bawdy nature befitting this stage show. And audiences certainly won’t leave the theater humming the show’s original numbers.
The show’s scant number of poignant or heartfelt moments don’t land, and it’s no one’s fault but the flawed book, which follows up homicide with stale jokes, introduces subplots with little consequence, and tries to tie it all up with some kind of emotional resolution, with scarcely an attempt to earn it. A further rewrite would do well to keep everything as farcical as possible, with a better closing number.
That being said, Night Blue takes a malfunctioning firearm, and still manages to hit the target. Don’t dodge Bullets Over Broadway.
NightBlue presents “Bullets Over Broadway” through October 8 at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.