by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
The musical Bullets Over Broadway, an adaptation of the Woody Allen movie of 1994, is a crowd pleaser. The movie script was nominated for an Oscar, and this production features original direction and choreography by multi-Tony award winner Susan Stroman (also known for her work on The Producers). The production has been touring for two years, and the polish of the performances are evidence of that.
For those who are unfamiliar with either the film or the musical, Bullets Over Broadway is set in a stylized 1920s. All gangsters and molls and New York night clubs. The costumes, designed by William Ivey Long, are exquisite. Representing a particular sartorial nostalgia for the ’20s, the dresses are elegant and the suits perfectly cut and severe. The women wear flapper-style shifts, afternoon dresses, gala gowns, and lounge robes. The men are in three-piece suits and tuxedos, and what could be considered a chic memory of depression-era trousers and sweaters. There are several ensemble pieces that showcase the inspiration of the costuming, in particular a chorus of gangsters in fedoras dancing ballet.
Choreographed by Stroman, the ballet has been described by Long as “masculine and threatening and gorgeous” – apt and accurate. It’s one of the highlights. And all the more impressive for how technically difficult the dance is.
Jeff Brooks leads the gangster ballet as “Cheech,” the right hand man of mob boss Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino). Brooks plays “Cheech” with a cool bravado that slowly erodes as he becomes more and more invested in the success of the play (of which he surprisingly becomes a co-writer). The titular playwright David Shayne is performed by Michael Williams. The role is akin to that of The Producers’ Leo Bloom; but whether through the writing or the portrayal, Shayne is less likeable than Bloom (and especially Matthew Broderick’s Bloom). His relatively light comeuppance at the end seems insufficient according to the scales of justice for musical comedies. Even more so compared to the fate of Olive Neal (Jemma Jane), Valenti’s girlfriend, who is killed by “Cheech” for being a bad actor.
The singing is wonderful, with a cast of incredibly talented performers. Hannah Rose DeFlumeri, as Shayne’s girlfriend Ellen, has a beautiful voice. The score provides few chances to hear her, but each time is worth it. Emma Stratton is perfect as Helen Sinclair, the theater diva. Think Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
The real surprise is Bradley Allan Zarr as Warner Purcell. Purcell is Sinclair’s male analogue, an esteemed theater actor with a penchant for overeating. His comedic timing is excellent. When told by Olive Neal to meet her in her dressing room in 5 minutes for a tryst, Purcell responds by asking for 10 minutes so that he can raid the food table. His suits fit him less and less throughout the musical, his vest eventually held precariously together with a button promising to pop. Zarr is animated and flamboyant, and laugh out loud funny.
The role of Eden Brent is pared down substantially from the movie. Though played appealingly and quirkily by Rachel Bahler, her place in the story fades and isn’t clearly relevant. The core character is peculiar and doesn’t easily find a home in the flattened adaptation of the film.
The production, through no fault of the cast, starts slowly. With a score of period songs, Bullet Over Broadway should prompt more pleasure in the numbers. When the songs do work, they’re fantastic and entertaining. But there are many that don’t catch light. The production feels too long by a fourth, and staggers in a few places. But the end is an energetic romp, capped off with streamers fired into the audience. The effect is remarkably like fireworks.
Bullets Over Broadway is all one would expect from a mature Broadway traveling production, and does not disappoint with that expectation in mind.
Bullets Over Broadway. Presented by the Ordway, August 12-17, 2016. Information at http://www.ordway.org/.