Theater Review: BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (National Tour at PrivateBank Theatre in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 20, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

AS FUNNY AS A PUNCH ON THE JAW

Call it a comic “war of the worlds.” It’s the tabloid-trashy tale of a Broadway show that is literally “under the gun.” As the title suggests, Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath’s 1994 film Bullets Over Broadway depicted a forced marriage between the Mob and Manhattan, specifically a gangster godfather named Nick Valenti and David Shayne, an idealistic young dramatist from Pittsburgh. Roaring like the 20s, this cultural, artistic and emotional mismatch triggers a fusillade of “fish out of water” jokes: Each force contorts and convulses as it adjusts to the other’s seemingly irreconcilable mindsets and values. (The premise inevitably recalls better sources — The Producers’ hilarious juxtaposition of ethically challenged showmen and a stagestruck neo-Nazi; and the opposites-who-destruct polarities in Born Yesterday and Sunset Boulevard.)

The cast of the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Michael Williams (David Shayne) in the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Curiously, this twisted “coming of age” saga turns weirdly tender as David, an arrogant purist of a playwright who refuses to compromise on his artistic vision, discovers humility, humanity and heart: It improbably happens as he stumbles into an unlikely collaboration with Cheech, the hulking bodyguard to Valenti’s bimbo moll Olive. (A case of coerced casting, Olive, a dreadful actress, threatens to torpedo the show before it opens.) By the end David realizes, not just that experience outweighs inspiration, but that the theater really can be a life or death proposition. A Mafioso enforcer has given fledgling David the common touch.

Kaylee Olson, Carissa Fiorillo and Elizabeth Dugas (The Atta-Girls) in the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.With William Ivey Long’s nostalgic costumes, Jason Ardizzone-West’s slick scenery, and a score comprised of vintage Jazz Age favorites, Bullets Over Broadway became a problematic Broadway musical, directed and choreographed by five-time Tony-winner Susan Stroman. Now, the national tour recreated by Jeff Whiting remains problematic at Chicago’s newly named PrivateBank Theater.

Inevitably, Bullets’ less intimate 150-minute musicalization creates a more plot-driven than character-based comedy. As if not trusting the storyline to be as funny as Allen’s dourly witty dialogue, Stroman’s stereotype-laced staging waxes manic as any John Held caricature. It pursues the zany twists and turns as doggedly as Billy Wilder did the superior tomfoolery in Some Like It Hot. All the showbiz clichés in 42nd Street marinate in Allen’s patented schizoid incongruities. They’re punctuated by the suitable-to-forced repurposing of period classics (“I’m Sitting on Top of the World,” “Runnin’ Wild,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Up a Lazy River,” “’Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” and, most bizarre, “Yes, We Have No Bananas” as the non sequitur finale).

Michael Williams (David Shayne) and Emma Stratton (Helen Sinclair) in the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The cast of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY.

Since this is Stroman-smart, pizzazz, moxie and showbiz savvy abound. The goofy goons manically cavort in machine-gun movements, a kind of classical-ballet chaos. Big dance routines are hoofed out by a rat-a-tat-tatting ensemble of Red Caps (‘Good Old New York”), the Atta-Girl chorines (“Tiger Rag” and “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You”), flappers (“Tain’t A Fit Night Out for Man or Beast”), and high-strutting goodfellas leaping and lunging to “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.” (Clare Cook recreates Stroman’s steps.)

Michael Corvino (Nick Valenti), Jemma Jane (Olive Neal) and Michael Williams (David Shayne) in the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Bradley Allan Zarr (Warner Purcell) and Jemma Jane (Olive Neal) in the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

As David, too-handsome Michael Williams is strictly neurosis-by-the-numbers as he explodes in Woody Allen-crazed panic attacks. But Michael Corvino has Sopranos-style goomba fun as nasty Nick. Jeff Brooks’s Cheech combines thuggish bravado with unsettling skill as a script doctor. Channeling Judy Holliday and Jean Harlow, Jemma Jane perfectly peroxides the airhead role of dimwit Olive.

Jemma Jane (Olive Neal) and the cast of the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Blaire Baker (Maid), Emma Stratton (Helen Sinclair) and Rick Grossman (Julian Marx) in the North American tour of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Among Allen’s daffy thespians, Emma Stratton emotes egotistically as Helen Sinclair, an alkie diva and David’s brief fling from his sensation-seeking girlfriend Ellen (Hannah Rose DeFlumeri). Bradley Allan Zarr brings Bertie Wooster twittery to Warner Purcell, an increasingly rotund ham actor. Rachel Brent cunningly dithers away as Eden Brent, a dog-loving second banana. Rick Grossman is serviceably smooth as Julian Marx, the go-between linking the mobsters and minstrels.

 

Vincent Pastore, Nick Cordero, Karen Ziemba, Marin Mazzie, Brooks Ashmanskas, Helene Yorke and Betsy Wolfe with the Cast of Bullets Over Broadway

The cast of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY

For better and worse, forced fun is the fare here. If you don’t know the film, Bullets Over Broadway could pass as entertainment enough. But, like Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, Allen unwittingly set a higher standard on screen than he matched on stage 22 years later. He lost the culture-clashing comic counterpoint between unorganized crime and slapdash show business. Once again, more is less.

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY.photos by Matthew Murphy

Bullets Over Broadway
PrivateBank Theatre, 18 West Monroe Street
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 8;
Wed, Sat, & Sun at 2
ends on May 1, 2016
for tickets, call 800.775.2000
or visit Broadway in Chicago
national tour continues through July, 2016
for cities and dates, visit Bullets Tour

for more theater, visit Theatre in Chicago

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