BULLETS OVER BROADWAY Brings Campy, Madcap Fun to PPAC
Going into any play, movie, television show, etc., there are certain expectations. And certain things that the audience will be asked to buy into, to embrace. For example, if you're going to see a horror movie, expect blood and gore. If you're seeing a Tennessee Williams play, expect realism and southern drama. And if you are seeing the Broadway musical Bullets Over Broadway at Providence Performing Arts Center, expect silliness, fun, little that's grounded in reality and some solid entertainment.
Written by Woody Allen, based on a screenplay that he co-wrote with Douglas McGrath, Bullets doesn't bring anything particularly new to the table. The entertainment industry and organized crime have been strange bedfellows for years, in countless movies, plays, tv shows, books, etc. It seems like a natural and maybe even easy mashup that can be mined for stories in numerous ways.
In this case, the central story deals with David Shayne, a playwright in New York City who is just about to give up when a producer finally agrees to fund and produce a production of what David considers his great work of theatrical art. Unfortunately, the producer is a mafia boss named Nick Valenti, who demands that his girlfriend, Olive, be given a part in the play. After he agrees, David, who also directs the production, must deal with Olive's lack of talent as well as the various gangsters who are hanging around, especially Cheech, Olive's bodyguard. Cheech also has numerous ideas for improving the play, which David eventually embraces, creating a struggle between the two over true art, it's importance and the lengths the artist must go so he doesn't compromise on his vision.
Fans of Woody Allen will likely find things to enjoy in this musical but it doesn't necessarily "feel" like a Woody Allen movie. It feels more like your typical big-budget Broadway musical that might have been written by any number of successful writers of musicals. There are a few moments where Allen's wit and humor appear, some of which are very funny, but overall the tone of the show is something akin to combining The Sopranos with West Side Story and then having it written and directed by either Monty Python or Mel Brooks.
Along with some great comic moments are a number of fun and entertaining musical numbers. Nothing here is to be taken seriously, which the audience should realize about halfway through the Act One number "The Hot Dog Song," where Olive shows off her burlesque "talents." Featured in this number is the kind of silliness and over-the-top fun (or attempts at fun) that the show proudly proclaims. It doesn't try to be anything that it's not and it doesn't try to please everyone. Other fun, highlight numbers include "Let's Misbehave," "There's a Broken Heart for Every Light on Broadway," "Tain't Nobody's Business if I Do," and "I've Found a New Baby." There are also, truth be told, some songs that are not successful and at least one that makes no sense at all, when the cast sings "Yes! We Have no Bananas" at the Finale.
Bullets Over Broadway's original direction and choreography were by Susan Stroman, with the tour's direction recreated by Jeff Whiting and choreography recreated by Clare Cook. In terms of both, the action is kept at a lively pace, never lagging or even really slowing down. Laugh lines are given the care they deserve and almost all of them hit the mark. Everything that is supposed to be silly is appropriately silly and the madcap moments are just as madcap as they need to be. Being over-the-top is right in line with what the show is going for and it usually succeeds. The choreography succeeds even more so, with some spectacular dance numbers. A major highlight of the show is the big tap number, when the male chorus, a gang of mafia gangsters, break into a tap dance, led by Cheech. The skill of the performers is obvious and the number comes closest to bringing the house down.
Cheech, the leading gangster in that tap number, is played here by the real star of the show, Jeff Brooks. As the steely-eyed and steel-jawed mafia killer, Brooks is both menacing and hilarious. While he does commit some cold-blood murders, Brooks also gives Cheech a real humanity and even likability. He's one of the most fun characters on stage to watch and root for, as well as one who has an actual journey, which is made even more interesting to watch by Brooks' stellar performance.
As the playwright whose play is hijacked by Cheech, Michael Williams is also very good as David. Williams is asked to do a lot of over-the-top reacting and he's up to the task. His character, like most in this show, is more of a caricature, even a cartoon character, and that's meant in a good way. Williams fits the role well and fills some hilarious moments with his exasperation, desperation and frustration.
While those two leading men are both excellent, it's really the leading ladies who steal this show. Jemma Jane is simply hysterical as Olive, the mobster girlfriend who wants to be an actress and thinks she actually can. Her high pitched voice and laugh are a great compliment to her fantastic comic timing. She really excels in the role and steals almost every scene she's in. It's "almost" because she's sometimes in the same scene with another great scene-stealer, Emma Stratton as Helen Sinclair. Stratton gives Sinclair a sort of Norma Desmond-like vibe, that of an aging Broadway start still holding on to her fame. At the same time, though, Helen is just grounded enough in reality that she never fully becomes caricature. Stratton gives Helen just enough emotional truth to feel real while keeping her just crazy enough to fit in with this show and all the other crazy characters. Finally, Hannah Rose Deflumeri is adorable as Ellen, the poor girlfriend of our poor playwright, David. Deflumeri has one of the many excellent voices in the cast and gets a couple of great solo moments. She also does the most that can be expected with a fairly small and not well-developed role as written.
There are quite a few other performers in this large ensemble, too many to name them all here. A few of them get some very funny solo moments, especially Bradley Allan Zarr as Warner Purcell and Rahcel Bahler as Eden Brent. The Atta-Girls are a fantastic chorus of gorgeous showgirls, all capable singers and dancers. Just as talented are the aforementioned Gangsters, who prove they are able to do more than just tap dance. And if you go in expecting a fun, silly, zany musical featuring gangsters who tap dance and other crazy situations, you will not be disappointed.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY runs through June 5th at Providence Performing Arts center, lcoated at 220 Weybosset Street in downtown Providence. Show times are 7:30pm on weeknights, 2:00pm and 7:00pm on Saturday, and 1:00pm and 6:30pm on Sunday. Tickets are available at the PPAC box office, by phone at 401-421-2787 or on their website at www.ppacri.org. Ticket prices start at $51. Box office hours are Monday through Friday, 10am to 5pm, Saturday, 10am to 2pm, and two hours prior to curtain times.
Pictured: Jeff Brooks (center) and the cast of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY. Photo by Matthew Murphy.