Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Bullets Over Broadway
National Tour
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule


Jeff Smith (center) and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Take a popular comedy film from one of America's most successful film writer-directors, put it in the hands of a writer-director who's made a mega-hit out of a hit from a different one of America's most successful film writer-directors and you ought to have a new mega-hit, right? So why didn't Susan Stroman score with Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway like she did with Mel Brooks' The Producers? Yeah, why didn't she? Maybe it was the performers or the direction? Stroman is credited for the tour that is in the midst of a two-week stop in Chicago as providing the "original direction and choreography," which have been recreated by Jeff Whiting and Clare Cook, respectively. Or maybe it was the pan from The New York Times, because for my money this is one smart, funny, and entertaining show.

Allen's book for the musical follows the same plot as the screenplay he wrote with Douglas McGrath (Beautiful) and it remains clever stuff, taking the premise of a mobster bankrolling a Broadway play so his dim girlfriend can get a role and then upping the ante by having her bodyguard/chaperone become an unlikely script doctor. It has the sort of period setting (New York City in the 1920s) that musicals thrive on, and the era is recreated beautifully through Jason Ardizzone-West's sets and William Ivey Long's costumes. Some of Stroman's dance numbers use expected ideas—the opening number is a Charleston set to the "Tiger Rag," and it goes on a little longer than we'd like when we're waiting to get into the story—but others are inspired. The chorus of gangsters tap dancing is right up there—very nearly, anyway—with her "Little Old Lady Land" number from The Producers.

The Broadway cast featured Zach Braff of TV's "Scrubs" as the young playwright David Shayne and veteran stage actress Marin Mazzie as the diva Helen Sinclair. This tour does not. It has a non-Equity cast, but I wouldn't have guessed that. In fact, I didn't. I saw it during a busy week when I couldn't (or in any event didn't) take time to research in advance who was in the cast, and I was frankly surprised to learn it was a non-Equity tour. In the Shayne role is Michael Williams, who has the chops and physicality for a solid comic performance as the naïf seduced by money, fame, and sex. Emma Stratton is a lovely, regal Helen Sinclair who earns her laughs without resorting to camp. I would have believed it was Rachel York in the role; she has that much star quality. Jeff Brooks is a rugged, macho Cheech the bodyguard, with dancing and vocal skills that kill. Jemma Jane strikes just the right balance of squeaky-voiced dumb blonde characteristics without going over the top or becoming tiresome. There's great supporting work as well from Michael Corvino as the gangster Nick Valenti, Hannah Rose DeFlumieri as David's girlfriend Ellen, and Rick Grossman as the producer Julian Marx.

It's all funny, entertaining stuff, with the entire cast displaying knockout vocal and dance skills as well as good-to-excellent comic timing. What might have kept the show from being a winner on Broadway may well have been Allen's choice to use existing period songs rather than having a new score composed. The numbers are entertaining enough—and not inappropriate for their places in the story. They're integrated fairly well with the help of some additional lyrics by Glen Kelly, who also adapted the music chosen by Allen, an avowed aficionado of pop and jazz music of the early 20th century. What they don't do, though, is do much to advance the plot or develop characters. When musicals really work, they work viscerally, with the songs establishing the stakes for the characters in ways we can feel as well as understand. Look back to The Producers' "I Want to be a Producer," "We Can Do It," or ""Till Him" and ask yourself if you would have cared as much about Max and Leo if they'd sung some lost or little-known song not written for those characters.

Great, even good songs in a musical bond us to the characters. Songs that feel even a little inorganic and contrived don't. Bullets Over Broadway is still a lot of fun, though, with a truly clever script and terrific singing and dancing. It should have a good afterlife in regional theater after this national tour closes.

Bullets Over Broadway will play the Private Bank Theater, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, through May 1, 2016. Tickets and more information are available at www.BroadwayinChicago.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.bulletsoverbroadwayontour.com.