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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Bullets over Broadway
Phoenix Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Finding Neverland, Native Son, Billy Elliot the Musical, and Jarrod Spector and Kelli Barrett


The Cast
Photo by Reg Madison Photography
Woody Allen has found much success on stage and screen as both a writer and director. While some of his earlier plays were turned into films, his 1994 comedy Bullets over Broadway was the first to go the opposite direction, moving from celluloid to Broadway in a 2014 production that Allen himself scripted. Wacky characters and a comical plot make for a fun and infectious musical comedy and, while the show's Broadway run was brief, I believe it is a musical that will have a healthy run on regional stages. Phoenix Theatre presents the Arizona premiere of the musical in a sumptuous production with a cast of gifted comical actors and pristine production elements.

It's 1929 in Manhattan and poor playwright David Shayne is about to get his first play produced on Broadway. But there are a bevy of problems. Producer Julian Marx has enlisted gangster Nick Valenti to fund the production but Valenti will only back the show if his talent-free girlfriend Olive gets a plum part in the show. Valenti enlists hit man Cheech to attend rehearsals to ensure that not only is Olive's part not cut but that she doesn't get into any philandering on the side with her co-stars. On top of these obstacles, the star of the show, aging Broadway diva Helen Sinclair, has set her sights on David, thinking if she romances him, he will not only beef up her role but write more parts for her in the future. David finds himself stuck between Helen and his simple girlfriend Ellen, plus Cheech keeps coming up with ideas about the play that are actually better than David's. Murder, mischief, mayhem, and nonstop hilarity ensue.

Allen's musical script is fairly faithful to the screenplay he wrote with Douglas McGrath. While the show does not have an original musical score, instead using over twenty songs from the period including several that are familiar, Allen's dialogue pops with many funny moments. While some of the songs are a bit of a stretch for the plot, appearing at numerous times to be uncomfortably shoehorned in, about half of the tunes have additional lyrics by Glen Kelly that help smooth over the rough spots and make the songs fit with the plot and the characters' voices.

Michael Barnard's direction is spotless, as is his entire comically gifted cast. Toby Yatso is perfect as David, the slightly pretentious young man who doesn't want to compromise his play yet finds his highbrow hopes dashed when faced with reality. Yatso's expressive eyes and rubbery facial gestures work well to make every comical moment and obstacle David encounters generate big laughs. Caleb Reese is exceptional as the murderous thug Cheech. He oozes the perfect amount of charm beneath his menacing exterior so you never quite know if he's going to kill someone or croon a tune. Reese delivers a crowd pleasing-performance as this very lovable gangster.

Sally Jo Bannow is sublime as the almost, but not quite, over the hill Helen in an utterly hilarious performance full of exaggerated gestures steeped in melodrama. As the ditzy Olive, Michelle Chin is a firecracker. With a screechy voice (worse than nails on a chalkboard) and a rough exterior, Chin delivers an exceptional portrayal of this dimwitted and lewd chorine who you just love to hate.

In supporting parts, Robert Kolby Harper does well as the show's leading man Warner Purcell who has been known to have issues in the past with his weight. He claims he's on a diet but quickly finds himself drawn to anything he can get his hands on, including Olive. Trisha Hart Ditsworth brings a sunny disposition to actress Eden, who has a strange fixation on her dog, while Emilie Doering is full of charm as David's girlfriend Ellen. Scott Davidson brings a sweet gravitas to Valenti and David Dickinson does well as the show's producer who tries to hold things together.

Barnard's direction flows seamlessly in cinematic fashion as it moves from one locale to another, expertly using Robert Kovach's lush, rotating, two-tiered set and Michael J. Eddy's evocative lighting to create numerous stunning stage images. Costume designer Cari Sue Smith has created dozens of delicious 1920s designs. Sam Hay's excellent choreography adds plenty of moments of non-stop dazzle and heightened comedic moments throughout, including the showstopping "Tain't Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do" in which Reese leads the very talented ensemble into a stunning tap dance frenzy.

With a talented cast, clean and crisp direction, and superb creative elements, Bullets from Broadway might not have been a success on Broadway but at Phoenix Theatre it is a frothy and rollicking good time.

Phoenix Theatre's production of Bullets over Broadway runs through April 2nd, 2017, with performances at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151

Director: Michael Barnard
Choreographer: Sam Hay
Music Director: Alan Ruch
Scenic Designer: Robert Kovach
Costume Designer: Cari Sue Smith
Lighting Designer: Michael J. Eddy
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Wig Designer: Kelly Yurko
Properties Designer: Tyler Welden

Cast:
Ensemble: Kat Bailes
Helen Sinclair: Sally Jo Bannow*
Ensemble: Shani Barret:
Olive Neal: Michelle Chin
Ensemble: Alex Crossland
Nick Valenti: Scott Davidson*
Julian Marx: David Dickinson
Eden: Trisha Hart Ditsworth
Ellen: Emilie Doering
Ensemble: James Gish
Warner Purcell: Robert Kolby Harper
Ensemble/Dance Captain: Sam Hay*
Ensemble: Matthew Helton
Ensemble: Edgar Lopez
Ensemble: Ben Massouras
Cheech: Caleb Reese*
Ensemble: Taylor Shubert
Ensemble: Laurie Trygg
Ensemble: Sarah Wiechman
Ensemble: Monica Woods
David Shayne: Toby Yatso*

*Members Of Actors' Equity Association, The Union of Professional Actors & Stage Managers in the U.S.


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