Woody Allen’s musical, Bullets Over Broadway never reaches the witty humor of Mr. Allen’s 1994 film counterpart of the same name. Frustrating and annoying are the feelings that came most to mind the night I attended. With a running length lasting over two and half hours, the show slugs along at snail’s pace for most of the night.
To be clear, I did not hate NightBlue’s production of Bullets. This ambitious little theatre company had nothing to do with the show’s problems… well, perhaps other than choosing to produce it in the first place. The performances are all terrific; some are even downright fantastic. Kevin Bellie’s choreography is visually stimulating, even if it’s a tad repetitive in places. And the energy of this cast is thrilling in places. All of this is great. But, take away the production values, and what’s left is a needless and totally unwarranted musical.
Set in the late 1920s, a young playwright named David Shayne (Cody Ellsworth) is finally getting his first play produced on Broadway. The producer, Julian Marx (Nick Cuellar), enlists a prosperous gangster, Nick Valenti (Tim Green) to pay the cost of producing the show. Valenti agrees on the condition that his dim-witted girlfriend, the talentless Olive Neal (Rachel Juncker), star as one of the leads. The two agree.
Valenti selects his fellow gangster, Cheech (Jonathan Rivera), an intimidating man with a coerce attitude and a hidden talent for playwriting, to oversee Olive during the process. The show isn’t off to a good start. Cheech offers up some ideas for repairing the script and David takes credit for the rewrites. These updates get the attention of the play’s leading lady, Helen Sinclair (Monica Szaflik), an aging diva with a fondness for the bottle. She finds the changes as brilliant pieces of art that showcases David’s creative genius. Before long, the two are having an affair, unbeknownst to David’s girlfriend Ellen (Maddy Kelly) who has a secret of her own. Concurrently, Warner Purcell (Jack Wright), a jolly fellow with a fondness for snacking, sets about romancing Olive.
Bullets has two fundamental problems that prevent this production from ever really departing. The first is that the show is never able to justify its very existence as a musical. The basic script, characters, and even the dialogue are nearly identical to the movie. By comparison, the stage version seems like a cheap substitution.
The musical lacks imagination, sincerity, and originality. If the intent was to just imitate the movie, instead of expanding upon it, then why even adapt it for the stage? There is no reason that Bullets should exist as a stage musical, which provokes the question, why not just watch the movie instead? I still haven’t answered that one.
The second problem is that not only is Bullets another poorly wrought movie-musical, it’s also another displaced Jukebox musical – meaning the creators copied-and-pasted previously written music into the script. Here, the music is a hodgepodge of 1920s esoteric standards. Individually, the songs are melodic, carefree, and fun. But when jammed into a pre-existing storyline they’re the very definition of irritating.
The songs are so inorganic from Mr. Allen’s script that they distract us from the story instead of augmenting the story for us. This problem was by far the most frustrating aspect of this adaptation. The music in Bullets is so utterly disconnected from Mr. Allen’s dialogue that the songs start to wear on your nerves after the first few numbers – mine were in tatters by the end.
If the music isn’t going to elaborate the narrative or enhance an emotional moment that stylistically matches the rest of the show, then what’s the point? It not only puts the plot in second-place, but it muddles the story and tranquilizes the humor. And, sorry, but inserting over 24 numbers into this piece is just way too many songs. More than half of them could’ve easily gotten cut. I’d be fine if all of them were gone.
The creative team had an abundant amount of chances to get things right. For starters, while this musical is unjustified, it’s easy to understand why Mr. Allen would feel motivated to rework Bullets into a musical. The film, after all, has musical theatre staples embedded into the script: likable gangsters, self-centered divas, and other splashy characters coming together to open a show on Broadway.
The movie also gives ample room for a bunch of showy dance numbers and provides Mr. Allen a chance to exhibit in his humorous dialogue in a different medium.
When work began on translating Bullets into a musical, it was supposed to have an original score. In fact, composers-lyricists Marvin Hamlisch and Craig Carnelia were brought on board to write the music. But when Mr. Allen heard their first drafts he supposedly decided to abandoned the project entirely. It was only when his sister, Letty Aronson, suggested using period songs that he took an active reinterest in the idea. It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the works of Woody Allen. His movies often reveal his sense of nostalgia as he has written many period pieces (Café Society, Midnight in Paris, Radio Days, Magic in the Moonlight, Sweet and Lowdown, and Curse of the Jade Scorpion).
The trouble is, Mr. Allen did absolutely nothing to update the script other than inserting a bunch of random period songs into it that make no narrative sense. No effort was made to modify the dialogue in order to match the period music. This all but eviscerates the charm from the movie and makes the musical feel like an inferior knockoff (which it is).
Making matters worse, the original creative team hired Susan Stroman to direct and choreograph Bullets early on. While I respect Ms. Stroman, she’s more of a choreographer focused on provoking humor through outrageous visuals than on detailed storytelling. It’s difficult not to see Bullets as anything except her attempt to photocopy The Producers on stage – the parallels are too numerous.
Even in NightBlue’s production, you can sense the mark left by Ms. Stroman on this show. No other director in their right mind would allow such illogical songs like “Big Pussy”, “Hot Dog Song”, and “Yes! We Have No Bananas” into a script. These songs are a pointless lazy excuse to provoke some unfunny yucks from an audience. Also, remember how the chorus came out dancing with giant pretzels and beer mugs on their heads in The Producers? Well, in Bullets they come out dancing in hot dog costumes and kitty outfits. Hilarious, right?
All said, this is about as good of a production as one can get considering the material. Director-choreographer Kevin Bellie certainly had his hands full with this production. I do wish Kevin would consider working with a collaborator in the future so that the duties of directing and choreographing are evenly divided, thus allowing the cast to have rehearsal times equally divided (director works on one scene with actors, while chorus learns choreography in another room).
That said, there is room for some minor directional improvements, the vast amount of numbers set in front of a blank red curtain was overused to the point where scenes began to blur together upon reflection. Some scenes were in place of a half curtain which I found visually distracting. I understand that playing before the curtain helps necessitate scenery changes. Still, I have to believe there’s got to be a more inventive way of utilizing the space to allow things to feel more organic. The words “innovation” and “immersion” are used in the press release to describe NightBlue – I didn’t see evidence of either as staged in this production.
Also, early in Act One, there was a scene involving a telephone conversation set on opposite sides of the stage that made our heads turn back-and-forth so much it was like watching a tennis match. It would’ve been far easier to follow had the two actors been placed closer together.
The very saving grace of this production is this cast. The talent is practically exploding from the stage. Rachel Juncker is all-around perfect as the untalented and simpleminded Olive. Cody Ellsworth is equally terrific as the anxiety-ridden playwright David Shyne. And Amanda Farmer was an absolute delight as the quirky pet-loving side player, Eden Brent.
I’ve seen or reviewed many of these same cast members many times in the past, and there were plenty of performances that left me pleasantly surprised by how much growth so many of them displayed in this production. I knew Maddy Kelly could sing, but she blew me away on opening night, particularly her fabulous rendition of “I’ve Found a New Baby”. Who knew Johnathan Rivera could tap so well? Even Shawn Quinlan, as one of the side gangsters, Rocco, has grown so much as a performer that I hardly even recognized him until I got a chance to read the program over intermission. And, it was so refreshing to finally see Monica Szaflik play a role outside of her typical type-casting. Ms. Szaflik, always a wonderful actress, does not disappoint as Helen. Both in comic timing and in vocals the actress is spot-on.
Though I loved the performances, and am very proud of the work they’ve done, it’s still difficult for me to look past this musical’s structural problems. To me, Bullets is emblematic of two of the worst trends in musical theatre: movie and jukebox musicals. The lack of originality means that it was just created to pander to a bunch of tourists.
Not everything has to be high art, it can be fun, however, at the very least there should be a reason for it to exist as a musical. I still don’t understand why someone couldn’t just rent the movie, which is far funnier and charming. At the same time, I also truly admire this talented cast and their commitment. I fully believe that this terrific cast surely deserves an audience. I just wish it were a different show. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Bottom Line: Bullets over Broadway is somewhat recommended
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, there is a 15 minute intermission
Runs through: October 8, 2017
Location: Stage 773 – 1225 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60657
Parking: Stage 773 provides valet parking for $10
Curtain Times: Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2:30 PM & 8 PM, and *Sundays at 2:30 PM
*The performance on Sunday October 8 will be at 1 PM.
Tickets and Reservations: $35 general, $30 seniors, and $27 students and are available at www.Stage773.com, in person at the Stage 773 Box Office, or by calling (773) 327-5252
Photo Credits: Drew Peterson