Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Carousel
The musical Bullets over Broadway proves that a jukebox musical is still a jukebox musical even if the audience isn't familiar with most of the songs. The show, based on the Woody Allen film of the same name, uses songs from the years between World War I and 1930 which for the most part aren't well known, but suffers from the same issues as most musicals with non-original scores. The national tour, currently playing in Dayton, Ohio, has a very talented cast and some wonderful dancing and singing, but is limited in its effectiveness due to the song choices and uneven storytelling.
This musical adaptation, which had a short New York run in 2014, follows the 1994 movie plot (by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath) about a young playwright trying to get his play produced on Broadway in 1929. Various romantic entanglements and gangster involvement complicate things along the way.
The songs are jazz and popular standards mostly from the 1920s by a variety of writers, but only a few of the tunes ("Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" and "Let's Misbehave") are likely to be known by today's audiences. The problem with the score, as is the case with almost all jukebox-style shows using existing songs, is that they aren't very well integrated into the storylacking character or plot specific lyrics and sometimes feeling shoehorned into the narrative, despite some updated lyrics. Because of this, much of the momentum and energy of the story gets lost during the songs.
Woody Allen himself supplies the book for the musical. While the show has its share of funny moments and jokes, there are just as many that fall flat (and some that produce audible groans). The story is a fun one with some eccentric characters and a solid premise. A mobster puts up money for the showbut his talentless girlfriend has to be in it. In addition, a mob hit man assigned to look after the girlfriend supplies secret rewrites to the play which the playwright submits as his owneach one improving the show significantly. Bullets doesn't take itself too seriously, which is a good thing, but it is greatly lacking in charm and emotional connection. There's a fair share of bawdy humor, at its peak with a scene and tune called "The Hot Dog Song," which is basically just a series of vulgar penis jokes. It fits in the plot, but is one of those "Oh my" moments when you can't believe what you are seeing on stage.
The direction and choreography for the Broadway production was by Susan Stroman, and is reproduced here by Jeff Whiting (direction) and Clare Cook (choreography). The direction contains some inventive staging (the comic visuals found in "Let's Misbehave" related to the cushions is one such moment), smooth transitions, and apt tone, but the general mediocrity of the material is limiting. The dances are more effective, with the masculine and athletic all-male production tap number for "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do" nearly stopping the show.
The Broadway production had a starry cast which included the likes of Zach Braff, Marin Mazzie, and Karen Ziemba, as well as Tony-nominated Nick Cordero. The non-Equity tour cast doesn't have such lofty credits or renown, but is very talented nonetheless. As playwright David Shayne, Michael Williams could ramp up the neurotic nature of the character a bit more, but he has a lovely warmth in his singing voice and excellent stage presence. Hannah Rose Deflumeri is endearing as David's long-suffering girlfriend, and supplies impressive and strong vocals with her songs. Emma Stratton is a deliciously ego-driven diva as star Helen Sinclair, and nails the comedy and vocals of the role with great skill. Jemma Jane has the difficult task of playing Olive Neal, one of the most intentionally annoying characters ever written for the stage. She's obviously a strong dancer, but since the character is supposed to be constantly grating (as well as a bad actress and singer), it's hard to say what her true talent level is.
Bradley Allan Zarr is very funny as food-obsessed stage actor Warner Purcell, and shows off a fine singing voice and great comic timing. Rachel Bahler sings well, but is a bit over-the-top as Eden Brent, whose eccentric behavior seems even odder here than on Broadway since her real dog (in New York) is now a stuffed one. As Cheech, the mob killer who rewrites the play, Jeff Brooks possesses an outstanding singing voice, a commanding presence, and strong dance skills. Rick Grossman is solid as producer Julian Marx and Michael Corvino supplies strong vocals as Nick Valenti. The ensemble provides superb execution of the challenging dances and praiseworthy support throughout.
The design elements are all first-rate as well. Jason Ardizzone-West's detailed scenic design is slightly scaled down for the road, but contains variety and is visually appealing. The lighting by Donald Holder is likewise varied and professionally rendered. William Ivey Long provides some beautiful roaring '20s costumes, including some lavishly colored and tailored outfits for the women, many with flowing layers and not your typical flapper style.
Bullets over Broadway has many strong elements, including a talented cast for this tour, but is hampered by songs that stop rather than advance the story and uneven comedy throughout. The music and dancing are great, but for some, it likely won't be enough to redeem the show's flaws.
Bullets over Broadway continues at the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio through November 8, 2015. Visit www.bulletsoverbroadwayontour.com for more information, or call 937-228-3630 for tickets.-- Scott Cain