Review: Winning Non-Equity BULLETS OVER BROADWAY National Tour Kills in L.A.
Michael L. Quintos
It's always a delightful surprise walking out at the end of a show feeling as though you've sat through something relatively entertaining after first walking in with little-to-no expectations. In addition, it is also quite satisfying to up-end being (perhaps) unfairly prejudiced for a show with the prior knowledge that it's a non-equity touring production of a mildly-received, short-lived Broadway musical.
Well, I can happily declare that after experiencing the Los Angeles opening night performance of the bus-and-truck version of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY - THE MUSICAL—the quirky and highly-amusing stage musical adaptation of the 1994 big screen comedy penned by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath—I am starting to wholeheartedly believe that not all touring shows should immediately be judged by it's non-equity cover. It should always be about the end product, right?
While certainly far from a perfect show (both in staging and execution), this nonetheless supremely fun and engaging stage iteration had me in stitches for much of its two hilarious acts, which have been enhanced by lots of silly, old-fashioned antics and an array of surprisingly top-notch musical/acting performances from a solid, mostly young cast. I can honestly say that this production—now having its Los Angeles premiere performances at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through January 24—is quite possibly the most enjoyable non-equity first national tour I've watched in a long, long time—a wonderful surprise considering such enterprises have a long, contentious history of enticing lots of industry controversy and skepticism even before the curtain goes up (as in, why should theaters charge the same ticket prices for an equity Broadway tour show vs. one that's, well, not?)
So what's to love about BULLETS? On the creative side, the show certainly feels as if it is a faithful, direct transfer of its original 2014 Broadway roots. Besides the stage show's fairly witty and cheeky book adapted for the stage by Allen himself, the touring company smartly repurposes the gloriously high-caliber, eye-popping period costume designs by Tony Award winner William Ivey Long back into the tour, along with Tony-winning theater titan Susan Stroman's original direction and rousing choreography (which have been "recreated" here by tour director Jeff Whiting and tour choreographer Clare Cook, respectively). The vintage-ornate sets—a coincidental compliment to the artistic retro opulence of the Pantages Theater's interiors already—are the fine work of Jason Ardizzone-West, while the tour's admirable lighting design is provided by Carolyn Wong, adapting the original Broadway schemes designed by Donald Holder.
Meanwhile, in the pit, musical director Robbie Cowan conducts Doug Besterman's lively orchestrations and Glen Kelly's lovely arrangements in grand, big-band style. While technically a jukebox musical (with additional new material provided by Kelly), BULLETS OVER BROADWAY somehow feels like a modern revival of a classic original musical from the era in which its story takes place. Admittedly, I have only ever heard of two or three of the turn-of-the-century-era songs in the show's jazz/standards-heavy songbook, adding to the show's freshness for a 21st-Century audience.
For a relatively new presentation, BULLETS does feel as though it has existed already as a stage show—a hyper mashup of old-fashioned gangster film tropes, old Hollywood screwball comedies, and antiquated, backstage narratives. The humor is replete with cheesy but charming yuks and lots of PG-13 rated bawdy, semi-risqué double-entendres your grandparents will get a kick out of and won't object to that much (no worries, the adult jokes will likely go over younger kids' heads, though young'ins will instead likely find the over-the-top hammy characters amusing). Even the perceived violence these menacing gangsters pose in the show is played more like Guys and Dolls and less like Goodfellas. And, yes, the show's gorgeous gals, molls, and usherettes are about as, um... ribald as the Radio City Rockettes. So, yeah, let's just say the show has lots of appeal for pre-teens and beyond.
Following the exact plot of the similarly-titled film that inspired it, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY - THE MUSICAL, set in 1929, tracks the humorous behind-the-scenes drama of the making of the soon-to-open Broadway play God of Our Fathers. Nervous, first-time playwright David Shayne (an endearing Michael Williams) displays some understandable reluctance upon learning that his producer, Julian Marx (Rick Grossman) has secured total sole financing for the play from notorious gangster boss Nick Valenti (Michael Corvino)—that is, with the strict proviso that Nick's dumb-as-a-post girlfriend Olive Neal (marvelous scene-stealer Jemma Jane) be cast as one of the play's leads.
Despite having an awful speaking voice and absolutely no flair for acting, Olive dives right in alongside perpetually hungry leading man Warner Purcell (the funny Bradley Allan Zarr), loony supporting actress Eden Brent (the terrific Rachel Bahler), and demanding stage veteran—and the true star of the play—Helen Sinclair (the exquisite Emma Stratton). And to ensure his investment is followed through, Nick enlists one of his tough-guy goons, Cheech (the superb Jeff Brooks, a surprise song-and-dance man underneath a gruff exterior), to keep an eye on Olive and to make sure Julian and David keep their promise as they proceed from initial rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts, to opening night back at the Belasco Theater.
Of course, hilarity and mayhem begin to unravel—though in not quite what one would expect (that is, unless you're familiar with Allen's cinematic original): seemingly unrefined gangster Cheech, it turns out, is himself a budding storyteller, and has no qualms telling jittery David the many ways to vastly improve the play (on the hush-hush to everyone else, of course).
Cheech soon provides—or, rather more accurately, forces—multiple edits and directives to David, which, surprisingly, are met with great enthusiasm...except for Olive, whose role in the play seems to be getting smaller and smaller with each new revised draft. Eventually, David begins to resent Cheech's deep involvement in the play's evolution, even though this involvement is truly keeping the show humming along.
Meanwhile, Warner's appetite for tasty, high-calorie on-set treats—and co-star Olive herself—seem to be growing exponentially, while the much older diva Helen initiates a romance with the play's young author. Uh, oh... that can't be good... considering David already has a steady girl, Ellen (Hannah Rose DeFlumeri) back home!
Bursting with enthusiastic, goofy energy, fantastic singing and dancing, and a surprisingly exceptional lead cast of relative newcomers, this touring BULLETS is definitely a fun, ecstatic time at the theater. Though it certainly has many standout moments of wit, charm, and spectacular showmanship throughout (including the awesome "Let's Misbehave" duet between clear audience favorites Warner and Olive), the few moments the show tries to be earnest and poignant falls a bit short and can't quite find its footing.
But, boy, the show certainly gets silly antics right.
And though the show's hodgepodge of disparate—though greatly enjoyable—songs are indeed appropriate for the era, a number of them rarely service the forward momentum of the story, however fun they may be. But, frankly, it's an easily forgivable, minor gripe thanks to the undeniably boisterous and often exuberant staging of these very numbers. As BULLETS hurls toward intermission during this winning show's opening night performance, I began to truly look upon my experience of the show more as a casual theatergoer rather than a critic—realizing that it's futile to deny that I was having a terrific time laughing and giggling through this show, while still cognizant of its flaws and shortcomings (like, for example, the bland relationship "troubles" between David and Ellen).
By the time the show rushes to its wacky climax after all hell breaks loose, so to speak, the laughter has all but drowned any traces that the ending feels just a tad bit shoddy and slapped together. By then it's too late... The audience and I are cracking up so much it's hard not to surrender to the show's infectious silliness. If you're in a similar forgiving mood, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY will surely win you over, too.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos of the National Tour Company of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY - THE MUSICAL by Matthew Murphy. Review originally published for OnStage.
Performances of BULLETS OVER BROADWAY - THE MUSICAL at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre continue through January 24, 2016 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm.
Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street.
For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.