Chicago Theatre Review
A Surefire Hit of a Musical
Bullets Over Broadway – Broadway in Chicago
In 1994 Woody Allen wrote a sidesplitting backstage film comedy that satirized the New York theatre scene during the late 1920’s. It was the story of a struggling, young playwright who sells out in order to get his first play produced on Broadway. With its hilarious storyline that pits the art world against the underworld of the mob, the film was a popular and critical success, winning all kinds of awards and accolades. It boasted a talented, all-star cast, with John Cusack as playwright and director, David Shayne, and featured Dianne Wiest as diva Helen Sinclair, Jennifer Tilly as the ditzy mob boss’ girlfriend, Olive Neal, Tracey Ullman as outgoing actress, Eden Brent, Jim Broadbent as corpulent actor, Warner Purcell, Chazz Palminteri as Olive’s literary bodyguard, Cheech and Jack Warden as David’s producer and friend, Julian Marx.
Jump to 2014 and Woody Allen, persuaded by his sister, has adapted his screenplay (written with Douglas McGrath) for the Broadway stage. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman took the helm for this production, which included a score borrowed from the jazz and popular songs of the era. They include several new, unfamiliar tunes (such as the hilarious “The Hot Dog Song”), but also many popular ditties like “Up a Lazy River,” “Tiger Rag,” “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me,” “Let’s Misbehave,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Runnin’ Wild.” The show drew mixed reviews in New York. However, it was nominated for six Tonys and won three Outer Critics Circle Awards, deservedly for Marin Mazzie, as Helen Sinclair, Nick Cordero as Cheech, and for William Ivey Long for his glittery, Roaring Twenties costumes.
Now, a couple of years later, a non-Equity National Tour has finally made its way to Chicago for a two-week stay. While the traveling show lacks any big-name stars in leading roles, this is a polished, very entertaining production featuring some top, non-union acting, musical talent and choreographic skill. The tour is directed with broad comedy and lightning-fast pacing by Jeff Whiting, the Associate Director for the Broadway company, in addition to several other noteworthy New York productions. Clare Cook, who also boasts a Big Apple attachment to the original production, choreographs with sexy pizzazz employing heart-pounding gymnastics and machine gun attacking tap. The show still sparkles with William Ivey Long’s magnificent period costumes, with lush sets and dazzling lighting by Jason Ardizzone-West and Carolyn Wong. The show’s brassy, eight-member pit orchestra is ably conducted with vigor by Robbie Cowan.
Whiting’s cast couldn’t be better. Newly graduated young triple threat Michal Williams is terrific as playwright/director David Shayne. He’s youthful, good-looking, can sing and dance, and understands the skill of sharing scenes with his more seasoned acting partners. His leading lady is a seductive beauty with an expressive, baritone voice, Emma Stratton. As Helen Sinclair, she’s a magnificent grande diva, chewing up the scenery and making the most of her comic reprimands to Williams, “Don’t speak…don’t speak.” As Olive Neal, mob boss Nick Valenti’s (nicely played by Michael Corvino) blond bimbo babydoll, Jemma Jane is pretty sensational. Of course, anyone who’s ever seen the original film won’t forget the delightful Jennifer Tilly in this role, but Ms. Jane comes very close. She’s certainly a force of nature when it comes to dancing and belting out a song, and she wears Mr. Long’s formfitting costumes with flair.
Bradley Allan Zarr is delightful as Warner Purcell, the dieting actor who grows larger in every scene, his pockets filled with turkey drumsticks and puff pastries. Even stuffed into his fat suit, the actor still demonstrates his talent as a skilled dancer. Rachel Bahler and Rick Grossman are both excellent as gregarious actress Eden Brent and fatherly producer and friend Julian Marx. And Hannah Rose DeFlumeri is a remarkable actress and singer as David’s ignored girlfriend, Ellen.
But clearly the audience favorite in this production is mob hitman-turned-Olive’s-bodyguard, Cheech. As played by the uber talented Jeff Brooks, this actor’s deadpan delivery, not to mention his superb vocal and choreographic skill, make him the undeniable star of this production. He leads the men’s chorus of wildly talented and manic dancers in a tap number that has to be seen to be believed. As Cheech becomes the ghost writer of David Shayne’s play, the man becomes more and more personable and funny. This is the guy to watch in this gut-busting role.
There are musicals that offer more to say about life or feature better scores or a sounder book. There are even musicals that improve upon their original sources far more (the movie is well worth renting for a great evening of entertainment). But for sheer, light, carefree entertainment performed with talent, all-out drive and passion, this very funny show offered by Broadway in Chicago is one surefire hit of a musical.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 19-May 1 by Broadway in Chicago at the newly named PrivateBank Theatre (formerly the Bank of America Theatre), 18 W. Monroe, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at all Broadway in Chicago box offices, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com