MN Theater Love reviews ‘Bullets Over Broadway’

Minnesota Theater Love 4/13/16

What do you do when you want to turn a very funny Woody Allen film into a Broadway musical? You take Bullets Over Broadway, add songs from 1914 through the 1930s and turn it into a fantastically fun evening. Bullets Over Broadway, now playing through Sunday at the Ordway Music Theater, tells a good story in the best way possible. I mean really, how can you resist chorus girls, garter belts, flappers, and tap-dancing gangsters?

The story, in case you haven’t seen the film, is about a struggling playwright (David) who finally has a chance to get his play produced on Broadway. The one hitch? The gangster (Nick Valenti) who is putting up the money is requiring that his no-talent chorus girl girlfriend (Olive) plays a part. Add to this the playwrights girlfriend (Ellen), a drunken diva (Helen) as leading lady, fighting between two mob families, and…well to paraphrase a theater god (Sondheim)…what happens then, well that’s the play and you wouldn’t want me to give it away. Suffice it to say that you will have a great night.

The set has a false proscenium (the four edges of the stage) which helps to shrink the enormous Ordway stage. It also has two other prosceniums, one which moves up and down to help create other locations. At the top of the show there is a curtain hanging from the back proscenium. This is all in reds, black, and off-white – it shows a very 1920’s style jazz scene. Cheech (played by Jeff Brooks) comes out with a tommy gun and shoots the title of the show into the curtain. Curtain up and we are in a club with show girls singing a song called “Tiger Rag.” This song is one that I have never heard and that was one of the great joys of this show – being introduced to some new oldies! Sure, I have heard “Let’s Misbehave”, and “Gee Baby, Ain’t I Good To You” – but there were quite a few that I didn’t know and now love! The music was fantastic. Every song was perfectly selected and used. Glen Kelly adapted and wrote additional lyrics to these songs and they were great! Add to that the amazing choreography by Susan Stroman and there is nothing more I could want in a show.

The show has a classic musical style with some small changes. Sure, I’m a sucker for shows like “42nd Street”, “Crazy for You”, “Nice Work if You Can Get It”, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, all these shows with old classic tunes, and a classic old-school style story. If you take those style shows, add a bit of swearing and some hints of burlesque (mainly in comedy and double entendres), you get Bullets over Broadway.

Honestly I can not say enough about the choreography and direction. Each scene had such a smooth transition into the next, the characters were true and believable (even if they were truly over-the-top) and each dance step was perfect. Stroman has a way of moving that is so smooth and beautiful, yet can turn on a dime in an energetic forcefield. Take, for an example, the number “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” This is performed by Cheech and the gangsters….and it is a tap dance. Nowhere have I seen a tap dance like this – gorgeous, yet perfectly suited to the characters of gangsters – angular, angry, full of machismo. It was performed on the 68th Tony Awards, and when it was finished last night – it received a long applause. It didn’t reach an ovation, but it certainly stopped the show.

Another stand out number was “Tain’t a Fit Night Out for Man or Beast” – also in Act One. This number show a mob fight between the two opposing families – and it was all told through dance. Parts of it reminded me of West Side Story, but it was such an energetic feast for the eyes and ears. It also highlighted a slight issue with the large space that is the Ordway. There are times where the lyrics get lost – either because the space sucks up the sound, or the band is a bit too loud. I noticed this mainly in the group numbers, especially the women’s chorus. It may have been just the higher voices fighting with the band. Honestly, it happened rarely and certainly had no effect on my enjoyment of the show.

There are some amazing performances in this show. I already mentioned Jeff Brooks as Cheech. Michael Corvino as the gangster Nick Valenti was great – especially when he gets a chance to sing in the finale. What a voice!! Jemma Jane played Olive Neal – the gangsters talentless girlfriend – and got every single laugh possible out of her character, while not milking them, nor winking at the audience at how dumb her character was. She played it with all her heart and was fantastic. She and Bradley Allan Zarr get a chance to shine in “Let’s Misbehave” – one of the funniest numbers I’ve seen. Hannah Rose DeFlumeri (Ellen) has two great moments to shine – Act One’s “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me” and Act Two’s “I’ve Found a New Baby.” What a fantastic voice.

This show would not be what it is without the incredible (and local) Emma Stratton as Helen. She played the Diva leading lady with a heart and a drinking problem perfectly…filling the stage as only that character could, and making the most of playing a Diva while also staying true to the characters heart. She couldn’t have done that without the skills, and talent of Michael Williams playing David. Michael plays him with such sweetness, naivete, longing, and determination that even though David cheats on Ellen, we are still rooting for him. Michael has some incredible moments of pure comedy genius and timing. Along with that, he knows how to sell a song and dance. All of these actors, along with an amazing ensemble really created a perfect cast. Don’t miss your chance to see them in action. You won’t regret it.

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