Dallas — Bullets Over Broadway, in its original incarnation as a 1994 Woody Allen movie, is a wonderful confection of a backstage drama. It is no surprise that it was adapted for a stage version. Devoted fans of the movie (such as this writer) appear to deliver a divided verdict: some like it and others…not so much. Be that as it may, the results are a mixed bag that is successful overall, in spite of itself, saved by some of the best dancing and choreography you will see anywhere (originally by Susan Stroman and recreated for the tour by Clare Cook).
This touring version of the Broadway show, directed by Jeff Whiting, is playing at the Music Hall in Fair Park via Dallas Summer Musicals, and, like all such road trip enterprises, is populated by a talented, but young, cast. This creates some immediate problems, because the original film revealed a cast with a wide range of ages. In fact, the whole raison d'être of the leading character, Helen Sinclair, is that she is an aging actor who was once the toast of Broadway, but now takes what she can get. This is why she accepts the leading role in a new play of questionable quality by an unknown playwright, grandly entitled God of our Fathers.
In this production, Helen is played by the admittedly talented twentysomething Emma Stratton, who just finished a tour in a much more suitable role as Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes (a musical now playing in an excellent production at Lyric Stage in Irving). The role of her leading man in the play, Warner Purcell (supposed to be an aging foodaholic), is played by another youngster, Bradley Allan Zarr, who doesn’t have enough fat on him to fry an egg. His progressively larger fat suits finally reach a ridiculous level. The fresh bloom of youth suits the remainder of the cast better than it does these two.
The story is the perfect set-up for Allen’s talent for one-line zingers and, since he adapted his and Douglas McGrath’s movie script for the musical book himself, they are mostly preserved. (Some personal favorite lines and characters didn’t make the transition.)
David Shayne (played by Michael Williams) is the hapless playwright, who swears that this time he will make absolutely no compromises, which he thinks is what sunk his previous efforts. Absolutely none. Nope. Not this time, forget about it. Nada. But, you guessed it, in order to get his masterpiece produced, he makes his first of many subsequent compromises by accepting a gangster’s money, which comes with one little teensey tiny requirement: he has to cast his unsavory backer’s crass but cute girlfriend, Olive Neal (delightfully squealed by Jemma Jane), in a major role. She also comes with a bodyguard, Cheech (Jeff Brooks), the taciturn stereotype of mob muscle. The ingénue in Shanyne’s drama is played by the irritatingly noisy Rachael Bahler, who doesn’t seem to notice that her lapdog is really a stuffed animal (it was a real dog in the film).
As the rehearsals progress, Cheech whispers to David that “people don’t talk like that.” Cheech’s suggestions eventually take over and the brilliantly successful rewrite is not by David Shayne at all. He has compromised, one step at a time, until the play isn’t even his anymore. Cheech has also taken ownership and decides that Olive has to go. So, he dumps her in a canal so that her understudy can take over. What ensues is the bullets over Broadway that the title promises.
Bullets Over Broadway doesn’t have an original score, but instead uses a potpourri of songs from the 1920’s, the era in which the show is set. We hear everything from “Let’s Misbehave” and “Tiger Rag” to lesser-known songs such as “God Old New York.” Most of them are vaguely related to the situation, with some altered lyrics (Glen Kelly arranged the music and wrote additional lyrics). Others, however fall flat, such as the finale, incredulously based on “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” for no apparent reason except that Allen—or someone—must have liked it. One number we could do without is a song about hot dogs, with the phallic reference front and center, which suddenly pops up in a most adolescent manner. Music director Robbie Cowan conducts the nine-member orchestra.
However, the biggest problem with this show would only be noticeable by those who know the movie, which is funny but not silly. In the movie, the characters are slightly exaggerated versions of well-known theatrical stereotypes. Here they are exaggerated one step, maybe two or three, further and become over-the-top parodies. As a great director once said, “you cannot comment on comical characters.”
This aside, Bullets Over Broadway is an enjoyable outing at the theater. It is filled with great songs and good performances by a gifted bevy of nascent stars (this is a non-Equity tour). But the absolutely superb dancers, and the incredibly precise performance of innovative and imaginative choreography, which is pretty much continuous, are worth the price of the ticket.