As I left the Ordway Center for Performing Arts on April 14th, yellow streamers caught onto my boots and dragged along the floor behind me, like toilet paper stuck to a shoe. It was a fitting end to my experience at the Minnesota premiere of Bullets Over Broadway, an audacious, raunchy musical set in the 1920s and written by Woody Allen. Allen also co-wrote the 1994 film of the same name with Douglas McGrath.
This musical offers a slight variation on the run-of-the-mill Broadway storyline. Here, a country boy sort of makes good in the big city in a mash-up of the Faustian dilemma that also hints at Singin’ in the Rain, 42nd Street, West Side Story, and Chicago.
Bullets — which I imagine might be somewhat autobiographical to Allen, McGrath, or the two as writing partners — follows David Shayne (played by Michael Williams), a young playwright from who moves with sweetheart Ellen (played by Hannah Rose DeFlumeri) from Pittsburgh to New York City, where he struggles to have his work produced without sacrificing artistic integrity.
Shayne gets word that Nick Valenti (played by Michael Corvino) — a prominent mob boss — would like to be his financial backer, so long as Shayne casts a particular young woman in one of the starring roles.
Conflicted, Shayne accepts the offer and his luck twists and turns along a path filled with moral questions, quirky performers, and life-threatening circumstances. Hearts are broken and mended, unexpected talents are discovered, dreams are snuffed out, and a Broadway play is born.
What a great score this show has…from ragtime to the blues and beyond! Though I only recognized two of the songs as standards, my feet tapped along to the beat of each number. The cast featured exceptional female singers who summoned the dazzling look and warbling sound of 1920’s divas.
Like so many Broadway musicals, Bullets comes with its fair share of high kicks and bevels. Yet, this choreography — created for Broadway by Susan Stroman and reconstructed for this tour by Clare Cook — also features movement patterns, spatial arrangements, and stylistic elements that are more nuanced and complex than typically seen on a Broadway stage. It’s high time that other Broadway musicals also rise to the choreographic occasion.
Jemma Jane (as Olive Neal) and Bradley Allan Zarr (as Warner Purcell) gave a standout dance performance in “Let’s Misbehave,” a comic duet that was a joy to watch. The Atta Girls shone with crisp and mostly unified ensemble sequences. And the male ensemble dancers gave committed performances as 1920s mobsters. It was unfortunate, however, that in all of the tap numbers the sounds of the dancers’ feet were drowned out almost entirely by the music.
Much of the humor in this show relies heavily on clownish sexual innuendo. Memorable moments included a burlesque number in which the performers sing and dance about putting hot dogs in one of the female lead’s “bun,” and the final moment of Act II, when the cast called back to the earlier hot dog bit and shot streamers symbolizing “mustard” all over the audience. At moments like these, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or gasp. Taken with the rest of the show in mind, though, these and other raunchy elements of Bullets were much of what kept it from slipping into the storyline black hole so many musicals succumb to. The tone of the show was just the right amount of wrong.
All of the scenes were brought to life by the performers’ costumes, designed by six-time Tony Award® winner William Ivey Long. Each one was a history lesson in itself, elaborating on the good, bad, and ugly of early 20th century trends in fashion.
Bullets‘ narrative arc ended up being pretty random. Act I, which came in at a lengthy 90 minutes, set up an emotionally complex and intellectually engaging plot. Act II, running at about 30 minutes, felt like a superficial attempt at wrapping wrapping up a story that needed another hour minutes to see things through.
The sight of the performers performing with the finale song — an out-of-context, though well-sung, rendition of the early 20s pop culture tune, “Yes! We have No Bananas” — summed up my overall impression of the show.
Inconsistent, but nonetheless engaging, and with a healthy dose of bawdy humor.