Woody Allen’s 2014 Tony Award-nominated adaptation of his 1994 Academy Award-winning film “Bullets Over Broadway” has great charm but lacks melodic heft and consistent laughs as evidenced in its regional premiere at the Schuster Center courtesy of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series.
In this mildly amusing ode to theater and the Roaring Twenties, originally co-written by Douglas McGrath, struggling playwright David Shayne is thrown for a loop when his Broadway debut is upended and his artistry is called into question. Gangster Nick Valenti financially calls the shots behind the scenes having forced his utterly talentless girlfriend Olive Neal into the cast. However, the real damage is caused by David’s willingness to allow Olive’s intimidating bodyguard Cheech help him with his troubled script which sways the balance of power. David gets the glory but Cheech is the gifted glue holding everything together.
Allen, an avid clarinetist, has always had an affinity for accenting his work with period music. This time he picks ditties from the ’20s and ‘30s that suit the show’s essence but fail to thoroughly engage and properly advance the plot and character development. Considering Allen’s strengths when assembling songs of yesteryear (the soundtrack to his Academy Award-winning 2011 film “Midnight in Paris” is particularly superb), it’s startling how misguided his decisions are here. Aside from “Let’s Misbehave,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” and a bizarre finale centered on “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” the tunes are not well known and rather forgettable, slowing the action to tedious degrees. A completely original score would have been a safer bet, especially when jukebox musicals such as this rely on the strength of nostalgia across the board in its storytelling. You can sell nostalgia with four familiar songs in the TV realm (think HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) but not in the world of musical theater. At the same rate, Allen’s jokes are extremely hit-and-miss which doesn’t help matters. After all, cutesy period shtick can only take a show so far before it sends the audience into a watch-checking frenzy.
Nevertheless, director Jeff Whiting and choreographer Clare Cook, recreating Susan Stroman’s original contributions, mold spirited performances from the principal cast. As David, wonderful tenor Michael Williams, vocally surpassing Zach Braff who originated the role, enjoyably conveys the neuroticism, dismay and desperation within the character. Emma Stratton terrifically inhabits the vanity and egotism of legendary diva Helen Sinclair (the role which won Dianne Wiest her second Academy Award) while selling such numbers as “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me” and “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” As ditzy loudmouth Olive, energetic Jemma Jane fills the stage with feisty, naughty sex appeal (innuendos galore can be found in the racy “Hot Dog Song”) but her incessant screechiness should be dialed back. The handsomely menacing Jeff Brooks absolutely shines as tough-talking Cheech,particularly leading a show-stopping “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do” that not only recalls the athleticism of “Guys and Dolls” but is one of the finest, sleekest and most refreshingly masculine tap numbers ever conceived. Vocal powerhouse Hannah Rose Deflumeri (offering a fabulous “I’ve Found a New Baby”) brings grace and warmth to her appealing portrayal of David’s girlfriend Ellen. Rachel Bahler (kooky Eden) and Rick Grossman (amiable Julian) are bubbly in underwritten capacities. Michael Corvino, another strong vocalist, fittingly threatens as Nick. Bradley Allan Zarr is a delightful hoot as chunky leading man Warner Purcell who craves Olive but wisely sticks to pastries after Cheech sets him straight.
Additionally, the very attractive, period-appropriate design stems from scenic designer Jason Ardizzone-West, costumer William Ivey Long, lighting designer Carolyn Wong (recreating Donald Holder’s original contributions), and wig/hair designer Bernie Ardia. Music director Robbie Cowan conducts a vibrant eight-piece orchestra.
This adequate adaptation lacks the cohesive razzmatazz of the film and the grandeur of the short-lived Broadway production but entertains nonetheless as a silly throwback to bygone Broadway.
“Bullets Over Broadway” continues through Nov. 8 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. The production is performed in 2 hours and 35 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $39-$82. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.