The Artist or the Man | A 1920s Musical on Stage

Bullets over Broadway (Pantages)userpic=broadwaylaWhen the musical Bullets over Broadway hit the Great White Way, I asked myself: could people separate the show from the author — the art from the artist, so to speak. From a distance, looking at the reception of the Bullets over Broadway musical (it closed after 156 performance), I concluded they couldn’t. I figured audiences were not ready for Woody Allen, given his personal life problems, on Broadway. The artist would forever be tainted by the man. I’ll note that in 2016, we’re seeing a similar thing for Bill Cosby: the man’s personal life problems doesn’t make the standup and the sitcoms any less funny, but they impinge on our ability to accept the artist without forever seeing the flawed man behind it.

This question went through my head today when I saw the national tour (FB) of Bullets over Broadway at the Pantages (FB). It came to mind when one of the characters: the playwright David Shayne asks the star, Helen Sinclair (with whom he is having a backstage affair) whether she loves the artist or the man. One wonders if Allen had that question in mind with this show, and whether his effort to put it on Broadway was a way of asking audiences that ultimate question.

I can’t answer that. What I can answer is why the show closed after 156 performances. After seeing Bullets over Broadway, my conclusion is that this was a 1920s show on at 2016 stage. I don’t mean that it was a show about the 1920s. Well, it was, but that isn’t my point. Broadway, in the 1920s, was filled with fluff. Brainless shows with silly plots, with songs that represented the pop tunes of the days, filled with leggy dancers, turn turn kick turn, turn turn kick turn, one two three kick turn (whoops, wrong show, same choreographer). Things didn’t start to change until 1927 and Showboat, and they really changed in 1943 with Oklahoma! (which, by the way, premiered at the same theatre as Bullets). Those shows began to interconnect the story with the music; making the music advance the story and the plot.

Bullets over Broadway, on the other hand, is at its heart a jukebox musical with singing and dancing gangsters and chorus girls. The story is silly and has no depth (but this is common for Woody Allen, who can be hit or miss with his movies). It is not the fact that it is singing and dancing gangsters — Guys and Dolls proved that you can do that right if you have the right story and the right musicalization. At its heart, that’s what the flaw in Bullets over Broadway. If you look at the movie, it got pretty good reviews. Someone saw it, and thought: we could bring this to Broadway. So far, so good. Then they thought: Let’s make it a jukebox musical, and interpolate tunes from the 1920s and 1930s into the show. This, in my opinion, is what doomed this show to tours, stock, and amateur productions. There are numerous points in the show that cry out for musicalization of the inner thoughts of the characters — how does David feel about his writing, how does Ellen feel about David, how does Chico feel about the conflict between writing and the mob, how does Olive feel.  These could even have been done as original tunes in the style of 1920s and 1930s. A few original tunes from the era could have been tossed in for color. But they didn’t do that. They took existing tunes, attempted to modify them somewhat for the characters, sliced and diced and put it on-stage.

To whom do we place the blame for this? Look at the credits. This was written by Woody Allen, based on the screenplay by Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath. Allen does not have experience with musicals (some of his early stories were presented on stage, such as Play It Again, Sam). McGrath does (he was involved with Beautiful), but only with jukebox musicals. This needed someone with strong musical adaption skills to adapt it. Instead, the decision to go jukebox was made by Allen, and he turned to Glen Kelly to adapt the songs and do additional lyrics. Kelly has mostly done arrangements and dance music. The adapted songs were great, but they didn’t move the show to where it needed to be.

Then, to add to the problems, they brought in the aforementioned turn turn kick turn, turn turn kick turn, one two three kick turn. In other words: Susan Stroman.  Stroman knows dance well, and she loaded this production with lots and lots of great dancing by leggy girls and mobsters. If you look at her resume, she’s an expert at directing broad, overplayed comedy (e.g., The Producers, Young Frankenstein). That’s what she did here. But whereas the music in the Mel Brooks shows balanced out the overplay in the characters, the jukebox nature here served only to amplify the camp. Thus, the actors did the best with the direction they were given, but they were saddled with the weak musicalization and the wrong direction. Stroman’s direction was recreated on tour by Jeff Whiting (FB).

But all is not lost.

Before I tell you why, I guess I should tell you the story. Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

“In 1929, playwright David Shayne is finally getting his first play God of Our Fathers produced on Broadway. The producer, Julian Marx, has enlisted the wealthy gangster Nick Valenti to pay for the show. Valenti wants to have his dim-witted and untalented girlfriend, Olive Neal, star as one of the leads. Valenti has assigned his strong-armed gangster, Cheech, to watch over Olive. Surprisingly, Cheech comes up with great ideas for improving the play. However, aging diva Helen Sinclair, the real star of the show, romances the younger David, who already has a girlfriend, Ellen. Meanwhile, the leading man, Warner Purcell, has his eye on Olive.”

The fact that Wikipedia can summarize the show in 6 sentences, whereas many shows take multiple paragraphs, says a lot. This is a simple, comically drawn in broad strokes, plot. No deep thinking here. Caracatures and tropes, writ large on the stage, forced to interact. One might think it was a farce, if there was precise timing.

So what worked.

The tunes from the 1920s are very enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the interpolation of some of the lesser known tunes, such as “The Hot Dog Song” (which would fit in wonderfully in One Mo’ Time). The dances were quite fun to watch, and well executed. There were a few very humorous lines. The performers were great — well, as great as they could be given the direction to overplay and go broad with the characterizations.

Yes, I said the performers were great. Here’s why that might be a surprise. If you look closely at the end of the credits, you’ll see something is missing: the logo of Actors Equity. This is a non-Equity tour, and Equity is running a campaign of “Ask if it is Equity“, implying that non-Equity tours are of lower quality and therefore you should be paying less. While I do agree that you shouldn’t be paying Broadway — or even Equity tour — prices for a non-Equity tour, you shouldn’t feel that the performances are less. As I watched the show, I tried to gauge the impact of the non-Equity nature. Other than the actors being younger, and based on the credits, having less Broadway experience, it wasn’t noticeable from the seats. In fact, due to excellent casting by Stewart/Whitley (FB), there were a fair number of opera singers mixed with the theatre newbies. Perhaps because I’m used to Los Angeles theatre, and seeing the mix of Equity and non-Equity folks we have in the smaller theatres here, I didn’t see a significant difference. [By the way, that’s not to imply there isn’t a difference — there is, in terms of contract conditions, pay, working conditions, time off, medical and pension benefits — but that’s not something the audience sees. Those are the reason Equity‘s campaign is significant, but tours like this often provide the stepping stone for these actors to move to Equity positions, or to move into the even more lucrative TV and film realm.]

In what one might say was the lead position was Patrick Graver (FB) as David Shayne. Graver was the understudy, going on for Michael Williams (FB). There was no explanation of what happened to Williams, but I’d suggest looking in the LA River. Seriously, I’m pleased to say that Graver did a great job as Shayne: he handled the comedy and the singing quite well, and gave an excellent performance. He had good chemistry with perhaps my favorite performer in the piece, Hannah Rose Deflumeri (FB) as David’s girlfriend, Ellen. For some reason Deflumeri caught my eye, and she was just wonderful in her performance. I especially enjoyed watching her face, and hearing her lovely singing voice. This is someone who I hope goes far in her career.

My wife’s eye, on the other hand, was caught by Jeff Brooks (FB) as Cheech. Why? According to her, “He had a gorgeous voice, and she’s always likes smart guys, plus he had a rough exterior and cleaned up nicely.” Translating this where necessary, this meant that his acting made the underlying smart writer under the mob thug come out, and that was great performing. I would agree — he had a lovely voice, and was fun to watch in his interactions with other characters.

As the leads on the gangster side, so to speak, we had Michael Corvino (FB) as Nick Valenti and Jemma Jane (FB) as Olive, his girlfriend who is cast in the show as a condition of funding it. Corvino was a surprise. What appeared to be a stock gangster boss turned surprising in the Finale, when you suddenly heard this wonderful operatic baritone open up. It would be interesting to listen for that baritone in his earlier number. As for Jemma Jane — on the surface, I would say that her’s was the worst performance of the show. But, surprisingly, that makes it a very strong performance, as she was supposed to be playing a very bad actress — someone with no skill — and as anyone can tell you, that’s a difficult thing for a good actress to do. Given her credits, I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and calling it a great performance.

On the theatre side, there was Rick Grossman (FB) as Julian Marx as the producer (an interesting name play on Julian Marsh, the producer/director in 42nd Street), Emma Stratton (FB) as Helen Sinclair, Bradley Allan Zarr (FB) as Warner Purcell (and dance captain), and Rachel Bahler (FB) as Eden.  Grossman is interesting; I hadn’t known until I looked him up that his family were pioneers in the Yiddish theatre. Grossman was great as Marx — good singing, and wonderful facial and background expressions. Stratton’s Sinclair initially came on like a Norma Desmond-type, but as the show went on she loosened up and showed some wonderful comic chops. Her duets with both Grossman and Graver were quite good.  As Purcell, the male lead in the show-in-a-show who kept growing larger as time went on, Zarr did great. His interplay with the food — especially with the dog biscuits — was fun to watch. He was also wonderfully comic in his number with Olive, “Let’s Misbehave” (although they really shouldn’t have repurposed that number — it is too associated with Anything Goes). Lastly, there was Bahler’s Eden. I never quite figured out who her character was, other than another actress. But aside from that, she was fun to watch with some great comic moves, and a wonderful singing voice on “There’s a New Day Coming”.

Rounding out the cast were numerous small characters and the ensemble members: Blaire Baker (FB) [Hilda; Josette; Bohemian Friend; Ensemble; u/s Helen; u/s Eden], Mary Callahan (FB) [Atta-Girl, Red Cap; Ensemble]; Jake Corcoran (FB) [Mitchell Sabine; Gangster; Four Frank; Ensemble], Elizabeth Dugas (FB) [Atta-Girl; Flapper; Lorna; Red Cap; Ensemble], Carissa Fiorillo (FB) [Atta-Girl, Flapper; Red Cap; Ensemble]; Andrew Hendrick (FB) [Gangster; Train Conductor; Ensemble; u/s Nick; u/s Julian; u/s Warner]; Lainee Hunter (FB) [Atta-Girl; Violet; Red-Cap; Ensemble], Justin Jutras (FB) [Gangster; Vendor; Victim; Ensemble; u/s Cheech; u/s Nick]; Brian Martin (FB) [Aldo; Gangster; Four Frank; Understudy; Ensemble; u/s Cheech]; Conor McGiffin (FB) [Sheldon Flender; Gangster; Ensemble; u/s Julian; u/s Warner]; Andrew Metzgar (FB) [Swing … and filling in for Patrick Graver at our performance as a Gangster and Ensemble member]; Corinne Munsch (FB) [Atta-Girl; Bohemian Friend; Red Cap; Ensemble; u/s Eden; u/s Helen], Kaylee Olson (FB) [Atta-Girl; Cotton Club Dancer; Flapper; Red-Cap; Ensemble], Joey Ortolani (FB) [Gangster; Four Frank; Ensemble]; Kelly Peterson (FB) [Swing; Asst. Dance Captain]; Lexie Plath (FB) [Atta-Girl; Understudy; Red-Cap; Ensemble; u/s Olive, u/s Ellen]; and Ian Saunders (FB) [Rocco, Gangster, Four Frank; Ensemble, u/s David]. In a crowd like that, it is difficult to single anyone out. Based on the pictures in the program, one who caught my eye was Blaire Baker, who I believe was the woman in the background in the first scene. Baker caught my eye because I noticed her singing along with the dancers, and then I caught her face a few other times and it just drew me too it. The other I believe was the tall and thin one with glasses in the final scene, who also played the stage manager. I’m thinking that might have been Lainee Hunter. In any case, something about her drew my attention to her. In general, the ensemble proved to be very strong dancers and performers.

Speaking of strong dancing. What Stroman lacked in direction, she made up for in dancing. The dances here were very strong and quite enjoyable. Stroman’s original choreography was recreated on tour by Clare Cook (FB). Dance captains were Bradley Allan Zarr (FB) and Kelly Peterson (FB).

As noted earlier, the music adaptation and additional lyrics were by Glen Kelly. Orchestrations were by Doug Besterman (FB). John Mezzio (FB) was the music coordinator. The music director and conductor was Robbie Cowan (FB), who led the quite large touring and local orchestra, who I’m not going to list all here.

Turning last to the remaining production and creative team. The scenic design was by Jason Ardizzone-West (FB), and was probably great on Broadway. On tour, the design was narrowed into a set that would fit all theatres, and this limited some of the elements. What was there looked good. The original lighting design was by Donald Holder, and was adapted for the tour by Carolyn Wong (FB). Again, this forced limitations — there were precious few lights other than spots outside the confines of the traveling set. The lighting worked within those limitations, but I’m sure was more spectacular on Broadway. The sound design was by Shannon Slaton (FB), and it worked reasonably well in the Pantages. Costumes were by the very famous William Ivey Long, and they seemed appropriately period and they were done reasonably well. Jimm Halliday was the costume coordinator. Wig and Hair design was by Bernie Ardia. Remaining production credits: Andy Einhorn [Vocal Arranger]; The Booking Group (FB) [Tour Booking]; Michael Lamasa (FB) [Asst. Director]; Andrew T. Scheer (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Katie Cortez (FB) [Company Manager]; Hector Guivas [Production Manager]; Bobby T. Maglaughlin [General Manger].

One additional comment regarding Stewart/Whitley (FB) that I realized after the show: this was not a show that necessarily dictated particular races in particular roles. Yet I could detect only one actress of color in the ensemble. I’ve recently been sensitized to diversity on and off the stage, so it raised some hackles. Why wasn’t this cast more diverse? It didn’t need to be as homogeneous as it was.

The national tour (FB) of Bullets over Broadway continues at the Pantages (FB) through January 24, 2016. Tickets are available through the Pantages box office, Ticketmaster, and discount tickets are available through Goldstar. Do I recommend going? It is a mindless afternoon diversion — go for the familiar music and the dancing, but don’t expect depth of story or characterization, or anything resembling a modern musical.

🎭 🎭 🎭

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Theatre continues next week with “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB) on January 16; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB)  on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start.  However, given there has been no announcement, I feel safe booking all weekends in January  (I’ll note that if there is no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP). February starts with a hold date for “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The rest of the February schedule is empty except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). I expect to be filling out February as December goes on.  As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.



3 Replies to “The Artist or the Man | A 1920s Musical on Stage”

  1. I am Blaire Baker’s grandmother. I saw the show in Houston on December 27 at Hobby Theater Center in Houston.

    WHAT A WONDERFUL SURPRISE to read the comments you made about Blaire! Of course, I could not agree with you more!

    I also was in agreement with all your other comments!

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