Bullets Over Broadway Is A Shot To the Funny Bone

Woody Allen has been known to make a good film…or two…or three.  In fact, Cate Blanchet just snagged herself an Oscar playing the tragic protagonist in a Woody Allen film.  In 1994, Allen and Douglas McGrath penned a crime-comedy film titled Bullets Over Broadway.  The film starred John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Chazz Palminteri and Jennifer Tilly with Allen sitting in the director’s chair.  Bullets Over Broadway garnered seven Academy Awards; Wiest won for Best Supporting Actress, the second Academy Award win for her under Allen’s direction.

8.198889If you haven’t seen the film, the gist of the plot goes like this…set in the roaring twenties, a young, struggling playwright named David Shayne gets the break of a lifetime. His play will be produced on Broadway and he will direct it ensuring his vision will come to fruition.  Only problem is producer Julian Marx receives the funds to front the production from gangster Nick Valenti, and to get the money Valenti’s girlfriend, Olive Neal, must be cast in one of the roles.  Olive is no more than a second rate line dancer, but David casts her in the role of the psychiatrist in order secure the funds.  Also, he convinces Helen Sinclair, a legendary stage actress and lush, to play lead role and gets compulsive eater Warner Purcell to be the leading man.  Soon David realizes that getting a play on stage as its director isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  He also learns that he isn’t the great artist he thought he was as all his re-writes, which the cast adore, are written by Cheech, Olive’s bodyguard and Valenti’s hitman.

5.198890In 2012, plans for a musical adaptation were announced.  Allen adapted the film into a book and used songs from the American songbook for the musical numbers.  Susan Stroman was brought on as the director and choreographer.  The cast included Zach Braff as David Shayne, Marin Mazzie as Helen Sinclair, Vincent Pastore as Nick Valenti, Helen Yorke as Olive Neal and Nick Cordero as Cheech.

5.198888The minute the curtain rose at the St. James Theater and I saw the title being shot into the set I thought, “Well this is starting off with a bang, I hope it ends with one.”  What I would come to learn is that Bullets Over Broadway doesn’t overshoot in the laughs department.  It’s a cute comedy that lends itself to a family night at the theater.  The biggest laughs and smiles were delivered by Nick Cordero, Helen Yorke, Brooks Ahsmanskas, who played Warner Purnell and Mr. Woofles, the sweetest little pooch since Toto.  Marin Mazzie offered a good rendition of Helen Sinclair.  I’m sure any members of the audience who had seen the film were just anticipating her saying, “Don’t speak.”  That classic line didn’t fall into the silence of the air. Like the film, it was a hilarious bull’s-eye.

4.198885My complaint with most new musicals as of late is that they are all song and lack dance.  With Bullets Over Broadway, my gripe was the opposite.  Although the songs used in this musical were standards, the use of tunes were flat and was absent of the pop I like to hear, but the choreography, under the leadership of Susan Stroman, assisted in placing the musical numbers on an even-keel.

It seems as if Woody Allen has struck again.  If you want to a good giggle and some good hoofing then Bullets Over Broadway is musical for you.

Photos: Paul Kolnik

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Time Traveling With The Scottsboro Boys

All aboard!  This train is travelling to Dixie, but not the “Hooray Dixie Land” sung in lyrics, it is Jim Crow’s Dixie that is the subject matter of this musical.  The Scottsboro Boys, playing at the Vineyard Theatre, is a portal into a time in America’s history that has been forgotten.  It almost seems peculiar that a story as heavy as the Scottsboro Boys trial,  a series of trials in which nine black youths were tried and convicted of raping two white women, would end up on stage as a musical, but it is the musical numbers that makes the subject matter more palatable.  The musical takes on some of elements of minstrel show and is a nonstop rollercoaster of emotions.  At times I was offended, other times I was brought to the brink of tears and at certain times I could not help but to burst with laughter, regardless of what I was feeling I was always entertained.

I enjoy viewing productions in which the actors play multiple roles because the audience gets a true glimpse of the actors’ range.  The cast with exception of Sharon Washington (the omnipresent female figure) play several parts and the character changes are as smooth as the choreography. 

Each character was thoroughly developed and the passion for the material was reflected in the actors’ performances. Another interesting aspect of the production is the cast with exception of the Interlocutor, brilliantly portrayed by two-time Tony award winner John Cullum, are all black.   Watching black actors playing white southerners so convincingly proved the level of depth and talent that illuminated the stage.  Lights make the actors come alive, but it is the actors that make the stage come alive.   

When the curtain opens with a woman waiting to get on a bus then the mood suddenly becomes electric as Mr. Bones, Mr. Tambo and the Scottsboro boys make a raucous entrance down the aisle steps to the stage for the first musical number “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey.”    The set is basically comprised of chairs and wooden planks that are seamlessly transitioned by the cast to suit a scene or musical number, and it is the musical numbers that are the real treat of this production.  “Financial Advice” was a scream, “Make Friends with the Truth” was equally as hilarious, “You Can’t Do Me” was compelling, but my favorite was “Electric Chair.” 

The thought of turning capital punishment into a song and dance may appear to be reaching, but reaching is exactly what John Kander, Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman did and the result is a thrilling tap sequence that Bojangles and Gregory Hines would have been proud of.  From the opening number to the closing one, the songs and choreography transformed The Scottsboro Boys from experimental theater into a rootin’ tootin’ time.  I was completely mesmerized.

Bold, contemporary and filled with vigor, The Scottsboro Boys sizzles with electricity, hats off to the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb and Susan Stroman.  I also salute the cast; they worked like a well-oiled machine oozing with experience and raw soul.  In the wake of President Obama’s historic ascension to the highest office in our country, it may be easy for some, the youth in particular, to overlook this nation’s turbulent history with regards to race.  The most important component about The Scottsboro Boys is that it builds a bridge between the past and present and through quality art like this production an interest can be sparked inspiring us to learn more about the countless stories that prelude the day Rosa Parks decided not to go to the back of the bus.

Photos:  Carol Rosegg